Re-invention of Site and Self

Last spring the time to complete my PhD at York University ran out, and I de-registered. It’s still unclear if I can complete the work, re-register and defend, but at these points this is not my main concern. York was not an environment in which I was able to complete, or even really get going, with the work required to earn a PhD. I do think I’m capable of such work, but for various reasons, this was not the right time.

During the past year I’ve continued to live in Toronto, working several part time jobs, and I’ve applied and been accepted into a different Academic program which I will start in September. I’ve been a bit cagey about all of this, certainly my online presence has declined. This is partially a function of self-care – the constant exposure of oneself to the public sphere/agora/gladiatorial arena is not necessarily engendering of the forms of self-love and self-care which are required to maintain reasonably coherent identity across a tumultuous life-bridge. That said, at a point, self-narration becomes a form of confident self-assertion. My friend Tom tells me self-narration can actually be problematic, so this point might even be up for reconsideration. More on that later. Anyway, the point is – I’m still here, and I want this blog to have a future.

The blog’s future will not look exactly like it’s past. In the past, especially since 2011, I’ve written a lot about Palestine. Now, Palestine is a very interesting and important subject, but on the whole I’ve found that, as a while person living in Toronto, there is not much I can say about Palestine that folks will find useful. Generally, white solidarity activists only gain status in the Palestine solidarity community here by following implicit rules, rather than by creative thought and research on taboo subjects (i.e. the history of the PLO). What interests me about Palestine isn’t exactly what I’m “supposed” to be interested in, and this has brought me some very deep friendships, but on the whole it has brought alienation and distancing from that community. This can’t be disconnected from the fact that since 2012 I have not been able to visit Palestine. This is largely my own doing – if my PhD had been going better, I’m sure I could have found the money to go. But as it has gone, although I was able to continue travelling to Ireland yearly, Palestine was out of the question. I miss the friends I made there dearly, and I hope that someday soon I can go back. To be radically honest, I think a major gap in my experience of these issues is the un-talked about class barriers, such that when I spoke about Palestine with Palestinians and other Arabs in Toronto, it made many of them uncomfortable not only because, as a white person, I was in some way “appropriating” “their experience”, but because due to the extreme financial and social class difference between relatively (on the global scale, at least) wealthy Palestinians living in Toronto, and poor Palestinians living in refugee campus in Palestine. As a while person, I was able to cross social and class divisions in Palestine in the way that would be far more difficult for an indigenous person. This whole issue of the relationship between the indigenous vs foreign subject position in relation to the ability to cross local boundaries is actually really interesting, and it reminds me of something an undergraduate history professor of mine said about the best book written on 19th century New York was written by a recent immigrant who described what he saw in a way that wasn’t possible for folks who grew up in that context. But, in the current identity politics world of “you can’t write about my culture”, the possibilities of insight from the foreign position are dismissed in advance as Orientalist. So, and I apologize for my rambling here, it felt basically impossible to continue with the project of political phenomenology using Palestine as a case study.

My decision to apply for the Masters degree program at OISE came of two origins. The first is the fact that two of my housemates have been through the program, and though I never thought much of it from its title (Adult Education? I was more interested in the “prestige” disciplines like Philosophy, History, etc), I was always really impressed and interested in what they were studying in any given week. The other origin was a series of discussions with a senior figure in the student co-operative movement at the NASCO institute in Ann Arbour last November. From those talks, I learned the mind-bending fact that what I took for granted as the natural form of student co-operative governance was in fact highly specific to Ontario – and across the United States what we took as a given was in fact a rarity. I will speak more about these issues in upcoming posts, but for the meantime what I want to communicate is this sense of intellectual excitement in uncovering the specificity of something that I saw discursively inscribed as normal.

One really wonderful thing that happened this year is I was still able to attend and be part of the Economy and Society Summer School in Castletownroche, Ireland. This program, if we read it in continuity with the previous iteration (“Theory and Philosophy” summer school) is something I have now attended 6 times. Due to my academic catastrophe, I was not able to act as faculty this year (I had given a talk last year, and reading groups the two years before that), but it was actually amazing to be able to cross over between the student and staff sides of things. Also, I worked the bar for most of the evenings, which made me feel part of the staff in a meaningful way, and allowed me to interact with pretty much everyone. What was truly special to me this year were my discussions with Arpad Szakolczai, a professor of Sociology at University College Cork who has truly heterodox views on the Enlightenment, the history of Capitalism, Plato, and the correct form of Republican governance. Last year at the summer school he gave a talk entitled “Fairground Capitalism” which argued that Habermas got the notion of public and private backwards (and that the public sphere is a “gladiatorial arena”), and that capitalism emerged historically in Europe not from the market but from the Fairground. The talk was quite influential on me, and inspired me to read several of his books and articles – which formed the basis of deeper discussions at this year’s school. I hope to get more involved with his group (International Political Anthropology) over the next few years and possibly attend his summer school in Italy in 2016.

Currently I’m quite busy, working 6 days a week at various part time jobs as well as auditing 2 courses. I’ve also been developing a reading list for this summer to get a head start on my new program – especially the thesis research. I’m still a director at CCRI, and the CCRI representative to the Ontario Student Co-operative Association (OSCA) – as well as the newly elected president of OSCA which gives me responsibilities in relation to the organizing of the OSCA conference/retreat this fall. I ran for NASCO board this spring and was not elected, but I will run again this fall, as well as hopefully attend the NASCO institute, possibly as a presenter.

I will be in Toronto for the rest of June, and then I’m headed to Montreal to spend some time with my brother before I fly West to spend the bulk of July and August with my parents in British Columbia. It will be the first time in several years that I have spent more than a week or two in British Columbia, and I’m very much looking forward to thesis research at our summer cottage.

Moving forward, I hope to make this blog a public site of my ongoing research on co-operatives, as well as a place to discuss the relationship between the theoretical anthropology I’m beginning to read with the existential phenomenology with which I’m already quite familiar.


Transcript of a 1989 Interview with Abu Iyad

Abu Iyad (Salah Khalaf) was the Vice Chairmen of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and was second in command of Fatah from its early days until his assassination in Tunis on January 14th, 1991. He is an important figure in Palestinian politics, but he is almost unknown in the non-Arabic speaking world, especially amongst the current generation of folks concerned with the Palestine issue. His book, “My Home, My Land” is a well worth reading account of the Palestinian national liberation struggle up to the late 70s, but it is out of print and a new copy might cost you upwards of 130$.  I think it tells you something that the personal memoir of the second in command of the PLO during the years of the Revolution is out of print, while hundreds of books about Palestine are published every year. Therefore, I thought it would be relevant to transcribe this interview, which is almost totally unwatchable due to the slowness of the live translation, so people can read it and understand the perspective of the PLO in the late 80s.

