Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Israeli Colonialism and Terror in Action

As is common when the Israeli state flexes its military muscles in one of its imperial wars, its defenders are resorting to an argument about the moral equivalency between rockets being launched at Israel from its colony, and Israel’s bombardment of and ground incursion into the colony.  Israel, the regime’s supporter’s argue—and I use the word ‘regime’ because it is hard to defend the legitimacy of a government which colonises other people—has no choice but to attack Gaza so long as Hamas sends rockets over the border into Israeli territory.
Photo Credit
What defenders of the regime’s colonialism fail most to understand is that however much many of Israel’s critics might abhor the violence used by Hamas, both the desperation of many of Israel’s colonial subjects and the history of anti-colonial struggles across the world suggest that this violence against the colonial regime will continue so long as the colonial relationship endures.
After all, the Israeli government wields the formidable weapons of sovereignty and the legitimacy that accrue to a state, extraordinary military might, and the misguided backing of the world’s foremost superpower.  However much Israeli citizens might suffer from the bursts of dissatisfaction and violence brought about by their government’s colonial policy, the zealots in the regime will continue to benefit from the disorder and uncertainty their barbarous conduct generates.
And can people outside of Israel really believe—particularly those of us who live in and have grown up imbibing the history of a country which came into existence by freeing itself from colonial rule—that it will in the long run by possible for one group of people to rule over another against their will, using violence and segregation as their primary methods of enforcing what is ultimately an unjust and indefensible rule?
Given the opposition of the United States (with its Security Council veto) to ending Israeli colonialism, the regularity and impunity with which Israel violates international law, and the desperate social and economic condition into which colonial rule has forced many Palestinians, even those of us who are disturbed by violence can likely understand the decision of some Palestinians to follow the example of our own Thirteen Colonies in mounting armed resistance to colonial rule.
And given Israel’s overwhelming military might, its status as an illegal nuclear power, and the economic and military aid it receives as a colonial power from the United States, we should not be surprised that when some Palestinians decide to resist colonialism using armed resistance, they decide—as did our own predecessors—to fight in guerrilla fashion. 
Israel’s response to the latest surge of armed resistance in Gaza looks like the flailing gasps of a regime that is increasingly isolated, under pressure from its physically, morally, and psychologically besieged citizens, and desperately trying to maintain a social structure—colonialism—that finds favour virtually nowhere in the world.  And, crucially for the well-being of Israel’s citizens, the regime’s colonialism risks reigniting the anti-Semitism that was such a scourge to some of its citizens and its founding generation in the twentieth century, and which returns with pathetic ease to the lips of certain of the country’s critics.
In some respects the Israeli regime is very like the apartheid regime in South Africa during the latter part of the last century, not only in the delusional paranoia with which it conducts itself in a world with which it is out of kilter.  The South African regime was engineering its hideous colonial state at the very moment that most colonized countries in Africa and Asia were getting their independence.  And the Israeli regime continued to consolidate its authority over its Palestinian colonies through the decade when the Berlin Wall came down and as the Soviet empire collapsed.  
Like the apartheid regime with its “homelands” or “bantustans”, the Israeli regime tries to force a fictive independence on its colonies while looming over them with its economic and military might, and preventing their entry into the United Nations.  Palestinian “governments” are kept deliberately fractured, and are asked to assume all of the responsibility for keeping peace and order while being given none of the tools they would need to do so, the colonial regime thereby deliberately engineering an almost perpetual humanitarian crisis and crisis of confidence in Palestinian authority figures, thus weakening the bond between the “government” of the colonies and the colonial subjects.
And like many other colonial regimes in their early and later stages, as moral and juridical arguments are demolished by its critics, the savagery of the colonizing military force is becoming increasingly naked and unguarded, ever more indiscriminate, and defended with to hysterical and apocalyptic rhetoric.  Just days ago, the Israeli Defence Force ordered its subjects in Gaza to move into the area surrounding a hospital for their own safety, and they proceeded to bomb that hospital, a place of sanctuary and healing, killing five and injuring scores more.

