“So you think you’re a liberal?” or why the concealment of state-worship is destroying the planet

A standard point that liberally minded people bring against any religious perspective is the assertion that they don’t believe anyone should be required or forced to convert from any religion to another. And this is unsurprising – the principle of freedom of religion goes way back in the history of liberal and libertarian thought. But the catch is, for liberals, you’re allowed to have your religion, so long as it isn’t a religion any longer – which is to say, so long as it isn’t the fundamental ground of your social being.

And this is the real religion of liberals – the state. As long as your first allegiance is as a citizen, then subsequent allegiances do not push you out of the in-group. Liberals are not actually tolerant across in/out group lines, they simply draw an in-group line which they pretend to be so obvious that it isn’t there, and then accept everyone right up to the point where a group draws in/out group boundaries that conflict with state loyalty.

Large surprise that Liberals vow for the separation of Church and State – the state is the new religion (which mostly repeats the norms of which ever religion is/was held by the majority or the elite), and the explicit connection of the state to a particular religion is sacrilege – because it puts another religion (in this case, probably Christianity), on the same level as the true religion: the state.

This might be why liberals are so frightened of Islam – for many practicing muslims it is an actual religion, which, unlike most modern forms of Christianity or Judaism, is a more foundational part of identity than allegiance to the state.

Sometimes it is argued that Christianity is one of the first cosmopolitan religion, or at least an important step against tribalism and towards a world where fear of the stranger begins to become neutralized.

The Christian teaching to “love thine enemies” is interesting, but in the end it remains imperialist and genocidal. It doesn’t mean don’t slaughter your enemies in war, and it doesn’t mean don’t kill the heathens – it just means consider your enemies as people basically like you, who are differentiated by contingent aspects rather than essential ones. IIn other words, anyone can convert to Christianity – the in/out group lines are defined, but are fundamentally permeable. If for tactical reasons, it’s not possible to convert someone, their life is of no value – and this becomes very obvious when you study even the recent history of Christianity in Canada. So, a neat teaching, but not really good enough.

The liberal can very quickly point out what is wrong in Christianity – it doesn’t actually shift the frame of moral analysis away from your own perspective – perhaps you must love your enemies, but you needn’t consider the way they order their life as a potential critique of your own framework. The problem with the liberal is that they’ve only created the pretence of considering alternative perspectives – they can love and respect others who practice different forms of life only insofar as everyone shares in fundamental obedience to the state. As soon as people disobey the state, they are criminals, and if they rise against it, they are terrorists and can be shot on site.

But, could the liberal do any better than this? What would it mean for the liberal to give up state-worship, and actually embrace their own ideals of inter subjective tolerance, and re-evaluation of moral codes on a continuos, practical, social level? Well, I think it’s obvious what it would mean – state worship would need to become explicit, and by becoming explicit it would in a sense cease to be “worship”, but instead careful consideration of the extent to which dissent is required and unquestioned authority pathological, as well as the inverse – to what extent is questioning authority pathological, and when should dissent be put down? In other words, liberalism could become honest with itself.

So long as liberalism remains ideology, so long as it maintains itself through various levels of shared deception, anarchism will remain a serious critique of all liberal state worship. The need to create a new world based on solidarity and honesty will not pass – the revolutionaries will always be right about the pathology of the state system. And today this should be more than obvious, when it is considered impossible to raise the highest tax bracket by 1%, when it is impossible to save the world from environmental catastrophe, it is clear that liberalism has become a joke – a thin sheen for corruption, stagnation, and dishonesty.

A truer, more honest liberalism would obey the teaching to “love thine enemies”, but obey it not in the Christian sense, but in the critical-moral sense of not taking your own frame for granted, but always potentially allowing it to come into question when it comes up against that which it excludes. So, stop excluding people’s views because they are “terrorists”, or “radicals”, or “fundamentalists” – maybe you have something to learn from them. Maybe they are more serious than you are, maybe their situations are more honest, less post-modern and consumerist and not engaged in the indefinitely and speedily transforming libidinal desire production machine we call “agency.

Ethics and the presumption of human contact (and the history of monotheism, and plight of humanity today)

There are really two ways you can begin to think about human relations, and based on which you pick there are real implications for the way you’ll conceive ethics in general as well as your own ethical situation in the world.

On the one hand, you could presume that you are an individual first, and everything you could know about the world and about other people could be wrong. Of course, this extends to – everything other people think they know about you could be wrong. So, anytime you presume anything about anyone – whether intellectually or on a more basic socio-affective level, you are potentially mis-characterizing someone – and if you base actions on those characterizations, you may well be doing harm. If you think about situations this way, you think the correct level of resolution for analysis is individual persons – so if people are having a conflict, the first thing to say is that each person is having a personal difficulty that has some external relation to the other person. And then, the actual relations between the two people are secondary.

