Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The terrorist rhetoric of McCain and Palin is dangerous

It is unnerving to turn from narratives about how brutal wars take form elsewhere, as in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, or Darfur, to American politics. Most Americans are unaware that those wars took form in what was supposed to be, or claimed to be, a democratic process. But through the skillful use of innuendo political leaders created doubt, suspicion, and fear and so were able to put in motion ignoble even inhuman acts.
• It was after Franjo Tudjman was elected in Croatia that the Serbs and Croats broke into conflict, involving people who knew each other, neighbor taking up arms against neighbor. The context was Tudjman’s declaration that Croatia was for the Croats and his deployment of Ustashe symbols – symbols used by criminal Croats allied with Hitler during World War II who systematically sought to exterminate Jews, Serbs, Roma and other minorities in the area. The minority Serbs in the new state of Croatia feared that they would again suffer as their parents and grandparents had in World War II. [Denich, Bette. 1994. "Dismembering Yugoslavia: Nationalist Ideologies and the Symbolic Revival of Genocide." American Ethnologist 21(2):367-390].
• Early after Sudan became independent, as political parties formed, they did not carry on gentlemen’s disputes about power. Within the Umma party, for instance, there was a bitter division among the leaders: One leader began to appeal to the “African” tribes while his opponent appealed to the “Arabs” – a distinction in DarFur that scarcely constituted a difference. But as the two sides exaggerated the racial-cultural rhetoric they established a context for the creation of intense hostilities that would [along with many other factors however] lead to the fighting that is now described as genocide in Darfur. [Prunier, Gerard. 2005. The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornel University.]
• In Rwanda a notable Hutu declared in 1960 that Rwanda's new freedom meant that “Democracy has vanquished feudalism.” The truth was otherwise. In fact, it enabled the dominant Hutus to put in motion an attempt to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors. Deploying newspapers and radio they promoted the idea that the Tutsis were the source of national problems, describing them as “cockroaches.” They needed to be exterminated for the public good. It was not merely a matter of propaganda, as they also established organizations through which the process of extermination could begin and through which pressure might be exerted on the rest of the population to conform. So it was that the day came when it was possible to induce many ordinary Hutus to take up machetes against their neighbors. Such is the power of public myth and rhetoric fabricated and promoted for political ends. [Gourevitch, Philip. 1998. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We are to be Killed with our Families. New York: Farrar, Strauss.]

Many of us have been uneasy about the way that McCain and Palin – and many others in the Republican propaganda network – have characterized Barak Obama. Many persist in calling him a Muslim [by implication a terrorist], and a socialist. These are not mistakes: they are deliberate and pointed. But it is more dangerous to the American public than may be supposed.

Take what happened today in Miami, Florida. From
“After the rally, we witnessed a near-street riot involving the exiting McCain crowd and two Cuban-American Obama supporters. Tony Garcia, 63, and Raul Sorando, 31, were suddenly surrounded by an angry mob. There is a moment in a crowd when something goes from mere yelling to a feeling of danger, and that's what we witnessed. As photographers and police raced to the scene, the crowd elevated from stable to fast-moving scrum, and the two men were surrounded on all sides as we raced to the circle.

The event maybe lasted a minute, two at the most, before police competently managed to hustle the two away from the scene and out of the danger zone. Only FiveThirtyEight tracked the two men down for comment, a quarter mile down the street.

"People were screaming 'Terrorist!' 'Communist!' 'Socialist!'" Sorando said when we caught up with him. "I had a guy tell me he was gonna kill me."

Asked what had precipitated the event, "We were just chanting 'Obama!' and holding our signs. That was it. And the crowd suddenly got crazy."

The claims that politicians make matter. Politicians, if they are properly situated, can create an unbridgeable chasm in a society. Wasn't it Goering who said that propaganda needs to be simple and repeated many times until people come think there is something to it? Surely if freedom is to work, the pursuit of public office should entail the obligation to speak fairly and truthfully in making public claims.

