Australians should be interested in Antarctica

The title above comes from an engaging article published in The Conversation online magazine earlier in July 2016. Entitled ‘Why Australians should care about the South Pole’, the essay is a summary of a book on that subject by Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane from the University of Tasmania. The article, written by Leane, provides a succinct overview of her findings in answering the question above. A number of countries make claims on Antarctic territory, each with its own history of scientific and exploratory involvement in that continent. The Arctic and the North Pole have long been the targets of interest and competition by the various imperialist states, until today. However, let us not dismiss the importance of Antarctica.

Let us not miscontrue anything here; Australians are already interested in Antarctica, with increasing and disturbing news of the adverse impact of global warming on the icy continent: the East Antarctic glaciers are melting rates more rapid than the initial expectations of scientists; the eastern Totten glacier being the main cause of concern. A team of scientists returned from an expedition to East Antarctica in 2015 and reported that warmer ocean waters were causing the Totten glacier to melt from below.

This news is on top of the already worrying trend that in West Antarctica, the ice sheet there is losing twice as much ice now as compared to the last survey, and its collapse is a critical possibility. The West Antarctic ice sheet is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of humanity, and its melting has been observed and cataloged by climate scientists for half a century.

The specific, measured adverse consequences of global warming are one big reason to be interested in the icy continent. But these concerns are part of the wider campaign around human-induced global warming. There are many other reasons, specific to Antarctica, that make that continent an endlessly fascinating and rewarding experience in its own right. The scientific value of continued exploration and discovery in Antarctica make that icy region one of the most interesting places on Earth.

Whenever I raise the subject of Antarctica and the South Pole, my fellow Australians usually respond with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension borne out of a sense that interest in Antarctica is a general waste of time and energy. My first instinct is to respond with the enthusiastic contempt exemplified by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, brandishing a weapon of some description, loudly daring my interlocutor to repeat their inane question of ‘why Antarctica?’ on pain of physical obliteration.

This method, while personally satisfying, is not the preferred technique of esteemed writers and creators of cultural capital. So, placing our initial response on the back-burner, it is with great pleasure that I can highly recommend The Conversation as a source of information regarding the scientific and political importance of the Antarctic.

Australia has had a long and deep involvement in the continent. While the popular image of the Antarctic is one of icy remoteness, isolation, ferocious weather and tragic exploration events, this is only one side of the story. As Professor Leane writes in her article:

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which declared the continent a place of peace and science and put national claims on hold, seemed to leave behind the imperial ambitions that produced the “race to the pole” in the early 20th century. And while Antarctica’s potential mineral resources are an ongoing source of concern, the South Pole, sitting atop almost 3km of ice, is not an obvious place to drill.

Now occupied by a large scientific research station, where (among other activities) astronomers use giant telescopes to study cosmological events, the South Pole is often assumed to be a politically neutral place, immune to the clamour going on in the north.

So it is not just the fact of ecological change that makes Antarctica important. The Antarctic Treaty was intended to place inter-imperial rivalry on hold, avoiding the unnecessary competitive outburst over that land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provided a framework for international scientific cooperation, and this has produced results: scientific and cultural ties between Australia and China have been evolving positively since 1984, the year the Chinese government began its first scientific expedition to Antarctica. China now has four Antarctic bases, and in 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart and signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia for the purpose of expanding cooperation in the Antarctic region and Southern Ocean.

However, not all is smooth sailing – various countries, including Australia, have made territorial claims over portions of Antarctic territory. The competing wedge-shaped territorial assertions by the rival countries have resulted in making Antarctic territory resemble portions of a meringue pie, as Professor Leane stated. All of the claimants mapped out territory that all meet at the South Pole. The latter is not the geographic centre of the continent, however, it is the southernmost point of the Earth.

Interestingly, at latitude 90-degrees South, it is easier to travel to than the North Pole; the latter is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the South Pole sits on stable solid land. The United States established a scientific station, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Sitting in the middle of the rival territorial claims, the US does not currently make any claims in Antarctica, but is positioned to do so in the future, should that decision arise.

There are only a few frontiers left on the Earth that can truly be said to remain unexplored. Vast sections of Antarctica fit this definition. However, it is not just the icy land mass of the continent that is open to exploration; the enormous land underneath the ice sheets is a large area of terra incognita. That is the description of the territory that lies underneath the Antarctic icy mass provided by an article published in The Conversation called ‘What lies beneath Antarctica’s ice? Lakes, life and the grandest of canyons.’

The authors go on to explain that deep beneath the solid ice-mass, lies a complex and as yet unmapped system of subglacial lakes, rivers and canyons. There are currently 400 known lakes in this subglacial environment, and more are being identified:

Under such a large volume of ice, how is it possible for water to exist at all without freezing? The answer is pressure: when a large weight of ice is pushed onto water, it can stay liquid at temperatures well below the normal freezing point. What’s more, the large body of ice actually insulates the bed and protects it from the very cold air temperatures above.

The liquid water is created by heat from the Earth’s interior and from the friction generated as ice flows over the bedrock, which can melt the underside of the ice sheet. It is this water that flows into the subglacial lake basins and eventually into the ocean.

The largest of these known subglacial lakes is Lake Vostok, covering an area of 12 500 square kilometres, located underneath Russia’s Vostok science station in the Southern Pole of Cold, part of the East Antarctic ice sheet. In these climatically harsh environments, microbial life has been found.

In Lake Whillans, located in West Antarctica, a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms was discovered in 2013 by an American research team drilling through the overlying glacier to extract water samples from the lake. These microbes have never before seen the sun. So how do they survive? The microbes rely on the minerals from the sediments and bedrock, with the constant pressure of the glacier above grinding the rock into powder, thus making minerals available for microorganisms without the need for photosynthesis. As the authors Dow, Graham and Cook explain in their article:

Such life thrives in this harsh environment without sunlight for photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes depend on the oxidation of methane and ammonia, derived from sediments that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This momentous discovery of life in such a harsh and unforgiving environment may provide scientists with critical information on the development of marine life cycles.

Antarctica is not the exclusive preserve of one country or international power. It is the common heritage of humanity. As such, international scientific and political cooperation is not only desirable but necessary to study that land, preserve its ecosystem, and avoid the climatic catastrophe that awaits us should Antarctica continue its current disastrous course towards sustained melting and collapse due to global warming. The future of Antarctica should be of top priority not just for all Australians, but for the international community.

Israel, Uganda, and Netanyahu’s Entebbe visit

In early July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a multination tour of East African countries, starting with Uganda. He made a significant stopover in Entebbe, Uganda. Why? This was the 40th anniversary of the Israeli commando raid, a military action that  was aimed at rescuing Israeli hostages kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The latter found sanctuary at the time in Uganda, then under the rule of General Idi Amin. Israeli forces stormed the Entebbe airport, and during this action three hostages, all the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli commando were killed.

The Entebbe raid, as that military operation has become known, was praised by PM Netanyahu as a significant action against terrorism. Visiting the site of Entebbe in July this year, Netanyahu gave an emotionally-charged speech – which is understandable, given that his brother was one of the commandos who died during the military operation. But he also recycled a number of propagandistic myths and distortions that are possible only by taking a pair of scissors and excising huge portions of recent history from the picture.

Tuck magazine published an article that covered Netanyahu’s visit, an article that sadly uncritically reproduces the Netanyahu version of history. Let us have a look at the claims made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and how those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. He stated that this raid was a great victory against terrorism, and that the international community needs to cooperate to defeat this particular evil in the world. Netanyahu also stated that Israel intends to increase its economic, political and military relations with sub-Saharan and East African countries. He boasted that he was the first Israeli Prime Minister in over twenty years to make an official state visit to Africa. The purpose of this contribution is not to sound peevish or annoyed, or to make any personal attacks. The purpose is to examine those relevant portions of history that Netanyahu deliberately excluded from his speech in Uganda.

There is no doubt that General Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda was a military dictatorship, where opponents of the regime were tortured and eliminated. There is no question that Amin became, in his own erratic and schizophrenic way, a supporter of the Palestinian cause and made repugnant, repulsive anti-Semitic statements praising Hitler, revealing himself to be a very troubled, hateful person. He was most definitely the head of a monstrous regime. But what is missing from Netanyahu’s truncated picture is that during Idi Amin’s rise to power, he had two powerful patrons and supporters – Britain and Israel. He was a monster created, aided and abetted by influential backers – patrons that he eventually turned against.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine published in June 2016, author Helen Epstein relates that:

One issue that probably won’t be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit is why the hijackers chose Entebbe. The short answer is that Idi Amin, Uganda’s erratic dictator at the time, was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a professed enemy of Israel. But there is a longer answer: Israel itself helped install Amin in power, creating a monster who turned on his former patrons.

Israel had had a special relationship with Uganda since the latter’s independence from Great Britain, in 1962. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, sought strategic partnerships with states on the edge the Arab world, including Uganda, Kenya, Iran, and Turkey, to counter the hostile nations on Israel’s own borders. As part of what became known as the Peripheral Doctrine, Israel trained and equipped Uganda’s military and carried out construction, agriculture, and other development projects.

Israeli technicians were helping to construct, among other things, the Entebbe airport, so its blueprints and structure were well known to the relevant Israeli authorities.

Amin was a British-trained soldier, having risen through the ranks of the British-commanded King’s African Rifles, a multi-battalion unit raised from Britain’s East African colonies. This unit, loyal to British King and Country, was deployed in various actions in defence of the Empire, namely fighting the Kenyan Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. Amin saw action in that war, and proved himself a capable leader. The British were well aware of the type of man they were promoting, and in the early 1960s, when Uganda gained independence, it was Amin among other officers who were promoted to the very top of the fledgling Ugandan military hierarchy.

Israel was a keen supporter of Ugandan independence, and established a burgeoning relationship with the new country. Armaments and money flowed into Uganda, and Amin himself was fully supportive of this relationship. The civilian authorities in Uganda at the time, while professing Pan-Africanist sentiments, found themselves heavily dependent on the Ugandan army. Amin established close relations with Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, Israel’s military attache in Uganda. While the civilian Presidents tried to maintain their autonomy from the military, Amin and other army officers were secretly plotting to seize power for themselves. Bar-Lev had advised Amin to form a particular unit, trained by Israel, to protect Amin himself. It was this unit that provided the backbone for the 1971 coup d’etat that brought Amin to power. It is no exaggeration to state that while Amin hungered for power himself, it was his Israeli enablers that made such a seizure of power a practical reality.

