Monday, August 14, 2006

Goodbye for a while

Dear friends and/or sparring partners,

I shall be taking my leave from the blogosphere for a period, and may return only sporadically for the foreseeable future. My dear partner Marianne has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is not one of the better ones to have. Every moment with her has become infinitely precious, while the world outside now seems both monstrous and trivial at once.

We are not believers, but any of you who are are welcome to offer up prayers if you wish--we'll take all the help we can get. I hope to return at some point, and will certainly report any positive developments.

Keep up the good fight. As some Republican once said, "I'll be back."

UPDATE: (August 17) I have been at bedside for many days now, sleeping alongside, but just stopped by the house for a few minutes, and have read all of your messages, from right across the political spectrum, the ProgBlog folks and Kate McMillan's article with comments, and Kathy Shaidle's post as well, and Eugene's.... I've been fairly composed until this moment, but your outpouring of support has been utterly moving. There is a level of humanity and empathy that transcends politics, and I appreciate this clear evidence of it so very much. I am back to the hospital and will convey your warmth and caring to Marianne.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Imperial Harper's air rage

Buried at the very end of a long Globe & Mail story about a mega-shuffle of deputy ministers in Ottawa by the Harper regime--apparently he's looking for a battalion of senior yes-persons--was this little anecdote, which speaks volumes about the character and personality of the man who stumbled into power earlier this year:

[O]n a recent trip, the Prime Minister was asked by a flight attendant to turn off his cellphone and BlackBerry. Mr. Harper declined. The pilot then made a request, saying it was for safety purposes. The PM relented. But, at the end of the journey, one of his staffers gave the pilot some news: His services would no longer be required on prime ministerial trips.

The man clearly believes himself to be above the law, and his personal wishes more important than the safety of airline passengers. His petty revenge upon a pilot who was simply performing his duties is symptomatic of an individual with disturbing personal issues.

It should be of serious concern to Canadians that incidents like this remain
underreported, at least up to now. Harper is a person, after all, who might lead a majority government someday. More power is concentrated in the hands of a Canadian Prime Minister than in those of an American President. Do we really want a Maximum Leader with a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur? One hopes not: that style of governance has already been tried.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hierarchy of hatreds: Gibson vs. Coulter

Let me first of all join the anvil chorus: Mel Gibson is an anti-Semitic moron with a drinking problem. No excuses, no equivocations: in vino veritas. You read it here, in Dawg's Blawg.

But you also read it in a Globe & Mail editorial, and in a lot of other places. Columnists have weighed in, and too many correspondents (now called "letter-writers") to reference. TV, radio and the blogosphere have fallen on the story like famished wolves. Indeed, at last count "Mel Gibson" resulted in 7,440 hits on Google News, and people aren't talking about The Road Warrior. Was his apology sincere, runs one current discussion, or is his soul so stained and stamped with the black dye of anti-Semitism that he is beyond redemption? A perhaps inevitable (but unfortunate) link is also made to the current Middle East crisis and the critics of Israel, sometimes in commentary that is unmistakeably anti-Semitic as well.

Let us leave this über-Catholic (shoot, I hate that prefix, but if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) in the quicksand--someone may or may not pull him to safety, and frankly I don't give a damn either way--and turn to someone else: the redoubtable Ann Coulter. On national US television every week, author of a number of best-selling tirades, a regular on the far-right speech circuit, the febrile Coulter is a woman who has made a career out of just about every form of racist bigotry except anti-Semitism. A selection of public quotes follows:

Press passes can't be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas* to sit within yards of the president.

The little Injun that could. [writing of Ward Churchill]

If you don't want to get shot by the police, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then don't point a toy gun at them. Or, as I believe our motto should be after 9/11: Jihad monkey talks tough; jihad monkey takes the consequences. Sorry, I realize that's offensive. How about "camel jockey"? What? Now what'd I say? Boy, you tent merchants sure are touchy. Grow up, would you? [The word used in her actual speech was not "jihad monkey" but "raghead."]

They could use flying carpets! [asked how Muslims would travel if they were banned from flying, a ban that Coulter supports.]

Thank God the white man did win or we would not have the sort of equality and freedom, or life, that we have now.

It’s extremely difficult to come in if you’re coming from a Western European country. However, if you are from a Third World country, ‘Welcome.’ If your genetic ancestors did not invent the wheel, ‘Oh, well, let them come in.’ But they’re the natural Democratic voters.

The Indians were savages…they were nomads, scalping people…We don’t eat people…we don’t engage in human sacrifice.

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

This wasn't one drunken incident on a highway. Coulter's been carrying on this way for years.But it seems that, far from being a social pariah (although, in fairness, there are a number of conservatives principled enough or at least strategic enough to distance themselves from her), she even merits the protection of the state when someone is unwise enough to heckle.

Coulter continues to be a kind of warped TV celebrity. Her inflammatory books are always on the best-seller lists. Maybe she'll make a movie someday. But there have been no calls for her head at the Globe & Mail for her vicious, perduring racism. Commentators haven't had to furrow their brows about the sincerity of her apologies, because there haven't been any.
Avoiding the top rank of the hierarchy of hatreds, she escapes being brought to account.