I pray that our country will be spared what many other countries have experienced. It is easier than we think to poison the democratic process.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sarah Palin is pro-choice

As far as I can tell, Sarah Palin’s position on abortion is the pro-choice position. In the extended quotation below, from her interview with Katie Couric, I have placed some key terms in italics, to emphasize how compatible her position is with pro-choice.

"Palin: I am pro-life. And I'm unapologetic about my position there on pro-life. And I understand good people on both sides of the abortion debate. In fact, good people in my own family have differing views on abortion and when it should be allowed. So … I respect people's opinion on this.
Now, I would counsel to choose life. I would like to see a culture of life in this country. But I would also like to see taking it one step further. Not just saying I am pro-life, and I want fewer and fewer abortions in this country. But I want, then, those women who find themselves in circumstances that are absolutely less than ideal, for them to be supported for adoptions to be made easier. For more support given to foster parents and adoptive families. That is my personal opinion on this.
Couric: But, ideally, you think it should be illegal …
Palin: If you …
Couric: …for a girl who was raped or the victim of incest to get an abortion?
Palin: I'm saying that, personally, I would counsel the person to choose life, despite horrific, horrific circumstances that this person would find themselves in. And, um, if you're asking, though, kind of foundationally here, should anyone end up in jail for having an … abortion, absolutely not. That's nothing I would ever support.
Then, now, some may characterize my position as being extreme, because I am pro-life … and I want women empowered to know that, you know, we can help them. They can be strong enough, and they can have the resources provided them to give that child life.

Notice the language: She would counsel against abortion. That is not the pro-life position; the pro-life position is that abortion should be criminalized. She would personally advise against it. Many of those who are pro-choice would likewise advise against abortion in some cases. I suspect that some would advise against abortion even in the most egregious situations. The issue is not whether one is for or against abortion: it is whether abortion should be criminalized. Palin believes it should not be: she is pro-choice, whatever she calls herself.

Pro-choice is not “pro-abortion,” a term that masks the real nature of the debate. No one is “for” abortion. It is always an act of erasure, an acknowledgment of, to use the mildest of terms, a mistake. It is always a tragedy, a loss. It is an acknowledgment of something gone wrong: No one is for that. Those of us who are pro-choice are not for abortion. Many of us would, like Palin, counsel against abortion, and like Palin, if the people involved decide otherwise, however grieved we might be by their decision, we would not have them be treated as criminals. The debate has so far veiled the fact that one can be “against abortion” in principle and at the same time against criminalizing abortion.

Sarah Palin’s position is to “counsel a person to choose life …”. She would "not want anyone to go to jail." She is pro-choice.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Another tragic loss to the Afghanistan peoples, for spurious reasons

From the point of view of the Taliban virtually everyone bringing aid to Afghanistan can be regarded as subversive. Perhaps this woman was singled out because she was a Christian but if she had been working for any other aid organization -- UN, USAID, etc. -- she would have been a target. And the Taliban are right: such people are undermining the social world they stand for. But we are seeing more signs that the Taliban are no longer a purely Afghan organization: The practice of beheading, what took place only yesterday also, is a horrific practice broadly connected to radical Arabs.

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Taliban gunmen on a motorbike killed a Christian aid worker in the Afghan capital on Monday, and the militant group said it had targeted the woman because she was proselytizing.

The woman, a British national, worked with handicapped Afghans and was killed in the western part of Kabul as she was walking alone around 8 a.m., police said. Najib Samsoor, a district police chief, originally said the woman was from South Africa, but the British government later said she was British.

The gunmen shot the victim in the body and leg with a pistol, said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary. Officials did not release her name.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the slaying, saying the woman was killed because she was spreading Christianity.

"This woman came to Afghanistan to teach Christianity to people of Afghanistan," Mujahid told the Associated Press. "Our (leaders) issued a decree to kill this woman. This morning our people killed her in Kabul."

