Columbus statues are coming down, and it is time to abolish Columbus Day

Throughout 2020, dozens of Christopher Columbus statues in the United States have been dismounted; some vandalised, and others demolished. This in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and increased examination of American systemic racism. The veneration of Columbus, epitomised by the national holiday dedicated to him, has come under renewed and heavy criticism from anti-racist organisations.

While Columbus needs to be dethroned from his exalted position as a pioneering explorer, it is also necessary to guard against the recycling of pseudoarchaeological pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact theories. In the effort to challenge racist scholarship in the United States, demolishing the myth of Columbus as the original navigator and intrepid entrepreneur is essential. We must stop mythologising Columbus, and his voyages, as motivated by scientific concerns – no, he was not out to prove the Earth is a globe.

Centuries before Columbus, the Vikings successfully navigated their way across from the Old World to the new. There is extensive archaeological evidence to prove this contention beyond a shadow of a doubt. However, the question of ‘who was before Columbus’ has opened up a field of speculation, pseudoscientific nonsense and fringe theories that do harm to the cause of anti racism.

We are not questioning the longevity and solid evidence of the presence of indigenous nations in the Western Hemisphere. Whether the native peoples crossed the Alaskan land bridge – prior to the emergence of the Bering Strait – or not, it is indisputable that the indigenous nations formed their own civilisations before the arrival of Columbus and his conquistador practices.

Since the death of Columbus, numerous theories about pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact with the indigenous American civilisations have proliferated. Since Columbus was acting as a paid agent of the Spanish crown, rival colonial powers have encouraged the spread of pseudoscientific scenarios which challenged Columbus’ status as the pioneering navigator.

Columbus himself, dissatisfied with the financial compensation offered him by the Spanish crown, began legal proceedings and thus, earned the hostility of the Spanish monarchs, who quietly encouraged rival theories of pre-Colombian trans-oceanic contact to spread. The French, English and other colonial powers – including Venice, the fierce rival city-state of the Genoan Columbus – all had motives to deprive Columbus of credit as the original navigator.

The English monarchy, desiring to lay claim to extensive lands in the Americas, promoted the Welsh folkloric myth of Prince Madoc (or Madog) who purportedly sailed to the Western Hemisphere in 1170. This has in turn given rise to a flurry of racist speculations about ‘Welsh Indians’, which holds that Native American peoples mixed with, or are descended from, the Welsh.

Not to be outdone, long term Turkish President Reyyip Erdogan suggested in 2014, that it was the Muslims who first traveled from the Old World to the Americas. His claim is based upon a long line of pseudoscientific and dubious ‘scholarship‘, which suggests that Columbus – and the ensuing Spanish conquistadors – observed mosques in the Western Hemisphere.

This is a deliberate obfuscation; when the Spaniards said they saw mosques – mezquitas – they were referring to the indigenous American places of worship. The only non-Christian referential experience the Iberian kingdoms had was of Muslim civilisation. Not long before Columbus set sail, the Reconquista had been completed, expelling the longtime Moorish (Muslim) present in the Iberian peninsula. When the Spanish explorers observed the indigenous American women, they commented on how they resembled the moriscas – Moorish women.

The late Ivan van Sertima, an African American scholar, published a multivolume history purportedly demonstrating that black African navigators made their way to the New World, and seeded what became the Olmec Mesoamerican civilisation. The origins of the Olmec is still shrouded in mystery, and so various pseudoscientific alternative theories have circulated.

The notion of ‘black Indians‘ has been promoted by numerous Afrocentric writers over the decades. Responding to racist scholarship, and upholding the originality and vitality of African civilisations prior to the rise of Europe, these writers have unfortunately reflected a kind of distorted ethnic supremacist view of history. The Olmecs have been subjected to an Afrocentric perspective, where their civilisational achievements are reported to be ‘African’ in origin.

We could go on with the list of African – and ancient – peoples which have supposedly pioneered trans-oceanic contact with the New World: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Malians, Egyptians, Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Arabs, biblical Hebrews – and this article would run into volumes responding to each claim. Continuing to play this game of ‘who was first’ is counterproductive and unresolvable.

It is advisable to listen to Danielle Battisti, associate professor of history, who wrote that while Columbus Day may have had value for Italian Americans in the past, it is now time to abolish it. Responding to white racism, Italian Americans promoted Columbus as an exemplar of entrepreneurial ingenuity, a typical American story of how an immigrant picked himself up and found success. Unfortunately, this appeal to pluralism was predicated on Italians becoming ‘white‘, and thus reinforcing the racial pyramid that is American capitalism today.

