Archive | August, 2017

Evolving International Law, Political Realism, and the Illusions of Diplomacy

21 Aug

 

 

International law is mainly supportive of Palestinian grievances with respect to Israel, as well as offering both Israelis and Palestinians a reliable marker as to how these two peoples could live normally together in the future if the appropriate political will existed on both sides to reach a sustainable peace. International law is also helpful in clarifying the evolution of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination over the course of the last hundred years. It is clarifying to realize how the law itself has evolved during this past century in ways that bear on our sense of right and wrong in the current phase of the struggle. Yet at the same time, as the Palestinians have painfully learned, to have international law clearly on your side is not the end of the story. The politics of effective control often cruelly override moral and legal norms that stand in its way, and this is what has happened over the course of the last hundred years with no end in sight.

 

 

The Relevance of History

 

2017 is the anniversary of three crucial milestones in this narrative: (1) the issuance of the Balfour Declaration by the British Foreign Secretary a hundred years ago pledging support to the World Zionist Movement in their campaign to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine; (2) the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181 seventy years ago proposing the partition of Palestine between the two peoples along with the internationalization of the city of Jerusalem as a proposed political compromise between Arabs and Jews; and (3) the Israel military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip over fifty years ago after the 1967 War.

 

Each of these milestones represents a major development in the underlying struggle. Each combines an Israeli disregard of international law the result of which is to inflict major injustices on the Palestinian people. Without due regard for this past, it will not be possible to understand the present encounters between Israelis and Palestinians or to shape a future beneficial for both peoples that must take due account of the past without ignoring the realities of the present.

 

Israel is sophisticated about its use of international law, invoking it vigorously to support its claims to act in ways often motivated by territorial ambitions and national security goals, while readily evading or defying international law when the constraints of its rules interfere with the pursuit of high priority national goals, especially policies of continuous territorial encroachment at the expense of reasonable Palestinian expectations and related legally entrenched rights.

 

To gain perspective, history is crucial, but not without some unexpected features. An illuminating fact that demonstrates the assertion is that when the British foreign office issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 the population of Palestine was approximately 93% Arab, 7% Jewish in a total population estimated to be about 600,000. Another historical element that should not be forgotten is that after World War I there were a series of tensions about what to do with the territories formerly governed by the Ottoman Empire. In the background was the British double cross of Arab nationalism, promising Arab leaders a single encompassing Arab state in the Ottoman territories if they joined in the fight against Germany and its allies in World War I, which they did. Palestine was one of these former Ottoman territories that should have received independence within a unified ‘Arabia,’ which almost certainly would have led to a different unfolding over the course of the last century in the region.

 

As European greedy colonial powers, Great Britain and France ignored commitments to contrary, and pursued ambitions to control the Middle East by dividing up these Ottoman imperial possessions, making them colonies of their own. These plans had to yield to friction that resulted from United States Government support of the ideas of Woodrow Wilson to grant independence to the Ottoman territories by applying the then innovative and limited idea of self-determination. It should be appreciated that Wilson was not opposed to colonialism per se, but only to the extension of European colonizing ambitions to fallen empires. In this same period, however, two other anti-colonial forces were simmering, the Leninist version of self-determination the core of which was anti-colonialism and the rise of movements of national resistance throughout Asia and Africa.

 

In the end, the diplomats at Versailles negotiated a slippery compromise in the form of the Mandate System. The European colonial powers were authorized to administer various Middle Eastern territories as they wished, not as colonial masters, but by assuming the role of trustee acting on behalf of the organized international community as represented by the League of Nations. Unlike such an arrangement in the contemporary world, the rejection of self-determination and the subjection of a foreign country to this form of mandatory tutelage was not then perceived to be a violation of international law, although it was widely criticized in progressive political circles as imprudent politically and questionable morally.

