Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

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[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

Why our best students are totally oblivious

Why our best students are totally oblivious:

While being up in arms about popular injustices, they’re educated how not to see race, empire and colonialism

This past week, I taught my first classes of the semester. The college where I teach attracts young men and women who are generally left of center. Some of them are the children of progressive activists and academics. Many of the students who enroll in my courses hope to spend the rest of their lives ending poverty, racism, sexual oppression, among other forms of injustice. As such, they are an extremely aware crowd.

In one of my courses, which deals with race, philosophy and legal theory, I listed a series of names on the board and asked students to describe who they were: Trayvon Martin, Yusuf SalaamShaker AamerAafia SiddiquiJosé Padilla. Nearly every student in the room was familiar with the first name, and could give in excruciating detail the facts of the case and trial, and the questionable laws used to defend George Zimmerman in public discussion. Most of the students knew immediately that Yusuf Salaam was one of the Central Park Five who, despite their innocence, had been convicted of raping a woman and had spent years in prison. They were making astute connections to New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, racial profiling, “stand your ground” laws (yes, even though these were not explicitly part of the Zimmerman trial, they are relevant). You may not have known some of these details, but they did. As I mentioned, they’re rather politically aware.

Not a single student recognized the other three names.

In another course on political philosophy that also began last week, several students had only the faintest idea that Guantánamo was a prison, and could not describe who the prisoners were, why they were there, or why it mattered.


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These were illuminating reminders for me. Most of these students are not to blame for not knowing. They were born between 1992 and 1995. A few are slightly older. For them, the U.S.-led War on Terror is a constant background in their lives. They have few memories of a time when the U.S. was not waging war in the Middle East. They grew up in the shadow of the first Gulf War. But shadows are just that: observable, yet elusive, ungraspable. In the same way, the War on Terror, unless it has affected them directly, is neither unfamiliar, nor completely familiar. It’s not close enough for them to know which questions to ask in order to have a clear picture; yet it’s too close to know what the opposite of a War on Terror would look like.

The context in which my young progressive students can know so much about some populations and nothing about other populations who face analogous circumstances is worthy of pause. It is true that most of us find it difficult to remember names and figures when they cycle through the mainstream news hour for less than a few minutes, for only a day or two. We know Trayvon Martin’s name because there were assiduous protests surrounding his death, and because the mainstream news media became interested in it. The names of so many young black men who died similarly will not be known to us because of the absence of organized protests and the lack of media interest.

Similarly, the names of Padilla, Siddiqui and Aamer have not been mentioned for quite some time in the mainstream news cycle to which my students are attuned. When they were noticed, the mentions were generally brief and in the context of the state’s successful fight against “Terror.” In certain spaces, there have been continual protests and excellent critical coverage. But few dissents against the U.S.’s sustained foray into empire — through drones, torture, indefinite detention and other means — have commanded alert and aggressive attention from our patriotic and subservient mainstream media.

My students’ lack of knowledge of most things related to the U.S.’s war on terror indicates other predictable and alarming things: The principle of preemptive policing — jailing men indefinitely without charges, torturing them — is commonplace and no longer (if ever) worthy of shock. The racial profiling of Muslim men, because it is done in the context of an explicit state-led war, is difficult to be alarmed about without challenging the moral credibility of the government that leads it.

If racism is discussed, it is, correctly, within the context of the U.S.’s morally troubling and murky history of slavery. But the discussions are not usually linked to the equally troubling history of colonialism and conquest of indigenous populations. The U.S.’s history of racism against migrants such as Asians and Latinos is perhaps better known for some. But it is difficult to be a “good citizen” and still be critical of the ideological war that the U.S. wages on Muslims — especially in the midst of the U.S.’s ever-continuing attacks — covert, drone, explicit.

My students’ lack of knowledge about the effects of the Global War on Terror on men and women in the U.S. indicates to me that they are the successful product — even in the elite grammar/high schools from which so many of them graduated — of a patriotic and “morally upstanding” education. They have learned that many institutions — like their schools — work in their favor, even on their behalf. They have not come face to face with prisons, border police, customs officials, NYPD or hostile judges. They have learned how not to see race, empire and colonialism while being up in arms about the more popular facets of injustice — even though these are closely linked: the environment, sexual and reproductive rights, and “wringing bias out” of our hearts.

The latter phrase is invoked by President Obama in a speech, given after the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” This question reduces racism to an individual failing, a problem of conscience, rather than one of laws (drug and three strikes, preemptive policing, racial profiling), institutions (carceral, banking, social, state, military, cultural), ideologies (lynch law, slavery, empire, national security, surveillance, the War on Terror), and accepted culture.

The president’s follow-up question — “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” — elides the complex interplay of ideology, institutional power and political circumstances in ascribing morality to any individual person.

When young black men are arrested for petty theft, it becomes commonplace to discuss their “individual moral failings.” When senior, often white, investment bankers embezzle money, they are rewarded with bailouts, bonuses and bona fides.

When a young Somali-American woman sends less than $2,000 to Somalia to aid the poor, she is convicted of aiding terrorists, and given extended prison time. When HSBC Bank skirts material support statutes by laundering $850 million, they are fined less than a month’s profits.

When young Muslim men speak critically of the U.S.-led wars against predominantly Muslim countries, they are immediately assumed to be terrorists.

Are the judgments ascribed to each of these groups about character alone? I would suggest they emerge from a history of ideological biases, cemented by unaccountable institutions, including the last two presidential administrations. These judgments are embedded in the political discourse spun by political authorities. They guarantee that only those who are poorer, darker or less powerful will pay — heavily, disproportionately, with their lives. These matters are hardly only about the bias in our hearts and judging the content of one’s character.

Within the American tradition of adventure-packed action movies and the 30-minute news cycle, individual failings are easier to focus on, to obsess over, to judge, to be outraged about.

Cultural worldviews, pernicious politics, racial histories and ideologies are more difficult to disarticulate. They require reading histories and thinking through multiple logics, and weeding through numerous laws and political contexts.

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This article appeared in today’s edition of Salon (www.salon.com).

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

As Edward Snowden’s name is bandied about, with a debate emerging over whether he is a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or traitor, the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin come to mind.  In his 1921 essay, The Critique of Violence, Benjamin discusses the law’s goal to pursue the monopoly on violence:

The law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.

Here Benjamin restates one of the fundamental goals of classical liberal political philosophy, at least for philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, namely to eliminate the use of violence from everyone except the state and its duly appointed deputies. This is why in Locke, the state ‘agrees’ to protect the rights of individuals in exchange for individuals giving up their right of retribution and punishment. The right of violence becomes the sole provenance of the state, whether through the death penalty, prisons, or defense of the state itself.

However, as we also know, the state monopolizes and regulates the use of violence in the interests of those who have the most influence over the state: these wealthy men who decide the personification of the state. In the 1600’s English North America, this would have been white Englishmen. In the 1910’s, Benjamin was interested in the role of workers in challenging the monopoly of state violence.

Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends. The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions aroused a widespread secret admiration from a public that was weary of the state’s imposition.  Today, as Occupy and other movements point out, the most influential are still the 1%–though the colors, sexes, and sexualities of this privileged demographic have been somewhat expanded.

