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Archive for January, 2009

Gaza Forever

Palestinians at a school building in a refugee camp in Gaza

What can I possibly say about Palestine right now?  The words to keep speaking are there, of course, tangible almost by the sheer volume of texts, print and electronic, that havedeluged the world of bombs and ruined homes, rockets and helicopters blasting hsopitals.  It won’t do, it won’t: Thoughts of Xanadu points to a protest in Trafalgar Square, shoes scattered as if the wearers had been spirited away by rapture, a beautiful, poignant and perhaps, like so many of our protests, sadly, unable to help Palestinians now, or convince our governments to actually be more than vaguely critical of Israel’s actions; instead, Obama’s silence, Bush’s backing  of the official Israeli line that it was all in self defense, the gentle puppet nodding of Sarkozy, Brown, Harper

…impressive, a revolt in the back benches in Parliament, bi-partisan, demanding a stronger line against Israel, who it appears have finally, in the deaths of hundreds for a paltry few missiles, dangerous and violent as they are to Israelis; is Gaza to be a prison and tomb for decades still to come?

Znet, MRZine, Counterpunch, Lenin’s Tomb or Socialist Unity have all much more to say than I, in much more detail, in much more savage and uncompromising energy; I can know anger, the kind that is slow and exhausting, and like struggling through snow while walking in the cold, drains without revealing.  I read about revolutions, and nothing happens.  Of note, the great white media as always is its usual self: when not blaming the Palestinians or at least Hamas, it is at least trying to be neutral, the kind I was angered about during Musharaf’s state of emergency  in Pakistan: the CBC was so neutral it basically made the opposition into the people responsible.  The same happens in Gaza: violence and death is bemoaned and the destruction of Gaza is state

d as a matter of fact, but the battle is equal, always: Israeli aggression is equal to Palestinian violence, following the old narrative about the population being ‘caught in the middle’ in Vietnam.

Of interest:

Toronto: Wednesday January 8, 2009 Time: 10:25 am
A diverse group of Jewish Canadian women are currently occupying the Israeli consulate at 180 Bloor Street West in Toronto. This action is in protest against the on-going Israeli assault on the people of Gaza.

The group is carrying out this occupation in solidarity with the 1.5 million people of Gaza and to ensure that Jewish voices against the massacre in Gaza are being heard. They are demanding that Israel end its military assault and lift the 18-month siege on t

he Gaza Strip to allow humanitarian aid into the territory.

Blaming the victim:

Israel said on Tuesday that an initial army investigation showed mortar fire may have come from a UN-run school in Gaza, where dozens of people were killed in an Israeli strike.

“The initial findings… are that t

here was hostile fire at one of our units from the UN facility,” government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.

“Our unit responded. Then, there were explosions out of proportion to the ordnance we used,” he said. “And then you can only speculate as to why. We are still investigating.”

And the truth?:

The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman’s Office asserted that militants fired mortars from inside the school at troops involved in Israel’s controversial incursion into the Gaza Strip in pursuit of Hamas fighters — a military operation that is drawing fierce international condemnation as civilian casualties mount. “The IDF returned fire,” according to the spokesman’s office.

But after a preliminary investigation of the Jan. 6 attack at the Fakhura girl’s elementary school, “we’re 99.9% sure that no militants were at the school,” says Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency questioned survivors, including UNRWA staff that run the school under U.N. auspices.

Before the school was hit by Israeli bombs, some 400 Palestinians fleeing shelling of the Jabalya refugee camp had taken shelter inside Fakhura, hoping that the U.N. flag would shield them from harm, according to survivors. Earlier, the U.N., which oversees relief efforts for more than 800,000 Palestinians in Gaza, had passed along the coordinates of all its schools and buildings to the Israeli military so that its humanitarian missions would be spared attack.

The Tomb has some especially scintiallting and enraged notes about the myth of Hamas rejectionism, the doctrines of official cleansing and destruction, the apopletics of the defenders of Israel, etc. etc.