Amin, having become chief of staff of the Ugandan army in the 1960s, was viewed as a great asset by the British and Israeli authorities. Amin ran a sideline operation in his position; he supplied armaments and training for rebel groups operating in the South Sudan, a predominantly African region ruled by the Arabic-speaking regime in Khartoum. Israeli-made weapons found their way into the hands of South Sudanese rebel forces via Uganda, and the Arab-majority Sudanese army was bogged down in a grueling conflict with secessionist rebels. In fact, until today, with South Sudan an independent state, its main military and political supporter has been the state of Israel. The support for South Sudanese rebels fighting the dictatorial regime in Khartoum is motivated by Israeli strategic and economic interests, not any humanitarian concerns for subjugated peoples.

It is no longer a secret that Israel maintained a flourishing and profitable relationship with apartheid South Africa for many decades, while the rest of the international community was demanded an end to any links with that racist regime in Pretoria. That particular international cause for democracy and racial equality was ignored and sabotaged by the Israeli authorities – however, now, Netanyahu wishes to invoke the moral authority of the international community’s support for his alleged stance against terrorism. Israel’s outreach to African countries is based on cynical and ruthlessly calculated political interests. The Israeli authorities are looking for friends to outflank all the Arabic-speaking countries. That calculation is no secret – Israel was fully supportive of the newly-independent African states back in the 1960s; those relations have gone through various fluctuations and changes since then, but the underlying rationale has remained the same.

Thankfully, Amin’s regime has passed into the pages of history. After his overthrow in 1979, he was exiled and never saw his native Uganda again – he remained forgotten and irrelevant. He spoke out on various issues concerning his country, but now no-one was listening. Uganda itself has remained firmly in the orbit of the United States; current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. As Helen Epstein explains in her New Yorker article:

Early in Museveni’s tenure, Uganda once again became a pawn in the seemingly endless undeclared war between the Arab world and the West. In 1994, the Clinton Administration began funding Uganda and other countries to destabilize the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom it held partly responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993. Ugandan troops have also been deployed, at the West’s beckoning, in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. plows roughly seven hundred and fifty million dollars annually in developmental aid into Uganda, including a hundred and seventy million dollars in military aid. Meanwhile, the Ugandan leader has for years received a free pass when it comes to human-rights abuses. These include allegations of election rigging, torture, and the killing of opposition supporters.

Was the Entebbe raid a victory against terrorism, as Netanyahu boastfully claims? Yes and no. What does that mean?

Yes, it was a victory against terrorism – if by that, you mean the terrorism of the dispossessed, desperate and vulnerable. The Palestinians, stuck in squalid refugee camps, denied a basic existence, their future hopeless and abandoned by the international community, resorted to desperate tactics, lashing out at any target however soft its vulnerability. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the very existence of the Palestinians as a nation was routinely denied by top-level Israeli politicians. Condemned to rot in refugee camps, with no education, prospects of hope of a bright future, the Palestinians struck out in dangerous, desperate and lawless ways, the only methods available to those that have been pushed out to the margins of existence.

Was it a victory against terrorism? No. The terrorism of the rich and powerful, those with the resources of a state at their disposal, goes unpunished and unaccountable. When refugee camps are bombed by warplanes, those who gave the orders for such actions remain at large, uninhibited by legal sanction. When an entire territory is blockaded and starved into submission, those who order and carry out such measures remain unpunished. When such punitive measures deny an entire population the basic necessities for survival, and undermine the ability of a society to sustain itself, the international community must do more than just watch. We would do well to remember the words of the late great humanist activist and author, Peter Ustinov, who stated that; “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”

Obama in Vietnam – a view from Australia

US President Barack Obama made a well-publicised visit to two Asian countries in May 2016 – Japan and Vietnam. Specifically, he toured Hanoi, addressed the Vietnamese national congress and its ruling Communist Party, and then went on a historic tour of Japan. He became the first sitting American President to visit Hiroshima. His visit and speech at the atomic bombing site of Hiroshima garnered enormous media attention and debate. In particular, Obama’s refusal to issue an apology for the atomic attack on Hiroshima generated heated discussion and tensions both within the media, and within political and academic circles.

This issue has been extensively discussed; I have stated my position on that question in this article. While this is an important topic, it distracts from other, equally important issues that merit attention. It is to these unexplored issues to which we shall turn – namely, Obama’s visit to Vietnam. As President of the United States, Obama can visit any country that will take him, and that is fine. Given the long and tortured history of the relationship between Vietnam and the United States, Obama’s May 2016 trip will appear to be an exercise in mending fences. It is always commendable when two former adversaries resolve their differences and arrive at a form of reconciliation. Diplomatic relations between the two former enemies were restored in 1995. However, there are a number of points to note about his trip to Vietnam.

If we may use a sporting analogy – the contests between two adversarial boxers is normally a fight between evenly-matched fighters. Two heavyweight athletes, for instance, are pitted against each other, each with relatively corresponding strength and skills. The better boxer emerges victorious during the pugilistic context. The United States is a military heavyweight – and it deployed its enormous military forces against a military featherweight, Vietnam, throughout the 1960s and 1970s. From the mid-1960s until 1975, the United States ruling class unleashed its full military might – aerial firepower, ground troops, chemical weapons, CIA subversion programmes – against the people of Vietnam. Not only did three million Vietnamese lose their lives, neighbouring Laos and Cambodia were also targeted and ravaged by US aerial power. The environment of Vietnam was polluted by a combination of toxic chemicals, and their effects remain until this day.

As late as 2012, Obama, the anti-war candidate of 2008 and 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner, was praising the American assault on Vietnam, helping to open a militarist ceremony to commemorate that particular attack. In his speech at the Vietnam Wall on Memorial Day back in 2012, Obama’s celebrated the warrior ethos of the American military, and hailed the attack on that country as a just cause. His purpose was two-fold; to censor the history of public opposition to that war, and to cultivate a militarist-patriotism in the US to justify America’s current imperialistic adventures in the Middle East. Rather than take stock of the impact of that war on Vietnam, Obama was purely concerned with the trauma and suffering that the Vietnam intervention caused on Americans, ignored the tremendous suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people. It is worth quoting extensively from an article by Jack Smith, activist editor and former writer the US Guardian Weekly, detailing the impact of America’s war on Vietnam:

Vietnam, north and south, was pulverized by U.S. bombs and shells. The Pentagon detonated 15,500,000 tons of ground and air munitions on the three countries of Indochina, 12,000,000 tons on South Vietnam alone in a failed effort to smash the National Liberation Front backed by the North Vietnamese army. By comparison, the U.S. detonated only 6,000,000 tons of ground and air munitions throughout World War II in Europe and the Far East. All told, by the end of the war, 26,000,000 bomb craters pockmarked Indochina, overwhelmingly from U.S. weapons and bombers.

The Pentagon also dumped 18,000,000 gallons of herbicides to defoliate several million acres of farmland and forests. Millions of Vietnamese suffered illness, birth defects and deaths from these poisonous chemicals. The AP recently reported from Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, that “More than 100,000 Vietnamese have been killed or injured by land mines or other abandoned explosives since the Vietnam War ended nearly 40 years ago, and clearing all of the country will take decades more.”

It should also be mentioned — since it will be suppressed during the commemoration — that U.S. forces, including the CIA and the Pentagon-controlled South Vietnamese military, tortured many thousands of “suspected” supporters of the liberation struggle, frequently with portable electrical current. An estimated 40,000 “Vietcong” (suspected members or supporters of the NLF) were murdered during the long-running “Operation Phoenix” assassination campaign conducted by the CIA, Special Forces and killer units of the Saigon forces.

The Vietnamese, through sheer determination, courage and willpower, not only resisted the American onslaught, but inflicted a humiliating defeat on the US armed forces. Since the war ended in 1975, Vietnam has concentrated on rebuilding its shattered society and economy. From the mid-1980s, the Vietnamese authorities have opened up Ho Chi Minh city to foreign capital, attracting foreign investment, allowing foreign multinationals to open factories and invest, and embarked upon its Doi Moi (renovation) policy, creating what Hanoi calls a ‘socialist market economy’. The merits and demerits of this policy, and the evolution of the Vietnamese Communist Party since the 1980s is beyond the scope of this article. However, Obama’s visit to the Vietnamese capital is not just a friendly visit, as stated by Professor TJ Pempel from the University of California, Berkeley. Obama was indicating his desire to upgrade US relations with Vietnam, refocus America’s strategic priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, and include Vietnam in the US pivot to China.

The four-decades old arms embargo of Vietnam by the United States was lifted by Obama – a symbolic gesture, but an important one. This gesture, along with Obama’s cynical pitch to achieve closer economic and military commitments from Hanoi, was designed to ingratiate American interests with Vietnam, as disputes with China continue to simmer. Hanoi has its own tensions with Beijing, extending back in the late 1970s, and these tensions have sporadically exploded. Rival contestants, not just Vietnam and China, but also Japan and the Philippines, have clashed over the South China sea, a dispute about sovereignty over commercially viable territories in that maritime region. As Tom Arms makes clear in his article for Tuck magazine:

The South China Sea is a clear case of classic geopolitics. It metaphorically sits alongside the Panama Canal, the Straits of Gibraltar, The English Channel, Suez and the Straits of Hormuz as one of the world’s maritime choke points. More than half the world’s merchant fleet traffic passes through the South China Sea. If China has total control then it can effectively cut off Japan and South Korea from Europe, Australia, India, the Middle East and Africa. It can also sever the link between India, Southeast Asia and the West Coast of America.

Then there is the oil and gas. There is as much oil in the South China Sea—seven billion barrels proven so far—as in all of Saudi Arabia. There is also 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

While the South China Sea has its own history and dynamic, it can be resolved through the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Interestingly, the United States is not a signatory to that convention, but wishes to intervene aggressively in a maritime dispute over which it has no jurisdiction. However, Obama’s sales pitch to the Vietnamese authorities is not purely a defensive reaction with regard to a maritime conflict, but rather a calculated attempt to seek closer ties with a historic rival, and use Vietnam’s existing tensions to cobble together an anti-Chinese alliance. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia is not just about winning new friends, but seeking out regional alliances in order to further strategic economic and political goals.