For example, Locke’s story of slavery is more accurately read as the story of colonialism –and eventually—imperialism. Strangers attack Englishmen. Englishmen fight back and win. They have the right to kill the strangers, but grant them their lives in exchange for their agreeing (at least implicitly) to be slaves. It is, an apologia for the conquest of American Indians. But in the modern moment, it is a story that is replicated by Samuel Huntington in the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Back to Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide in Southern France as he was trying to flee from the Nazis.  Here is another excerpt from the “Critique of Violence”:

The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness.

How might this apply to Edward Snowden? Snowden’s ‘crime,’ if you will, was that he disrupted the state’s ability to protect its monopoly of violence by exposing its widespread surveillance activities.  He did this despite the widely claimed fears of interested parties that doing so would “undermine national security,’ and in the face of the state’s insistence that these activities are justified and justifiably secret. In this sense, the fact that he challenged the prerogatives of the state itself, makes his alleged ‘crime’ so much more transgressive than, for example, merely lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction, starting a war with a random nation in which tens of thousands die, or torturing rendered persons. None of these latter crimes are a threat to the state itself, and for that reason may be readily forgiven and forgotten.  Manning and Snowden are, however, ‘great criminals’ in that their actions embarrassed and undermined state power.  They can never be forgiven or forgotten.

So, for a significant portion of the public, there seems to be an–open or perhaps grudging…admiration of Snowden because he has dared to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. He challenges the state even as he acknowledges that the state will use every resource at its disposal to exact its revenge. We know from the tragic example of Aaron Schwartz that challenging the Department of Justice will require endless resources, from millions of dollars of legal know-how and the filing of endless FOIA requests. We know from the example of John Kiriakou that even going through formal channels of whistleblowing—including being

 

“the first CIA officer to call waterboarding “torture”; to reveal that the CIA’s torture program was policy rather than a few rogue agents; and to say it was wrong”

 

will not stop the state, even a state led by a “transformative presidency,” from making sure that no one disturbs its monopoly on violence.

In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.

What makes Snowden so interesting is that it appears that he is an old-fashioned “believer” in the American project—someone who wanted to fight the good fight, to uphold American principles and ideals, as the US government has long professed is also its mission. He contracted to work for defense contractors who in turn worked with the NSA, and for that reason did not begin his (short-lived) post-military career with misgivings about the American imperial project. As he got to see the how its affairs were being misconducted, he continued to believe in “doing the right thing.”  What also makes Snowden remarkable is his awareness that

[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, whether or not his politics and ideology mesh with the ideas of the right or the left–it will always be a remarkable sight to a see a lone person stand up to the Leviathan, composed as it is of its myriad eyes, all watching, waiting, to clamp down on any threat, no matter how trivial to it relentless monopolistic pursuit of violence—and power.

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This piece was republished in Salon on June 19, 2013 as “Edward Snowden’s real crime: Humiliating the state.”

White Papers, Targets, and U.S. Citizens: What’s All the Fuss?

Revised 6:59 am.

The last few days, the mainstreamish media and Congress have professed shock and outrage over the Office of Legal Counsel white paper and its ambiguous rationale on President Obama’s targeted killing program. But, really, there’s very little new about it, save some ostensible rationale that will facilitate a long-standing politics of execution.

But, much news media and Congress (except for DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) have known about targeted killings for years. As Tara Kelvey and Josh Begley have noted, the New York Times has covered drones for years, even when they have ostentatiously skirted around the reasons for those killings. Similarly, the Brennan hearings were a perfect place for Congress to engage in, as Jeremy Scahill called it on Up with Chris this morning, “Kabuki oversight”—namely, the spectacle of watching senators like Dianne Feinstein and others to act as if they were overwhelmingly outraged by the non-responsiveness of the CIA, OLC, and WH to their repeated requests for an answer to the question of the rationale for targeted killing without oversight.

Why then are they suddenly exercised over it now? I’m puzzled by the fuss, given the way the sudden controversy is framed is shock and horror that a U.S. citizen might be fingered for death if they are suspected to be an “imminent” threat to America. So, suddenly—what—everyone cares that U.S. citizens Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki , Samir Khan, and Kamal Derwish were killed?

Why weren’t our esteemed media and Congress that exercised about the provisions in NDAA 2012 that authorized POTUS to arrest and detain U.S. citizens (um…and foreign nationals) anywhere for posing an imminent threat?

After all, many more U.S. citizens are likely to be intercepted and indefinitely detained by the following NDAA 2012 provision (the one that Obama insisted be included on threat of veto. Remember?):

Subtitle D–Detainee Matters
SEC. 1021. AFFIRMATION OF AUTHORITY OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES TO DETAIN COVERED PERSONS PURSUANT TO THE AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF MILITARY FORCE.
 
    (a) In General- Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.
    (b) Covered Persons- A covered person under this section is any person as follows:
    (1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.
    (2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

After the November elections, Sen. DiFi tried an interesting re-do in NDAA 2013 with an amendment that limited indefinite detention to non-citizens—but you’ll remember that it ‘mysteriously disappeared.’  If anything, U.S. citizens are much more vulnerable to the arrest and indefinite detention provisions from these bills than drones strikes. Right?

Mind you, it is heartening that even ‘forward leaners’ like Kristal Ball are so worked up over the undue authority that the WH/DoJ/OLC is taking to dilute the grounds by which they justify the targeting of U.S. citizens.

But the issue with drones is not just that they target U.S. citizens. But that they miss. And kill thousands of non-US citizens. And thousands of innocent civilians. And hundreds of children. On other sovereign lands. And turn peaceful foreign nationals into hostile, understandably vengeful, potential allies of organizations that the US has deemed to be our enemies.

There are compelling reasons to review the underlying rationales and “logic” of an Administration that wants to maintain a thick shell of secrecy around policies and authoritarian practices as heinous as killing U.S. citizens. The urge to dissect these policies is especially important as we consider future elections in relation to the executive authority that has been expanded for future presidents to exploit.

While the white paper is in the news, it’s worth taking advantage of the timeliness to explore other, older, facets of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ expansion of power.  In the short run, U.S. citizens stand to be much more vulnerable to the provisions of NDAA 2012 than the targeted killing rationale of the white paper.  This is especially true of Muslim-American men, who have been vulnerable to Sec. 1032 of NDAA 2012 since the endless, borderless, War on Terror was declared. And have been vulnerable to much, much, much, muchmuch, more than that.

Drones are being used for tracking here in the U.S, but not yet as lethal weapons. On the other hand, the (ex post?) rationale of Sec. 1032 in NDAA 2012 stands to round many more up in conjunction with anxieties about their acquaintances, associations, and communications in relation to the monstrous fear of Al-Qaeda and the all things “terrorist.” But we know that those ‘more’ will less likely be young white men from the burbs of Mill Valley (to date, we’ve only seen one like that–and he got a trial), than young brown and black men from the “terrorist-laden” terrain of Queens, the Bronx, or the less-than-affluent suburbs of Boston and Portland, OR.

And in so saying, perhaps I’ve answered my own question: maybe we care more about the OLC white paper because it obfuscates the obvious: these aren’t policies intended towards non-Muslims. We can scrutinize the rationale of the white memo as a way to distract most Americans from focusing on the fact that policies like indefinite detention, pre-emptive policing, and—yes—targeted killings—haven’t been and won’t likely be directed towards innocent (non-Muslim) Americans. Rather, such policies will continue to be aimed many more Muslim-Americans (and non-Americans) who won’t–can’t–possibly expect the U.S. to respect their innocence unless there are clear and evident reasons to suspect otherwise.

Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

Revised (1/25/13, 7:38 am).

Leon Panetta’s announcement, overturning a 19-year ban on allowing women to join small-group combat units in the military, heralded some predictable responses from liberals and feminists: “How great! Let there be no inequality between men and women anywhere.” Some veterans tried to point to the legitimacy of this new permission by pointing to their newfound realization that women were just as capable as men in combat roles.

My generation assumed women’s capabilities—in all areas—were equivalent to those of men, so the veterans’ realizations were hardly earth-shattering. Generally, I’m in agreement with removing gendered and racial barriers to inequality and discrimination: in education and all other opportunities.  Moreover, there are genuine benefits to the DoD’s official position.  For women who are already in the army and serving de facto in combat-vulnerable positions, e.g., if they are attacked while serving in maintenance units (remember Pfc. Jessica Lynch?), ambulance units or escorting convoys, they can finally be compensated, promoted, and rewarded for the work that they have already been doing for years.

But I can hardly join in the feminist shouts of victory. Many have already understood the irony of this new “freedom”: women will now be officially allowed to join a war-time military that has been involved in several long-standing deadly wars, notably all over the Middle East. President Obama’s 2nd inaugural reality-bending notwithstanding, there is little evidence that a decade of war has ended, except in terms of troop withdrawal from Iraq.  As we know, that withdrawal is being done according to a timeline set under the Bush Administration, which the Obama Administration was unsuccessful in renegotiating. Never mind that a significant presence of non-combat U.S. troops private contractors will still remain in Iraq.

The war has gone underground or been expanded through remote-controlled drones directed towards regions with whom the US is not officially at war. War-like threats have also increased through the expansion of military bases all over sub-Saharan Africa. To boot, the US is now “assisting” France in invading Mali. These wars, it should go without saying, are targeted toward large swaths of the world’s brown and black populations.

There is a remarkable shallowness to the notion of “feminist progress.” We have heard various sources, including director Katherine Bigelow, exhorting the wonderful feminist dimensions of Zero Dark Thirty, which shows Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative and supporter of torture. As feminist scholar and professor Zillah Eisenstein points out,

This film is not to be made seemingly progressive or feminist because it presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is “good” that Maya is female, or that several females had an important hand in the murder of Osama. There is nothing feminist in revenge.

While I disagree with Eisenstein on this—sometimes revenge can be a feminist act, —there is typically nothing feminist in committing bodily, emotional, or psychic harm to any other person.

Harm to others violates the principle of the innate dignity of human beings.  Seeking physical retribution without using court and legal procedures violates due process, which is a US constitutional principle, but which should be a standard of human rights upon which states and individuals should be able to depend.

Still, I find it puzzling that there is something in the ethos of our age that suggests that “feminism” can be ascribed to women and policies supporting the most destructive of actions—from Maya, to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton as advocates of violence military actions in the name of defending American security.

Last night, Jon Stewart and MIT drone expert Missy Cummings had this bizarre, if enthusiastic, interchange about the coolness of drones.  In the midst of it, Cummings pointed to her feminist credentials as one of the first female fighter pilots. Sounds great. Until one realizes that being a fighter pilot means that one is being trained…to engage in combat…to kill. It is a progress of a certain sort to realize that women can kill as easily and emotionlessly as men. Just as, I suppose, it is progress for an African American president to exceed a white president in his ability to promote secrecy, violence, absence of transparency, and endorse human rights violations.

What does it mean to talk about feminist progress when defined as enabling women to participate combatively in the colonizing project? To fight aggressively in the name of creating a world-wide imperialist presence? To join an institution whose policies for 11 years have involved, as Wikileaks has shown us, the shooting, maiming, and plundering of black and brown men, women, and children in the name of “U.S. freedom and security”?

There are other dimensions of this “feminist” policy to consider here as well: Why is this decision being taken now? It comes in the aftermath of another achievement for which the Obama Administration is being given full credit: the end of a 18 year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy initiated under another neoliberal Democratic president.  Both of these policies augment the already-aggressive practice of recruiting poor or working-class whites and minorities–with more female and/or lesbian/gay/bisexual soldiers–for the US Army.

The timing of Panetta’s announcement is hardly coincidental: in the context of an improving economy, it is difficult and precarious to maintain a steady supply of troops in an all-volunteer army to service a global war that is more unpopular than ever among Americans (not to mention the folks that the U.S. is targeting—but perhaps that was obvious). The supply chain, as it were, is dying and new food sources need to be found.

The U.S. Armed Services, as a federal employer, provides a broad range of remarkable benefits to government employees: health care (not to be confused with Obamacare, which is a health-insurance scheme); child-care, housing, lodging, skilled training, and other forms of subsidized or free education.  It is neither hard to understand nor sympathize with the men and women who see the US Army as an employer of last resort in the face of a failing economy. But addendums such as the dissolution of DADT and “women in combat” will help erase any remaining barriers and supply a steady stream of—male, female, black, brown, working-class, gay, and patriotic—bodies to the war-feeding machine.

There is only one remaining obstacle. The Department of Defense hopes, with any luck, that said obstacle will soon be overcome with the passage of the DREAM Act. This act will offer young undocumented migrants the Faustian opportunity to enroll in college (one that they can somehow afford or which will subsidize them) or participate in American wars against other black and brown people around the world, in return for the miraculous chance to become “legal” residents of the United States.

3 cheers for Feminist Progress.

The Irony of MLK Day 2013: A Renewed Invitation into White Supremacy

I wonder how many consider today to be a magnificent symbolic coincidence rather than a Manichean irony: today, we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the greatest civil rights leaders of modern United States history—a man who went to jail to defend the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of minorities and to speak against injustice at home and abroad.  Today, we will also commemorate the re-election of the President of the Unites States and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner—a man who supports a drug war that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of black and brown minorities; kills U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; eviscerates civil liberties for alleged terrorists and citizens alike; deports 1.5 million migrants and separate parents from their children; protects bankers while allowing poor homeowners to lose their homes; and persecutes whistleblowers without mercy.

There are those who insist that the wrongs of the last four years should be attributed to the malevolent impulses and political calculations of Congress. It is true that Congress can’t be exculpated from its decade-long foaming submission to the American drive to control what it refuses to try to understand, namely the War on Terror. Its shills and hacks have quickly leaped on the bandwagon to push (lean?) forward to sanction a military budget bill that continues the expansion of the drone program and the U.S.’s continued military presence in Afghanistan along with the expansion of bases in large swaths of Africa, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Congress enthusiastically pushed for the renewal of FISA in 2008 (along with the eager support of Senator Obama). In 2013, Congress again with the relentless leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, pushed for the passage of the renewal of FISA (without oversight) for five years, along with the passage of NDAA 2012 and 2013, despite the clear purpose of those bills to eviscerate the separation of powers. Congress eagerly endorsed Obama’s loud requests for unilateral presidential authority to arrest and detain any and all persons that it deems a danger to the United States—US citizens and foreigners alike.

