Thursday, August 28, 2014

Elizabeth Warren Comes Out Fighting...For the Colonial Bullies

One of Elizabeth Warren’s great strengths over the past several years has been the consistency with which she assailed the sources of economic inequality in the United States, and the deceptively simple messages with which she did so. 
The economic game was rigged to favour powerful interests, meaning that no matter how hard they worked, those without access to power and influence were going to see their share of the national wealth stagnate or decline, their opportunities dry up, and their ability to influence the political process diminish.
Rather than asking people to wait, bereft of their dignity, hands outstretched for the crumbs to topple from the plutocrats’ table, Warren insisted that it was possible to build a better, more just, and more equal world.
Her appeal stemmed from her consistency, and her oft-made pledge that she would always stand up for those without power against those who had it, and wielded it with impunity and without regard for the collective good.
But a week ago, Warren joined so many of her political colleagues in explaining that her most cherished ideals end at the water’s edge.  In this case she was articulating her support for Israeli colonialism, more specifically, “her vote to send $225 million to Israel in its ongoing conflict with Hamas”.   
You would think that this would be a clear-cut case for Warren.  Palestinians live as colonial subjects, ruled by a colonial power that uses deliberately disproportionate force to subdue those people in the colony who fight against colonial rule.  People in that colony are subject to indignities including a debilitating blockade, attacks by the colonial military, and calls for ethnic cleansing by Israeli politicians.
Warren’s explanation for her vote and her support for arming Israel was typically vapid, but all the more pitifully so because it came from someone who at her best is more than capable of issuing a moral call to action
 “I think the vote was right”, she explained, “America has a very special relationship with Israel.  Israel lives in a dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren’t many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law.  And we very much need an ally in that part of the world”. 
We do indeed have a special relationship with Israel.  It’s akin to that of a dealer and an addict.  We supply the moral and material support which permit the colonial government to behave in a violent, illegal, and irresponsible fashion, doing no end of harm to the long-term safety of its own citizens, no less the Palestinians.  We encourage a culture of impunity that allows the Israeli regime to know that it can engage in mass murder, bomb United Nations facilities, and flout international law without repercussions.  That is a very special relationship indeed.  But it is one which is poisonous and immoral and destabilizing.
Israel does indeed live in a dangerous part of the world.  But its colonial rule is calculated to ensure that it remains a target and that the region remains destabilized.  And that part of the world is far less dangerous for Israelis than it is for the Palestinians who live as subjects rather than citizens.  One might think that Warren would be moved by the fact that Israel’s latest assault on its colony displaced over 25% of Gaza’s population, killing over 2,100 people, 70% of them civilians, as against seven Israeli civilians and 64 Israeli soldiers.  
One reason why there are so few liberal democracies in the Middle East is that the United States executive, with the support of Congress, props up so many dictatorships.  That aside, I’m not sure if you can really call a nation that possesses colonies a “liberal democracy”.  Can a “liberal democracy” exist alongside such unconscionable imbalances in power?  Can a country that denies people over whom it holds such power their self-determination really be called a “liberal democracy”? 
Warren can talk all she wants about the threat posed by Hamas—never mind that like Hamas, Israel launches its weapons from amidst densely-populated civilian areas—but she can’t address the fact that if Hamas stopped launching its rockets tomorrow, forever, Palestinians would be no closer to securing their citizenship. 
The Israeli regime simply isn’t interested in relinquishing control over its colonies without prodding.  Too many illegal settlements have been constructed, too much of the national security apparatus has been committed, and too many shots in Israel are called by dangerous fundamentalists. 
I hope that Warren continues to fight for the rights and welfare of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised majority in the United States.  I hope that she continues to call for regulating the economy in a way that distributes wealth and access more equitably.  And I hope that as she does so she thinks a little bit harder about her dangerously simplistic view of the international stage, so far adrift from the moral vision she promotes at home.
But whatever Warren does in the Senate or on a wider stage, her insistence that to do right by people you have to get them on their feet and give them a chance will always ring a little bit more hollow, knowing as we do that she is an apologist for a colonial government which denies its subjects their rights to govern themselves and instead pulverizes them with the money and weapons Warren sent their way.

