Anti-Asian racism – the xenophobic virus accompanying the pandemic

The current pandemic has been accompanied by a disturbing resurgence of another associated virus – anti-Asian racism.

Dissecting the various pathologies of the Anglo-majority nations (namely, the United States, Australia and Britain) is almost a full time occupation. The white ethnocracies are the majoritarian spawn of English colonialism. This implantation of Anglo nationalism in the Asia Pacific region has produced its own virus – anti-Asian racism. The latter is the monstrous twin of the current Covid-19 pandemic. But racially motivated paranoia is not unique to our times.

Professor Tim Soutphommasane, political theorist and professor, has written that anti-Asian racism is not a new development in Australia, but arises from preexisting conditions and prejudices. This kind of pandemic racism exposes not only the kind of society we are, but also the problems of racism we collectively need to overcome to construct a new social order.

Blaming China – and by extension, Asian peoples – for outbreaks of disease is neither accurate nor original. Racially motivated hysteria regarding pandemics has a long and ugly history in Anglo-majority societies. In the early part of the twentieth century, Asians were singled out for blame following an outbreak of the plague in Honolulu, Hawaii. Despite the fact that Asian Americans were among the plague’s victims, authorities set about burning down the Japanese and Chinese quarters of the city.

What did that course of action achieve? The rats, responsible for spreading the plague-causing bacteria, were driven out by the fires. They served as a vector for the plague, taking it across the city.

While current lame-duck US President Donald Trump did his best to promote a racialised interpretation of the Covid-19 outbreak, he is not the first – and definitely not the last – to engage in Sinophobia. The Australian political class has a long history of anti-Asian racism, and 2020 provided a stark continuation of anti-immigrant xenophobia. As news of the novel coronavirus hit the airwaves in Australia, anti-Asian racism reared its ugly head.

Reports compiled by Australian universities and Asian Australian advocacy groups have documented a disturbing surge in anti-Asian attacks, racial incidents and discrimination. For instance, academics at the University of Melbourne compiled an extensive report into the eruption of anti-Asian racism, directed mostly at Asian Australians, but also targeting culturally and linguistically diverse suburbs of Melbourne.

Let’s also focus on the dissemination of anti-China Covid-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation. Social media has allowed the formation of toxic ecosystems of hate and conspiratorial fear-mongering, recycling harmful stereotypes of Asians as spreaders of disease. Criticism of Beijing’s policies has quick transformed into Sinophobic mud-slinging, especially in the context of China’s response to the pandemic.

Evaluating the effectiveness of China’s response to Covid-19 is one thing; portraying the Chinese – and Asians in general – as a uniquely cunning, manipulative foreign enemy ‘penetrating’ Australia is nothing short of racist paranoia. Australia’s effort to blame China – the so-called ‘Chinese virus’ – is the latest manifestation of a long-standing practice in targeting ethnic minorities for their alleged culpability for our problems.

It is easy to find foreign scapegoats for the current economic and social problems afflicting Australia. Blaming China is a convenient diversion, distracting us from the problems of our own socioeconomic system. The Covid-19 virus was first detected in China – its origin however, is still subject to dispute. This has not stopped the conspiracy theories – and attacks on Chinese dietary habits – from circulating harmful misinformation that only serves to undermine public confidence in the competencies of health authorities.

Shaoquett Moselmane, NSW Labour Party MP, praised the response of the Beijing government to the Covid-19 pandemic, and denounced the resurgence of ‘yellow peril’ stereotypes in Australia’s media characterisations of Asians. He was suspended from parliament, and was subjected to slanderously false accusations of being a ‘Chinese agent’. Returning to parliament some months after his trial-by-media, he has never actually been charged with any wrongdoing. So far, the same media which rushed to judgement has never issued a formal apology to Moselmane.

Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, sociologist at the University of Technology, Sydney, writes that while it is all well and good to praise the multiculturalism of Australian society, that is no protection against outbursts of deeply-ingrained racism. He writes that:

Carrying a torch for multiculturalism is no guarantee of anything to do with defending the rights of slandered minorities. Instead, it reveals something about the way multiculturalism under the current government has become a shield for advancing ethnocracy’s prerogatives.

Upholding the meritorious contributions of migrants and refugees to Australian society is commendable on its own merits. However, this approach does not tackle racism head-on. We require institutional policies and cultural changes to confront the pandemic of anti-Asian racism. Racism is not only a harmful ideology, but a tool of exploitation. While the Covid-19 virus will be brought under control, we need to create anti-racism strategies now to confront the simmering residue of racial paranoia.

Magna Carta is an important document – but let’s stop venerating it

The Magna Carta – great charter – signed in June 1215 by King John of England and the rebellious barons, has achieved contemporary fame unlike any other legal document. Ostensibly enshrining the rights of individual liberty, democracy and protections against arbitrary arrest, the Magna Carta has been cited as inspiration from people and governments across the Left-Right political spectrum.

The 800th anniversary of the charter – in 2015 – was the occasion for numerous official commemorative activities in Britain. While it was an important milestone in English history, let’s also stop venerating it, and understand its proper place in the context of competing social and class forces.

