Category Archives: the future

it’s not crazy – it’s normal!

I knew someone who was institutionalized as a child and went back years later to see her old psychiatrist. She told me he laughed and joked with her about how strange she was as a little girl of 8 or 9 – that she was up late wondering if people had souls or if suffering was normal. So many have lived her life and live as “normal” people now – but how much were they ever crazy to begin with? It got me thinking about some statistics I’d seen earlier about how 6.8 million American children were on ritalin, a 41% rise in the past decade. As the rhythms of our days and nights change, so too do our minds. Over half of “millennials”, those 18-33, are kept up at night due to stress.  The most tragic figure is that of women, who are disproportionately medicated against anxiety and depression to men, 2 to 1.

As I’ve always understood it, sanity was about your reality agreeing with everyone else’s. If you were convinced that the sky was red, and everyone else around you said it was blue, insanity would be doubting their perceptions over your own. Of course, as the pace of our minds increasingly change according to the markets, so does this minority of the “insane” steadily increase. Substance abuse or self-medication, as some would like to call it, is nothing new. However, solutions to being out of sync with reality are becoming more of a public service, less of a private affair and now more the realm of the market. A new pill is rolled out to cure what ails us. Curing cancer is important, sure, but more money is spent on researching pills to take once you have it than on prevention efforts and education. The wheels of commerce roll forward when you are buying something, not when you are eradicating illness. Over $35 billion worth of antipsychotics, stimulants and antidepressants are sold each year in the United States. Insanity is big business. Big business is insanity. It follows that we begin to crack under the strain.

If you look around and see problems with the world around us, and if that drives you to distraction, the practical and profitable thing to do in this modern world is to medicate yourself and seek out someone who can talk you out of your external symptoms of unhappiness.  Taking adderall can help you perform better at work, can help you work two jobs and go to school, etc. Faced with a disappointing middle age spent taking care of ailing parents and distraught children can drive one to antidepressants. Becoming overwhelmed and terrified by a world of distraction and suffering, we start taking anti-anxiety pills.

Anyway, what was so crazy about my friend when she was a little girl? Wondering if one has a soul, if the nature of the world is suffering – these are normal things. If someone is unhappy in a marriage, workplace, prison… this is normal. Instead of changing the world around us, we are ushered into padded rooms and handed pills in paper cups. Children who can’t sit still in class for 8 hours per day only to go home and sit in front of  a screen for the next 6 cannot be expected to have the ability to focus or learn effectively, much less grow into well-adjusted human beings. Adam Lanza was unable to leave his house at the end, medicating a condition rooted in something deeper than his own brain – if Adam Lanzas were normal in this species, we would see spree killing as a historical phenomenon – not something associated with the birth of neoliberal social and economic restructuring.

Of course it’s not sustainable! But many continue to assume that left untouched, we can ride out current era of madness and find something easier on the other side. There is no promise to this, nothing to lead us to believe that inaction would deliver a better world to us eventually. In addition, as history shows us, new patterns of social behavior that rise and fall with material conditions will eventually be integrated into commonplace occurrence, or perhaps the other way around. It’s all fluid and dependent on dominant economic and class mores at the time.  Seventy years ago, it would be strange to think that graphic violence could be celebrated as a part of pop culture through video games, and commonplace among children. So too homosexuality would be considered a mental illness seventy years ago, but perhaps because of this we should be doubly critical of seeing dissent or dissatisfaction with our current lives as symptoms of a disease to be treated with pills. Perhaps we should start to look deeper and wonder if, maybe sometimes, the sky really is red and it really is everyone else who is crazy.

Materialism and Patriarchy: an Interview with comrade Jasmine Curcio

I’m linking to an excellent interview with scholar Jasmine Curcio on feminism and the left, printed yesterday in the North Star (ht: Sarah). Amazing points contained within!

Indeed it was a regression within liberal feminism, as entrenched and lucid feminist analysis of women’s exploitation in the sex trade — made by women prior to the first-wave, and by feminists in the second-wave — was abandoned. A large impetus of second-wave feminism was the male sexual revolution, spurring its critique of patriarchal sexuality in its various manifestations, especially as the models of sex promoted to both right-wing women in marriage via Freudian ideology to serve their husbands’ desire and fetishes, and the sexual model of “free love” promoted by left-wing men. Never mind that the concept of free love was first articulated by women of the first-wave, such as Emma Goldman, who sought to escape the institution of marriage at the same time as ending the culture requiring women to perform sexual favours and engage in a subordinate sexuality to men, in order to gain recognition, affirmation, and most often, money and shelter. Nowadays, liberal feminism bends itself over backwards to defend the patriarchal choices of individuals who self-identify as feminists, and trying to fight this culture with actual, materialist, feminism is a difficult and often frustrating task.

