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

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

Let’s disentangle this vast subject.

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

Pantheism and combining the spirit with the material

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

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

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

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

The Chosen People

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

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

The philosopher elaborated that:

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

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

Not a nationalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may read the report in its entirety here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop using the stock market to determine economic health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woodrow Wilson, platforming racism and removing memorials

While current US President Donald Trump is known for providing a platform for white nationalist views, he is certainly not the first and definitely not the worst. Nominating a president who espoused racist views, reversed black American progress, all the while maintaining an aura of ‘progressive’ politics, we can look no further than the 28th president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.

Princeton University decided to remove Wilson’s name from their School of International and Public Affairs – a decision taken last June. Wilson built up a reputation as an expert on global affairs, a peacemaker, principal advocate of the League of Nations and, among the ultrarightist Armenian diaspora at least, a hero for advocating an enlarged Armenian territory in the aftermath of World War One. How can Wilson be considered a racist?

Unrepentant white supremacist

Wilson was an unrepentant white supremacist, and his racism informed his foreign as well as his domestic policies. Perhaps we are judging his views and conduct with today’s standards – Wilson surely, was a product of his time and place. Even conceding that point, by the standards of his day, Wilson espoused white nationalist policies, and repudiated the efforts of civil rights advocates to rectify American racism.

The term Wilsonian has entered the lexicon as a description of American foreign policy geared towards democracy promotion and the implementation of nation self-determination. Though Wilson spoke of self determination, it extended to white European nations, such as the Serbs, Poles, or other Eastern Europeans. He denied anti-imperialist aspirations for black, Asian and nonwhite peoples of the world.

At home, Wilson re-segregated the federal government and its agencies, sacking black employees, and defending segregation to a group of African American civil rights leaders who visited the White House to question the president on this issue. Wilson was a vocal defender and admirer of the Ku Klux Klan, advocating a neo-Confederate view of history.

A descendant of Confederate soldiers, Wilson condemned the Reconstruction period after the civil war. He lamented the defeat of the Confederacy, and denounced ‘liberal’ northern industrialists who encouraged the supposedly racially inferior peoples to dominate American society. Sympathising with the KKK, Wilson regarded the Confederate ‘lost cause’ as a righteous venture, and helped that monstrosity enter the mainstream American society.

Wilsonian hypocrisy

He spoke eloquently about the equality of nations, and proposed the establishment of the League of Nations to set out international laws. These laws would govern the conduct of international actors, and avoid devastating and catastrophic military conflicts, such as the terrible global conflagration of WW1. These proposals were motivated, not by humanitarian concern, but by coldly calculated economic and political interests.

Wilson supported the self-determination of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other subjugated Eastern European nations for the purpose of creating a cordon sanitaire, a bloc of anti-communist nations to isolate Soviet Russia. His advocacy of Wilsonian Armenia, at the expense of the defeated Ottoman Turkish empire, had more to do with establishing a ‘Christian’ and reliably anti-communist Armenia as a southern bulwark against Soviet Russia.

In the United States at the time, being a Christian from the Middle East was a portal into transformation from unacceptable nonwhite migrants – namely Muslim – into legally tolerable Christian, if not completely white, migrants. Wilson did not hesitate to deploy troops, along with 13 other nations, to grab territory from Russia during that nation’s civil war. Wilson’s long-standing reticence to get involved in WW1 quickly evaporated when the opportunity arose to annex Russian Siberia, and oppose the Communist state, in the immediate aftermath of the world war.

All notions of the equality of nations disappeared in 1915, when Wilson unhesitatingly sent US troops to militarily occupy the nation of Haiti. The US authorities, under Wilson’s instructions, assumed control of the key sectors of the Haitian economy, installed a president friendly to US interests, and displayed racist attitudes towards the predominantly black Haitian population.

Defeating the racial equality proposal

This invasion does not correspond to the portrayal of Wilson as an idealistic and anti-imperial statesman. Indeed, when provided the opportunity to enshrine racial equality as a founding principle of the League of Nations, Wilson did his utmost to manoeuvre behind the scenes to defeat such a proposal. During the Paris Peace Conference, the new imperialist power in the game, was Japan. The latter was obviously nonwhite, and had the strength to put their case during the 1919-1920 peace conference.

