Tetrapods, walking ‘fishapods,’ Tiktaalik, Qikiqtania and transitioning from water to land

The transition from water-based living to land is one of the most pivotal moments in the history of life on Earth. A number of fossils, discovered by a team of researchers in the Canadian Arctic, sheds light on this crucial question. In 2004, a team of researchers lead by Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago, discovered a series of fossils which help answer the questions surrounding this transition.

Tiktaalik – from fish to land-dwelling vertebrates

The fossils were discovered on Ellesmere Island, northern Canada, in 2004. Named Tiktaalik roseae, the genus name meaning “large shallow water fish” in the indigenous language of Canada’s Nunavut Territory nations, is a transitional extinct species possessing features of fish and also tetrapods – four-limbed vertebrates. Tiktaalik used its frontal fins to move itself in a walking fashion in shallow waters, straddling the transition to amphibious living.

Tetrapods are four-limbed vertebrates – amphibians, reptiles, mammals, me, you – it includes an extensive series of animal phyla. This body form first appeared in the Devonian geologic period. The Devonian is known by palaeontologists as the age of fishes. Amphibious animals, emerging in the Devonian, came to be the dominant form of life in the next geologic period, the Carboniferous.

Tiktaalik demonstrates the transition from swimming fish to land-based locomotion for vertebrates. Tiktaalik, while possessing fish characteristics, also had wrist bones, so it could propel itself with its front limbs. Wrist bones are lacking in fossils earlier than the Tiktaalik. Located in sediment beds dating back to 375 million years ago, this stratigraphy layer is located in Devonian geological period.

Qikiqtania – the ‘fishapod’ which went back to the water

The amphibians, the first true tetrapods, evolved from the lobe-finned fishes, but finding the transition from the fishy ancestors of amphibians and true tetrapods has been challenging until now. Related to the discovery of Tiktaalik is another fossil cousin, Qikiqtania wakei, named from the indigenous Inuit languages where the fossil was found.

Another ‘fishapod’ – no, that word is not a scientific classification, but a portmanteau made up by writers. Actually, Qikiqtania is a type of elpistostegalian, a prehistoric species of lobe-finned fish. Qikiqtania’s pectoral fin contains a humerus bone. However, Qikiqtania was more suited to life in the water, and returned there soon after its land-dwelling phase. Neil Shubin, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, stated about Qikiqtania that:

The specimen includes partial upper and lower jaws, portions of the neck, and scales,”

“Mostly importantly, it also features a complete pectoral fin with a distinct humerus bone that lacks the ridges that would indicate where muscles and joints would be on a limb geared toward walking on land.”

The media release about these findings from the University of Chicago make the following important point:

We tend to think animals evolved in a straight line that connects their prehistoric forms to some living creature today, but Qikiqtania shows that some animals stayed on a different path that ultimately didn’t work out. Maybe that’s a lesson for those wishing Tiktaalik had stayed in the water with it.

While Tiktaalik’s front fins contained bones which correspond to our humerus, wrist, ulna and radius bones, the later Qikiqtania only had a corresponding humerus bone. Qikiqtania, while closely related to Tiktaalik, took on a different evolutionary pathway. Tiktaalik, in contrast to Qikiqtania, had a mobile neck, allowing it to support its head out of the water and adjust to gravity. The fish-to-tetrapod transition marked the beginning of the vertebrate dwelling in terrestrial ecosystems.

Nowhere in the scientific literature is there any reference to a ‘social Darwinist’ competition between emergent species, nor any ‘struggle for existence’. The tetrapods did not emerge by smashing their competitors, or becoming the strongest ‘king’ of their ecosystem. Neither is there any reference to a supernatural creator, or teleological direction in the evolutionary process. If you want to discuss philosophical issues of theism, or a faith-based natural history of life on Earth, please save that for another blog article.

Evolution, rather than proceeding in a straight linear fashion, moves in a series of branching tree-like pathways. Tiktaalik, and Qikiqtania, are not merely ‘stepping stones’ on the way to the eventual emergence of vertebrate organisms.

When it comes to eugenics, the Nazis were inspired by the example of the United States

Eugenics is normally associated with the barbarity of Nazi Germany and its perversion of science. It is regarded as something of a historical curiosity, as we dust off the cobwebs in the archives. However, when we examine eugenics more closely, we can find the one country which inspired the Nazi party with its eugenicist practices – the United States.

Let’s start with a very basic definition; eugenics (good breeding) is a belief that the quality of human beings can be improved by selectively breeding those with superior traits. If it can be done with animals, why not with humans? This idea is nothing new; the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato advocated the selective procreation of those with superior qualities as part of his plan for renewal in The Republic.

It was in the nineteenth century, with scientific advances in agriculture and human biology, that eugenics as a social movement began to take off. Francis Galton (1822 – 1911), a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term eugenics and did his utmost to develop the pseudoscience of social Darwinism. Earlier, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, concerned about the rising numbers of the poor – including Irish immigration – proposed population control measures directed at restricting the dispossessed from reproducing.

It is important to note that Darwin never endorsed the Victorian-era perversion of evolutionary biology into the pseudoscientific detour of eugenics. The purported ‘survival of the fittest’ motivation was an expression of the English ruling class’ desire that the lower classes and poor would die off, and thus remove any threat to the unequal status quo. Providing a scientific veneer to the status quo became a hobby horse of the English intellectual community.