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A deeply divisive novel, laying bare the troubled divide between the political and the philosophical aspects of existentialism.   It cannot resolve that divide, between the communal dream of a better world and the isolation of an individual being; it does not offer salvation from the latter in the former, save in the words of Kyo and Katov who at least stand for the dignity and freedom of the ‘masses’ though their doctrine is notably free of any actual content.

Key words: isolation, aloneness, painful freedom of relationships, the void of opium haze, “an ectasy toward downward”, “murder left no trace upon his face”.  Fate, condemnation, “the fate of China being decided,” and “the illusion of being ble to whatever they pleased”  fatalism as Marxism, a fascination with suicide as radiant exhuberance, pain as caused to others, as others caused to oneself.  Murder as aloneness, “all fighting was absurd, nothing existed in the face of life”.   It is a grim existentialism, in which our fate is suffering, our situation alone, the human condition.  And the revolution, doomed to fail.  A human being, thought Ferral, “an individual life, unique isolate, like mine…” spoken like a true capitalist?

And yet, the human condition: if we are fated, if “no doubt they were all condemned, the essential was that should not be in vain” we are free to “serve the gods of one’s choosing,” Kyo as hero: “no dignity for man who does not know why he works” and “freedom is not an exchange, it is freedom” and it must be fought for struggled for, died for.  Heroic, successful, sympathetic revolution, and in Kyo’s work to the Comintern agents in Hankow, the peasants must unite with the workers, “behind the army, in the rural districts, the Communists are beginning to organize the peasant Unions,” the people will never be satisfied with the betrayal of the revolution, the revolution fated to succeed, because it offers dignity, purpose, hope, because it is right.  Katov’s sacrifice, to save others.  It is hard to squre the realism, the intimacy, the sympathy of the description of the April 12 incident, the Shanghai uprising of 1927 and its bloody suppression at the hands of the Nationalists, with the atomization of existentialism.  Why make it so specific, so sympathetic, if only to use it for an existentialist fable.  Perhaps that is the fable: an existentialist revolution.

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The city in revolt: Hankow, 1927.

“Over there were chimneys, cranes, reservoirs – the allies of the Revolution.  But Shanghai had taught Kyoo what an active port was like.  The one he saw before him was full of nothing but junks and torpedo-boats.  He took his field-glasses: a freight-steamer, two, three….

He walked about at random.  The kerosene lamps were being lut inside the shops; here and there silhouettes of trees and the curved-up roof-ridges rose against the Western sky, where a light without source lingered, seeming to emanate from the softness of the sky itself and to blend far, far up with the serenity of the night.  In the black holes of shop – nonwithstanding the soldiers and the Worker’s Unions – doctors with toad-signs, dealers in herbs and monsters, public writers, casters of spells, astrologers, and fortune-tellers continued their timeless trades by the dim light which blotted out the blood-stains.  The  shadows melted rather than stretched on the ground, bathed in a bluish phoporescence; the last flash of the superb eveneing  that was being staged far away, somewhere in the infinity of worlds, of which only a reflection suffused the earth, was glowing faintly through an enormous archway surmounted by a pagoda eaten away with blackened ivy.  Beyond the din of bells and phonographs and the myriad dots and patches of light, a battalion was disappearing into the darkness which had gathered in the mist over the river.  Kyo went down to a yard filled with enormous stone blocks: those of the walls, levelled to the ground in sign of the liberation of China…

Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Original caption: 1927: Cantonese soldiers with their newly-supplied Russian equipment after arriving at Hankow as reinforcements for the Red Garrison.

Rickshaws were waiting on the quay, but Kyo’s anxiety was too great to allow him to remain idle.  He preferred to walk.  The British concession which England had abandoned in January, the great world banks shut down, but not occupied….”Anguish – a strange sensation, you feel by your heart-beats that you”re not breathing easily, as if you were breathing with your heart…”  It was becoming stronger than lucidity.  At the corner of a street, in the clearing of a large garden full of trees in bloom, gray in the evening mist, the chimneys of the Western manufactures appeared.  No smoke.  Of all the chimneys he saw, only the ones of the Arsenal were operating.  Was it possible that Hankow, the city to which the Communists of the entire world were looking to save China, was on strike?  The Arsenal was working; could they at least count on the Red Army?  He no longer dared to run.  If Hankow was not what everyone believed it was, all his people were already condemned to death.  May too. And himself.