The man-made humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the unacceptable spectre of colonial rule, and the grotesque violence generated by that rule means that the United States and other countries which have hitherto given their backing to the Israeli regime should think twice.  It should be clear to them that neither the cause of humanitarianism nor their own public interest—nor, indeed, the security of Israeli citizens—is served by backing a violent pariah state as it attempts to rule people against their will using armed force in violation of international law.
Photo details: "The home of the Kware' family, after it was bombed by the military" by Muhammad Sabah, B'Tselem's field researcher in the northern Gaza Strip - http://www.btselem.org/photoblog/201407_gaza_strip. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_home_of_the_Kware%27_family,_after_it_was_bombed_by_the_military.jpg#mediaviewer/File:The_home_of_the_Kware%27_family,_after_it_was_bombed_by_the_military.jpg

Neel Kashkari on Education Policy

There are issues with the teacher tenure and seniority systems.  But abolishing tenure and seniority would be an inadequate solution, and would simply pander to the public perception that “bad” teachers are impossible to fire and represent the biggest problem with California schools.  I recently had a conversation with a veteran teacher of over 40 years, who ridiculed the popular notion that teachers are impossible to fire, and argued that school administrators have plenty of tools at their disposal to fire bad teachers or to establish more rigorous means of granting tenure, but simply lack the interest in expending effort doing difficult and necessary things that do take time.
I saw on many occasions first-hand at Foothill High School in Palo Cedro how little effort administrators put into evaluating teachers.  I was routinely in classes where principals and vice-principals sat in to evaluate a teacher, and this inevitably consisted of them sitting at the back of the room playing with their cell phone, never once looking up.  In one class, a disgusted economics teacher actually stopped talking mid-sentence, and gestured contemptuously towards the administrator in the rear of the classroom, who never knew what was going on.  All the tools to protect poor and minority students from bad teachers are in place: administrators are simply too often too lazy to use them.
A tenure- and seniority-less system also opens the door to abuses by the nepotistic, good ol’ boy, and frequently macho culture that I’ve seen and heard about in many administrative offices and school boards, a culture in which people with the right connections and political views are absorbed into the system, and those unfortunate enough to deviate are left out in the cold.  A tenure- and seniority-less system would substitute the arbitrary preference of administrators—often bizarrely tuned out from the real world of the classroom—for merit.
Moreover, in an era in which schools are seeing their resources constantly eroded, support staff drained away, and their rationale questioned by one of our two big political parties, a tenure- and seniority-less system would create financial incentives for school administrators to generate quick turn-over amongst teachers to avoid paying higher salaries and better benefits to veteran teachers.  Such turn-over, needless to say, would not benefit the students who are supposed to be the focus of this conversation. 
Republican gubernatorial GOP candidate Neel Kashkari has come out quietly against such teacher protections in embracing the L.A. judge’s ruling.  Of course Kashkari—the man whose woolly-sounding policy proposals could fit on the kleenex on which he presumably dreamt them up—does not say how he would attract people to a job that only pays nine months a year, does not pay a high salary, does not come close to compensating good teachers for the hours they put in outside of their work-day, and for which Kashkari and much of the public have nothing but contempt.  At least today the job comes with a modicum of security, although assaults on the public sphere like that launched by the Republicans over the past several decades and Jerry Brown during his tenure in office shake even that security.  But absent that security, it would become even more difficult to attract good teaches to schools.
Kashkari promised to be a different kind of Republican.  But his party does not care about the “poor and minority children” the L.A. Judge cited in his decision.  His party has spent the last several decades stripping money from the public schools that serve those children and attempting to create a parallel privatized, voucherized system to serve affluent and/or religious families. 
It didn’t take long in this campaign for Kashkari’s kindly mask to drop, his economic fundamentalism leaping out at any opportunity to slaver through the bars, promising to beat up on the people responsible for educating our children rather than addressing the hamstrung system in which those teachers work and children learn.
Kashkari recently whined, “Just pouring more money into the same old education system does not yield better results”.
But a statement of this nature reveals the extent to which Kashkari is out of touch with reality and with the needs of our school system.  Because it is not the “same old education system” to which older generations hark back ad nausea when they want an excuse to avoid paying their fair share into our public institutions.  California’s 21st century classrooms are not the socially and linguistically homogenous classrooms of yore, representing a society that had made a firm investment in its middle class. 
We live in a demographically-transformed state in which we need to educate a new kind of citizen to labour in a new kind of economy to create a new kind of society.  This requires a different approach to learning, which cannot be of the cheap, rote variety that long dominated our classrooms.  It requires different kinds of technology, which costs money to overhaul and install.  And it requires a different kind of teaching, with better teacher-student ratios, more emphasis on writing and experimentation, and a tremendous focus on critical thinking.  And this kind of teaching and learning requires large numbers of teachers who are well-equipped, well-supported, and well-motivated.