In Britain, the church along with industrial leaders were supportive of eugenics. However, it was in the United States that eugenicist thinking received enormous corporate philanthropy – the Rockefeller foundation, the Carnegie Institution and financial magnates, provided strong backing for the development of eugenics pseudoscience.

Malthus was worried about the pressures of an increased population on the food supply – he directed his ire at the Irish immigrant community. Blaming migrants for socioeconomic problems was not unique to Britain. Madison Grant (1865 – 1937), American conservationist and lawyer, worried that by allowing the genetically inferior races to settle in the US – such as Jews, Eastern and Southern Europeans – the US was committing ‘race suicide’.

Racially restrictive immigration laws were passed at the national level. Numerous individual states in the US passed forcible sterilisation laws impacting the disabled, the so-called ‘feeble-minded’ and prison populations. Americans were attempting to breed a ‘better race’; numerous competitions for finding ‘better babies’ were based on eugenicist principles.

Madison Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), found a receptive audience in Germany (and throughout Europe for that matter). Reissued numerous times in the 1920s, none other than Adolf Hitler, writing a fan letter to Grant, stated that ‘your book was my bible.’ The theory of a superior Nordic white race did not originate with the Nazi party.

The Nazi hierarchy, and the wider German scientific community, closely studied, and found inspiration in, the eugenics movement in the US. American laws restricting the breeding of those with ‘defective’ genes were templates for similar laws in Germany. The Carnegie Institution developed close links with German race scientists in the 1920s. The Germans noted that the US Supreme Court, in 1927, sanctioned involuntary sterilisation. The US state of Virginia, the Germans observed, passed laws that explicitly stated the preservation of the white race as their goal.

The pseudoscience of eugenics provided a veneer of legitimacy for the policies of exclusion and legalised discrimination. The indigenous Americans, similarly to European Jews, were subjected to a multistage programme of annihilation – compulsory detention, increased pressures to emigrate and/or deportation, enforced resettlement, cultural exclusion and physical liquidation.

The parallels between the Nazi policy of lebensraum – living space for Germans and the liquidation of the genetically ‘inferior’ races – and the American policy of dispossession and extermination of indigenous nations – are striking. It may be uncomfortable to learn of the similarities – notwithstanding the differences between the Third Reich and the United States.

We are all well aware that the Nazi party regarded the Jews as genetically inferior. Anne Frank, German-Dutch Jewish diarist, died in a Nazi-run concentration camp because of that belief. When the United States, in its eugenicist crusade to ‘preserve the white race’, refused entry to European Jews fleeing the Nazis, their refusal was also based on that belief. So, we can say that Anne Frank died, not only because she was deemed genetically inferior by the Nazi party, but also because the US political establishment believed that as well.

Post-Soviet territorial changes, Karabakh’s self-determination, and irredentism

Armenians in the diaspora were – and still are – quite rightly concerned about the struggle of their brethren in Nagorno-Karabakh. An enclave of Armenians inside neighbouring Azerbaijan, the most recent war between the two nations resulted in Azeri military victories, followed by the implementation of a Moscow-brokered peace agreement. This dispute, originating in the immediate aftermath of the post-Soviet dissolution, contains lessons for us today.

There is no shortage of self-proclaimed experts on the Armenian question among the Sydney Armenians. There is no shortage of commentary about on solutions of international geopolitical tensions among the diasporan Armenians. Ethnic chauvinism seems to be a mini-national pastime, and not only among the Armenian diaspora.

While I have gladly avoided joining this highly esteemed club of scholars on the Armenian question, the Karabakh issue does raise important observations about self-determination, ethnic separatism and irredentism, particularly with regard to the dysfunctional monstrosities that emerged after the breakup of the USSR.

Seceding from Azerbaijani control is a serious step. The Azeris, in the post-Soviet era, have launched a pan-Turkish ideology that seeks to unite all Turkic peoples into one massive confederation. There were killings of Armenians in Baku and Sumgait as early as 1988-89, in the immediate wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Gorbachev allowed all kinds of nationalist sentiment to surface, each advocating an irredentist outlook.

Karabagh, or Artsakh as the Armenians like to call it, was given autonomous status within the Azerbaijani Soviet republic back in the 1920s by the Communist authorities. As far as I am aware, there is no evidentiary basis for the claim that Stalin surreptitiously betrayed Bolshevik party policy, and secretly awarded Karabagh to Azerbaijan. Be that as it may, is the Armenian claim to Karabagh based on irredentism, arising from the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR?

The weakening of socialist internationalism – a consequence of the USSR’s dissolution – provided an ideological vacuum into which all sorts of ethnic separatist and nationalist sentiments poured. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh, disputed since 1988-89, is an example of the clash of rival nationalisms claiming victim hood status. The first Nagorno-Karabakh war, in abeyance since 1994, resulted in the effective secession of the territory from Azerbaijani control. The Karabakh Armenians also seized territory from Azerbaijan proper to establish a land corridor to the Armenian republic.

Irredentism and ethnic separatism

Irredentism proposes that a national community, regardless of borders, should be reclaimed into one territorial unit. Mussolini, back in his day, claimed that Italians living in Istria and Dalmatia were subjected to forcible Slavicisation by the then Austro-Hungarian empire. Whether that is true or not, I do not know. He launched an aggressive campaign to reclaim these territories hiding behind the principle of self determination. Italian politicians until today like to claim Istria and Dalmatia as long lost Italian possessions, much to the chagrin of their neighbours.