 

The British were particularly eager to govern Palestine, and eagerly accepted their role as mandatory authority. Their imperial interests revolved around the protection of the Suez Canal and overland trade routes to India. As was their colonial practice, Britain pursued a divide and rule strategy in Palestine despite its mandatory status. With this governing perspective in mind the British were eager at the outset of the mandate in the 1920s to increase the Jewish presence in Israel as quickly as possible so as to create a better balance with the native Arab majority population. This, of coincided with Zionist priorities, and led Britain to endorse strongly the Zionist project of encouraging Jewish immigration to Palestine. This dynamic greatly accelerated in the 1930s, especially after the Nazis took over the German government. In reaction to this influx of Jews, the Arab population in Palestine became increasingly restive, worried by and hostile to this rapid increase in the size of the Jewish and viewed with growing alarm increasingly manifest Zionist state-building aspirations, which gave rise to the so-called Arab Uprising of 1936-39. It should be understood that when it became clear that the Zionists wanted their homeland to be in the form of a Jewish state in Palestine it produced a qualitative escalation of friction between immigrant Jews and indigenous Arabs.

 

This circumstance led in two directions that illuminate the evolution of the conflict. First of all, the Palestinians felt threatened in their homeland in a period of their own rising nationalism, a process evident throughout the non-Western world, and sought political independence for themselves but lacked adequate leadership and a resistance movement with sufficient military skills to bring it about. Secondly, the Zionist movement in Israel by manifested its contrary ambitions to establish its own independent state in Palestine increasingly were in conflict with Britain, their earlier benefactor. To achieve their goals the Zionist movement, or more accurately, the more radical sections of the movement, launched a sustained and intensifying terrorist campaign that had the strategic goal of raising the costs of governance of Palestine past the tipping point. When this goal was achieved it led Britain to contemplate alternatives to a continuation of their role as administrator of the Mandate.

 

As is the British tendency whenever stymied by a large bump in the road, a royal commission is formed and given the job of devising a solution. The commission became known as the Peel Commission, in recognition of its Chair, Lord Earl Peel, which was appointed to assess the situation in 1937. As also was the British tendency after conducting a comprehensive inquiry, the principal and unsurprising recommendation of the commission was partition of Palestine. It is this idea of dividing up the people of Palestine on the basis of ethnic identity that continues to be the preferred solution of the international community, commonly known as ‘the two-state solution,’ and was eventually accepted by the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1988, seemingly creating the essential common ground that could produce a territorial compromise acceptable to both peoples. It is helpful to realize that at some point in the 20th century such a solution dictated by an external actor lacked legitimacy even if sincerely seeking the wellbeing of the affected peoples, a presumption of good will that was not itself strong in the case of Britain given its past broken promises to Arab leaders. For partition to be legitimate by the time of World War II it would have required some formal expression of approval from the Palestinian population or its recognized representatives. Such approval would not have been forthcoming. Even at the end of World War II the Jewish population of Palestine was definitely a minority, and there is every indication that the non-Jewish majority population would have overwhelmingly opposed both partition and the establishment of a Jewish state. There was also present significant Jewish opposition to the Zionist project that is rarely acknowledged; its extent although non-trivial, is difficult to estimate with any reliability.

 

Nevertheless, with the notable exception of the Arab world, was the near universal acceptance of the two-state solution has it never materialized? There have been numerous diplomatic initiatives up until the present, and yet this two-state outcome has never come close to becoming a reality. Why is this? It is one among several seemingly mystifying dimensions of the Israel/Palestine encounter.

 

I would venture a central line of explanation. The main leaders of the Zionist movement before and after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 never subjectively accepted the two-state approach, at least with the parameters understood in Washington, the West, and among Palestinian leaders. Although Israeli political leaders blandly indicated their acceptance of a two-state approach if it meant real peace, the territorial dimensions and curtailed sovereignty of any Palestine state that was to be agreed upon were never set forth in terms that Palestinians could be expected to accept.

 

In this respect, it is necessary to appreciate that both the right of a people to self-determination had become incorporated into international law, most authoritatively in common Article 1 of the two human rights covenants adopted in1966, and that colonialist patterns of foreign rule and settlement had become unlawful in the decades following World War II. A central historical paradox is that Israel successfully established itself as independent state, almost immediately admitted to the UN, in the very historical period during which European colonialism was collapsing throughout the world, and losing any claim to political legitimacy.