The interview took place July 23, 1989

Interviewer: Good evening and welcome very very much to the program Conversation Abu Iyad, who is responsible for joint security for the Palestine Liberation Organization, we are talking  in Tunis and in many sense he is regarded as the number two man responsible for the PLO next to chairman Yasser Arafat and is long associated with it, and Abu Iyad welcome very very much to Conversation.

Welcome also to the audience in New York city, and at the outset I would like to congratulate you at the annunciation of the new State of Palestine  after all these long years.

After the long struggle, are you more optimistic now in these days about the eventual establishment, legitimate establishment, of a state of Palestine after this 40 year long struggle. In general what is your feeling towards the ultimate possibility of a legitimate State of Palestine?

Abu Iyad: For a start we have always been optimistic and we have turned even more optimistic particularly singe the Palestinian peace initiative has started taking place and my view is the co existence of two states, one next to each other, in the region is the dream that is near coming true.

Interviewer: Do you feel that the recent statement by Secretary James Baker of the US that Israel and Mr Shamir should give up the idea of a broader larger Israel is a significant statement and perhaps signals a change in American policy?

Abu Iyad: My belief is that there are a few elements in the American policy that have had a relative change in this sense, in this sense the declaration of Baker is a relative change and it is the first time that such a statement about Israel and the necessity of its given up its dream of a greater Israel is uttered particularly in front of a Jewish audience. And we have faced such declaration by a very positive attitude.

Interviewer: The statement was made in front of AIPAC, a very powerful Jewish lobby in the United States and Israel could not exist, could not have existed, without the support of the United States. Why do you think that the United States has, over the long years, developed such a tie to Israel, against what many even Americans see as against their own national interest?

Abu Iyad: Of course there is a strong influence of the Israeli lobby in America, and the support that has been brought by the United States to Israel is easily explainable and the reasons are in fact quite well known. The obey is quite powerful in the administration, the congress, and what we take now for a reality is that president Bush is trying to get the Arab point of view closer to the Israeli point of view and vice versa. This is particularly delicate because president Bush does not want to have any clashes between all the points of views going in the congress, between congress, state department and administration concerning the foreign policy

Interviewer: Particularly in the congress, the AIPAC has a very strong influence. Do you see a clear distinction between the policy of the US at a government level, particularly conservative period, mr Reagan, mr Bush, and the thinking of a possibility of a different thinking of the American people. Can you make a distinction in your own mind between the Government and the people

Abu Iyad: Of course we consider that as regards the American people, this people has never been reached seriously by the Arab and Arab voice, or by a Palestinian voice. And we make a very clear distinction between american administration on one side and the American people on the other side, as we make a distinction between the R administration and the Bush administration. To us it seems that president R was not as much of an executive, where as we feel that president Bush is a president who takes views and puts them into practice.

Interviewer: That is encouraging, and perhaps this interview will help Americans get another view of events, we hope that it might. (Abu Iyad nods)

The intifada has now been going for a very long period of time. Great suffering is accompanying the young people with stones and so forth, tremendous struggle. Do you think that the intifada is the expression that has prompted, or helped to prompt the dramatic changes that have occurred in November, with the annunciation of the new state and so forth. Should we give credit in a certain sense to the young children and to the intifada in Palestine for the dramatic political changes that have occurred in recent months?

Abu Iyad: The intifada has indeed changed things on many levels, on a Palestinian level, on the level of the Palestinian people, on the level of the way of thinking of the leadership of the PLO and as well as on an Arab level, and we can even add on a world level. And if I was asked about the deep profound reasons for the holding of the PNC in Algiers, and the deep reasons for the resolutions made there, I would say the direct reason for this was this generation, which is the generation that has lived the occupation for twenty years. This generation by taking up stones has at the same time the initiative to push forward the process of liberation.

Interviewer: The young generation would not allow that Israel, backed by the US, a great power, could impose its will against the will of the people of Palestine. They simply were not willing to accept the idea that Israel had in a certain sense “won”.

Abu Iyad: My belief is that this generation which have been struggling for already 19 months now, and this generation is fundamentally optimistic, and this generation is convinced that it can win against the logic of Shamir which is a logic of force and of domination.

Interviewer: Do you see a distinction between the current political leadership, Likud, Shamir, can you see nuance between the political leadership in Israel and the Israeli people?

Abu Iyad: Obviously as true it is for all peoples of the earth, this rule is good for the people in Israel and we make a clear distinction between the logic developed by the leadership in Israel and the people in Israel, and indeed there are peace movements who are developing a new kind of speech and a new kind of arguments which is very different from that of the leadership in Israel, and we are aware of the existence of such a movement, and we encourage it.

Interviewer: Since the struggle, 40 years, since 1948, has been going on, many in Israel have tried to change the facts on the ground to create a situation that would eliminate, or not make possible an Arab state in Palestine. Some Jewish or Israeli people have said the philosophy of the Arab peoples of Palestine was to make it so there could be no Jewish state of Israel. Now the idea is firmly in the minds of the PLO and in the minds of the greater Arab nation increasingly, that it is possible now for there to be two states.

Abu Iyad: To speak the truth formally, we did not believe in the possibility of the co-existence of two national states, but very frankly since 1974, and during all our PNC sessions, we have declared our belief in such a possibility, and more particularly during the 1988 session of our PNC, that this on the defence and necessity of the application of international legality, particularly the resolutions 181, resolution 242, resolution 338, now in order to defend the historical necessity of the coexistence of two states. But unfortunately the Israelis are not hearing it on the same ear, up to now.

Interviewer: There has been a change through time, do you think there has been a change through time by the Israeli leadership, or perhaps the broader Israeli community, not only in Tel Aviv but in New York?

Abu Iyad: Yes there is a change but we consider that such a change is relatively slow in comparison with the importance of the Palestinian Peace Inaitiative as it was announced and supported by the Arab Nation back in Morocco. Unfortunately we can not say that such a change really of such importance has taken place in the minds of the Israeliens. As of the other Jews, such as the Jews in the United States and in New York, we have developed very positive relationships with them, but we still consider that their actions are not enough in comparison to our efforts and the way we are open to it.