Why is all this relevant to Australia? Australia is not only an enthusiastic supporter of America’s wars overseas, but was an active participant in the Vietnam war. When the United States launched its first attacks on North Vietnam in the early 1960s, Australia eagerly sent a team of military advisors – the Australian Army Training Team (AATTV) in 1962. This team, along with American special forces, actively assisted and participated in, among other things, CIA initiatives, like the Phoenix Programme alluded to above, to disrupt the structure of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam – informally known as the Viet Cong – through torture, assassination, infiltration and terrorism.

In 1965, then Prime Minister Robert Menzies actively sought and acquired the approval of the Americans to increase Australia’s military commitment to support the United States in Vietnam. Menzies, through his ministers and officials, badgered and cajoled the relevant American and South Vietnamese authorities to push  for an escalation of Australia’s military involvement. While the government of the Saigon regime formally invited Australia to participate, this was done as a result of back-room machinations and arm-twisting of the Australian government, who eagerly pushed their way into being ‘invited’ as a military participant in the Vietnam war.

From the early 1970s, as the American assault on Vietnam was facing imminent defeat, refugees began fleeing from that country. Australia, one of the aggressors in that conflict, initially refused to take Vietnamese refugees, given Australia’s long-standing opposition to Asian immigration. The image of the ‘yellow peril’ was a long-standing staple of the xenophobic diet of white Australia. Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam urged his parliamentary colleagues to reject entry to the ‘f**king Vietnamese Balts’ – a reference to the earlier Baltic refugees of anti-socialist (and Nazi collaborator) persuasion.

In the mid-1970s, after the complete collapse of South Vietnam and the withdrawal of American military forces from Vietnam, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did accept a small proportion of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Not that Fraser was motivated by humanitarian considerations, or that he was particularly generous or proactive – on the contrary. Fraser went out of his way to reassure his parliamentary colleagues and voter base that he was permitting only a minuscule portion of the Vietnamese refugees, and that they in no way represented any kind of threat to the ‘Australian way of life’. Senior Fraser government officials, including then immigration minister Ian Mcphee, stated that the Vietnamese refugees were not fleeing persecution, but actively seeking a better quality of life, implicitly accepting the premise that what motivated the Vietnamese asylum seekers was not an urge to survive, but greed for Australian prosperity.

Washington could renew the friendship with Hanoi by starting to provide compensation to the victims of the Vietnam war, the people who continue to suffer the ill-effects of the chemical warfare conducted by US forces over the course of that conflict. As Marjorie Cohn, law professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, stated in an article about this issue:

Our government has a moral and legal obligation to compensate the people of Vietnam for the devastating impact of Agent Orange, and to assist in alleviating its effects. Indeed, the U.S. government recognized this responsibility in the Peace Accords signed in Paris in 1973, in which the Nixon administration promised to contribute $3 billion dollars toward healing the wounds of war, and to post-war reconstruction of Vietnam. But that promise remains unfulfilled.

After all, the American government has paid compensation to its own Vietnam veterans who continue to suffer the impact of Agent Orange and the toxic chemicals used by the US military forces in Vietnam. Let us end the distorting perspective of those who suggest that the United States ‘could have won in Vietnam’, that America ‘had one hand tied behind its back’ over there, that the politicians somehow ‘betrayed’ the front-line troops. Let us have an honest accounting of American savagery in that conflict, and seek out ways to prevent such wars in the future.

Muhammad Ali – the athlete-activist whose example lives on

Tributes to the late great boxer Muhammad Ali have been overflowing since the announcement of his passing earlier this month. John Wight has published an excellent two-part obituary to Ali in the pages of Morning Star. He explores the life and times of Ali, elaborating on how Ali defied the odds in the boxing ring, but also defied the mainstream political tide outside of it. Standing up for his principles, Ali sacrificed his heavyweight champion, lost three prime years of his career, and earned the enmity of the predominately white media and sporting power structures. Wight ends his extensive and moving obituary with the observation, “He truly was the lion that roared.”

The details of the formative and key events in Muhammad Ali’s life are well known – his upset victory over the fearsome heavyweight boxer Sonny Liston in 1964, his early conversion to the Nation of Islam and name change, his staunch opposition to the Vietnam war and refusal to be conscripted which cost him three prime years of his career and financial loss, his stirring comeback and famous victory over George Foreman in 1974. Let us focus today on the things that Ali stood for, and how he demonstrated that athletes and activism combine in powerful ways. As Richard Eskow put it in an article for Common Dreams magazine, Muhammad Ali’s life and principled stand spoke to the activist soul.

Eskow elaborates in his article that:

In the end, Muhammad Ali wasn’t just the most important athlete of his time. And he wasn’t just a world-changing activist. He was even more than those things: he was a unified human being. His occupation was inseparable from his aspirations, his spiritual ideals inseparable from his worldly activities.

Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam represented both a spiritual, and a political, awakening. In a time of strict racial segregation, where being black meant that you were a second-class citizen, Ali found a home within the Nation of Islam. The latter, an exclusively African American organisation, demanded self-respect and proudly displayed its pro-Africa spirit in all of its activities. Yes, that organisation taught its members that the white man was the blue-eyed devil. A hostile attitude, but understandable, given the horrendous violence visited by the white power structures upon the African American communities. From the day that Jack Johnson, the African American, became the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship, the media and sporting bodies put out the call for a white man to win back the prestigious championship for the white race. When Johnson succeeded in maintaining his grip on the sport, there were race riots across the country – reprisals by enraged whites against black communities.

Dave Zirin, the sports journalist and political writer explained in one of his articles;

The backlash against Johnson meant that it would be twenty years before the rise of another black heavyweight champ — Joe Louis, “the Brown Bomber.” Louis was quiet where Johnson was defiant. He was handled very carefully by a management team that had a set of rules Louis had to follow including, “never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by yourself and never speak unless spoken to.”

Johnson himself was hounded and jailed on the most dubious pretexts in order to maintain the colour line in sport.

Ostracised and vilified by white America, it is no wonder that Ali found a spiritual home in the separatist Nation of Islam organisation. As Ali himself explained it in April 1968, during his three year banishment from boxing; “We don’t hate white people – we know them too well”. When he was banned from boxing, Ali lost his main income stream, going from a wealthy status to borderline pauper. Okay, not exactly poverty-stricken, but in dire financial straits. The threat of incarceration hung over his head.

Ali demonstrated that the bridge from the anti-war movement of the 1960s, when he refused induction, and the civil rights movement, which demanded racial and economic equality, was not that large an obstacle to cross. During Ali’s time in boxing exile, he continued speaking out against the war in Vietnam, and he maintained his absolute commitment to civil rights. This in a time when civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, were killed because of their principled commitment.

Ali-Frazier rivalry

One of the few boxers who helped Ali during his years of exile was Joe Frazier. The latter, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, used and developed his athletic talents for boxing and emerged from obscurity, much like Ali. Frazier and Ali shared an intense boxing rivalry, one that spilled out of the ring. After Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in the early 1970s, Ali and Frazier fought three grueling matches. In their first encounter, in 1971, Frazier handed Ali a rare defeat, hitting Ali straight in the head with his fearsome left hook, sending Ali tumbling down to the canvass. Frazier won that fight through sheer determination and persistence.

Ali had characterised Frazier in the pre-match buildup as an ‘Uncle Tom’ character, a pawn of the white establishment. This was particularly unfair – Frazier’s background in poverty was typical of black America. Cruelly labeled a ‘sellout’, Frazier could never quite shake off that tag. This was unfortunate, and Frazier was nothing but an honest, talented fighter. He was definitely not an intellectual – but then neither was Ali. After fifteen bruising rounds, Frazier defeated Ali, and for that, the white sporting establishment were gleeful – the draft-dodging traitor, the uppity black Muslim was hit on his head, and knocked down on his butt.

After his victory, Frazier was invited to address both houses of the South Carolina legislature. Not because the white politicians were particularly interested in Frazier, but because he was the black man who had finally knocked down Muhammad Ali. The latter had berated Frazier at every opportunity as a sellout, the white man’s champion – an unfair characterisation. However, Frazier did stand in the South Carolina legislature, at the time still draped in Confederate flag of the former slave-owning state. Frazier was not an ‘Uncle Tom’, but he was naive in his belief that the white establishment respected him as a fighter. As the 1970s moved on, the taunts and insults to Frazier from Ali became less political and more personal. The verbal humiliations only added to Frazier’s anger, and in their fights, Frazier turned all that anger into furious energy, pummeling and battering Ali. We will come back to point later.

Frazier only generated interest insofar as he defeated Ali. Frazier, a heavyweight champion in his own right, was subsequently defeated by George Foreman. The South Carolina politicians quickly lost interest; the swooning media stopped following Frazier, and he was relegated to the status of just another fading ex-champion. As Dave Zirin explained in his article about Joe Frazier, written soon after the latter died of liver cancer in 2011:

This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: the convenient hero of everyone who wanted to see Ali punished for his politics. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: internalizing and nursing every barb from “Gaseous Cassius” instead of letting it roll off his back. This shouldn’t have been Joe Frazier’s fate: rejected by the same establishment so quick to embrace him when it suited their needs. Smokin’ Joe deserved so much better.

The Seventies

In the 1970s, as the mood of the country changed and the Vietnam war was concluded, Ali was welcomed back into the fold. He continued to box, but also took the time to extend his political commitment – he visited a Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon, expressing his support for the cause of Palestinian self-determination. He visited and toured the former Soviet Union in 1978, where he was just as popular as in Africa, America and other parts of the world.

Ali had already visited a number of countries in Africa back in the 1960s, touring Ghana and meeting with then-president, the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah. Ali was welcomed as a hero, and he also visited Nigeria and Egypt. A continent that had been ignored by so many Americans, dismissed as an exotic jungle land full of savages, Ali took the time to understand its history and humanity, and the ravages visited upon it by foreign imperialism. Ali demonstrated a sharp political acuity, something quite rare in professional athletes. He gave courage to those who were struggling to find theirs.

