One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question
United Nations
(Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part two. Click here for part one.

Part two responses from: Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad; Ramzy Baroud; Helen Lackner; Gerry Simpson; Obiora Chinedu Okafor; Anne Marie Goetz; Dan Plesch; Tom Farer.

United Nations Part Two

Karim Makdisi and Vijay Prashad

The question is wrong. It is not whether the UN is ‘relevant’: which UN are we talking about?

The UN is not one thing. It reflects the contradictions of the world order and the imperatives of geopolitics, but also serves as a site of contestation where world order is actually produced and struggles from below for legitimacy, recognition and rights are played out. Meanwhile, UN bureaucrats in New York, Geneva and in the field go about doing their work, sometimes on behalf of power and other times for the marginalised, disadvantaged or vulnerable.

The most visible face of the UN is the Security Council (UNSC), which has come to stand in as the executive of the UN body on all matters of international security. It comprises fifteen states, five of them permanent members (the P5: China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) that hold veto power, allowing them to define which matters to deliberate on and which decisions to scuttle. So, Yemen is off the table, Russia blocks resolutions on Syria, and the US halts otherwise unanimous decisions on Palestine. These vetoes, however, are the exception not the rule: the UNSC was set up precisely to further great power interests. Vetoes reflect anxiety at the top in policing world order. When France and the UK broke ranks to veto US plans to invade Iraq in 2003, it precipitated a moment of genuine crisis in Atlantic relations. The fate of Iraqi civilians did not much bother them.

The UNSC stands in for the General Assembly, whose one hundred and ninety-three members set the tone for world opinion and produce or oversee the bulk of the UN’s huge social, development, environmental, and humanitarian agenda and actions. Following de-colonisation, the General Assembly mounted a radical challenge on behalf of the global South against the stifling structures set up by big powers. However, it has been largely tamed by the P5 in the post-Cold War period and after the Third World bloc broke apart. The relationship between the UNSC and the General Assembly remains fraught, with the former seeing itself as independently able to chart policy while the majority of the world’s states see the latter as the embodiment of a true democratic institution.

As the UN passed resolutions and drew up conventions, a myriad of indispensable, specialised agencies developed to deal with the various crises of the modern age. These UN agencies provide relief and advocacy for refugees, protect labour rights, move nuclear energy from war to peace, improve telecommunications around the world, provide development assistance, and many other functions. They are routinely taken for granted by critics of the UN, and pay the price for dependency on funding from, and the political whims of, rich states such as the US. When the P5 do agree on an important task, such as eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons, funding and political will become non-issues in the completion of the task. When they do not agree, there is paralysis.

The UN, in all its forms, mirrors the contradictions and tensions in the world’s political environment. That is both its strength and its weakness. The question, then, is not about relevancy but about what the crises say about humanity. READ MORE

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question
United Nations
(Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month we ask:

Is the United Nations still relevant?

Due to the number of responses we have received, we have split them into two parts. This is part one. Click here for part two.

Part one responses from: Hans von Sponeck; Richard Falk; Rose Parfitt; Balakrishnan Rajagopal; ; Zillah Eisenstein; Sital Kalantry; Göran Therborn; Ian Hurd.

United Nations Part One

Hans von Sponeck

In 2000, US Senator Jesse Helms, attending a meeting of the UN Security Council, reminded his audience that the US would support the UN as long as it was in the interest of the United States. The UN was relevant whenever the US and the UN agendas tallied. Long before, meetings preparatory to the creation of the UN during the years 1941 to 1945, especially at Dumbarton Oaks, Bretton Woods and Yalta, had unequivocally confirmed the competitive ambitions of Stalin, Roosevelt/Dulles and Churchill to take control of the evolving post-WWII global order. Who should own the United Nations was the issue. The Mexican delegate to the San Francisco UN conference observed: the 51 founding members ‘had created an institution which could control the mice but the tigers would roam around freely’.

Western economic power, finance and leadership, with a majority of permanent members in the UN Security Council, led to a UN multilateralism controlled by the western world, with decision making essentially dictated by the United States. Subsequent globalisation, de-westernisation and the failures of the West in responding to geo-political challenges in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere led to a questioning of unilateral US leadership. The UN became an arena of increasing confrontation. As a tool for western, or more accurately US, interests, the UN began to lose its political relevance.

UN relevance, it must be stressed here, relates not just to its political but also to its operational dimension. National representatives in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly have a political mandate. The UN operational system of Agencies, Funds and Programmes led by the UN Secretary-General is responsible for multifarious tasks in development, peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance. It is considered an important, albeit chronically under-financed, contributor to the global order. Its relevance is rarely questioned.