At last, the building of the International Delegation.

The entire villa was lighted up.  Kyo knew that Borodin was working on the top story; on the ground-floor the printing-press was running full speed, with the clatter of an enormous ventilator in bad condition”

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The McCarthy era saw redoudled efforts to search out and punish “gender inverts.” Targets abounded: “egg sucking phony liberals,” East Coast intellectuals, and emasculated “pinks, punks, and perverts” were all part of government that was, in the words of one of McCarthy’s aides, “a veritable nest of Communists, fellow travelers, homosexuals, effete Ivy League intellectuals and traitors.” Even Adlai Stevenson did not escape such bashings: the New York Daily Mail called him “Adelaide” and ridiculed his supporters as “Harvard lace cuff liberals” to whom Stevenson spoke in a “fruity” voice.

Military expert and Pulitzer-Prize winning Hanson W. Baldwin put the matter starkly: “Can American man – after years of protective conditioning – vie with the barbarian who has lived by his wits, his initiative, his brawn? Will he retain the will to fight for his country?” He was not optimistic. American virility had been replaced by a boyhood and manhood enfeebled by “sedenterianism, push buttonis and indoorism…from this emerges a picture – not of an American who can lick any two or three enemies, but of a slow-witted, vacuous adolescent with an intellectual interest keyed to comic books and a motivation conspicuous by its absence.” Soft bellied American boys could not stand up to hard-muscled Communist youth…

Disparities in military hardware might be dangerous, but defieciencies in bicep circumference might be fatal. Bodies unsuited by for military combat were unsuited for the Cold War world. “For the indubitable muscle gap between us and those who would bury us,” opined the radical turned conservative Max Eastman, “may well in the long run prove more disastrous than any missile gap ever will be.”

– from Robert L. Griswold, “The ‘Flabby American,’ the Body and the Cold War,” in A Shared Experience: Men, Women and the History of Gender. Edited by Laura McCalled (NY: New York University Press, 1998 )

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Terry Eagleton wrote last year : Christopher Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington’s neocons.” Hitchens responded in a ‘Comment is Free’ piece on the Guardian website: “Eagleton also slammed me for disappointing him and not, after all, becoming the George Orwell of my generation. I have instead, he snorts, become the Evelyn Waugh! How is one to come to grips with a man so crude in his sneers that his idea of an insult is to compare me to one of the greatest novelists of the past century?” For a man who has read and admired both Eagleton and Hitchens (Hitchens before Eagleton, and Hitchens no longer, though I respect his rhetorical wit and skill even if overblown and portentous) and has not touched Waugh at all, this comparison mystified me. Then I read Piers Brendon’s lengthy The Dark Valley, and in his chapter on the invasion of Ethiopia and its destruction at Italian hands, we find a choice quote from Evelyn Waugh, referring to the chemical gas attacks against the cities and soldiers of Haile Selassie: “i hope the organmen gas them to buggery” (325) Of course, in Ethiopia, Waugh refused to see “anything more than a travesty of white civilization mummed by outlandish natives, many of whom ‘were still primarily homicidal in their interests.’” (311) This all reminds me of some of the more damning statements that Hitchens has made in the last five years or so: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”