Magna Carta was not the product of a specific British/English predisposition for democracy, nor a peculiar British commitment to individual liberty, but of a particular convergence of conflicting intra-elite class forces. King John’s military adventures in northern France, attempting to reconquer English territories, ended in failure in 1214. The onerous taxes John had imposed to finance that ten-year campaign, were the target of grumbling protests by the baronial elite.

Not only was John asking for even more money, he also faced a nationalist Welsh uprising. Adding to John’s difficulties, the Church opposed his appointee designate for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church – an ecclesiastical wealthy landowning class – was watching the growing organisation of the rebellious barons with increasing alarm. A festering civil war was in the offing, and the barons seized London, pledging to compel the king to accept their terms.

King John’s dangerous mix of military failure in France, financial exactions of the baronial class, and harsh implementation of arbitrary justice finally combined to cause the Crown’s undoing. In June 1215, the barons forced John to sign the list of their demands – Magna Carta – at Runnymede.

This document does not actually guarantee individual liberties, or even mention trial by jury, or ensure that everyone is equal before the law. The original document, signed by King John, contained a list of demands resolving the specific grievances of the barons. The 1215 document was a failure; John repudiated its contents the year after it was signed, and asked the Pope to annul it. Later in 1216, John contracted dysentery and died. The still-unresolved conflict continued to simmer.

The charter was revised and reissued numerous times. The 1225 version is on display at the British Library. Its 63 clauses – in the 1215 original – dealt with various issues of aristocratic and merchant property rights. A number of clauses dealt with the removal of fish weirs, the abolition of outdated taxes, and demanded unrestricted trade for merchants.

However, the most well-known clauses, cited as protection against detention without trial, protection against arbitrary arrest and torture, and upholding the rule of law, are clauses 39 and 40. Translated into modern English, they state the following:

39 – No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.

40 – To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

These are the proviso most often cited as a defence of constitutional gradualism, and Magna Carta was upheld by politically diverse forces since the end of the 1200s. Sir Edward Coke, in his struggle against the Stuart monarchs, cited Magna Carta as a weapon against unrestricted royal powers. Radical movements in the English Civil War referred to Magna Carta as a protective legal document against state repression. The American revolutionaries, in their fight against the English Crown, cited Magna Carta as a shield in opposition to government by royal decree.

The principle of habeas corpus, which prohibits detention without trial, is certainly under attack today. The capitalist system, as it decays and becomes more barbarous, is removing any vestige of civil liberties or democratic rights. The US and Britain, through various legalistic measures and control orders, have imprisoned persons without charge or trial for years, using the pretext of terrorism to do so.

The notion of privacy and civil liberties has been made a mockery of, with the rise of tech companies and surveillance capitalism. The algorithms in the search engines they own – and we use – have aggregated all kinds of data about our behaviour. Our searches, purchases, likes and dislikes, are all metadata, stored by the big IT monopolies. The personal data they collect is used to analyse our behaviour and predilections. The commercial imperative of mass surveillance on the internet has undercut any notion of individual privacy.

Magna Carta has contemporary relevance, and is a seminal event in English history. Rather than singing paeans to constitutional gradualism, let’s understand the competing class forces that resulted in its creation. Civil liberties have been won through hard struggle – let’s not forget that while highlighting the conduct of governments that violate the provisions of Magna Carta.

The metabolic rift and the ecological-economic crisis

Climate change, environmental destruction and the COVID-19 pandemic have all combined to drive home the importance of understanding ecology – human societal interaction with and impact upon the natural world – with renewed ferocity. Searching for a framework with which to understand the current compound crises, and navigating a way out of them, requires an anticapitalist and ecosocialist perspective.

Let’s elaborate this multifaceted subject.

We can make some relevant observations which contribute to a wider national conversation on tackling the intertwined problems of environmental damage and capitalist-economy-induced runaway climate change.

Not everyone can be a full time scientist, but everyone can achieve scientific literacy, if only for the purpose of making informed decisions about policies when dealing with the ecological crisis. The ongoing economic downturn cannot be separated from the wider ecological destruction engulfing greater portions of the planet. It is equally true that the ecological crisis cannot be solved without addressing the socioeconomic inequalities. In fact, ecological destruction must be stopped by addressing the economic structures that generate ecologically destructive practices.

Economically driven incursions into previously undisturbed natural environments is increasing the likelihood and frequency of transmission of zoonotic pathogens to humans, and associated pandemics. The COVID-19 pathogen was first detected in China, though that does not mean it necessarily originated there.

Barry Commoner stated, cited by John Bellamy Foster that “if the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production”. How ironic that a zoonotic virus has been effective at exposing the structural weaknesses of the original economic virus, the rapacious expansion of the capitalist mode of production.

Environmental destruction and ecological disruption are not inevitable consequences of human existence, but rather the product of specific socioeconomic activities. It is the economic and consumption patterns of the affluent that have the most harmful impact, not the nations with higher birth rates. Much-hyped panic about overpopulation, while providing a simplistic explanation, distract us from the real causes of environmental destruction – the consumerist affluence of the wealthy and the industrial practices they sustain.

Pandemics will become more frequent with runaway climate change. The economic activities that exploit and destroy greater parts of the natural environment are also the socioeconomic practices that drive climate change. The intensification of mass agribusiness, deforestation, overfishing marine resources – not only contribute to the increasing levels of carbon emissions, but also increase the likelihood of zoonotic transmission of viruses as we encroach further into natural habitats.

