On Regarding the Pain of Others

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/03/2020 - 12:28am in

Susan Sontag was one of America’s great public intellectuals. A writer, a critic, an ethicist, filmmaker and activist — Sontag had a large part in shaping 20th-century American culture. Sontag was the author of several novels, including the National Book … Continue reading

The post On Regarding the Pain of Others appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

On Pandemics, Debt Jubilees, and the Suspension of More or Less Everything

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 28/03/2020 - 12:58am in

I find that I am generally at peace, and that the balance between happiness and sadness on any given day is little different from what it always has been for me. I find that there is liberation in this suspension of more or less everything. In spite of it all, we are free now. Any fashion, sensibility, ideology, set of priorities, worldview or hobby that you acquired prior to March 2020, and that may have by then started to seem to you cumbersome, dull, inauthentic, a drag: you are no longer beholden to it. You can cast it off entirely and no one will care; likely, no one will notice. Were you doing something out of mere habit, conceiving your life in a way that seemed false to you? You can stop doing that now. We have little idea what the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this, but it is already perfectly clear that the “discourses” of our society, such as they had developed up to about March 8 or 9, 2020, in all their frivolity and distractiousness, have been decisively curtailed, like the CO2 emissions from the closed factories and the vacated highways.

Not to downplay the current tragedy—as I’ve already acknowledged, it is already affecting me personally in deep and real ways—but I take it that this interruption is a good thing.

The interruption is not total, of course. Normies seem particularly fond of toilet-paper joke memes for the moment, while the extremely online instinctively disdain them. Both the normies and the extremely online are, as they have been since 2016, far too reliant on the language of “apocalypse” and “end times.” These are not the end times; even a nuclear war would not be the end times for all the creatures on earth, among which there will always be at least some extremophiles to relish any new arrangement of the ecosystem. What this is, rather, is a critical shift in the way we think about the human, the natural and the overlap between these.

I have said that we can all just stop doing whatever we were doing before that may have come to ring false to us, and that that is liberating. In my own case, I was working on a book (one that developed, curiously, out of an essay of mine, entitled “It’s All Over,” posted here at The Point a little over a year ago) that was going to articulate how the internet is destroying the fabric of human community. But for the life of me I cannot, in the present circumstances, see the internet as anything other than the force that is holding that fabric together. I used to bemoan virtue signaling. I look at the newly assembled vanguard of the all-volunteer forces of “Wash Your Hands” Twitter, and though I can still discern that tone that used to get me so bent out of shape (“Listen up y’all, today I’m going to break down the virus’s lipid envelope for you”), now I just smile and think: “Good for them. Good for Dr. Brianna Ph.D., and all her loyal followers.”

So I’m going have to rethink that particular book project. But that follows from the much more general point that we are all going to have to rethink everything. .--Justin Smith (March 23) @The Point

During the last few weeks, I was consumed by the task of transforming an exam my 400 students were supposed to take this past Tuesday (March 24) at a particular physical location -- the former morgue of the university hospital, which also happens to be a wifi free zone --  into an online exam at the very same time.+ My department had decided -- but don't ask me how or when -- that it would be in the students' interests to complete the term online rather than postpone exams. My task was made more challenging by three inconvenient facts: moving the exam online meant moving it from one database management software system to another, largely untested one (the two being largely incompatible with each other); I was still busy grading the midterm exam (which needed to be completed a few days before the new exam) and several of my graders were unable to complete their work due to having to care for loved ones; we lack resources to hire folk to help out.* Luckily the tech support people stepped up, and the day of the exam I had time to read Justin's beautiful, elegiac essay.

My initial response to Justin's piece was pure envy. Not just at his skill at capturing the moment, to becoming the indispensable guide to living the intellectual life with integrity, but also envy at the very possibility of inhabiting the suspension of more or less everything. I know that being cooped up with a child in a small apartment life simply can't be suspended. 

For many years, I lived pretty much kitty corner of Prinsengracht 263-267, now known as the Anne Frank Huis. I often wondered, when cycling by, whether I would have started a diary if I had lived there with nothing to do these war years. But now for the first time, I don't identify with her, but with her parents, Otto and Edith wondering how indefinitely the lives of their children could be suspended. But not only did the lack a socially distanced stroll in the park, they lacked the internet, which as Justin points out,  is the "force that is holding" the "fabric of human community" together. As I write, my son is doing homework online.