On the other hand, you could think of ethics as being ways of coping with human connections which always and already exist between people. You could think that while each person might misunderstand the way they are relating with other people, and that misunderstanding could happen on various levels of knowing (i.e. not only intellectual but emotional as well), there is in fact relations and continuity between the people – and that this connection is not something to be added after considering each person in isolation. We can think of ourselves as inexorably bound up in our communities, our relationships, even our countries or nations – and recognize that the ways we are bound up in those continuities are not always a matter of rational choice, but can be presumed in our everyday manners of action, and even in our identities.

Continue reading “Ethics and the presumption of human contact (and the history of monotheism, and plight of humanity today)”

A great leader is no longer with us

Jack Layton was a great Canadian leader in a dark time. He was going on for years about how the NDP was a “real” alternative to the Liberals for centrist and left leaning voters in Canada. I voted for them, but I can’t say I ever believed the dream. But in this last election, well, needless to say he showed the faithless faithful wrong – it is no longer trivial to declare an NDP government “impossible” – difficult perhaps, but not impossible.

Political discourse is about possibility – people’s dreams are constrained by turning them impossible. Zizek is good for talking about this – about how “possibility” has this double meaning today: on the one hand in the realm of technology anything is possible, but to raise the income tax one percent, this is impossible.

I didn’t always agree with Jack. When he spoke at UBC I was not impressed, he brought up the right points (climate change, bug kill pine, native rights), but I didn’t believe him. He’d spent the last minutes before the talk speaking with some local student politicians about electric solar panels on his boat, he came over all self-obsessed. And besides, wasn’t he convinced of something absurd, impossible – how could he ever become prime minister – we all knew that the best he could ever do was push the liberals a little to the left. Well, he showed us, enough said.

As for the middle east, I think the NDP gets it wrong (the occupation did start in 1948 – and we should be able to tell the truth while we support reasonable solutions for peace), but I can’t say I’d have a different position if I were Layton. Their position is grassroots (voted on at party conferences), and is much less pro-zionist than the positions of the other major parties. Layton may not approve of Israeli apartheid week, but he can hardly be called a zionist hack like Harper, or an opportunist turncoat and liar like Ignatieff.

The left needs leaders, whether we like it or not, and whether or not we constantly denounce them as patriarchs or monarchists. Canada is short on leaders who aren’t tyrants, who believe in something with their heart rather than their pocketbook. Jack Layton accomplished something significant during his time here, and we owe it to his legacy, as well as those he represented, not to let the NDP’s revival fall away or be captured by elite interest. This is a time for people to work to strengthen the NDP grassroot base, to organize and unionize, and to rally behind the NDPs next leader.

When a “civilian” bus, isn’t

In no way do I condone the attack on Egged bus 392. Neither do I think it sane that it be considered a justification for bombing Gaza. The argument always runs “Israel has the right to defend itself”, but it does not follow from this principle that Israel has the right to use force against a group which is not proven to be connected with the attacks, and even if they were they would have other means to bring the attackers to justice.

But I’m not here to discuss the war, its logic or its rhetoric, I just want to talk about the bus – Egged bus number 392. Israeli and North American news sources have called the victims on this bus “civilians”. But in reality, the situation is more complicated – a civilian is a non-combattent, but according to the drive of the bus, it “mainly ferries soldiers between their homes in Eilat and their bases” (Hareetz, ” Israeli bus driver recounts long minutes of terror attack”, 19.08.11). Many on the bus who were injured and killed were not civilians, but members of the Army, either currently in service or in the reserves. Members of armed forces are not civillians, but combatants.

Neither can we say “the militants would have attacked any bus, this one was just at the wrong place at the wrong time”. That’s not a serious point – according to IDF reports, the militants were disguised in Egyptian fatigues and posed as if repairing a fence, there is no way of knowing exactly how long they were posed in this pretext, but certainly they could have been waiting for a specific target to come along. There is no way of knowing what their intelligence was, or what their intentions were when they targeted Egged bus 392. They certainly would have known that Palestinians rarely ride on Egged buses – is illegal for Palestinians with Green IDs to ride the buses, and even with a Blue ID or an Israeli passport the bus driver often will not allow Palestinians to board if they are afraid or if they “do not like your face”, according to an anonymous source. But they could have known specifically that this bus route was primarily used by members of the military – we just don’t know whether they knew this or not, and until we do, we shouldn’t call it a terrorist attack on civilians based on ungrounded assumptions.