 

Israel defied these transforming international developments in several concrete and unmistakable ways. Although at the time of the UN General Resolution 181 recommending partition of Palestine, the resident population was not consulted as to their wishes for the future despite the fact that the Jewish population in 1947, even with the post-Holocaust immigration surge, still numbered no more than 30% of the total. The ‘solution’ imposed by the UN, and ‘accepted’ by Israel as a tactical step on the path to control over all or most of Palestine and rejected by the Arab world and Palestinian leaders, amounted to an existential denial of inalienable Palestinian rights at the time. Undoubtedly moral factors played a decisive role, ranging from sympathy for Holocaust survivors to compensating for the failures of the liberal democracies to do more to prevent the Nazi genocide, but these powerful humanitarian considerations do not provide a legal justification for disregarding the rights of the Palestinian people protected by international law, or even a moral justification. After all, the harm inflicted upon Jews as a people was essentially a European phenomenon, so why should the Arabs of Palestine bear the burdens associated with creating a Jewish national sanctuary. Of course, the Zionist answer rests the claims to Palestine on its status as ‘the promised land’ of the Jewish people, an historical/religious claim that has no purchase in state-centric world order that allocates territorial claims on the basis of sovereign rights and effective control. From the perspective of political realism the strongest basis for Jewish territorial rights in Palestine has always rested on effective control established by successful military operations.

 

Nor did international law uphold the acceptance of the later outcome of the 1948 war in which Jewish forces increased their effective territorial sovereignty from the 55% proposed by the UN to 78% obtained by success in the war, which also resulted in the permanent dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians and the deliberate destruction of as many as 531 Palestinian villages to ensure that coercive dynamic of ethnic cleansing was not later reversed. The armistice at the end of the 1948 War became internationally accepted, demarcating provisional borders between the two peoples, known as the ‘green line,’ and also separating the military forces at the end of the 1948 War. These provisional borders became the new negotiating baseline to be relied upon to establish agreed permanent boundaries. This enlargement of the territory assigned to Israel in 1948 directly violated one of the prime rules of contemporary international law, the non-acquisition of territory by conquest or use of force. In effect, the politics of effective control was to apply only intranationally, but not internationally.

 

The 1967 War resulted in Israel replacing Jordan as the administering authority in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Egypt in the Gaza Strip, as well as occupying the Syrian Golan Heights. At the UN Security Council unanimous Resolution 242 called upon Israel to withdraw from these territories, comprising 22% of the Palestine governed by Britain during the mandate period, and for a just resolution of the refugee problem. 242 carried forward the idea of ethnic separation contained in the UN partition solution, although without mentioning a Palestinian state. 242 also confirmed as authoritative the norm that territory could not be validly acquired under international law by forcible means. The resolution did envision a negotiated withdrawal and border adjustments to reflect Israeli security concerns, but it left the implementation up to the parties with no limits on reasonableness or duration. After 50 years, the various unlawful encroachments on what the UN calls Occupied Palestinian Territories, especially the annexation and enlargement of the entire city of Jerusalem and the establishment of an archipelago of Israel settlements and a related network of Israeli only roads, cast serious doubt on whether Israel ever had the intention to comply with the agreed core withdrawal provision of SC Resolution 242. With respect to Jerusalem Israel defiant unilateralism exhibited a rejection of the supposed compromise that was hoped by UN member would bring an end to the conflict. Israel has compounded its defiance by continuously undermining the stability of Palestinian residence in Jerusalem while engaging in a series of cleansing and settlement policies designed to give the city a higher Jewish demographic profile.

 

These three historical milestones call attention to two important aspects of the relevance of international law: first, what was acceptable under international law 100, 70, and 50 years ago is no longer acceptable in 2017; secondly, that Palestinian grievances with respect to international law need to be taken into account in any diplomatic solution of the conflict, above all the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, which needs to realized in a context sensitive to the right of the Jewish people resident in historic Palestine. Although injustices and international law violations have shaped the unfolding of this contested country over the course of the last century, history can neither be ignored nor reversed. Giving proper effect to this double right of self-determination is the central challenge facing an authentic peace diplomacy. Thirdly, the entrenched presence of the Jewish population of Israel, and the state structures that have emerged, even if brought about by legally questionable means, are now part of the realistic status quo that needs to be addressed in a humane and politically sensitive manner.