Even so, against Justin's forecast that we have little idea what "the world is going to look like when we get through to the other side of this," I am pretty confident we humans are about to face a gigantic debt crisis. Whole sectors of our leveraged economies are imploding (bricks and mortar retailing and real estate, leisure/tourism, sports, etc. [see here for first hints]) and will miss debt repayments on mortgages and other forms of financing. And while the financial sector has an incentive to extend repayment on non-performing loans, whole industries are facing cash crunches if not bankruptcy. So, even if individuals can be supported by a basic income or welfare, as the lockdowns last, no accounting sleight of hand or more easy credit will prevent massive defaults.** 

So, even if we can hope for a genuine economic recovery at the end of the pandemic, and the acceleration of new modes of living together (and, perhaps, apart to slow down virus transmission) that do not fall victim to what Justin correctly criticizes as "human exceptionalism," at some point we will be back in familiar territory. Before long the "wanton delectation" that Justin  bids farewell to will be replaced, first, within the pandemic by (recall) dissolute mirth and gaiety.  And, then, to be followed by political turmoil because debt forgiveness and 'controlled'  inflation will be back on the political agenda. When David Graeber advocates debt jubilees from the anarchist margins, he was ignored. But before long it will be captains of industry that will call it sensible.

I fear an age of debt cancellation and inflation because they strengthen the hands of zero-sum politicians; more dangerous, yet, they upend existing social hierarchies in dramatic fashion. They, thereby, embolden those who need encouragement least, political adventurers. I glance over at my son, and, inspired by Justin, I wish to freeze time, inspired by the poets, in the form of limitation between un-being and being, and try to capture the moment--i will continue the daily digressions; but in the back of my head I hear the voice telling me, compound interest does not respect our wishes.

+My students ended up in timezones very far apart.

*Hence the lack of blogging. I did co-author a piece, with Eric Winsberg, engaging with the headlines published in New Statesman.

**As I write this the US National Debt is $23,542,522,737,422. To put that in perspective, with the policies just enacted it will soon surpass the level relative to GDP just after WWII, a moment when there was huge pent-up demand, a newly mobilized and educated workforce, and a slew of technologies waiting for civilian deployment. 

The UK Hasn’t Bombed Iraq or Syria Since Last September. What Gives?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/03/2020 - 11:57pm in

The UK’s involvement in the U.S.-led air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has slowly and quietly wound down over the last few months. Official figures show that the UK hasn’t dropped a single bomb as part of this campaign since September last year.

However, where those bombs have caused significant civilian harm is still uncertain, even after some of these sites have been investigated. According to the data, 4,215 bombs and missiles were launched from Reaper drones or RAF jets in Syria and Iraq over a five-year period. Despite the number of munitions and the lengthy timeframe in which they were deployed, the UK has only admitted to one civilian casualty in the entire conflict.

The UK’s account is directly contradicted by numerous sources, including its closest wartime ally, the United States. The U.S.-led coalition has estimated that its airstrikes have caused 1,370 civilian casualties, and has distinctly stated it has credible evidence that civilian casualties have ensued in bombings involving RAF bombers.

The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) hasn’t actually visited a single site in Iraq or Syria to investigate allegations of civilian casualties. Instead, the coalition relies heavily on aerial footage to determine if civilians have been killed, even while knowing that aerial footage would not be able to identify civilians buried beneath the rubble. This has allowed the MOD to conclude that it has reviewed all of the available evidence but has “seen nothing that indicates civilian casualties were caused.”


UK-induced civilian deaths: what we know so far

There are at least three RAF airstrikes that have been tracked by Airwars, a UK based not-for-profit organization that tracks the air war against ISIS, predominantly in Iraq and Syria. One of the sites in Mosul, Iraq, was visited by the BBC in 2018 after it became aware civilian casualties were likely. Following this investigation, the U.S. admitted that two civilians were “unintentionally killed.”

In another site struck by British bombers in Raqqa, Syria, the U.S. military readily admitted that 12 civilians were “unintentionally killed” and six “unintentionally injured” as a result of the blast. The UK has issued no such admission.

Despite this confirmation from the leading arm of the coalition, the UK has remained adamant that the available evidence has not demonstrated civilian harm caused by its reaper drones or RAF jets. The UK has insisted it wants “hard proof” which is an even greater standard of evidence than that of the United States.

“While we’re not aware of specific UK cases beyond the four detailed [including the UK’s one confirmed event],” Chris Woods, director of Airwars told MintPressNews via email, “we’ve alerted MoD to more than 100 potential UK civilian harm events in recent years. While a proportion turned out not to be RAF strikes, we remain concerned about many possible further cases.”

Woods also added:

Our investigation shows the UK continues to clear itself of civilian deaths from RAF strikes – even where the US-led Coalition determines such events to be credible. In effect, the Ministry of Defence has set the investigative bar so high that it’s currently impossible for them to admit casualties. This systemic failing is a gross misjustice to those Iraqis and Syrians who have paid the ultimate price in the war against ISIS.”

The fact that UK bombers were active in Mosul speaks volumes as to how deep this deception runs. While the U.S.-led coalition downplayed deaths in Mosul (and often blamed them on ISIS), a special AP report found that during the U.S.-led mission, some 9,000 to 11,000 civilians had died, nearly ten times what had been previously reported in the media. The number of deaths found by AP was still relatively conservative, as it did not take into account the dead still buried underneath the rubble.