Israel regularly carries out targeted assassinations in Gaza which have civilian casualties, and are at best extra-legal killings of potential combatants. This activity is fully supported by USA and Canada. And, as far as I know, it’s the same policy as US pursues in Iraq, and Canada has pursued in Afghanistan. I think these killings are illegal and immoral. However, if we are honest, we should consider the possibility that the attack on 392 was the same type of targeted assassination – the militants might have had intelligence that there would be combatants on the bus, and these are combatants which could be engaged in operations against Palestinians in the present or future. I think this would be immoral and illegal, but it might not be something Israel or the US has the moral right to condemn on moral grounds, since it seems pretty much the same kind of attack that they carry out regularly. You could argue that Israel only targets high value “Palestinian terrorists” for its drone attacks, but that is a tactical difference. Moreover, I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that one of the Israeli soldiers killed was a legendary sniper, if that is true, and if the militants knew this, then it would fit cleanly into the idea of “targeted assasination”.

However, just because the bus was ferrying combatants, even perhaps very important and high value combatants, and even if the bus itself should be thought as part of the IDF (i.e. if it is the case that the bus route mainly exists to ferry soldiers, who do not pay to take the bus, then the bus route is really part of the army), this does not justify the attack. The fact that many groups are at war with Israel does not even give them the moral or legal right to break truces and attack targets that are clearly military, unless it is in response to provocation such as when IDF soldiers cross the border into Gaza and are engaged, and sometimes successfully repelled, by Palestinian militants. However, the fact that calling them non-civilians is not a justification for the attack does not serve as an argument that they be labelled civilians. In a conflict, we should use clear and honest language to describe the status of different participants, and we should clearly distinguish between demanding honesty in labelling from the moral arguments about justification.

Lyrics, come to life (again).

I wrote these lines about an incident where settlers from Kiryat Arba came down and injured many CPT activists who were living in solidarity with a family which I couchsurfed with while in Al-khalil (Hebron):

the settlers live on mountaintops, sometimes they come down with their rocks

and put the folks from CPT and ISM in hospital…

Of course, this wasn’t an isolated incident; it’s a continuing reality in Palestine.

When the war comes back… or “Why I respect the Palestinian resistance”

There is a song lyric I can’t get out of my head. It’s from “West Bank”, a song I wrote, posted, and promptly removed from the internet (I will likely be performing it, along with another song about the situation in Palestine at an event at El Mocambo on September 1st, if you’re interested). The lyric is as follows:

And sure the PNA’s corrupt; the collaboration it should stop

but I hear when the war comes back, they will stand and fight the Zionists

The lyric is about my conflicting feelings towards the PA – on the one hand, there is a lot of corruption, and collaboration with the zionist agressors, and they have all but abandoned the popular Palestinian demands which are now perhaps better articulated by the BDS movement. Even Fatah supporters I met in the West Bank were opposed to a Palestinian state, and saw the virtue of such a move only tactically (and, tactically, there are a lot of problems with creating a Palestinian state). Worse, the PA soldiers have sometimes taken on the task of repressing popular and non-violent resistance against Israel, most famously during the Gaza massacre of 2008-9. But, at the same time, you know (or rather, you learn) that those soldiers will form the resistance against the invading Israeli army if there is another Israeli invasion of the West Bank, and for that you respect them.

I feel a similar conflict this week – not about the PA, but about Hamas and its armed forces. I don’t subscribe to a fundamental Islamist politics, and moreover I think any form of theocracy is an extremely problematic form of social organization. But there is a fundamental principle – people have the right to armed struggle against those who occupy or attack their land. And since I recognize Gaza as Palestinian territory, I believe Israel has no right to occupy it (blockade is a form of occupation), and I think that their armed forces have the right to strike back when Israel carries out attacks on targets in Gaza. That doesn’t mean I approve of all their activities – I don’t think they have any right to strike civilian targets, even when Israel is striking civilian targets in Gaza. But I do think they have a right to fire on Israeli warships firing on Palestinian fish-boats, and engage Israeli troops if they fire across the border, or if they attempt to cross the border into Gaza.

When Israeli bombed Gaza in retaliation for an attack which in no way obviously carried out by people in Gaza (the attack came from the Sinai, and there are many militant groups operative there that are not Palestinian, thanks to the demilitarization of the region in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty), Hamas certainly had the right to strike back if there was no diplomatic solution – and, while I could be wrong about this, I don’t think anything Hamas could have reasonably offered Israel would have prevented the continuation of the bombing over thursday and friday. So, it follows that Gazans have the right of resistance by force.