Interviewer: There has been much suffering by the Palestinian People, particularly recently. Beatings, broken bones, young people maimed by almost fascistic reaction by the israeli army and armed forces against the Palestinian people. There must be a great deal of ill feeling, bad feeling, directed against the Israelis by the Palestine people given the long history of persecution by the Israeli forces. This will be a difficult process to heal these feelings, there must remain people who feel great hurt and anger at the Israeli entity still.

Abu Iyad: What, given the talks we have had with the US administration, this is precisely the subject that we have been discussing with the American representatives. The Palestinian people suffering very heavily from the Israeli fascist practices. Much more than from the Soldiers, the suffering do come from the settlers, who are those who are established there permanently, and who bear the weapons, and who react much more violently towards our population. Consequently it will become more and more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to go about peace and convince our people of ht necessity of peace as you see that daily our children, our women, the most terrible suffering, consequently from these practices. This makes time, not really work for the processes of peace and what I say is that it is an emergency now to move by any means possible to put an end to such practices. Can you imagine that during one  year there has been no education in our territory. Can you imagine that workers will have to move to go to their work because they are Palestinian are obliged to wear special signs that do remind of the days of the yellow star under the Nazi domination during the second world war. So as I say, if an end is not put to such methods it will be in effect more and more difficult for us, the Palestinian leadership, to convince our people for the necessity of peace.

Interviewer: it’s difficult to have human understanding, very very difficult for that to be realized. Do you think the actions of the Israeli government are the actions of a paranoia, or a reaction that is to use a term psychologically unbalanced, and that they are in a sense feeling a great sense of insecurity, in terms of their own position, perhaps which causes them to act so irrationally?

Abu Iyad: To my mind Israel lacks courageous historical leaders. This is the central problem of Israel. What we have witnessed in Israel is a certain sort of competition, unfortunately not for peace, but a competition for war. Jews have indeed suffered in the past and even in the recent past, but this has never been our responsibility, it has been the responsibility of others, the Nazis, the fascists, all those who prosecuted the Jews. But to my mind this has created a sort of lack of confidence in oneself in Israel. And I consider that the Palestinian leadership is full of confidence in itself and that is precisely why it has taken this initiative of peace. And I am sure that Israel, if historical, courageous leader appears, Israel in the middle or long term will be capable of reaching this self confidence and take a new initiative towards peace.

Interviewer: It is ironic that the Jewish people who suffered so with yellow badges under the Nazis, under the fascists, and were scapegoated, scape goats, by European powers and so forth, should assume this kind of an attitude towards the Palestinian people, a scapegoat attitude towards the Palestinian people, towards the Arab people, particularly the European Jewish people, attempt to de-humanize in their mind the Arab people. This view and attitude creates very bad inappropriate feeling not only towards Palestinian but towards the whole of the Arab nation.

Abu Iyad: I think there are two main complexes, psychological complexes in Israel. The first is lack of self confidence and the second one is a complex of fear. The only means to get out of this crisis is again to see the emergence of a new historical leadership, that will come to think differently of things. Talking about security for instance which is one the complexes of Israel. Israel thinks the only way for it to survive is to be strong, have higher technology, armament, and army. But Israel only imagines this in a state of war and never in a state of peace. Whereas it is quite possible and realistic to say that a state can be strong and live in a state of peace as well. One important question that must be asked fundamentally is: does Israel want to be a state that is part of this region, or does Israel want to be a burden for this region? And again, if Israel gets rid of this complex of fear, of this complex of lack of self confidence, if it is liberated of these complexes, if it stops having no leadership in fact, because you can’t see any real leader in Israel, we see a very scattered leadership which is not talking much sense as a matter of fact and does not have a solid general political line as regards this issue. Well then this issue would be overcome, then this would be possible.

Interviewer: Again, the Israeli people have suffered a great deal, they emerged from the 2nd war with many people saying “never again will we be weak”, this is the perception that they have. Many of them felt that they were establishing the state of Israel to protect themselves against ever again being vulnerable to the broader world. There sense was they were small numbers in a very large Arab world. They felt a sense of animosity towards them, being European, and rightfully so, not following the words of Martin Buber and other thoughtful Jewish philosophers and so forth, but trampling on the rights of the Palestinian people rather than living with the Palestinian people, that Martin Buber and others would have said was the first order of business. Given this fact that they have done these things, and have lived this sense, they feel a sense of animosity directed sat them, a very strong 3 or 4  million numbers of people, against a massive Arab nation, of many hundreds of millions, and I’m wondering if you can address that sensitivity that Jews in Israel and in the United States can feel: a besieged group by an Arab nation that is basically feeling animosity towards them.

Abu Iyad: Your question is again related to this Israeli complex, which tells that Israel has never been and will never be accepted in the middle east region and Israel is exposed to the danger of being thrown out of the region any day by the Arabs. Now what we have seen is that Israel has experienced war four times. What we are asking in fact that Israel try at least once. There are international warranties as regards the Palestinian inactive for peace. Along these warranties the most important are those of the five members of the security council. What we are asking is for Israel to come within the frameworks of an international conference, and not be afraid of exposing all their fears to us in front of the international community and with such warranties. What Israel has been trying to do up to now is to make pace with the rest of the Arabs, often separately and with no consideration whatsoever to the Palestinians. This is absolutely wrong, and no peace is possible without the Palestinians. No peace document will have any value if there is no first and foremost the signature of the Palestinians at the bottom of it. So, one last thing I will like to add is that Israel may win ten wars against us. Maybe sure that it will win ten wars against us. But it does not expect to lose one war against us. So what I say is that Israel must commit to this future for peace.

Interviewer: That Israel has not committed to this future for peace, or accepted the spirit of this change, perhaps signal or shows the fact that they do not, the current leadership does not want feeling perhaps strong feeling perhaps militarily strong, victor, they do not want to give land, West Bank, they simply do not want to do that, they will avoid an international peace conference, bringing these issues to the realm of international law, because it would lead to a condition they fundamentally do not want to accept.