The Darwinian school system which Kashkari envisions, in which teachers are motivated by fear and the crack of the administrator’s whips, and students by a mad scramble not to fall through the growing cracks in their poorly-funded and ill-maintained education system, will not work.  And the Republican candidate’s cheap efforts at populism are as hollow as his party’s commitment to justice and equality. 

An Innocent At Home

In recent years, I’ve spent my summers abroad in the archives.  While it’s mostly steady work over dusty pages, there is always some excitement of being in a different place, and the occasional expedition beyond the urban-based archive.

This summer I’m at home in California, but I’ve managed a couple of trips to some of the remarkable destinations that abound in the Golden State. 
Point Reyes and Lassen Park are two old favourites of mine.  I was in Lassen with a group of friends and we were lucky to be able to make the short but exhilarating hike to the peak itself on one of the few days of the year that it’s open.  In late-May the trail was still mostly snow-covered, and the views of small tarns—their striking blue all the more impressive when they nestled amidst white snow banks—and the neighbouring mountains, to say nothing of the vast stretches of forest, were remarkable.
The trip actually began as a comedy of errors, and what was supposed to be a backpacking trip became a more leisurely camping trip at Manzanita Lake.  That we made it to Lassen at all after a ill-timed car break-down was a testament to the skills of an auto repair shop in Red Bluff, run by rabid State of Jefferson secessionists, flags and all, whose mechanical skills were far superior to their politics.
For my next trip, to Point Reyes with a friend who had never been camping before, we opted for public transit, something not possible in Northern California.  I’d taken many a day trip to this beautiful stretch of the California coast (protected as a National Seashore), but I’d never been camping, and we had a wonderful time.  The walk to Wildcat Camp was around eight miles, first through a lovely, shady forest, and then cliff-top along the coast, winding up and up and up before making a sudden drop to the campsite overlooking a wonderful beach.
During the day, the wide-open, treeless nature of the campground rendered it vulnerable to the sun, but in the evening it was wonderful for sunsets.  And in the early mornings, it made for some interesting wildlife viewing as we watched ospreys soar along the coast.  The campsite was populated by gophers, and in the soft light of dawn, a coyote came along and tried to hunt them, sneaking through the grass and then leaping up in an effort to catch the rodents outside of their holes.  But this didn’t go over well with the deer that also inhabited the outskirts of the campground, and she proceeded to chase the coyote away.
Seals cruising by the beaches, countless cormorants perched on rocks out at sea, and stately pelicans drifting over the waves alongside the cliffs added to the majesty of the coastal park.  I can only hope that the magnificent surroundings conspired to create a camping convert of my companion!
Most recently, I struck out for Mt Whitney, to the south, with a group of friends I’ve hiked with on many occasions over the last five years.  We set off for the trailhead from Lone Pine, where it was around 100 degrees out.  Although it remained warm in the sun-exposed upper slopes of the mountain, it was considerably less so, and was mitigated by trees, the shadows thrown by massive slabs of rock and the peaks themselves, and the innumerable crystal clear springs that wound their way down toward the Owens Valley below.
We arrived in camp after the first day of walking footsore, a couple of our party the worse the wear for the high altitude, and our campsite hemmed in by herds of rabid-looking marmots.  But we awoke rejuvenated the following morning and made our way successfully to the summit, via spectacular views across the Sierras, and countless valleys and lakes.  More patriotic souls than our group were waving and posing with flags to celebrate the Fourth of July.  After lunch on the summit, we began the long but scenic way down.  Our way down, as up, was made much easier thanks to the switcbacks that form the trail.