It is urgent now more than ever, to abolish Columbus Day, if for no other reason than a basic recognition that Columbus was a genocidal maniac, intent on exploiting to death the indigenous nations he contemptuously dismissed. There are numerous Italian Americans who actively fought racial discrimination and economic inequalities. They are better anti-racist icons for our times.

Morocco and Israel agree to normalise a sordid relationship

Morocco has become the fourth Arab nation to normalise relations with the state of Israel. Previously clandestine, Morocco’s cooperation with the Israeli government stretches back decades. The US, for its part, has officially recognised Morocco’s annexation of the fledging nation of Western Sahara. Lame duck US President Donald Trump overturned years of official US neutrality by taking this step.

Let’s untangle the many threads of this issue. Israel has cultivated extensive military, intelligence-sharing and economic ties with the Moroccan kingdom since the 1960s. This latest normalisation only formalises an existing secretive relationship. Pursuing ties with African and Muslim-majority nations located outside the direct Middle East is part of Tel Aviv’s periphery strategy – outflanking its immediate hostile Arab neighbours by building links with periphery nations. Morocco is considered part of the peripheral zone.

Interestingly, in the 1960s, then King of Morocco Hassan II, allowed the emigration of Moroccan Jews to Israel, thus boosting the number of settlers to counter the demographic problems of colonising occupied Palestinian land. Israeli leaders have always encouraged Jewish populations in the Muslim-majority nations to emigrate. Today, one million Israelis are either Moroccan Jews, or descendants of the original migrants from Morocco.

Ronen Bergman, writing in the NY Times, states that:

The king permitted mass emigration of Jews and allowed Mossad to establish a station in Morocco. Israel provided weapons and trained Moroccans in using them; it supplied surveillance technology and helped organize the Moroccan intelligence service; and the two shared information gathered by their spies — the start of decades of such cooperation.

Morocco acquired Israeli weapons, its intelligence service was trained by and coordinated with Mossad, and opponents of the Moroccan royal family were tracked using Israeli-made surveillance technology. Mehdi Ben Barka, a left wing nationalist opponent of the Moroccan regime, was kidnapped and murdered by Moroccan intelligence agents with the cooperation of the Mossad.

It was the intelligence sharing by Moroccan authorities with Israel about the military capabilities and numbers of Arab armed forces that gave Tel Aviv a decisive edge in launching the 1967 war. Knowledge of the troop movements, logistics and military technology of the Arab nations was provided to Israel by, among others, the Moroccan regime.

The quid pro quo for Morocco’s formal recognition of Israel consists of a scandalous ‘bribe’ – official US recognition of Morocco’s occupation and annexation of the Sahrawi republic, otherwise known as Western Sahara. Overturning decades of US foreign policy and in violation of international law, Trump’s recognition of the Moroccan occupation inflamed a long-simmering conflict.

Western Sahara, formerly a Spanish colony, was forcibly occupied by Moroccan troops in 1975. Listed by the United Nations as a non-self-governing territory, the people of Western Sahara – the Sahrawi – rose up in rebellion in the 1970s. Launching an armed insurgency, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is the internationally recognised authority in the country. The conflict continued for decades, until the signing of a ceasefire in 1991.

The insurgency simmered after 1991, and Morocco continued to control most of Western Sahara. The political authority of the Sahrawi people, the separatist Polisario movement, continues to fight for the independence of Western Sahara. Its representatives are deployed overseas to promote the cause of Sahrawi national self-determination.

Trump’s decision to officially recognise Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, accompanied by his usual narcissistic Twitter-bragging, has ensured that this conflict will continue for decades to come. The US has formally taken the side of Morocco. Kamal Fadel, the Polisario representative in Australia, reacted to this news by stating that only the Sahrawi people can determine the future of their nation.

Sahrawis and Palestinians, along with pro-independence activists, have condemned the cementing of ties between Morocco and Israel. The hashtag ‘Moroccans Against Normalisation’ has taken off, uniting online outrage against this latest deal. Hanan Ashrawi, longtime Palestinian legislator and activist, branded the Morocco-Israel normalisation as sinister and ugly.