 

 

The Politics of Effective Control

 

In this sense the historical wrongs endured by the Palestinian people, however tragic, do not predetermine the shape of a present outcome reflective of international law. A peaceful solution presupposes a diplomatic process that recognizes this right as inhering in the situation of both peoples. A mutually acceptable adjustment also does not imply either a two-state or one-state solution or something inbetween, or even an as yet unimagined alternative. Any legitimately agreed solution by the two peoples would be in accord with present day international law. How the historical experience is taken into account is up to the parties to determine, but unlike the Balfour Declaration or the UN partition proposal, in this post-colonial era it is unacceptable under international law for a solution to be imposed, whether by force or under the authority of the UN or by a third party intermediary such as the United States. Unfortunately, international law, and related considerations of justice, are not always determinative of political outcomes as effective control maintained over time generates a framework of control that becomes ‘legal’ if internationally recognized in an authoritative manner.

 

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Charlottesville Through a Glass Darkly

18 Aug

[Prefatory Note: I have been persuaded to remove the words ‘otherwise promising’ before the name of Macron. I paused while writing those words, but in view of his condemnation of France’s conduct in Algeria, I thought I would give him the benefit of the doubt, now obviously a premature gesture. And so, belatedly, I censor myself both to express my true feeling and to acknowledge my earlier slip of the digital mind!]

I suggest that Zionists fond of smearing critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites’ take a sobering look at the VICE news clip of the white nationalist torch march through the campus of the University of Virginia the night before the lethal riot in Charlottesville. In this central regard, anti-Semitism, and its links to Naziism and Fascism, and now to Trumpism, are genuinely menacing, and should encourage rational minds to reconsider any willingness to being manipulated for polemic purposes by ultra Zionists. We can also only wonder about the moral, legal, and political compass of ardent Zionists who so irresponsibly label Israel’s critics and activist opponents as anti-Semites, and thus confuse and bewilder the public as to the true nature of anti-Semitism as racial hatred directed at Jews.

 

There must be less incendiary ways of fashioning responses to the mounting tide of criticism of Israel’s policies and practices than by deliberately distorting and confusing the nature of anti-Semitism. To charge supporters of BDS, however militant, with anti-Semitism dangerously muddies the waters, trivializing hatred of Jews by deploying ‘anti-Semitism’ as an Israeli tactic and propaganda tool of choice in a context of non-violent expressions of free speech and political advocacy, and thus challenging the rights so elemental that they have long been taken for granted by citizens in every funcitioning constitutional democracy. It is worth recalling that despite the criticisms of BDS during the South African anti-apartheid campaign, militant participants were never, ever smeared, despite being regarded as employing a controversial approach often derided as counterproductive in politically conservative circles.

 

And of course it is not only Zionists who have eaten of this poisonous fruit. As a result of Israel’s own willingness to encourage such tactics, as in organizing initiatives seeking to discredit, and even criminalize, the nonviolent BDS campaign, several leaders of important Western countries who should know better have swallowed this particular cool aid. A recent statement by  President of France, Emmanuel Macron: “Anti-Zionism…is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” and implicitly such a statement suggests that to be anti-Zionist is tantamount to criticism of Israel as a Jewish state.

 

After grasping this tortured reasoning, have a look at the compelling Open Letter to Macron, written in response by the famed Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, author of an essential book, The Invention of the Jewish People. In his letter Sand explains why he cannot himself be a Zionist given the demographic realities, historical abuse of the majority population of historic Palestine, and the racist and colonialist overtones of proclaiming a Jewish state in a Palestine that a hundred years ago was a national space containing only 60,000 Jews half of whom were actually opposed to the Zionist project. This meant that the Jewish presence in Palestine represented only about 7% of the total population, the other 700,000 being mostly Muslims and Christian Arabs. The alternative to Zionism for an Israel that abandons apartheid is not collapse but a transformed reality based on the real equality of Jews and Palestinians. Shlomo Sand gives the following substance to this non-Zionist political future for Israel: “..an Israeli republic and not a Jewish communalist state.” This is not the only morally, politically, and legally acceptable solution. A variety of humane and just alternatives to the status quo exist that are capable of embodying the overlapping rights of self-determination of these two long embattled peoples.

