Peter Singer is out to lunch on Gaza

Yesterday, Peter Singer published this article discussing the morality of Israel’s recent war with Palestinians in Gaza. Normally, I am a fan of Singer’s work which usually contains a high degree of moral seriousness. However, in this piece, his moral seriousness is undermined by his uncritical acceptance of Israeli talking points:

“Israel, blaming Hamas, arrested hundreds of its members in the West Bank, though it has never explained the basis of its accusation.”

Why is Singer taking Israel’s word that the people it arrested are actually members of Hamas?

“The Israeli government may have seized on the outrageous murders as a pretext for provoking Hamas into a response…Hamas responded to the West Bank arrests with a barrage of rockets that reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem”

This goes from mischaracterization to flat out lie. Hamas was responding not only the arrests, but several days of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, which were a violation of the 2012 ceasefire it had signed with Israel.

“In firing rockets at Israel, Hamas invited a military response. A country subject to rocket attacks from across its border has a right to defend itself”

Unfortunately for Singer, this logic actually defends the Hamas rocket attacks, because its land was under attack by Israeli rockets.

“Hamas’s strategy of launching rockets from residential areas and storing them in schools”

While some rockets were found in schools, there is no evidence that this represents a “strategy”. The actions of the few, acting against the institutional norms and orders, don’t constitute an institutional strategy.

“Israel has legitimate military objectives in Gaza: to stop the rockets and destroy the tunnels.”

These are not legitimate military objectives. They are legitimate political objectives, which can legitimately be pursued militarily if there are no other means possible. However, Hamas has offered another means: stop the siege of Gaza. Which is, not incidentally, a crime.

Singer’s failure to overcome the media talking points on Gaza might tell us something fundamental about the gap between ethics and politics: perhaps ethics is asking difficult questions about right and wrong when the facts are not themselves up for question (or, when whether the facts are up for question is itself known, and becomes an ethical problem itself). Politics, on the other hand, is the world where ethically relevant facts are manipulated by public relations armies, which if they do their job right will result in otherwise good people affirming processes which are in fact unjust.

Singer is a decent philosopher, and he’s actually more politically engaged than average because he takes the uncontested but ignored facts about cruelty towards non-human animals and draws ethical implications from them. However, on political matters where it is already taken for granted by everyone that the lives at stake are valuable, he can not avoid the manipulative representations of power structures which results in blaming the victim, and representing the problem as the solution.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this article is, however, that he begins with a recognition of the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but then denies that it has any relevance to morally understanding the current conflict.

“Different answers to that question are possible. Some depend on answers to prior questions about the founding of the state of Israel, the circumstances that led to many Palestinians becoming refugees, and responsibility for the failure of earlier efforts to reach a peaceful solution. But let us put aside these questions – which have been explored in great depth – and focus on the moral issues raised by the latest outbreak of hostilities.”

Rather than ignoring context, and taking media talking points as a given, I would expect from Singer (and from any serious philosopher) an original interpretation of the situation on the basis of that context, and ideally one that uses thinking to break through media taboos which make our public discourse anemically ritualistic, and unable to hold power to account and stop the perpetual reproduction of injustice at which we sigh but fail to confront.

Towards a non-vacuous concept of “Just Peace”

All parties in conflict want peace. Oppressed groups want peace in the sense of the end of their oppression, which they interpret as a continuation of war, whereas oppressor groups want peace and quiet, in the sense of the absence of any rebellion against the oppression they instituted through mechanisms of pacification. Calls for “peace” without reference the context, or the terms of peace have, politically speaking, no content, and certainly cannot be assumed to contain anything like “justice”. At best they are context-poor expressions of a desire to see the end of the most extreme forms of human suffering, at worse, they are affirmations of mechanisms pacification towards oppressed people who refuse to let oppression be carried on in an atmosphere of peace and quiet. Worse, the concept of “justice” has no special relationship with “peace”, because a “just war” is only as far away as some example of rebellion you consider justified.