Abu Iyad: Regarding this question of force, feeling of force, of Israel. Even if Israel had tenfold the amount of force that it has, Israel and its citizens will never feel really secure, and it will never feel it is living in peace. If we take the example of the peace treaty that as signed with Egypt, we can not really talk of a state of Peace, we can talk of the provisional stopping of a war, but we can not speak of real peace for this simple reason: that the Egyptian people will never accept a status quo in which the rights of the Palestinians are not respected and put into practice. And the right of the Palestinians is self determination, the right to a state on the occupied territories, at least on a part of its original land, which is supported and recognized both by the whole of the Arab nation and which is demanded more particularly and more practically by us, the Palestinians. So, what is necessary now we ask of Israel is to sign a peace treaty with the Palestinians and not with anybody else. Which is the only means of warrentying the right of Israel to exist, because we Palestinians are the only real depositories of giving such a right to Israel.

Interviewer: There is no one else for them to negotiate with, they must negotiate… We’re running a little long because of the translation. The state of Israel was founded in the early stages by many Askhenazi, many European Jewish people who came in a certain sense with European values, European views. The population has much more sephardim, oriental jews, who make up more and more of the population of Israel itself. Do you think that these people who have more experience of this part of the world. Do you think the changing nature of the population in Israel might make it possible for Israel to be more amiable to the sensitivities of this region of the world, rather than inordinately having European values as the Ashkenazi did?

Abu Iyad: Sorry, I did not get the meaning of the question.

Interviewer: well, I don’t know how to elaborate, perhaps we can let it go. But it seems to me that the Ashkenazi from Europe, that they [the sphardim] might be able to feel more part of the middle eastern milieu, and not perhaps being so tied to West, or seeing Israel as an extension of European or Western Colonialism.

Abu Iyad: So this issue of the Oriental Jews, as a matter of a fact there are two stages, of historical change, taken, their existence. The first period, because of ill treatment, or the fear of ill treatment, many of these oriental Jews have chosen extremism, right wing extremism. They supported Likud. But apparently the new generation is feeling that it belongs, more, much more, in this region. And this is a factor that may…to get closer and may help.

Interviewer: The recent Arab summit where all of the Arab Leadership was ready to accept Yasser Arafat as the president of the Palestinian state. Are you more and more confident that there can be the heartfelt and meaningful support of the broader Arab nation in recognizing the obvious leadership of the Palestinian [Liberation] Organization, and also that Palestine is the core issue to the settlement of conditions and in this region and cannot be overlooked the just needs and aspirations, support from the broader Arab nation in your view become stronger?

Abu Iyad: We are satisfied with the results of the summit, which towards the initiative that came out of the PNC of Algiers, and if it means one thing it means that the Palestinian peace initiative is no longer a Palestinian peace initiative, it has turned out into an Arab Peace Initiative.

Interviewer: And if I may say so sir, an Arab peace initiative and to the degree that is possible perhaps through this television and perhaps other means of expression, a more worldly felt as it were where people could support you in that again. Again we’re out of time, I’d like to congratulate you again and all of the leadership and the people of the PLO, the Palestine people, in the annunciation of your recent state, a stunning example of the events that have taken place recently and to congratulate you on all of the long struggle, the forty year struggle, and to wish you the establishment of a just and durable Palestinian state in the region where it justly belongs.

Abu Iyad: Thank you

Interviewer: And again I would like to thank you again on my own behalf, for offering your perceptions and perspectives to the people of New York and the people of the word.

Statement on the rising situation in al Quds

When an abused, repressed and oppressed people fights back using means that cause genuine hurt to members of the oppressor group, even members who are not directly involved in oppression themselves, and even when the acts are even arguably “counter productive” with respect to the struggle for justice, these acts must not be equivocated with the acts of violence used to pacify their resistance and maintain an unjust status quo.

I disagree with acts of resistance that are not legal under international law. However as a matter of priority,  it is qualitatively more important to condemn and bring to a halt acts of pacification that suppress even these acts of resistance. Acts of resistance,  even those which are not morally justifiable, must be recognized in the context of oppression and reverse oppression, rather than the “terrorism”  discourse which only sees violence that challenges the status quo as a problem.

Political violence must come to an end through an agreement based on the recognition of Rights and real promises to dissolve institutions that sustain oppression, not through counter insurgency,  policing,  and military actions.

Short Note on the Synonymity of ‘Militant’ and Activist’ and its Conceptual and Practical Implications

The term “militant vegan” is used by many as a derogatory term, implying those who refuse to consume animal products are participating in a sort of violence. I actually have no issue with the term itself, but this usage is deeply problematic. If veganism is associated with militancy, or violence in any way, this violence is secondary to the primary violence of the food animal-agriculture industrial complex. Furthermore, the vast majority of struggle carried out by vegans is strictly non-violent, in part because of the strength of ideological “nonviolentism”, which tends to equivocate between primary and secondary violence, and in part because ‘non-violent’ struggle tends to be the most effective kind (because any secondary violence that is not willing to go all the way can easily be used to justify an increase in primary violence, with mass support).

Still, even with all the “military” connotations to the term “militant”, I think it is worth re-appropriating, and I’ll give a few reasons. First, the term “militant” includes the connotations of discipline, organization, and collective focus, shared tactics and strategies, singular common goals held in common. These are qualities that activist struggles sorely need. Second, the term “militant” in French actually just means “activist”, and the verb “militer” means “to do activist work”. Canada is a bilingual country, and we would do well to build bridges, including linguistic bridges, across the Anglophone/Francophone barrier, which today largely remains a gap between solitudes. Third, using the term “militant” encourages us to speak and think more precisely about “violence” – it does not benefit struggles to fail to distinguish between violence that preserves unjust structures, and violence that challenges and breaks those structures. The fact that the second kind of violence may take a “non violent” form does not make it any less violent, and thinking as such creates a conceptual gap between violent and non violent struggle as a principle, when it ought to remain purely a question of tactics and efficacy.

Proud to be a militant vegan. Proud to be a militant of many causes. Proud to refuse to perpetuate the conceptual and linguistic boundary between “activist” and “militant”. Militants and Activists unite, for you are one people struggling for the liberation of humanity!

