Determining and Applying International Humanitarian Law to the War in Syria

Destruction in Syria

The Civil War in Syria began in the spring of 2011 when the Ba’athist government led by Bashir Al-Assad responded violently to protests that erupted in different cities across Syria. These protests, fueled by a partial crop failure and the revolutionary winds of the Arab Spring, soon turned from non-violent opposition to armed resistance movements. Over the past four years hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed and a lost generation of young children are living their lives in refugee camps around the region. Several cities – with value recognized as belong to the common heritage of all humanity sites – now lay in ruin. The war has helped to create the conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State which invaded neighboring Iraq and has openly and flagrantly committed all manner of international crimes. The tragedy of Syria provides fertile ground for those concerned with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the development of International Criminal Law to understand the applicable legal regimes and the potential modes of liability for participating states as well as the individuals personally responsible.

To ascertain the applicable legal standards regarding the war in Syria one must first ask a fundamental question. For the purposes of this comment I will assume that there is little disagreement that there is currently an armed conflict in Syria. Therefore, the first question is which of the three types of armed conflict provides the applicable IHL regime in Syira? For review, those categories are international armed conflict, non-international armed conflict, and the emerging field of internationalized armed conflict. International armed conflict is defined in Common Article 2 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It states in part, “all cases of declared war or of any armed conflict that may arise between two or more high contracting parties, even if the state of war is not recognized, the convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a high contracting party even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.” Therefore, an armed conflict clearly between the legal and recognized armed forces of two different states or when one state occupies another state, the law of international armed conflict applies. Examples of such cases are the Korean War between the armies of North and South Korea and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, or Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention defines non-international armed conflicts as, “armed conflicts that are non-international in nature occurring in one of the High contracting parties.” Frankly, this is not entirely helpful. In its simplest form non-international armed conflicts must be between a standing army on one side and a nongovernmental actor on the other that takes place within a particular state. The conflict must, however, manifest itself in the form of actual armed conflict, what most would plainly call a ‘war.’ Common Article 3 is not applicable to internal unrest such as riots or other acts of violence that are either too isolated and/or sporadic to be considered sustained conflict. Giving more guidance than the plain text of Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, the ICRC has stated that a situation is a non-international armed conflict when; 1) the hostilities have reached a certain minimum level of intensity such that the governmental response necessitates military and not just police action; and 2) non-governmental groups involved in the conflict must be considered as “parties to the conflict,” meaning that they possess organized armed forces.[1] This means, for example, that these forces have to be under a certain command structure and have the capacity to sustain military operations.

The third kind of armed conflict recognized by international humanitarian law is a newly recognized form known as ‘an internationalized armed conflict.’ An otherwise non-international armed conflict may become internationalized if: a) the state subject to an insurrection recognizes the insurgents as belligerents; b) one or more foreign States come to the aid of one of the parties with their own armed forces or; c) two foreign States intervene with their respective armed forces, each in aid of a different party.[2] The most visible example of an internationalized armed conflict was the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998 when the forces from Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe and Uganda intervened to support various groups in the DRC,[3] and arguably the war in Indochina with both the United States and the Soviet Union providing a certain amount of military personnel and equipment. This newly recognized, and sometimes critiqued, field of armed conflict in IHL presents serious problems if applied. Unlike both international and non-international armed conflict, internationalized conflicts are not clearly subject to one or the other applicable provisions and protocols of the Geneva Conventions, unless one simply applies the principles of Common Article 2 and Additional Protocol I.

When turning to Syria another question presents itself. Since several international states and non-state actors are openly involved not only in the direct fighting, but in directly supporting various forces, what level of such involvement is enough to trigger the enhanced obligations and protections of International Armed Conflict? In Nicaragua the International Court of Justice found that a foreign State is responsible for the conduct of a faction in a civil war if: a) the faction is a de facto agent of the foreign State; or b) the foreign State otherwise orders it to commit certain acts – the “effective control” test.[4] The ICTY used a different gauge when finding individual criminal culpability through superior responsibility of a leader or military commander – the “total control” test. This is a more stringent standard used in International Criminal Law to determine personal responsibility. The less stringent effective control test for states affirmed in Nicaragua was affirmed when the ICJ found that Serbia had not had total control over Bosnian Serb forces in Bosnia.[5]

Taking into account those complexities and the multiple-sided proxy war aspect of the Syrian conflict, combined with the still unclear boundaries of internationalized armed conflict, it makes sense to view the Syrian civil war as an internal armed conflict, but with a reservation that, given the high degree of international cooperation and support for various belligerents and the government, it behooves one to review closely how involved outside actors are and whether it may rise to the level of making on-the-ground actors de facto agents.[6] Still, there is at least one standing army as a party to the conflict, the Syrian military. Opposed to it are two broad umbrella groups (the FSA and Jihadis) though the reality on the ground is that there are more likely several dozen different groups, sometimes in tenuous alliances, and others in open conflict with each other along with aggression against the Syrian military. Therefore it satisfies the two criteria set forth by the ICRC for internal armed conflict. The hostilities have certainly reached level of intensity such that the governmental response is military and not just police action; in fact, it is nearing its fourth year of bloody fighting. Additionally, those various groups fighting each other and the Assad military are, to a greater or lesser degree, organized armed forces capable of sustaining armed conflict with the state military for years.

Characterizing a conflict as an internal armed struggle means that only the very basic protections of Common Article 3 and the Additional Protocol II apply (if the state is a party). Additionally the conventions only mention criminal liability for violations committed in international armed conflicts. However, the ICTR, ICTY and Rome Statutes of the ICC have changed that, finding that customary international law can be interpreted to bridge the gap and apply ICL liability to internal armed conflict. This jurisprudence compliments Common Article 3 and the Additional Protocol II for criminal liability for serious crimes in internal conflicts. Keeping this in mind, all sides, even state actors, nearly all actors are potentially liable for the war crimes that have been widely reported to have been committed during the war. In the shamefully unlikely chance that either Syria signs the Rome Statute and refers itself to ICC jurisdiction under Article 12(3) or the UNSC proposes – much less approves- the creation of an ICTY-style tribunal the ability of the international legal community to intervene in the conflict or adjudicate responsibility and/or liability is seriously inhibited.

“Operation Inherent Resolve” Airstrikes in Syria – Collective Self-Defense or Mission Creep?

Libyan Vehicle Still Burning After Bombing

Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN charter states, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” The US-led international response to Iraq’s call for assistance in fighting ISIL complies with the provisions of Article 51. Iraq informed the Security Council of its request for assistance in its defense against internal belligerents and it has given express consent for such actions.[7] Serious questions arise regarding the applicability of Article 51 against non-state actors. The U.S. argues that there is sufficient state practice since 9/11, their own mostly, to justify claims of self-defense against non-state actors. However, post 9/11 decisions by the ICJ in Wall[8] and Congo v. Uganda[9] suggest just the opposite. In any case, customary international law permits a state to intervene on behalf of another state by another state, including the use of force, to restore law and order within the consenting state’s borders. Therefore the Iraqi government’s express consent removes any doubt as to the legality of action within the territory of Iraq.[10]

The real question then is the legality of similar strikes against ISIL in Syria. The United States has conducted strikes on both ISIL and another “al-Qaida-affiliated” terrorist organization known as the Khorasan Group targets inside Syria.[11] It is important to note that not all of the coalition partners currently engaged in Iraq are doing the same in Syria, notably the U.K. – a staunch U.S. ally.[12] Without a specific Security Council resolution – something unreasonably difficult given the fact that China and Russia are Syrian government allies whereas the Western countries support the “FSA” opposition and it is unclear how much, if any, “official” support is given to Islamist forces in Syria – though it is not unreasonable to assume some Gulf state support is being given, unless either Syria consents to the strikes against Islamist forces or they are undertaken in the guise of collective self-defense of Iraq, the legality of such strikes is questionable.