Japan suggested including a Racial Equality Clause in the foundational document of the League of Nations. It was a modest proposal, and to be sure, Tokyo was concerned with the mistreatment of Japanese migrants in America, and not motivated by general anti-racist consciousness. Be that as it may, the United States and the UK jockeyed behind closed doors to oppose this clause.

The loudest and most obnoxious opponent of the racial equality clause was Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes. Bombastic and stubbornly racist, Hughes was a committed white supremacist, and strenuously opposed Asian migration to Australia. Wilson, while maintaining a formal neutrality on the issue, deployed a procedural manoeuvre to squash the racial equality clause – the vote on it must be unanimously affirmative, otherwise it would be rejected.

No other proposal in the League of Nations required a unanimous vote – with Australia firmly opposed, the racial equality clause was defeated. Wilson’s democratic idealism demanded white racial homogeneity. Anti-colonial struggles were all well and good, but were outside the realm of approval for Arab, Asian, black and nonwhite peoples.

Wilson drew the racial colour line, both domestically and globally. He did his utmost to maintain a system of racialised economic inequalities. That is the legacy which must be rejected.

Trump, racist vigilantes, and the mainstreaming of the ultranationalist right

The growing and persistent anti racism protests in the United States have faced opposition from two primary quarters. US President Donald Trump, representing the federal government, has vociferously attacked the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, denouncing it as a ‘Marxist-inspired’ plot. The second source of opposition does not originate from the US authorities, but has been encouraged by federal and state law enforcement.

White nationalist militia and vigilante groups – organised loosely as ‘Blue Lives Matter’ – have violently confronted BLM protesters, usually with the connivance of the police. These racist militia groups – which are accurately described as racist terrorist organisations – trace their ideological origins to the mass white racist violence directed against African American and anti racist movements for greater equality.

Armed ultrarightist militia groups have long vented their vitriol against federal government tyranny. They have denounced what they consider the steady erosion of individual liberties and accumulation of power by the US federal government. Stockpiling military-grade weapons was rationalised as a necessary backstop measure to fight an impending battle for freedom and the ‘true’ US constitution. How ironic it is that these white vigilante groups are currently fighting alongside US law enforcement agencies, and have a friend in the White House.

Indeed, white terrorist vigilantes have helped to enforce the very tyranny they claim to oppose – omitting to mention that they are the shock troops of white racist tyrannical order.

White nationalism has produced radicalised killers in the past, and the latest, Kyle Rittenhouse, is no exception. The 17 year old Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he murdered two people. He did this with the approval of his parents, and under the watchful eye of the police. This was a killing motivated by the political agenda of the racist Right, enabled by the gun-toting militia groups that have rallied against the BLM protests.

People such as Rittenhouse do not emerge out of nowhere. They are created by a culture of armed white vigilantism, police connivance and facilitation of racist violence, and the circulation of racially-paranoid conspiracy theories. Throughout American history, the lines between law enforcement and white vigilantism have always been blurry. In fact, white vigilante racism has found a friendly and reception environment in the police.

President Trump has done his utmost to encourage the far right militia groups, rationalising their actions and expressing a broad ideological continuity with the white nationalist philosophy that underscores them. Hostility to the BLM protests, and the issues of systemic racism and economic disparities they have raised, has united the various strands of the ultranationalist Right.

When far right militia organisations were protesting the Covid-19 lockdown measures implemented by various states, Trump tweeted his support for the collection of anti-quarantine groups, encouraging them to ‘liberate’ their respective states. Trump has recycled white nationalist conspiracy theories, pushing unsubstantiated and outlandish claims about the origins of the Covid-19 virus, and attacking BLM as a result of a socialist plot funded by George Soros.