Her cynical support for colonialism denies others the opportunity to make that better, fairer, more just and equal world about which she speaks so compellingly at home. 

European History, Day 2

In spite of the impending long week-end, there was a good turnout for Day 2 of European History Since 1648 at UNLV, so far un-derailed by my efforts to use classroom technology.
Frans Hals, Archers of St Hadrian's*
We began with introductions, which will allow me to begin the slow process of getting to know the very diverse group of students in the room who were drawn to the course for diverse reasons—both utilitarian and intellectual.  There are students from Computer Science, Biology, and Anthropology Departments, to name but a few.  Most, however, are history or secondary education majors. 
By way of orienting students to the 17th century, our starting point for the course, we had a conversation about beginnings.  After all, narratives are shaped by their starting points.  A conventional rationale for 1648 is the Peace of Westphalia, which concluded the 30 Years War and created a new framework for European power relations.  
But other moments in 1648—the independence of the Dutch Republic; the resumption of the English Civil War which culminated in the execution of a king; a treaty with the Omani imam which led to the expulsion of the Portuguese from the Persian Gulf—provide us with different snapshots of a formative year for Europe, and different starting points.  Each of those allow us to say very different things about where Europe was "coming from", and where it was "going" in 1648.
For the remainder of the class, we discussed what Europe looked like in the 17th century, in terms of geography, demography, and economics.  My organizational skills leaving much to be desired, we ran out of time to discuss the political and religious realms, but we’ll pick up with those on Tuesday, and they should serve as a good introduction to our conversations about Locke, Hobbes, and other theorists of states and societies. 
The first two days have involved me doing a lot of talking, but next week, when students begin reading primary sources, we'll start what I hope will be the more exciting part of the class.

Stay tuned, and happy Labor Day!
* One of many civic groups which claimed credit for freeing the Netherlands from Spanish rule

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

European History, Day 1

As I kicked off my semester today with a European history lecture, I thought I’d start a regular series of posts tracking developments in History 106 (Europe Since 1648) to offer a small window into one introductory college history course.  It might be of interest to anyone who hasn’t been in a history class for a while, or for people who never had the opportunity to take a history class beyond high school.  I’d welcome comments and thoughts from any readers.
Today, we spent the class period on introductions: to the course, the syllabus, the readings, and some themes.  We discussed exactly what it is that historians do: ask questions, comb through evidence, construct narratives, and subject those narratives and arguments to scrutiny within the broader profession.
We talked about the emergence of sub-fields over the years, fields which have dramatically expanded the scope of what historians do, accounting for people and topics previously overlooked.  That gave me a chance to point to the work that some of my colleagues in the department at UNLV do, the better to explain to students the incredible range of possibilities that are open to them in thinking about the past.
Students in the course hail from a range of majors, and so offered their own perspectives on the relationship between history and other disciplines. 

And then our time was up for day-one.  Thursday will be about beginnings…1648 and all that.  Stay tuned.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Alan Dershowitz is Historically Illiterate

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
As diplomats scramble for a ceasefire, the Israel Defence Force and Hamas continue to exchange fire around and across the border separating Israel from its colony.  By the metric of brute force, the IDF has been wildly successful, the savagery of its attack displacing a quarter of the residents of its colony.