 

To avoid the (mis)impression that Charlottesville was most disturbing because of its manifestations of hatred of Jews it is helpful to take a step backward. Charlottesville was assuredly an ugly display of anti-Semitism, but it only secondarily slammed Jews. Its primary hateful resonance was its exhibition of white supremacy, American nativism, and a virtual declaration of war against Black Lives Matter and the African American and immigrant struggle against racial injustice. Jews are doing better than all right in America by almost every indicator of economic, political, and social success. African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims are not. Many of their lives are daily jeopardized by various forms of state terror, as well as by this surge of violent populism given sly, yet unmistakable, blessings by an enraged and unrepentant White House in the agonized aftermath of Charlottesville. Jews thankfully have no bereaved victims of excess uses of force by American police as have lethally victimized such African Americans as Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Jews in America do not fear or face pre-dawn home searches, cruel family disrupting deportations, and the mental anguish of devastating forms of uncertainty that now is the everyday reality for millions of Hispanic citizens and residents.

 

What Charlottesville now becomes is up to the American people, and to some lesser extent to the reactions and responses throughout the world. The Charlottesville saga has already auditioned Trump and Spence as high profile apprentices of white nationalism. Whether an array of Republican tweets of disgust and disapproval gain any political traction remains to be seen, or as in the past they dissolve as bubbles in the air and soon seem best regarded as empty tropes of political correctness. What counsels skepticism about this current cascade of self-righteous pronouncements is the awareness that many of these same individuals in the past quickly renewed their conniving habits behind closed doors, working overtime to deprive the racially vulnerable in America of affordable health insurance, neighborhood security, and residence rights. As is so often the case in the political domain these days disreputable actions speak far more loudly than pious words.

 

If the majority of Americans can watch the torch parade and urban riot of white nationalists shouting racist slogans, dressed for combat, and legally carrying assault weapons, in silence we are done for as a nation of decency and promise. If the mainstream does not scream ‘enough’ at the top of its lung it is time to admit ‘game over.’ This undoubtedly means that the political future of this country belongs to the likes of Trump/Spence, and it also means that a national stumble into some kind of fascist reality becomes more and more unavoidable. The prospect of a fascist America can no longer be dismissed as nothing more than a shrill and desperate ploy by the moribund left to gain a bit of attention on the national stage before giving up the ghost of revolutionary progressivism once and for all.

 

So we must each ask ourselves and each other is this the start of the Second Civil War or just one more bloody walk in the woods?

Charlottesville Through a Glass Darkly

18 Aug

 

I suggest that Zionists fond of smearing critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites’ take a sobering look at the VICE news clip of the white nationalist torch march through the campus of the University of Virginia the night before the lethal riot in Charlottesville. In this central regard, anti-Semitism, and its links to Naziism and Fascism, and now to Trumpism, are genuinely menacing, and should encourage rational minds to reconsider any willingness to being manipulated for polemic purposes by ultra Zionists. We can also only wonder about the moral, legal, and political compass of ardent Zionists who so irresponsibly label Israel’s critics and activist opponents as anti-Semites, and thus confuse and bewilder the public as to the true nature of anti-Semitism as racial hatred directed at Jews.

 

There must be less incendiary ways of fashioning responses to the mounting tide of criticism of Israel’s policies and practices than by deliberately distorting and confusing the nature of anti-Semitism. To charge supporters of BDS, however militant, with anti-Semitism dangerously muddies the waters, trivializing hatred of Jews by deploying ‘anti-Semitism’ as an Israeli tactic and propaganda tool of choice in a context of non-violent expressions of free speech and political advocacy, and thus challenging the rights so elemental that they have long been taken for granted by citizens in every funcitioning constitutional democracy. It is worth recalling that despite the criticisms of BDS during the South African anti-apartheid campaign, militant participants were never, ever smeared, despite being regarded as employing a controversial approach often derided as counterproductive in politically conservative circles.

 

And of course it is not only Zionists who have eaten of this poisonous fruit. As a result of Israel’s own willingness to encourage such tactics, as in organizing initiatives seeking to discredit, and even criminalize, the nonviolent BDS campaign, several leaders of important Western countries who should know better have swallowed this particular cool aid. A recent statement by the new and otherwise promising President of France, Emmanuel Macron: “Anti-Zionism…is the reinvented form of anti-Semitism,” and implicitly such a statement suggests that to be anti-Zionist is tantamount to criticism of Israel as a Jewish state.