C.D.V.: Why do you think Marxism itself has become a mostly male discourse since the 1970s?

J.C.: The reaction to the second-wave of feminism by many men on the left was not a small matter. It is not really mentioned today, since hindsight focuses more on the successes of a feminist movement than its failures, its theory, or even just the general historical circumstances. But it was well-documented, by feminists such as Christine Delphy in France in her article “Our Friends and Ourselves.” Aside from the interruption of the early feminist meetings and the misogynist remarks made by various men —which were commonplace in the late ’60s and ’70s with the rise of a new wave of feminism and women’s consciousness of their oppression as women — reaction did occur, subtly, in the realm of theory, which is not to say it was done exclusively by men, but overall it happened that it was for the benefit of men in not addressing their privilege or their consciousness. Attempts at independent feminist theorizing, particularly around patriarchy, were dishonestly construed as apolitical. The hostility towards women’s attempts at autonomous organizing materialized in the form of constructed orthodoxies of Marxism on questions of sexual politics. And while the autonomous consciousness-raising groups faded away at the tail end of the 1980s, Marxist organizations remained and so did their theory from this period. I am not speaking of socialist feminism, which did acknowledge the importance of women’s organization and engaged with and embraced the theoretical understanding of the system of patriarchy that they and radical feminists largely uncovered.

And so many years on, feminist discussions around the left continue to be subtly dominated by men and their perspective, with the aid of theoretical frameworks that marked disdain towards feminism in decades past. Men have become gatekeepers of feminist discussion, and many debates take place with ignorance, disdain, and sometimes subtle tactics of bullying. Phenomena that lie outside of the bourgeois-proletarian contradiction are not really taken on board as material facts, but either made to fit with constructed orthodoxy or they are discarded. So not much of a productive and open discussion is had. Though I’m sure many men do participate in good faith, theoretical blinders from the past are not a good way to contemplate feminist questions. Neither is uncritical acceptance of what appears to pass as a real feminist movement.

new labor and new journalism

A fascinating find is going around on tumblr as a response to Nate Thayer’s justified takedown of the exploitative and exclusionary world of journalism. My mother quit journalism when she started to sense it was turning into something less of a public service and vital part of civil life and more of a money-making venture. For sure, someone has always made good money off of journalism, whether it’s a state run or a private venture, but journalists were paid as well. Now that the great labor squeeze has hit the papers, seasoned journalists like Nate Thayer, who does great work and has for many years, are suddenly competing with young upstarts who are willing to do the work for free, or perhaps re-purpose someone else’s. While the pros might accuse the new kids of engaging in scab behavior – they are in a way – both are exploited and both end up losing out in the end. Even the publications that come out in support for Nate admit they publish work they got for free and employ part-time temps (like myself).

As more professional journalists find their living in new concepts like “content marketing” (the magazine I temp for has recently added three to the roster) and more are willing to write for less, the quality of journalism degrades and the democratizing promises of the internet instead further pools the power and income at the top – where it has always gone – while culling smaller and more diverse magazines and newspapers.  The message gets more reverberation, and the origin of the content becomes more obfuscated. Mix that around with some pay-for-play schemes at already established papers, and our version of truth becomes more watered down, more unknowable.

Meanwhile, labor is further fractured and sent scrambling for crumbs. Few who are not endowed with a trust fund paycheck can afford to go do the legwork needed to really dig into a story. What is journalistic integrity? Even the piece that Nate Thayer was arguing about with The Atlantic was originally sold to NKNews, a news site on North Korea that is incredibly opaque itself (the editor board is not listed, nor their source of income) and has possible links to LiNK, a non profit dedicated to introducing “Liberty” to North Korea, among other organizations based in Washington D.C.

It seems I got a little sidetracked. The link I quoted at the beginning is a story from 1999 exploring the new labor economy based on the internet, of which journalism is now part and parcel. Entitled “Why Your Fabulous Job Sucks” it sort of illustrates how this generation got duped into low paying jobs that have little to no chance of unionization for the promise of a “pick your own hours” kind of lifestyle. Of course, no one told us that if we don’t “pick” to work all of them, we get none of them. The promise of freelance – “be your own boss!” – becomes a struggle to undercut the unseen competition, even if that means writing for free.

I was offered journalism jobs when I was living in Palestine – all of them were for no pay and all of them promised me a great opportunity to get exposure and build a portfolio. I never took one of them, something I sometimes regret as I sit where I am. Yet – what would I have been buying into? It’s nice to think of yourself as the next Seymour Hersh, but if you ever want to make money by writing, you’re better off going into content marketing or shilling for the big boys more directly over twitter.

I write what I do for free because I feel I have to. Oh, and the “feed me” button is located here.

Was 2012 really the best year ever?