With a couple of exceptions, our politicians in Congress are without initiative or honor.  But Congress is not the source of numerous other wrongdoings.  My optimism for this Presidency has all but evaporated in the face of Obama’s policies—unhampered by Congress–designed to tear apart families in the United States and around the world.  I cannot celebrate the second inauguration of the POTUS, under whose watch in the last 4 years, the minds and lives of thousands of innocents have been broken, if not downright destroyed. By drones, invasions, bombs, torture, solitary confinement, renditions, due process-less proceedings, secrecy, and lack of accountability or transparency.  Instead, I will be retracing the steps that have led to the amorality of the Democratic Party and the Presidential Administration that has been able to retain and expand some of the most heinous policies of the previous Republican Administration, and which has been able to initiate some horrifically destructive policies of their own (click on the link to see just a few of the actions I have in mind).

Today, some writers will invoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s courageous April 4, 1967 speech, and rightfully so. King calls for us to see the connections between the fight for civil rights at “home” and the injustice of the U.S.’s incursions, bombings, deaths, and destruction abroad.  He tells us of the response by those who are puzzled by his challenge to US continued attack in Vietnam:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?

In his long, detailed, passionate response—which is as apt today as it was in 1967, Dr. King pointed to one source of his awareness of the links between peace and civil rights:

It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It is a prescient statement that resonates with the imperialist policies of the United States today. The men and women who enthusiastically endorse sending our young people to war will not suffer the same hurtful ramifications as those men and women who are sent to war–or those on the receiving end of drones, bombs, guns, and destruction. Dr. King’s speech itself is long, insightful, poignant and courageous. Please take some time to read it today if you haven’t already.

What, if anything, has changed between the circumstances of American imperialism in the 1960’s and today? I think it is this: that more and more men and women of color have been invited into the offices of White Supremacy to share in the destruction of other men and women of color who are vulnerable, disfranchised, and rapidly being eviscerated through the policies of a multi-racial white supremacy.

As philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West pointed out last week, if Dr. King were alive today, he would have been detained and arrested for his associations with then-terrorist Nelson Mandela, under the auspices of NDAA. Dr. King might have also been arrested for his political speech, namely, his ability to rouse millions with his stirring calls for political justice in the face of American-led atrocities.

By remaining steadfast in their allegiance to illegal overtures in domestic and foreign policy, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Deval Patrick, Susan Rice, Carmen Ortiz, Preet Bharara and other leaders of color have helped the structures of White Supremacy profit and flourish: The imperialist state has extended its hand to brown and black “liberals” in order to help them into the reigning structures of Imperialism.  It has been remarkable to watch leaders of color as they refuse to challenge the wrongful legacy of colonialism and Jim Crow.  Yes, the civil rights of whites have also been slowly scrubbed away, but—with the exception of poor whites—it is much less than the wide-scale evisceration of the peaceful ability to live for Muslims in the U.S., Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Malians, Afghans, Iraqis.

I think there is another question that we must come to terms with: What is the function of an African American president in a society that has clearly not come to terms with its legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, legalized slavery and racial apartheid in the form of mass incarceration and the widespread criminalization of Blacks?

As Prof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out unflinchingly, given the history in this country, how is it even possible that we could have elected a Black man to the presidency in 2008?

This brutally frank and funny 29 minute interview is worth watching in its entirety. But FF to 4:35 to hear some of Bonilla-Silva’s answer: The successful election of Barack Obama was an invitation to do the dirty work of White Supremacy for it.  He points out that in Puerto Rico, where he grew up, it was hardly unusual to see black leaders engage in the same racial apologetics and detrimental politics that the former colonial Spanish and current American government engaged in vis-à-vis Puerto Rico’s inhabitants. It doesn’t surprise him that this can be so.

There are many other such examples that we can choose from that illustrate similar white supremacist dynamics. Take for example, the White Supremacist government of Rhodesia that selected Bishop Muzorewa to take over the daily administration of its racist state.

But we have even more recent and better-known examples: Bush Administration’s former Secretary, Condoleeza Rice, DOJ attorney John Yoo (author of the Torture Memos), and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who created the marvelous quick-sandlike legal structure of Guantanamo and others.  Their invitations into white supremacy were still novelties, but identifiable because they did so under the auspices of a Conservative Administration that could make few credible claims to anti-racist activity. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration and the Republicans were able to promote their claims to be non-racist by using the presence of these individuals as cultural symbols to distract many of us—especially and including liberal Democrats in the Senate and Congress—from its overt return to a racial mission in the Middle East under the auspices of a colonizing/civilizing project. The War on Terror could thereby be couched as an ostensible hunt for justice and legitimized aim for retribution.

In order to engage the issue of state-led racism initiated, deployed and conducted effectively by men and women in power, we must address a system of multiracial white supremacy. This is a terrifying and politicized term. But we need to wrap our minds around it.  A multiracial white supremacy is a system of power that has invited in—or exploited wherever it could– people of color in order to wage institutional, legal, political assaults on other black, brown, and poor people—at “home” and internationally.

Four years ago, Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodriguez wrote a frank and prescient assessment of the election of the first Black President. It is still painful to read, because it is still relevant. In 2008, Rodriguez wrote:

Putting aside, for the moment, the liberal valorization of Obama as the less-bad or (misnamed) “progressive” alternative to the horrible specter of a Bush-McCain national inheritance, we must come to terms with the inevitability of the Obama administration as a refurbishing, not an interruption or abolition, of the normalized violence of the American national project. To the extent that the subjection of indigenous, Black, and Brown people to regimes of displacement and suffering remains the condition of possibility for the reproduction (or even the reinvigoration) of an otherwise eroding American global dominance, the figure of Obama represents a new inhabitation of white supremacy’s structuring logics of violence.

The only phrase I would change is “new inhabitation.” It is no longer so.

Rodriguez ends his essay with the following:

At best, when the U.S. nation-building project is not actually engaged in genocidal, semi-genocidal, and proto-genocidal institutional and military practices against the weakest, poorest, and darkest—at home and abroad—it massages and soothes the worst of its violence with banal gestures of genocide management. As these words are being written, Obama and his advisors are engaged in intensive high-level meetings with the Bush administration’s national security experts. The life chances of millions are literally being classified and encoded in portfolios and flash drives, traded across conference tables as the election night hangover subsides. For those whose political identifications demand an end to this historical conspiracy of violence, and whose social dreams are tied to the abolition of the U.S. nation building project’s changing and shifting (but durable and indelible) attachments to the logic of genocide, this historical moment calls for an amplified, urgent, and radical critical sensibility, not a multiplication of white supremacy’s “hope.”

Instead, we saw the precise inverse of Prof. Rodriguez’s calls for action: Not only invocations of “white supremacy’s hope,” but languor and denial. In the last 12 months, we heard a constant (white) feminist and (multiracial) liberal moral “shaming” of those—especially whites–who attempted to point to a reality-based truth.  In this sense, the last four years have enhanced the wishes of a dominant power structure that deflects charges of racism through the public responses of “post-racist” liberal feminists, Democrats, and pundits who support African Americans and other minorities in leadership positions while marginally attending to the systemic force-feeding of a US military with black and brown bodies; while remaining silent in the face of the mass penalties that brown and black people face in this country under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs; massive foreclosures on homes disproportionately affecting minorities; and in one of the latest international affronts to people of color—while insisting on Israel’s “Right of Self-Defense” in the face of what is clearly a bullying and brutish beat-down of a long oppressed Palestinian population.