It is not only a case of geographic proximity to natural environments. As humans upend forests and enter marine areas, the capitalist mode of production disrupts and demolishes ecosystems, exploiting the natural resources. The defences that these ecosystems have which prevent diseases from spreading are also undermined. The decrease in biodiversity has adverse impacts on human life.

What is the metabolic rift?

Marx employed the words ‘metabolism’ and ‘metabolic’ in the same way that we use the word ‘ecological’ today. The term ‘ecology’ was not coined until the 1860s. However, Marx spoke of the rift – the breakdown – of the relationship between humans and the natural world in the 1840s. He wrote:

Humans live from nature, ie: nature is our body, and we must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if we are not to die.

To say that humanity’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for humans are part of nature.

The capitalist mode of production, and its inevitable class inequalities, was creating a breakdown in the natural cycles of human-nature interaction. Marx’s use of this concept – humans and nature forming a social metabolism – was cutting edge science in his time. We usually think of Marx and Engels as economic thinkers – and is correct. However, to limit ourselves to an understanding of Marxian political economy leads us to sadly ignore the crucial insights that Marx and Engels were also ecological thinkers.

Marx was responding to Malthus, the populationist pastor, who sought to exclusively blame the rising numbers of poor and unemployed for environmental problems. But he was also highlighting the inevitable disruption between the natural and social worlds that capitalism was producing. While human economic activity was portrayed at the time as ‘conquering nature’ – think of the conquest of the Australian continent by English imperialism – nothing could be further from the truth.

As humans exploit nature, our mode of production undermines the very basis of our material existence. We disrupt the earth’s natural cycles – it was in the 19th century that the greenhouse effect and its harmful impact on the climate were first beginning to be elaborated. As greater numbers of people live and work in cities, we have not only lost contact with nature, but are also ignoring the deleterious impacts our affluent consumptive is having on nature.

We have constructed an artificial dichotomy between ecology and the economy – what is generally simplified as ‘jobs versus environment‘. This false dichotomy stands exposed in 2020 – climate change, biodiversity loss and pandemics cannot be cordoned off into a separate subject-area called ‘the environment’, distinct from the subject of ‘jobs’.

No economic system is worth saving if it is destroying the ecosystems that sustain life on earth. There is much more to be said on this topic in the future. For now, let’s make one recommendation – for further information on this topic, read John Bellamy Foster’s book, The Ecological Revolution.

The disturbing revival of ‘race science’ – which is properly called pseudoscience

The rise of the far right politically in Europe and elsewhere has been accompanied by a growing resurgence of their associated doctrines. Once discredited, these ultranationalist ideologies are experiencing a revival under an academic guise. One of those ideas is scientific racism, which has festered for decades.

Once mainstream, notions of a linkage between race, intelligence and genes were marginalised especially after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Its doctrines of inherent differences between races was consigned to the dustbin. However, race pseudoscience has made a comeback. The claim that races – biologically distinct populations – have heritable differences in intelligence is conducive to the recycling of ‘respectable’ scientific racism.

In the era of Trump, we have told ourselves that only the ignorant are racist; while there are ignorant racists, we cannot escape the reality that the educated have done their bit to promote racist pseudoscience. In fact, today’s ethnonationalism has its roots in the intellectual respectable forebears of eugenics, the latter a scholarly attempt to categorise people into ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. While Nazi Germany was the most extreme practitioner of race pseudoscience, it was the United States that provided the international template of scientific racism.

Pseudoscientific racism, rather than don the apparel of the KKK and wave the Confederate flag, adopts a scholarly appearance. Wrapping itself in the mantle of respectable academic inquiry, the eugenicists were able to maintain an active – though decidedly small – network of like-minded individuals after WW2. Rejecting the post-war consensus that race is a social construct without any scientifically-sound meaning, the work of racist scholars was portrayed as ‘swimming against the tide’, uncovering supposedly ground-breaking pathways while being stifled by the leftist-multicultural authoritarian establishment.

There is no such thing as a single ‘intelligence’ gene. Scientists are still identifying numerous genes – at least 40 at last count – that each play a role in intelligence. And even then, biologists are quick to caution that we still cannot predict a person’s intelligence based exclusively on their genetic makeup. Genes are definitely not the ultimate determinants of destiny. Genes interact with the environment to produce phenotypic outcomes. Education, parental nurturing, community living – all these factors also impact on individual intelligence.

Even skin pigmentation is determined by multiple genes, and is also impacted by environmental influences. An individual’s skin coloration is the product of genetic and environmental variants, and is not the result of a linear progression straight from genotype to phenotypic manifestation.

The subject starts to get messy and controversial if and when we mix ‘race’ and heritability together. As William Saletan argues in Slate magazine, the heritability of a trait is a legitimate line of inquiry – but do not confuse heritability with racial classifications. Heritability is a statistic used in genetics to determine the variation of a phenotypic trait that is due to genetic markers between individuals of a given population – not between populations. The messiness begins when scientists sloppily substitute ‘populations’ with the word ‘race’, and the scientific flaws start to deepen.