Alex MacDonald, writing in Middle East Eye magazine, states that Palestinian and Sahrawi activists will seize this opportunity to renew solidarity between the two struggles for self-determination. The Palestinians and Sahrawis find themselves victims of post-colonial intrigues and backroom manoeuvring between imperialist powers.

These kinds of deals are arrived at by sacrificing the legitimate demands of the Palestinians – and Sahrawis – for an independent state. Nazha el-Khalidi, a Sahrawi human rights activist, denounced the Morocco-Israel agreement, and stated that the resolve of the Sahrawis and Palestinians remains undiminished.

The Japanese Hayabusa-2 mission and the origins of the solar system

Hayabusa-2, the Japanese Space Exploration Agency’s mission to the Ryugu asteroid, deposited a capsule carrying fragments of asteroid rock at Woomera, South Australia. This was the culmination of a six year project.

The Australian corporate media pounced on this story because of the ‘Aussie connection’. However, that is the least interesting reason for understanding the importance of the Hayabusa-2 mission. The asteroid samples returned by the spacecraft contain clues regarding the origins of life in the universe.

The Hayabusa-2 mission deployed hopping rovers on the asteroid Ryugu. They were able to pierce the surface of the asteroid, and retrieve contents from the underground. This is an extraordinary achievement in itself – no other space agency has been able to accomplish such a scientifically important goal on an asteroid.

First of all, let’s address one misconception that people may have. An asteroid is usually thought of as a lifeless, irregularly-shaped lump of rock, hurtling through space and occasionally crashing into Earth as in the movie Deep Impact. This view only hinders our ability to understand the geological importance of asteroids. Each one, like Ryugu, contains minerals and features from the origins of the solar system.

A near-earth asteroid, Ryugu contains organic compounds and ice, geological features that are remnants from the earliest origins of the solar system. Examining Ryugu’s minerals – contained in the capsule deposited at Woomera – will help scientists unveil vital clues on the formation of the solar system, and perhaps of life itself. Hayabusa-2’s cameras obtained pictures of Ryugu, revealing a surface hit by meteorites and weather-beaten by cosmic rays.

Australia and Japan, while depicted as rivals from media-driven anti-Asian racism, have a long history of scientific cooperation. A Japanese team of scientists and experts were deployed by JAXA – the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – in South Australia preparing for the return of the Hayabusa-2 cargo.

Earlier, we mentioned that Hayabusa-2 deployed hopping rovers on the surface of the asteroid. These bouncing explorers, equipped with cameras, relayed images of Ryugu. You may see examples of the pictures sent back by the hopping rovers in this NPR article. Asteroids have weak gravity, so keeping movable rovers on the surface of Ryugu presented particular technical challenges.

John Bridges, professor of planetary science at the University of Leicester, explains the following:

Ryugu could tell us a lot about the Solar System’s history. The Earth and the other planets formed from small, rocky bodies in a disk of gas, ice and dust called the solar nebula. Asteroids are the leftovers from this process. While the planets have undergone extensive changes, developing crusts, mantles and cores during their lifetimes, asteroids have not. By studying primitive samples from asteroids, we can therefore crack many secrets about how the solar system formed.

The organic compounds in the Ryugu samples remain unchanged since the earliest ages of the solar system. Planetary bodies such as the Earth went through enormous geological changes, altering the composition of its formative materials.

The asteroid fragments will be shared for analysis between Japanese space agency and NASA. Hayabusa-2 continues its mission, aiming for two more asteroids for research.

There are numerous problems confronting humanity at the moment – climate change, ecological destruction, and the current pandemic, just to name a few. These ecological issues, in combination with socioeconomic inequalities, require urgent attention. Exploring the vastness of outer space may not seem like a priority. However, counterposing scientific ventures would be a colossal mistake.

Space exploration has provided a powerful impetus to develop technologies that we regard as everyday conveniences today. The smartphones we use, satellite navigation – these innovations rely on technology originally developed by space agencies. The camera in your smartphone is using small imaging sensors first created by NASA.

Questions regarding outer space exploration occupy a significant chunk of our attention – landing on and terraforming Mars, space travel, exploring the Moon – among other subjects. These topics inspire generations of students – and adults for that matter – to consider scientific issues in the larger context of human culture and social organisation. While nationally-based space agencies compete to launch and accomplish missions, it is international cooperation that is necessary to understand the results of what we find.

As a follow-up, have a look at what the Hayabusa-2 mission has accomplished.