The elephant in the corporate media’s room

The presence of U.S., UK or any coalition troops, personnel, jets or drones in Syria’s sovereign territory is questionable at best, and outright illegal at worst. How the UK legally justifies its military presence in a sovereign country is still unclear, but as far as Syria’s president is concerned, all foreign troops uninvited by the government have invaded the country.

Leaked audio of then-secretary of state John Kerry confirmed the U.S. knew their presence in Syria was illegal, yet to this day nothing has been done to address this. Speaking to Syrian opposition members at a meeting at the Dutch Mission to the UN, Kerry said:

… And we don’t have the basis – our lawyers tell us – unless we have the U.N. Security Council Resolution, which the Russians can veto, and the Chinese, or unless we are under attack from the folks there, or unless we are invited in. Russia is invited in by the legitimate regime – well it’s illegitimate in our mind – but by the regime. And so they were invited in and we are not invited in. We’re flying in airspace there where they can turn on the air defenses and we would have a very different scene. The only reason they are letting us fly is because we are going after ISIL. If we were going after Assad, those air defenses, we would have to take out all the air defenses, and we don’t have the legal justification, frankly, unless we stretch it way beyond the law.” [emphasis added]

Even if the U.S.-UK entry into Syria could be justified on legal grounds, the effects of this campaign were nothing short of criminal. In mid-2018, Amnesty International released a report which described the onslaught as a U.S.-led “war of annihilation,” having visited 42 coalition airstrikes sites across the city of Raqqa.

Most credible estimates of the damage done to Raqqa indicate that the U.S. left at least 80 percent of it uninhabitable. One must also bear in mind that during this destruction, the U.S. cut a secret deal with “hundreds” of ISIS fighters and their families to leave  Raqqa under the “gaze of the US and British-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces who control the city.” 

A U.S.-backed Syrian fighter from the SDF stands amidst the ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

An SDF militant stands amid the ruins of buildings near the Clock Square in Raqqa, Syria October 18, 2017. Erik De Castro | Reuters

As explained to MintPressNews by anti-war campaigner David Swanson:

The legalistic-ish justification for war on Syria has varied, never been clear, never been in the slightest convincing, but has focused on the war not really being a war. Of course it’s a violation of the UN Charter, the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and the laws of Syria.”

Swanson added:

Only people dumbed down or beaten down enough to accept the notion that you can bomb a country and not kill civilians could accept that it’s legal to do so.”


Where to next for the UK military?

With the continued, ongoing threat posed by COVID-19, Brexit, and a public and social economic crisis, the UK appears to have enough on its internal plate in the meantime. However, even under the leadership of David Cameron – a prime minister who believes his austerity measures were too soft – the UK still found the resources and funding needed to bomb Libya back tp the Stone Age in 2011.

The UK will likely always find a reason to follow the U.S. into war depending on the geopolitical significance of the battle arena. As public intellectual and MIT professor Noam Chomsky explained to MintPress via email “Brexit very likely will turn Britain into even more of a US vassal than it has been recently.” However, Chomsky noted that “much is unpredictable in these deeply troubled times” and indicated the UK did have a unique opportunity to take its fate into its own hands post-Brexit.

Swanson echoed Chomsky’s concern, advising that war under the leadership of Boris Johnson appears to be more, not less, likely. “There is a cardinal rule of corporate media,” Swanson explained, “Thou shalt not criticize a current racist sociopathic buffoon without glorifying a past one. Thus, we see Boris being compared with Winston [Churchill].”

The more likely scenario is that the UK will follow the recent U.S. doctrine of declaring the Indo-Pacific its “priority theatre” and winding down its wars in the Middle East and elsewhere on that basis.

Boris Johnson Feature photo

Boris Johnson talks to British armed forces servicemen based in Orzysz, Poland, June 21, 2018. Czarek Sokolowski | AP

At the end of 2018, the UK announced it was establishing diplomatic representation in Lesotho, Swaziland, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa Tonga and Vanuatu. With its existing representation in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG), the UK will likely have better reach than the U.S. in this region.

Earlier this year, the UK also opened its new mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta, Indonesia. Further, the UK’s National Security Capability Review also noted that the “Asia-Pacific region is likely to become more important to us in the years ahead”, echoing a similar sentiment to that of the MOD’s Mobilising, Modernising & Transforming Defence policy paper published in December 2018.

In 2018, it quietly deployed warships to the region for the first time in five years. The UK has also continued regular military exercises with Malaysian and Singaporean troops and maintains a military presence in Brunei and a logistics station in Singapore. There are even talks that the UK will seek to build a new base in the region.

The fact that a royal navy warship was challenged in the South China Sea by the Chinese military should give one an idea of where this is all headed.

As the rise of China in this region raises more challenges for the US-NATO establishment than Iraq and Syria will in the near future, we should expect the UK to divert more of its military resources and focus to this region in a bid to counter and confront China at every possible avenue.