White vigilantism is nothing new in American history. As a colonial-settler project, white nationalism requires the cultivation of a culture of preemptive violence, particularly against the indigenous people, but also against ethnic minorities. Jonathan Obert, an assistant professor of political science at Amherst college, wrote that white vigilantism has been an adjunct of American law enforcement, upholding racial and economics hierarchies.

When ultranationalist militias have struck out to enforce white supremacy, law enforcement agencies have at best kept their response muted and quiescent. During the civil rights movement, when white vigilante mobs attacked black communities, police authorities quietly kept their distance, allowing the perpetrators to commit their crimes.

Vigilante violence flares up as an armed response to the assertion of African American communities and their demands for equality and representation. Police authorities have a long history of active collaboration with armed militia groups, and it is not only in the ‘Deep South’ where the lines between law enforcement and racist vigilantism are blurred. Bigotry has marched proudly through the streets of the ostensibly liberal North.

Ishaan Tharoor, writing in The Washington Post, states that ultranationalist terror groups are becoming more mainstreamed under the Trump administration by posing as ‘victims’ of encroaching black and ethnic minority power. Fear-laden manifestos, issued by white racist killers, speak to a culture of reactionary grievances and racially-resentful driven politics.

The eruption of xenophobic nationalism, encouraged and used by the police, exposes the racist underbelly of American capitalism. Indeed, racism and capitalism are conjoined twins, relying on and sustaining each other. It is time to revisit the writings of WEB Du Bois, who spoke about the colour line as the great unspoken division of modern society. The surge of ultrarightist extremism is not outside of the mainstream in American society.

Britain cannot progress while stuck in delusional fantasies about its imperial past

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has defended the record of the British empire, stating that the nation’s history must not be edited. When it comes to sanitising imperial history however, none has a better track record than the version of Britain’s imperialist war history we are taught by the English ruling Tory commentariat.

Brexiteer nationalism is a recycled and updated version of imperial nostalgia, turned inwards. Lying about the predatory and criminal nature of its imperial project not only distorts history, but provides a xenophobic vision to rebuild British society along racist lines.

Successive British Prime Ministers, up to and including Boris Johnson, have made numerous statements supporting the British empire as a humanitarian and noble institution. Regarding the British empire in a positive light is not just an exercise in historical amnesia; imperial nostalgia plays a toxic role in promoting myths of British ‘exceptionalism’ which sustains white racism and an anti-immigrant political culture.

While the British political class remains mired in a delusional fantasy version of imperial history, expressed today in Tory Brexiteer nationalism, Britain will never be able to solve any of its economic and racial disparities. Daniel Trilling, writing in the Guardian, maintains that until Britain squarely faces up to its imperial atrocities, today’s culture wars will continue to burn.

Modern empire loyalists, such as Niall Ferguson, encourage a sickly misty-eyed romanticism about the empire and its traditions. Anxieties about black, Asian and ethnic minority immigrants are sustained and recycled by an imperial nostalgia regarding a mythically racially homogeneous ‘white Britain’ that only ever existed in the imagination.

Priyamvada Gopal, tutor in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, writes that:

In Brexit Britain, sustaining itself on dreams of a global renaissance in the embrace of its former colonies, a significant number of people likely believe the empire was a winning proposition. Between the saccharine justifications and convenient omissions of popular histories – largely written by privately educated white men – and the institutional failure to provide a reasonable schooling in the bare facts of imperial history, many Britons know little about the empire.

Britain has never been oppressed by villainous migrants or duplicitous refugees, but has exported its white nationalism around the world. While the British empire colonised people of black, Asian, African and Caribbean origin, Brexiteer nationalists – today’s empire loyalists – reject immigrants from those backgrounds. British citizenship was extended to the white migrants – Australia, Canada – societies that are themselves products of overreaching white nationalism.

How many of us know about the crimes of the British in Kenya, Yemen, or Iraq? In Kenya, a former English colony, Britain instituted a policy of mass detention and widespread torture to suppress the Kikuyu tribe, out of which the Mau Mau rebellion grew. Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial governor, herded masses of Kenyan villagers into concentration camps – that term is no exaggeration – after German leaders had been convicted of deploying such measures in World War 2.