 

After grasping this tortured reasoning, have a look at the compelling Open Letter to Macron, written in response by the famed Israeli historian, Shlomo Sand, author of an essential book, The Invention of the Jewish People. In his letter Sand explains why he cannot himself be a Zionist given the demographic realities, historical abuse of the majority population of historic Palestine, and the racist and colonialist overtones of proclaiming a Jewish state in a Palestine that a hundred years ago was a national space containing only 60,000 Jews half of whom were actually opposed to the Zionist project. This meant that the Jewish presence in Palestine represented only about 7% of the total population, the other 700,000 being mostly Muslims and Christian Arabs. The alternative to Zionism for an Israel that abandons apartheid is not collapse but a transformed reality based on the real equality of Jews and Palestinians. Shlomo Sand gives the following substance to this non-Zionist political future for Israel: “..an Israeli republic and not a Jewish communalist state.” This is not the only morally, politically, and legally acceptable solution. A variety of humane and just alternatives to the status quo exist that are capable of embodying the overlapping rights of self-determination of these two long embattled peoples.

 

To avoid the (mis)impression that Charlottesville was most disturbing because of its manifestations of hatred of Jews it is helpful to take a step backward. Charlottesville was assuredly an ugly display of anti-Semitism, but it only secondarily slammed Jews. Its primary hateful resonance was its exhibition of white supremacy, American nativism, and a virtual declaration of war against Black Lives Matter and the African American and immigrant struggle against racial injustice. Jews are doing better than all right in America by almost every indicator of economic, political, and social success. African Americans, Hispanics, and Muslims are not. Many of their lives are daily jeopardized by various forms of state terror, as well as by this surge of violent populism given sly, yet unmistakable, blessings by an enraged and unrepentant White House in the agonized aftermath of Charlottesville. Jews thankfully have no bereaved victims of excess uses of force by American police as have lethally victimized such African Americans as Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Jews in America do not fear or face pre-dawn home searches, cruel family disrupting deportations, and the mental anguish of devastating forms of uncertainty that now is the everyday reality for millions of Hispanic citizens and residents.

 

What Charlottesville now becomes is up to the American people, and to some lesser extent to the reactions and responses throughout the world. The Charlottesville saga has already auditioned Trump and Spence as high profile apprentices of white nationalism. Whether an array of Republican tweets of disgust and disapproval gain any political traction remains to be seen, or as in the past they dissolve as bubbles in the air and soon seem best regarded as empty tropes of political correctness. What counsels skepticism about this current cascade of self-righteous pronouncements is the awareness that many of these same individuals in the past quickly renewed their conniving habits behind closed doors, working overtime to deprive the racially vulnerable in America of affordable health insurance, neighborhood security, and residence rights. As is so often the case in the political domain these days disreputable actions speak far more loudly than pious words.

 

If the majority of Americans can watch the torch parade and urban riot of white nationalists shouting racist slogans, dressed for combat, and legally carrying assault weapons, in silence we are done for as a nation of decency and promise. If the mainstream does not scream ‘enough’ at the top of its lung it is time to admit ‘game over.’ This undoubtedly means that the political future of this country belongs to the likes of Trump/Spence, and it also means that a national stumble into some kind of fascist reality becomes more and more unavoidable. The prospect of a fascist America can no longer be dismissed as nothing more than a shrill and desperate ploy by the moribund left to gain a bit of attention on the national stage before giving up the ghost of revolutionary progressivism once and for all.

 

So we must each ask ourselves and each other is this the start of the Second Civil War or just one more bloody walk in the woods?

End of Nuclearism or the End of the World: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Nightmares

9 Aug

 

We are living amid contradictions whether we like it or not, driving expectations about the future toward opposite extremes. Increasingly plausible are fears that the ‘sixth extinction’ will encompass the human species, or at least, throw human society back to a technology of sticks and stones, with a habitat limited to caves and forests. This dark vision is countered by gene editing designer promises of virtual immortality and super-wise beings programming super-intelligent machines, enabling a life of leisure, luxury, and security for all. Whether the reality of such a scientistic future would be also dark is a matter of conjecture, but from a survival perspective, it offers an optimistic scenario.