Syria has not consented to the strikes in its territory and has gone so far as to say it will consider any such strikes as violations of international law.[13] However, what one says and what one does may be entirely different. Coalition forces conducting strikes inside Syria routinely notify the government of the impending strike and none have yet been stopped. This appears to imply some kind of implicit consent, which is not surprising given that ISIL is one of the more tenacious enemies of the regime.[14] Implicit consent is not the kind the UN Charter contemplates or that the UNSC would likely consider legitimate, a position the Russian Foreign Ministry has argued.[15]

Without consent, we must return to the issue of self-defense. The United States spelled out its position in a letter to the U.N. Secretary General that it considers strikes in Syria against ISIL as part of its collective self-defense of Iraq pursuant to its request and consent and UNSC resolutions.[16] Its attacks against the Khorasan group appear to be justified by individual self-defense as a direct threat to the United States. This later justification is fairly dubious because in order to claim individual self-defense the state claiming the right must have been the victim of an armed attack per Chapter VII. While ISIL has attacked Iraq’s military and cities specifically, it has not done so against the U.S. Likewise, the Khorasan group has not conducted any armed attacked against the U.S. itself. However, if they are “affiliated” with Al-Qaeda they are considered by the U.S. as having conducted an attack on the U.S. on September 11th, and so they are fair game under the right of self-defense. The diminished nature of Al-Qaeda’s operational capacity raises serious doubts that a clear connection between Al-Qaeda and the Khorasan can be made, certainly nothing akin to either effective or total control. The Khorasan’s do not likely have the capability to conduct an attack on the U.S. with any imminence, which is the basis of individual self-defense.[17]

The question of whether the cross broader strikes against ISIL in Syria are justified based on the collective self-defense of Iraq, which is genuinely recognized as legal, remains open. The real issue is one’s position regarding the breadth and depth of Article 51. Only a broad reading of Article 51, one that includes non-state actors and cross-border attacks on potential threats of a state that has been the victim of an armed attacked, could justify U.S. strikes in Syria. But such a reading is plainly contrary to the object and purpose of Article 51. The notions of self-help, self-defense and collective self-defense are ones of customary law, established with all the applicable notions and protections of sovereignty. Despite the claims of ISIL to have eliminated the border between Iraq and Syria,[18] Iraq cannot do so. In defending itself against ISIL, Iraq, and anyone defending it against ISIL attacks can legally do so up to the border with Syria. To go further than the border of Iraq is, at least from a textual and customary reading of Article 51, a violation of international law. It is an added irony that the attacks themselves are, in fact, supporting the Syrian government in its fight against non-ISIL forces, thereby giving it aid and allowing it to shift forces against western-backed rebels. The intricacies of international relations sometimes defy what would otherwise appear to be reasonable strategy.

Applicability of the Responsibility to Protect in Syria – “Illegal, but Legitimate”

Children Killed In Sarin Attack

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), as stipulated in the Outcome Document of the 2005 United Nations World Summit[19] and formulated in the Secretary-General’s 2009 Report on Implementing the Responsibility to Protect[20] is as follows:

  1. The State carries the primary responsibility for protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and their incitement;
  2. The international community has a responsibility to encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility;
  3. The international community has a responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other means to protect populations from these crimes. If a State is manifestly failing to protect its populations, the international community must be prepared to take collective action to protect populations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

There has been ample evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by all sides in the Syrian conflict. ISIL is known for its brutal treatment of prisoners and its callous disregard for human life, the FSA has chopped off the fingers of “spies” and the government has used barrel bombs and other weapons against civilian centers.[21] In 2013 a Sarin gas attack in the suburbs of Damascus caused international outrage and appeared to move the international community in the direction of asserting the obligation to intervene under R2P.[22] However, that intervention, at least in the form of air and missile strikes against the regime proposed by the U.S., was rejected by Russia and China. They cited the case of Libya as an example of how the principles of R2P, though laudable, can be easily abused to give a green light to regime change. Such actions are contrary to the customary principle of non-intervention and sovereignty itself.[23]

In general, the humanitarian situation and the crimes against the people of Syria by all sides appears to invoke the principle of R2P as a classic matter. There are crimes being committed, the international community has responsibility to help protect the people of Syria, and the government has either been complicit in or unable to prevent continuing violence and possible crimes. Therefore, the argument goes, the situation demands that the international community respond. While the response will likely not be military, given the concerns of mission creep, other methods may be put in place. Some of these include but are not limited to:

  • UNSC could issue resolutions compelling all sides to a cease-fire and negotiation.
  • The UNSC could authorize a peacekeeping mission to facilitate negotiations.
  • The UNSC could establish a cadre of foreign monitors to ensure that no crimes are being committed, and if they are that they are reported to the UNSC and international legal bodies for prosecution.
  • The UNSC could establish universal arms embargoes.
  • The UNSC could establish economic sanctions on Syria and anyone who supports any of the actors fighting.

In all honesty, all of these solutions sound like positive steps in resolving the conflict, if one knows nothing of both the conflict itself but also the history and relationship of the Permanent Five Members of the UNSC. Since the Syrian conflict is essentially a proxy war between the United States, some Gulf States, and Russia (and to a lesser degree China) it is reminiscent of Cold War era conflicts. It is why there has been little action (despite the removal of chemical weapons after the Sarin attack, which is positive indeed) at the UNSC regarding Syria. As a proxy war, there is no reason to believe that any of these potentially positive suggestions are either possible or effective given the length of time the war has been allowed to continue and the resulting destruction of property, human lives and (in many ways) the moral fabric of what is left of Syrian society. That aside, if possible, the most effective program may be a simple arms embargo. Weapons and ammunition do not last forever, can be destroyed, and the fighting could literally peter out. If that happened it could open the door to an influx of humanitarian work and pave the way for other conflict resolution actions such as providing safe corridors for refugees, establishing neutral areas or even setting up formal peace negotiations. Again, given that fact that Syria is a proxy war between great powers, these proposals, though workable as reasonable solutions in the abstract, are unlikely to be seriously considered. Each side feels it has too much to lose and, frankly, it is just not bad enough, or they just do not care enough, to risk the potential fallout on the grand international game.

Still for many, military intervention may indeed be the only recourse possible to stop the war. However, one cannot ignore the very recent history of R2P and its distortion in Libya. The transition of a UNSC authorized R2P intervention to protect civilians in Benghazi turned very quickly into a robust air campaign aimed at regime change from the above. Given the position of the U.S. (“Assad Must Go”) there is every reason to believe that any invocation of R2P in Syria would likewise lead to regime change. Though that result may be understandably sought, it is not the goal of R2P. It therefore stands as a barrier to its legitimate use. Unlike Libya, the Syrian proxy war makes the prospect of mission creep to regime change even that much more serious and dangerous.

A more grim danger lies in the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and NATO has its own version of R2P. In the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty on Responsibility to Protect (2001), the Commission considers the situation in which “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time.” In that case, the Report authorizes “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.” Since we can assume the UNSC will not be acting on Syria in the near future, it appears to authorize action by NATO. Since Turkey borders Syria, NATO can reasonably claim that the conflict is in its “area of jurisdiction” and bring to bear all of its assets, assets which are considerable indeed. This divergence between the UN and NATO applications of R2P leaves open the possibility of unilateral action by NATO that would likely result in a similarly odd conclusion of that the Independent Commission on Kosovo regarding the NATO air campaign: “Illegal, but legitimate.”[24]

Conclusion

An internal armed conflict rages in Syria today, one that has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and homes of millions more and appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. It touches every failed component of modern international relations. The UNSC, the institution tasked with ensuring international peace and security is run by those who have some of worst records of abuse, but by the nature of their victory, through war crimes gone unprosecuted, in a war that cost millions lives and the destruction of many countries, and therefore completely unable to do fulfill their obligations. The closest the UNSc has come to doing so was in Libya, but the temptation to fall back on old models of neo-imperial control rose to the fore, and ruined what opportunity was provided.

The wanton violations of all manner of international law by all actors involved, including the U.S., Gulf States, and Russia, make the possibility of any legitimacy of international action in Syria nearly hopeless. There will be no international U.N. mission in Syria if things remain as they currently are. There will be no trials of international criminals even may even make Mladic cringe, the UNSC has their self-diagnosed “tribunal fatigue,” and the ICC is left with no party referring the matter, little to no action by the prosecutor (the telling signs of unfortunate political influence – the very thing it was intended to avoid) and the local courts, if any legitimate courts remain outside Damascus, are wholly unable and certainly unwilling to do anything even if they had the power to do so. Money, arms, and fighters are flocking to the war, some for adventure and danger, and others from a feeling of a mandate by a religious or moral obligation. Those who fight in the hell of war never leave unscathed. All actors from the state to the individual are behaving contrary to a very basic moral truth: do as little harm as possible.