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That was probably the most memorable result of reading The Dark Valley, and the Waugh quotes were chosen carefully in a chapter as much about European colonial racism as about the invasion and conquest of Ethiopia. To his credit, Piers Brendon does not hold back his scorn or contempt for colonialism, nor does he hesitate to point out the brutality of the British and French (Black races to an Englishman are always niggers and we don’t see why we should be plunged into a war on their account – General Pownall, War Office) (424) and the “racial arrogance” (639) of their empires that so incensed the Japanese popular imagination; indeed, his book, which is written for and targeted at a popular audience, is refreshing in some ways for its refusal to sugarcoat the past, or fall into the clichés so common of the 1930’s more popular literary and electronic visions of that decade; that is, he can be equally scathing of the democracies as of their contemporaries in communism and fascism. He is not polite to the House of Lords and its membership, nor of the police and their bias towards Mosley in the early 30’s nor to Lord Beaverbrook or the lickspittle press of Great Britain, ready and willing to censor itself without being asked in deference to royal command, or in support of the Conservatives: Baldwin was portrayed as a British bulldog, the epitome of patriotism, appearing in newsreels before Greek columns and leatherbound books, delivering his speech with fluidity, while his Labour opponent, Clement Attlee, was filmed from a high angle to reveal his balding head and left to stumble through his speech perched on a chair. “The film companies pretended to be neutral,” says Brendon, but they inserted cheering audiences and campaign slogans for Baldwin in their reels. Brendon has no trouble pointing out how little many of the elites of democratic countries actually wanted to do about the Depression, and the cowardice ofabout aid to Spain is likewise harshly criticized, and we are left with the impression that if nowhere near as ‘villainous,’ brutal and extremely dangerous like the totalitarian states, Britain and France were corrupt and craven.

There is about the 1930’s and the 20th century in general, a long tradition of moralistic historical writing for Brendon to fit himself within snuggly, and aside from what seems to be a greater degree of emphasis on the failings of the ‘heroes’ there isn’t actually all that much to distinguish The Dark Valley from dozens of other similar histories. It’s certainly long, which in itself is no distinction but the prose is clear and readable without flourishing, workmanlike I suppose being the favoured term in this case (save that the workers never actually appear much in this history as actors in their own right, or even as a subject to be written about); there are, as there tend to be in narrative history like this, plenty of interesting quotes and anecdotes to liven up the proceedings, and I had little trouble working through chapter after chapter, each one covering a region or country for few years and covering all the major events, personages and politics in a thorough enough way. His description of France’s ‘hollow years’ and of the Depression in Japan are particularly good, and treats them with a sympathy and depth that is unusual in so broad a work and impressive given that Brendon doesn’t read or write French or Japanese. Yes, it’s one of those books: the author writes about half a dozen countries without knowing the languages of any of them, and therefore relies almost exclusively on translated documents and other people’s histories, and contemporary coverage by English speakers; it’s enough to give a specialist historian who actually knows the language and the literature to a point of tizzy (France is my specialty, but luckily I could get on easily enough without gritting my teeth too much). To his credit, he is well versed and idscusses historical debates about this and that with knowledge and familiarity; Brendon isn’t a bad historian, and this book, by and far, wasn’t that bad either. There are no enormous revelations but as noted, it is refreshing to find an author, a historian of Churchill even, who refuses to idolize his home country.


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As I mentioned, Brendon’s focus is almost exclusively on states and statesmen, wars and militaries and political actors; the masses suffer, starve, strike and occasionally rebel, but they are never the focus, Hobsbawm this is not, and organized labour, international Communism and the working man in general receives scant attention, and there is little feeling save in his sections on the America and Japan that there was any widespread discontent with the status quo. Likewise, India, Gaza, the British Empire as a whole, or the French Empire, Latin America or Africa outside of Ethiopia, in any way, and much of Europe, receive scant or no attention; this is a Eurocentric narrative, by and large. Instead, the Popular Front in Spain and France are disasters that change nothing and do nothing to benefit the working class, the anarchists are bloodthirsty and foolish, the Communists in Germany disorganized and outmaneuvered and lacking support (true in the first two cases, certainly) and the only time that Communists really get sympathy from our historian is when they are tortured by Japanese military officers or sent to concentration camps (though strangely the Mao of the 1930’s, the Communist Party of China and the Long March are treated with a glimmer of respect and heroism). His approach to the Soviet Union is the standard line, and so really should elicit no surprise or shock; he repeats the standard claim that Soviet and German totalitarianism are basically the same, without any sort of measured distinction, indeed going so far as to quote Hitler (!) and his belief that “there is more than binds us to Bolshevism than separates us from it” (286), a bit like relying on a slave owner for an objective analysis of his slave taking; only a few sentences later, Brendon states “fanaticism, so alien to bourgeois liberals, was what the two creeds had in common.” WTF, as they say on the internets.