After the famous fight with George Foreman – the rumble in the jungle, where Ali regained the heavyweight championship by defeating Foreman – his skills and health went into decline. For that fight, Ali used his now famous tactic, the rope-a-dope, where he waited, absorbing the powerful blows by Foreman, letting the latter exhaust himself. Ali waited, allowing the strong Foreman to pound away, round after round. By the middle of round five, Foreman was tired out. Note that prior to Ali’s banishment from boxing, he demonstrated his remarkable reflexes and footwork to avoid getting hit, while hitting his opponents. Now, he is getting hit – hit hard, and frequently. Foreman, Joe Frazier – these were only two of the hardest hitters in boxing at the time. Ali’s body is taking a barrage of punches – his kidneys, stomach, liver, rib cage, head – are all being battered repeatedly. He hurt himself in the fights of the 1970s. The physical decline had set in.

After Foreman, Ali had a number of fights; some were very strong encounters, some were ridiculously farcical bouts. The 1980 fight with Larry Holmes should never have happened; Holmes was an upcoming heavyweight contender, who had sparred with Ali in the 70s. Ali was in no condition to fight, and Holmes proceeded to batter a helpless Ali for ten rounds. As Thomas Hauser, a boxing writer and Ali biographer explained it:

Holmes, who was eight years younger than his opponent, dominated every minute of every round. It wasn’t an athletic contest; just a brutal beating that went on and on.

That was the night that Ali screamed in pain. After ten rounds, Ali’s corner threw in the towel. Although he won, Holmes was upset and depressed after that fight, and was reduced to tears because he had demolished his idol and hero.

The physical deterioration had set in, and Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. In his retirement years, Ali was feted as a sporting icon – there is no doubt that he was. However, his political courage was largely forgotten, as he was reduced to a sanitised sporting hero. Ali maintained his humanity in an otherwise barbaric sport. He exhibited not only physical courage, but grace and elegance, and was articulate at a time when boxers and super-star athletes were not known for any particular skills outside of their chosen profession.

There is so much more to Ali’s life that we could go into; however, other writers have covered that ground. Let us remember Ali as the powerfully articulate, gregarious and superb athlete-activist that he was. He was prepared to sacrifice his individual sporting success for his beliefs. He was not only shaped by the political and social context of his times, but actively shaped and contributed to it. It is a testament to his political vision that, even towards the end of his life, as he remained hobbled by Parkinson’s illness, he still showed political awareness and perspicacity.

In December 2015, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who is not noted for his intellectual capacities, made a startling call for a complete ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Muhammad Ali, who had left the Nation of Islam and joined the mainstream Sunni Islam in the mid-1970s, was asked for his comments. In fact, Ali had been gravitating towards the Sufi denomination of Islam since 2005, revealing his commitment to a spiritual quest. While not directly addressing Trump’s remarks, Ali, through his spokespeople, had the following to say:

We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda . . . I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world . . . True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” “I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.

Rather than lashing out at the obnoxious, bombastic bigot, Ali chose to ignore the ignoramus, calmly and rationally addressed the issues at hand, explained his position, and rebuffed the ignorance and hatred at the core of Trump’s remarks. Ali demonstrated an understanding of the political and social hot-potato issues of our times – an understanding far superior to that of the cartoonish, racist buffoon masquerading as a politician.

Let us salute the lion that roared – his resistance to imperialist war overseas and racist power structures at home is a lesson from which we can all learn.

Sadiq Khan becomes mayor of London, but Britain faces deep-seated problems

Sadiq Khan’s election as London mayor is a rejection of the politics of fear and Islamophobia, but let us not endorse his policies.

The election of Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, made headline news in the English-speaking world. It is no surprise that Khan’s electoral victory made news here in Australia, given our longstanding economic, political and cultural ties to the United Kingdom. It is not intended to go into all the intricacies of British politics in this article, however, the victory of an openly Muslim candidate for a major political position in the UK has elicited various reactions, and these responses are illustrative of the kind of politics that passes for policy debate in the English-speaking countries.

Khan’s victory in London, the economic and political capital of the United Kingdom, was a stern rebuff to the scurrilous and vitriolic campaign of smears and lies perpetuated by the Tory party opponent, Zac Goldsmith. The latter, a product of the wealthy financial elite of Britain, waged a campaign of Islamophobic smears and distortions, attempting to associate Khan with extremism, advocacy of violence, and Islamist political terrorism. As Padraig Reidy states in his article, published in the CommonDreams online magazine, the Goldsmith campaign attempted to turn the electoral contest into a racial and religious divide, invoking xenophobic fears of multiculturalism. As Reidy explains:

The Goldsmith campaign didn’t stop there. In an attempt to exploit sectarian divisions between London’s Asian communities, fliers were sent to families with Hindu- and Sikh-sounding names. Khan, of Pakistani origin, was no friend of India, they were told. He had not attended a rally to greet the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited London. His party supported a “wealth tax” on family jewelry. Goldsmith, on the other hand, was always sure to celebrate Hindu festivals. (This proclamation of his love for the culture of India came unstuck in the days before the election, when video emerged of Goldsmith declaring his love for Bollywood films, but being unable to name a single Indian film or film star when asked).

It all culminated in a disastrous op-ed piece in the Mail On Sunday newspaper, where Goldsmith threw more accusations at Khan. The article was illustrated with an iconic image of a red bus that had been blown up by a suicide bomber in the 7/7 attack on the city. This felt a smear too far for many Londoners.

Goldsmith, following the best traditions of the Tory party, turned the electoral contest into a sectarian divide, not only invoking images of the July 7 bombings – and slyly linking Sadiq Khan with them – but also stirring up ethnic divisions, playing on the fears of the Hindu and Sikh communities of a politician with a Pakistani background.

Khan, in contrast, focused on the pressing policy issues confronting his city – housing, transport, the chaotic financial system – and promoted himself as the candidate for all Londoners, regardless of ethnic, racial or religious background. Khan was also cleverer than his opponent – anticipating the vitriolic attacks of his Conservative enemies, he turned the tables on Goldsmith, arguing that his background as a Muslim growing up in Britain gave him a unique insight into the experiences, problems and traumas of young British-Muslim people, finding their place in British society. Khan tapped into the multicultural diversity of London, and played that to his advantage. All the sly insinuations of Goldsmith’s campaign evaporated to nothing.

Khan’s victory is a direct repudiation of the politics of hatred and fear. Islamophobia is certainly not going to end completely with the installation of a Muslim mayor in a major European city. Let us not turn this into a Barack Obama moment – Obama’s electoral victory in the United States back in 2008 did not end racism, or usher in a post-racial America. Khan’s victory does not mean the end of the struggle. However, it is true to say that the underhanded and sleazy tactics of the Goldsmith campaign, seeking to stoke the fires of Islamophobic hated, backfired spectacularly. Khan scored an emphatic victory.

Speaking about Muslim mayors in European cities – this is nothing new or out of the ordinary. Professor Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan and expert commentator on Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs, points out that Europe has witnessed Muslim mayors for the last 1300 years. In an article published in Truthdig online magazine, Professor Cole elaborates that Europe was not always a Christian-majority continent. Indeed, for most of its inhabited history, Europe has seen pagan, secular, Islamic as well as Christian religions dominate various portions and countries within its range. As Cole explains in his essay:

Islam is a major European religion and is a nearly 1,300-year-old tradition there.

[Sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected Ivo Komšić, a Christian, in 2013.]

Going back into history, parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule 711 to 1492. So, for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. We’re talking major Western European city here. In the 900s, Cordoba was the most populous city in the world.

The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983–985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore mayor of Palermo, the capital.

Yes, the sitting mayor of Rotterdam, a major European city, is Ahmed Aboutaleb. He has been a staunch opponent of violence and extremism in all its forms.

The Ottoman Turkish empire, having conquered vast swathes of the Balkans, and all the way up to Budapest in Hungary, appointed Muslim mayors for the major European cities under its control. Let us not forget that Istanbul – Constantinople – is a major European city with 14 million residents, and a Muslim mayor.

Let us sound out a note of caution – Khan’s victory, while welcome, should not be used to draw a false finish line in the struggle for economic and social equality. Khan belongs to the Blairite wing of the Labour party, a more rightward faction inside the party at odds with current Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, Khan went out of his way – twice – to attack Corbyn, his own party leader, both during the campaign and in the immediate hours after he assumed office in London mayoralty. Khan publicly and clearly distanced himself from the more left-wing, Labour policies of Corbyn. Khan is a strong supporter of big business, and went to great lengths to reassure the financial elite that they had nothing to worry about in the wake of his electoral success.

Khan announced himself as a pro-business candidate, in a city that is the financial and political hub of the English ruling class oligarchy. He openly declared his intention to be the most pro-business mayor London has ever seen – something remarkable given that the previous mayor, Boris Johnson, was an out-and-out conservative who reinforced the privileges and wealth of the financial aristocracy. His record on British imperialism speaks for itself, having voted against the establishment of any inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War, a war enabled among others by his political hero, Tony Blair. Khan has supported the development of Trident, the British nuclear weapons programme, and opposes Britain’s withdrawal from NATO. He is a strong and calculating supporter of British imperialism.

Khan did announce his intention to fix the ongoing housing crisis in London. How? By bringing together an alliance of housing associations, local authorities and real estate developers. That is all very well and good, but that does ignore one major problem – successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have done their utmost to open up London to real estate development, expanding the application of private housing, closing down and pushing out social and public housing projects. As Danny Dorling describes in an article for The Guardian newspaper:

The housing situation in the UK is so bleak that the key reason increasing numbers of people are becoming homeless is that they are unable to pay extortionate private sector rents. In February 2016, the Financial Times described the help-to-buy scheme as “help to cry”, naming it “one of the most perversely named government policies ever”. Squatting is on the rise again despite being outlawed in 2012: when people’s only choice is criminalised, the legitimacy of the law itself is discredited.