 

The Christmas issue of the conservative Spectator magazine featured an article titled “Why 2012 was the best year ever”, offering up positive news about the state of things in 2012. According to the article, there is more prosperity and less people dying worldwide now thanks to global capitalism. People are dying less from malaria and AIDS, inequality is dipping and the developing world is booming. Politicians, meanwhile, are a bunch of pessimists, jealous of the free market’s success where government programs have presumably failed. The Spectator offers that the reason why we weren’t popping champagne when the Millennium Goal to halve extreme poverty was met in 2008 was because “it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism”.

I spent a lot of time in graduate school going over the sorts of indicators quoted by the Spectator. The program I attended was a haven for pessimists such as myself, and attending my courses and conducting research made me an even stronger and better-prepared pessimist. Of course, pessimism is out of style. My friends moan and groan about my constant doomsdaying, but the fact of the matter is that I, along with my legion of pessimist like-minders, wouldn’t be in the business of shouting to the skies about impending doom if there wasn’t a leg to stand on. Meanwhile, the status quo has every interest in making things seem like they’re better than ever. This is where loyal magazines such as The Spectator come in handy, working together with recent releases like “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” and “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” to paint rosy views of the future, where life will be improved by buying toys from China and fracking our way out of an energy crisis (here they linked to a BP study, ha ha) – all supplemented by advances in smart phone technology, of course.

Even a pessimist such as myself has to recognize that, worldwide, mortality indicators have improved over the last several decades. Global inequality has eased between countries, and of course, we have all made exciting advances in new technology. My pessimism is actually couched in the deep belief that human potential is far greater than is currently recognized. This is why we should not shy away from the reality of our situation.

Here are some basic facts to consider, though. Things might be getting better, but they are getting better for some far faster than they are getting better for others. For example, taking China and India out of most calculations of global indices changes the numbers completely. Even within China and India, we must admit that calculations can be misleading. China especially has refused to release GINI calculations for over a decade now.  Papers published that measure GINI as meaningfully improving worldwide depend on shoddy data and tilt the numbers to their pleasure. And the real reason why the UN might not have been celebrating the drop in global poverty is because the number of those who are living on less than $2 per day (as opposed to $1 per day) have increased in recent years, and not all of them from the $1 per day crowd. People got poorer, though they middled out at a more acceptable number. Wealth is growing – at the top – and it comes from somewhere. Watching a graph about income growth in the last 10 years, it becomes clear from where this wealth is extracted. Productivity gains are out of the ballpark, the wealth at the top gets more and more massive, and the income levels of those behind the top 10% worldwide generally squeak by just a tiny bit below rates of inflation.  This is the growing income gap.

Of course, it will be argued that – despite lack of strong data – the worldwide GINI has lessened. This is probably true. There are nearly a million millionaires in China now, joined by new millionaires popping up all over the global south. Having a million millionaires will certainly bring your overall standing with other millionaires in other countries closer. However, the GINI index within countries is not improving. Indeed, it’s going down. The spread of millionaires is more fair, perhaps, but the spread of wealth outside of privileged circles is not.

c/o the economist

In countries like Russia, nearly 20% of the GDP is from counting billionaires. If we were to count millionaires in this figure, the number would be far higher worldwide. Growth is coming from spawning new millionaires and billionaires, who are hoovering up productivity gains at the expense of those actually creating wealth.

USA: c/o mother jones

Of course, these “rising standards”, so quickly being hailed as results of the free market by magazines such as The Spectator, are actually the cause of state intervention. The neoliberal reforms of the past three decades have paved the way for this extraction at expense of labor.

So back to the idea that 2012 was better than any year in history: we must ask, by what standards? Mortality has fallen steadily since the dawn of the 20th century, but this less about free market reforms and more about lessening infant mortality rates. It’s not difficult to do this. Fifty cents worth of education can prevent most deaths in infancy, vaccines and basic childcare can do the rest. This is not a trillion dollar project, though there are plenty at the UN who have made a very nice living doing it. Advances in medicine and technology cannot be chalked up to capitalism either. The Soviets were first in space and our own domestic R&D sector is the most subsidized part of the United States government – otherwise known as the defense industry.

It used to be that you could call out a piece of filthy propaganda for what it was. If the Soviets or the Chinese were putting out ridiculous information about how great everything was, nobody felt too bad about calling it out. If the Nazis said life was never better in Germany while the Red Army was beating down their door, we knew it to be horse shit. Yet today, calling out articles such as those in The Spectator or putting down books like Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” is met with groans and rolled-eyes. Our eyes are glued to our smartphones with the world collapsing down around us. Things are actually getting worse for most, though far better for some. Of course, those who are benefiting from the status quo also happen to own all the newspapers, happen to take more part in bankrolling research at universities and also have more influence in government than the guy who is living on $2 a day.

culture for killers

When do we admit that we’ve gone too far?