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Thankfully Brendon doesn’t tread in orientalist stereotypes when dealing with Japan (aside from the odd ‘inscrutable’) but he does call Haile Selassie’s support for the League of Nations “something like a fetish” (315) as if he was a tribal witch doctor praying to the god of collective security (even historians trade in afrobollocks, it seems). Likewise, Franco and the republicans are often equated because both told propaganda lies, it seems. The worst is his respect for Churchill (Piers
Brendon is a historian of Churchill so this expected): while admitting that he was a political opportunist, a “pirate” at one point, a man of the wilderness who was odd with modern society, who supported or admired Franco and Mussolini, angered everyone almost all of the time, and was essentially absolved only by World War Two, Brendon nonetheless treats the more problematic of Churchill’s political ideas, his “blimpish reactionary” ideas about India, his adherence to Edward VIII, his attitude towards the working class and his harsh attacks on strikers, simply as “aberrations fed by ambition” (608), as if they were not fundamental to his character. WFT, indeed; imagine, Hitler’s bloodthirty eradication of the SA, for instance, was just ‘an aberration fed by ambition.’ There are plenty of other howlers like this scattered throughout the book, and many more could be mentioned, but then this review would balloon up far too much: by of them, let me just say quite strongly that this book was a bargain bin find and probably will return there now that I have read it.  I don’t want to give the final impression this book was bad; far from it, it was competent, entertaining and served to give a detailed overview, with enough moral editorialising and eye for paradox and hypocrisy to be additionally engaging; this is a book one’s mill working dad could read, and indeed mine did. So instead, I’ll end this review with a brief quote from a section that I thought was really quite good: Japan in 1938, a country essentially hostage to the demands of its military. It’s a subject much less known about than Germany at the same time, so it really does represent a nice addition to a Eurocentric narrative:

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“The pressure to pinch and scrape left its mark on the entire population. They were pressed to renounce costly
ornaments, seasonal gifts and new clothes. Women wearing bright kimonos, cosmetics and permanent waves were publicly rebuked. Later kimonos were compulsorily abbreviated to save material; and some were died khaki, while others bore patriotic motifs – arrows, fans, bells. Frills and pleats were removed from Western dresses, though women who really wanted to identify with the military adopted mompei, drab peasant pantaloons. Men wore single-breasted jackets, shirts with attached collars and shortened tails, and trousers without turn-ups. Brass buttons and hair-pins were banished. Iron was as scarce as gold and children were no longer given metal toys. To save timber, matches were shaved by 0.029 of an inch. To save leather, handbags were made of bamboo, willow or cellophane. Shoes were fashioned from shark or whale skin, and there was a campaign in favour of cloth slippers (zori) and wooden clogs (geta). Chemists from the ministry of Agriculture experimented with tanning rat skins. Designs were even advance for a national uniform costing 30 yen (less than 2), to be worn by officials, and if times got harder, by everyone.”