The new London mayor can start to redress these problems by first confronting the tired, and recycled old myth that London’s housing problem is caused by mass immigration – a widespread slander that obscures the real reason for the housing crisis; the housing laws of the country that make it possible for extortionate private sector rents to be charged, the demolition of public housing by the government, and the absence of rental caps. The new mayor has to make a decision – to side with residents or with the developers. As activist Duncan Thomas wrote in an article published in the Socialist Worker magazine:

The London we live is not the same London that is inhabited by billionaires; Khan cannot be the mayor of both. Any attempt to serve these two cities will sooner or later have to deal with its contradictions–and at that point, it will become very much about “choosing sides.”

The attack on public housing as part of a generalised assault on the working conditions and living conditions of the British working population. The cutbacks to health care, education and transport are undermining the quality of life for millions of working people. Let us heed the warning of Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old RAF veteran who, in 2014, wrote a powerful article about what life was like for working people like him prior to the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). His article is entitled “Hunger, filth, fear and death”: remembering life before the NHS. Decisions that originate in the philosophy of austerity cutbacks and neoliberalism, result in the destruction of social services, and adversely impact the lives of ordinary people. Khan has to make a serious choice – to govern for the ultra-wealthy one percent, or for the rest of us.

The European Union – building lethal walls

The scandal is not the mass migration of refugees into Europe – the scandal is how the European Union is treating them.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights reported in April 2016 that as many as 500 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, attempting to cross into Europe. Their boat, crammed with asylum seekers from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, the Sudan and other countries, sank off the coast of Libya. This mass fatality occurred a year after a similar mass drowning of refugees, the latter escaping war and desperate conditions in their home countries.

In April 2015, the corporate media broadcast images of fleeing refugees, each family with their story of survival against the odds. The body of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurdish refugee boy who drowned while attempting to reach European territory with his family, became the main defining image of the plight of refugees, sacrificing their all to reach their dream – a better, peaceful and prosperous life in Europe.

Along with the images of the quiet sadness of the refugees, we are witnessing other images on our screens – the razor-wire fences, the militarised borders, the soldiers and police officers patrolling the territories where refugees have landed or been incarcerated by the authorities. The European Union is resurrecting its securitised borders, building a lethal fortress that is responding with force against the mass migration of people from the Middle East and Africa.

Back in 1989, European capitalist governments were tearing down walls, hailing the demolition of the Berlin Wall, and subsequent opening up of the former Eastern bloc, as a great triumph for the people of Europe. No longer would European people be divided by authoritarian regimes, but united with a common purpose in a liberal democratic fraternity. The foreign ministers of the two European states of Austria and Hungary staged a media event, whereby they cut a hole in the barbed wire fence that had symbolised the separation of Eastern and Western Europe.

Here we are in 2016, and the borders of capitalist Europe are being restored – not only to exclude refugees fleeing from terrorism and violence in their home countries, but also to abolish intra-European agreements, such as Schengen agreement, a formalised treaty that abolished border controls between member states of the European Union. In an article for Tuck magazine, Anant Mishra writes that the European Union is abandoning the abandoned; leaving the refugees to their fate, the Mediterranean is acting as a kind of geographical and increasingly militarised barrier, a huge and lethal obstacle for refugees to face if they decide to make the perilous journey to Europe. Thanks to the measures enacted by the European Union, the Mediterranean sea is the most dangerous sea route in the world. Mishra assembles an impressive array of statistics in his article, demonstrating that the Mediterranean has proven to be a lethal fence for fleeing migrants and refugees.

Make no mistake – the deaths of the refugees in the Mediterranean sea is not only a humanitarian tragedy, but a crime. It is a mass fatality for which the European authorities in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and other European capitals are responsible. As Richard Seymour explains in his article ‘Europe’s Lethal Fortress’, the refugees are fleeing from countries devastated by wars and violence, wars for regime change encouraged and sponsored by the European imperialist states. Not only have the European governments drastically ramped up their border controls and maritime surveillance, they have carried out predatory wars of conquest, disguised as humanitarian ‘regime change’ operations, that have left countries in a catastrophic state. The foreign policy objectives of the imperialist states have left a swathe of destruction and failed states in their wake. It is not entirely surprising that refugees are escaping from the fractured, lawless state of Libya, a country devastated by the NATO-driven 2011 bombing campaign. By whatever measures one uses, Libya is now a failed entity, divided into constantly warring regions and competing bands of armed militias that enforce their rule in the regions they occupy with terrifying violence.

As the writers for TeleSurTV observe, the imperialist powers bear directly responsibility for the crisis in Libya. Britain, France, Germany – aided and abetted by the United States and the United Kingdom – encouraged a war for regime change, toppling the previous government of Colonel Muammar Qadaffi, and turning it into a country where there is no single government, no security, oil revenues have declined, and the country is saturated with weapons and arms smuggling. The destruction of a functioning society, apart from being a case of sociocide, only results in the outflow of desperate refugees. Rather than admit their culpability, the political leaders of Europe – and the United States – have either tried to rationalise the Libya intervention as a chaotic transition to democracy, or as President Barrack Obama stated, a well-intentioned intervention that unfortunately became a mistake.

Veteran activist and anti-war campaigner Professor Noam Chomsky made the political connections between these factors of increased refugee outflow and European war-making in the Middle East when he stated:

“the US-UK invasion of Iraq … dealt a nearly lethal blow to a country that had already been devastated by a massive military attack twenty years earlier followed by virtually genocidal US-UK sanctions. The invasion displaced millions of people, many of whom fled and were absorbed in the neighboring countries, poor countries that are left to deal somehow with the detritus of our crimes. One outgrowth of the invasion is the ISIS/Daesh monstrosity, which is contributing to the horrifying Syrian catastrophe. Again, the neighboring countries have been absorbing the flow of refugees. The second sledgehammer blow destroyed Libya, now a chaos of warring groups, an ISIS base, a rich source of jihadis and weapons from West Africa to the Middle East, and a funnel for flow of refugees from Africa.”

That quote comes from a powerful article published in Common Dreams magazine by Rajesh Makwana entitled ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: Humanity’s last call for a culture of sharing and cooperation’. Makwana responds to a number of anti-refugee and anti-immigrant myths peddled by ultra-right parties in Europe regarding the mass movement of refugees. For instance, Makwana rebuts the oft-repeated claim, recycled by the corporate media, that Europe is facing a mass influx of refugees. Let us be clear about this – Europe is currently facing the largest mass migration of refugees since the end of World War Two. European governments have been confronted – throughout 2015 and 2016 – with the largest mass movement of displaced peoples since 1945. That much is true. However, there is a crucial point to bear out here – the largest burden of coping with refugees has fallen not on the European countries, but on other already-poor Middle Eastern states. Lebanon has already taken millions of Syrian refugees, and its hospitality is being stretched to the limit. As Makwana elaborates in his article:

The real emergency is taking place outside of Europe, where there is a desperate need for more assistance from the international community. For example, Turkey is now home to over 3 million refugees; Jordan hosts 2.7 million refugees – a staggering 41 percent of its population; and Lebanon has 1.5 million Syrian refugees who make up a third of its population. Unsurprisingly, social and economic systems are under severe strain in these and the other countries that host the majority of global refugees – especially since they are mainly based in developing countries with soaring unemployment rates, inadequate welfare systems and high levels of social unrest. In stark comparison (and with the notable exception of Germany), the 28 relatively prosperous EU member states have collectively pledged to resettle a mere 160,000 of the one million refugees that entered Europe in 2015. Not only does this amount to less than 0.25% of their combined population, governments have only relocated a few hundred have so far.

Europe is not facing a mass invasion of refugees and migrants, nor is it likely to be swamped or overwhelmed with demands on its economic and social systems. If public resources and facilities are being taxed to the limits of their capacities, it is not because of the refugee intake, but because of the severe austerity cutbacks implemented by various capitalist governments across Europe in the name of budgetary constraints and fiscal responsibility. Even august publications such as the Financial Times are compelled to admit that economic growth across the European Union remains sluggish and fragile.

One particular slanderously false allegation against the incoming refugees involves the spurious assertion that the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are taking advantage of the chaotic situation and smuggling themselves into Europe among the refugees. This falsity has been circulated in various guises around social media, and has contributed to a climate of fear and xenophobic hatred against the refugees. No less an authority than Europol – the European Union’s own law enforcement agency – has stated that while ISIS do plan attacks in Europe, none of those planned assaults involve sneaking in terrorists as refugees. In the wake of the Paris and Brussels bombings, politicians of various stripes have incited further hatred of refugees, conflating them with ISIS militants and stoking security fears of the outsider, the Islamic foreigner, that supposedly intends harm on the European (and by implication, Christian) way of life and culture.

Perhaps this is not the most scholarly way to address this issue, however, let us reiterate the words of an article by journalist Philip Kleinfeld in Vice magazine: “Calling Bullshit on the anti-refugee memes flooding the internet”. The bizarre tropes being recirculated and regurgitated on social media sites are astounding to witness – the fake photographs, lurid stories, pictures of bearded men holding guns, confronting images of hulking bodybuilder-types among the refugees seeking entry into Europe – who actually turn out to be hulking bodybuilders, and no more.

But let us give the benefit of the doubt to the anti-refugee parties. Suppose that ISIS militants are hiding among refugees, even though ISIS, with all its financial resources, can actually infiltrate Europe using fake legal documentation. Be that as it may, let us suppose for a moment that all refugee mass migration must be forcefully stopped because of the possibility that ISIS militants might be among them. This is guilt by association – so let’s take this to the next step. Investment and merchant banking, being a worldwide enterprise, certainly involves the possibility of money laundering. Investments from criminal proceeds can make their way into circulation, washing their way through the legal financial system. Tempted by the lure of extra cash, banking and financial officials can give in to the prospect of greater profits by engaging in money laundering, tax evasion and illegal financial activities, so the entire ability of capital to transfer across borders should be stopped immediately. Europol itself admits that money laundering, along with terrorism and drug trafficking, are the greatest security threats to Europe.