The IQ genes versus nature debate has a long and tortuous history too excessive to go into here. Suffice it to say that the United States has sustained a historical practice of racial classification and built a society on a racially motivated hierarchy. The dubious psychology of ‘race science’ was used to rationalise and reinforce structural economic and racial inequalities. In the early 1950s, UNESCO, a branch of the UN issued documents denounced racism, and rejected the notion of ordering humanity into biologically-hierarchical races. International consensus rejected any claim of genetically differentiated levels of intelligence.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s overturned decades of legally sanctioned racial segregation, and challenged claims of white genetic superiority. African Americans debated authors of racist tracts, and scientists challenged the shoddy logic and flawed ‘science’ which underscored white nationalism. With the decline of the political Left in the early 1990s, and the onset of a generalised capitalist breakdown, outdated and obsolete ideas, once festering in the margins, have clawed their way back into the mainstream.

To be sure, the rise of genomics in the 1990s also provided a conducive environment for the resurfacing of genetic explanations for social behaviours. The claim “it’s in the DNA” became an easy go-to formula to purportedly explain behaviours from warfare, to rape, to socioeconomic inequalities.

Our obsession with DNA ancestry, tracing the minutest details of our genetic forebears is a harmless pastime, until it starts to convey the underlying falsity of the racist worldview – supposedly fixed, inborn biological differences between races. No, not everyone who uses DNA tracing is a vicious racist. But the genomics industry is helping create a climate where ‘DNA’ has become a shorthand for race. Tracing individual DNA is distracting us from searching for health and environmental outcomes to redress inequalities.

The ultranationalist far right, and their billionaire patrons and supporters, have exploited the ongoing fascination with genes to promote the discredited ideas of genetically-based differences in intelligence between races. While the junk science is still shoddy, the debate has resurged with renewed vigour.

One recommendation; for more on this subject, read the book Superior: The Return of Race Science by science journalist and broadcaster Angela Saini.

Before David Attenborough, there was Jacob Bronowski – promoting the public understanding of science

David Attenborough is arguably the world’s best-known and appreciated science-nature documentary maker. His programmes are watched by millions around the world, and his pronouncements about science today carry enormous weight. Before him, though – and before Dawkins for that matter – there was a scientist small in stature but an intellectual giant who promoted the public engagement with science – Jacob Bronowski.

Born in Poland of Jewish heritage, Bronowski (1908-74) – Bruno to his schoolmates and teachers – migrated with his parents to England, where the young Jacob excelled academically. While earning a PhD in mathematics, Bronowski became an accomplished poet.

This is important, because he always stressed the artificiality of the arts-versus-sciences dichotomy. The arts – literature, poetry and so on – were said to be saturated with passion and emotion. The natural sciences were cold, objective and impersonal. Bronowski’s life work is testimony to the fact that this distinction is not only flawed, but harmful to the full development of human understanding.

During World War 2, Bronowski developed mathematical strategies for RAF Bomber Command, working in the field of operations research. He was part of a British team that traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to document the effects of the respective atomic bombings of those cities. After studying the effects of those attacks, Bronowski – and a number of his physicist friends – stopped working for the UK military.

It was this experience that compelled Bronowski to examine the ethics of science, and prompted him to address the question of humanist values. He wrote of his observations while in Nagasaki:

On a fine November day in 1945, late in the afternoon, I was landed on an airstrip in Southern Japan. From there a jeep was to take me over the mountains to join a ship which lay in Nagasaki Harbour. … suddenly I was aware that we were already at the centre of damage in Nagasaki. The shadows behind me were the skeletons of the Mitsubishi factory buildings, pushed backwards and sideways as if by a giant hand….I had blundered into this desolate landscape as instantly as one might wake among the craters of the moon.

He continued his work on poetry after the Second World War, carried out research on biological and anthropological questions – elaborating the characteristics of australopithecines. Turning his attention to the history of science, it is through his magisterial documentary series, The Ascent of Man, that he is best known to subsequent generations. (And yes, by ‘man’ he meant humankind, not just men).

What Bronowski achieved through his documentary was make science accessible to a wide audience, increase public engagement with scientific literacy, and highlight the importance of ethical values in informing scientific research. His documentary series was first broadcast in 1973; sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1974. He never witnessed the tremendous popular impact his work produced.

Since that time, there have been numerous science educators and writers; the American analogue to Bronowski is the late Carl Sagan, the astronomer and planetary scientist who wrote the popular science book and series Cosmos. Sagan also brought a humanistic perspective to the scientific endeavour. In 1995, Sagan wrote the book The Demon-Haunted World, defending skepticism and the scientific method against pseudoscience and superstition.

Bronowski addressed the issue of dogma, distinguishing it from scientific inquiry and research. Dogma reduces people to numbers and churns through them with cold detachment – you may listen to his words on the subject here. Bronowski raised this issue while visiting Auschwitz, where racist dogma and arrogance combined to produce unimaginable horrors.

To be sure, science has had its own problems with pseudoscientific and dubious theories regarding race and racism. The United States has a long and disturbing history of scientific perversions, leading to the implementation of policies constructing a racially stratified society. The abuse of science to rationalise economic inequalities and racially divisive structures has a resilient presence in American society.