Feature photo | Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II is escorted by Station Commander Group Captain James Beckpast during a visit to Royal Air Force Marham, east England, Feb. 3, 2020. Richard Pohle | AP

Darius Shahtahmasebi is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.

The post The UK Hasn’t Bombed Iraq or Syria Since Last September. What Gives? appeared first on MintPress News.

Aden Dispatch

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/03/2020 - 3:27am in

He has been fighting for eleven months and talks with bitterness about the conditions in the dry hills where the front line is. He scrolls past pictures of himself posing with his rifle to find the pictures of his daughter, who is back in Aden, back down the road, back where he is from. Visibly upset, he pauses to collect himself.

Star Trek: Was Gene Roddenberry Influenced by Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ Novels

This is just a bit of SF fan speculation before I start writing about the really serious stuff. I’ve just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Pirates of the Asteroids. First published in 1952, this is the second of five novels about David ‘Lucky’ Starr, Space Ranger. In  it, Starr goes after the Space Pirates, who killed his parents and left him to die when he was four. He tries to infiltrate their organisation by stowing away aboard a remote-controlled ship that’s deliberately sent into the asteroids to be attacked and boarded by the pirates. He’s captured, forced to fight for his life in a duel fought with the compressed air push guns NASA developed to help astronauts maneuver during spacewalks. After fighting off an attempt on his life by his opponent, Starr is taken by the pirates to the asteroid lair of a reclusive, elderly man, one of a number who have bought their own asteroids as retirement homes. The elderly man, Hansen, helps him to escape, and the pair fly back to Ceres to meet Starr’s old friends and mentors from the Science Academy. Starr and his diminutive Martian friend, Bigman, decide to return to the old hermit’s asteroid, despite it having disappeared from its predicted position according to Starr’s orbital calculations in the meantime. Searching for it, they find a pirate base. Starr is captured, his radio disabled, and literally catapulted into space to die and the pirates plan to attack his spaceship, left in the capable hands of Bigman. Starr and Bigman escape, travel back to Ceres, which they find has been attacked by the pirates in the meantime, and the hermit, Hansen, captured. Meanwhile Earth’s enemies, the Sirians, have taken over Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. Starr reasons that the pirates are operating in cahoots with them to conquer the solar system, and that the pirates are taking Hansen there. He heads off in hot pursuit, seeking not just to stop the pirates and their leader before they reach Ganymede, but thereby also prevent a devastating war between Earth and Sirius.

In many ways, it’s typical of the kind of SF written at the time. It’s simple fun, aimed at a juvenile and adolescent readership. Instead of using real profanity, the characters swear ‘By space’ and shout ‘Galloping Galaxies’ when surprised or shocked. It also seems typical of some SF of its time in that it’s anti-war. The same attitude is in the SF fiction written by Captain W.E. Johns, the author of the classic ‘Biggles’ books. Johns wrote a series of novels, such as Kings of Space, Now to the Stars, about a lad, Rex, and his friends, including a scientist mentor, who make contact with the civilisation behind the UFOs. These are a race of friendly, humanoid aliens from Mars and the asteroid belt, who befriend our heroes. Nevertheless, there is also an evil villain, who has to be defeated by the heroes. It’s a very long time since I read them, but one thing a I do remember very clearly is the anti-war message expressed by one the characters. The scientist and the other Earthmen are discussing war and the urge for conquest. The scientist mentions how Alexander the Great cried when he reached the borders of India, because there were no more countries left to conquer. The characters agree that such megalomaniac warriors are responsible for all the needless carnage in human history, and we’d be better off without them. This is the voice of a generation that lived through and fought two World Wars and had seen the horror of real conflict. They weren’t pacifists by any means, but they hated war. It’s been said that the people least likely to start a war are those who’ve actually fought in one. I don’t know if Asimov ever did, but he had the same attitude of many of those, who had. It’s in marked contrast with the aggressive militarism of Heinlein and Starship Troopers, and the ‘chickenhawks’ in George W. Bush’s administration way back at the beginning of this century. Bush and his neocon advisers were very keen to start wars in the Middle East, despite having done everything they could to make sure they were well out of it. Bush famously dodged national service in Vietnam. As has the latest incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

But what I found interesting was the similarity of some the elements in the book with Star Trek. Roddenberry, Trek’s creator, was influenced by another SF book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as well as the ‘Hornblower’ novels. The latter is shown very clearly in Kirk’s character. But I suspect he was also influenced by Asimov as well in details like the Vulcan Science Council, subspace radio and the energy shields protecting Star Trek’s space ships. The Science Council seems to be the chief organ of government on Spock’s homeworld of Vulcan. Which makes sense, as Vulcans are coldly logical and rational, specialising in science, maths and philosophy. But in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books, Earth’s Science Council is also a vital organ of government, exercising police powers across the Terrestrial Empire somewhat parallel to the admiralty.