It is hard to fathom the work that went into cutting those trails and maintaining them, but their existence did not only make possible an enjoyable expedition with a group of old friends: it is also a testament to the public spirit that once informed some of our country’s endeavours, including our engagement as a people with the natural world. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Terror in Iraq

Having faded from the conscience of most Americans as our war of aggression there became history rather than the stuff of elections and everyday life, Iraq is now back in the news as proponents of a new caliphate, the central government, Kurdish nationalists, and a host of other interests battle to maintain or dismantle the colonial-era creation.

But there have been other reminders of our presence there in the news.  In the early 2000s, the U.S. invasion infamously opened the door to an Al Qaeda presence in the country—the very thing our lying Vice-President claimed we were going there to combat.  The result was a battle between the rival ideologies of fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims.
But we introduced another kind of terror into Iraq when we invaded in violation of international law and in contravention of our own public interest.  We razed cities, we destroyed infrastructure, and we killed tens and then hundreds of thousands of people.  We also introduced mercenaries, most memorably in the form of Blackwater, to do some of the dirtier work.
Founded by religious fundamentalists, Blackwater came to comprise a kind of private army operating in Iraq.  It became quickly clear that the mercenaries’ activities in Iraq were not always in keeping with the goals of the occupying U.S. force and the emerging Iraqi governments.  Things came to a head when the mercenaries massacred a large number of Iraqi civilians in 2007.
It was reported late last month that shortly before the massacre, the State Department had launched an investigation into Blackwater’s activities in Iraq.  The chief investigators were ordered out of the country by the U.S. Embassy, but not before a top Blackwater operative threatened to kill the chief investigator, adding that he would face no consequences because the death would occur in a lawless war zone. 
Its investigation cut short, the State Department team nonetheless concluded that Blackwater was operating with “lax oversight” in “an environment full of liability and negligence”.  According to the New York Times, the investigators wrote that “the management structures in place to manage and monitor our contracts in Iraq have become subservient to the contractors themselves…Blackwater contractors saw themselves as above the law…the contractors, instead of Department officials, are in command and in control”. 
The New York Times story provides further details of the culture and practice of the mercenary army, also noting that the death threat against the investigator was taken “seriously”, and was particularly disturbing because “organizations take on the attitudes and mannerisms of their leader”. 
When the threats were reported, the U.S. Embassy, home to the successive viceroys handpicked by the neoconservative administration in D.C., shut down the investigation, effectively allowing mercenaries to dictate government policy and intimidate government investigators.
Thus a new kind of terror was introduced into Iraq, as hired guns, subject to neither Iraqi law, nor, it seemed then, to U.S. law, roamed the street killing at will.  It was terror in the sense that mercenaries were used to introduce arbitrary violence onto the streets of Iraq.  And it was terror in the sense that it marked the ascendancy of raw, lawless, violent profiteering over rational civilian rule, a move characteristic of the degeneration of republics into empires.
The power of Blackwater and its successor organisations in U.S. politics and in the Gulf represents a loss of control by the public over the conduct of our country’s international affairs, a loss which mirrors the ability of plutocrats in other spheres to wrest control of economic policy away from the public to be harnessed in the service of those who would profit spectacularly from the economic misfortunes of others, just as organisations like Blackwater profit from war, chaos, and death.
Some will see the triumph of such ideology and practice as an accidental phenomenon, the product of mismanagement and inefficiency in our immoral and ill-considered war of aggression in Iraq.  But in reality, the use of indiscriminate violence, the ascendancy of profiteering, and the breakdown of civil law are all part and parcel of imperial war-making. 

Unless the United States puts a halt to its colonial-style engagement with the wider world and moves away from policies driven by “national security” rather than “public interest”, we will only sink deeper into such a corrosive imperial state.