Despite this, not all hope is lost. One benefit of the underlying principle of sovereignty of states, means that those who control the state have a large influence in the international arena. Those who are compelled by a religious or moral obligation to fight violence and war must first change their governments. We need new representatives of the powerful states, ones who will not make excuses or put up barriers. Instead, the powerful nations, the P5 and the G8, can use their power to end the neo-colonial exploitation and fully enforce the laudable principles enshrined in nearly every Human Rights convention and document. This will not happen unless those in areas outside of hot conflicts can overcome their myopic vision of the world and recognize their ability to fundamentally alter and enhance the lives of millions, if not billions of our fellow humans.

With the right kind of decision makers at the U.N., and most importantly at the UNSC, a large coalition force could amass in the Mediterranean and on the Turkish border to threaten all sides fighting in Syria. A call for an armistice could be made, and if fulfilled, the UNSC could authorize several types and modes of missions that could facilitate peace talks and rebuilding, as well as resettlement and economic relief. If the sides refused, a large invasion (one of such size that those in Syria would know it would be impossible to repel) could be undertaken that demanded, and ensured, full compatibility with applicable law. Syria could sign and ratify the Rome Statute or the UNSC could create a tribunal for the conflict. All parties could participate and the Tribunal could be, and would need to be, well funded and staffed. There could be trials and the rebuilding of a new nation after years of war. This will not happen, though, if the status quo remains and those in the powerful nations stay complacent. In a real sense, the mechanisms exist in international law to combat and overcome these challenges, but without change at the state level in Russia, the U.S. and China, the status quo will continue in perpetuity. Those who allow that to happen are morally complicit in the crimes that happen in Syria and around the world.

[1] International Committee of the Red Cross, How is the Term “Armed Conflict” Defined in International Humanitarian Law? https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/opinion-paper-armed-conflict.pdf, 2008

[2] Gasser, Internationalized non-International Armed Conflicts: Case studies of Afghanistan, Kampuchea, and Lebanon, 31 AM. U.L. Rev. 809 (1982)

[3] Williams, Explaining the Great War in Africa: How Conflict in the Congo Became a Continental Crisis, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Vol. 37:2 Summer 2013

[4] Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. united States of America), 1986 I.C.J. 14, 27 June 1986

[5] Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadic (Appeal Judgment), IT-94-1-A, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 15 July 1999, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/40277f504.html %5Baccessed 7 May 2015]

[6] BBC News, Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-23849587 (Accessed May 7, 2015)

[7] Letter dated 20 September 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, U.N. Doc. S/2014/691, (Sept. 22, 2014).

[8] Advisory Opinion Concerning Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, International Court of Justice (ICJ), 9 July 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/414ad9a719.html %5Baccessed 7 May 2015]

[9] Advisory Opinion Concerning Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, International Court of Justice (ICJ), 9 July 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/414ad9a719.html %5Baccessed 7 May 2015]

[10] Arimatsu and Schmitt, Attacking “Islamic State” and the Kohorasan group: Surveying the International Law Landscape, 2 COLUM. J. Transnat’l l. Bulletin 53, 2014

[11] U.S. Department of Defense, Operation Inherent Resolve, http://www.defense.gov/home/features/2014/0814_iraq/ (Accessed May 7, 2015)

[12] Nicholas Watt and Nick Hopkins, “Cameron forced to rule out British attack on Syria after MPs reject motion” The Guardian, (29 August 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/29/cameron-british-attack-syria-mps (Accessed May 5, 2015)

[13] Ian Black & Dan Roberts, “Isis Air Strikes: Obama’s Plan Condemned by Syria, Russia and Iran”, The Guardian, (Sept. 12, 2014), http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/11/assad-moscow-tehran-condemn-obama-isis-air-strike-plan.

[14] Cheryl Pellerin, DoD Official: Successful Syrian Strikes Only the Beginning, U.S. DoD News: (Sept. 23, 2014), http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=123241 (quoting Lieutenant General William Mayville);Rear Adm. John Kirby & Lt. Gen. William Mayville, Dep’t of Defense Press Briefing(Sept. 23, 2014), available ahttp://www.defense.gov/Transcripts/Transcript.aspx?TranscriptID=5505[hereinafter DOD Press Briefing]

[15] Gabriela Baczynska and Katya Golubkova, “Russia: airstrikes must be agreed with Syria or will fuel tension,” Reuters (Sept 23, 2014), http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/23/us-syria-crisis-airstrikes-russia-idUSKCN0HI0OU20140923

[16] Michelle Nichols, “Exclusive: United States defends Syria in Letter to U.N. Chief. (September 23, 2014) Reuter, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/23/us-syria-crisis-un-usa-exclusive-idUSKCN0HI22120140923

[17] On the distinction between IS, al-Nusra and the Khorasan Group, see Holly Yan, What’s the Difference between ISIS, al-Nusra, and the Khorasan Group?, CNN (Sept. 24, 2014, 3:01 PM), http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/24/world/meast/isis-al-nusra-khorasan-difference/

[18] Al-Monitor, “ISIS Erases Iraq-Syria border,” (June, 11, 2014)

[19] (A/RES/60/1, para. 138-140)

[20] (A/63/677)

[21] A review of many crimes can be found at http://syrianfight.com/

[22] UN General Assembly, Report of the United Nations Mission to Investigate Allegations of the Use of Chemical Weapons in the Syrian Arab Republic on the alleged use of chemical weapons in the Ghouta area of Damascus on 21 August 2013 : note / by the Secretary-General, 13 September 2013, A/67/997-S/2013/553, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53abe7bf4.html %5Baccessed 7 May 2015]

[23] BBC News, “Syria Crisis: Russia and China step up warning over strike,” (August 27, 2013) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-23845800

[24] Independent International Commission on Kosovo: The Kosovo Report: http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/6D26FF88119644CFC1256989005CD392-thekosovoreport.pdf

The Unintentional Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens, The Contrarians Contrarian Who Denied The Title

I tend to find myself on the least popular side of most arguments. It is not by choice mind you. I am not the kind of person who likes to pick a fight. I am, though, not opposed to a debate. From this unenviable place I find myself in a rather precarious position in the age of identity politics. I have the least valuable inherent identifiers for commenting on a wide variety of issues that occupy the pages of print and web based media outlets. For the record, those identifiers are as follows: white, middle class, college educated male born in 1985 and raised in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota. I grew up with a stable family, Nintendo, Jesus, public schools, and girlfriends. Pretty standard.

Those features do not appear to provide me much credit in terms of understanding what it is like to be black, poor, a woman, or any other marginalized or oppressed group. Any criticism I make about the nature and value of identity politics and the social movements it inspires can be easily dismissed as the ravings of a privileged-white-heteronormative-American-male. How can someone like that understand the animosity people of color hold for the police or a woman’s justified fear when alone at night? The sad irony is that rather than being judged by the content of my character (evidenced by chosen, not given identities) and instead by the color of my skin or where I was born, the sweeping generalizations that inevitably follow are by definition discriminatory. Since I am who I am, the argument goes, there is no way I can ever really understand the systemic nature or the experience of racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination. I would do well to just stay quiet.

But beyond those inherent identifiers are chosen identities. These gave me insight into what it is like to be a minority or to be oppressed. Because these identities fall outside the norm that my inherent features project to the rest of the world, they have allowed me to bridge the gap between my more traditionally privileged positions and those of the oppressed. The first of these is that I do not believe in God.

I remember the look on my pastor’s face when I told him. I was about thirteen and I had developed a bit of a reputation for asking annoying questions in church classes. So I finally had to come out with it. I was an atheist. Church had been a consistent component of my life growing up. Most Sundays and Wednesdays I would go do church stuff with my family, but I never really believed any of it. I went along with most of it because it was easier that way. No reason to rock the boat. By the age thirteen, pubescence and pompousness had swelled to a point that I was willing to finally tell people. Some people could not even fathom being an atheist while others did not see what the big deal was. Either way, there was a price to pay to assert a position so far from the norm. When you no longer accept religion, you have to surrender the protection that religion demands: immunity from criticism. Unfortunately that often leads to a litany of rude questions, unwarranted judgment, preconceived yet hidden assumptions and a generally negative attitude about your character. The usual outcome is social exclusion.

While that was certainly my experience, it was not mine alone. Over the course of human history the gravity well of religion has kept most human minds and actions in a close orbit around tradition. Our evolutionary impulse to listen to our parents has a reasonable grounding – one does not want to test whether they should or should not jump from a cliff edge – but it lends itself to easy abuse. The acceptance of parental authority is easily translated into other social spheres. We learn to obey authority figures and to respect status. But some of us seem incapable of doing so and therefore feel compelled, usually by good reasons and intentions, to contest the legitimacy of authority wherever we find it. When humans sought answers to questions we did not have the knowledge to truly understand, we thrust those questions up to the gods to answer. Religion is a very human impulse, but so too is the tendency to reject it. It seems inevitable that humanity would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil at some point.