We will look at these issues in the next article – stay tuned.

For the moment, let’s remember the inspiring work and example of Jacob Bronowski.

The revanchist politics of 1930s Eastern Europe is alive and well today

“Why are you studying that?”

That was the usual question asked of me back in my university days, when I explained my area of interest – the interwar years in Europe (1919-1939), especially Eastern Europe. That inquiry, after I had elaborated my reasons, was followed up by ‘what can you do with that?”. As it turns out, contemporary history has provided the best answer – the nationalist politics of the 1930s is still being played out throughout Eastern Europe, the formerly socialist nations.

Let’s focus the scope of our view, otherwise this article will be unnecessarily lengthy.

Thirty years after the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, we can see that virulent East European nationalism is on the ascendant throughout Eastern European. To understand that point, we must examine the revanchist, retaliatory nature of that nationalism, recycled and revived as it is from the interwar period. 1930s nationalism is being replayed in the official politics of East European capitalist states, and Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban provides a strong example.

Hungary, along with their East European counterparts, has advocated a revanchist, irredentist nationalism – focused on the recovery of lost territories, and the reclaiming of a purportedly wounded national pride. Orban has made public his intention to reverse the provisions of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which involved a defeated Hungary ceding territories to its neighbours. Restoring a ‘Greater Hungary’ is a goal of Orban’s ultranationalist administration – a policy that puts him in direct conflict with Hungary’s immediate neighbours.

The Trianon trauma as it is known by Orban and his ultrarightist advocates, involved Hungary losing two-thirds of its preWWI territory and 64 percent of its population. Embracing and mobilising this nationalist nostalgia is an adept technique – bemoaning loss of empire is a tactic employed by Tory Brexiteers in the UK. Orban’s revanchism also involves a sinister historian revisionism regarding the crimes of Hungary’s fascistic past.

Orban is obviously not going to declare open warfare against his neighbours to reclaim lost territories. He is however, aggressively pursuing an agenda to bind Hungarians living outside the current borders of Hungary to their nation in ways that actively destabilise his neighbours by focusing on ethnic irredentism. Tensions with Romania and the Ukraine have only increased during Orban’s tenure, producing divisions and disgruntlement within the EU and NATO alliance.

The region of Transylvania, currently administered by Romania, is home to thousands of ethnic Hungarians and was ceded under the terms of the Trianon treaty. In eerie parallels with the Nazi regime’s ‘championing’ of the Sudetenland Germans as part of Germany’s campaign to break up the Czechoslovak state, Orban has mobilised ethnic chauvinism to incite anti-Romanian feeling, and increase tensions with his Romanian neighbour.

Rehabilitating Horthy

Orban has deliberately cultivated a rehabilitative campaign for the interwar Hungarian regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy. The latter headed an authoritarian, clerically conservative anti-Semitic government, allied with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. Hungarian troops actively fought alongside Nazi German forces through WW2. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were persecuted and killed, labour and workers organisations suppressed, and a solid alliance with Mussolini’s fascist Italy was built.

The glorification of Horthy is inseparably bound up with the exoneration of Hungarian fascism and the promoting of anti-Semitism. Orban has purposely promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, blaming George Soros ( billionaire and Jewish) of fomenting various sinister plots to undermine and overwhelm Christian Hungary. In fact, Orban has cynically combined anti-Semitism with Islamophobia, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for bringing Syrian Muslim refugees to Europe to dilute Hungary’s Christian character.

Racially paranoid notions of an ethnic-transformative Muslim invasion of Europe are nothing new. Orban’s vitriolic denunciation of fictitious ‘Muslim invaders’ cannot be understood without considering the racially exclusionary nationalism of Hungary, and Eastern European nations harking back to the 1930s. Railing against refugees and migrants today contributes to a campaign of anti-immigration chauvinism, and also distracts from Hungary’s own complicity in genocidal anti-Semitism.

Patrick Kingsley, writing for the New York Times, notes the following:

Under Mr. Orban, anti-Semitic authors from the Horthy era have been added to the national curriculum, and the Constitution has been rewritten to imply that the Horthy government was not responsible for its actions during the final 14 months of World War II, a period during which the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered.

Changing the curriculum is not just an exercise in historical revisionism; it is a deliberate strategy to salvage Hungarian supremacist nationalism from the stain of murderous culpability for racist crimes.

Studying the history of the interwar years in Eastern Europe is paying off after all.

Baruch Spinoza revisited – pantheism, rational thinking and the chosen people

Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) is an under-appreciated philosopher and ethicist, a rationalist whose place in the Enlightenment is assured, but whose ideas are largely sidelined. It is with great happiness that we welcome a renewed discussion of Spinoza’s ideas on god, pantheism, and rationalism on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) The Philosopher’s Zone, authored by David Rutledge. Spinoza’s body of work has important relevance for today’s understanding of religion, political philosophy and notions of god.

Let’s disentangle this vast subject.

Born in Amsterdam of Portuguese Jewish origin, the Dutch Spinoza was raised in a traditional Talmudic community, but later grew up to rebel against the theological and ethical doctrines of the Jewish community. A philosophical renegade and innovator, he redefined the notion of god as inherent in nature, in contradiction to the monotheistic god of Moses and the biblical prophets. Denounced as a heretic, he was excommunicated in 1656 by Amsterdam’s Sephardi Jewish authorities.