The Nazi party used the same irredentist argument, claiming that the Sudetenland Germans were being persecuted by the Czechoslovak government. The leader of the Sudetenland Germans, Henlein, turned out to be a Nazi agent. In the current political climate, the United States, through the mechanism of the Helsinki commission, promotes ethnic separatists in Russia (such as Circassian figures), disguising its predatory objectives under the cloak of ‘decolonisation.’

Have the Karabakh Armenians reached out to the independent regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? The latter two republics, part of the nation of Georgia, faced discrimination and persecution by the post-Soviet national chauvinist Georgian authorities. Fighting a secessionist war (in similar fashion to Karabakh), these two republics agreed to the deployment of Russian peacekeepers in the 1990s.

For that matter, you could draw a direct parallel between the Karabakh issue and the newly formed pro-Russian republics in the Donbas region of Lugansk and Donetsk. The latter two regions, facing a protracted war by the ethnic chauvinist Ukrainian regime, decided to seek the protection of Russia. To my knowledge, the diaspora Armenians have not come out in support of neither the Donbas republics, nor Abkhazia or South Ossetia.

I am very happy that the Karabagh Armenians defended themselves. They achieved independent status in 1994, and the conflict with Azerbaijan was frozen until 2020-21. The Azeri regime’s policy of pan-Turkism makes any chances of autonomy within Azerbaijan impossible.

However, irredentism is not a long term solution. Moscow has put in place a peace plan, and I think we should stick to it. Perhaps Karabagh became a cause célèbre among diasporan Armenians because it arose out of the anticommunist aftermath of the USSR’s dissolution, rather than any commitment to human rights or social justice.

Muslim Spain, the Moors, Afrocentrism and scientific advances

In the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Morgan Freeman plays a Moorish character, one of the few positive representations of Muslims in Hollywood movies. The Moor is depicted as more educated and worldly than his Christian counterparts. The most famous Moor in the English-speaking world is of course the titular character in Shakespeare Othello. But who were the Moors, mostly known as the Islamic conquerors of Spain and Portugal?

Before we get to that, let’s relate some important background; in the late 1980s Saul Bellow, a right wing culture warrior, shouted at his readership ‘who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ He carried out a culture war which included dismissing the black African civilisations and upholding Western civilisation as the cynosure of rationalism and scientific enquiry. We will see that this position is absolutely false.

It is perfectly true that the Muslims civilised the peoples of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Named by the Europeans as Moors, the Al-Andalus caliphate flourished, and made great advances in science, engineering, mathematics and philosophy. Called Moorish, this term was used by the Europeans as a blanket term for anyone of darker complexion – Arabs, Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans.

The designation Moorish – which we use in common parlance for a type of art or architecture from Muslim Spain – lazily lumps together different ethnicities. Islamic Arabs, black Africans, and the pre-Islamic indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers – have been encompassed by the generic term Moors. First applied by the Romans to darker skinned people from Northern Africa, the term Moor was gradually extended to describe Arab, Muslim, Berber and sub-Saharan Africans.

The term Berber is actually a misnomer. The indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, prior to the Islamic Arab conquest, are self-described Amazigh. Defeated by the Arab Muslim armies, the Berbers converted to Islam or assimilated. One of their number, an Islamised Berber Tariq Ibn Ziyad, became a military commander in the Muslim armies. He led the Islamic conquest of Spain, in 711 AD, defeating the Visigoths, a Germanic people.

Al Andalus became a centre of scientific accomplishments and education, at a time when most of Europe and Britain were illiterate. Averroes (1126 – 1198 CE, Arabic name Ibn Rushd) was one of a number of astronomers and polymaths produced by Islamic Spain. Ibn Zuhr (1094 – 1162 CE) was an Andalusian surgeon who can lay claim to be the earliest to detect cancerous tissues in the oesophagus, stomach and uterus.

To be sure, sub-Saharan African civilisations made their own scientific and philosophical accomplishments independently of Europe. Decades before John Locke, David Hume and the philosophers we all regard as founders of the Enlightenment, the Ethiopian philosopher and writer Zera Yacob (1599 – 1692) already developed the ideas of rational enquiry and scientific skepticism we associate with Enlightenment values. Here is one example of an African philosopher Tolstoy which Bellow never encountered.

Yacob, building on the long tradition of philosophy in black African Ethiopia, went further than Locke or Hume. Questioning the unchallenged supremacy of faith, he not only counterposed reason, but also explicitly opposed slavery, and advocated for the rights of women. Enlightenment ideas pop up in places which are ignored by the Anglocentric mind.

It is completely inaccurate however, to characterise Islamic Spain as a uniquely black African Moorish establishment, as Garikai Chengu does in his article. While correct in responding to European cultural arrogance, and highlighting the achievements of non-European civilisations, Chengu’s advocacy of an Afrocentrist approach, subsuming ancient Egypt and the Moors into one black sub-Saharan African identity, is wildly off the mark.

To emphasise the allegedly black African character of Islamic Spain, and ignore the contribution of Arab Islamic people, results in the dismissal of the significant achievement of Al Andalus under the Muslim rulers. Let us accept the fact that the Arab Muslims cannot be disrespected as just a marauding bunch of slave traders. Chengu, a brilliant scholar in his own right, is a fascinating writer. His articles are always worth reading.