Still, that has not gone well for those who have asserted intellectual independence, specifically in the realm of religion. The length of the list containing names of those socially excluded, banished, fined, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and killed because they asserted a disbelief in the one, or many gods, will never fully be known. Rest assured, it is long, and more names are added every day. One needs to look no further than Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, or Iraq see the potential dangers of the strength of will it takes to stand by your supernatural convictions. While for me the threat of death or imprisonment was slight, the social exclusion was real. Invariably after admitting that I was an atheist I was immediately put on the defensive. The barrage of questions – so easily answered by priests, rabbis and imams – came rushing forth. The answers I gave, tough as they are to accept, were rarely granted with grace. Some people even refused to go that far, condemning me as the holder of a dangerous and potentially treasonous idea that should be avoided if not simply suppressed. To be an atheist was and still is tantamount to not being a full member of society, at least not one in good standing. Rather, we atheists should be pushed to the margins and had a close eye kept on and preferably to, again, stay quiet. For the first time in my life I felt the social weight of a minority status.

Even within the Atheist community there is disagreement and marginalization. In the hyper-specialized world of 21 century capitalism, no difference is too small to matter. Every divergent position may cause such heated vitriol that both sides can, though aligned in nearly every other issue, refuse to cooperate. Some, like me, enjoy the “New Atheist” tradition while others like the more mild, complacent and socially acceptable form. It really is a matter of whether you are willing to thrust yourself into the fray, or wait for everyone else to catch up. I have never had the ability to wait.

Holding, not to mention being open about, such a socially precarious position seems stupid to most people. Sure, we should all be authentic, be proud of who we are and whatnot, but if we are honest, no one wants to commit social suicide. Becoming an atheist, especially fifteen years ago, was just that. That was not the end for me, though. When I was fifteen I had to participate in a debate for English class that though I intended it as a test of my skills to choose a topic that was a non-starter I knew just the proposition, I would find that I would come to argue my position outside class as well. That position: “The United States should adopt a Communist form of government.”

Given what we had all learned in school up to then, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I remembered my history lessons. The Soviet Union was the evil empire: a place without freedom, fraught with commodity shortages and little more than an archipelago of prison camps. We had been taught that America’s great struggle with the Communists exhibited not only that the American way was better than the Soviet, but that Capitalism was superior to Communism. Communism, (or Socialism or Marxism – they are synonyms as far as most Americans are concerned) they told us, is a system contrary to human nature. One where the government takes all property, forces everyone to work for the same wages, and demands a dictatorship to control the whole terrible system.

Stalin, my teachers lessoned, was Communism incarnate: a shrewd man who, though once our ally, killed millions of his own people through starvation and concentration camps. My high school history teacher was very adamant about the subject. “Stalin,” he said, “was even worse than Hitler.” From those lessons in my mind, and the minds of my classmates around the country, Nazism=Hitler > Communism=Stalin. So I had to argue for something worse than Hitler? This decision was not likely to help my already uneasy social position given my already out atheism.

As I prepared for the debate – reading the Communist Manifesto and then several other of Marx’s famous works – I was left mostly confused. I had come to one unshakable realization. My teachers had lied to me. Either they did not know what they were talking about (which was probably the case) or they had consciously or unconsciously accepted Cold War propaganda as fact. The ideas of Marxism, Socialism and Communism, first and foremost as distinguishable and independent things, are, I learned, much more nuanced and less superficial than we had been led to believe. Really it seemed to me more like an argument for a system that tapped into the very things that I had learned and enjoyed about the moral teachings of my religious education. As I read more it seemed that Socialism or better yet Communism, rather than Capitalism, was the means to bring about a better, more moral state. Marx talked about the seizure of the government by the working class, not so it could ingratiate itself with lavish luxury like in Russia, but so it could use its power to combat poverty, inequality and discrimination of all forms. The truth was there before me. I figured I could win the debate so long as I dealt with Stalin.

My adolescent study of Marx, though quick and too shallow, when combined with a dramatic conversation with a crack addict in the downtrodden Southeast side of Washington D.C., changed my perspective. No longer did I debate the issue simply to test my oratory skills. Instead I tried to undo the damage that the propaganda about Communism and the Soviet Union had done. I gave an impassioned plea for us to let go of their preconceived notions about the subject. I explained that the infantile description of Marxism that we had been taught was bunk. That it was our economic system, Capitalism, and not Socialism, which was responsible for the greatest woes: slavery, inequality, colonialism and two world wars. Stalinism, I told them, is distinct from Marxism. Sure they share a common vocabulary, but one attempts to criticize capitalism and proscribe an antidote, albeit an amorphous one. The perverse form simply usurps those same phrases which tap into the generosity of the human spirit and uses them to facilitate the consolidation of power into the hands of a small center of power. Finally, I tried to sum up the whole thing; Communism is nothing more than true democracy.

Democracy, we all agree, is the ideal, right? Well, we do not have democracy in America. Our economic system and the places we spend most of our waking hours – our jobs – are not democratic institutions but oligarchies or mini-dictatorships. Communism merely asserts that we ought to democratize work. That iss all. How could you disagree with that? After my opponents inevitably failed to adequately combat my contentions the class voted unanimously for the resolution. I was stunned. People like me, who had not grown up in the propaganda frenzy of the Cold War were able to see past the remnants of it with which we had been indoctrinated.

From then on I thrust myself into studying Marx and had to do so mostly on my own. No one was teaching about such a dangerous and radical idea. After the local newspaper published my letter to the editor cautioning my fellow citizens about the dangers of American intervention in Iraq, I received a copy of the alien and sedition act while sitting in class one afternoon. I did not know it then, but that is the very law that the government has used to silence dissent by arresting, detaining, and/or deporting anyone promoting “seditious” activities like advocating for the system I now did. As a seventeen year old kid in 2003, I finally saw how criticizing capitalism in America, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was tantamount to treason. It was not at all clear to me why though. But it did not matter.

Over the course of the last hundred years the United States government, media and education have waged a full scale assault on people like me. Though we never really learned about Marx, we did learn about the Italian anarchists Sacco and Venzetti, (as dangerous revolutionaries who were executed after being convicted of murder) but nothing of the Haymarket Riot. There were the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920. As the German revolution was being drowned in blood, the American Department of Justice decided to go after radical leftists, arresting and deporting hundreds and causing the rest to hide in fear. Rather than learn about the labor struggles that had led much of the American working class to strikes and boycotts which precipitated the raids, all we had been taught was that the DOJ went after the commies because Communism is “anti-American.”

As I said, there was nothing about the labor struggles and trials of Communists and Socialists in the 1930s taught in school, despite the history being relatively recent, interesting and full of lessons about the depression that did not focus solely on the President. It is hard for Americans to believe this, but the President does not do everything. No doubt, the brief read that most students partake of our flawed history textbooks could easily convince them otherwise. Real history shows us that it is not presidents but the people who generate real and lasting change. Like the lost history of the Communist Party in organizing black laborers in the South, which paved the way for the civil rights movement, a movement whose key organizers were committed Communists. But you would never hear that in history class.

After WWII the anti-communist activity in the US swung into full gear. The propaganda machine began rolling both by the U.S. Government but also by big media, industrial and financial business as well as academia. Hollywood radicals were blacklisted. Senator McCarthy made “The House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities” a spectacle only rivaled by the Purge Trials in Stalin’s USSR. The FBI, under Herbert Hoover who was convinced that there was an imminent threat of Communist uprising, created and implemented the COINTEL program which infiltrated and incapacitated all of the leading labor, radical, student and Marxist organizations in the United States. At one time, there were as many FBI informants in the Communist Party than there were actual Communists. Part of this campaign involved imprisoning, murdering, deporting or other ways of taking members of the movement out of commission. Taken together, by the 1980s, America’s radical left had been all but wiped out. There were few Marxist teachers in classrooms, no popular writers on the subject, only a select few political leaders that attempt to give voice to the cause. It was not because the ideas were in and of themselves fraught with error, but that they were suppressed, managed, marginalized and taken out of public view by those with the most to lose. With it went a philosophy which sought to promote the simple idea that we should not tolerate poverty, inequality and war for the sake of profit.