In order for the political UN to be the credible institution defined by the UN Charter, reforms have to be introduced with a sense of urgency. The shelves are full with many proposals for change. The 193 UN member states (governments and civil society) at long last have to muster the political will to consider such change. East, West, North and South have to be ready for compromise, convergence and accountability in handling global relations. Once this process has started in earnest, the affirmative answer concerning UN relevance will be easy to give. READ MORE

One Question
Gaza

One Question
Gaza

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

What is the future of Gaza?

With responses from: Ramzy Baroud; Richard Falk; Sara Roy; Abdalhadi Alijla; Norman Finkelstein; Huwaida Arraf; Toufic Haddad; Atef Alshaer; Helga Tawil-Souri; Hagar Kotef; Joel Beinin; Magid Shihade; Ran Greenstein; Richard Hardigan; Salman Abu Sitta.

The future of Gaza

Ramzy Baroud

The ongoing siege on the Gaza Strip was interrupted by three major Israeli wars: in 2008/9, 2012 and 2014, with a total death toll that exceeded 5,000. Tens of thousands were wounded and maimed, and hundreds more were killed in the in-between, so-called ‘lull’ years. Coupled with a hermetic blockade, Gaza cannot rebuild most of its destroyed infrastructure, leading the United Nations to conclude that the tiny but overcrowded enclave will become ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. In many ways, however, and tragically so, it already is.

The future of Gaza will follow the same path of horrific wars and a suffocating siege if no new positive factors are injected into this dismal equation. Without a regional and international push to force Israel to loosen its grip, or to find alternative routes to assist the isolated Strip, misery will continue, even beyond 2020. ‘Uninhabitable’ or not, Israel has no plans to allow Gaza’s 2-million inhabitants, mostly refugees from historic Palestine, today’s Israel, to lead normal lives. READ MORE

One Question
1968

One Question
1968

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, to mark the 50th anniversary of the events of May 1968, we ask:

How Should We Remember 1968?

With responses from: Lewis Gordon; Rachel Harrison; Françoise Vergès; Daniel A Gordon; Max Elbaum; Robyn C Spencer; Gabriel Rockhill; Stephen Milder; Sarah Lincoln; Eric Mann; Ron Jacobs; Nadia Yala Kisukidi; R A Judy; Leo Zeilig; Catherine Samary; Stephen D’arcy.

Internationale Vietnam Konferenz 1968

Lewis Gordon

We should combat the hegemonic, whitewashed historical misrepresentation of 1968. That year was one of upheavals across the globe, yet dominant discussions are of white college students taking over universities and mostly white people protesting against the Vietnam War.

Understanding 1968 as part of a period from 1966 whose arc reached into the mid-1970s, we should remember Indigenous people’s struggles, new formulations of Black Power, poor people’s campaigns, women’s liberation and queer movements, and, beyond North America and Europe, we should remember uprisings and ongoing practices of decolonisation across the African continent, Asia, Australasia, and Latin America.

It is significant that 1968 and now 2018 call for reflections on the lives of freedom fighters. This year Frederick Douglass and Karl Marx would have been 200.  Nelson Mandela would have been 100.   We lost such fighters as Mamma Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of Azania/South Africa, the Black Liberation Theologian James Cone, the great physicist Stephen Hawking, the Corsican liberationist Ghjuvan’Teramu Rocchi, the revolutionary jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, and so many more in the first half of 2018.

We should reflect on the global demand for freedom, marked by struggles for liberation and social justice.  This requires also thinking through mistakes of what is generally called ‘the left’.   While ‘the right’ unabashedly pursued power in their counter-revolutionary endeavours, an unfortunate development since the late 1960s is the left’s seeming allergy to power.  This has had a catastrophic effect of the right seeking and acquiring rule with the left locked in a pattern of reaction in the form of protest as the primary expression of political life.

Power is the ability with access to the means to make things happen.  It is crucial to understand that protest without power is ineffective.  A both-and approach is needed.   Disempowering fascism, new forms of colonisation, and unbridled capitalism, whose reach now threatens the ecological welfare of life on our planet, requires embracing positive power – empowering – through the building of institutions conducive to dignity, intelligence, and material conditions of freedom. READ MORE

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Lewis R. Gordon
Revisiting Frantz Fanon’s The Damned of the Earth

Written at the height of the Algerian war of independence, The Damned of the Earth (1961) is a controversial book. This is because its author, Frantz Fanon (originally from Martinique but later based in Algeria, where he worked as a psychiatrist and developed close ties with the Front Libération Nationale, FLN), unapologetically says what a Black man is not expected to say: the degradation inflicted upon native populations by colonialism can only be overcome by anti-colonial violence. Here I discuss with Lewis R. Gordon the multiple layers of this anti-colonial violence which has been (sometimes wilfully) misrepresented by (mostly white) critics. Beyond the colonial context, we also talk about the impact of Fanon’s ideas on oppressed people around the world, particularly Black Americans (starting with the Black Panthers, who called The Damned of the Earth ‘the handbook of the Revolution’) fighting racism and injustice.