The attempts to explain away the massacre in Connecticut this last weekend were the cries of shamefaced parents who all raised the same generation of shut-ins. A generation that is more and more aware of dead ends and lost opportunities. Unfortunately, we don’t have the social or political means necessary to express our frustration in an effective manner. Pornography is lauded as a way to reduce rape and violence against women. Video games are claimed to be a way to manage  stress and anger. Yet these seemingly harmless channels for rage do nothing to sort out the root of the issue: that these monsters within us are growing.

It says something that we have so much rage as a human species at this, what is supposedly our most successful and advanced year to date, that the culture has set up these pressure valves to provide for the more base emotions – frustration, hate, anomie – that have not withered away with our stunning technological advancements. The result is a growing rage that is channeled through increasingly vivid and gory channels. When some of it slips out, we tear our hair and try and address the way that it happened. Did it happen because of lax gun laws? Did it happen because of a failure to medicate? No one is asking the real question: why did 20-year-old Adam Lanza think it even a remote possibility to walk into a school and murder almost 30 women and children? Perhaps the answer would be too much to bear.

For those locked in the struggle of living day to day, the idea that such terrible things could be done is probably subsumed in concerns about food, shelter, family and medical care. For those who are locked inside their mansions, those who can afford to stew in their illness, to supplement their fantasies with firing ranges, who have never been told that they are in fear of losing their homes or their food to eat, the idea can clearly become possible. Theirs is a world of isolation –  and this act was certainly antisocial. It is, at its core, an expression of the anomie and atomization that goes hand in hand with our new political and economic landscape. There have been many safety valves to channel this frustration, but inevitably there are still rapists, murderers and spree-killers. The increase in the viciousness reflects a sick culture.

It would not surprise me to hear that some would argue that more cultural violence is necessary to help contain this rage, just as there are those who argue that the answer to gun violence is more gun ownership. It may be a quieter argument, as violence of any sort is still considered morally unacceptable by our increasingly violent culture, but it follows that if studies emerge lauding the somatic effects of virtual violent-by-proxy (the dick on the screen is not yours, the gun is not really in your hand) behavior, then the answer should be a winking condemnation, where we say one thing is bad in public and yet engage in private.

Acceptable violence is sanitized: it is a video game or a drone strike. It is far away and yet in the familiar comfort of an air-conditioned room. It is being able to kill and go home to our families with clean hands. The smell of blood does not travel far. That this is supposed to channel the worldwide frustration wrought by our current conditions is ludicrous, but it happens every day. The unemployed are distracted by MMORPGs, prisoners watch pornography on their cell phones behind bars, and even the more activist minded will settle for sharing a link they think people should care about on Facebook instead of taking to the streets in protest. Our worlds become more about ourselves as opposed to our communities – this is tactical as it happens. Capitalism runs on the individual while trampling communities.  When our rage slips through the cracks, no wonder that it is so much more vicious, with the perpetrator acting as though no one else exists but him.

left that way is a dead end: a case study in palestine

If history is the alchemy of theory, then communists turned gold into lead in Palestine. When I first arrived in 2009, I was one of those hand-wringing well-meaning comrades who shed tears over the absence of a progressive political left in Palestine. No doubt, there exists in Palestine some of the strongest and bravest leftists in the region, but their work is for naught and their books (printed with French, German, and Canadian money) get used to warm hovels in Askar refugee camp. They are at best tolerated and called in from time to time to answer questions on economy. When the Soviet money dried up, the network of civil supporters did as well, until all that was left were empty storefronts and the staff had moved on to NGOs and ideologies that would catch the foreign dollar, euro, or dinar.

Like most other ideas – democracy, liberal rights fantasies, Wahhabism, western civic models, and open markets – communism was thrown into the trash heap in Palestine because it was presented in an unrealistic and condescending way. Leftists crouched around telefaxes worrying “No, you’re doing it wrong! You need to… There needs to be… This theory is really…” while Israel continued to pummel their neighborhoods. Such disregard was given to the situation on the ground, to the realities of the society, that after the militant wing died down the people themselves shrugged off the theories and put all their efforts into courting money and robbing the donors blind. A handful remained to churn out honest work, but their romance with how “they” did it seemed to only further alienate their efforts.

After all, what does the left really have to offer Palestine save money and a few PFLP t-shirts? Obviously not their unwavering support. The condescending insistence on ideological purity puts leftist organizations in the same boat as USAID. There’s nothing wrong, I suppose, in offering money with ideological strings attached – a business transaction obviously! – but don’t for a second try and fool yourself into assuming you’re helping. Own up to the fact you’re settling the hearts and minds as much as Israelis are.