For that reason, it is disappointing to see him recycling discredited Afrocentric myths, such as the tired old cliche that black African peoples sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the Americas before Columbus. Islamic Spain already has a contested legacy in Europe. Both Spain and Portugal are still wrestling with the historical fact that Islam made a huge imprint on their collective histories.

In Portugal, archaeologists and historians are still discovering just how integral the Islamic contributions were to the nation’s identity. The construction of a specifically Iberian identity was made in opposition to the Islamic states, emphasising the centrality of Christianity in the formation of Spain and Portugal as modern states.

The Reconquista, the systematic multi-century expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, was an early example of religio-ethnic cleansing. Filomena Barros, a professor at the University of Evora, made a salient observation; we never talk about the Roman or Visigothic conquest of Spain and Portugal, but we always refer to the Islamic conquest.

Let’s end with the words of Garikai Chengu, to be fair; he concludes with the following observations, which we would do well to follow:

If Africans re-write their true history, they will reveal a glory that they will inevitably seek to recapture. After all, the greatest threat towards Africa having a glorious future is her people’s ignorance of Africa’s glorious past.

Exactly. The same applies to the glories of Islamic Spain.

Being a non-drinker in Australia

When I explain to people that I do not drink alcohol, I am usually confronted with a look of stunned outrage, followed by the question ‘You don’t drink?! why not?’ My interlocutor has trouble getting over the shock that I choose, for non-religious reasons, to abstain from alcohol. They look at me like an alien being from another planet.

Rather than elaborate my reasons every time, I thought it would be best to write down why I am very happy being a teetotaller (that means non-drinker for the non-Australian readers). First off, while Australians have a strong culture of drinking – at social occasions, or a tipple over dinner in the evenings – that picture is changing. The ABC news reported in 2020 that the number of ex-drinkers in Australia over the three year period 2016 – 19 increased from 1.5 to 1.9 million Australians. Secondly, respondents listed their reasons for non-drinking, and religious reasons were hardly the only motivation for living the teetotal life.

Health reasons were often cited as the main concern for avoiding or giving up alcohol. Better health, less calories and sugar, avoiding hangovers, lessening liver damage, avoiding the harmful social consequences of excessive drinking, reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes – all these reasons featured in the decision of increasing numbers of people to abstain from, or give up, alcohol consumption. Greater numbers of young people are choosing to become non-drinkers.

The academic and researcher Dr Amy Pennay of La Trobe University found the following result:

Twenty-one per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 24 per cent of 25- to 29-year-olds don’t drink, and both those figures have more than doubled since 2001.

“We haven’t seen one particular age group driving consumption before, to my knowledge,” Dr Pennay says.

“So the fact that it’s young people is quite new and unique.”

No, there is no moralising judgement about people who decide to partake of alcohol; no need to pester or lecture alcohol-drinkers. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pacing yourself – yes, we are all familiar with the generic statement, ‘everything in moderation.’ That saying is all well and good, but is completely inadequate in dealing with the harmful social and health impacts of alcohol consumption.

I have never needed alcohol to have an enjoyable time. I have never liked the taste or smell of alcohol. It seems to me that if a person requires alcohol to have a good time, they must be lacking in social skills, or perhaps there is something lacking in their life which they fill with drinking. Consider the following – think of a hobby or sport you do not like. You may have tried it in the past, but it is just not for you. That is the way I regard alcohol. Beers, whisky, liquor, spirits, ouzo – while I have sampled each, I would not miss them if they were all poured down the drain.

That leads me to my next point – the Sudanese government, in the last few days, abolished in 1980s era ban on alcohol consumption for non-Muslims in the nation. Reducing the Islamically-influenced body of laws introduced by the previous regime, the current Khartoum government stipulated that while alcohol may be consumed, it must be done in private, and on condition that the public peace not be disturbed.

I remember in the late 1980s or early 1990s, watching a documentary about the Sudan, when the former leader of that nation, Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry outlawed alcohol in 1983. He led a public procession where the contents of thousands of whisky and liquor bottles were poured down the drains and into the Nile. In my own naive way at the time, I thought, well, I am not Muslim, but if he has his reasons to encourage non-drinking in his own nation, then maybe I am not so alone in my alcohol abstinence in Western Sydney.

So, thank you Colonel Nimeiry for giving me the courage to recognise my own non-drinking, and the resilience to stick with it in an alcohol-saturated culture.

Public intoxication has always been a sad sight to behold, in my opinion. After observing the antisocial behaviour of public drunkenness, I became even more determined to never end up like that. Once again, for the simpletons and clods out there – I have no problem with any adult deciding to drink. It is your decision and I accept it. Be aware of the risks of alcohol consumption, and please do not try to convince me that I am missing anything by remaining sober.

In that spirit, please understand and accept my reasons to abstain from alcohol. The only alcohol I taste is in the mouthwash I use for dental hygiene – which I then spit out.

The late great Albert Facey, Australian writer and World War 1 veteran, relates an episode in his classic memoirs A Fortunate Life. While working as a farm boy, he poured alcohol down the drain after observing his employer behave violently towards his subordinates. As a consequence, Facey was horsewhipped by his employer. Escaping, he taught himself to read and write, and went on to have, in his words, a fortunate life.

Facey, as an adolescent, was aware of the adverse impacts of alcohol-fuelled behaviour. My hope is that more of my fellow Australians become just as aware as him.