Lewis GordonLewis R. Gordon is a philosopher, musician, and global political intellectual. He is Professor of Philosophy with affiliation in Jewish Studies, Caribbean and Latin American Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and International Studies at UCONN-Storrs; Honorary President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies; Honorary Professor at the Unit of the Humanities at Rhodes University (UHURU), South Africa; and the Boaventura de Sousa Santos Chair in the Faculty for Economics at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. He also is the drummer for the band ThreeGenerations and a variety of jazz and blues bands in the New England area. His recent books include What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought (NY: Fordham UP; London: Hurst, 2016) and the forthcoming Fear of a Black Consciousness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Penguin Books in the UK). He edits the American Philosophical Association blog series Black Issues in Philosophy and co-edits the UK’s Rowman & Littlefield International book series Global Critical Caribbean Thought.

Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (1961) is popularly known as The Wretched of the Earth, but you prefer to translate it as The Damned of the Earth. Apart from being the literal translation of ‘damnés’, does the word ‘damned’ give you more insight into the text?

Lewis Gordon: The word ‘damned’ is not only appropriate but also offers insight into the text. The standard response to my objection is to appeal to the English translation of L’Internationale, Eugène Pottier’s 1871 poem that concludes with the line: ‘Debout, les damnés de la terre!’ The well-known translation is, ‘Arise, the wretched of the earth!’ It could also be translated: ‘Arise, the damned of the earth!’ The preceding two lines (my translation) are: ‘The International / Will be humankind’.

Fanon, however, was referring to the Haitian poet Jacques Roumain’s ‘Sales nègres’ (‘Dirty nègres’) from his collection Bois-d’ébène (‘Ebony Wood’). Fanon referred to this work in the fifth chapter of Peau noire, masques blancs (‘Black Skin, White Masks’, 1952). The reference point here is not ‘The International’ but in fact the Haitian Revolution and its connection to revolution in the Third World or, in today’s parlance, the Global South. Roumain concludes his poem with a long list of subjects struggling against the days of being called ‘dirty nègres’ to ‘dirty Indians’, ‘dirty Hindus’, ‘dirty Indo-Chinese’, ‘dirty Arabs,’ ‘dirty Malaysians’, ‘dirty Jews’, ‘dirty proletarians’, and concludes with ‘And there we stand / all the damned of the earth’.

Now, dissecting both poems, we see an immediate difference between the role of the international as humankind and a list of humankind and the connection to ‘dirt’. The word ‘human’ is from the Latin word homo, whose origin relates to the word humus, which means ‘dirt’ or ‘clay’. Words such as ‘humility’ and ‘humble’ reveal the obvious connection of coming down to earth. This connection with earth and dirt reveals an influence or relationship with ancient African conceptions as found in, for example, the Hebrew language, where the word for human is adamah. It, too, is connected to the ground or earth. It specifically refers to red clay akin to what happens when animals are slaughtered in a kosher way, with the blood flowing into the soil. It’s the origin of the name Adam, which literally means ‘red’ as well as ‘human’. A more radical archaeolinguistic effort points to the precursor of the Hebraic forms in ancient Kmt (‘Egypt’) to the god Atum (think of the possible pronunciation of the t as the English d), the god who created himself out of a mound of earth arising from Nun (the primordial Nothing or dark waters).

We now have the basis of stressing the importance of the word ‘damned’. It’s from the Latin damnum, which refers to harm, hurt, or injury. The connection between the words damnum and adamah reveal a story of emergence from the earth and damnation or condemnation as a form of being pushed back into it. The human being, as we know, is a creature, in existential terms, of emergence, a creature with feet on the ground while reaching for the skies. READ MORE

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn

To commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of historian and activist Howard Zinn, we republish the interview we conducted with him in January 2007.

Howard Zinn
24 August, 1922-27 January, 2010

You once wrote that direct action ‘encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations’.  What methods do you find at our disposal today?  And what limits does your imagination impose upon them?

Howard Zinn: Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying for your elected representatives to act. We see it in strikes, both historically and today, which are a form of direct action against corporations that, for instance, exploit their employees, or manufacture war weapons. Another form of direct action is non-violent (that is, avoiding violence against human beings) action, including forms of sabotage.

Around 1980, ‘ploughshares’ groups (turn our swords into ploughshares) began invading companies that made weaponry, and committed minor acts of sabotage to protest the actions of these companies. Only recently, a group of religious pacifists calling themselves ‘The St. Patrick’s Four’ poured blood on a marine recruiting station to protest the war in Iraq. Boycotts are another form of direct action. The national boycott of grapes, carried on in the 1960s by the farm workers of California against the powerful growers, brought about better conditions for farm workers. The desertion of soldiers from immoral war, or the refusal of men to be drafted for war, are also forms of direct action.