What does it take, media peeps? Does she have to be DUI in California to get your attention?
Or is anti-Semitism the only bigotry that counts?

*Helen Thomas is a senior White House correspondent. Rather than dropping Coulter, her syndicator, uExpress, covered for her, by replacing "Arab" with "dyspeptic" in the print version of her comments.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Israel's "encirclement"

As Israel pounds away at Lebanon, coming ever-closer to Syria, it continues to claim that this is all an exercise of self-defence. A few days ago I quoted a conservative blogger at No Quarter, Larry C. Johnson, and his words remain timely:

Let's see if I have this right. The Arab "terrorists" attack military units, destroy at least one tank, and are therefore terrorists. Israel retaliates by launching aerial, naval, and artillery bombardments of civilian areas and they are engaging in self-defense. If we are unable to recognize the hypocrisy of this construct then we ourselves are so enveloped by propaganda and emotion that, like the Israelis, Hezbollah, and Hamas, we can't think rationally. We can only think in terms of tribalism and revenge.

There is an unpleasant echo in all this, from a different time and place. The claim of self-defence is, in fact, eerily familiar. Germany, too, once considered itself surrounded by enemies, giving rise to the doctrine of "encirclement." This was the rationale it put forward for starting both of the World Wars.

No two historical situations are congruent, and, furthermore, I am not making that tiresome and wrong equivalence between Nazi Germany and Israel claimed by some, an equivalence that obfuscates the geopolitical realities in a gust of inflammatory rhetoric. But I am prepared to make the case that self-defence is a weak argument in the current situation, just as it was largely self-serving propaganda in the case of Germany, under both the Kaiser and the Fuehrer. The notion of "encirclement," in fact, is a current commonplace, even if that isn't the term used today. Googling the phrase "sea of enemies" and "Israel" reveals its transformation into yet another Middle East meme.

There is something odd about "self-defence" being continually carried out on the territory of others. Israel presently controls two pieces of occupied Palestinian territory on its borders: Gaza, a huge prison currently under punitive lock-down, and the West Bank, colonized by settlers under the protection of the IDF. It is munching away on Lebanon (a nation it formerly occupied for nearly two decades, and whose Shabaa Farms region has been under Israeli occupation since 1981), devastating its infrastructure and causing incalculable environmental damage.

Israel has also arranged a permanent peace with two other border nations, Jordan and Egypt; and is not as yet engaged with the last border nation, Syria, whose Golan Heights region has essentially been annexed to Israel as well. Israel today is hardly a helpless country on the defensive, encircled by a "sea of enemies." Rather, it is a powerful nation, backed by the US, whose surrounding nations and territories are in various states of subjection or neutralization.

Writing of pre-WWI Germany, Allyson Booth, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, notes: "While the Kaiser worried about 'encirclement,' his chief strategists organized the German army for a project of 'envelopment'." Ah. We
have seen this movie before.

Qana: missing rocket alert

Where are the rocket launchers?

Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff, waking from a three-week doze, is "not losing sleep" about the massive civilian casualties in Qana. That's what happens, he said, when "you have rocket-launchers within 100 yards of a civilian population."

Ha'aretz, on the other hand, noted some revisionist history in the making a few days earlier:

As the Israel Air Force continues to investigate the air strike, questions have been raised over military accounts of the incident.

It now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time.

The Israel Defense Forces had said after the deadly air-strike that many rockets had been launched from Qana. However, it changed its version on Monday.

The site was included in an IAF plan to strike at several buildings in proximity to a previous launching site. Similar strikes were carried out in the past. However, there were no rocket launches from Qana on the day of the strike.

The rabid Right, meanwhile, began to fantasize conspiracies akin to those of the Twin Towers "inside job" theorists. It was staged. It never happened. Hezbollah did it. There was a gap between the time the bomb fell and the time the house collapsed! There's a clean pacifier on that dead child! Alas for the credibility of these foamy bloggers and print commentators alike, Israel has now admitted the obvious. In these situations, a judicious use of Occam's Razor is always best.

The "human shields" meme had been advanced yet again, of course, although this blanket knee-jerky claim, made every time a Lebanese civilian dies, is now in some dispute. In this case the building was bombed, we are told, because the IDF thought it was "a hiding place for terrorists." Qana and the area around it, the IDF claims, have been a staging-ground for 150 rocket attacks against Israel.

The usual suspects are still clinging to the "nearby rocket-launcher" theory, even as the IDF has evidently abandoned it. The problem is that evidence of Qana as launch-pad is a little thin on the ground. The IDF has devastated the area, but not a single rocket-launcher has come to light. Where are they? In Syria with Saddam's WMDs?

Certainly the smoking gun has yet to be found in or around Qana. Last word to one of the Qana survivors, Muhammad Mahmud Shalub:

"All four roads to Qana village had been cut by Israeli bombs," he said, which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Hezbollah to move rocket launchers into the village.