Is the above a far-fetched scenario? Perhaps – but it has happened. The Panama Papers – the one year investigation by a team of reporters into the criminalised finance system – reveals that the financial class, the merchant and investment speculators, lured by dizzying dreams of economic reward, have systematically rorted the system, establishing tax havens and using their connections to launder enormous sums of money for personal gain. The criminalisation of the banking-finance sector was laid bare for all to see, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

If anything, the Panama papers reveal a system of institutionalised greed – and it demonstrates that capitalism is working very well. The obscenely-rich are doing rather well in this system, with tax havens and laundering money being an integral part of the capitalist system. Rather than demanding an immediate crackdown on the culprits and the building of borders or barriers to stop this global corruption, the corporate media are bragging about how efficiently the capitalist system is operating. In fact, the criminality of tax havens and money laundering is being openly denied, with the need to move large amounts of capital across borders being viewed as just another normal part of the global workings of the capitalist financial architecture. No strident condemnations of criminal behaviour here; no calls to crack down on money launderers and financial smuggling.

The European Union was always structured, modified and refined to serve the needs of big capital, not the needs of its human population. Europe, despite its universalistic declarations, was never an institution dedicated to improving the welfare of the common people, but a cross-national attempt by the ruling classes of Europe to subsume their own intra-European antagonisms and combine to fight off the challenges of American imperialism. After reabsorbing the Eastern bloc into its orbit, the European Union as an economic community changed its mission. Western Europe, being the seat of large western multinational corporations, sought to break into the Eastern bloc as a market. Having achieved that aim in 1989, the European Union set out on an optimistic crusade to maintain a facade of inter-European unity while facing external challenges from rival capitalist powers.

The European Union is disintegrating before our very eyes, with the rebuilding of walls, fences and military measures which had once been declared unnecessary. The Franco-German axis, the lynchpin of Western Europe remains solid, but the class and regional divisions that had been on the back-burner during the last twenty years have now risen to the surface. Inter-European rivalry has re-emerged in the wake of the failing health of the capitalist system. The naked force being used by the European ruling classes against the refugees is a reflection of the naked fear they are experiencing, as their financial system crumbles to pieces. As the spectre of capitalist failure haunts Europee, it is time to restructure the global economy to respond to human needs and social welfare, not as a conduit for corporate profits.

Dear corporate media – Radovan Karadzic is a European Christian terrorist

The title above is intended to be deliberately provocative, and it is not original either.

It is derived from an article published in the CommonDreams online magazine by Christian Christensen, professor of journalism studies at Stockholm University, entitled “Dear Media: Radovan Karadžić is a European Christian“. Radovan Karadzic was the leader of the breakaway statelet of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb republic that emerged during the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s. Karadzic and his military forces ethnically cleansed the Serb portions of the Bosnian republic, established an ‘ethnically pure’ state for Bosnian Serbs. The Srebrenica massacre, the most infamous mass killings of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) took place on the order of the political and military leadership of the Bosnian Serb republic – that is to say, on the orders of Karadzic.

Professor Christensen notes that Karadzic was convicted of ordering the Srebrenica killings, which amounted to genocide. Karadzic was sentenced to forty years in prison by the International Court of Justice based at The Hague, the Netherlands. While being cleared of charges relating to attacks and killings in other parts of Bosnia where Croatians and Bosnians were killed or driven out, there was no question of Karadzic’s guilt in relation to the Srebrenica killings. Christensen also makes a pointed observation about Karadzic, one that has implications for how we in the English-speaking countries conduct debates about war crimes and terrorism – Karadzic is a white, European Christian.

Karadzic defended himself and his role in the Bosnian conflict as a just, holy war. As Bosnian Muslims were systemically killed and driven out of their historic homes and villages, the forces of the Bosnian Serb statelet described their ethnic cleansing enterprise in terms that conjure up images of the Crusades – mosques destroyed, Muslim cemeteries desecrated. The Serbian Orthodox Church no less, organised a 1996 symposium where, among others, Karadzic made scholarly contributions about how the war for Republika Srpska was a holy war, a continuation of the centuries-old conflict between Christendom and Islam for the soul and territory of Europe. Yet, in the entirety of the conflict, the corporate media in the English-speaking world never described Karadzic as a Christian terrorist, or discussed the role of his religious beliefs in perpetuating the Yugoslav conflict.

The religious affiliations of terrorist offenders is always discussed at great length, with dozens of experts brought in for analysis, when the perpetrators are from Islamic background. Paris, Brussels – the attacks on European soil are discussed at saturation point by the major media, the suffering of the victims is described in minute detail, and the motivations of the attackers are usually ascribed to ‘something in Islam’. As Ruby Hamad states in her perceptive article:

Yes, the terror attacks by ISIS and similar Islamic extremist groups “have something to do with Islam” in so much as they are committed by groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, but it is deceitful to imply that only Muslims use religion to justify violence. In looking for answers to terrorism in Islam itself, we have already forgotten that Bosnian Serbs and Croatians fought the Balkans civil war with pictures of the Virgin Mary glued to their guns.

In the aftermath of these attacks, Islamic communities are vilified, badgered into denouncing terrorism in all its forms for the umpteenth time. Muslims living in the English-speaking countries are harassed yet again into condemning groups and an ideology with which they have nothing in common. As Professor Christensen points out in his article for Common Dreams:

Yet the European and US media, for the most part, did not (and do not) wish to define Karadžić in terms of his religious affiliation. Many of his victims, however, were certainly framed in that way — they were “Bosnian Muslims.” But the aggressors were usually identified by region and nationality, not religion. This allowed those who live in Europe, or the world, who are not Serbian or Bosnian Serbs to distance themselves. “That’s got nothing to do with me…” is the obvious reaction for those of us from another country or region.

What is wrong with defining Radovan Karadzic as a Christian terrorist? Christensen explains:

When, however, we define people such as Karadžić as “Christian” (and do so on a consistent basis) we enter into an entirely new realm of identity. Any notion of personal connection or collective responsibility moves from region or nation-state to a much broader disapora of peoples linked simply by their religious faith. Of course, a natural reaction on the part of Christians globally would be to distance themselves from Karadžić, and to claim that his actions have nothing to do with “real” Christians or Christianity.

In other words, Christians would get uncomfortable — or even offended — by the suggestion that they are in any way represented by a monster like Karadžić.

There is no suggestion that all Christians, and the immense diversity of theological and political viewpoints encompassed by Christendom, are in any way represented by Karadzic and his associates. There is no suggestion that Christian priests or practitioners of the faith be badgered to vociferously condemn the crimes of the Bosnian Serb leadership during the 1990s Yugoslav war. What is needed is logical consistency and clarity – the debate about terrorism and crimes against humanity is a distorted, perverse discussion centred on an ethnocentric view of the world.

The nature of political violence, its origins and continuation, needs to be understood as more than just the problem of one religion. The more that we obsessively focus on Islam as the source of the global violence, the less we are able to see that Muslims are also victims of terrorism, and we are less likely to see that Western powers – okay, let’s narrow that down to the United States and the United Kingdom – are themselves the perpetrators of terroristic violence on a global scale. There is an environment of hatred enveloping the UK and the United States, and it has its reflection in Australia. Islamophobic attacks and attitudes are on the rise in Australia, the product of a toxic culture merging fear of terrorism with cultural hostility towards anything Islamic.

There is a backward philosophy, a fundamentalist orthodoxy that is undermining and destroying Australian communities, but it is not Islamism. It is the ideology of free-market fundamentalism, a toxic brew of austerity, cutbacks to social services in the name of budgetary constraints, accompanied by the expansion of private capital into every area of cultural, social and economic life. Communities across Australia are experiencing the social consequences of the closure of factories, businesses and the erosion of social services. As the Australian ruling political and economic elite stumble from crisis to crisis, victims of their own incompetence and myopic Friedmanite vision, it is high time to examine our own economic trajectory as we toboggan towards another intense and shattering financial crisis.

Yemen – one year into a forgotten war

Over at Salon magazine, Ben Norton, the politics writer for that magazine, has an article entitled “Over half of Yemenis — 14 million people and growing — face hunger amid brutal U.S.-backed Saudi war and blockade”. March 26 was the first anniversary of the Saudi-led US-supported attack on Yemen, launched with the intention of restoring the ousted Yemeni President, Mansur Hadi, an ally of Riyadh regime and Washington, into power. Norton described how the Saudi invasion of Yemen has resulted in the destruction of homes, hospitals, markets, wedding parties, schools – and currently the humanitarian situation in Yemen is catastrophic, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). 14.4 million Yemenis face food insecurity, and 2.5 million have been internally displaced, because of this war.

Saudi Arabia’s air force has routinely targeted civilian infrastructure, air strikes that not only violate international law, but which have produced the breakdown of one of the poorest economies in the Middle East. Xinhuanet, the Chinese news agency, reported that the Saudi war has pushed Yemen’s economy to the brink, with famine a real possibility in the country. Saudi Arabia, since the start of its Yemeni invasion, has imposed a complete air, naval and land blockade on Yemen, preventing the regular importation of food and medicine into the country. In the capital city of Sanaa, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to voice their anger against the Saudi invasion. Denouncing what they called the tyrannical aggression of the Saudi regime, the protestors demanded an end to the war, and the leader of the Ansar Allah Houthi rebel movement,  Abdulmalik al-Houthi, announced on national TV that his movement and supporters were ready for negotiations with Riyadh. The Houthi party and Yemeni rebels still control vast swathes of the country, and it is difficult to see how Saudi Arabia can claim any military success in a war that has seen civilians bear the brunt of the suffering.

In the south of the country, the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) controls oil rich areas, such as the province of Hadramaut and its port city of Mukalla. While the former president Mansur Hadi has been reestablished in the important city of Aden by Saudi and Yemeni forces, his grip remains tenuous, and his authority does not extend beyond the realms of the city. Several of his ministers have been assassinated by AQAP, and some by Islamic State militants, the latter having established a presence in the country due to the chaos of the war. Saudi Arabia is currently looking for a political solution to end the Yemen campaign. While there has been an announcement of a ceasefire, reputedly to take effect in April, similar ceasefires in the past have been declared and soon collapsed.

American drone strikes and selective sympathy

In late March 2016, the United States reported that its drones had struck an Al-Qaeda training camp at a former government military base in the city of Mukalla, southern Yemen. The US government claimed it had killed 50 militants, though the identities of the deceased remains unconfirmed. While the United States has reportedly been attacking AQAP in Yemen since 2002, this attack was the first time that the US Department of Defence announced officially that it has carried out this air strike. This particular strike is a pointed response to the territorial gains made by AQAP over the last year, as it takes advantage of the instability fomented by the Saudi aggression. Interestingly, there is another force that has been fighting AQAP – the Houthi Shia movement, regarded as apostates by the Sunni fundamentalist AQAP, and politically allied with the Iranian regime.