Shinzo Abe’s assassination, emotional shock and falling on your own sword

No doubt the news about the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (1954 – 2022) sent shock waves throughout the world. The longest serving Japanese PM, Abe is being remembered as a successful political figure. The shock of his assassination – and our condemnation of political killings – should not blind us to the fact that Abe was an ultranationalist and militarist politician, who sought to whitewash Imperial Japan’s war crimes at the expense of historical accountability.

There are events, years apart, that serve as timely reminders of the passing of an age. Abe’s assassination, and the circumstances surrounding his career, are eerily reminiscent of an earlier event – the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister, the right wing militarist Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995. The parallels between the two horrific killings are striking, but we will get to that a little later.

Throughout his political career, Abe was a leading proponent of remilitarising Japan, working to repudiate Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. The popularly named pacifist clause, this article of the post-World War 2 constitution stipulates that Japanese armed forces cannot be used for waging aggressive war, and must not be deployed outside of Japanese territory. Abe and his fellow militarists worked to repudiate this clause – or at least to provide the Japanese self-defence forces with wider powers and increased capabilities.

Hand-in-hand with his remilitarisation drive was Abe’s concerted efforts to revise the criminal history of Japanese imperialism in World War 2. He denied or downplayed the sensitive issue of ‘comfort women’ – the enforced recruitment of thousands of women as sex workers for the Japanese military in China, Korea and other nations occupied by Japan. He finally apologised for that crime, specifically to South Korea, in order to patch up differences and recruit Seoul for a war drive against China.

Minimising the terrible crimes of Japanese forces in China and Korea was part of his foreign policy to renew Japan as a re-assertive power. Domestically, he promoted neoliberal capitalist measures given the grandiose title of ‘Abenomics’, a hat-tip to the discredited ‘Reaganomics’ of the 1980s. Indeed, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, in describing Abe’s economic and social programme, referred to Abe as ‘Trump before Trump’.

Earlier, mention was made of the 1995 assassination of former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin. The latter, hailed as a visionary peacemaker for signing the 1993 Oslo accords, was assassinated by an ultranationalist Judeo-supremacist Yigal Amir. Rabin’s murder was greeted with a chorus of shock and anger – another ostensibly moderate politician gunned down by an extremist. However, a closer look at the political and military career of Yitzhak Rabin reveals, not a courageous man of peace, but a hardened and vicious anti-Arab racist.

He participated and led numerous military operations, in 1948 and 1967, which resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and the occupation of Palestinian land. During the first intifada of 1987, he vowed to ‘break the bones’ of the Palestinians. In 1993, the year he was awarded the Nobel peace prize, Rabin carried out Operation Accountability, a whole scale attack on Southern Lebanon, which displaced thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. The use of force, rationalised as a simple ‘response’ to Hezbollah rockets, destroyed Lebanese infrastructure and inflicted collective punishment.

These kinds of attacks, rather than being an aberration for the allegedly ‘liberal’ Rabin, were actually part and parcel of his character as a dedicated soldier of Zionism. Rabin, as a commander in the Israeli army, participated in the 1948 conquest of Lydda and Ramle, which resulted in the exodus of the Palestinian population. Nothing in Rabin’s career suggests that he regarded the Palestinians as anything but unwanted people to be expelled.

Denounced as a traitor for signing the Oslo accords with the Palestinians, Rabin faced a growing ultranationalist insurgency inside Israeli society. Finally, in 1995, Rabin was felled by a Zionist extremist. It was shocking and horrific to see such an assassination. For all the simpletons and clods out there; no, there is no justification for assassination, whether of Abe, Rabin, or JFK for that matter. The ideologies and practices of Abe and Rabin ensured that they would eventually fall on their own swords.

Before anyone provides moralising lectures about the sanctity of all human life, and not trampling on anyone’s grave, consider the following. I grieve for Alex Odeh. Who was that? Alex Odeh was a Palestinian American, born in 1944 in British-Mandate Palestine. A talented and dedicated student, he migrated to the United States in the 1970s, organised the Arab American Anti-Discrimination committee, and worked to promote peaceful dialogue and solutions between the Arab American and Jewish communities.

A trailblazing human rights activist, Odeh was assassinated in his offices in 1985. Zionist extremists had planted a bomb on his premises. Until today, no-one has been arrested or prosecuted for his murder. The FBI, while initially naming suspects, has left Odeh’s case unsolved. Two suspects, both American-raised Zionists, are still living openly in Israel.

Justice delayed is justice denied. I have no tears for Shinzo Abe, Yitzhak Rabin, nor JFK. I used them up for Alex Odeh. I look forward to the day when Odeh’s assassins are brought to justice, and the ideology which motivated them is discredited.

The humanities, being employable and a cross-cultural perspective

It is always great to be proud of your ethnic heritage. It is also the case that such pride can quickly translate into narrow ethnic chauvinism, blinding us to the achievements and perspectives of other cultures. The Armenians in diaspora have accomplished success against the odds. However, this must not cause us to be indifferent to interethnic solidarity, and we must learn about and respect the tremendous achievements of non-Armenian civilisations.

No, I am not singling out the Armenians for specific condemnation. I am relating a problem that I have found in Australia’s particular variety of multiculturalism. While we are more culturally diverse than ever, according to the latest census data, we are lagging in interethnic awareness and solidarity. While we need more ethnic diversity reflected in our institutions, we also require greater cross-cultural awareness to increase bonds of solidarity between ethnic minorities.

The most practical subjects that I have studied are the humanities, sometimes called the social sciences. There is nothing wrong with tackling subjects to increase employability. The law, accountancy, medicine – these are all essential professions. However, to dismiss the humanities as just time-wasting topics rendering their graduates unemployable is a perverse and narrow-minded perspective.