The details of this brutal war had been airbrushed from official histories of the British empire, until the work of brave historians compiled evidence from the archives – and the latter had been censored, with documents destroyed on the orders of British authorities.

While the Kenyan war has largely been marginalised, the Falklands war has received official attention, and commemorations of that conflict are routinely maintained. That is because that war fits into an imperial-nostalgia narrative – upholding the purported ‘rights’ of a Britannic empire ruling the waves. The loss of British military personnel is tragic – no-one is minimising the human suffering of that conflict. It is the hypocritical and selective sympathy cultivated by the empire loyalists that must be exposed.

What has this history got to do with current political problems? Imperial nostalgia and its associated racism contaminates our vision, and is no basis on which to build a future. The ideological heirs of Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell uphold the British empire not out of any commitment to historical veracity. The rehabilitation of empire is bound up with the advocacy of an anti-immigration politics today.

Brexiteer nationalism is the last gasp of Tory Powellism. Mosley, a wartime Nazi who reinvented himself politically, found common ground with empire loyalists such as Powell. In what way? By advocating for a whites-only, anti-immigrant Britain. The nation’s imperial role, having declined in the post-war period, had to be sanitised as a civilising, humanitarian project. White nationalism had turned inward, and became a platform to remould British society.

The revamped nationalism of Tory Brexiteers relies on misinformation and distortions not only about empire, but also about the role and place of immigrants in Britain. Economic inequalities, driven by neoliberal austerity, could be blamed on African and Caribbean migrants. The latter, doing the jobs that Anglo British citizens do not want, form a marginalised group that is easy to scapegoat.

As the UK economy slumps into its deepest recession on record, in the wake of the pandemic, it is time to ask how empire loyalism can solve any of the economic and political problems that bedevil Britain today. How is increasing xenophobia, and hankering for the ‘good old days’ of empire, going to create a single job or prop up the overworked national health service?

It is not refugees, or migrants, or ‘shame’ about Britain’s imperial past that is at the root of the current problems in that nation. It is the economic model of capitalist austerity that is causing the socioeconomic crisis – and is incapable of solving it.

United Arab Emirates and Israel – a partnership that ignores the plight of the Palestinians

The governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have signed an agreement paving the way for full normalisation of relations. This agreement brings into the open the growing and numerous clandestine linkages between the two nations. The formal accords between the two countries is the logical and open culmination of a decades-long bilateral relationship, previously undertaken in a secretive manner.

Dubbed the ‘Abraham accords’, in reference to the founder of the three monotheistic faiths, the cultivation of relations between the Emiratis (and the other Gulf nations) and Israel have been disguised as the promotion of Muslim-Jewish interfaith cooperation. This cynical ploy cannot disguise the naked and brazen economic and geopolitical interests motivating both parties.

For instance, back in October 2018, then Israeli Minister for Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, visited the UAE to oversee Israeli participation in a sporting tournament. This visit, touted as a bridge between Jews and Muslims, was great public relations. However, Regev, a former Brigadier-General in the Israeli army, has previously described African migrants to Israel as a ‘cancer‘, and called for violent repression of the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump took credit for the deal, gloating that he had facilitated a ‘historic breakthrough’. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a vague and non-binding promise to halt the annexation of the West Bank, though he was quick to point out that his postponement of annexing Palestinian territories was temporary.

The US and Israeli governments are portraying this accord as an enormous breakthrough and a diplomatic triumph, shoring up the electoral prospects of both incumbents. The Palestinians have denounced this deal as a betrayal, and condemned the Emiratis for their willingness to acquiesce in Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. During mid-August, Israeli warplanes struck several targets in the Gaza Strip, indicating that the Emirati–Israeli accord will not bring peace to the Palestinians.

Numerous Palestinian activist groups, human rights advocates and American Jewish organisations have condemned the Emirati-Israeli accord, stating that it is a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle and is nothing to celebrate. US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, herself of Palestinian origin, tweeted that no-one should be fooled by the declarations of peace in this accord. Creeping annexation and apartheid are part of the daily life of Palestinians until today.