Where the IDF and the colonial regime have struggled is in winning the hearts and minds of the world.  Perhaps because of the duration of the conflict—rendered all the more visible and shocking thanks to the readier flow of information across the internet—Israel is facing perhaps the most widespread and sustained backlash internationally in recent history.
And so its supporters—capitalizing on the presence of a small and deplorable strain amongst the regime’s critics—are resorting to the most pathetic of defenses of deliberate, calculated, and sustained violence: the accusation of anti-Semitism.
He starts with an acknowledgement that “criticizing specific Israei policies is certainly not anti-Semitic”, but then proceeds to argue that “support for Hamas is anti-Semitic, because Hamas’ policies and actions are based, at their core, on Jew-hatred”.
This is a vapidly ahistorical piece and a deliberately ignorant argument, all the more wretched coming from an academic who should at least enjoin people to think rigorously.  By all means be critical of Hamas’ rhetoric and actions, and by all means ask those who “support” the organization—and the article’s definition of “support” is pitifully elastic, designed to sweep up all of Israel’s critics in the kind of drag-net colonial governments employ as a part of their collective punishment regime—to think critically about their decision.  But to suggest that all of the diverse reasons why people might support Hamas can be summed up as anti-Semitism is to make a woefully cynical decision to willfully misunderstand a) the historical roots of the conflict; and b) the circumstances which give rise to anti-colonial movements, which in turn can beget racism—and are often responding towards a better-masked racism.
Dershowitz claims that the likes of Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and Mary Robinson “support” Hamas, presumably referring to their calls for its recognition as a critical part of bringing an end to colonialism in the region.  The unhappy reality is that many an ugly conflict has been brought to an end by acknowledging that some ugly people occasionally represent the interests of a great many people—in this case because Israel’s brutal colonialism undercut the possibility of alternative Palestinian leadership out of its need to maintain a bogey against which to wage its vicious colonial campaigns.  
And Dershowitz should know that most Palestinians support Hamas because of historic grievances about land and liberty, not because of its anti-Semitism.  Hatred is a byproduct of the colonial relationship which has persisted over decades, and it is flourishing as much in Israeli culture—manifested as racism and in calls for ethnic cleansing—as in the regime’s colonies.
Dershowitz and the regime he defends are afflicted by an historical illiteracy that Desmond Tutu, for one, transcends.  Tutu remembers the days when Nelson Mandela was labeled a terrorist not only by the apartheid government, but its backers in Washington and London (in those days, Israel provided moral and material support to the apartheid regime).  And it is true that Mandela believed for many years in the need to wage a guerrilla war against the government in Pretoria which pulverized non-white South Africans and sought to make their abhorrent vision of racial difference a reality by forcing black South Africans into townships and “homelands”, national slums which they then pretended were independent countries. 
In South Africa, thanks to the pressure applied by civil unrest, international sanctions, and the presence of an armed force at the door of the government’s colony in Namibia (Cuban forces inflicted two comprehensive military defeats on the apartheid regime), the ANC won power by negotiating with the people who spent years hunting its members, murdering them at home and abroad, attacking its neighbours, and instilling terror in its population. 
Dershowitz is old enough to remember the days before 1967 when Israel was known as an inspiration to other young nations seeking to shake off the colonial yoke.  And he is intelligent enough to know that Israel won its own independence through a dual strategy.  On the one hand, it waged a successful propaganda campaign abroad.  On the other, its armed wings set bombs, kidnapped, and booby-trapped the bodies of its abductees before being formally integrated with the IDF after independence.
Unable to match the armed might of the British Empire, it waged what its own generals would today demonize as a “terrorist” campaign against the colonial power in the Palestinian Mandate.  But historical illiteracy makes the reality of Israel’s own independence war somehow irrelevant to its defenders today. 
War is full of atrocities.  Strong moral institutions and state mechanisms for accountability can offer some check on brutality.  Hamas lacks the state apparatus to exert such checks, and the Israeli colonial state, like most colonial states throughout history, has elevated unchecked violence into an indispensible art form. 
In this case, war is the outcome of a colonial relationship, in which one party governs another without its consent, using structural and physical violence.  Ending that colonial relationship would not guarantee peace.  But it is a precondition for peace.
So if Dershowitz has any real interest in the welfare of Israeli citizens, he would recognize that his mud-slinging is counter-productive.  He is advocating ignorance, he is promoting historical illiteracy, and he is encouraging people to dig into the positions from which they will continue to obliterate their colonial subjects which guaranteeing their own chronic insecurity.  His ridiculous efforts to brand Israel’s critics as anti-Semites—whatever disclaimers he offers and then promptly revokes—are of no service to the country he seeks to shield. 

His claim would be akin to saying that because some Israeli politicians advocate ethnic cleansing, anyone who argues for the legitimacy of the Israeli state is a genocidaire.  That would be stupid, offensive, and ignorant—just like the things Dershowitz is saying.  It would also miss the point—namely, the untenable and illegal colonial relationship, the endurance of which ensures that violence will persist, claiming the homes and lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.