Consider the observations of Charlotte Colombo, in an article for The Independent. The problem is not that humanities graduates are unemployable or unfit for the business community, but that government policy and corporations are creating and sustaining employment conditions rendering more jobs precarious and casual. The rise of the gig economy makes the workforce the precariat. Do not scapegoat the humanities for the economic problems plaguing neoliberal capitalism.

What relevance does this have for interethnic cooperation? Migrant communities have focused on achieving material prosperity in the host nation. However, each group has exclusively highlighted their own stories while ignoring that which we have in common. One of the issues which my late father took seriously was the cause of the Palestinians. Why would an Egyptian-born Armenian and descendant of Armenian genocide survivors be interested in Palestine? Because of interethnic and anti-imperialist solidarity.

The issue of human rights is not the exclusive province of one ethnic or religious group. Promoting the cause of the Palestinians is not to ignore or belittle the issues of the Armenians. Cross-cultural solidarity is an essential requirement for the construction of a socially just society. As Araxie Cass explained why she went to rallies in support of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian town in East Jerusalem under attack:

I attended the rally because I believe that the attacks, apartheid and ethnic cleansing imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli government is wrong. But it also reminded me of an important lesson I learned in the past year about solidarity.

As Cass elaborated, solidarity is not a transactional issue – going opportunistically to a Palestine event just so they can attend Armenian events is definitely not the purpose. It is important to have a cross-cultural perspective to understand the problems of apartheid, settler-colonialism and imperial power in the modern world.

Decades ago, while going through school, we learnt about Isaac Newton, the father of optics, but how many of us in the Australian school system know of Ibn Haytham (c. 965 – 1040 CE), an Islamic scientist and polymath who first suggested that light reaches our eyes in the form of rays? This observation overturned centuries of received Aristotelian wisdom, and he conducted experiments which established optics as a separate branch of physics, predating Newton by hundreds of years.

We all learn about, or are at least acquainted with, the mind-body dualism as elaborated by Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650), a great accomplishment in the Western philosophical tradition. However, how many of us in the Anglophone world are aware of the thought experiments of Avicenna (c. 980 – 1037 CE), whose ‘flying man’ scenario was an earlier elaboration of the issue of human self-awareness; what we today would call the psyche.

There is a more contemporary comparison which can be made. Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972) was a pioneering poet, who influenced his peers and followers in the decades of the twentieth century. His poetry is still regarded in great esteem, even in the light of his fascist collaboration during the war years. That is all well and good; but how many of us are familiar with the poets, novelists, musicians and writers of the Harlem Renaissance? The poetry of Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was just one product of the cultural and intellectual revival of African American culture in the 1920s. This movement rejuvenated the fields of art, music, fashion, politics and literature.

The social sciences – history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology and so on – have proven to be quite practical in understanding the contentious sociopolitical issues of our times.

Charlottesville, Jerusalem flag day, Ulster Orange July and ultranationalist marches

Street marches are a public and powerful expression of one’s political and sociocultural beliefs. Like-minded people gathering together to express their collective will is an empowering experience. Does not everyone have the right to march peacefully in a democratic society? When the ultranationalist Right marches, they do so for the purpose of intimidation and exclusion, countering any notion of multiethnic or labour solidarity.

The 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – bringing together numerous racist and neo-Confederate groups – was not just a jolly jamboree of recreation. It was an expression of a resurgent white nationalist movement, intended to intimidate minority communities. The demonstrators made clear their determination to reverse the gains made by the civil rights and antiracist movements.

Charlottesville was not the only, and certainly not the last example, of an intimidatory march by a racialised group. The Ulster Orange Order, the pro-British loyalists from the Northern Ireland statelet, stage provocative Protestant ascendancy marches in the Catholic communities of northern Irish towns. Commemorating the victory of Prince William of Orange – a Protestant – over the Catholic James II, the Ulster loyalists deliberately assert the Protestant ascendancy as a bastion of British rule.

The marches of the Orange Order are hardly a simple exercise in free speech and historical memory. They are a triumphalist and sectarian expression of pro-imperial sentiment. Catholic and Irish nationalist communities face the threat of sectarian violence and disruption whenever the Orange loyalist marching season takes place.

The sectarian character of the Orange Ulster marches are no accident. Based on a putative commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne, the Orange marches reinforce British imperial rule over the Northern Ireland statelet, and buttress the Protestant ascendancy in that artificially constructed entity.

Jerusalem flag day

On May 29 every year, thousands of ultrarightist Israeli settlers and extremists march through the streets of East Jerusalem. That date is Flag day, a holiday instituted by Israeli authorities as a triumphalist celebration of the capture of the West Bank and Jerusalem in the 1967 war. Intended as a provocative and sectarian march, the settlers – usually with the connivance of the police and military – chant genocidal slogans and attack the Palestinian residents.

Chanting ‘death to Arabs’, and ‘may your village burn’, the flag march is calculated to increase tensions, wave multiple Israeli flags in a sneering expression of contemptuous triumphalism, and remind the Palestinians of their status as second class citizens in the apartheid state. This year, a new chant was heard by the Palestinians – ‘there is no Shireen’. This is a reference to the targeted assassination of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh earlier this year.