A prominent leftist organization recently cut funding to civil society NGOs, insisting that their strategy had changed from promoting a “culture of dependence” through NGOs to funding political parties directly, thereby cutting out the middle man (the citizen) I assume! It is, of course, much easier to inject a political program directly into a certain class of people rather than to everyone. And how late the left is to this game! After all, the cafes and imported cars already promote a kind of politik and the imams living the high life in Masyoon can promote yet another. Now, 10 years too late, is when the left decides to try and resuscitate the leftist parties – at least, the ones that are allowed to exist by the powers that be.

Indeed, the left has spent so much time cozying up to the powers that be that no one takes them seriously anymore. With the dissolution of the Soviet paycheck, those left in the cold were simply begging to be invited to summits and dinners and willing to throw just about anything away for inclusion.

So where does this mentality come from? Look no further than the left of today, whether it be Kadima and its JStreet front, the progressives left holding the bag after the election of Obama, or the ineffectual and laughable socialist/communist parties of Europe.

24. While communists have no truck with Zionism and condemn the colonial-settler origins of Israel, we recognise that over the last 50 or 60 years a definite Israeli Jewish nation has come into existence. To call for its abolition is unMarxist. Such a programme is either naive utopianism or genocidal. Both are reactionary. The Israeli Jewish nation is historically constituted. The Israeli Jews speak the same language, inhabit the same territory, have the same culture and sense of identity.

25. The Palestinian national movement has been sustained only because of the existence of and its relationship with the wider Arab nation. Solving the Israel-Palestine question requires a combined Arab and proletarian solution. Communism and nationalism are antithetical. Nevertheless we champion the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination. In the conditions of Israel/Palestine that means supporting the right of the Palestinians where they form a clear majority to form their own state. Such a state is only realistic with a working class-led Arab revolution.

from CPGB Theses on “The Arab Awakening and Israel-Palestine

What fiery words to galvanize the youth of Palestine into direct unified action!

27. The immediate call for a single Palestinian state, within which the Jewish Israeli nationality is given citizenship and religious, but not national rights, is in present circumstances to perpetuate division. Israeli Jews will not accept such a solution – the whole of the 20th century since 1933 militates against that. There is moreover the distinct danger that the poles of oppression would be reversed if such a programme were ever to be put into practice. In all likelihood it would have to involve military conquest. The call for a single-state solution is therefore impractical – Israel is the strong nation – and, more than that, reactionary, anti-working class and profoundly anti-socialist. Liberation and socialism must come from below. It cannot be imposed from the outside.

The thrust of this position is that only a unified working class revolution can solve the problems in the Middle East, and that until then the Palestinians will be left sitting in bulldozed houses. And God forbid they actually achieve a single state solution wherein their Jewish settler neighbors suddenly face a dearth of privilege, where they may in fact be tossed to the curb by the living, rightful inhabitants of the homes they have settled in!

Really, arguing this kind of thing is tedious and only engages those arguing, while those who are left in prison and at checkpoints tap their feet. When the people’s revolution fails to materialize, the leftists snap: “Weren’t you listening? Weren’t you reading your Marx?” Those gross intellectuals abroad typing up policy papers and party positions were the vanguard, why weren’t you jumping to attention? Where are the actual homegrown progressives? Well, if it doesn’t smell like a communist or walk like a communist, I’m not gonna call it a communist!

Beware to those who moan about the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” in such places! When your books and papers and groups can’t provide the soup, childcare, medical attention, and social services that those caught up in the “barbarity” of Islam can provide, you have a problem. Is there no one to work with, no one to attend your meetings? A Western leftist (centrist! rightist!) is not going to find the “partner” he wants in Palestine – the partner that looks, acts, and talks like he does – unless he molds a group to his pleasure. Rather than work within the parameters offered, rather than ask the Palestinians what they need, or worse – ask them how they think liberation should be achieved, the Westerner wants to dress up a few students and put money in their hands. They perch on a party and gain privilege over the party’s constituents by pumping money into party leaders.

I spoke with aid workers who lamented the state of things – how they had to pay for supporters, offer food or transportation to people in return for participation in their programs. Why would no one take initiative and make sacrifices? A somber walk through the old city of Nablus looking at martyr posters shows such people exist.. or at least once did. They did not die for foreign money, not for the pleasure of foreign political parties, not for a unified Arab proletariat and not for Karl Marx. They died for the people, their land, their memories, and their pride. Forcing people into contortions to fit your mold of “leftist progressive worth supporting” insults this.

I’m not Palestinian nor am I personally affected by this conflict past my experiences, but I have some suggestions for Western leftists who want to call themselves supporters of Palestine:

1. Stay close to the core truths of the conflict. There already is a one-state entity in Palestine and Israel and it is called al-Ihtilel (the occupation). It is racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, imperialist, and reactionary. Do not deviate from this core truth and do not delude yourselves. Visit if you can, and if you cannot, take it from someone who’s been there or who is from there.