The Gulf nations, including the Emiratis, have a long track record of conducting secret diplomacy with the Israeli state. Rationalising their latest manoeuvre, the UAE claims that they will advocate for Palestinian rights, and an independent Palestinian state, with their Israeli counterparts. However, even a cursory examination of the UAE’s policies in the region expose the falsity of this ‘constructive diplomacy’ claim.

Senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara, writes that the Emiratis – like their Saudi big-brother partner – are the most pro-war country in the Gulf. It is no secret that the Emirates have actively participated in the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen. Sending thousands of troops, the UAE pursued its own goals in that war, and only the prospect of a full-scale military defeat led the Emiratis to withdraw the bulk of their soldiers.

The Emiratis have pursued an aggressive expansionism in Libya, taking advantage of the ongoing chaos in that Arab nation to prop up its own proxies. The goal is to establish a friendly regime in Libya to exploit that country’s extensive oil reserves. The UAE’s role has prolonged the civil war in Libya, ongoing since the 2011 NATO war for regime change.

After supporting various Islamist militias in Syria’s civil war and initially welcoming the overthrow of the Syrian government in 2011, the UAE changed its tune in 2019 and wished that current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power. This shift was cemented by the realisation that the Syrian Islamist rebels would fail to achieve military victory.

Amer Zahr, Palestinian American activist and president of New Generation for Palestine, summed up the crucial flaw in this accord:

When you normalise relationships with Israel or any Zionist organisation – and normalisation means interaction without centering the Palestinian problem – then you are basically excusing and accepting everything that Israel has done to us for the past 72 years


The 1619 Project helps us understand the racism underpinning American capitalism

Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, introduced a bill in Congress to deny federal funding for schools which incorporate material from the 1619 Project in their curriculum. Attacking the latter as ‘racially divisive’ and ‘neo-Marxist propaganda‘, Cotton has also penned a New York Times article demanding that troops be sent in to shoot down Black Lives Matter protesters.

The 1619 Project, an ongoing collection of award-winning essays and educational materials, examines the foundation of the US as a state founded on slavery and white supremacy. The American war of independence and subsequent development of capitalism, rather than fulfilling the promise of equality and freedom, resulted in the construction of a racialised, economically exploitive society. Such a reexamination of American history has been met with hostility by US President Donald Trump and his supporters, such Tom Cotton.

The bill which Cotton introduced, the Saving American History Act of 2020, is not motivated by an altruistic concern about teaching history. It is a direct challenge to the BLM movement, and the historians and writers of the 1619 Project, to maintain a conservative vision of American capitalism and deny the racism that underpins US institutions. Cotton’s push to influence school curricula undermines any examination of America’s history as a white racist edifice.

Was not the 1776 American revolution about liberty and equality for all? The founding fathers, who called slavery a ‘necessary evil’, sidestepped the hypocrisy at the heart of the Declaration of Independence – liberty and equality applied only to the white race. Postponing any solution of the glaring racial disparities of the new nation, it took the US Civil War and the Emancipation proclamation to finally abolish slavery.

The abolition of slavery, while a monumental and historic achievement, did not resolve racial injustices. The slave-owning Confederacy was defeated, but white nationalism was not – it adapted to the new conditions by implementing economic and political measures to fight a rearguard action against the newly-freed African American community. The mythical ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy was invoked as a way to disenfranchise and marginalise the black working class.

From education to housing, business and law enforcement, health care to politics, black Americans have faced a diverse set of measures and tactics which have as their unifying goal the enforcement of racial disparities. This is not a historical anomaly, or a thing of the past. Unemployment, poverty, and the racial wealth gap are issues that disproportionately affect African Americans today.

The current pandemic has shone a light on the existing racial disparities in health care. To be sure, the Covid-19 outbreak did not create these racially differentiated outcomes, but has exacerbated them. Death rates from the coronavirus have hit black and Hispanic Americans at more lethal rates than white communities. The greater number of Covid fatalities is a reflection of the unequal health structures that predate the current outbreak.