The woman's organization — SERVE, Serving Emergency Relief and Vocational enterprises — describes itself as a Christian charity registered in Britain. The group's Web page says the charity has been working with Afghan refugees since 1980 in Pakistan.

"SERVE Afghanistan's purpose is to express God's love and bring hope by serving the people of Afghanistan, especially the needy, as we seek to address personal, social and environmental needs," SERVE's Web page says.

Afghanistan is a conservative Islamic nation and has little tolerance for outside religious interference. Proselytizing is prohibited by law, and other Christian missionaries or charities have faced severe hostilities.

Last summer a group of 23 South Korean aid workers from a church group were taken hostage in southern Afghanistan. Two were killed and the rest were released.

In 2001, eight international aid workers, including two Americans, were imprisoned and charged with preaching Christianity. The eight were freed by Afghan mujahedeen fighters attacking the Taliban after the U.S.-led invasion.

In 2006, an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity was sentenced to death by an Afghan court. Following an international outcry Afghan authorities declared the man insane and he was granted asylum in Italy, where he now lives.

Monday's attack adds to a growing sense of insecurity in Kabul. The capital is now blanketed in police checkpoints. Embassies, military bases and the U.N. are erecting cement wall barriers to guard against suicide bombings.

Kidnappings targeting wealthy Afghans have long been a problem in Kabul, but attacks against Westerners in the city and surrounding provinces have also increased recently. In mid-August, Taliban militants killed three women working for the U.S. aid group International Rescue Committee while they were driving in Logar, a province south of Kabul.

Meanwhile, assault helicopters dropped NATO troops into Jalrez district of Wardak province on Thursday, leading to a two-day battle involving airstrikes in which more than 20 militants were killed, the military alliance said in a statement Monday.

Wardak province, just 40 miles west of Kabul, has become an insurgent stronghold on the doorsteps of the capital.

Militants have expanded their traditional bases in the country's south and east — on the border with Pakistan — and have gained territory in the provinces surrounding Kabul, a worrying development for Afghan and NATO troops.

Those advances are part of the reason that top U.S. military officials have warned that the international mission to defeat the Taliban is in peril, and why NATO generals have called for a sharp increase in the number of troops here.

Some 65,000 international troops now operate in Afghanistan, including around 32,000 Americans.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

More bad news on Pakistan

Today's McClatchy papers are saying there is a new intelligence estimate of the situation in Pakistan that paints a bleak picture. The Al Qaeda-backed insurgency is growing, the Pakistan army is reluctant to take firm action, food and energy are getting short, and the government is paralyzed by infighting. This is supposed to be "top secret". The report comes after a request to consider "the U S presence in the region can be effective." A growing issue is the economy: "The Pakistani public is clamoring for relief as the crisis pushes millions more into poverty, giving insurgent groups more opportunities to recruit young Pakistanis."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Black, Muslim, Arab, Socialist, Whatever.

The emails going out about Obama have been crafty. The gossip is not that he is black – that’s obvious enough – but that he is dangerous for other reasons. You can’t say a man’s unacceptable because he’s black these days; no one wants to admit to being racist. You have to invent something else.

I have heard several phony reasons. The most widely circulated one is that he is a secret Muslim. Someone called in on a TV program last week who had supposed that Obama openly admitted to being a Muslim: the caller was asking which sect Obama belonged to, Shia or Sunni. Fortunately, the panelist on the program corrected him: Obama is not a Muslim, he is a Christian. A woman in Florida told a television reporter that she could not trust Obama because he would socialize the country [somehow she was missing the government buyout taking place as she spoke; it's now too late for Obama to do it, Bush and company have just done it]. And yesterday a woman in a suburb of Minneapolis told John McCain that she could not trust Obama because he was an “Arab.”