Earlier in March 2016, the Saudi air force carried out their own air strike – hitting a marketplace in northwest Yemen, killing over 100 people. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, stated that such air attacks occur with depressing regularity in Yemen, but they do not attract the kind of international sympathy and support that victims of say, more high profile terrorist attacks receive in Brussels, Paris or London. Hussein stated that Saudi Arabia is guilty of war crimes, and crimes against humanity. However, Yemen’s plight, and the victims of this war, have been swept aside, forgotten amidst the non-stop saturation coverage of every aspect of the latest terrorist bombing to hit Europe, this one in Brussels. Of course the Brussels bombing was an outrageous act of terrorism. However, the carnage and ongoing suffering of the victims of Western wars, in this case in Yemen, are quickly forgotten as ‘collateral damage’, devoid of any humanity or empathic emotion.

Since the start of the Saudi invasion of Yemen in March last year, 6200 civilians have been killed by Saudi Arabia’s air force, and civilian infrastructure has been deliberately targeted. A report published in The Guardian newspaper by Kareem Shaheen, details how cities, such as Aden and Taiz, have been reduced to rubble, and that unemployment and poverty are now rife in the country. Interestingly, in 2016, Deng Adut gave the Australian Day speech, in his capacity as a role model for achievement. Who is he? A former child soldier from South Sudan, he has turned his life around, becoming a lawyer and refugee advocate, and doing his community proud. However, as he gets on with his life, child soldiers are a common sight now in Yemen, with thousands fighting and dying in horrific numbers. Lured by the multiple motivations of money, finding a purpose and obtaining group identity and cohesion, Yemen is currently a breeding ground for child soldiers.

The complicity of the West

Let us be clear – this Saudi war on Yemen would not be possible without the constant and crucial support of the United States and Britain. Owen Jones, political writer for The Guardian, stated it plainly in one of his columns in January this year:

Britain is arming and aiding a fundamentalist dictatorship that’s bombing and killing civilians. This is an incontestable fact. The Saudi tyranny – gay-hating women-oppressors who kicked off the year with a mass beheading – has been waging war in Yemen for 10 months.

British and American military advisers are helping the Saudi military forces select targets, provide training and logistical support, and work together with Saudi military personnel to conduct this Yemeni war. Owen Jones further explains that:

Bombing raids have shredded the country’s healthcare system: 130 medical facilities have been targeted, including those run by Médecins Sans Frontières –“a total disregard for the rules of war”, as MSF says itself. The risk of famine looms: the UN believes more than 14 million people are food insecure, half of them severely so, while nearly one in 10 have been driven from their homes.

The complicity of the West in fomenting this humanitarian catastrophe is quite clear. But rather than condemn this war, or do anything to prevent it, the United States and British governments are doing all in their power to provide rationales and twisted justifications for this ongoing slaughter. American Secretary of State John Kerry explained that his government stands alongside its Saudi friends. British Prime Minister David Cameron has escalated the sales of armaments to the Saudi regime since he took office in 2010. Cameron’s government has licensed 6.7 billion pounds of armaments sales to the Saudi rulers since 2010, and this trade shows no signs of slowing down. US and British-supplied cluster munitions are making their way into the hands of the Saudi military, and are being used in Yemen. Cluster bombs are deliberately designed to spray lethal molten copper projectiles over a large swathe of territory, intended to destroy enemy tanks – and these bombs are being used in densely populated civilian areas in Yemen.

Time to stop selling arms

The above sub-heading is the title of an article by Diane Abbott, the Labour Party’s shadow international development secretary. She asks why this armaments industry continues to operate in the face of international law and civilian bloodshed. Abbott states that the British government, and its American counterpart, view human rights and international laws as secondary issues, subordinate to the maximisation of corporate profits in the armaments industry. The lawless behaviour and international gangsterism of the US and the UK are fueling a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

When the United States and United Kingdom denounce the violation of international law, but continue to flout that very same law in their own international conduct, then the world becomes a quagmire of banditry where the civilians suffer the most. If war crimes and transgressions of international law occur with obscene regularity by those Western powers who profess commitment to international justice, then the criminals go unpunished and are unaccountable. This international disorder is a dystopian system, one that urgently requires replacement by the rule of law, where human rights, human dignity and the develop of human potential are the ultimate measures of a government’s conduct. The answer to such a dystopian vision is human solidarity and collective resistance.

The Flint Michigan water crisis – corporate criminality and environmental pollution

The emerging details of the terrible water crisis afflicting the residents of Flint, Michigan state, indicates not only the enormously adverse impacts of this case of environmental pollution. It also reveals criminal extent to which the state-corporate authorities have tried to cover up and downplay the detrimental effects of the contaminated water on the community.

From April 2014 until October 2015, the source of water provided to the residents of Flint, Michigan was the Flint river, well known to be polluted with a cocktail of toxic substances. The city authorities of Flint decided to change over from their usual source of water, Lake Huron (which is managed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) over to Flint as a cost-cutting measure. This decision, undertaken by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed emergency managers for Flint, was intended to save millions of dollars, and act at the first step towards the creeping privatisation of the DWSD. A desperate cost-cutting measure, this move placed financial gain above the safety of the public.

Residents of Flint began reporting to their respective county authorities, and to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, that their water was unusually malodorous, reddish-brown in colour, was causing medical problems to those who consumed it, and was unfit for human consumption. Residents began experiencing rashes, hair loss, and vomiting. The contaminated water was used for drinking and bathing. Despite complaints, the authorities assured Flint that the water did not contain any dangerous or toxic elements.

The pollutants from Flint River turned out to be highly corrosive, and leached quantities of lead from the lead-piping system in place in Flint. As the lead accumulated in the water, collected by the corrosive toxic chemicals in the water, this highly potent mix reached the water taps of Flint’s residents. They began consuming water with dangerously elevated levels of lead. Lead poisoning, a potentially lethal affliction that results in disorders of the nervous system and developmental delays, is of especial danger to children and the fetuses of pregnant women. Flint’s tap water had become toxic for the residents.

The United States has a serious and widespread problem with dilapidated infrastructure, and this problem extends far beyond the borders of Flint, Michigan. Chris Sellers, professor of history at Stony Brook University (The State University of New York) wrote an extensive article for The Conversation in which he details the historical legacy of lead piping that is in place in the underbelly of various American cities. Lead was used for the water piping for cities and towns throughout the United States from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the medical hazards of lead poisoning and the neurotoxicity of lead were not fully cognised at first.

While the lead industry grew rich and powerful, public health was adversely affected, with toxic consequences for the people who consumed lead-contaminated water. Federal laws were passed in the 1970s and 1980s banning the use of lead in manufacturing pipes, and laws regulating the quality of water were also enacted to safeguard public health and safety. It was the Reagan administration, a regime known for its strident advocacy of smaller government, that signed into law amendments to the safe drinking water laws that finally saw leaded piping completely banned.

Michigan governor Rick Snyder was made fully aware of the lead-contaminated water flowing through the city’s piping system by numerous emails in late 2014 and through 2015. Email communications released under the freedom of information provisions clearly establish that the governor, and the highest political authorities in Michigan, were fully informed about the extent of lead-poisoning. Yet in the interests of cost-cutting, nothing was done. Governor Snyder had the power to call a state of emergency in the area, and could have responded to the water contamination crisis with the urgency that it deserves. Yet he delayed and did nothing until a public outcry forced the authorities to act. Why is this the case?

Environmental racism

The poison is not just in the water; people in Flint are suffering from the toxic mix of austerity economics, privatisation, the undermining of democracy and the decrepitude of public infrastructure. There is a long and poisonous legacy of environmental racism running through the United States. In an article entitled ‘Flint isn’t the only place with racism in the water’, authors Danyelle Solomon and Tracey Ross, explain that the rise and development of American industrial-finance capitalism is heavily interlinked with environmental racism. Flint’s population is 56 percent African American, and the majority of Flint’s residents are in the low socioeconomic bracket – which means they live from paycheck to paycheck.

Flint, Michigan, the home town of General Motors and once a booming industrial city, has declined to the point where basic infrastructure – schools, public transportation, health care, and now the water system – have fallen into ruins. In the heyday of the motor industry, Flint – and the entire city of Detroit – were booming, and the residents had access to solid social services that kept the community going. However, not everything was rosy – in the 1960s, General Motors, with its plants around Flint, dumped millions of gallons of toxic waste into the Flint river. All this time, the majority residents of Flint were African American.

As Solomon and Ross elaborate in their article;

Environmental racism is entwined with the country’s industrial past. At the beginning of the 20th century, zoning ordinances emerged as a way to separate land uses in order to protect people from health hazards. Over time, however, city planning and zoning ordinances focused less on public health and more on creating idyllic communities, protecting property rights, and excluding “undesirables.” In other words: The least desirable communities were reserved for discarding waste and marginalized people alike. 

By the 1930s, federal leaders began to make large investments in creating stable, affluent, and white communities in the suburbs, while giving local governments the autonomy to neglect low-income communities and communities of color. New highways and waste facilities were constructed in marginalized communities, where they cut through businesses or homes and exposed residents to excessive pollution.

Black communities were left with the legacies of toxic waste and pollution. This reflects the reality of class power in the United States; Professor of Sociology at Michigan State University, Carl S. Taylor, explained that Flint represents a class and race issue – dumping pollutants and contaminants in the midst of communities that are poor and black is nothing new in the American capitalist experience. Lawrence Ware, professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University Ethics Centre, explained that environmental racism – the disproportionate exposure of minority and poor communities to contaminated, polluted air water and soil – is occurring yet again in Flint, and combine that with the closing merging sectors of industrial developers with local political authorities, and the result is the legacy of pollution and contamination that Flint’s residents are struggling with today.

Private greed and public welfare

Professor Marc Edwards, an academic from Virginia Tech University, is an expert in environmental and water resources engineering. He had already exposed the high levels of lead toxicity in Washington DC’s drinking water back in 2003, and he was approached by Flint residents to examine the water supply in Flint. Sure enough, he found dangerously elevated levels of lead, which had been corroded from the city’s lead piping, by the pollutants in Flint River. Edwards and his team conducted extensive testing, and found that levels of lead in the water had reached 15 parts per billion (ppb), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that a level of only 5 ppb be applied, even in high-risk homes.