Because of this history, I have too been relegated to the position of “that Godless Commie” or “that crazy guy talking about revolution.” These powerful ideas are seen by so many as nothing more than a joke or a position stemming from naivety. The United States program of destroying radicals in general has been so successful that simply as a Marxist I am a minority whose voice is or should be silenced. Sure I can write my blog or speak on the street, but there is no path to power, all pathways to information to the common person are controlled by corporate and social media companies and their government regulating friends. Besides, being a communist is tantamount to being a fascist in America. I would wager that even someone with a sufficiently deep education may still have trouble telling the difference. If you did not study history or political science at the college level, and even then, how would you know? After all, it was what we all learned in school, right?

Just in case, let me be clear then. Barack Obama is not a socialist; he is a centrist capitalist politician. Adolf Hitler was not a socialist (yes, I know it the National Socialist Workers Party – but who did Hitler destroy first? He destroyed the communists), he was an ultra-conservative corporatist. Stalin claimed to be a socialist but the Soviet Union under Stalin was about as far from a democratized workforce as you could get. China is led by the Communist Party, but it is clear that there is neither democracy at work, nor in any true sense in the political sphere. This is not Communism. There have been many iterations of Marx’s perspective which have been prompted by world events since Marx’s death. All of them are attempts to make the theory work. Unfortunately revolutions occurred in the places where it was most unlikely to succeed (the non-industrial) and in the manner that quite destructive (famines and wars). This is not Socialism or Communism: it is Capitalism. If one is looking for an example of the ideas of Marx in practice, I suggest a study of the Paris Commune.

But to make this point puts you further into the margins. Even if this analysis is right, and I assure you it is, it makes no difference if no one hears it. But it does not stop there for me. Around the time I came to understand the exploitation of workers by capitalists while still trying to deal with the profound intellectual and emotional struggle of dealing with death without God, I came to yet another revelation. Much of the food I ate growing up was pretty standard northern European, white people food. You know, the standard, meat and potatoes. For the most part I liked most of it. My mom always called me a picky eater, which I guess I was, but I never thought much about what was really going on every night. Provoked by the deaths of childhood pets, coupled with the irony of the fun times I had herding sheep at my grandfather’s farm knowing of their impending slaughter, the weight of the finality of death finally hit home. It forced me to contemplate just how many lives I had been responsible for taking every day I unconsciously ate meat. I had never really made the connection.

In the course of a week it became clear that I could no longer eat meat. There is no possible moral argument for eating meat. Where one stands on the issue lies on a spectrum between unconscious meat consumption (and the results thereof) and the strictly vegan diet. This continuum is a moral one. The farther you go towards the vegan end, the more moral your dietary habits. I cannot fathom an argument that would serve to refute this assertion. I think it will be clear that no kind of religious or speciesist (humans are the top of the food chain: the moral equivalent of “it is okay because we can”) argument will suffice.

The decision to become a vegetarian at the age of sixteen again put me in the minority. In Midwestern America, so few people violated the norm that when they did, there was not much by way of support. Sure, I suppose I could have just not rocked the boat, but then I would have to resign myself to being, at best, a hypocrite and I refused to do that. The knowledge that I was right acted as a buttress, and I was able to withstand the social pressure to conform. Although much more common in 2015, this obviously morally superior dietary decision still stands as something that can serve to marginalize those who want to bring to a light a subject that most certainly needs the consciousness of people to be raised.

So, even as someone who appears to be able to take advantage of all that white, male, hetero-normative, middle class (oh, and middle class is not a real thing, by the way) privilege can provide, I too have struggled with marginalization, social exclusion, police intimidation and incarceration. I too have felt general dismissed from the rest of society. The most complicated of these positions is when it regards an identity that conforms closer to the traditional identifiers that gain one social currency nowadays. Over the last ten years I have seen the LGBT equality movement begin to really get steam and make some significant headway. First I have seen the consciousness of our nation change after an opening and the relaxation of the formerly stringent marginalization of the community en masse. It led to the opening up of social dialogue about the place of sexual orientation in our understanding of equal and human rights. I have been very proud of the American people for this, but do not get me wrong, the struggle continues.

As a bi-sexual man I feel some affinity for the movement and consider myself a member of it. But I have not participated meaningfully in gay pride parades or become wildly (though slightly) active in the gay marriage movement. There are several reasons for my arms-length relationship. First, as a Marxist I see the marginalization and oppression of gay people as a service to the ruling class by further dividing the large working class. So while I understand their struggle, if we focused on overthrowing Capitalism, then there would be no social value in LGBT discrimination of any kind. I see the gay marriage aspect of the LGBT movement as a distraction from the larger goal of lasting social change.

Marriage is an institution with a dubious past (one of passing property – the woman – from father to husband) that I am still not sure why the LGBT community would want to promote such an institution. But this is the genius of modern capitalist society. Rather than a marginalized group gaining political power to challenge the systemic nature of discrimination and exploitation as aspects that benefit a certain class, the movement spends political capital on a program aimed at attaining inclusivity into the very societal structure that allowed it in the first place. This is what happened with gay marriage and happened to the African American civil rights movement as well. Instead of seeking to topple the system that allowed and encouraged LGBT, racial, sexual, and national discrimination, these movements are guided not to revolution but to inclusion as full members of the hegemonic system. The irony is too sad to enjoy in this case.

Another reason I do not usually openly identify with the LGBT community is not because I am afraid of the backlash, but because my letter of the four – “B” – has its own unique history within the movement. This is where even within the inherent characteristics, for which gender and sexual identities surely are, can clash with the chosen even within a traditional identity based community. One of the strengths of LGT people is their more obvious challenge to hetero-normative social roles and norms except – maybe and paradoxically – marriage. This is not the case with bi-sexual people. For my own sake I am much more taken with women than I am men, and therefore present no real visible outward contest to hetero-normativity. I would appear to any observer as straight. I am married to a woman, behave very much like a “dude” for all intents and purposes, and am not branded on the tongue as it were. In many ways I fit into neither world. It is a limbo that is, as the theme again emerges, marginalizing even within the movement.

The provincial nature of the LGBT movement has caused some tension between the LGs, the Bs and the Ts. While there is a general understanding of the larger issue of equality and justice (words whose meanings are seemingly nebulous in a capitalist economy), there is not such an understanding about the particularity of the struggle on the individual identities in the larger LGBT community. Many gay and lesbian people are obviously so, and make no attempt, nor have any good reason, to hide it. They have no reason to be, but their outward expressions of that difference are now pillars of strength on which they can lean. For transgender people the struggle is one of gender identity and societal norms regarding sex and gender in general. While I freely admit that the struggle of the trans community is the most important of the four, it does not mean that others are not so as well. For some time a current has run through the more – shall I say? – conservative gay and lesbian crowd that see bisexual people has ‘having it both ways.’ We can be gay when it is convenient or when we want, and straight otherwise. Therefore, we are not really ‘all in’ like the others. They are openly different, obviously threatening the status quo, whereas bisexual people can blend in without being noticed. It seems like the safer – err – choice? I will leave you to deal with the layers of irony there.

So even my non-chosen identity is perilous in the world of identity politics and that is the limitations of it. When the ‘politics is personal’ the politics cannot be structural, and it most clearly is. While I understand the natural desire of social beings who feel marginalized in modern society to want to strive to be included in that society, the gains are temporary at best and do nothing to prevent that kind of action against a different group. Just getting to fit in does nothing to alter the structure that allowed for, or even encouraged, the discrimination to begin with. To ignore the structural impediments to progress, we only empower and legitimize the system which previously exploited us. It is like when a worker becomes an owner, a gay couple gets to marry or when a black man gets elected President. Sure, it makes us feel good, but does nothing to change the system that benefits from such exclusions, and then again benefits from the inclusion. We get taken advantage of either way. If we continue to look inward for our political perspective we will only see the gap that we can fill in the edifice of society, rather than the crumbling and unjustifiable absurdity of the whole monstrous construction itself.

Therefore, I encourage my brothers, sisters, comrades and friends around the world to think big about our problems. Step outside the confines of your innate characteristics, the identities you did not choose but came with, and see how you relate to the political and economic systems of the 21st century. Explore the criticism of religion and decided for yourself whether it make sense to you given the information to which you have access. Think about why some people (white, black, men and women) are poorer than others, and if it is justified for 90% of the wealth to be owned by 10% of the population. Consider whether you like going to work at your mini-dictatorship every day, or if you would rather have a say in your work. Think about who died for your meal, and whether marriage is all you want to see for your LGBT friends.