Pantheism and combining the spirit with the material

Spinoza rejected the theological underpinnings of religion, and rebuffed notions of one eternal supernatural god. His notion of a god was a far cry from the god of Abraham, but rather a pantheistic vision – god was the universe and nature. Spinoza rejected the divine origin of the Torah, advocated the scientific method to understand the natural world, and rejected the Old Testament notion of Jews as a ‘chosen people.’

Spinoza insisted that the natural world was understandable to human reason and investigation, rather than the product of some divinely ordered creation. This claim was revolutionary at the time, and was opposed by religious authorities. Science was undergoing a revolution of its own at the time, and further areas of nature were being opened up to investigation by scientists.

Breaking with previous philosophers, Spinoza proposed that the mind, rather than being an immaterial soul, was itself the product of the material brain. Mind and matter, while traditionally discussed as opposites, are actually complimentary – the mind is the product of, and can comprehend, the material forces which constitute nature. By equating the notion of god as nature, Spinoza effectively neutralises the theological god of the monotheistic religions.

According to Spinoza, the god of the pantheist does not make pronouncements, perform miracles, or tell people how to behave. A noninterventionist in human and natural affairs, Spinoza’s god does not have any of the attributes described in the Torah. Neither supernatural nor transcendent, the god is nature interpretation landed Spinoza in huge trouble. After excommunication, Spinoza left Amsterdam, but remained in Holland. Unlike other renegade Jews, he never converted to Christianity to restore his career.

The Chosen People

Spinoza criticised the theological concept of the Jews as a chosen people. Proceeding from a materialist philosophical basis, he posited that claims of a ‘godly-elected’ chosen people were untenable. Even if one were to suggest the ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, that notion is borne of historical necessity, referring to a prosperous period in Israelite history.

The ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, derives from the social organisation of a state, a society that is run for the benefit of its people. Any notion of a theologically superior people, selected by god to be an example for the rest of the world is nonsense, according to Spinoza.

The philosopher elaborated that:

Nations, then, are distinguished from one another in respect to the social organization and the laws under which they live and are governed; the Hebrew nation was not chosen by God in respect to its wisdom nor its tranquility of mind, but in respect to its social organization and the good fortune with which it obtained supremacy and kept it so many years.

What Spinoza was saying is that every people is unique, in the sense of its own internal organisation and social structure, and the Jewish people are no exception. Natural laws govern the development of state structures, not divine or supernatural authority. The laws of nature are universal, and they apply equally to all nationalities. Far from being theologically privileged as a ‘chosen’ or ‘elected’ people, the Jews achieved their own distinguishing national trajectory, no better or worse than any other people.

Not a nationalist

We should be careful, in this regard, to avoid portraying Spinoza as a kind of proto-Zionist advocating the formation of a nationalistic Jewish state in Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, attempted to cast Spinoza’s statements on state formation as a philosophical forecasting of an eventual Israeli state in Palestine.

Spinoza was hardly advocating a solid Jewish identity suitable for appropriation by modern nationalistic thinkers. He was not some secular saint of Zionism, but rather a rationalist philosopher who understood that nations are formed according to socioeconomic and political forces. Challenging religious authority, Spinoza defined, if it is possible, a rational god in contrast to the fire-and-brimstone version found in the monotheistic tradition.

When asked whether or not he believed in god, Einstein always responded with the ‘god of Spinoza’. That response is a kind of tactical manoeuvre, avoiding the strident confrontation with religious people usually encountered by Dawkins-type atheists. The pantheistic god, the god of Spinoza, is a bit similar to intellectual wallpaper – nice to have in the background to placate your guests, but having no real impact or influence on your life.

Let’s have a renewed appreciation for Spinoza, and use rationality to achieve a greater understanding of ourselves and our world.

Brown University study finds US war on terror has displaced at least 37 million people

A new study, published by Brown University’s Costs of War project, calculated that over the 19 years of the US war on terror, at least 37 million people – a conservative estimate – have been displaced or forced to flee their homes. US wars launched in the name of combating terrorism have had a horrifically catastrophic impact on the nations involved.

At a glance, the report – entitled Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars, lists the numbers of people displaced by US wars against numerous countries. The findings are summarised in Jacobin magazine as follows:

The interventions in Afghanistan have resulted in 5.3 million displaced people; Pakistan, 3.7 million; Iraq, 9.2 million; Libya, 1.2 million; Syria, 7.1 million; Yemen, 4.4 million; Somalia, 4.2 million; and the Philippines, 1.7 million. These numbers are “more than those displaced by any other war or disaster since at least the start of the twentieth century with the sole exception of World War II.”

You may read the report in its entirety here.

Professor David Vine, coauthor of the report, stated the following observation:

U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.

Let’s remember those words; Americans – and I highly suspect, Australians as well – have not begun to grapple with the devastation and trauma of displacement. The title of the report starts with the words creating refugees. My fellow Australians need to bear in mind that the nearly-two decade US war on terror has generated millions of refugees – and Canberra has essentially gone along with these horrific policies.