Generally, the problem with both these concepts, “peace” and “justice”, is that there is a tendency, we might even speak of an incentive to call for their implementation without specifying their content. The more we say what we mean by “justice”, the more we specify the terms for “peace”, the more we risk division, disagreement. In other words, there is an incentive, especially in online environments where the gladiatorial nature of the public space is more explicit than usual, to avoid saying what we mean by things, to avoid conflict by allowing each to interpret a value such that the appropriateness of that value obtains for them. Baudrillard talks about this in terms of his concept, (or his interpretation of Reagan’s concept) of the “silent majority”:

Microgroups and individuals, far from taking their cue from a uniform and imposed decoding, decode messages in their own way. They intercept them (through leaders) and transpose them…contrasting the dominant code with their own particular sub-codes, finally recycling everything passing into their own cycle…

We perhaps should see the incentive to speak in a way that avoids conflict as the object side of a coin to the tendency to re-interpret in terms of a particular sub code forms the subject side. And “flame wars” are perhaps just one kind of symptom that manifests when our normal agreement to sustain this two-sided mechanism of non-interaction, breaks down. No one wants flame wars, but also, none of us should want rhetorical exchanges based on false manifestations of agreement, from the perspective of the desire for the genuine interaction of interpretive perspectives, these are both disasters.

Instead, I would suggest, and I think is especially relevant for philosophers desiring to influence the public discourse, that when we assert the need for “just peace”, to be as explicit as possible concerning which prescriptions we believe must be implemented in order for a state of affairs to qualify as both just and peaceful, and also to be as thoughtful as possible concerning the mechanism for instituting of those prescriptions, including the contradictions and conflicts that can be predicted to arise from their implementation.

In Gaza, I can hear the rumble of victory

Since 1982, Israel has responded to every Palestinian “peace offensive”, i.e. any suggestion that the Palestinian leadership was prepared to resolve the political conflict on the basis of international law, in the same way: provoke, create a pretext, go to war, destroy the political institution with which they otherwise would have to negotiate. Hamas’ unity with Fatah is, like the 1981 ceasefire agreement between the PLO and Israel, an implicit granting of recognition of Israel’s existence. More importantly, it is an implicit recognition of the existing political framework between the PA and Israel, and therefore of the “peace process”, at least from the Palestinian perspective. From the Palestinian point of view, the political logic in the peace process, the Oslo Accords, the 1988 statehood declaration, all the way back to Breshnev’s “September Plan” in 1982, is not “land for peace”, but “law rather than war”; it is explicitly about resolving the conflict not on the basis of the balance of military force, where Israel enjoys a clear advantage, but through recourse to international law.

Since Israel enjoys such a superiority over the Palestinians in force but not in law, we should perhaps not be surprised that Israel uses war not as a continuation of politics, but as a means of avoiding politics. Rather than engage in politics, Israel inflicts pain, today they even use “pain maps”, that map the “pain that the enemy sees, we create a lot of pain so that he will have to think first to stop the conflict”.  Using this tactic, Israelis have many times achieved military victories that leave Palestinians physically and politically weakened. The expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon, and the Abbas-Dahlah coup at the end of the al-Aqsa intifada were both important Israeli victories, which took pressure off Israel and allowed it to continue settlement construction while preventing Palestinians from achieving an independent, unified, and internationally recognized political representation committed to their rights under international law. Every day the Palestinians do not go to the ICC, similarly, is one day longer Israel enjoys immunity from the law on the basis of its domineering power relationship against the Palestinians.

This time the resistance is strong, however, much stronger than for instance in ’82, or in 2008-2009.  Israel is responding to the success of the Palestinian resistance with brutal shelling of people in their homes while ambulances can’t move, and many ambulances have been hit directly (I see these reports constantly on my facebook feed, from activists who are on the ground in Gaza). But by all accounts the people of Gaza are fed up, they will not life on their knees but would rather die on their feet, or as Israel prefers, in their homes. Moreover, and perhaps just as importantly. Hanan Ashrawi has announced that the decision has been made to go to the ICC. So this time it may not only be “allegations” of Israeli war crimes, there may be real political pressure for Israeli politicians to stand trial for the crimes they have committed over the past weeks.

When people tell the story of the liberation of Palestine, perhaps the steadfastness of the people of Gaza and the heroism of the resistance in Gaza in 2014 will be story of the decisive blow. It feels like it could be the key moment, when time stood still, and resistance forces both on the ground by arms and around the world’s airwaves finally forced ideas to change and political forces to re-aligned and make Palestinian rights a reality. Inshallah Palestine will soon be free, and Israel in defeat will be forced to re-interpret itself, so that it can become something other than what it has been for the first 67 years. Maybe one day, a day long after decolonization, something called “Israel” could become something like a light among nations. In that Israel, perhaps Israelis would respect and salute the martyrdom of Palestinian heroes.

In Gaza, the Palestinian Revolution is alive. In Gaza, they are still holding down to the ground.