I can assure everyone that if you take a sober assessment of the world around you and neither accept nor dismiss anything from the start, you may realize that – although one may not look like it – they may have experienced the kind of marginalization that you have but it is not because of their skin color, or where they were born, or who they want to have sex with, but the content of their character that put them there. That experience, I assure you, may provide a unique perspective that may be worth listening to for once. If we do that, we can start making this world better for everyone.

Chomsky and Harris – Making and Crossing the Bridge

HarrisChomskySam Harris recently published e-mail correspondence between him and Noam Chomsky which was, to say the least, unhelpful and downright useless as it stands. What is needed, it seems, is a bit of distillation. We need to understand where the difference between them is. Anyone who has read enough Harris and Chomsky (who have apparently not read much of each other’s work) may understand where that difference truly lies. Seeing nothing but banal summaries and shameless side-taking, I feel it worth it try to make some inroads. Here is how I see the difference and how to resolve it.

Harris sent to Chomsky his section in the “End of Faith” that discussed, as he saw it, Chomsky’s lackluster, if not absent, attention to intention as a motivating factor in his moral condemnation of America’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant in Sudan. He sent to Chomsky his explanation which included the following questions and terse answers:

“What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda. Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No. Were we trying to kill anyone at all? Not unless we thought members of Al Qaeda would be at the Al-Shifa facility in the middle of the night. Asking these questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.”

Harris asserts that the specific intent of the Clinton administration had in bombing the factory was not to cause human harm, though he concedes that was the ultimate result. Harris concludes, both in his writing and in a recent Joe Rogan podcast that he does not believe that the administration had any intent to kill anyone and ostensibly bombed the factory because they believed it was manufacturing chemical weapons in aid to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

If that was indeed the case, the moral culpability of the bombing is much less on Harris’ terms than if the Clinton administration had intentionally bombed the factory to bring about the deaths of thousands, which was, after all, the end result. Collateral damage, based ostensibly on a mistake, simply does not rise to the same level of culpability as if they had coldly intended to bring about those deaths. Harris does not consider that the possibility that the Clinton administration bombed the factory out of retaliation for the embassy bombings that happened just before the attack. Chomsky adamantly asserts in response and explains that it was, for the worse, representative of cold indifference to the results that is the most morally corrupt aspect of the bombing given the available evidence at the time. Harris does not consider that it may have been a wag the dog situation (that the 9/11 commission denied) to distract from the failures of Clinton administration policies, which has also been suggested. Harris takes the government at its word, and further bolsters that belief by saying in the Rogan conversation that he couldn’t fathom Clinton rationally behaving to the contrary. That, needless to say, gives Bill Clinton far too much credit.

This is precisely what Chomsky is annoyed about. It is part of the reason he, poorly in my view, categorized Harris and Hitchens as “religious fanatics” of the “state religion.” It seems to me that Chomsky ought to, at minimum, clarify his position and to walk back from his irresponsible turn of phrase, a kind he so uncharacteristically engaged in here. That being said, and not to defend his unnecessary callousness in his personal emails with Harris, he has legitimate concerns about the nature, truth, utility, and indeed rationality of Harris’ position regarding the bombing of the Al-Shifa factory and the presumed intentions and moral culpability of the Clinton administration.

What Chomsky failed to adequately express to Harris is Harris’ fundamental misunderstanding of American foreign policy, propaganda and the moral aspects of both. He assumed that Harris would understand this point because he assumed Harris had read him but only because he hasn’t read any Harris, which Harris assumed. That fundamental mistake helps to understand why Chomsky dismisses Harris and Hitchens arguments as “fanatics” of the “state religion.” He sees Harris like the follower of a prophet, simply buying the American exceptionalist position, as mouthed by that government. Harris, it seems, believes America (at least vis-a-vis the government) is a genuinely positive moral agent, because it is so in contrast to ISIS or some other horrific group. But when our (America’s) agency creates moral hazards, Harris sees them as an aberration of our inherent moral worthiness, whereas Chomsky sees it as indicative of the precise opposite character that America holds.

Basically Harris believes that America is good and has made mistakes; Chomsky believes those “mistakes” are in fact the intended, or allowed collateral results of our actions which show our amoral (if not immoral) nature. This is the fundamental difference. Chomsky is unwilling to believe or apologize for American actions which have, as intended or at least collaterally “tolerated” resulted in the deaths of hundreds to millions of people, as merely moral mistakes. Harris it seems to take, a priori, America as a positive moral agent and when it fails to be so, it is because something went wrong, or something was coopted by other immoral forces. Chomsky denies this, suggesting the evidence just is not there to support such a claim.

Harris suggests a way to think about his point by way of two thought experiments. The first he made in the correspondence. In the first case we are to imagine that al-Qaeda is filled with genuine humanitarians.

“Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

Harris says this would be “a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

Counterpoised to the la-Qaeda humanitarians Harris then asks us to consider that “al-Qaeda is precisely as terrible a group as it is, and it destroys our pharmaceuticals intentionally, for the purpose of harming millions of innocent people.

Then Harris would simply “imprison or kill these people at the first opportunity.”

The second thought experiment asks us to consider the results of the possession of a “perfect weapon” by different forces. The perfect weapon is one that insures against the possibility of collateral damage. Armed with this weapon how would the various agents in the world use them? Harris argues that terrorist or religious extremist forces would use them to cause wanton destruction of their apostate enemies, civilians and military forces alike, despite their ability not do so. Harris believes, and has good reasons to believe, that these forces want to destroy a world that does not conform to their religious conservatism.

Harris rejects, through silence it seems, another potential of the use of this perfect weapon for the Islamists. It is possible that they would be used to rid the Middle East or other “Muslim Lands” of infidels (Westerners) and would do so without collateral damage. It may go further, with a Muslim conquest of the whole world, yet without civilian deaths or “terrorism.” Harris has to admit this is, at least, a possibility. Those who have studied modern warfare understand that guerrilla war tactics (which may include suicide bombings, car bombs, hostage taking or other “guerrilla” activities) is the only one capable of successfully contesting something like the American military. There is at least the potential that they are related, albeit distorted through the realm of religion with all its vulnerabilities, to military and other international interventions. Harris is silent on all of this.

However, the fear that Harris presents is understandable. There is something to the fact that there are people who would act in conscious disregard for the value of human life. That is a real threat, one Chomsky too easily dismisses. After the seeming demise of the Communist opposition to capitalist imperialism, Islamic Jihad has taken its place. The difference between these ideologies is crucial to understand why Harris is right to be concerned, and Chomsky is dismissive. Whereas the Communist revolutions of the late 20th century attempted to usurp the power of capitalism with socialism, the Islamic “revolutions” are reactionary in nature. They seek to pull the world back to the 5th century, all with 20th and 21st century technology. This is not a situation to take lightly. Chomsky, unfortunately, does just that.

The odd result of this concern for Harris appears to make America, as the countervailing and therefore morally benign (or indeed superior) force without exception. Going back to his perfect weapons thought experiment America would likely use them to advance democracy and freedom or at least to minimize casualties in pursuit of its otherwise noble interests. In this sense, he has bought – hook, line and sinker – the propaganda campaign of American bourgeois forces to convince its population that it is not the imperialist juggernaut the way the majority of the rest of the world sees it. The thought experiment leads to an absurd and useless line of questions with corresponding untenable answers regarding a false analogy with Iraq from Harris book.

“Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (What are the chances we would have used human shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.”

While this might sit well with a generally liberal audience, one that accepts the rhetoric and propaganda of American moral virtue, it does not conform to the realty that Chomsky has diligently spent his life carefully and methodically attempting to dismantle. It is more a representation of the success of the propaganda that Harris seems to accept without exception. Chomsky has become famous as someone consistently critical of the way America both behaves in the world, as well as how it perpetrates that myth at home. His catalog is a robust denunciation of the very myth that Harris appears to accept. Harris’ misunderstanding of Chomsky is clear from this confusion, as is Chomsky’s of Harris’ perspective. They really need to sit down and read one another’s work.

If Harris is right in his presupposition of American moral virtue, then his argument would make sense. But Chomsky has the lead here, because America and its foreign policy is not positive, or even benign, it is quite the contrary. This is not to say that America could not change this, but there is no evidence that these policies would change without mass action by the population of the US. Chomsky has shown time and time again that American military force is consistently used, in contradiction to international law and general moral principles, not as an aberration of American virtue but a representation of its malignancy.