Zizek’s Pseudo-Analysis of the Syrian Revolution


A year on, Zizek’s article on the Syrian Revolution as a “Pseudo struggle” probably deserves more critical consideration than it got. Not because it wasn’t widely read, but because I think it was largely read by folks who reactively absorbed it, or who found it so distasteful it was difficult to read without fuming in anger. And to be clear, I’m suggesting reconsideration now not because it was actually good, but because we can perhaps learn more from the interpretive failures and failures of solidarity than from seemingly “good examples”. It’s true that as a whole, the article amounts to an interpretive war against revolting Syrians. Worse, it’s deeply orientalist in the sense that everything “revolutionary” about the Arab spring is expected to centre around Zizek’s own perceptive subject position. It does however, have a good interpretive point about what constitutes revolutionary processes:

“[In the Egyptian Revolution] the explosion of heterogeneous organisations (of students, women and workers) in which civil society began to articulate its interests outside the scope of state and religious institutions. This vast network of new social units, much more than the overthrow of Mubarak, is the principal gain of the Arab spring; it is an ongoing process, independent of big political changes like the coup; it goes deeper than the religious/liberal divide.”

This is basically a good idea – a key part of revolutionary processes is the creation of new social units, new interpretive and relational ways that society can articulate its own interests to itself. What’s wrong with Zizek’s article is that just because he can’t easily perceive these processes going on in Syria, doesn’t mean they aren’t happening there.

“The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. ”

Worse, Zizek doesn’t even actually say that these processes are not happening in Syria, only that these processes are not “clearly perceptible”. But clearly perceptible to who? If Zizek had bothered to speak with activists who organized in the first years of the Syrian revolution, such as Razan Ghazawi, before Assad’s violent repression of protests militarized the struggle, then he would know that these processes were taking place in Syria. Moreover, if he listened to Syrian activists like Yasser Munif, he would learn about the important role of “local coordinating committees”, revolutionary democratic local and accountable committees set up to operate liberated areas.

Another argument in the article which I didn’t recognize when it first came out, or perhaps it just looks prophetic in retrospect, is this commentary on the Taliban and the future of Syria. Zizek disputes the standard reading of the Taliban as just another “fundamentalist Islamist group” enforcing its rule by terror, pointing to a “class revolt” they engineered, exploiting fissures between “a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. In relation to Syria then, Zizek claims that even if Assad “somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years.”

ISIS did not come out of Assad’s victory, although perhaps it is related to the stagnation and failure of the revolution to topple Assad (and perhaps the revolution’s failure to articulate itself in radical emancipatory frameworks that extend beyond religious/liberal divides). It’s worth asking, also, about what class fissures (although tribal and sectarian fissures seem more relevant here) has ISIS exploited?

Perhaps the way to end is with a surprising implication of Zizek’s position on Syria. While he dismisses what he perceived about Syria as “Pseudo struggle”, he also argues that there is no alternative to Revolution for Syrians. The only alternative to the “Taliban” scenario, according to Zizek, is the “radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.”

The only pseudo in here is Zizek’s pseudo-analysis of Syria. One word that does not appear in Zizek’s article is ‘dignity’.

An Open Letter to Folks Re-Posting George Monbiot’s Article on the US bombing of ISIS

This article you have posted by the George Monbiot engages in reductive equivocation across a whole list of conflicts and tensions. It’s by a white English guy who has written about the middle east only sporadically (I can’t find anything else by him that’s recent on Syria, Iraq, or ISIS). Since you are probably well aware of identity related issues in relation to the ongoing normalization of oppression, can I suggest that you try to read Syrian and Iraqi intellectuals as well before developing an opinion on what’s happening there?

The major fallacy in Monbiot’s article is the fact he focuses only on a very specific form of military intervention, while remaining quiet on the much more normal form of military intervention: the supply of arms. America funds the Israeli army something like 3 billion a year, the Egyptians 1 billion. The Iraqi army is built out of US debt (although the most recent planes they are flying are Russian), and in fact the entire history of the colonial and neo-colonial processes in the middle east have been of supplying various states with various kinds of security apparatuses, whether those are security guarantees, or arms.

Simply opposing the act of bombing, without a more radical critique of the history of European and American involvement int he middle east, leaves much to be desired. Should middle eastern countries not be allowed to sign treaties which include security guarantees from Western nations? If a middle eastern country does sign such a treaty, it is a treaty obligation for that western state to intervene in favour of the attacked nation. Iraq today is under attack – much of it’s territory is under occupation by an insurrectionary group.

The lack of analysis concerning the American bombing of ISIS is summed up in the use of the phrase “Second War on Iraq”. Not to mention the fact that the 2003 war was a “second war on Iraq”, unless the Gulf war is forgotten, this war – unlike the first two – is not a war against the Iraqi state, but an intervention in something like a civil war on the side of the Iraqi state. And, crucially, these attacks of not only been agreed to by the Iraqi state; the Iraqi state was actively requesting them.

I have devoted much of the past two years to organizing in relation to the Syrian revolution, and I was very active for the past three years with organizing with various Palestine solidarity student groups and IAW’s. Since I became involved, but especially since the uprising in Syria began, I have been very upset at the lack of engagement I’ve seen on the Canadian left with the politics of the Arab/Muslim region – it’s very low especially in relation to the volume of leftist voices against the various things are government does there. It’s better with respect to Palestine, but only after more than 50 years of organizing by Palestinians have western activists adopted a progressive and non reactionary anti-apartheid discourse. Compare this with western leftists discourse on Iraq and Syria, which despite a lot of “anti war rallies”, has remained extremely thin.

In my view, reactive pro nor anti intervention discourse helps Syrians fighting both the fascist Assad regime and the also fascist Daesh (“ISIS”). Neither does it help Iraqis, either those who are allied to the Iraqi state, or those who are to varying degrees supporting ISIS (although the majority of the anti-state forces in Iraq are Iraqi nationalist forces (including Iraqi Ba’athists) who are in a tactical alliance with ISIS).

Both the discourses which are being widely promoted in relation to intervention against ISIS – the “this intervention costs a lot” discourse, and the “there are so many people trying to kill each other in the middle east why would we possibly get involved” discourse, are deeply orientalist because they reduce the people of Iraq and Syria to a footnote in a conversation about America. Therefore I’m not surprised that, in actuality, the point Monbiot is making in this article is pretty much the same as Sarah Palin’s position (“Let allah sort it out”).

I am extremely opposed to the US bombings in Syria. Not because I oppose intervention in advance, in all cases (that perspective is unaccountable to the many Syrians who have called for intervention against Assad who has been carrying out genocidal processes against Syrians which has killed more than 250k and displaced many millions), but because of the particular character of those bombings. For example in Manbij, a town that was liberated from the regime without the use of arms, neither the regime nor ISIS dared to attack the grain silos because the fighters could not avoid accountability to the local population. The unaccountable US bombers however did target the silos, and have seriously reduced that town’s capacity to feed itself and maintain food sovereignty, which is one of the reasons it has been strong in the face of the regime and in the face of ISIS. The targeting of these silos shows the extent to which the USA wants the Syrian revolution to fail.