Just because they have the right, does not mean they should exercise it. Because of the nature of collective punishment in asymmetric warfare, certainly every military attack by the Alqassam brigades, even legitimate ones against military targets, will result in many of Gaza’s civilians being killed by Israeli retaliation. But that isn’t my choice – it’s a choice the people of Gaza have the right to make, and insofar as they do make it, I respect them. I probably wouldn’t like many of the people in the Alqassam brigades – it would probably be much easier for me to have a beer and relax with IDF soldiers (which is something that happened while I was in Palestine, although it’s something that makes me feel quite queazy in retrospect) than with any Islamist militants – but respect isn’t about personal friendship, or feelings, or sharing values; it’s about making a decision on a moral principle.

The back and forth attacks between Gaza and Israel have continued for several days, and Alqassam has formally ended the defacto 2 year truce. There could be a real danger of further escalation, and a ground war in Gaza – the Israeli civilian leadership would be very happy to distract its populace, which was in a state of mass peaceful revolt against Israel’s neo-liberal policies (but mostly not against its zionist policies or occupation or racism). Looking at my twitter feed today, it looks like there is already a war – there is certainly a lot of bombing and shooting. The majority of people in Gaza already have post-traumatic stress disorder – this is a war on a traumatized people who live in a prison camp. As North Americans, living in countries which express unconditional support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, it is our duty as national and global citizens to pressure our governments to not allow Israel to commit another massacre in Gaza. We should stand with the people of Gaza, and instead of falling into the “there are problems on both sides” game we should stand in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance, insofar as they observe laws of war, because in this conflict theres is legitimate defence against agression.

EDIT: As usual, I can’t write these posts quickly enough. I’ve received word that Israel’s channel 2 is reporting that tanks are being moved by the IDF to the border with Gaza.

EDIT: Just heard that Israel’s cabinet has approved land, naval and air escalation. I hope it’s not true. If so, full scale war looks immanent.

Why Milan (and possibly I) is going to Washington

My friend Milan is on his way to Washington, D.C. to take part in a protest against the building of a pipeline that will facilitate the burning of the Alberta tar sands. I might be going down to join him for a bit, but I’m as yet unsure about whether that is possible given my current situation with work and finances. I will quote a limited section of his post below, which you should read in it’s completeness here, on the blog which I no longer contribute to but continue to support. Here is a snippet of his post:

I am going to Washington to help draw attention to the gap between our understanding of the world and the assumptions that underlie our behaviour. We know that continuing to burn fossil fuels puts humanity in peril, and yet we cannot imagine how to behave otherwise. We do not fully appreciate the extent of our freedom and the impact of our choices. We have the freedom to choose a high-carbon future or a low-carbon one, and the choice we make seems highly likely to impact the lives of a huge number of people worldwide, over a long span of time.

Read the rest here, if you haven’t already.

What is “Collective Punishment”, and why do states use it?

States engaged in asymmetric warfare with rebel groups know that it is very difficult to fight dispersed paramilitary forces with traditional means of combat. Except for the IRA of the Border Campaign, I know of no rebel paramilitary group which has made attempts to obey the Geneva convention – so state armies are in a position of being held to international law, while fighting groups which choose to disregard international law. The simple solution to the problem is – states simply ignore international legislation, and use whatever works to fight the enemy, which means adopting terrorist tactics.

I use “terrorist” in a technical sense – the use of violence against civilians towards political ends. Yesterday and today’s attacks on targets in Gaza in response to yesterday’s terror attack in the south of Israel are terrorist attacks because their goal is to frighten the leaders of resistance not to attack in fear of reprisals against their own people. This is called “collective punishment”, because the collective (the people) who the resistance wishes to represent is punished rather than the resistance itself (the legality of resistance is a separate issue, if you’re interested in the legal basis of revolutionary violence you might want to read this essay).

Collective punishment is the exception rather than the rule for populations that engage in resistance. Norman Finkelstein explained this quite well in an interview he gave on Lebanese television. You should watch the interview, but basically he points out that we honour resistance against occupation even when, as in Nazi occupied France, 400 people were killed for every 1 person killed by the resistance. I’m not comparing the occupation of Palestine to the occupation of France, but there is a relevant point to be made here (which isn’t in Finkelstein’s explanation, but I think it is an logical implication of it): if you consider a resistance movement valid, then by extension you have to blame the oppressors, not the oppressed, for the collective punishment imposed in reaction to the oppression.