Not only have Israeli ultranationalist settlers marched through the mainly Palestinian quarters of East Jerusalem. They have also staged numerous incursions into the Al Aqsa mosque and its territory. The mosque compound is regularly targeted by Zionist settlers in an attempt to inflame sectarian and religious tensions, with the goal of demolishing one of Islam’s holiest sites.

In a similar way to Ulster loyalism, the Israeli ultrarightist settlers believe they have biblical sanction to carry out their provocative activities against the minority groups. In fact, it is no exaggeration to state that Zionism is the equivalent of a Jewish Ulster in Palestine. Both ideologies, while claiming to be emancipatory projects, actually reinforce the imperatives of empire.

The Skokie case

Professor Joseph Massad, in an article for Middle East Eye, draws a direct and necessary comparison between the actions of the ultranationalist Israeli marchers and a historic case – the Skokie affair. The American neo-Nazi party – officially called the National Socialist Party of America – sought to march in Skokie, a mostly Jewish suburb of Illinois in 1977 – a place where numerous Holocaust survivors lived. How would the authorities react to white supremacists marching through a largely Jewish community?

A protracted legal battle ensued, after the local authorities used various means to stop the march. The American neo-Nazis posed as simple and aggrieved defenders of free speech. What is wrong with white Americans expressing their pride in their race? The litigants went all the way to the US Supreme Court. The latter decided to allow the march to continue, in defence of First Amendment rights.

After a sustained and large community outcry about the proposed march, the American neo-Nazi party marched – but not in Skokie, but downtown Chicago. Numbering about 25 in all, they were overwhelmed by thousands of anti-Nazi counter demonstrators. Jewish community groups established a Holocaust museum, providing an educational device for Americans to learn about the suffering of the Jewish people.

Free speech is a right to be treasured – but it is not a blanket licence to simply say whatever is on your mind. Every public utterance – on social media as well – has consequences and impacts the public discussion. The goal is not to make everyone ‘extra careful’ or jittery about what they say. The purpose is to expose those who hide hateful or exclusionary messages behind the seemingly mild disguise of free speech. In this era of increasing ultranationalist marches, it is high time to call them out as parades of hate.

Operation Paperclip, abandoned refugees, and the careers of ex-Nazis after the war

In a few of my previous articles, I mentioned Operation Paperclip, the secret US programme to bring Nazi scientists to America. Only cursory comments were made on this topic; it is time for a closer examination of this episode. Why? It contains relevant lessons for today, not only because of the rise of Eastern European ultranationalist politicians, but also because of what this historical undertaking indicates about the current nature of American society.

In brief, Operation Paperclip involved secretly capturing and bringing Nazi German scientists, engineers and technical experts to the United States. Their expertise in military and scientific matters was considered valuable to the political objectives of the US (and Britain), and they were put to use during the Cold War. In all, approximately 1600 personnel, and their families, were brought to the United States.

A project carried out by US Army intelligence services in conjunction with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the latter reorganised as the CIA in due course – the Nazi past of these scientists, and their involvement in the Nazi party, the SS, and complicity in war crimes – was overlooked or whitewashed.

The definitive account of this operation is the book Operation Paperclip: The secret intelligence program that brought Nazi scientists to America (2014) by Annie Jacobsen. Originally, the programme was called Overcast, it was renamed after the practice of denoting the files of these Nazi scientists with a paperclip. The culpability of the scientific personnel in war crimes was ignored.

A key goal of the American authorities was to ensure harnessing the vast knowledge capital of the Nazi German scientists. Capturing information about the development of German non-conventional weapons – biological, chemical, nuclear – was important, but not enough. What mattered was the acquisition of the scientists, engineers and technical people themselves.

Located near Nordhausen, Germany, the Mittelwerk-Dora concentration camp complex, was the site where thousands of slave labourers, working in atrocious conditions, provided materials for the Nazi rocketry programme. Many died of starvation, malnutrition and rampant disease. Those who were too slow were killed outright. Wernher von Braun, one of the main rocket scientists employed by the Americans after the war, visited Mittelwerk and oversaw the conditions of the forced labourers himself. The rocket factories were places of exhaustion by overwork and death.

One other person who witnessed the death and inhumanity of the rocket factory complex was American soldier John Risen Jones Jr, Private First Class and sharpshooter with the 104th infantry division. He was so traumatised by the sight of emaciated slave labourers, the stench of death and decaying bodies, and the depravity of condemning so many thousands to death through overwork, he could not talk about what he saw for 51 years. He was just one of thousands of American WW2 soldiers who witnessed first hand the horror of the concentration camps.

While Nazi scientists, engineers and technicians were being spirited away to safety in Britain and the United States, millions of the victims of the Holocaust and the concentration camps – slave labourers, displaced persons and their families – were struggling to rebuild their lives, languishing in makeshift camps across war-ravaged Europe. The testimonies of American war veterans – such as those of Risen Jones mentioned above – were dismissed in the interests of Cold War power politics.

Holocaust survivors and displaced persons were definitely not welcomed with open arms by Britain or the United States. The contrasting treatment of the Paperclip scientists, who were welcomed, and the plight of displaced persons (who were largely ignored) highlights the ethical bankruptcy of postwar American capitalism.

An opinion piece in the OpIndia publication is subtitled, How the USA helped Nazi criminals from WWII evade justice to advance its own military ambitions – not a bad summary. It is useful at this point to highlight that Operation Paperclip was not an exception or unusual undertaking by the United States. Read the account by journalist Eric Lichblau (2014) The Nazis Next Door: How America became a safe haven for Hitler’s men. Not only did Nazi aerospace engineers find sanctuary in the United States, but also former SS and Gestapo personnel, officers involved in the most atrocious war crimes.