The mandatory detention of refugees fleeing war and ethnic conflict only compounds the suffering and psychological trauma of life in exile. Being torn away from your home, family, social networks, occupation – this breakage cannot be adequately captured in numbers or statistics. The late Edward Said summarised the experience of exile as follows:

It [exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

One aspect of the global war on terror that is underreported is the staggering economic cost. Brown University’s Costs of War project has documented that since 2001, the US government has spent $6.4 trillion dollars to fund its overseas wars. The Pentagon, and the US Congress under all previous presidents, has provided an unending – and steadily increasing – financial flow to ensure the continuation of overseas contingency operations.

This stands in stark contrast to the ongoing failure to rebuild the US territory of Puerto Rico, nearly three years after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild its electrical and educational infrastructure. Reconstructing the decaying infrastructure of the United States does not seem to be a priority for the Trump administration.

Grief is not a scourge to be inflicted on other nations. No one is denying the tragedy of human suffering experienced by New Yorkers on September 11. What is being disputed is the deliberate cultivation of selective sympathy by Washington – and its allies – which negates the enormous suffering of other, mainly nonwhite, nations. Selective sympathy is the hallmark of tribal white American nationalism.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the US authorities have assiduously cultivated the myth of the POW/MIA; our war dead are the only ones that matter. The millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian war dead are deliberately excluded from a politicised memorialisation that privileges the mainly white, middle-class, military family aviators, to the exclusion of the nonwhite victims of the American war on Indochina.

The war on terror has gradually and surreptitiously mutated into a great power conflict. Inter-imperialist competition, in which the US is an active participant – has become the main military threat to humanity. In 2018, former US defence secretary and General James Mattis elaborated that interstate global competition, with Russia, China, Iran and others – is the new framework adopted by the US government, not the fight against Islamist groups.

Facing a growing ecological and humanitarian crisis, the uninterrupted spigot of funding for the US military needs to be turned off. By rebuilding a safer, sustainable economy, we can work towards societies that prioritise human and social needs above corporate profits. The US generals and war profiteers must be held accountable for their own actions, and made to pay the costs of rebuilding the societies damaged by their reckless policies.

Stop using the stock market to determine economic health

The performance of the stock market is the subject of daily news report under the general subject heading of ‘the economy’. Increased activity on the stock market is usually correlated with improving economic health. There is just one fundamental problem with that picture – the stock market is not the economy, and to present it as a barometer of economic well-being is seriously misleading.

The stock market fluctuations are all very interesting, but they are divorced from the pain and tribulations of a pandemic economy. Contributing editor at Pacific Standard magazine, Jared Keller, wrote that the stock market is divorced from everyday economic reality:

Day-to-day swings in the stock market don’t indicate anything about an economy’s long-term vitality. That’s because it only represents a small sliver of U.S. employment.

Stock markets booms are all well and good, but they are not the basis of economic recovery from recessions, including the pandemic-induced downturn. Stock market booms are no basis for constructing a renewed economy of shared prosperity.

Paul Krugman, Nobel prize-winning economist and professor, has commented that the post-Covid-19 recovery is bypassing those who need it the most. The pandemic is still rampaging through communities in the United States – and the stock market rebound is increasing the wealth of the existing ultra-wealthy financial elite. Why is any putative recovery not helping the most needy? It is because stock market rebounds assist the large multinational corporations, but leaves the rest of us behind.

Krugman elaborates further that the top one percent of Americans own more than half of all stocks. The bottom half of Americans own only 0.7 percent of stocks. The ultra-wealthy 1 percent are the major players and beneficiaries of stock market activity. This is far removed from the daily and practical realities of unemployment and poverty faced by millions of people.

Matt Phillips, from the NY Times, explains the disconnect between the Wall Street stock market and American working class communities:

Part of the reason is the makeup of the stock market, and the fact that the giant companies that make up the S&P 500 operate under very different circumstances than the nation’s small businesses, workers and cities and states. They are highly profitable, hold significant sums of cash and have regular access to public bond markets. They’re far more global than the typical American family firm.

Thomas Palley, economist and writer living in Washington DC, writes that stock market prosperity is an obsessive concern which promotes a toxic illusion. Share markets create wealth for their major investors, but that wealth is not shared with the rest of the population. This has implications for the Australian economy, structured as it is along neoliberal capitalist lines.

From 2003 until 2013-14, the corporate media in Australia hailed the mining boom, a period of continuous revenue generation through the sale of our mineral and natural resources. The duration of the mining boom is flexible by a few years at either end of the time period. Be that as it may, the Australian public was invited to celebrate the ostensible ‘good times’ of increased profits due to this mining boom.

Let’s accept that Australia experienced a resources boom, beneficial to the economy. Richard Denniss, chief economist from the Australia Institute, asks a pertinent question: with all this revenue from the mining boom, did anyone suggest building world-class mental health services, or improved domestic violence resources, financed by at least a portion of the profits from the mining boom?

Did the substantial majority of the profits from the resources boom go into the coffers of the giant mining and energy multinationals, with Gina Rinehart being a typical representative of this billionaire stratum? The most effective strategy of the billionaire class is convincing the rest of us that wealth will trickle down to all of us in a cascading waterfall of shared prosperity.