 

On political levels, a similar set of polar scenarios are gaining ground in the moral imagination, producing national leaders who seem comfortable embracing an apocalyptic telos without a second thought. The peoples of the world, entrapped in a predatory phase of global capitalism, are using their democratic prerogative to shut down dissent, rationality, and science. On one side, 122 governments pledge a legal commitment to the prohibition of nuclear weapons as an unprecedented prelude to the abolition of the weaponry; on the other side, all nine nuclear weapons states, and their closest allies, oppose the prohibition and opt for modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals even devising strategic plans for their possible use, prompting an urgent search for counter measures.

 

John Pilger issues a solemn reminder that Nevile Shute’s On the Beach depicting a post-nuclear human future that is now more resonant than when it was published in 1957. Leaders that could bluff their way to shared catastrophe bellow forth in Washington and Pyongyang, each deluded by the belief that military options even with nuclear weapons are the only geopolitical security blanket worth relying upon, projecting a reckless obliviousness to the risk of losing their balance while engaging in inflammatory rhetorical posturing alarmingly close to the nuclear precipice.

 

As Pilger also points out, the liberal opposition to this right wing populism in the West is also dangerously disposed toward warmongering. Donald Trump is being pilloried by a bipartisan anti-Russian hysteria that imposes harsh sanctions, seemingly intent on driving Putin’s Kremlin into a corner from which there is no retreat except by way of confrontation, and possibly war.

 

We read of record heat waves, extreme weather events, extended droughts, and wild fires as common as clouds in the sky without blinking. The newspapers report that climate scientists are ready to push the panic button in reaction to the latest studies of grim global warning trends, while the Trump factor renews coal mining and treats denial a political virtue.

 

While these alarming realities dim the light of hope for many of us, the American stock market, a barometer of capitalist expectations by the shrewdest investors, achieves record heights. At the same time famine warnings have been officially endorsed for a series of long suffering populations: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Gaza. The entire Middle East is being turned into a war and conflict zone, with an anti-Iran warmongering coalition pressuring Iran to choose between nuclear deterrence and sectarian warfare inflamed by militarist Israeli/U.S. grand strategy that appears to be motivated by a regional vision of geopolitical pacification.

 

How best to endure in the face of such fatalistic dualisms? That may be the question of our time, dodged for the sake of sanity by almost all of us, at least most of the time. Business as usual, while living with therapeutic forms of cultural blindness, the opioids of those fortunate enough to live for now in gated communities, whether on the scale of private dwellings or walled off countries.

 

Recently a lively young woman told me that many of her friends had decided not to have children because they are so fearful of the storm clouds of the future, and refuse to wait around for liberating rainbows. At the other extreme, today’s International Edition of the New York Times contains a front page ad of enticement encouraging attendance at an International Luxury Conference to be held in Brussels, November 13-14, on the demeaning theme of “What’s Next: Luxury in a Turbulent World.” My somewhat impatient response—‘whatever turns out to be next, it will not be and should not be luxury!’ More likely, those grown accustomed to luxury will shift their residences to those underground homes built by Silicon Valley billionaires on vast tracts of lands in the New Zealand countryside as the ultimate hedge against an imminent global catastrophe. It could be that the NYT conference will devote its attention to this form of post-apocalyptic luxury living! Yet that assumes a quite unlikely focus on how the world of luxury is adapting to the unpleasant realities of the Sixth Extinction. 

Living in Dystopian Times

3 Aug

[Prefatory Note: The text below is drawn from a talk given at the Spring Festival of the Arts in Beirut, Lebanon on 15 June 2017. Comments welcome]

 

Living in Dystopian Times

 

How can we understand the present unfolding world order, with special reference to its relevance for developments in the Middle East? In my view a fundamental reversal of political expectations has taken place that calls for a new assessment of what is going on, and where the region and the world seem to be heading. Twenty-five years ago there were three widely held beliefs about future trends on a global level: the assured preeminence of the United States; the continuing globalization of the world economy; and the expanding democratization of national governance arrangements. It was also assumed that these trends were more or less descriptive of regional realities, including the Middle East. Each of these trends that seemed so descriptive 25 years ago now seems to be completely out of touch with what is happening around us that is very disappointing when compared with earlier expectations, no where more so than in the Middle East. These disillusioning changes of perception are contributing to a growing anxiety about what the future portends for all of us.