Here are some links interviews with Syrian intellectuals, which I think are far better analysis than either what is being promoted by the mainstream news fear mongers, or the leftist knee jerk “anti war” folk. And yes, these are all anti-intervention positions. I apologize that I can not link to any Iraqi intellectuals – and I fully acknowledge the insufficiency of my own intellectual engagement, manifested in the fact I don’t have off hand links of Iraqi intellectuals that I can cite to explain the political discourse inside Iraq regarding the Iraqi state’s requisitioning of these air strikes against Daesh.  

Yassin Haj Saleh:…/conscience-of-syria…

Yasser Munif:

Leila Shrooms:…/syria-the-life-and…/

Rania Khalek:…/syria-s…

The Need for Honesty and Clarification for the Consumer Boycott against Israeli Apartheid

The BDS consumer boycott campaign feels hopelessly disorganized as soon as you try to step beyond the huge targeted campaigns, such as against Soda Stream or Hewlett-Packard. Unlike the Arab League Boycott, there are no simple set of self-consistent guidelines to determine what makes a product “boycottable”, and targets chosen by people often fail to reflect a sense of really having thought things through.

For example – McDonalds and Coca Cola. Are they boycottable? They both do business in Israel, but are they “complicit in Israeli violations of international law”? Paying taxes in Israel is to some extent complicity in these violations. Coca Cola goes farther and actually has a factory in an illegal settlement. However, McDonalds also in a sense “respects” a boycott against Israeli violations of international law by refusing to open locations in the occupied territories. Also, while Coca Cola is indeed involved in settlement factory activity, their main competitor – Pepsi – is a part owner of the Israeli company Sabra Hummus, which is itself a major target of BDS (due to being an Israeli export). So whether you support Pepsi instead of Coke, you are supporting Israel either way.

While guidelines exist, not only do they fail to give a definitive answer to the question of what qualifies a business to be boycott-able, it self-consciously avoids the question. The BDS movement website reads “Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid is a daunting task that has a slim chance of having a concrete impact.” However, to boycott companies (and countries!) that economically co-operate with Israel was the strategy adopted by the Arab league boycott against the Zionist movement which in 1946. According to the Israeli chamber of commerce and cited from a 1994 New York Times article, “the boycott has cost Israel $20 billion in export opportunities and $16 to $32 billion in lost investment”. Compare this with the cost to Israel’s economy from BDS, which is measured in the millions, rather than billions. While the current policy of many Arab League states is not to observe this boycott, this is not evidence that the boycott tactic itself is ineffective, rather it is evidence that American power has effectively neutralized Arab resistance against Israel.

“Trying to boycott the products of every single company that participates in Israeli apartheid” was in fact the policy of the Arab league boycott, which included a primary boycott (boycotting Israel and Israeli exports), a secondary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with Israel) and a tertiary boycott (boycotting companies that do business with boycotted companies). The BDS movement includes a version of the primary boycott (although it does not target individuals), and the secondary boycott (but only insofar as the companies “are complicit in Israeli violations of international law), and might include some version of the tertiary boycott when the engagement between companies concerns matters that sustain Israeli power.

BDS activists should clarify the Boycott of Israeli products in relation to the question of the secondary boycott. The notion of an “effective” or “strategic” target is a dangerous ground for hypocricy because it suggests the possibility of a situation where two companies which are equally supportive of Israeli crimes, but only one would be considered a “target” for boycott. The basis of a products boycott ability should be some standard of their degree of support to the Israeli apartheid system. Personally, I can’t see how we can draw any qualitative boundary between companies who participate directly in the occupation and security apparatus, and companies who merely help support and sustain the Israeli economy. The Israeli economy and the Israeli military-occupation machine are one and the same power system.

In my view, we should recognize that internal consistency is a part of the nature of activist solidarity – we shouldn’t make fun of people’s desire to be consistent. We should learn about the Arab league boycott in detail, and consider taking from it this sense of consistency in refraining from economic activity that strengthens the power systems that sustain Israeli crimes. Because…

2014 Peoples’ Social Forum and the Anglophone/Francophone Political Gap

This past weekend I travelled to Ottawa to attend four days of workshops, seminars, lectures, assemblies, and conversations concerning social and political issues. I attended sessions on global inequality, guaranteed minimum income, the state of the left since ww1, co-operative self-management, the 2012 student strike, quebec independence as resistance to neo-liberalism, the coup in Egypt, veganism and colonialism, the state of indigenous land defence today, and how to move forward with Palestine activism. I also met some very interesting people, who I hope to stay in contact with, as well as rekindled some old friendships. I also discovered that I really like dancing to progressive hip hop. 

I thought initially I would go through every seminar, but this might be boring for readers. I think instead I will write about a general theme that emerged for me over the weekend. It was something I had inklings of already, but after this weekend I am no longer able to deny the gap in political discourse that exists between the anglophone and francophone communities in Canada. Attending the same number of events in French as I did in English, I noticed different issues coming to priority, different political ideals being mobilized to discuss the issues, even some differences in conversational norms.

This was all somewhat of a surprise, mostly because I hadn’t expected, and this is partially because I hadn’t spent any time looking at the schedule in advance, any of the convergence to be in French. After all, we all know that Francophones (are expected to) speak English, whereas Anglophones don’t (are not expected to) speak French. This isn’t descriptively false, and it was a cause of tension at several points when Anglophones complained that some event wasn’t being held in English. However, nearly all sessions provided for the language divide with simultaneous translation, UN style. It was outside my normal experience to see quiet rooms set up inside all the sessions, and people wearing headsets listening to the session in the other language. Probably quite expensive too, but I suppose this is what it takes to bring together the two solitudes. Except it isn’t really, because as I would have expected, Francophones came to Anglo-centric sessions, but virtually no Anglophones attended sessions given in French, despite the resource of simultaneous translation being offered.