What is egregious about the latter is not only the clear indifference and neglect of basic human rights for a group of people whose land has been increasingly diminished, but the willful blindness and insistence that those who have been imprisoned, brutalized, emaciated through sanctions, bombs, and sheer daily terror at the end of the legal machinery and weapons of a colonial police state—are on an equal playing field with a state with sophisticated arms funded and supported by the United States.

As we enter the second term of a Presidency that has proved that the wide-scale destruction of black, brown and Muslim peoples for political gain can be conducted spectacularly and quite profitably, I wonder what it will take for Americans to take stock of their racist and imperialist legacy to challenge the injustices waged at home and abroad? Is it even possible to remember the legacy of Dr. King without being ashamed at the intentional destruction of people of color at home and internationally? And if we can, doesn’t that say more about the dessication of the American moral conscience than anything else?

Saving Afghan Women? NDAA 2013 Exploits Feminism to Justify Western Imperialism

Recently, the US Senate passed a measure designed to increase security for Afghan women as America gets ready to leave the country. The provision in question, according to the New York Times, “offers hope for the Afghan women who fear they will be even more vulnerable to harsh customs and the men who impose them after American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.” With its passage, some might believe that the United States demonstrating its commitment to feminism. That might be too quick a judgment.

Sen. Bob Casey, one of the sponsors of the measure describes it thus:

The legislation would require a three-part strategy to promote the security of Afghan women and girls by monitoring and responding to changes in women’s security, improving gender sensitivity and responsiveness among Afghan National Security personnel, and increasing the recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Security Forces. The Department of Defense would also be required to include an assessment of actions taken to implement the strategy and its results in its semi-annual reports to Congress on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan.

This provision is sponsored by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In light of the stories of Taliban repression of women, this provision suggests that Casey and Bailey-Hutchison really care about the fate of Afghan women. Let’s review their feminist records, shall we?

Casey, a Democrat, voted for Sen. Roy Blunt’s ““Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” in March of this year. One of the most controversial aspects of the Health Insurance bill, it enabled employers to opt out of providing abortion and contraceptive coverage, along with “any other health treatment based solely on the undefined determination of the employer’s religious and moral beliefs, including prenatal care, childhood vaccinations, cancer screenings, and mammograms.”

As Kate Michelman points out, that vote was consistent with Bob Casey’s earlier votes against stem cell research funding back in 2007. Even though the bill passed, Pres. George Bush vetoed it– to his infinite credit. Was that the end of the story? Not quite: To show HIS feminist solidarity, President Obama enacted the ban against federal funding of stem cell research law through Executive order.

Hutchison’s feminist credentials are more ambiguous. Although until 2006, she sat on the board of The Wish List, PAC that endorsed pro-choice Republican candidates, she is hardly pro-choice. The National Right to Life Committee gave her between 93% and 100% on her anti-choice views over the last few years. Conversely, NARAL has given her between 0%-20% based on her consistency in voting to restrict access to abortion. As a Representative, Hutchison did work to sponsor legislation that would allow victims of rape to keep their names out of the press. But that was almost 40 years ago.

There is little in the description that confirms a chivalrous or feminist impulse to save Afghan women. The measure indicates a commitment to implement a security system that reflects and sustains American presence in Afghanistan.  Moreover, rebuilding Afghanistan in the image of the US facilitates a structure that would allow the US an excuse to rush back when it deems that the new political order is not going according to plan. We saw an example of this when the US objected to the Afghan insistence on upholding due process in its new justice system.

What exactly is the danger that Afghan women face from other Afghan men? Patriarchy? Violence? Sexual assault? Being vulnerable to violence when leaving the house? I have no problem believing that Afghan men can be sexist, misogynist, and harmful to women, just as I have no problem believing that men (and women  in positions of power) from all over the world can be sexist, misogynist and harmful to women. But there is a serious question about the relative comparison that Afghan men are MORE sexist, misogynist, and harmful than men anywhere else in the world, and that Whites (and elite People of Color who are part of White supremacy) are needed to save them from the harms of their male family and community.

That is to say, the rhetoric of this provision eclipses the danger that Afghan women have been in UNDER the presence of US soldiers for the last 5 years. The number of reported instances of rape, mayhem and plunder that U.S. male soldiers have inflicted on Afghan and Iraqi women in the 11 years since the U.S. has sent troops into these countries suggest that the impulses of Casey and Hutchison need to be considered against the backdrop of the violence that Afghan women have suffered in light of the US military presence. See here and here and here for just a few instances in which U.S. soliders have not only raped Afghan women or girls, or set fire to entire families. And these are only in those cases where the accusations against them have been aired publicly.

Given the range of stories of similar assaults by U.S. soldiers, I wonder how that differs from their lives under US military over the last few years, especially as US soldiers have not been held accountable for their extracurricular activities such as wartime rape, village burnings, and assault

As scholar Gayatri Spivak points out, this is the age-old story of imperialism: White men saving brown women from brown men. But it IS a story: a piece of propaganda that is used to justify military actions and condemn Others.  In the same way that well-intentioned imperial governments invaded India to plunder resources and expand their global authority while convincing themselves that they were bringing civilization to the savages, the U.S. tells itself the story that it is a peacekeeper and protector of women.  A peacekeeper who invades and creates mayhem in a country by enabling its soldiers to rape Afghan women without punishment.

In terms of misogyny and sexism, the U.S. should have faced sanctions or been invaded already for its neglect in addressing the systematic rape and violence that are faced by women in various parts of the United States–by fundamentalist Christians, football coaches (plural), schoolteachers, among various men. The United States, according to recent UN statistics on sexual assault (Excel pdf)has among the top 10 rates of rape in the world—some of the other countries including UK, Belgium Sweden, South Africa, and Botswana. I’m sure there are biases of self-reporting, but let’s be clear: the US is hardly a feminist refuge.

If all goes well, the above measure will be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual budget measure which, over the last few years, has included little known provisions pertaining to the scope of presidential and military power in relation to the US’ War on Terror.  Last year’s NDAA made headlines as it included provisions Sec. 1031 and 1032, which authorized the US president to arrest or detain any US citizen or foreign national—anywhere in the world—on suspicion of terrorism. And that was in addition to a number of other objectionable provisions, as convincingly argued by ACLU’s Kade Crockford:

…the 600-page NDAA of 2013 authorizing 2/3rds of a trillion dollars in spending for the armed forces was before Congress. Introduced on March 29, 2012, by the time the new defense bill was voted on in mid May by the House it contained some troubling provisions. Sections 1221 and 1222 essentially authorized war with Iran. Again, the NDAA severely restricted the executive branch’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. An amendment termed “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act” which was added to the NDAA permits the government to create and distribute pro-American propaganda within the US to counter al-Qaeda propaganda, striking down a long-standing ban.

This year’s NDAA will may yet make headlines in the US because of another recently passed measure, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to retract the power of the President to detain US citizens without cause. While a laudable move, it leaves intact the US presumptive authority to arrest Muslim men or foreign nationals assumed to be terrorists, and to detain them indefinitely without charges or trials.