2. Support the people. Do leftists really need this lecture? Support the people. Support the people. If the people pray, support them. If the people throw rocks, support them. If the people oppress one another due to colonialism, do not think it is out of “barbarity” or inherent fault with the people and their traditions. It is more possible to fix the ills of social society by supporting the society rather than by shoving your morals down their throats with a spoonful of money to help it go down easier.

3. They do not trust you. You are not their comrade unless you are taking orders from the people. They are not your partners and you will never be on equal footing with them. You do not know the situation. You do not know Arabic. You do not have the right to pretend you know anything more more than the faces on the martyr posters. They are the ones to make the sacrifices, so let them decide what is worth making sacrifices for.

If leftists passionate about the Palestinian cause were as passionate about their own situations in their home countries, there might be change faster than you think. The I/P conflict does not exist in a bubble, it is the result of policies and attitudes worldwide that have nothing to do with the Palestinians… and if you call yourself a leftist this should be clear as day. Accepting that you have little to nothing to do with the Palestinian solution to the occupation (and it is coming) will give you leave to address the attitudes and policies in your own society that contribute to the occupation of Palestine and elsewhere. Involving yourself with what Arabs or Palestinians or Israelis “should do” is a misdirection of your efforts and borderline chauvinistic.

Just as the Palestinians are the winners and inheritors of their own liberation, so too are we responsible for what happens in our own communities. Your position should be to support the liberation and self-determination of oppressed people worldwide, but you should start with what you know best and among people you are affiliated with. Stop planning and criticizing action or positions abroad when you first need to take the log out of your own eye to see anything clearly.

what’s changed since then?

As’ad AbuKhalil faces off against a liberal actor, a white woman who proclaims herself as a “voice for Middle Eastern Women”, a huffing anticommunist Cuban ex-pat polemicist, and the very personification of smug white male privilege himself – Bill Maher. What’s surprising about this “discussion” is that so little of the discourse has actually changed since November 2001. The panel makeup remains the same and Bill Maher (and by extension his constituency) continues to know more about Islam than Muslims:

it’s getting hotter in palestine

A friend of mine confided that an intifada is coming in September. While I value his analysis over any ink the New York Times decides to spill on the issue, I’ve heard such things from him before. He’ll tell me to keep an eye on the frog in the pan, that he’ll jump soon enough, that the water can’t get much hotter. For what it’s worth, the steam is rising and the frog is shifting noticeably, but we can hardly tell which way he’ll jump if he decides it’s a good idea.

I gave my first university lecture to some students yesterday on the topic of Gaza and its treatment in the media. I felt hope that so many of them expressed real and serious outrage over what was going on and rode the feeling all the way back to the office and to the computer. I don’t read the New York Times, but a friend  pointed out an article published regarding the financial situation in the West Bank and my heart fell 10,000 feet:

“This is, without doubt, the worst financial crisis the Palestinian Authority has ever faced,” said Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, generally known for a can-do, upbeat attitude. “This could not have come at a worse time. I don’t know how this ends. I don’t have an answer.”

The immediate cause of the crisis is the failure of foreign — especially Arab — donors to fulfill promises of aid. But the budget crisis is intertwined with a diplomatic one as the Palestinians and Israelis maneuver ahead of an expected push to recognize Palestinian statehood at the United Nations in September. Different donors have opposing agendas, so the Palestinian Authority’s decisions in the coming weeks will anger one set of donors or another.

Without enough money to pay salaries, a big concern is the loyalty of the Palestinian security forces, which have brought law and order and created conditions for stability and economic growth in the past three years.

Palestine depends on foreign aid. Scrambling for dollars lowers Palestine more than the Israeli occupation, drones, strip-searches, and sniper’s nests all together.  Let’s do everything Thomas Friedman’s way, hand everything to this guy named Fayyad, and watch the market lift Palestine out of occupation! they told us. Friedman himself even gushed this year over the progress that Palestine has made in terms of markets. The IMF and World Bank stood by with proud smiles as billions of aid was funneled into housing schemes, convention centers, and let’s not forget into the deep pockets of elite Ramallawis!

In the past year, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations have issued reports saying that the Palestinian Authority under Mr. Fayyad was fully prepared for statehood because of institution building and fiscal discipline.

That view is coming under scrutiny. Last month, in the journal Foreign Policy [ed: Cheney’s rag], Nathan J. Brown of George Washington University wrote: “Fayyad’s main achievement has not been to build the structures of a Palestinian state, but to stave off the collapse of those structures that did exist. An equally important achievement was his ability to persuade Western observers that he was doing much more. In the process, however, he raised expectations far beyond his ability to deliver.”