This is actually the beginning clue to the division between the communities, in my view – the lack of interest in the issues that concern the other. The 2012 student strike, for example, was a massive event in Canadian student history, especially for progressives. And this forum didn’t disappoint – a session was set up for three members of CLASSE (the amalgam of student unions that organized the strike) to speak in the large auditorium about the history and future of that movement in a talk titled “A student strike, but a social struggle” (it sounds better in French: “La grève est étudiant/e, la lutte est populaire“). They built it, but they didn’t come – the event was attended by a scant twenty people (which looked especially minuscule in the large auditorium), and not a single person made use of the simultaneous translation.  That surprised me, especially because knowledge of the political history of that strike is not well known in English Canada, and most Anglo-Canadian progressives will tell you that it interests them and they would like to know more about it. What didn’t surprise me, however, was the nearly complete absence of Anglophones at the talk “Quebec Independence: beyond nationalism, solidarity grounds to think about social transformation“. Maybe it is a bit much to expect anglo-Canadians to care about the issue of Quebec independence, but it would do them well to take notice to how the sovereignty discourse has changed on the progressive left in Quebec. This event was interesting enough that it deserves its own post devoted to what I learned in it, but for the meantime I want to focus on the gap – for example how many progressive anglo-Canadians continue to use the derogatory term “separatist” to refer to the Quebec sovereignty movement? What’s worse is how many anglo-Canadians use the term “Progressive Canadian” or “Canadian” as if it unproblematically includes Quebecois who are committed to sovereignty? The pinnacle of this disconnect in my experience happened at the 2012 Student Strike event when two Anglophone (but fluently French-speaking) members of CFS made statements during question period in which the term “Canadian” was used to unproblematically cover Quebec students, including contexts of belonging that are strongly anti-federalist. Now, the talk itself hadn’t touched on the issue of federalism, but the fact that the talks were in French, and the absence of the use of the term “Canadian” from the talks made it clear to me that that word, “Canadian”, was not an inclusive term in this space. 

Ignoring Quebecois contexts of belonging speaks to the gap in understanding between the communities. But what was actually much more interesting to me was the differences in political discourse between most events in English versus French. The first Francophone events I attended was perhaps the strongest example of this, titled “A Universal Guaranteed Income to meet Human Rights“. Guaranteed income is an issue which is important to me because, looking forward, I see it as the only alternative to increasing inequality as low income jobs aren’t simply squeezed with lower wages, but literally eliminated through mechanization (nearly 50% in the next 20 years). However in Toronto the issue hasn’t really been taken on by the radical left. OCAP doesn’t focus on it, although folks at this talk did say that they discuss it sometimes. However, if you search OCAP’s website for “minimum income”, nothing directly about guaranteed minimum income comes up. In Toronto, the only ground openly advocating for guaranteed minimum income is the Green Party, not exactly a bastion of radical progressive thought. This presentation did have a radical feel about it, however. It was put on by a group by the name of RSUG, which stands for committee for universal, social, guaranteed revenue (income), and the FCPASQ, the common front of people on social assistance in Quebec.  From their presentation I was able to glean a few reasons why perhaps their discourse has not spread through radical circles in Anglophone Canada. For staters, their presentation began with a focus on rights, and the way rights are inter-dependant – such as it would be mistaken to think someone has the right to free speech if they are starving and freezing to death, and therefore speech rights depend on rights to access food and shelter. RSUG also focussed on the pragmatic side, emphasizing that the cost of poverty is much higher than the cost of eliminating poverty. They differed from other guaranteed minimum income proposals, such as Milton Friedman’s (!), in that their proposal would include the continuation of all social services (whereas neo-liberal versions of guaranteed minimum income use the income supplement as a pretext to convert all social services to for-profit private companies). They said that such a supplement, which should by their calculations amount to 19k$ per year, would free people to volunteer, to raise children, and serve as a recognition for the 33% of national GDP (by their calculation) which is currently unpaid labour. They focussed on pilot projects which showed promising data including a surprisingly small decline in willingness to work, and spoke about how the desire to work to contribute to society is a basic human need, and the belief that humans only work to gain their food and shelter is an incredibly depressing view of the human species which few people actually believe. 

I don’t believe, however, that if RSUG came to Toronto, that they would be well recieved. Rights are not popular amongst the radical left right now, and RSUG fundamentally bases their analysis on a theory of human and juridical rights. Moreover, RSUG sees the state as an institution which should be held accountable to those whose needs it must serve (a view which, when I vocalized it at a later anglophone session, I was virtually laughed out of the room). The current thing is to be critical of “rights-discourses”, especially because of how they are co-opted by the state and serve to preserve the marginalization of the most oppressed by including others. And as for the state, the current version of anti-colonial, anti-oppression discourse sees no possibilities for redemption with the state. My problem with these critiques is that they both go too far. For example Dean Spade had effectively argued the thesis that rights-discourses can permit the co-option of radical movements in relation to the gay-rights movement. I agree with his account of the history of the gay and queer liberation struggles in North America/Turtle Island, and that in that context rights-discourse served as an avenue for liberals to co-opt a radical struggle and marginalize those who always have been and continue to be the most at risk of being subjects to anti-gay and anti-queer violence. However, generalizing this insight into a general principle of suspicion or rejection towards rights-discourses commits the error of confusing strategies with principles, and ignores the radical and revolutionary history of rights discourses especially in 18th and 19 century France. 

This difference between an Anglo-centric (post-modern) focus on specificity and a french-revolutionary style left-Republican focus on universality is also made evident by RSUG’s prolific use of the term “universal“, which they explained to mean that the guaranteed income should be available, and the same, for all residents of the territory in which the plan is implemented, regardless of age (so long as they are over 18), gender, ethnicity, language, etc… The motivation here is to be as inclusive as possible, to build social solidarity based on the meeting of concrete needs across the broadest possible context of belonging. I asked in the question period if this would include non-status persons, and the answer I received was pragmatic but reasonable: according to the presenter of the event, yes, but according to the RSUG and FCPASQ the income would be only for people of status. I pointed out that this is a major problem because of an increasing number of non status migrant workers working in our economies, the presenters agreed with me, but said that this is a project of social solidarity, and it can be implemented only so long as people agree to pressure institutions to implement it. The project is already pushing to increase the scope of who is included in the context of care, and it’s reasonably possible that those committed to the project and those being mobilized could be convinced that including non-status people is essential. This demonstrates an essential kind of gap between the politics of general inclusion, and the politics of dismissing universality and focussing exclusively on the most marginalized, because I’m sure when I present this politics to my anglo progressive, anti-rights discourse friends there will be a tendency to dismiss the project on the basis of its exclusion of the most marginalized. However, if a project is genuinely grassroots and democratic, and that is the only chance to implement RSUG, the project will only be as exclusive as the people carrying the project forward, and if the tendency of the project is towards greater inclusion of the marginalized by increasing greatly the income of the least well off, in a project which will also benefit lower-middle class workers, this is an organizing context which is fertile with the possibility of pushing the bounds of who is included increasingly outwards. 