The real danger to Afghan women is the United States’ arbitrary claim to decide the terms of security: to decide who will be subject to violence, when, and at what costs. The security of Afghan women may be increased if they follow an American political order; still, they and other foreigners have already been subject to the danger and the violence of U.S. imperialism–through rapes and violence committed by US soldiers under the auspices of America’s self-justification to wage a imperial war abroad and at home. Those parts of the U.S. imperial mission to civilize and uplift will hardly make Afghan women, or men more secure.

Israel’s “Right to Self-Defense” is Kinda Like “Reverse Racism”: Hardly an Equal Playing Field

Since Israeli broke the ceasefire with Gaza last Wednesday, 100 Palestinian civilians have been killed. Number of Israelis killed: 3. And that’s the short view. The long view makes Israel look even worse.

From a report by the Palestine Center entitled “Imbalance of Power: Understanding Weapons and Casualties in Gaza”:

“From January through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells.
 
In 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza were responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 where women or children, and the injury of 468 Palestinians, of which 143 where women or children. The methods by which these causalities were inflicted by Israeli projectiles breaks down as follows: 57 percent, or 310, were caused by Israeli aircraft missile fire; 28 percent, or 150, where from Israeli live ammunition; 11 percent, or 59, were from Israeli tank shells; while another 3 percent, or 18, were from Israeli mortar fire.
 
As this infographic shows, there is no room for a discussion on the “equal sides of the conflict,” when the reality is a first-world country, with all the trappings of a modern highly sophisticated weapons arsenal, launching devastating and brutal attacks against the most densely populated area in the world, where half its population is youth and 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line.”

And in case you find the source of this report a biased, check out the figures calculated by the United Nations: In the last 10 years, Israel has killed over 3400 Palestinians. Israelis killed by Palestinians: Fewer than 80.

These numbers only go up to July 2012.

In this scenario, the Surround-Sound claim of Israel’s “Right to Self-Defense” makes about as much sense as a schoolyard bully who corners a nerdy weakling for weeks and months, steals her lunch and money, until the weakling finally gets so tired of being bullied that she bloodies the bully’s nose–only to have the bully claim injury. To make the situation even more absurd, all the bully’s friends rally round to “support” the bully’s claim of “uninstigated” injury and the right to self-defense: Israel’s RoSD has been trumpeted and parroted by numerous journalists, pundits, mainstream newspapers and magazines. It seems as if a day hasn’t passed where there hasn’t been another senator echoing the commitment of Israel to “defend itself,” as per a  resolution passed by “unanimous” acclimation by the US Senate and House last Friday. Dennis Kucinich appears to be the only Congressman to challenge the resolution or its sentiments.

The chorus of the mainstream media and the US government “supporting” Israel’s right of self-defense, with nary a mention of the right of Palestinians to live is remarkably ahistorical and anti-intellectual on several counts, especially when considering that Israel had been planning an assault on Gaza for months, according to various rumors. Richard Falk, the UN Rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights, points out that

The counter-narrative, accepted by most independent observers, is that the Israeli removal of troops and settlements was little more than a mere redeployment to the borders of Gaza, with absolute control over what goes in and what leaves, maintaining an open season of a license to kill at will, with no accountability and no adverse consequences, backed without question by the US government.

 

Backed by the US government how, you ask?

Israel’s military arsenal is not due to the tax pressure on its citizens, but is largely funded by the United States. American citizens actually pay more money individually and overall to the Israeli military structure than Israeli citizens do.”

In this regard, the “both sides” are equal argument is as disingenuous as the “Reverse Racism,” argument deployed by whites against Affirmative Action. That argument goes something like this: “I had nothing to do with African Americans being enslaved. My ancestors didn’t arrive in the US until this century. Why should I be discriminated against?”

Of course, there are several telling (and faulty) assumptions here:

-There is an equal playing field for all.

-“Racial discrimination” is easily deployed by an oppressed group (Black Americans) against a dominant (white and upper-class) population with social, economic, and political resources to control and manage the game of ascending to power/college/employment.

-History and long-standing structural racism doesn’t matter when considering injury, discrimination or justice.

If we examine these three assumption in the case of Gaza and Israel, of course, the “Right of Self-Defense” argument immediately becomes apparent in its falsity.  Back in 2008, Darryl Li illustrated the disingenuity of the “equal playing field” argument as he describes the initiation of project of managing Palestine along with Israel’s paradoxical claim to “disengagement”:

 

Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean has faced an intractable challenge: how to deal with indigenous non-Jews — who today comprise half of the population living under Israeli rule — when practical realities dictate that they cannot be removed and ideology demands that they must not be granted political equality. From these starting points, the general contours of Israeli policy from left to right over the generations have been clear: First, maximize the number of Arabs on the minimal amount of land, and second, maximize control over the Arabs while minimizing any apparent responsibility for them.

 

What we also know however, is that the most recent incitement to the “escalation” is in fact a long-standing plan on the part of the Israeli government. As Samira Esmeir argues, Gaza is a colonial experiment. It

 

has become the literal testing ground for Israel’s various experiments, as well as for the fulfillment of the personal ambitions of Israeli politicians. The transformation of Gaza into a laboratory for colonial and imperial hegemony in the region is made in Israel. As an occupying power, Israel transformed Gaza into such a laboratory by imposing on it different forms of confinements culminating in the siege imposed and maintained since 2006.

Confinement lessens the checks on Israel’s military operations and decreases the deterrence and self-defense that Gaza can offer against the Israeli war machine. The horror of this latest war therefore lies not only in the destruction it engenders, but also in its condition of possibility: Here is a population held hostage that Israel attacks when it wishes in order to achieve political ends that have little to do with Gaza itself. The horror is in the careful and measured instrumentalization of the Palestinian population and in the logic that the colonized are expendable for any end.

 

This then is not a case of Israel being provoked or defending itself against “Hamas.” To take refuge in that line requires a deliberate forgetting—an intentionally self-serving memory that refuses to take history and the political project of colonialism into account. If we relish the “apolitical” argument that says “both sides are to blame,” we absolves ourselves of the responsibility to take history and domination into our thinking.

When bullies claim injury, authority figures need to stop the fight and punish the bully, not invoke his right to self-defense. Bullies and victims are hardly on the same playing field.

_____________________________

 

White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

Updated Version

I love how white folks are going around deploying “white privilege” pejoratively at this particular moment, 6 weeks from the elections. I think the term is useful and can be illuminating in demonstrating racial and political economic hierarchies   But if white folks are going to use it responsibly, the term should be placed up front, followed by a verb, object, and citation to someone—preferably a writer or activist of color– who explains and puts the term in context.

I wonder if they know that lobbing it against someone else doesn’t make them racially or morally superior, it doesn’t exculpate them from their own (white) privilege, and it doesn’t actually do the work of explaining their concerns.