Now that Palestine is doing it the way the West wanted – wearing suits and jetting around raising money for sweatshops in Betunia – why, they think they’re one of us now! Adorable, really, coming hat in hand to the United Nations in September and begging a state of their own. Rather than humiliate the United States by forcing it to veto the rest of the world on such a tender issue, Uncle Sam will bring his Arab dogs to heel and threaten to cut the purse strings to Baba Fayyad’s Great Ramallah Experiment.

What results? A populace who was forbidden to rally in support of their Egyptian brothers and sisters as they were cut down by Mubarak’s bullets now is asked to halve their salaries in the interest of foreign donors, in the interest of solvency and in boosting the confidence of foreign investors/donors. I have friends who work for as-Sulta and they are owed thousands already. They know the person who made the decisions that put them into this situation makes 20 times what they do, they understand that elections will probably be postponed yet again, and they understand the Israelis continue to dine on land that belongs to someone else.

If this sounds polemical, it is. My comrades in Palestine – and it is presumptuous for me to call them that, as they fight harder and face more than I ever will – are dignified in their resistance and they deserve a government that reflects and protects that dignity. Foreign money is yet another shackle around the neck of Palestine, and threatening bankruptcy or a coup less they do what Israeli interests say is best is yet another way to humiliate her.

Maybe there is something coming in September after all.

the strange case of amina abdallah and gay girls in damascus: colonizing identities

The web blog of thirty-something “gay girl” Amina Arraf/Abdallah has been removed from public view. The touching story of a half-American lesbian democracy activist living in Damascus was especially tantalizing during the recent media explosion of interest in the Syrian revolution. Discussions arose over LGBT prospects in the new “Arab Spring” , suggesting that Muslim Democracy would be far different than Jewish Democracy in that it would spurn and oppress LGBT individuals in more serious ways than Muslim autocratic dictatorships have. Of course, this makes the assumption that LGBT-identified individuals in the Middle East have never been hassled for writing a pamphlet, saying something uncouth about the government at a bus station, or have had a family member imprisoned for fighting against occupation or despotic government. It draws a shaky line from there to making LGBT-identified individuals natural allies of Mubarak-style regimes, when they could live in peace as long as they were simply Lesbian, not Lesbian-freedom lovers.

This line of thinking is dangerous, and puts innocent people in danger. Like the backlash against “Westoxification” in Iran, where Feminists were rounded up as being enemies of the Islamic state thanks to the nominal support they had enjoyed under the Shah, it puts activists at increased risk in a new society by simply suggesting their natural allies are Western values and West-supported governments. By appropriating identities (or identity politics) as a way to further political agendas, the West is indirectly fostering feelings of resentment towards these identities as hostile political classes.

Yet hasn’t this always been a problem? By assuming the West can speak for minority groups better than they can speak for themselves, all sorts of atrocities have been sold to well-intentioned people. Israel continues to publicize its treatment of LGBT groups as evidence of its civilized nature – despite critical challenges these groups still face. Yet Israel has no problem speaking for the LGBT Palestinians who surely suffer greatly under the heel of Muslim-ness.

However, there is no need to take an imperialist’s word as truth. Thanks to traditional grassroots efforts married to online communities, there are actual indigenous groups (such as Al-Fatiha or RAWA) which work towards just treatment within their own societies. It is best this way because they understand the intricacies and complex structures of their communities far better than ham-fisted imperial interests. So of course voices like Amina’s were welcome in Syrian discourse. This well-written, sexually attractive writer seemed to hit all the happy mediums – including the desire to study Hebrew and work at a Syrian embassy in Israel. This was no Shahbanu speaking. The anonymous nature and the basic format of a blogspot page led us to believe that Amina was an Arab bourgeois English speaker, quite a step up from Youtube queens and Betty Friedan.

The story goes deeper, however, when the world discovered that Amina was actually a middle-aged heterosexual white American male, who claimed rather ironically that he felt he had no available audience for his views unless he presented them as coming from a drastically different identity. Another victim of “PC Culture”, Tom MacMaster decided to wear the skin of a lesbian Muslim Arab woman in order to be heard on issues he strangely felt very connected to. This was no simple hoax, either. MacMaster had been posing as Amina for four years, leading one to speculate over his mental and emotional health.

He had started the blog, he said, because he believed online posts about the Syrian and Israel-Palestinian situations would earn “some deference from obnoxious men” if written under an Arab woman’s name rather than under his own, where “someone would immediately ask: why do you hate America? why do you hate freedom? This sort of thing.”

He had made her a lesbian, he said, in an attempt “to develop my writing conversation skills … It’s a challenge. I liked the challenge.

“I also had the thing that I like to write, and my own vanity is … if you want to compliment me, tell you like my writing … That’s how to make me happy.”

But why had he exchanged many hundreds of emails with a woman in Canada, Sandra Bagaria, who believed herself to be having a romantic relationship with the blogger?