Communications across space are through sub-etheric radio. This recalls the sub-etha radio in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and shows that Adams probably read Asimov as well. In Star Trek, space communications are through ‘sub-space radio’. The idea of FTL communications isn’t unique to Asimov. In Blish’s Cities in Flight novels, the spacefaring cities communicate through normal radio and the Dirac telephone. The ansible, another FTL communication device, appears in Ursula K. Le Guine’s 1970s novel, The Dispossessed. What is striking here is the similarity of terms: ‘sub-etheric’ and ‘sub-space’. These are similar names to describe a very similar concept.

Star Trek’s space ships were also protected by force fields, termed shields, from micrometeorites and the ray weapons and torpedoes of attacking aliens, like Klingons, Romulans, Orion pirates and other riff-raff. The spacecraft in Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ books are protected by histeresis shields. Histeresis is a scientific term to describe the lag in materials of the effects of an electromagnetic field, if I recall my ‘O’ level Physics correctly. Roddenberry seems to have taken over this concept and imported it into Trek, dropping the ‘histeresis’ bit. And from Trek it entered Star Wars and Science Fiction generally. The idea is absent in the recent SF series, The Expanse. This is set in the 23rd century, when humanity has expanded into space. The Solar System is divided into three political powers/ groups: the Earth, now a united planet under the government of the United Nations, the Mars Congressional Republic, and the Belt, which is a UN protectorate. The Martians have gained their independence from Earth only after a war, while the Belt is seething with disaffection against UN/Martian control and exploitation. The political situation is thus teetering on the brink of system-wide war, breaking out into instances of active conflict. The ships don’t possess shields, so that bullets and projectiles launched by rail guns smash straight through them, and the crews have to dodge them and hope that when they are hit, it doesn’t strike anything vital. The Expanse is very much hard SF, and I suspect the absence of shields is not just the result of a desire to produce proper, scientifically plausible SF, but also a reaction to force fields, which have become something of an SF cliche.

But returning to Asimov’s ‘Space Ranger’ novels, it does seem to me that Roddenberry was influenced by them when creating Star Trek’s universe alongside other SF novels,  just as Adams may have been when he wrote Hitch-Hiker. Asimov’s best known for his ‘Robot’ and ‘Foundation’ novels, which have also been highly influential. But it looks like these other books also exercised a much less obvious, though equally pervasive influence through Roddenberry’s Trek.

On Wars of Choice, Las Casas, Transatlantic federations, and Reparations

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/03/2020 - 11:19pm in

Now the fact that one must refrain from war, and even tolerate the death of a few innocent persons, is proved by arguments and many authorities.
The first argument is this: According to the rule of right reason when we are confronted by two choices that are evil both as to moral guilt and punishment and we cannot avoid both of them, we ought t0 choose the lesser evil. For in comparison with the greater evil, the choice of the lesser evil has the quality of a good. This is what the Philosopher  teaches. Now the death of a small number of innocent persons is a lesser evil than the eternal damnation of countless numbers of persons killed in the fury of war.

Again, the death of the innocent is better or less evil than the complete destruction of entire kingdoms, cities. and strongholds. For not all of them eat the flesh of the innocent but only the rulers or priests, who do the sacrificing, whereas war brings the destruction of countless innocent persons who do not deserve any such thing. Therefore if those evils cannot be removed in any other way than by waging war, one must refrain from it and evils of this kind must be tolerated.
Furthermore, it is incomparably less disastrous that a few innocent persons die than that Christ's holy name be blasphemed by unbelievers and that the Christian religion be brought into ill repute and be hated by those peoples and by others to whom word of this flies, when they hear how many women, children, and aged people of their nation have been killed by the Christians without cause, as will unavoidably happen, and indeed has happened, in the fury of war. What, I ask, will be the result, if not a perpetual barrier to their salvation, so that there will be no further hope for their conversion? Therefore when there is a question of war over a cause of this kind it is better to let a few innocent persons be oppressed or suffer an unjust death. In fact it would be a very great sin, and against the natural, to wage war on these unbelievers for this reason. This is proved in the following way.
According to right reason, and therefore the natural law, it is evident that in every case and in every matter that concerns two evils, especially those involving moral guilt, one must choose that which is less harmful or is thought to be less harmful. Therefore to seek to free innocent persons in the case proposed, within their territories, as has been proposed, would be against the natural la,v and a sin, which, although not mortal, is very serious indeed. This is evident because the greater the damage sin inflicts the more serious it is, according to St. Thomas. And this is true even if that damage is not intended or foreseen, since everything that necessarily follows upon a sin belongs in some way to the very species of the sin. From such a war a countless number of innocent persons of both sexes and all ages will unavoidably perish, and the other evils that have been mentioned will necessarily follow upon that war. Therefore anyone who would try to free those who suffer evils of this type by means of war would commit a very serious mortal sin. ---Las Casas (1550-1552) In Defense of the Indians, chapter 28, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 191-2. 