Collective punishment is used by occupying forces because it works, or at least they think it will work. It certainly worked in Nazi Germany – the resistance was never more than a tiny proportion, and co-operation nearly total. Most everyone says (to quote Finkelstein), “we want to live”, hardly anyone says “we would rather die on our feet than live crawling on our knees”.

Collective punishment was used by the British forces, in conjunction with the loyalist paramilitaries, during the troubles in Northern Ireland – and increasingly so leading up to the last IRA ceasefires and the incorporation of Sinn Fein in all party talks. The collective punishment took two forms – the large scale killing of republican suspects by loyalist paramilitary units, with the intelligence supplied by the British, as well as the more traditional attacks on Catholic civilians in response to IRA activities.  Prominent Loyalist activists (in this case “activist” means paramilitary) strongly believe that their actions, more than anything done by the British Army itself, brought Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. I’m not in a position to evaluate the correctness of their claims. Even if they are true, this doesn’t justify the extra-judicial executions, or the killing of civilians – both of these tactics undermine the rule of law, the basic social contract which states use to justify their monopoly on violence.

The major problem with collective punishment, however, is the same problem as rebel groups encounter when they try to use terrorism for political aims – the use of violence against civilian populations can tend to radicalize them along in-group lines, and solidify their support for harsh responses to the violence used against them. Collective punishment creates an oppressed group which can define itself clearly against the agressor in an “us and them” relation. This is why, in the occupied territories, in a sense things are much simpler than they are here. Here I’m expected to care about everybody’s feelings on both sides, I’m meant to make sure I don’t offend anyone. But when “zionism” means the soldiers coming into the camp and shooting at kids throwing rocks, or having water supplied only one day per week, or white phosphorus falling from the sky – then there is no room to care for the conflicted feelings of those carrying out or supporting the daily reality of violence.

I do not believe, personally, that the use of collective punishment against a population – even when that population gives popular support to terrorist attacks against civilians, can be justified by any moral precept or idea in natural law. And yes, that means I disagree with the rights of rebel groups to use collective punishment against civilians who support an illegal occupation. Two unjustifiable sets  of acts can’t be justified co-extensively, without functionally approving of armed struggle as a legitimate way for grievances to be settled.

 

Raids from the Sinai, and the fear of retaliation

Today I woke up to news of militants having crossed the border into Southern Israel and killed seven. Israel has almost reflexively blamed Hamas, in Gaza, and there is fear that Israel will react with force against the occupied territories.

Israel’s situation contains an inherent hypocricy. On the one hand, they blame Egypt for not having control over the Sinai – but on the other hand, it is Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel which limits its authority there. The situation is more complicated because just a few days ago Netanyahu approved a temporary increase in Egyptian troop presence in the Sinai, which Egypt requested to confront the various militant groups that exercise control in the area, and to prevent bombings against a gas pipeline between Egypt, Jordan and Israe. Increased troop presence does not, however, bring immediate stability to an area – a fact that the Israelis should be familiar with. Increased military presence against militant groups can increase their popularity amongst locals, and encourage them to carry out more operations both in the hopes of making the state army feel they can’t win, and in the fear that they may fare poorly in the crackdown and after it no longer have the capacity to carry out such attacks.

Egypt’s operations in the Sinai have been quick, explicit, and lethal. Yesterday was a flurry of activity: the Egyptian military raided a camp suspected of training Al-Qaida inspired militants. They have also exposed and raided a large munitions factory that produces explosives, rockets and munitions in Al-Arish. But with such anti-militant activity, there is also the killing of locals which could turn the population against the Army – also yesterday Bedouins in the Sinai expressed their anger at the killing of two locals by blockading a road  – they suspect the killing was carried out by Egyptian security. And two other Bedouins were killed by Egyptian soldiers as they tried to flee a military checkpoint. Egypt may believe that these operations will lead in the long term to greater control over the area, but undoubtedly in the meantime these actions will make things chaotic.

It is probably in the context of Egyptian military operations in northern Sinai that we should interpret the incursion by Militants into Israel, and the attack there. Hamas claims they are not responsible, and that their security strategy against the Israelis is based on securing the occupied territories against incursion, not on outside attacks.

EDIT:

I find that I can’t write blog posts like this fast enough even to have to wait for the conclusion. As I write this and refresh my google news, I find that mere minutes ago reports have come in that Israel has shelled Gaza in retaliation. I also find, strangely, that the globe and mail article  (actually associated press) which was the first I read, has been altered and now does not speak about Hamas’ security policy, but instead speaks about specific Israeli intelligence that this act was carried out by people from Gaza.

At least seven people in Gaza have been reported dead, including a senior member in the popular resistance committees.