Karl Wolff, former Nazi functionary and general, was a personal liaison to Hitler and Himmler. This SS general, considered a ‘moderate Nazi’, met with and was recruited by Allen Dulles, head of the OSS. The latter, morphing into the CIA, continued this practice of shielding former Nazi intelligence officers.

What kind of nation claims to be an exceptional country, priding itself on its democratic institutions, yet recruits white supremacists and murderers into its ranks? This is the ultimate act of disrespect not only to the millions of displaced persons in Europe after the conclusion of hostilities, but also to the American WW2 veterans themselves, who witnessed the degradation and inhumanity of what the Nazi regime and its practitioners established.

Solzhenitsyn, Russian nationalism and anti-Russian hysteria

If we are to believe that Moscow, in its invasion of Ukraine, is contemptuous towards Ukrainian statehood, then we should not be surprised. Anticommunist Russian nationalism has been dismissive of Ukrainian claims to nationhood for years. Russian anticommunist dissidents, feted for decades in the West, expounded Greater Russian ethnic chauvinism over the airwaves. Hostility to non-Russian ethnic groups, including Ukrainians, has been part and parcel of Russian nationalist dissenter ideology for years.

The racism of the anti-Soviet Russians did not impede their careers as celebrity dissident intellectuals in the American empire. Joseph Brodsky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn – two writers and essayists hailed as courageous heroes in the West for combating Soviet tyranny – expressed a vicious Russian ethnic chauvinism, which involved denying Ukraine its nationhood. Such sentiments are now considered repellent by the corporate media that once welcomed them.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Soviet-era dissident and internationally celebrated novelist (he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1970), expressed a Greater Russian chauvinism that corresponds to Moscow’s current thinking regarding Ukrainian sovereignty. Best known for his novels exposing the gulag system, the anticommunist Solzhenitsyn was a racist Greater Russian ultranationalist, driven by Orthodox beliefs. He advocated a resurgent Russian empire which would, among other things, combine the Crimean peninsula and the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) under Russian control.

Solzhenitsyn, after returning to Russia in the 1990s, was quite forthright in praising the administration of Vladimir Putin. Uniting Russian ethnic chauvinism with social conservatism, Solzhenitsyn found common ground with Moscow. It is no secret that Solzhenitsyn was an antisemite, dabbling in preposterous ‘Judeo-Bolshevik’ conspiracy theories, which are the hallmarks of far right ideology. In 2007, as Solzhenitsyn was in ill-health, Putin awarded him with a state prize.

Solzhenitsyn never regarded the Ukrainians as a separate and distinct people, but simply ‘little Russians’, and proposed a Slavic union combining Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Interestingly, he cynically deployed Jewish commissar characters in his works, thus surreptitiously suggesting exclusive Jewish responsibility for the 1917 revolution and the doctrines of Bolshevism. This malignant slur has been recycled in different ways by far right movements around the world today.

Yasha Levin writes about usefully weaponised dissidents over at his blog. Weaponised dissidents are useful devices in the ideological arsenal of the American empire. Another example of a politically useful dissident which Levin raises is that of Joseph Brodsky, Russian-American poet and educator. Awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1987, Brodsky was hailed in the US as a courageous opponent of Soviet tyranny. Teaching courses at Yale, Columbia and other prestigious universities, Brodsky was given a platform to express his views.

His views involved, among other things, racist hostility to any notion of Ukrainian independence. A Greater Russian nationalist zealot – similar in outlook to Solzhenitsyn – Brodsky expressed open disdain for Ukrainian independence, especially in the early 1990s with the dissolution of the USSR. The very real possibility of Ukrainian statehood emerged at the time, and Brodsky made his views perfectly clear in a poem he wrote on the subject. Referring to Ukrainians with an ethnic slur, he denounced moves towards Ukrainian independence.

The current Russian constitution commits the government to policies which respect ethnic minorities in the Russian federation. Moscow officially supports the teaching and maintenance of non-Russian languages spoken by the numerous ethnic minority groups. This is the bare minimum expected of a government which claims to be a pluralist democracy.

In the current climate of Russophobia, with demands to ban everything Russian, it is instructive to examine how our own political climate changes with regard to the imperatives of the American military-industrial-financial complex. Calls for the banning of Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, vodka and Russian cigarettes is the height of juvenile puerility. When the United States invaded Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia – among other nations – there were no calls to ban Mark Twain, F Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway on account of their nationality.

Maligning an entire culture and civilisation because you oppose the actions of its political leaders is precisely the kind of creeping totalitarianism we claim to combat in the West. Should we ban the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Russian psychologist whose findings are an integral part of every university level psychology course? In fact, we have only a limited understanding of Pavlov’s work in the West.

He was interested in more than just salivating dogs and ringing metronomes. He was aiming for a comprehensive understanding of the workings of consciousness – an appreciation of the subjective factor. While primarily a physiologist, he understood that the workings of the mind, while undergirded by physiological processes, could not be reduced to only those workings. His work on the mind-matter duality as a scientist overlapped with the corresponding discussion by philosophers on the subject.

Registering opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine is one thing; promoting anti-Russian hysteria is quite another. A harmful and propagandistic preoccupation, let’s not give in to the blanket demonisation of an entire civilisation.