Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza (updated)

Israel has crossed the line again.  Yes, every nation has a right to defend itself.  But the IDF's raining down of death upon an occupied people, besides being a blatant violation of the Geneva conventions and plenty of other international laws, is about as  effective a form of self-defense as the death rained on Sderot by Hamas on a much smaller scale.  There is a precedent for this brutal foolishness:  the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which only strengthened Hezbollah, by most accounts.  

Yet, there seem to be few options for reversing events in any permanent way.  The Palestinians have a right to resist, including by force, of course.   However, while miring down an Israeli ground invasion (should it come) with street fighting might end this particular assault, it won't stop future bombing raids.   If anything, it will just lock in a new pattern. Hamas will be practically bound to go on the offensive, as will, in turn, Israel and so on.

Appealing to Israel can only go so far, too---the country tuned out world public opinion long ago.  And now, in particular, it has turned inward, into its own politics, with an extraordinary degree of self-reflection and courage in some instances, but inward nonetheless.  Indeed, one explanation for the carnage of the last few days is the need of Olmert-Livni-Barak triumvirate to look tough before the upcoming Israeli elections (see Jonathan Cook's detailed analysis at Electronic Intifada).  

At the risk of sounding American-centric, peace with justice has to start in the United States. As Israel's main ally, America has the most leverage over Israel and, equally importantly, as the country furthest out of sync with the rest of the world on the Middle East conflict, it has the most room to grow---grow in its understanding of the situation, grow in its engagement, and grow in its generosity of heart.

Citing polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans already "favor taking neither side," Salon's Glenn Greenwald bemoans the fact that "no mainstream politician would dare express the view that 70 percent of Americans support."  Greenwald goes on:
Americans shouldn't be in the position of endlessly debating Israel's security situation and its endless religious and territorial conflicts with its neighbors.  That should be for Israeli citizens to do, not for Americans.  But that distinction -- between the U.S. and Israel -- barely exists because our political leaders have all but eliminated it, and have thus imposed on U.S. citizens responsibility for the acts of Israel.
But this is simplifying things.  There's a massive wellspring of support for Israel in the States at a popular level, whether it is reflected in a given poll or not.  Tracing images of Israel in American political discourse back to the early, post-revolutionary period (when, of course, Israel did not even exist as a state), Walter Russell Meade recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:
Both religious and nonreligious Americans have looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for an example of a people set apart by their mission and called to a world-changing destiny.... 
This mythic understanding of the United States' nature and destiny is one of the most powerful and enduring elements in American culture and thought. As the ancient Hebrews did, many Americans today believe that they bear a revelation that is ultimately not just for them but also for the whole world; they have often considered themselves God's new Israel. One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another....
The United States and Israel also have in common their status as "settler states" -- countries formed by peoples who came to control their current lands after displacing the original populations.....
In the United States, a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals.
If we are to force Israel back from abusing its outsized military power and, ultimately, from its own self-destruction, we have to start among American citizens, not fighting AIPAC or persuading Harry Reid... or even Barack Obama.  

UPDATE: Haaretz has a good piece on rivalries within the Israeli leadership in regards to the atrocities of the past few days.

UPDATE II: Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns treatment of occupied civilians.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's wrong with rewarding physical labor?

There's something I've been trying to put my finger on in regards to the current outcry against the United Auto Workers.

I felt it back in 2005 during the transportation workers' strike in New York City. It has popped up again around discussions of labor market reforms in places like India and South Africa and France. It even hovers in some Chinese reactions to this fall's exodus of unemployed migrant workers from the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta to the country's rural interior---as it did around discussions of laid off state-owned enterprise employees in Liaoning and Heilongjiang a decade ago. I think I'm starting to get an idea of what it is...

There's a sense among an alarmingly large number of people---in the U.S., China, Europe and elsewhere---that it is not only impractical for an economy to allow people to make a great living (not just a decent living) through physical labor, but that it is in some way conniving, even disgusting when workers do so or, worse yet, that it is downright morally wrong. Call it Max Weber's "protestant ethic" in reverse. To NOT work hard, by the emerging logic, should be amply rewarded (see the quoted section of Krugman's column in my previous entry) and if you're poor, it's your own fault because you have been working too hard!