During the The Valladolid debate (1550–1551), Sepúlveda, the spokesperson for Spanish landlords in the Americas, articulated (recall) the case for humanitarian intervention on behalf of natives exploited by 'savage' indigenous practices. In particular, Sepúlveda called attention to the way vulnerable natives may be subject to human sacrifice and cannibalism. He, thereby, sketched their existence in terms of a proto-Hobbesian state of nature. At bottom his argument rests on two thoughts: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. The benefits include not just protection from local oppression, but also access to Christian conversion. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may justifiably invite humanitarian intervention.

There is little doubt that Sepúlveda's argument is offered in bad faith. But, as Las Casas recognizes, that is not sufficient to undermine it. On the question of sacrifice and cannibalism, Las Casas' strategy is not to deny its existence. But, first, he minimizes it frequency. Second, he claims that in many cases what looks like sacrifice is merely a legally sanctioned death sentence (and so unobjectionable). Third, that leaves a small number of victims from practices that serve a religious or (non-juridical) political function in indigenous societies. The question is, then, do these victims justify humanitarian intervention? And this question is pursued both as a contribution to just war theory (in particular, jus ad bellum) as well as a contribution to the borders of the Church and the role of the emperor in imposing these.

Because the natives never posed any threat to the Spanish, and no Christians were present in the Americas, the issue becomes  really a question about to what degree one can choose war under the pretext or in the service of humanitarian intervention. As is clear from the first paragraphs of the quoted passage above, Las Casas' answer is an unambiguous rejection of war under such circumstances. For, in war many  innocents will die necessarily. Las Casas adds many gruesome descriptions of how likely it is that in the fog of war enemy combatants and innocent bystanders are confused (and the latter harmed or killed) and that war always provides cover for other harms (including looting, plunder, rape, etc.). 

In these cases the dead innocent bystanders are harmed twice over: they get killed and they have no chance to be converted (and so receive eternal salvation, etc.). Moreover, while he does not emphasize this as much, the soldiers are put in great temptation to sin and fall into eternal damnation. So, the cost of war of choice in the service of humanitarian intervention is material and spiritual. Even if one does not share Las Casas' theological commitments, it is not difficult to articulate the spiritual costs in more psychological/social terms (PTSDs, broken social ties, etc.) that due justice to a more secular metaphysics.

In addition, and Las Casas is not shy about this point, if the ultimate point is voluntary conversion then exposing would be converted to great risks, even enormous harms, is self-undermining: "war is not a suitable means for spreading Christ's glory and the truth of the gospel, but rather for making the Christian name hateful and detestable for those who suffer the disasters of war." (355) As Las Casas repeatedly notes, the natural response to Spanish conquest and plunder is loathing of Spanish religion. So, while the particular details of the consequences of wars of choice may not be explicitly intended, they are foreseeable in a certain generic (one may be tempted to say statistical) way as belonging to a class of foreseeable "unavoidable" harms (even if the particular detail is not foreseen). Among the harms are epidemic illnesses, as Las Casas recognized.*  

Las Casas' argument presupposes here (and he argues it throughout the book) that because the indigenous are unbelievers  the Church has no prior dominion over them. In fact, because he treats the indigenous as self-governing polities with natural right to self-defense (“Every nation, no matter how barbaric, has the right to defend itself against a more civilized one that wants to conquer it and take away its freedom,” (355)), they also have a natural right to their own religious practices (which he assures his reader are theistic in practice).  In virtue of some such comments, Las Casas comes very close to finding the whole Spanish presence in the Americas illegal. 

He draws back from this conclusion for two reasons, one theological and one political (intimately connected). The political reason is that he needs the power of the emperor to subdue the Spanish landlords (and reform their abuses) and control the conquistadors. But the emperor and his court rely on income from the Americas; the emperor is in a zero-sum competition with other European powers, and the emperor has opportunity to extend his dominion and power by incorporating the American colonies in a pacific, imperial project in which the emperor becomes a protector of self-governing natives against their oppressors in the same way he is a protector of burghers against feudal landlords (see, e.g., the New Laws of Charles V). In addition, and this is connected to the theological reason, the emperor can create conditions for possibility of peaceful missions to convert of the indigenous. This is also the interest of the Church to hold on to colonial enterprise (and is explicitly present in the various papal degrees.)