Chomsky expressed his dissatisfaction by bluntly dismissing the thought experiments especially when the assertions of whatever reasonable intentions the administration may have had, the truth is they do not have “even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.” Beside the lawyerly argumentative tone, not helpful for the kind of dialogue Harris intended to foster, the point remains the same.

Chomsky roundly rebuffed both of the thought experiments in his responses, again not in useful ways or with a respectful tone. Basically he explained to Harris that he is not in the business of hypotheticals. He wants to live in the real world where the decisions and resulting consequences are real. He used the words “ludicrous and embarrassing” to describe the thought experiments. That seems unnecessarily rude and contrary to Chomsky’s own assertions that one ought not to convince but to explain. The thought experiments help make Harris’ philosophical point, but at the expense of understanding the applicable actual material conditions that are at play. This is useful for armchair philosophy, but not for moral, political, and policy analysis. You can abstract things to make your point, but the world is not abstract. This, I believe, is the source of Chomsky’s consternation, but also representative of his ignorance of Harris intent. That is not necessarily merely as personal misunderstanding, yet the exchange certainly went there. That is what made it useless.

America was the lone superpower for a while in the last century. It maintains this hegemony in relatively 19th or 20th century fashion. It maintains control through neo-imperial policies of intervention and outright invasion, followed by business integration into the world market. A foreign policy truly based on genuine desire to raise the standards and freedom of people would not look like what American has consistently (not contrarily) engaged in. However, if America is a neo-imperial superpower, with the intention to ensure the stability and lucrative nature of the world capitalist economic system for which it’s ruling class gains the windfall, then it would behave precisely as it has.

The main difference, the ships that are passing in the night in their exchange, is that Harris does not consider the geo-political and economic components of American foreign policy and therefore its intentions, whereas Chomsky not only considers those factors, but identifies them as the mechanism by which the intention of American action arises while failing to consider the relative importance of the intentions of those who would, if able, do mass harm to much of the world. For Chomsky, intention is evidenced by prior and consistent action. For Harris it is implied by relation less moral agents. Chomsky looks through the record to see how decisions are made, and understand why in the context. Harris uses abstraction to make a larger philosophical point. There is value in both, but this fundamental difference must serve as the starting point to further communication.

To not bridge this gap is to fundamentally misunderstand the value and utility of both sides. Add to that public and seemingly disparaging comments and we the readers lose (in Chomsky’s words) the value of a public discussion in which this fundamental difference can be explored. I do think this was Harris’ intent, and Chomsky just shut it down before it really got going. Both Chomsky and Harris’ fame and public personas are based on the validity and truth of their statements. For both to feel as though the other spoke so flippantly about the other shows that fundamental misunderstanding and then immediately stalls it. Harris is right that the medium of e-mail was, in retrospect, a less than valuable way of attempting to get something resolved.

Harris and Chomsky would do well to speak to one another in private with the specific intent to come to the understanding I have outlined here. In doing so, hopefully the dialogue may carry a different tone and allow for the noble, if not slightly naive, desire that Harris attempted to engage Chomsky in the first place. I would be interested to hear from either Chomsky or Harris if my reading of the situation is correct.

The Poverty of Philantropy

On Thursday the New York Times published Jo Becker and Mike Mcintire’s story suggesting potential impropriety between the Clinton Foundation and a Canadian Mining company. The story is an illustration of the realpolitik of modern philanthropy. The notion that private money coming from multinational corporations and the wealthiest individuals will not influence the goals and direction of foundations and charities demands a level of trust in private organizations that cannot be justified. Given the track record of the wealthiest companies and individuals in the world regarding their institutional role as the exploiting class, the idea that they are ones who can best direct aid to communities that are directly impacted by their policies and decisions is to have their cake, and eat it too. The question arises: What is the value of Philanthropy?

Origins and Development

The word philanthropy comes from the Greek φιλανθρωπία meaning “love of humanity.” In the Hellenistic tradition this meant subjects we now call the “humanities” – art, literature, politics, and science – were undertaken because they promoted what it meant to be human. In focusing their efforts in this way, the Greeks were able to achieve incredible things. Societies around the world still retain reverence for this ancient culture. But with the fall of the Greek city states and the rise of Rome this love for humanity was transformed into the love for the state and done in furtherance of this less noble but still advantageous goal. After Rome fell, and Christianity and Islam came to be the dominating political entities, these pursuits, if engaged in at all, were not pursued merely from that impulse that arises out of a general love for that which is human, but rather in service of the Almighty.

During the long dark period of the Middle Ages these vestiges of philanthropy took a totally ecclesiastical tone. As humans, we simply cannot refrain from such activity and so we are left with the likes of Dante, Aquinais, the Hagia Sophia and St. Peter’s Basilica. It was not until the Italian Renaissance and the following enlightenment period that the ideas of philanthropy were again resuscitated not to please apostolic authority, but for their own sake and the obvious benefits that these advances in technology and science gave to those who investigated them. The Italian Renaissance ushered in a new period of human advancement in which the thousand year rule of the church was contested and the formerly subjugated fields of inquiry like astronomy or chemistry released a new productive capacity. With this advance in technology rose a new class, the bourgeoisie, which sought to replace the old ruling class – that of Monarch and feudal lord – with themselves as the new ruling class of the advancing economic system that we call capitalism.

For the bourgeoisie, science was essential for their rising power, and was in many ways the basis of it. Therefore this new class was a very strong proponent of science and technological development. This however did not promote the philanthropic aspect of the humanities, but instead transformed these activities from pleasing God to serving the interests of the capitalist economy. That gave rise to the emergent ideas of intellectual property and copyright. Instead of being pursued for its own sake, scientific advancements, art, literature, and politics were oriented to serve the interests of the capitalist class, thereby making owners of property out of scientific inquiry. Philanthropy, it seems, was dead. The value of doing activities for a love of humanity instead of profit was antithetical to the philosophical underpinnings of capitalist society.

The rise of capitalism’s productive capacity came with it the birth of a new class: the proletariat. This class – thrust from the village to the city and from simple agricultural work to atomized factory production – saw their material condition change but not dramatically improve. In fact, as they continued to urbanize and fill the streets of ever-growing cities the new working class was subjected to all manner of new social ills of a kind the world had not previously seen. Poverty and pauperism in the urban poor was ubiquitous during the entirety of the 19th century. Because of this there was rising resistance to the inequalities capitalism produced.

Many theories, most notably Marxist, critique the capitalist system particularly because it is unable, even given its great productive capacity, to cure the worst social pariah: poverty. Marx sought to replace the system through revolution of the proletarian class, while others argued that we ought to not go that far. Instead, they sought to fill the gaps that capitalism creates through charity. The church, having lost its leading role in society, now found a niche by which it could use its historical lessons as well as its great cash reserves to provide least some assistance to the worst off. But the church was not the only player in this game and by the mid-to late 19th century several large-scale charitable organizations sprang up and were providing aid to proletarians. Some of them are still around today; think the United Way, the YMCA so of course Catholic Charities. While these reasonable efforts were appreciated by those for which they assisted, they were unable to tackle all of the issues and growing animosity between the working-class and the bourgeois class became ever more ardent. By the late 19th century and early 20th century, the bourgeoisie recognized that if they continued these policies, the their dominant position in society couldn’t long endure.

Because a class is hard to hate as a whole, it is much simpler to pick out the most famous of those who represent the class to hurl your anger in that direction. In America it was directed at the likes of John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan. Recognizing this animosity, these prominent capitalists sought to repair their public image. Notably, John Rockefeller hired Frederick Taylor Gates to do just that. Gates’ understanding how public opinion can be manipulated paved the way for the rise of modern field of public relations which Edward Bernays would later revolutionize and entrench in American society. He would do so all while claiming what he was doing was simply propagandizing, but the euphemism was much easier to swallow by the American public. Gates convinced Rockefeller to start his own charitable foundation in which his name would not be attached to the destruction of unions, deaths of striking workers at Ludlow among others, and the overall continued oppression class, but instead on public houses for the arts and humanities and medical research and outreach. In order to attach more weight to these charitable givings the word “philanthropy” was resuscitated as a way to describe his activities. This public relations scheme changed the names Rockefeller and Carnegie from the capitalist juggernauts with all the attributes thereof – selfishness, greed, capriciousness – into the most charitable Americans ever known.