Obviously, this thinking is not entirely new. But at a time when a global financial crisis is in full swing, it is strange not to see more of a push back against this meme from more sectors of society.

The courageous factory occupation of Chicago UE workers (who have been supported by president-elect Obama) and the drawn-out but successful UFCW organizing drive at the Smithfield meat packing plant in North Carolina are encouraging for America.  So, too, in the Chinese context, are the innumerable strikes, protests and riots by Chinese taxi drivers, toy factory workers, suitcase manufacturers, teachers, cops and even small factory owners.  But I don't see a middle class cohort standing with these people in either country.

Do workers need a vanguard of intellectuals, of hipsters and company men?  No, of course not. But it seems like it would be healthy if there was a greater appreciation for work among these people, as they dominate popular culture and the levers of government.   And that appreciation should come in the form of support for high-sky high-salaries.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Good call

To quote someone at ridiculous length:

At the crudest level, Wall Street’s ill-gotten gains corrupted and continue to corrupt politics, in a nicely bipartisan way. From Bush administration officials like Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who looked the other way as evidence of financial fraud mounted, to Democrats who still haven’t closed the outrageous tax loophole that benefits executives at hedge funds and private equity firms (hello, Senator Schumer), politicians have walked when money talked.

Meanwhile, how much has our nation’s future been damaged by the magnetic pull of quick personal wealth, which for years has drawn many of our best and brightest young people into investment banking, at the expense of science, public service and just about everything else?

Most of all, the vast riches being earned — or maybe that should be “earned” — in our bloated financial industry undermined our sense of reality and degraded our judgment.

Think of the way almost everyone important missed the warning signs of an impending crisis. How was that possible? How, for example, could Alan Greenspan have declared, just a few years ago, that “the financial system as a whole has become more resilient” — thanks to derivatives, no less? The answer, I believe, is that there’s an innate tendency on the part of even the elite to idolize men who are making a lot of money, and assume that they know what they’re doing.

After all, that’s why so many people trusted Mr. Madoff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Governor Richardson would have made a better Secretary of State than Senator Clinton, at least in terms of his foreign policy experience (I'm fine with Clinton taking the job for other reasons). Richardson personally negotiated with North Korea, Iran and Sudan and was once ambassador to the United Nations. But Chinese-Americans are right to criticize his handling of the Wen Ho Lee case as energy secretary---and to still hold that ugly episode over his head.

Yes, Richardson and Bill Clinton were under intense pressure from conservatives back then, as they were for the whole of Clinton's presidency. And, yes, spying from China was and is a serious issue for America (just as, I imagine, spying from the U.S. is a serious issue for the Chinese). But Wen Ho Lee was the victim of a witch hunt that didn't need to happen if the people in charge, and Richardson in particular, had had a bit more of a spine.

Now that he's got a post at Commerce, Richardson may think this is all behind him. I hope he instead takes the opportunity to make a full apology.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Anti-racist action

I'm never sure of the best way of confronting the far right.  In Europe, marches against immigrants are typically met by large numbers of anti-racist counter-demonstrators, sometimes with violent results.  In Lund, Sweden, violence broke out yesterday when over a thousand anti-racists attempted to stop a protest by only 50 "h√∂gerextremister."  

In a way, violence seems appropriate.   Fascism has at its root a heavy dose of machismo and meeting it on its own macho grounds can take the wind out of its sails.  Right wingers become no longer the tough protectors of the fatherland / motherland, knightly or viking-ly looking out for their white sisters and mothers, but a cowed minority in need of protection from the police.  

But, of course,  aggressive marches and equally aggressive counter-marches have created a self-sustaining dynamic, with everyone playing out pre-ordained roles.  A peaceful, quiet but resolute response to racism could break the pattern in a positive way.