Before I conclude, and as an aside, it is worth emphasizing that Las Casas develops here the foundations for the pacific federations based on shared and ever closer, converging values and shared interests familiar from the history of liberalism (recall here; and neo-Liberalism  (recall hereherehere)). And this also suggests that we can tell an alternative to Foucault's story. Recall that for Foucault 'Europe' was discovered when the Westphalian, non-zero sum system presupposed a zero-sum extra-European relationship that extracts wealth from would be enemies (in what we may call the Global South). On this view a zone of open-ended progress requires the domination of the backward global. Prior to the development of this system, there were opportunities for a more mutualistic relationships with the Global South.+  

The very possibility of a more mutualist, equitable approach founders on the limitations of imperial state capacity and the power inequality between the natives and Spanish. The Imperial state is, even when willing,** incapable of genuinely controlling the Spanish landlords from afar when their interests align against it. This means that Las Casas' own proposal --  "what has been taken unjustly" must be "restored" (362) -- is doomed to failure. This despite the fact that Las Casas' proposal is itself a compromise with political reality. I put it like that because his arguments entail a more radical conclusion, not just restoration but also, "reparation for injuries." (4)++


*The point is more explicit in Memorial de Remedios para las Indias (1516), where he advocates building hospitals for the locals.

+I do not want to overstate this. Clearly, even the most humane-minded Europeans assumed the superiority of their religion (even if they were critical of their civilization). 

**It clearly seems willing when the influence of non-Spanish (low-countries) courtiers is at its peak at the Court of Emperor V. These clearly recognize that the Spanish nobility is developing a new source of power and income in the Americas.

++This is not anachronism because the point is made explicit  by a fifteenth century editor of Las Casas, Bartolome de la Vega in the preface he attached to the Defense.

Fresh audio product

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/03/2020 - 8:17am in

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

March 5, 2020 Andrew Bacevich, historian and president of the Quincy Institute, on the history and structure of the US permanent war mobilization (Harper’s article, The Age of Illusions) • Chris Brooks on the UAW bribery/embezzlement scandal (articles: ITT, Intercept)

On the Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/03/2020 - 10:39pm in


Racism, Religion, War

[T]hose people are barbaric, uninstructed in letters and the art of government, and completely ignorant, unreasoning, and totally incapable of learning anything but the mechanical arts; that they are sunk in vice, are cruel, and of such character that, as nature teaches, they are to be governed by the will of others....But, for their own welfare, people of this kind are held by natural law to submit to the control of those who are wiser and superior in virtue and learning, as are the Spaniards (especially the nobility), the learned, the clergy, the religious, and, finally, all those who have been properly educated and trained. Such persons must be considered when a judgment is to be made about the morals and character of any people, for in them especially shine forth natural ability, uprightness, training, and the best morals of any nation. Both in Spain and among the Indians, spiritual and temporal government is entrusted to these people rather than to soldiers, who, for the most part, are unprincipled and, under cover of military license, inflict many injuries.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the Indians are obliged by natural law to obey those who are outstanding in virtue and character in the same way that matter yields to form, body to soul, sense to reason, animals to human being, women to men, children to adults, and finally, the imperfect to the more perfect, the worse to the better, the cheaper to the more precious and excellent, to the advantage of the both. This is the natural order, which the the eternal and divine law commands be observed, according to Augustine.

Therefore, if the Indians, once warned, refuse to obey this legitimate sovereignty, they can be forced to do so for their own welfare by recourse to the terrors of war. And this war will be just both by civil and natural law, according to the second, third, and fifth chapters of the Politics of Aristotle....Finally, all political philosophers, basing themselves on this reason alone, teach that in cities, kingdoms, and states those who excel in prudence and virtue should preside with sovereignty over the government so that government may be just according to natural law....

Even if these barbarians (that is, the Indians) do not lack capacity, with still more reason they must obey and heed the commands of those who can teach them to live like human beings and do the things that are beneficial for both their present and future life.--"Summary of Sepúlveda's Position" from In Defense of the Indians by Bartolomé de Las Casas, translated by Stafford Poole, pp. 11-13 [ca 1550]

Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda was at the time the royal historian of Emperor Charles V. Las Casas treats him as a trained theologian, but I have also seen him described as a lawyer (see here; perhaps he was both). The Summary of Sepúlveda provided by his opponent, Las Casas, understates Sepúlveda's assertion of natural hierarchies between and within peoples. A line often quoted elsewhere from Sepúlveda's (ca 1550) Democrates Alter, Or, on the Just Causes for War Against the Indians states that "The man rules over the woman, the adult over the child, the father over his children. That is to say, the most powerful and most perfect rule over the weakest and most imperfect. This same relationship exists among men, there being some who by nature are masters and others who by nature are slaves."  This does echo Aristotle. Sepúlveda also goes beyond Aristotle. In the same document Sepúlveda pretty much compares the Indians to apes,* in a way that anticipates Rousseau's idea in a note to the Second Discourse that certain kinds of humans are apelike in the state of nature.

Of course, while Sepúlveda wholeheartedly and repeatedly embraces natural hierarchies, his argument actually does not rest on it. For he allows that, perhaps, the Indians are in no way inferior in capacity. In fact the real work is done by the purported existence of social misery, especially certain form of immorality, in their affairs ("that they are sunk in vice, are cruel,"). In fact, according to Sepúlveda intervention is required because they must be raised from their present immorality, which is bestial and savage.