"If they [the IDF] really saw the rocket launcher, where did it go?" Mr Shalhub asked. "We showed Israel our dead. Why don't the Israelis show us the rocket launchers?"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The case for Israel

No, seriously. Readers of my blog will know that I have been harshly critical of Israel's continued war on Lebanon and Gaza, which amounts to a war on their respective populations. In this post I want to make the case, not of course for this internationally-condemned behaviour, but for the notion of Israel as a nation-state in a world of nation-states.

This may seem trivial to many. Of course Israel is a nation, they will respond. What does that have to do with anything? But on taking a closer look we can see rather plainly that this is not the way Israel is presented and re-presented in the media and in much public discourse. Instead, the polysemous signifier "Israel" conflates:
  • The Jews. It is a formidable task to separate out these two identities, for a number of reasons that I have noted in a previous post. But it is essential, if we are to confine ourselves to geopolitics in our analysis of the Middle East, and not wander into essentialist metaphysics, that we attempt to do so. Israel is not “the Jews,” regardless of the natural affinity that many Jews may have for a self-defined Jewish state. Whatever its unique features, it needs to be seen through the same lens, and weighed by the same standards, as any other nation.

  • The Israeli people. As I have stated before, there is always a separation that needs to be made between a state and the subjects of that state. Criticizing George W. Bush is not—and should not be seen as—directed towards Americans in general; taking on Stephen Harper is to be distinguished from criticizing Canadians. But being critical of the Israeli state is too often taken as an attack on its people and, by further extension, upon Jews as a homogeneous group, whether they are Israeli citizens or not.

  • The incarnation of a higher morality. Machiavelli teaches us that nation-states act in their own interests and strategize precisely along those lines. Morality is a false front that has its own propagandistic uses, but not the force that drives nations. This is not to say that moral arguments have no worth, or that morality is not an individual consideration: only that such discourses are not the dominant ones in the war-rooms. Israel, however, has not been seen in this way by many commentators, including Rex Murphy and other transmitters of the "Israel has the decency to be tormented by civilian deaths" meme. As is the case with every other country in the world, Israel as a state doesn't have feelings of any kind. That is not to say that individual Israelis do not suffer that torment (although the Lebanese, I suspect, suffer rather more), just that such anguish is not a consideration in strategic military planning and not generally a factor in how states behave.

    The human costs, for example, of the US intervention in Vietnam were catastrophic: two million dead, many cluster-bombed, flechette-gunned, burned alive with napalm and white phosphorus, or poisoned with Agent Orange, a defoliant that is still killing and maiming new generations. The transmission of the gruesome details of this war on civilians, for such it clearly was, helped eventually to put an end to the war. The
    Globe & Mail stated a few days ago that "Democratic countries like Israel accidentally kill civilians when they respond, and regret it profoundly," but Vietnam stands as a particularly stark and bloody counter-example. States kill: and they do it without compunction to achieve their aims.

  • The implicit voice of the West. Israel is represented as an oasis of Western values planted in the heart of Otherness, our beachhead in the clash of civilizations. One cannot deny that in many respects Israel is a repository of the familiar. Lifting the veil on the West Bank, and Gaza and Lebanon has shown it in a somewhat different light, at least to some; but too many others remain in a state of denial. Israel is civilized, runs their mantra, Israel is moral, Israel must have reasons for doing the gut-wrenching things it does, Hezbollah is to blame, never stop cheering. The notion that those who actually do the killing of civilians might somehow be to blame for it never enters their minds.
The current state of denial reaches its absurd apotheosis in the current frenzied attempts by right-wing bloggers to excuse, justify and rationalize the massacre at Qana. We had no less than the Israeli Justice Minister announce that everyone in South Lebanon—everyone—is considered to be a Hezbollah terrorist. Qana followed shortly afterwards, this doctrine put into practice. An Israeli brigadier-general, in fact, repeated the formula in speaking of devastated Bint Jbeil. But such comments are ignored by the sleep-walkers as though they had never been uttered. Instead, conspiracy theorizing of the worse tinfoil-hat variety is making the rounds of the right side of the blogosphere. The massacre was likely staged, goes the claim—Hezbollah did it (who else?), for propaganda reasons. (No doubt they used shaped charges left over from the inside demolition job that brought down the Twin Towers. Kerosene and rabbit-wire experiments to follow?)

What we must realize is that Israel may speak to us in a reassuringly Western voice, but it is a Middle Eastern state that is not above using terror for its own ends, and human shields into the bargain. If we are to judge the actions of nation-states, whether morally, or geopolitically, or strategically, we need to use one weight and one measure. That many of us so signally fail to do so in the case of Israel is due in no small part to the fallacies and conflations noted above, the latter cheerfully exploited, of course, by those whose own considerations are in fact geopolitical and strategic.

It would clear the air to develop a discourse in which Israel as a state is confined to the same dimensions as those of other states. And hence the title of this article is not at all meant to be sarcastic. If we are to progress beyond the current falsification of the debate, punctuated as it is with periodic cries of "anti-Semitism" and "holding Israel to a higher standard" and "democratic states don't deliberately kill civilians" and "everything the IDF does is Hezbollah's fault" we need to
talk differently. Unpacking the complex notion of "Israel" is an urgent task, and the sooner we begin, the better.