You say that our problem is civil obedience, not civil disobedience.  ‘Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country command’, states Socrates; and these words, you claim, have been impressed on our minds.  You find in history many instances of submission to authority even in the face of terrible injustice, and very few of rebellion.  Why do people submit so readily to injustice? 

HZ: People submit to injustice for two reasons: one is that they do not recognize it as injustice. A young person submits to the exhortation to join the military without recognizing that he or she may go to a war which cannot be morally justified. The media and the educational system may not educate them about historical examples of resistance to injustice. Or people will submit to an injustice because they feel they have no alternative, that if they refuse they will be punished, perhaps by loss of a job, perhaps by being sent to prison. They may submit because people they have been taught to respect and trust – the President, their minister, even their family – may tell them they must submit to injustice because they owe something to their government, or their church or their family (as Plato had Socrates saying in The Crito, he couldn’t escape from his death sentence because he owed something to his government). READ MORE

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward S HermanEdward S. Herman – 1925-2017

To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.

 

Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy.  What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?

Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading.  For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes.  So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all.  A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war.  The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents.  It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]

State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces.  If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear.  So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad.  At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.

Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable.  Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media.  The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii] READ MORE

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question
The Russian Revolution, 1917

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, we ask:

What is the relevance of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to us today?

Their responses are collected below.

Russian Revolution

Lars T. Lih

Author of Lenin (2011) and Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ In Context (2006). Adjunct Professor at the Schulich School of Music, McGill University, Montreal.

In 1917, Russian elite society committed suicide. The educated elites were fanatically committed to a war that was in the most direct sense indefensible: it could not be justified in terms that the Russian people (narod) would accept. The people had reluctantly obeyed orders when the centuries-old traditional government demanded it, but after February the tsar abdicated not only for himself but also (as it turned out) for his entire dynasty, thus leaving Russia suddenly without any source of legitimate authority (vlast).

The continuing war meant that the elite could not restore order in the usual repressive way nor could they refrain from further alienating the people. In these circumstances, ‘All Power [vlast] to the Soviets!’ meant ‘using the forces of the people to do the job the elite is failing to do’ – namely, respond to the national crisis in a way favourable to the great mass of the people (workers, peasants, urban lower classes).

As we might expect, taking on this task led to mistakes, absurdities, and outright crimes. Today, looking back, we should not focus so exclusively as we do on the crimes and absurdities, but rather appreciate the huge dimensions of the challenges handed to the new and untried regime, and the often admirable energy and creativity shown in responding to them. READ MORE

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

Judith Butler
The Discourse of Terror

This interview was conducted with Judith Butler by email in 2012 and is included in the book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism.

Judith ButlerJudith Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature and the Co-director of the Program of Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley. Her many books include: Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity; Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”; Precarious Life: Powers of Violence and Mourning; and Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

To what extent, in your view, do the ways in which mainstream media select and contextualise events determine the boundaries of public thinking? You have said on one hand, regarding the “framing” of war and terrorism, that, “Efforts to control the visual and narrative dimensions of war delimit public discourse by establishing and disposing the sensuous parameters of reality itself”,[1] but also that “specters are produced that haunt the ratified version of reality”.[2]

Judith Butler: There are surely many ways that this happens, but we can note at the most obvious level the way in which forms of resistance or violence get cast as “conflicts” that assume two sides that are fighting only against one another. We are more often than not asked, for instance, to regard Israel and Palestine as in a conflict of this kind, a framing that sets each of them on equal footing, and implicitly analogizes the political situation to a fist fight, a soccer match, or a domestic quarrel. So if, then, the only two intelligible political positions are “pro-palestinian” or “pro-israeli,” the presumption is that one’s position is determined by a sentiment that wants one side to win over the other. In the meantime, what is lost is any sense that the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonial rule is waged from a situation of occupation or expulsion, that there is a military order that controls the boundaries of what would be a sovereign Palestinian state, that the land on which that state is now thinkable has been radically diminished by an ongoing practice of land confiscation and appropriation. So we set the actors on the scene through the banal discourse of “conflict” in ways that fully deflect from the history and struggle of colonial resistance, refusing as well by that means to link the resistance to other forms of colonial resistance, their rationale, and their tactics.

Obviously, visual renditions of war not only establish what can be seen, and the audio-track established what can be heard, but the photographs also “train” us in ways of focusing on targets, ways of regarding suffering and loss. So photographs can be forms of recruitment, ways of bringing the viewer into the military, as it were. In this way, they prepare us for war, even enlist us in war, at the level of the senses, establishing a sensate regime of war. READ MORE