The difference between RSUG’s attitude towards rights and the state, and the attitude which is becoming prominent in anglo-radical contexts was really driven home by a seminar I attended late on Friday evening by the name of “Veganism in the Occupied Territories: Anti Colonialism and Animal Liberation“. Dylan Powell made a great presentation, as usual, where he called out racist vegans for being racist in their attitudes towards indigenous people who hunt animals for food. He also presented a lot of substantive information of which I was not previously aware, at least not consciously, on the newness and hugeness of animal agriculture on Turtle Island, which really demonstrates how problematic it is to focus on indigenous hunting. However, he tied “animal rights” discourse to the racist veganism that often comes from settlers, and when I suggested in question period that a welfarist approach to opposing animal cruelty was even more susceptible to the problem of racism, and referred to the work of Will Kymlicka which has tried to address exactly this problem but does so from a rights-framework, he dismissed Kymlicka by making slanderous allegations about the kinds of things Kymlicka’s followers tend to say. When I suggested to differentiate between the euro-settler community, to which the state is accountable, from the indigenous communities which are struggling for sovereignty, I was basically laughed out of the room for suggesting that the state could even potentially be accountable to anyone. And the thing is, while saying it, I realized that it was going to sound ridiculous, and I experienced this self-alienation as an intense difference between linguistic communities because I had just come from the seminar on new approaches to Quebec Independence.

I wonder if one of the reasons Anglo-Canadians find it so difficult to believe that state structures could be radically reformed, that the state could be held accountable to its people, has something to do with the Franco-Quebecois experience of the sovereigntist movement. Although both referendums failed, they both came close to succeeding, and I don’t think the experience of either was felt as “oh, well I guess this was impossible”. Maybe Quebecois believe that their state institutions can be radically reformed because they very nearly were radically reformed on two separate occasions – I can’t think of any similar examples of popular movement for restructuring the state ever happening in Anglo Canada. One thing that Quebecois sovereigntists speaking at the forum on approaches to Quebec independence all repeated was their encouragement to English Canadians to radically reform their state as well, because it is a “prison for them as well”. This encouragement in my perception is not being heard, and perhaps can not be heard in a political climate dominated by anti-State discourse coming both from anarchists and post-modernists, culminating in the all encompassing focus on “anti oppression”. 

There are other things I’d like to mention, but I can’t write forever at the greatest level of detail. The first session I attended, “World Cafe: Collaboration for Greater International Solidarity” was run by by the Quebec Association of International Co-operative Organizations (AQOCI), the Canadian council for international Co-operation, and Inter Peres. In other words, or rather in their own words, international development workers (although it hadn’t said so on the write up). When I heard the presenter say “development workers”, I immediately assumed “liberals” and looked towards the door. But the session was actually very solid, there was uncompromising analysis of power gaps, and an emphasis that all through the weekend we should view sessions with an eye to global and local inequality, the way power inequalities distort collaborative projects, and we even talked about the pitfalls of solidarity work! (You should have seen their faces when I answered that question by referring to support for Hezbollah in the context of their intervention in Syria, although they, after I explained, agree with the point). I think the good politics of these solidarity organizations might also have to do with the Quebec connection – there is a much larger co-operative movement in connect, and focus on building a “solidarity economy”. I see a continuity between this faith in institution building from the co-operative movement and a more open attitude towards reforming the state. It might be hard to articulate this, except that I found a video from Quebec Solidaire that makes the case for me, titled “Quebec Solidaire est Communiste“. The video is in French, but I think it’s worth translating:

When you hear Quebec Solidaire speak, we would say they want to give everything to the State. Health? The state. Education? The state. Economy? The state. Environment? The state. What Quebec Solidaire wants is to create an immense state that will take care of everything. We will have to pass by the way of the state to eat, se diverter, leave, we will never have a word to say on everything, it will always be bureaucrats to decide everything. We know well who Quebec solidaire sees at the head of this state. They are like the communist party in the USSR or China. 


In fact, it isn’t exactly this. Quebec solidaire considers the state as a tool that can permit us to realize things together, and this tool must not be turned against us. For Quebec Solidaire, the state must be at the service of the population, for example, to finance public services, but also when a factory closes, workers should be allowed to change their factory into a co-operative. In the same manner, when Quebec Solidaire proposes to nationalize wind power, is is the state which will fix the national objectives, but it will be left to local communities to decide how those objectives will be met in their areas. Currently, there are too many decisions made without consultations, and this comes not only from the government but also from corporations over which we have no power at all. Quebec Solidaire proposes to render our society more democratic at all levels, and put an end to all the little dictatorships that restrict our lives. 

I want to end on a note which is at least half uplifting. During the forum on approaches to Quebec Sovereignty, Jonathan Durand invited English Canadians to reform and re-invent their state such that it would no longer be “The Canadian Prison” that holds hostage both francophone and anglophone Canadians. His call won’t be heard, partially because I don’t think there was a single anglophone besides myself in the room when he said it, and also partially because anglo Canadians don’t believe in the possibility of these kind of radical reforms. For example, when the referendum to change the British Columbian election structure to Single Transferable Vote failed for a second time, the overwhelming social emotion was: well that’s done, no chance in changing it. The same thing happened when a similar referendum failed in Ontario – the feeling was “well, that’s impossible, but at least we tried”. The belief that changing state structures is impossible is, however, the crucial lock on the door that keeps it impossible. Any political idea can be powerful if people believe in it, and I believe the central failure on the radical anglo left today is the commitment to ideas which are non-starters for most of the left’s “natural base”, i.e. lower income working folks. Focussing above all on specificity and difference isn’t inclusive to the broad majority, and moreover the near complete ignorance of Francophone issues by Anglophone “progressives” shows that the focus on difference among radicals is selective at best. Moving forward might be helped by changing form a focus specific identities, “difference”, towards respecting contexts of belonging and building new shared contexts of belonging. 

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.