On the need for honesty as Gaza burns

We have no right to dishonesty of any sort. The Israeli massacre of Palestinians is political, it is what they judge to be required to maintain the current situation of political impasse. We must avoid calling for an end to violence by both sides and instead recognize that the explicit violence of massacres is part of an order of violence that maintains occupation, siege, colonization and dispossession. The violence that needs to end is not only the air strikes, but the settlements, the occupation, and the exclusion of refugees from their homeland.


 It is deeply misleading to characterize what’s happening in Palestine as a “cycle of revenge”. Israel occupies Palestinian land, and prevents refugees from returning to their homes, and this is maintained by a state of war which has lasted since the creation of the state. From the perspective of refugees, and people living under occupation, every day is a day of war – not only days of escalation. The escalation, just like all forms of resistance against the colonizer, is an attempt to make Israelis also experience the abnormality of the ongoing war which they do not normally experience. Rather than speaking of a “need for peace”, we should ask, “peace for who”, and realize that “peace” is only peace for the oppressor, and the continuation of war by other means for the one whose defeat is instituted as normality.


For Israel, war is something that begins and ends (with the exception of the October war) at the choice of the military leadership. For the occupied and the refugees every day is lived in a state of war. We should stop focussing on the need for “peace” and begin thinking about the unequal distribution of war in deeply one-sided conflicts.


We must have the courage to commit ourselves to the absoluteness of the distinction between violence that preserves institutionalized oppression, and violence that threatens and exposes that oppression as nothing but privileges defended by a regime of brutal domination.


 The true ground of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) is the need to resist against colonial violence including dispossession and aggression. 

The truth is that the conflict is political, and it is over land and who gets to live in it – as Ahamad Yassin says, who has a greater right to the land, a refugee who was pushed out a few decades ago, or a Russian Jew descended from people who left the land 2000 years ago? It’s easy to say that there is enough room for everyone, and it’s easy to believe that from a position of safety in the first world, but would you believe there was enough room in the land for everyone if you were a refugee living in Gaza, and the Israelis had been keeping you out of your land, killing members of your community or family, and demolishing your houses, for the last 65 years? If there is room enough for everyone, let the Israelis say this, stop their aggression and welcome the refugees home. Do not ask the oppressed to first reach out the hand that builds trust. 

Most people in Gaza are refugees, and Hamas insists on their right of return, whereas the Fatah since the early 80s became politically associated with giving up this right. Is it any wonder that Hamas is popular in Gaza? 

As for the question of racism, why are we so quick to insist that there is no racism by racialized people against whites in the first world, and yet not apply the same analysis to Palestine? Israel is a white supremacist state, and it is not possible to be racist against those who act from a position of white privilege. Any similarities between statements about Jews coming from people suffering under Israeli oppression should not be called “racist” anymore than statements about whites coming from racialized people anywhere else where white privilege is a key structural factor in the oppression of one group by another.


The only countries supplying arms for the defence of Gaza [Iran, Syria] are the ones also supplying weapons for and carrying out the siege of Yarmouk.

 

Two-ingredient vegan ice cream

Did you know you can make vegan ice cream using only two ingredients? I make this ice cream for 3.25 a liter using ingredients that can be purchased at most dollar stores. To make an ice cream pie, ad I am here, you just need to add a pie shell.

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You will also need an ice cream maker

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Begin by putting the coconut milk in the ice cream maker

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Now add half the jar of jam. I use marmalade, from Egypt. But you can use whichever.

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No need to mix them, the ice cream maker will do this. Now turn on the machine! (Or operate it by hand, if your machine is not electric)

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When it looks like this you’re nearly ready to take it out. It doesn’t need to fully gel into ice cream in the machine, it will firm up in the freezer. After an hour or so, you are ready either to put the ice cream in the freezer, or place it in your pie shell.

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When you’re done it should look like this

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Now place it in the freezer!

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Yum. Let that firm up for a few hours, slice and serve.

ISIS in Iraq and the need for Interpretation and Precise Concepts

As I write this, ISIS forces are advancing towards Samarra, and at the latest word being repelled by the Iraq army. In recent days they took control of Mosul and much of the province of Niveneh. They have released prisoners from the jails at Tikrit, and kidnapped the Turkish embassy staff.