Cutting the budget deficit is presented as an all-important goal – except when the multinationals want subsidies from the government in the form of tax cuts. As Denniss explains:

When powerful groups want subsidies, we are told they will create jobs. When powerless groups want better funding for domestic violence shelters or after-school reading groups, they are told of the need to reduce the budget deficit.

Millions of Americans are food insecure, while the stock market experiences a resurgence. Food banks are delivering assistance to increasing numbers of unemployed and working poor families. How are any of these people going to rise out of poverty because of the increasing profits on Wall Street? It is time for governments to stop protecting the riches of the transnational corporations, and improve the lives and health of working people.

The Trump administration’s hostility to science produces a compound crisis

The Trump administration has been remorselessly hostile to scientific evidence, attacking institutional that dispute his claims, cutting funding for health and environmental bodies, promoted anti-vaccine nonsense, and repudiating public health experts. He has removed environmental regulations, opened up new areas for corporate plunder, and hampered efforts to protect endangered species.

Trump is no strange to climate change denial, denouncing it as a ‘socialist conspiracy’ to reduce American ‘freedom’. Reversing environment protections, he has consistently attacked the scientific consensus on human-induced global warming. His commitment to remove public impediments to untrammelled corporate expansion is unwavering.

There is no question that Trump is hostile to scientific evidence, but today describe his efforts as a ‘war on science’ obscure the political and ideological reasons why he has thrown evidence and rationality under the bus.

Science is not overtly political, and no ideology can restrain scientific research for its own purposes. However, scientists cannot remain indifferent to the political and economic decisions that impact the wider society in which they operate. Ideology should not narrowly dictate what research scientists can and cannot do; but scientific research has political repercussions and ideological underpinnings.

Trump’s dismissal of science that does not meet his conservative ideological requirements has produced a compound crisis, especially in the aftermath of his poor handling of the current pandemic. However, Trump is only the latest politician in a long line of far right ideologues who have undermined public confidence in science.

Since coming to office, Trump has repealed – and is actively reversing – 100 pieces of environmental regulations and laws. From removing obstacles to the drilling and extraction of oil and natural gas, to the reduction of air pollution and emissions restrictions, the Trump administration is fast-tracking the opening up of the environment to exploitation by large corporations, ignoring the scientific evidence that increased dependence on fossil fuels will exacerbate global warming.

Trump, in line with his ultrarightist libertarian views, cynically portrays any kind of government regulation as ‘tyranny’, against which his fight is one of promoting ‘freedom’. Those government regulations – the ones that uphold public health and environmental safety – are the targets of corporate hostility. Exploiting noble sentiments for ‘freedom’, the Republican Party and conservative commentators ignore, dismiss and attack the scientific evidence that underpins these kinds of laws.

The current administration is overhauling the laws governing the definition of a critical habitat designation. Currently, the Endangered Species Act provides for the protection of endangered species by designating a habitat’s status critical. Under Trump’s proposed changes, corporate plunderers would have a veto over any decision to declare critical habitats, thus further imperilling rare species.

The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) is the nation’s foremost environmental watchdog, yet its powers have been weakened by the Trump administration. Scott Pruitt, the current EPA chief, has installed industry representatives to replace scientific advisers. Pruitt advised Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, and roll back the Obama-era rules for creating clean power plants.

While Trump made the laughable claim that his administration’s handling of the pandemic is ‘phenomenal’, the death toll from the COVID-19 virus reaches 200,000. It is no secret that even politically conservative commentators have denounced the incompetence and wilful neglect exhibited by Trump and his colleagues. Melvin Goodman, former CIA analyst and currently professor of government at John Hopkins university, wrote that:

Trump’s ignorance and indifference toward the novel coronavirus, which is causing tens of thousands of additional deaths, is ironic, given his attacks on Barack Obama for the Ebola outbreak in 2014.  Trump proclaimed that “President Obama has a personal responsibility to visit & embrace all people in the US who contract Ebola.”

Trump’s disdain for the science of COVID-19 has its origins and parallels in the decades of climate change denialism. The energy and fossil fuel conglomerates, having spent billions of dollars in promoting misinformation and obfuscation regarding human-induced climate change, prepared a template which today’s Covid deniers follow. The echo chamber of denial has been a long time in the making.

Denouncing scientists as part of a vast ‘socialist conspiracy’ (and China is thrown in for good measure to increase racial paranoia), the fake climate skeptic groups, astroturf citizen organisations and their billionaire backers have undermined public confidence in science. This pattern is being implemented by right-wing politicians in current pandemic began, downplaying and denying its impact and condemning quarantine measures as a conspiracy by duplicitous socialists and big-government tyrants.

Am I suggesting that scientists are our infallible lords and masters? No, I am not. Am I suggesting that every politician needs to be a scientist prior to holding public office? No. Public policies need to be informed by, and based upon, scientific evidence. Trump’s attacks on science have created a compound crisis – in health care, the environment and adverse economic impacts. Lives have been lost because of official neglect.

We need a new climate policy, based on the scientific consensus. The United States has a long history of basing government initiatives on science – the development of computers, space exploration, medical innovations, and modern conveniences to improve our quality of life. A Green New Deal is neither naively utopian nor radically unrealistic, but a practical blueprint to achieve a socially just, ecological and equitable society.