“I feel really guilty about that … I got caught up in the moment and it seemed … fun. And I feel a little like shit about that.” He denied having been sexually excited by the interaction: “I don’t want to go into that aspect particularly of it.”

The Guardian

Whatever the personal reasons behind MacMaster’s identity fraud, further criticism must be leveled at the liberal media apparatus that skyrocketed him to fame, the online medium that can enable such streamlined appropriation of identities, but perhaps most importantly, the criteria by which one is afforded a voice in today’s political culture. Why is it that Amina’s perfect storm of attributes earns her press space and Facebook support pages over any other Arab activist arrested and tortured by the Syrian regime? Why are certain voices held higher in esteem than the collective voice of the people? Not to say some shouldn’t, but what are the criteria for our choices of who to listen to? There are numerous reasons to criticize governments and revolutions – for instance, the continued crackdowns and endemic corruption of the Egyptian Military government or tanks rolling through villages in northern Syria – without resorting to identity niche standards of “civilization”.

Perhaps this is a new dog-whistle politic, a kind of wink thrown over the shoulder to progressive movements. Sure we can harp on and on about the invasion of Afghanistan, but can we really fault the United States for bringing a “better” standard to Afghani women? And even if we don’t, would we want to bring back the Taliban to cut noses and ears again? Here the imperialist right digs the left into a mud pit of confusion and debate while it continues its merciless onslaught against the communities we are wringing our hands over. We might not be running sorties against the Afghan women in specific, but they are just as affected by the bombs and drugs as the Taliban. Say we are running  sorties for them, and watch how patriarchal attitudes on the ground entrench themselves. If these minority groups refuse to become vocal tools of imperialism, simply skin them alive and pose as one of them.

The combination of her sexual identity, her good looks, her impeccable English, her “moderate” muslimness, and her fantastical (and often sexual) autobiographical posts proved too potent a mix. Amina was a “honeytrap for Western liberals”, as one twitterer put it. Something palatable that they could identify with, the perfect half-white poster child of a brown revolution.

from Jadaliyya

Identify with, or – perhaps more truthfully in this case – identify as.

j30strike dot org and social media as a way to foment and inspire social change

Why would Facebook be blocking attempts to link the website www.j30strike.org, claiming that this link has been identified as spammy or abusive? Perhaps it is a technical error or perhaps a user-orchestrated attempt at preventing publicity (see campaign funding if you don’t understand how this works), but it is also just as likely at this time that Facebook itself is blocking attempts at organization due to political motivations.

This is not completely new, as attempts have been made in the past to stifle Palestinian organization and protest using the same feature. Hasbara, the informal Israeli corps of internet thugs who badger discussion on issues relating to Palestine, are known for engaging in tactics that will have a discussion or article censored.

Yet the J30 strike is not something that focuses on a protest in Ramallah, it is a movement to organize a national public strike in one of the richest and most powerful countries on earth.

What is needed at this time is as follows:

1. Facebook should announce whether it has made an administrative decision to block certain politically-motivated pages or links or whether there is a feature available that is being utilized to let users engage in mass-censorship. Of course, it has no obligation to do this and I suspect that even if it does respond, it will not provide a clear and transparent answer.

2. There needs to be a serious re-assessment of social media and its part in fomenting social change. If the company can be utilized to censor political activity, serious efforts need to be made to evaluate the kinds of criteria that will allow it to be “social media-friendly”. Egypt, Syria, Tunisia = Good, UK = Bad? Is social media being used to lend legitimacy to political trends?

In addition, recent revelations of “identity forgeries” on the internet (see: Amina Abdallah and “her” blog, Gay Girl in Damascus) must make us re-evaluate the idea of actual human representation online. If humans can have their identities “hacked” to push a social or political agenda through blogs, is it so much to assume they could also be hijacked and used to cast votes or “likes” online, to report “abusive” material?

While social media can undoubtedly provide inspiration and tactical strategy, it is still something that is privately owned and traded. Facebook itself is valued at incredible numbers – anywhere from $100 billion to 500 billion dollars – and few ask if the people Facebook bases its value on are even real people with real opinions. Perhaps the most important question is one we must ask ourselves: can private companies really be trusted as reliable stewards of our political development? Does the medium of online discourse really assure you freedom, democracy, or individuality?

Edit: I was recently passed along this link to a BBC article, showing that Facebook has offered to “support … in any way we can” the UK government’s efforts to cut domestic spending. Sort of strange to engage the help of a 26 year old American billionaire in selling off the future of UK youth?

Downing Street has released footage of a video conference between David Cameron and Mark Zuckerberg as it emerged that the government will seek ideas on spending cuts through a tie-up with Facebook.

The prime minister thanked Mr Zuckerberg for his involvement, while the Facebook founder said he felt it was a great way to “engage the public to create social change”.