Sepúlveda is relying on reports of human sacrifice and ritualized cannibalism among the Indians (see here). This matters not just because it shows they are pagans and abhorrent, but also because innocents are harmed if the Spaniards stand by and do nothing. (In context, Sepúlveda offers testimony for this assertion.)

That is the say, the thrust of Sepúlveda's argument does not rest on the reality of natural hierarchy, but rather on the claim that without Spanish, humanitarian intervention, all the Indians will be harmed to some degree, and especially the weak  innocent among them. Indian existence is a proto-Hobbesian state of nature, and so an educated Spanish sovereign is better than no sovereign. 

As an aside, even Sepúlveda indirectly admits that the Spanish conquest need not be beneficial to the Indians in all respects. For, where the Indians fall under de facto Spanish military occupation, they are simply miserably oppressed. 

Sepúlveda, thus, brings together (perhaps partially reinvents) two tropes that become extremely influential and pernicious: (i) that the violent extension of civilization, conquest, is to be pursued because it ultimately benefits the backward and savage. And (ii) that immoral and wicked practices may invite humanitarian intervention. This intervention is humanitarian in character because it is in the interest of the Indians to become humane ("to live like human beings") and acquire the skill and practice of civilization and thereby benefit from it politically and personally, that is, in the afterlife ("that are beneficial for both their present and future life.")). 

According to Sepúlveda, Spanish empire is providential ("God wanted the greater part of the world to come under their dominion so that it might be ruled more justly..." (p. 13)). It's notable that it's not just in Sepúlveda and adherents of providence that (recall) (i) and (ii) can amount to the same thing.




*"[If you know the customs and manners of different peoples, that the Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate and the moderate and temperate and, I might even say, between apes and men."


US/Iran Rivalry: What No War But the Class War Really Means

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 01/03/2020 - 2:32am in

image/jpeg iconal_asad_airbase.jpg

The Twentieth Century saw the emergence of “total war”. Wars which are not just between armies but involve entire socio-economic formations and inflicted on the population at large. They are wars to the death with no negotiated outcome — only the “unconditional surrender” of the loser. Revolutionary Marxists call this “imperialist war”.

Our solidarity is not with regimes but with the international working class.


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Cartoon: Dominic Cummings as Goya’s Saturn

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 27/02/2020 - 3:31am in

Hello, and I hope everyone’s having a great day. Here’s another cartoon, which I hope will bring a smile to your lips as well as express my absolute revulsion at the Tories. This time the subject is Boris Johnson’s adviser and pet polecat, Dominic Cummings. The tone is, as you can see, still dark and horrific, but the inspiration comes from great art rather than film. The cartoon shows Cummings, naked except for his woolly hat, eating someone. It’s based on Goya’s famous painting, ‘Saturn Eating his Children’, painted in the artist’s old age on the walls of his house.

Goya is one of the great figures of Romantic art. I think he was a moderate liberal, who hoped for reforms that would give his country great political liberty, as well as education and reason against widespread superstition. He depicted some of these superstitious beliefs and customs in his art, like witches’ sabbaths and the ‘Burial of a Sardine’. But he was left disappointed and bitter by the conservative reaction and then the violence and atrocities of the Napoleonic Invasion, which he also depicted in his sequence ‘The Horrors of War’. These drawings show firings squads, women throwing stones at armed troopers, mutilated corpses. In an age which glorified warfare as noble and heroic, Goya stands out – and still stands out – for showing how horrific it really is. And their titles are truly prophetic and eternal. I believe that the drawing of the firing squad has the title ‘It Will Be the Same Again’. As it has been, in just about every war since, all over the world.

His ‘Saturn Eating His Children’ was one of number of similar paintings, all against a black background. In Graeco-Roman myth, the god Saturn was afraid of being usurped by his children, so he ate them. Jupiter, his son, outwitted him by tricking him into eating a stone instead. Saturn then vomited up the other gods, who united under Jupiter’s leadership, and overthrew their father, fulfilling the prophecy.

Where the Roman myth ends in victory and triumph, Goya’s painting just shows bleakness and horror. Saturn is shown naked except for his long hair, his eyes wide and staring in madness, part way through consuming one of the bodies. I thought it would form a fitting metaphor for the sheer, unrelenting, insane ferocity with which Cummings and the rest of the Tories attack the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and marginalised. They aren’t personally violent, except in a few cases, but the welfare reforms initiated by Dave Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith, and carried on by Tweezer and Johnson, have called tens, if not hundreds of thousands of innocents. All because they’re greedy and afraid – of the poor and of the working class. The same kind of insane fear and hate that Goya gave his figure of Saturn.

Here’s the cartoon. I hope you enjoy it, and, as always, don’t have nightmares.