Israel was not created because of the Holocaust – Zionism, the Jewish Ulster and the Israel-Palestine conflict

Let’s keep the subject of the Holocaust separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, this is not always the case. Why? There is a widespread and false assumption – that Israel was formed because of the Holocaust, or at least as a human response after the horrors of the Nazi genocide of the Jews was exposed.

No, Israel was not created because of the Holocaust. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not based on ancient and atavistic religious hatreds between Jews and Muslims.

Let’s untangle this subject.

Dov Waxman, professor of political science at Northeastern University, addressed this very question. He wrote that while the Holocaust and Israel’s founding occurred within a few years of each other, they are not causally linked:

The chronological proximity of the Holocaust and Israel’s establishment has led many people to assume that the two events are causally connected and that Israel was created because of the Holocaust. Contrary to this popular belief, however, a Jewish state would probably have emerged in Palestine, sooner or later, with or without the Holocaust.

So why was Israel formed? For the purpose of creating a pro-imperialist Jewish Ulster in the Middle East. This is not my own formulation. The first British military governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, elaborated Britain’s approach to the Palestine issue in the aftermath of the Ottoman Turkish empire’s defeat; to establish a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism. Just as Britain created a loyal Protestant Ascendancy statelet – commonly known as Ulster, in the north of Ireland – Zionism would form the equivalent Orange order of the Jewish people in Palestine.

There are, of course, religious differences between Jews and Muslims. These theology differences have existed for centuries. However, the Israel-Palestine conflict is not motivated by religious divisions. Reducing the conflict to atavism and ancient religious hatreds is a fundamentalist misreading of the Israel-Palestine issue. So when did the conflict start? It started in 1917, towards the end of World War One and the issuance of the Balfour declaration.

Britain, emerging alongside France as the preeminent imperialist power in the Middle East, promised to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. Simultaneously, the leaders of political Zionism, such as Theodore Herzl, were manoeuvring to acquire the backing of major powers for their project of constructing a Jewish state. Herzl had already approached the Ottoman Turkish sultan, Tsarist Russia (an antisemitic government in its own right), and others, to obtain support for the Zionist cause. It was Britain, with its own interests in the Middle East, which provided the crucial backing needed.

The creation of a Jewish Ulster has begun. The Palestinians were being pushed out of their ancestral homeland, as Zionist settlements began to be constructed. From the 1930s, in British-mandate Palestine, the Palestinians resisted as best they could. The conflict evolved its own dynamic. None of this is to ignore religious differences. However, let’s not speak of ‘centuries of mistrust’ between Jews and Muslims, because such comments are cynically deceptive and designed to distract from the settler-colonial nature of the Zionist project.

The ideology of Zionism corresponded to the intention of European elites – Christian and traditionally antisemitic – to expel Europe’s Jews and corral them into a statelet. Palestine was a convenient target, given European Christendom’s familiarity with Biblical history. British antisemites, such Churchill and Balfour, were strong supporters of Zionism. What has all this got to do with the Holocaust?

Palestinian opposition to Zionism has routinely been smeared and dismissed as antisemitic by Israel’s leaders and supporters. In fact, there is a deliberate manipulation of the Holocaust, on Tel Aviv’s part, to channel sympathy for Jewish suffering into support for the colonial project of Zionism. Joseph Massad, professor of Arab Politics at Columbia University, has elaborated how Israel’s political leaders coopt the memory of the Holocaust to gain support for their own policies of occupation and dispossession directed against the Palestinians.

Earlier this year, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, current US Vice President Mike Pence accused Iran of planning a ‘holocaust’ against the Jewish people. This was at an event organised by Tel Aviv in opposition to the internationally recognised commemorative activities. Deliberately invoking a slanderously false continuity between Nazis and Arabs/Muslims, Pence purposefully maligned the Palestinians (and the wider Muslim-majority nations) as motivated by homicidal antisemitism.

Holocaust denial – the pseudoscientific endeavour to cancel or minimise the genocidal crimes of the Nazi regime – has unfortunately made a comeback with the rise of ultrarightist parties and groups in Europe. We must all remember the Holocaust and say ‘never again’. We must also understand that opposition to the settler-colonial state of Israel is the repudiation of a political ideology, and not a platform for antisemitism.

Anti-Asian racism – the xenophobic virus accompanying the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The metabolic rift and the ecological-economic crisis

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

Let’s elaborate this multifaceted subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the metabolic rift?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you studying that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehabilitating Horthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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