If one is, as I am, in the business of critiquing capitalism, this is a common argument. It states that capitalism and wealth concentration can actually be a social good rather than social ill because it allows those who make the most to give a lot back. The campaign to change social attitudes regarding the bourgeois class from anger and frustration to appreciation and idolization was a great success.

Philanthropy as a Social Good

Philanthropy, like all charity, has many positive components. Namely, charity does in some ways overcome the failure of the current economic system to provide all of the mean that people need to survive. It is not news to anyone that there are countless people within even the most advanced economies, to say nothing of the Global South, who suffer economic woe on a daily basis. Charities attempt, sometimes nobly, to target these individuals and to do their best to aid them in whatever means they have at their disposal. Philanthropic foundations and other charitable organizations have the advantage of being flexible whereas governments and other political institutions may have significant barriers or bureaucratic hurdles that make them less able to quickly and specifically target all the various needs. Likewise, charitable organizations are able to focus their energies in a very limited field such as the Gates Foundation focusing on disease or women’s organizations funding better women shelters. When they grow to significant size, these organizations become institutions in and of themselves and are recognized and institutionalized as nonmarket players that can be counted on. These include the Red Cross, United Way, the YMCA, among others. There is no doubt that these charities and foundations have saved or improved the lives of millions of people around the world. They can and should be commended for doing so, but they are not without their own problems and shortcomings.

Charities and philanthropy are stopgap measures. They take as a presupposition the failures of capitalism and instead of working as powerful institutions to change those dynamics they instead focus on ameliorating the problem as much as possible. Though in some senses a virtue, the specific focus of many charitable organizations means that not all manners of social exclusion or economic hardship are covered by every charity. On top of that, as Janet Poppendieck and Robert D. Lupton have shown that charity has two poor consequences for recipients. First, it is demeaning and inhuman – it makes those in poverty feel personally responsible and immoral for needing “handouts.” Second, it can solidify a dependency culture in which the aid given to a community or individual becomes a lifeline that they depend on but one in that is constantly insecure. For more on this, check out Quinn Zimmerman’s blog about his time in Haiti. Simply put, charities are not enough to fix the real problem.

There is a large propaganda campaign which Nicholas Kristof is one of the notable apologists. He promotes charitable organizations, especially the Christian ones, as more than what they really are. Charities plug the hole in a cracked dam in which leaks spring up every day. A band aid cannot heal a wound that is continuously reopened. Charities also serve a different function. They stand as symbols that this capitalist epoch is not run by capricious and self-serving individual but indeed philanthropists are capitalism’s greatest achievement in that those who have reaped so much of the benefit feel in some ways compelled to give back.

As I said before, this urge or compulsion to give back is not for the love of humanity but for the rehabilitation of public image. Though tempered by the experience of the Cold War and the seemingly internationalization of class conflict, the animosity between workers and owners appears to have waned. Philanthropists only serve to decrease that animosity through the public relations firestorm that they create to promote and raise awareness of their so-called altruistic endeavors.

In Andrew Carnies book, “Gospel of Wealth,” he attempts to outline this obligation but does so not by criticizing the system for having produced the great inequalities and failures of capitalism but to suggest that it may well be the engine by which society as a whole can be made better, all through the contributions of the wealthiest individuals. They have shown themselves to be capable in business, why not in charity? This self-serving justification is the very basis of all modern capitalistic philanthropy. It doesn’t, and will not, suggest there is anything structurally wrong that produces these inequalities but instead the fact that these inequalities exist creates some kind of obligation in them. This is a perverse manifestation of philanthropy.

The Limits of Charity

If those who have benefited the most from this economic system truly feel compelled to do something about its worst consequences, charity is not the most effective means. It should also be noted that very few, if any, wealthy individuals give away their entire fortunes. And, though Americans are very charitable overall, most of it comes not from the rich, but from the working class itself! (The article uses “middle class” which is a misnomer and should be translated to “working class”) The rich, and the most rich are by in large unwilling to give up their class position or to throw themselves off the rolls of the millionaires or billionaires club. Instead they commit just enough to be able to form a public image that sees them not as the exploiters of labor that they are, but as kind and generous people. The two richest Americans, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are perfect examples of this sort of disinformation campaigners. The way in which both of those men made their billions is not through some sort of hard work or smarts, but by being able to promote and engaging in business practices which produced for them the most profit.

Economics 101 teaches us that the way companies make profits is to charge more for the commodities they produce than the cost to do so. In order to make profit or to increase profits a company must either lower the cost of production which normally comes through as the stagnant or lower wages which we have seen over the last 50 years or by adjusting their business practices to make their production capacity more efficient, usually by introducing some technological implement. That of course has the consequence of lowering the need for additional human labor. This and this alone, is how the rich, and all other wealthy people, make their fortunes. It is important to say that all that wealth that is being used to promote charitable causes comes from money that was stolen from the very people who now need their services. In that since, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are essentially responsible for the ills that they supposedly are working to eliminate.

If they truly want to make a difference they would use their vast wealth to argue for systemic change in our economic system and to foreclose the possibility of the kind of exploitation that they engage in and has made them ungodly amounts of money. There are obvious reasons why they do not do such a thing. It would make them an enemy of their own class. It is neither rational nor justifiable for them to do so. Why indeed would the rich argue against the system that made them rich, even if it demands countless others to be poor? There is decidedly no good reason for them to do so.

Given this state of affairs, we can see that being truly beneficial would necessitate more systemic transformation that would prevent the kinds of difficulties charities are in the business of assisting. By using their vast resources to focus not on the systemic problems but on individual issues, philanthropists get to have their cake and eat it too. They are allowed to exploit and to oppress the vast majority so that they may one day be remembered, not necessarily as a baron of industry, as we do Rockefeller and Carnegie, but instead as “philanthropists.” One thing is very clear. Modern philanthropy is clearly not done for the love of humanity as the word may suggest, but instead for the love of themselves and their public image. For all the good that charities and foundations and philanthropic endeavors have done, which is ample, they have done nothing to prevent these problems from continuing ad infinitum.

Therefore, we should be compelled not to praise these charlatans but to expose them for what they are: self-serving, egotistical, oppressive, capricious, greedy, exploiters. The dark history of philanthropy casts a long shadow and makes charity something done for the image of the rich rather than for its own sake, or even in the service of God. This is decidedly actions which are not undertaken for the love of humanity.

Just Before It Hits

Sit back and take in the moment just before the first note arises from behind and in front. Look out, the lights positioned just right so that only the figures in front of you appear. Three very lose silhouettes dancing in light beams. Beneath them the first row or so, and that’s enough. That could be all that’s here. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the note that’s just played, and the waves hitting the ear. Head bouncing, the beat is infectious, and it’s only just began. A small twitch of an ankle is all that’s needed. Just the slightest touch.

Perfect position.

One breath. Don’t think about it.

That first hit, no matter what – is the sweetest thing on earth. The eruption of relative calm. There may be music playing, but when it stops, and the crowd quiets, there is that  same moment. Just before it all begins. A miniscule moment, but its perfect, and lasts forever.

That is transcendence.

That moment is perfect.

It is an instant.

But its mine.

Al Mezan Reports on UN Concerns Over Israel’s Use of Administrative Detentions Against Palestinians

by Magister, licensed under GFDL

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reported that the United Nations Human Rights office (OHCHR) recently “expressed concern” over the increasing use of “administrative detentions” by Israeli authorities. Recently Palestinian legislator Khalida Jarrar was arrested and administratively detained on April 2, 2015 and will likely be charged with six months detention without trial which is indefinitely renewable. Jarrar’s case is typical of these detentions and the UNHRC has several times condemned them with no significant action on behalf of Israel. As of today over 400 Palestinians remained detained which is double the amount over last year. These detentions are in violation of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Condemns Continued Mistreatment of Thulani Maseko

by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, public domain

Originally Appeared in Human Rights Brief

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights strongly condemned the movement of Swaziland human rights defender Thulani Maseko to solitary confinement. The move was prompted by the publication of a prison letter marking the one year anniversary of his original detention. Thulani was sentenced for publishing articles critical of the non-independent judiciary of Africa’s last monarchy. Additionally Thulani was critical of the laws restricting freedom of expression and access to information. In response, RFK Human Rights sent a petition to King Mswati III demanding the release of all political prisoners, replacing the current Chief Justice among other measures.

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