 

In addition to these changes of expectation as to international behavioral patterns, there exist a cluster of deeper tensions that concern the very nature of the human condition, extending to challenges directed at the sustainability and quality of life on the planet. One unfortunate consequence of the preoccupation with these disturbing recent international political realities is much needed attention is diverted away from these more fundamental issues of an ecological, technological, and cultural character. As an American, I am especially conscious of the enormous and costly diversionary impact that the Trump presidency is having in weakening the understanding and planning needed if humanity is to have any realistic chance of coping with these emerging threats of great magnitude that have never been confronted in the past. The most serious menace posed by Donald Trump, who is most accurately regarded as the first right-wing populist tweeting demagogue of the digital age, is his extraordinary talent to shift the conversation from the awkwardly significant to the banal trivial. He is exerting a great influence on public discourse not only in America but in the world, especially by diluting our perceptions of crucial issues affecting the human species as a whole, including climate change as connected to the related decline of biodiversity, automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the destabilizing effects of these technologies of the digital age especially when applied to security arrangements and the broad spectrum of societal policies bearing on individual and collective human wellbeing.

 

Under the weight of these threats it is not surprising that a dystopian moment is beginning to dominate the cultural imagination. It discloses itself through a fascination with post-apocalyptic films and an interest in older literary dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale. These books that imagined a future that is in some respects our present are being widely read and discussed as if guidebooks to a set on conditions that were not anticipated. Within American political space the fragility of American democracy was prefigured in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here as well in scary premonitions of the imminence of digital age fascism put forward in the recent radical feminist post-apocalyptic novel, The Book of Joan (2017), of Lidia Yuknavitch. Also indicative of the foreboding quality of the prevailing zeitgeist is a bestselling booklet that is a collection of identifying markers of tyranny by the prominent historian, Timothy Snyder, with a deliberately provocative title and a pedagogical rationale, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017).

 

This ‘dystopian moment’ is reinforced by the absence of positive scenarios of the future, and the dismissal of the utopian imagination as worse than irrelevant because it allegedly created receptivity to promises that when translated into political reality produce totalitarian nightmares. In effect, utopias, correctly understood, have themselves become in these dark times a disguised form of dystopia. A recovery of societal confidence is a key precondition of envisioning a better future. Its loss is one dimension of the crisis confronting humanity at this time, and these days such failures of moral and political imagination are generally overlooked in the public sphere that is obsessively focused on the latest daily episode in the Trump political soap opera.

 

Naomi Klein reminds us in a recent interview, “Trump is not the crisis but the symptom of the crisis.” The point is that we must make the effort to grasp the social and political forces that gave rise to Trump and Trumpism. Klein also insisted that the negativity of progressive thinking in recent decades has had little political traction because it fails to present a positive alternative to the angry negativity of right-wing populism that targets the established order. Klein’s new book has the title No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. Her text impressively couples a necessary critique of Trump’s pernicious leadership with an affirmative vision of how to move the political process in emancipatory directions. Gilad Atzmon’s Being in Time argues we are living in a post-political atmosphere dominated by money and finance that have made neither the political left nor right possessing the capability to reconnect social experience with the most crucial realities of the lifeworld.

 

I am aware that depicting the challenges facing society in this sweeping way will strike many as being out of touch with the more immediate urgencies and concerns of those living here in Beirut, and for that matter, or anywhere among the devastated and collapsing ‘failed states’ of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as many other parts of the world. I acknowledge reflecting my own engagement with the stressful situation in the United States associated with the early months of the Trump presidency, and its wider implication for the future, taking note of its drift toward the apocalyptic precipice of nuclear war on the one side and catastrophic climate change on the other side. Particularly relevant is Trump’s own incoherent worldview that combines a sociopathic and anachronistic nationalism with an arrogantly reckless repudiation of international responsibilities. Of course, such an outlook enjoys a supportive resonance in several parts of the world, including giving rise to a spontaneous bonding dynamic among the growing number of autocratic leaders that govern an increasing number of major countries.