Yet, as the Socialist Worker magazine’s Dorian Bon explained:

In April 2014, Flint’s emergency manager was instructed to reroute the city’s water supply to use the highly polluted Flint River as the source. The river water corroded pipes, causing lead to leach into the water that came out of residents’ faucets.

Multiple regional and state government bodies, including Snyder’s own office, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency, proceeded to deny and distort the truth about the ensuing lead poisoning crisis that afflicted Flint children most of all. Meanwhile, state employees in Flint quietly received $4,200 in bottled water at the state office building in Flint, and the local General Motors plant stopped using the river water because of the damage it caused to engine parts.

The bodies that are charged with ensuring the quality of the water supply to Flint’s residents, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the state authorities in Michigan, failed in their duty. Why is this the case?

Professor Edwards, in an article for Common Dreams online magazine, explained that private greed has distorted and perverted science, and the latter no longer serves the public welfare. Edwards expressed concerns that in academia, perverse financial incentives are used to pursue fame, funding, build up a reputation, rather than serving the public good. If academic, working in conjunction with corporatised government entities, do not take responsibility for ensuring that vital social services are provided, then cases like the Flint environmental contamination and subsequent poisoning of the city’s children, will happen again. However, there is one entity that is doing very well in the midst of this crisis – General Motors. The company has posted record profits for 2015 – $9.7 billion.

Bruce Clark, a senior vice president at Moody’s Investment service, commented that General Motors’ strong fourth quarter profits reflect the current health of the American auto industry. Perhaps he should reflect on the health of the residents of Flint, Michigan – such as Nakiya Wakes, who was advised that Flint’s water supply was safe to drink. She ingested high levels of lead, like thousands of other Flint people. She lost both twins she was carrying after consuming the water that authorities insisted was safe. Two days after her second miscarriage, she received a letter from the state authorities advising her not to drink the water.

************************

In 1986, in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and its consequent environmental pollution, serious questions were asked about the actions of the Soviet authorities in the Ukraine at the time. Did they react quickly enough? How efficiently did they handle this crisis? It took the Soviet government a full day to understand the enormity of the nuclear catastrophe, 50,000 people were evacuated, and for a full seven months, extensive decontamination efforts were taken to restore the affected areas. The fallout from that disaster still resonates until today. Serious questions were asked about the Gorbachev administration, and how he could have better handled this crisis. Be that as it may, Chernobyl still stands as a reminder of the consequences of environmental contamination.

What does it say today, about the state of American capitalism, that the home town of a large corporate empire, is unable or unwilling to fix a serious water contamination issue that affects the lives and health of thousands of residents, while the corporation that resides in that town continues to accumulate staggering profits? Not only should Flint’s problems be at the forefront of American political discussion in this election year, but the barbarism of neoliberal capitalist austerity should be under serious public scrutiny. After poisoning a city, and leaving its victims to their own devices, it is surely time to hold Governor Snyder – and the doctrine of capitalist austerity that he implements – accountable for criminal depredations.

Armenia: the small country that looms large in chess

Chess is not the top sports news item in the English-speaking countries, but it is a huge deal in Armenia.

This geographically small, land-locked country of three million, has had a history of adversity since gaining nominal independence in 1991. A former Soviet republic, in 1992-93, Armenia experienced a catastrophic decline in the economy and living standards, engulfed in an ethno-separatist war with neighbouring Azerbaijan, and residents shivered in the winter of 1992-93 as electricity supplies dwindled during a season where temperatures drop to 30 degrees below zero (Celsius). Government corruption was rife, as the elderly and the poor suffered. Turkey blockades the country (until today), the Nagorno-Karabagh conflict remains unresolved, and Armenia became reliant on the Russian economy for supplies. Armenia suffered heavily, like other post-Soviet states, in the breakdown of trade and the cessation of Soviet investment. Yet, there is one area where Armenia dominates the rest of the world – chess.

While the country’s best known export to the West are the putrid and egomaniacal Kardashians, it is in the sport of chess that Armenia has come to excel. The Armenian government made chess a compulsory subject in schools in 2011, and Armenia has been gripped by chess mania. Armenia’s education minister, Armen Ashotian, explained that making chess a mandatory subject was not only about producing chess prodigies, but also about instilling creative thinking. He elaborated in an interview with Al Jazeera chess is part of the overall educational development of school-children:

Chess develops various skills – leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking and responsibility,” Ashotyan said. “We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions.”

Teams of educational psychologists in Armenia, headed by Ruben Aghuzumstyan, having been studying the benefits of teaching chess to school-children from a young age, including developing personality traits such as comparative analysis, creative thinking, and resilience through difficulties. Interestingly, while the Armenian government reintroduced the capitalist system in 1991, corporate sponsorship of chess players is dwarfed by government support for the development of chess grandmasters. It is the state that systematically supports the chess establishment with financial aid, and so players do not spend time worrying about their next source of support. Indeed, the current president of Armenia, Serge Sargsyan, is president of the Chess Federation of Armenia.

******************************************

Armenia, like the other ex-Soviet republics, has a long history of national chess participation. The Soviet state emphasised the importance of chess, and heavily subsidised the promotion of the sport. Chess matches were broadcast on state television, games replicated for the benefit of the audience on a wall-sized chessboard, and commentators would spend hours examining various strategies in great detail. The USSR came to dominate the chess olympiads, and sent strong chess teams to the main Olympics, where they were the overwhelmingly dominant competitor in chess. Christopher Beam explained in an article for Slate magazine in 2009 that:

The Soviets also saw chess as embodying their revolutionary ideals. It was a game of skill, and the USSR prided itself on its intellectual talents. It was cheap, and anyone could play it. And to Soviet leaders, its back-and-forth dynamic reflected the dialectical concept of history espoused by Marxism. (Never mind the irony of playing with imperialist symbols like kings and queens.) The Russians developed a reputation for collective thinking when it came to chess. Soviet competitors were sometimes told to lose on purpose in tournaments in order to clear the way for better players. At the famous match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972, dozens of Soviet grandmasters would huddle during breaks and debate Spassky’s next move. Fischer, by contrast, brought one assistant.

The Soviet chess school churned out child prodigies every generation – and in the 1960s, Soviet Armenian chess player Tigran Petrosian became the grandmaster and World Chess Champion after defeating his rivals in 1963. His successes spurred interest in chess, and corresponding pride in the Armenian homeland. Anoosh Chakelian, deputy web editor for the New Statesman magazine, wrote an article in 2014 entitled “A checkered history: why Armenia dominates the chess world”, in which she explained that:

When grandmaster Tigran Petrosian, World Chess Champion from 1963-69, took the title for the first time, there were spontaneous celebrations throughout Armenia and he became a national hero.

Chakelian goes on to explain that the interest in chess transcends age groups and generational barriers:

The country’s obsession with chess transcends all age groups. You can see this in a 2009 BBC World Service report titled ‘Armenia: the cleverest nation on earth’, which notes “four generations” turning out to watch its champion Levon Aronian play a match in the Armenian mountains. It describes “young kids aged five, six, seven years old and grizzled old men in sunglasses.

The late great chess grandmaster Tigran Petrosian serves as an inspiration for generations of Armenian schoolchildren until today, and his portrait adorns the chess schools and classrooms in the country. Current Armenian chess champion, Levon Aronian, is a national hero in his country, the ‘David Beckham’ of the chess world. In 2015, the American travel journalism magazine Roads and Kingdoms published an extensive and engaging overview of chess in Armenia, detailing not only the life and achievements of Aronian, but also the systematic way in which chess is approached in that country. The authors of the review explain that:

The country’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, doubles as president of Armenia’s Chess Federation and the sport is a compulsory part of primary education. School children read colorful textbooks whose chess-inspired characters teach advanced game tactics. Television shows such as Chess 64, or, for younger viewers, Chess World, air on state TV, and magazines including Shakhmatayin Hayastan (literally, “Chess in Armenia”) are published on a weekly basis, keeping audiences and readers up to date on recent tournaments, tactics, and, bizarrely, the chess celebrity scene.

Aronian’s celebrity status traces back to the 1963 victory by Tigran Petrosian, and continues this trend of instilling national pride. Public places were named after Petrosian, commemorative stamps were issued in his honour, and books about his chess strategies were produced to pass on the accumulated wisdom, hopefully to be replicated by subsequent generations.

*****************************************

Garry Kasparov, Azerbaijani born of Armenian heritage, is another former chess grandmaster and world champion. Now that Kasparov has come up in this discussion, and Bobby Fischer gained a mention earlier, it is important to establish a crucial observation at this juncture. It is possible to be clever and an idiot at the same time, an idiot savant if you will. The most famous and saddening example of a genius-idiot is (ironically) a former chess grandmaster and world champion, Bobby Fischer. Brilliant at the chess board, Fischer was consumed by conspiratorial paranoid thinking, utterly convinced that powerful, underhanded forces were working against him – firstly it was the Russians, then the Jews, the American government (frequently conflating the latter with the former), espousing vitriolic hatred against what he described as ‘world Jewry’ and its pernicious attempts to silence him.

In a similar way, former grandmaster Garry Kasparov fits the bill – a chess prodigy, who has written books denouncing what he sees are the enemies of freedom around the world. Who are these enemies? The Russian chess establishment, the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Soviet secret police, vacillating Western leaders like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder – his explanation can be found in his latest book. Like Fischer, Kasparov is at pains to denounce anyone (or any organisation) that does not recognise his undisputed genius. Like Fischer, Kasparov’s criticisms are not so much against a political party or system, but against what he sees as a life and career that did not go according to his expectations. He wishes to return to the simplistic certainties of the Cold War, with America the ‘good’ on one side, and Russia the ‘bad’ on the other. There are powerful political and economic forces in the world, and we all have to deal with our place in a system not of our own choosing.

*******************************************

As Armenia remains mired in economic crisis and unresolved ethnic separatist conflict, it is heartening to see that in one area at least, Armenia has made its mark on the map.