I also don’t think “white privilege,” as deployed by whites, is a particularly illuminating term in pointing to some of the serious issues that trouble people like me.  After all, we know plenty of folks of color who have accepted the invitation into white supremacy, and helped design policies that induced the suffering of many folks of color—through the architecture of torture, justifying rendition practices, cementing the extra-legal category of enemy combatant, among other things: Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo—and that was under the Bush Administration. But plenty of folks of color are doing it today: Governors Nikki Haley & Bobby Jindal on eradicating social structures, reproductive choice, etc. Really, the privilege in question is American (whitish or liberal) privilege: the privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

White supremacy. Pretty loaded word. As philosopher Charles Mills uses the term in his book, white supremacy is defined to talk about the system of power that is designed to keep whites in power. Mills uses it to talk about the Racial Contract—both as the counterpart of the Social Contract and its foundation. The Social Contract—the one that ensures that white folks will have access to equal and reciprocal rights, can only do so on the backs of black and brown folks, who are sub-persons, in Mills’ terms. And we’ve seen plenty of what this Racial Contract leads to–I write about it here and here and here. But it is certainly possible for brown and black folks to accept the invitation to move ranks—for plenty of good reasons—to escape vulnerability, persecution, harassment. But there are also less than compelling reasons, like doing the work of white supremacists for them: being the architect of torture, of rendition, leading the charge to invade other countries. It’s not unusual that folks of color are invited to do this—and may have some compelling self-interests to do so; but it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing them, or constantly be subject to charges of racism.

In short, yes, there are some—debatable—improvements with regard to issues that affect mostly middle- and upper-class U.S. citizens. But this is hardly a proud record of accomplishments that should be touted as representing “Americans.”  I’m listing the differences on a new page—both to support my position, but also because I don’t want to distract from the argument here. See here if you are interested.

Really, the idea that we must look so hard to find substantive difference between the two parties suggests that at so many levels, empire has finally taken root.  Empire. White Supremacy. Gawd, such loaded words. And yet, really, this is where the U.S. is. Empire is deployed to justify actions and unite those at home against the Other overseas, who have been subject to conquest.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about the links of race and capitalism as embedded in empire in the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1948.  As she explored the roots of empire in the early 1900’s, she found the “inner contradiction between the nation’s body politic and conquest as a political device” an obvious one.” (1948, 128)  But the failure of this contradiction leads to one of two outcomes: either a fully united national consciousness of those who were conquered…or tyranny. Empire was meant to unite folks at home, to insist upon the moral good done abroad, and to expect their conquests to like it.

Arendt pointed out that the drive to expansion and conquest was fueled by the desire for money to make itself and for power (the state) to follow money (the bankers and capitalists). Imperialists wanted “to expand political power without the foundation of a body politic”—without having a political structure that managed and checked capital and secured rights.

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

“The secret of the new happy fulfillment [of the bourgeoisie’s desire to have money beget money]  was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws—economic as well as ethical—could appropriate wealth. Only when exported money succeeded in stimulating the export of power could it accomplish its owners’ designs Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital. (Arendt 1948, 137)
 

History repeats itself at this moment. This is why it does us little good to separate out “our” obligations to “our own” from our obligations to “Others.” If we try, then we engage in a false disconnect. What happens internationally is intrinsically linked to what happens in the U.S.   Foreign policy influences domestic policy, by insisting that we have to band together against the Other—or it brings the same mentality—and similar policies abrogating rights protections back home—in the form of NDAA, the expansion of FISA, Indefinite detention, wiretapping, FBI databases and fusion centers. Capitalists influence foreign policy in line with their own interests–and consistently in line with domestic policy that lines up with their interests. This seems clear when looking at the list of accomplishments on the parts of the Democrats.

Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, and numerous others, including myself, have been making this point repeatedly.  This is why I think the term “white privilege” deflects attention from what’s at stake: there is absolutely a privilege in being able to ignore what’s happening abroad, or to insist on our moral superiority or exceptionalism. As Sam Holloway points out:

It’s very revealing that the most consistent argument in favor of supporting Barack Obama (when better options are clearly available) is that the other corporate option (Romney) will be worse. Crystal ball access notwithstanding, this is a terrible justification. It’s a clear demonstration that millions of us are willing to allow atrocities to be visited upon others as long as our own privileges are left more or less intact. We don’t care how many foreign brown children Obama exterminates as long as the wealthier among us still has access to health care, abortions, etc. Let’s be clear– I’m not suggesting those are trivial issues. However, if you accept a situation where you have access and others don’t, then you are reducing these basic human rights to privileges. The same goes for your right to due process; if you tolerate Obama’s extrajudicial killings, then you are saying that life is a privilege that you deserve and that others do not. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this approach leaves you open to having your own privilege (to health, security, life, etc.) revoked at any time.
 

Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing? In the deportation of migrants, drone attacks, indefinite detention, NDAA 2012, H.R. 347, suppression of speech? These issues are inseparable—when they happen to others, they are used to justify “our” privilege—in this case, American privilege. But “our” privilege can be revoked using the same laws, same authority (or lack thereof) that were used to kill vilified U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi, to detain, harass, and confine U.S. citizens without fair trials—like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Bradley Manning—these will be used against “us” too–starting with the most vulnerable, dark, and threatening first.

Having the right to have my contraception paid for won’t protect you or me against that immoral use of power to hurt, humiliate, torture, incarcerate—lawfully. The violations of bodies of Black and brown folks are intrinsically connected to the lack of respect for the bodies of black and brown women–in the US and elsewhere.  And Mitt Romney may be worse on some of these issues—but his ability to harm all of us will have been made much easier by the likes of our past 2 POTUSes—Democrat and Republican—and the current Administration. Not to worry. That is the devastating future of American –and not just white–privilege.

LGBTQ Young People of Color Mic Check

Clearly, these young folks get it: they understand the importance of transracial, transnational, solidarity. And they make clear that they are understand that anti-queer politics, homophobia, imperialism, homonationalism, and racism  are linked and must be seen together. If they can get it, why can’t other progs? Props to LGBTQ Young People of Color. Fierce, Sharp, Insightful. Gives me hope.

Occupy Protests, Imperialism, and Silence: Haven’t We Seen this Before?

Sunday in Oakland and yesterday in DC, protesters clashed with the police. In DC, they stood their ground and refused to move even though they were ordered to vacate the park. In Oakland, protestors moved to occupy a community center.  Even as they were being accused of breaking in, Oakland protesters challenged that assumption, insisting that the door was open. Whatever the details of the case, what an amazing tale this is, when the “people” are accused of trespassing by sitting in a public building. After all, it’s not called the “Mayor’s private palace”; it is called a “community center”—which means that it belongs to those that CH claims to represent: the people.  And yet, the police and the mayor Jean Quan, one of the founders of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley and who used to talk the good talk until her viability was threatened– believe that it is their just work to defend the 5% rather than the 95%, to arrest those who are less than “respectable,” namely because they did not take advantage of their positions in large financial institutions to bilk billions of dollars from pension funds and union savings plans. In fact, Mayor Quan now wants Occupy to disown the Oakland movement, while Oakland City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente accuses the Oakland protestors of domestic terrorism. What does it say about the moment in which we live that “respectable” citizens are those who steal regularly and legally by making the laws conform to their greed, while those who attempt to live by the rule of law that is laid down upon them by the–1%, the 2%, the 5%–are viewed as “domestic terrorists,”–as if they have violated the sanctity of private individuals rather than challenged the offices and institutions of the status quo?