There are two interpretations that I have heard of what is happening in Northern Iraq. One is conspiratorial: the Iraqi leadership has basically staged, or at least allowed, this insurgency to take control of part of the country because chaos benefits them. Chaos is an open door for corruption, for more aid, and to increase their power insofar as it relies on the perception that they are the only ones that can bring security. This interpretation sees ISIS in the same light: they are not genuine in their intentions, they are a band of elite powerful figures who benefit from chaos and who use ideology to control people, while basically lying to them about their “plan” to set up a state. The other interpretation is that ISIS is an independently powerful entity, which while it might make some secret agreements with Assad and Malaki, is basically genuine in its interest to create a state and is willing to use any degree of force, corruption, and ideology to achieve this. This interpretation sees Malaki as much weaker – as the commander of a military unable to control Iraq, and crucially exposed to the possibility of a military advance that might come all the way to Bagdad.  Continue reading

A few thoughts on Bayat’s notion of “Social Non-Movements”

Asef Bayat‘s idea of “social non-movements” might be crucial for thinking about “social movements” today. The very idea that we “ought” to respond to the political crises we face by organized “movements” is perhaps overly narrow.

Let me say that by “social non-movements,” I mean broadly the collective action of dispersed and unorganized actors. These include the non-movements of the poor to claim rights to urban space and amenities; the non-movements of youth to reclaim their youthfulness, that is, to realize their desired life styles, and fulfill their individualities; and the non-movements of women to struggle for gender equality—say, in personal status or in active presence in public sphere. These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.

The has been raised that what Bayat is describing is a sort of “life style” politics. In a sense that is clearly true, but I think not in the pejorative sense of for example “lifestyle anarchism”. Bayat isn’t proposing “life-style” as an alternative to politics, in fact, I don’t think he’s being prescriptive at all. The very notion of a prescription would seem to be counter to the idea of a social non-movement. I think the point is a descriptive one: that because of the repression and ineffectiveness of social movements to respond to certain sets of grievances, social non-movements are emerging to respond to those grievances. I think this is the key quote:

“These claim-making practices are made and realized mostly through direct actions, rather than through exerting pressure on to authorities to concede—something that the conventionally-organized social movements (like labor or environment movements) usually do. In a sense, the non-movements emerge as an un-articulated strategy to reduce the cost of mobilization under the repressive conditions.”

The emergence and repression of social-non movements is something I’ve seen this in Palestine first hand. It is sometimes either impossible or practically impossible for Palestinians on occupied territory to get the permit to sell their goods, or to build a house, or run a business. Or even if it is not impossible maybe some refuse to engage with the authorities because they don’t recognize their legitimacy (and to be fair, there isn’t a state in the world, not even the United States, which recognizes the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem). A social-movement response to this would mean organized protests with demands, or participating in electoral politics according a constitution (you certainly know the debates about “constitutionalist” politics on disputed territory in the Irish context!), or right the way up to open, potentially militarized struggle against Israeli institutions. But, if the costs of any of these options were too high, and they are high, it isn’t surprising that people in a non-coordinated way simply break the law and do the things they need to do and get on with their life. Sometimes the border police come through the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem and kick over people’s stalls if they don’t have the right permits – Bayat isn’t saying that social non-movements are without cost. But, the cost of sometimes having your food knocked over, or even sometimes having your house torn down (which happens on a daily basis, and there are literally thousands of standing demolition orders), maybe the cost is still lower and differently distributed than the cost of a social movement to change the law. 

But Bayat’s point is not that this is a politics. Rather, he’s describing the social field’s aversion to politics, but also how that aversion has political implications:

“non-movements” keep their actors in a constant state of mobilization, even though the actors remain dispersed, or their links to other actors remain often (but not always) passive. This means that when they sense that there is an opportunity, they are likely to forge concerted collective protests, or merge into larger political and social mobilization.”

So, describing the social non-movements that exist might certainly be relevant for people trying to organize social movements. But you can’t organize a social non-movement, because the very act of organizing it would make it a social movement. At the same time, there may be opportunities to politicize non-political non-movements, by repeating the same non-movement direct actions with increasing amounts of organization. 

I wonder if this is a way of opening up Michael Hart’s thesis that to think “leadership” in the contemporary series of uprisings we need to reverse the links between “leadership – strategy / mass – tactics”, and think of leadership tactically and the mass as a source of strategy. Maybe the non-movements, which are a-political, are actually strategic because they are directed immediately towards the problems that exist, and we could add a political level to them by tactically bringing non-movers together, on a short term basis, with a leadership which would tactically spontaneously dissolve rather than increase its authority over time.