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I saw the movie Triage the other night.  As always, difficult film to watch at times; footage of skeletal Somalis dying of hunger and neglect, pawns of warlords in ‘value-added’ machine-gun equipped pickups and of the theatrics of United States intervention, refugee camps whose chief component besides people is sqaulor, footage of bereted soldiers skulking amidst victims of their genocide in Rwanda, the twisted and crushed bodies preserved in lyme like the ghosts of Pompeii.  How to react: anger, frustration, despair, tears and shock, despite knowing and seeing these images on the news (indeed, the film integrates news coverage of the US humanitarian intervention in Somalia (Operation Restore Hope) with Orbinski’s return to the same places two decades later) yet still they stretch reason: they are unreal, seemingly impossible, easy at times when a flicker on the television (or movie screen) to pretend as phantasms of Hollywood.  Instead of the lyme phantasms of twisted corpses in Kigali.  His description of that benighted city in 1994 is literally haunting, right out of a horror movie: walls and gutters dripping with blood, dogs wild and ripping at corpes, trying to explain to a UN medical bureaucrat at King Faisal Hospital the screams and murders happening right at their gates.  I wanted to crumple in my seat.

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What then, is Orbinski’s main reaction?  Rage.  Rage he repeats, again and again, and vomit, and despair; post-tramautic stress disorder, perhaps? He swears violently in a few rares instances of full candour Anger, and his attempts to remain stoic returning to places of such terrifying aura is impressive (if not a tad disturbing: he and his film crew revisit sites long since cut off from foreign medical expertise that Orbinski provided for Medecins Sans Frontieres; did he return merely to be filmed being troubled by returning?).  Rage fueled and fired by knowledge and first hand experience.
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Orbinski is something of a firebrand.  His prepared statement before the film is critical of the pharmaceutical industry and its role in inflating the price of AIDS drugs, of Canada and the United States and the hijacking of humanitarianism in Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst other places (he does not but could, as the bombs fall on Gaza, mention Palestine and remember, as a Canadian, how quick our country was to cease sending aid to the then newly elected Hamas government, or the only recent de-politicising of aid, so that it’s physical forms ((food, machinery)) no longer is required to come from, be bought from or manufactured in Canada).  Orbinski accepted the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Médecins
Sans Frontières (MSF) as their president, and was a field doctor during
the 1992 Somali famine and the Rwandan genocide, among other catastrophes.  He is highly placed, visible and courted by those who wish through him, as fetish, to have moral standing (much as those movie stars who make a pilgrimage to meet Mandela).   He confides that he hates fundraising from banks and financial institutions; in a perfect world, aid would flow untouched by capital and politics.  He is mercenary: he bribes gangsters in Somalia to save his friend’s life, the head of the Somali medical staff working with MSF in 1993 (who in the most touching emotional moment weeps several times after returning to the MSF base in Somali, near where his family were murdered or starved) and he trades on guilt to get aid; he hates the way in which media lurches and attaches itself to tragedies (such as the refugee camps in 1995 in Goma, in east Congo, run by the genocidaires.  His hope is still there: he meets friends, and men he treated who remember and thank him for his treatment; he relates the story of the family, and meets them again, who snuck into his closet to sleep.  This, I suppose, is the reason why he does what he does.

The film is minimal in many ways; few scenes without talking heads.  Too hagiographic, too many closeups, too much lingering on Orbinski and his troubled face.  But worst of all, this film neuters much of what is most important about Orbinski, according to his own statement: his opposition to politicised humanitarian aid and humanitarian intervention, his anger at the hypocrisy of the West and his fundamental support for Medecins Sans Frontieres and local organisation.  He is harshly critical of France’s role in selling arms to the genocidaires in Rwanda, he opposes the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (sold as humanitarian), to US military policy as a whole and to international pharmaceuticals (though the UN gets away with a lot, here, and he rightly places the most hope in it: I have no idea how he would feel about UN missions to Darfur, for instance, though I suspect anything that involved invasion rather than ceasefire or peacekeeping would fire him up).

Much of this is carefully circumscribed or elided or only touched upon in the film; his medical experience, organizational experience, compassion  and visibility, is praised, but the where his anger has led him politically, quiet.  Yet it is key to understanding him, and the kind of international humanitarian effort he stands for and fights for; humanitarianism can never be linked to militarism and the demands of great powers; it must be hardheaded, principled, perhaps political, prepared for the worst, but free of strings from the suits with skulls and metals sitting in their chairs, hands on the button.

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