Authoritarianism is hardly spontaneous. It’s set in motion by a series of events that have been in place way before the vivid moment when one realizes that one is living in the midst of complete surveillance, autocratic power, and the arbitrariness that enables one to be labeled a “terrorist.” The series of laws that I’ve discussed repeatedly–The USA Patriot Act, the 2006 Expansion of FISA which gives immunity to the telecomm industry for turning over private customer phone records, the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, the 2006 Military Commissions Act which clarified lawful from unlawful enemy combatants (!), and the latest, but certainly not the last, the NDAA which codifies the 2005 AUMF’s expansion of Presidential powers, giving the President to search for, detain, and yes–kill anyone, including US citizens–on suspicion of terrorism without ever having to show evidence–these have landed us in this surreal, but not unprecedented, moment: One can be named a terrorist for expressing—not a physical violence to one’s neighbors, friends, and countrymen—but a verbal violence—a dissent in the face of a state that demands immediate compliance.  In fact, the White House has said just this to OWS protestors: Anger is an indication of terrorist impulses. And Oakland Council Member Ignacio De La Fuente agreed.

Dissent is the worst form of threat that a disintegrating democracy must face: it must deal not only with the absence of obedience, but the vivid presence of contempt shown to it by person after person after person. None of these persons individually has the power to face down the state by herself; but when she in concert with her classmates, colleagues, friends, and neighbors realizes that the state has demanded all of a person—not only their physical obedience but their psychic commitment as well—then we know two things: 1. We are in the midst of a political vacuum in which the only power that will survive is one that will brook no bars to its existence. And the converse: 2. We will not be allowed to protest without severe damage to our physical and psychic presence.

In the midst of the struggle over power, as we’ve seen over centuries, one thing appears to be constant: Authoritarianism demands a long period of imperialism. And imperialism requires the consolidation of the political interests of the ruling class at home in order to buttress the force of invasions and imperialism abroad.  I am left wondering why the “Left” is as uninterested as it is in our overseas military pursuits during this, an election, year. Why the silence over the raw claim to aggression as evidenced in President Obama’s SOTU speech? A friend suggested that it was because “the Left is confused or uninterested in matters of national security.” I’m unwilling to believe that the Left is confused, but I’m also having trouble believing that the left is uninterested.

But then I read this:  In 1902, J.A. Hobson, an English liberal historian and economist, ruminated on the silence over the imperial battles that the English government was advancing, in India, all over the African continent, and elsewhere.

Although the new Imperialism had been bad business for the nation, it has been good business for certain classes and certain trades within the nation. The vast expenditure on armaments, the costly wars, the grave risks and embarrassments of foreign policy, the checks upon political and social reforms within Great Britain, though fraught with great injury to the nation, have served well the present business interests of certain industries and professions.
 
It is idle to meddle with politics unless we clearly recognize this central fact and understand what these sectional interests are which are the enemies of national safety and the commonwealth. We must put aside the merely sentimental diagnosis which explains wars or other national blunders by outbursts of patriotic animosity or errors of statecrafts.  (Hobson, Imperialism: A Study, 1902, 46-7)
 

Yesterday’s column by Glenn Greenwald, on the lies told by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta about the power to assassinate US citizens, was nothing short of miraculous in its expression. It comes at a moment when the “Left” is high about the leaps it is making in combatting class warfare and authoritarianism through Occupy Movements, but remains silent on the one of the most terrifying threats to the liberties of dissenters, and even more terrifying to dissenters who are poor, dark, and unruly in their appearance, sexuality, gender and race.  This is not specifically a moment in which the lives of Muslim men is threatened: that threat has been vividly with us for at least a decade.  This is a moment when the lives of other dissenters will no longer be accommodated: Manning, Assange, Aafia Siddiqui, and yes–Dorli Rainey, veterans like Scott Olsen, and your college-going children and outraged next-door neighbors.

Unfortunately, Greenwald is as effective as if he were shouting at the ocean to turn back the tide, it seems, when he points to the repeated lies enunciated by the Administration in defense of its increasing grabs to central authority: to stalk, to frame, engage in surveillance, to declare who is a terrorist sans evidence, and ultimately, to kill in the name of national security:

But this is one of the towering, unanswerable hypocrisies of Democratic Party politics (Greenwald’s link). The very same faction that pretended for years to be so distraught by Bush’s mere eavesdropping on and detention of accused Terrorists without due process is now perfectly content to have their own President kill accused Terrorists without due process, even when those targeted are their fellow citizens: obviously a far more Draconian and permanent abuse than eavesdropping or detention (identically, the very same faction that objected to Bush’s radical whole-world-is-a-Battlefield theory now must embrace exactly that theory to justify how someone riding in a car, or sitting at home, or sleeping in his bed, in a country where no war is declared, is “on a battlefield” at the time the CIA ends his life).

Here is one of the most remarkable segments of CBS’ Scott Pelley’s interview with the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (I can’t get it to embed but you can click on the link).

http://cnettv.cnet.com/av/video/cbsnews/atlantis2/cbsnews_player_embed.swf

Check out this statement by Panetta (even non-analytic philosophers like me get the tautologies):

…[i]f someone is a citizen of the United States and is a terrorist who wants to attack our people, and kill Americans, in my book that person is a terrorist. And the reality is that under our laws that person is a terrorist. And we’re required under a process of law to be able to justify that despite the fact that this person may be a citizen, he is first and foremost a terrorist who threatens our people. And for that reason, we can establish a legal basis by which we can go after that person…Why? Because their goal is to kill our people…
 
 

As puzzling to me has been the simultaneous consolidation of progressives in outrage at the true parasites of capitalism and the silence of protest, indignance, or similar outrage at the blatant falsehoods articulated by the members of a Democratic administration such as Panetta, who insists that the assassination of Muslim men who are deemed “terrorists” is a cogent example of due process. As Panetta responded to journalist Scott Pelley’s repeated questioning about the lack of due process, about the absence of evidence for the charges of terrorism that were leveled against US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki and several others: Due process is seen in the execution of the “legal” power that the President has in assassinating those who are terrorists.

 
 

Compare this moment today to the one Hobson describes in 1902:

 
Indeed, it has become a commonplace of history how Governments use national animosities, foreign wars and the glamour of empire-making, in order to bemuse the popular mind and divert rising sentiment against domestic abuses. The vested interests, which, on our analysis, are shown to be chief prompters of an imperialist policy, play for a double stake, seeking their private commercial and financial gains at the expense the peril of the commonwealth.  They at the same time protect their economic and political supremacy at home against movements of popular reform. (Hobson, 1902, 142)
 
 

The threat of the Occupy movements dovetail with the threat of the dissenters against Imperialism, assassinations, indefinite detention, and brute aggression in the face of disobedience to authoritarianism. It may be coincidental that NDAA was passed in the fall, in the wake of a very energetic and visible presence of a cross-section of protestors. NDAA may not in fact expand much in the way of powers that the AUMF didn’t already do. But it is interesting that the need for a renewed military budget (ostensibly what some analysts of NDAA tell us the bill is really about) can be justified in the face of explicit clauses that enable the possibility of holding citizens who “support” enemy groups and opens up the possibility of detaining US Citizens indefinitely as potential terrorists. As usual, the question about how to challenge this arises– when the right to a lawyer and habeas have been eliminated–through the USA PATRIOT Act and by practice and Court opinions for the last decade.

 

And so, as Occupy activist Maria Lewis points out,

…[T]he idea that reclaiming vacant abandoned buildings is terrorism is very retelling of the city’s priorities and of what the city—what the Oakland Police Department serves and protects. They are more interested in protecting abandoned private property than they are the people. And the idea that opening up a social center is terrorism is very telling of the narrative of the police state.

Very telling, indeed.

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