Whatever the reason, we know Obama can’t be trusted, these people are saying. As Sarah Palin keeps putting it, “he’s different from us.” The nuance is clear: Black, Muslim, Arab, socialist: whatever he is, he different. And dangerous.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Incindiary politics can get out of control

The rhetoric of the presidential race in the US has become insidious and incendiary. There could be more danger in the rhetoric of character assassination than we suppose. Somehow until I reached a mature age I failed to see how dangerously influential the ideological activity of leaders including the learned elite can be. The educated professional elite, leaders in thought and public education, at least many of them, joined in Hitler’s Third Reich, for transparently self-serving reasons. The professional elite in South Africa aided and abetted those figures who conceived of and operationalized apartheid; without the involvement of the educated elite the fifteen percent could never have controlled the other eighty-five percent. Even more troubling to me is the role of the learned elites in formulating the ideas that eventually would rend apart the country of Yugoslavia, breaking it into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia (and so on). It was the ideas of the intelligentsia that created the movements of fear that became genocidal among these populations. It was fear, joined with hate, that trashed personal friendships among the Yugoslavs that had existed for decades. Eventually fear as well as the arrogance of racism drove ethnic cleansing.

So I wonder about what could come out of the incendiary speeches being given by the contestants for the presidency now. Our country has been intensely divided for years and the strategic decisions of politicians to deploy “wedge issues” in election campaigns has had much to do with hardening these divisions. Leaders matter. Good leadership matters. What we have had in our country is such intense partisanship among our leaders that inevitably the public has similarly formed into two irreconcilable blocs; it is as if the two sides live in different worlds. No matter how outrageous are the accusations, some people will fail to see them as calculated measures to gain advantage, to win public support for specific agendas. For them the assertions are not metaphorical but real. Some people will take the extreme attacks on character literally. If any of them were to act on the claims being made, someone could die. Society could become even more dangerously polarized. At some point we have to beg the two sides to be civil. We are trying to choose a president: the process simply cannot become a knife fight in a phone booth.

Let us pray for statesmen who will avoid the character assassinations of the past and seek to treat their opponents with ordinary courtesy.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Mythical inspiration for a new "flood" of Jihadis into Afghanistan

The Guardian [10/2/08] says that General David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, “warned yesterday that militant Islamist jihadis were flooding into the country from all corners of the Muslim world to join the Taliban's fight against the Nato alliance, mostly via Pakistan. ‘They are very well trained. They are good at attacks on soft targets. They are Uzbeks, Chechens, Punjabis, Arabic [sic], Europeans,’ he said.”

If this is so, then it appears that Afghanistan is the place where the “jehadis” plan to take a stand against the current “far enemy.” The "jehadis" formerly saw themselves as victors over the Soviet Union in the 1980s, forgetting that many other powers, including the US, were involved in that contest (and if Lawrence Wright is correct the "Arab Afghans" in that war contributed little and were sometimes a nuisance). Now the current "jehadis" must presume that Afghanistan is again the place where another great power can be defeated.

Behind this is the oft-quoted aphorism that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, an observation that now enjoys the authority of myth. Of such myths social affairs are made. It was true enough of the British experience, and the Russian, but not of the Mongols and other Central Asian invaders, nor in fact of the Arabs. But those "graveyard experiences" for the empires were no less devastating for the Afghanistan peoples themselves; after the Second Afghan war, for instance, Afghanistan was a shambles.

The jehadis are as alien to this country as the Americans, but like the Pakistanis and the Iranians they seem unable to internalize it. We grieve for the Afghanistan peoples who have to put up with yet another intrusion of foreign interests, to add yet one more complication to their own already richly complicated society.

The Guardian also says that the US is trying to “improve cooperation with the Pakistani military and intelligence services to halt the flow of jihadis.” This is of course crucial for the success of the western powers -- and in my opinion for the Afghans. Whether it really works is to be seen.

[Click on the title above for a link to the article.]