Writing in Vox magazine, Dylan Scott notes that throughout American cities, black and Latinx communities account for a higher proportion of death rates from the Covid-19 virus. In the state of Kansas, black Americans constitute six percent of the population, yet account for 30 percent of Covid-19 fatalities. Those communities which are already marginalised have been hit hardest by the current pandemic.

The end of the civil war, and the Reconstruction period, were historical achievements. However, white vigilante violence did not end. Wherever black communities demanded inclusion as equals, they were met with racist violence, usually under the watchful supervision of the police and law enforcement authorities. The Confederate flag, and its associated ‘lost cause‘ mythology, was an instrument for re-educating subsequent generations, falsifying the white supremacist character of American history.

Surely, there is no harm in recycling the Confederate flag? Not everyone who displays that flag is a vicious white nationalist? Yes, we have all watched the Dukes of Hazzard, a light-entertainment show featuring their car, coincidentally named the ‘General Lee’ with the Confederate flag emblazoned on the roof. Just ‘good old boys’, as the opening song suggested, Bo and Luke Duke were a pair of cheerful, happy-go-lucky rebels, defying comically incompetent authorities.

The Confederate flag has been sanitised, its racist undertones modified and made into a symbol of good-natured, moderated ‘rebellion’. Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit amplified these kinds of themes, a Southern maverick just trying to live his life unencumbered by federal authorities. Harmless fun…perhaps. However much the Confederacy is recycled as ‘Southern pride’, it cannot be dissociated from its racist and treasonous secessionist legacy.

When the late John Lewis, veteran civil rights leader, participated in the 1965 march across Edmund Pettus Bridge, his skull was fractured as the 600 marchers were attacked by troopers with clubs, attack dogs and tear gas. Lewis recovered and returned to the civil rights struggle.

The ideology of the Alabama police and state troopers is being kept alive today by Tom Cotton, Trump, and their supporters. The 1619 Project raises a badly needed national conversation about the inbuilt white racism which underpins the structural economic inequalities of American capitalism until today.

The refugee turned celebrity-dissident, Natan Sharansky, and re-reading the Exodus novel

Natan Sharansky, right wing Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident, was awarded the 2020 Genesis prize in Israel. A prestigious award, it is given to prominent personalities for their promotion of human rights. Sharansky, born in what is now the Ukraine, gained international fame and recognition as a courageous human rights and democracy advocate in the 1970s and 80s. A famed prisoner of conscience, his ostensible lifelong advocacy of human rights does not extend to the Palestinians.

Let’s unpack this subject.

Sharansky, a maths whizz and chess prodigy, became known as a refusenik – a description given to Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate to Israel. Imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in the early 1970s, Sharansky’s cause for freedom was taken up by numerous conservative heavyweight politicians in the United States, West Germany and other nations. Spending time in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released in 1986 as part of a prisoner exchange.

He became a celebrity dissident, writing books and giving lectures about the triumph of individual liberty over government tyranny. The Sharansky cause célèbre seemed to achieve vindication in the late 1980s, when former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev permitted Soviet Jews to emigrate. Sharansky’s status as a hero of our times seemed assured.

Sharansky’s career as a political operator in Israel since the 1990s undermines his portrayal as a human rights hero. His politics is that of the ultranationalist and religious chauvinist Right, based on the large Russian Jewish constituency. Quashing any kind of compromise with the Palestinians, Sharansky has promoted the cause of ultra-rightist nationalism in Israel, and has encouraged annexationist policies in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Sharansky, and his staunch ally Avigdor Lieberman (a similarly former Soviet Jew) have voiced hateful sentiments about the Palestinians and Arabs in general, have protested any moves by Israeli governments to withdraw from Palestinian territories, and have advocated near-genocidal policies with regard to neighbouring Arab states. For instance, Lieberman, a former settler and defence minister, suggested that Israel bomb the Aswan dam to force concessions from their Egyptian counterparts.

Sharansky has consistently and enthusiastically supported the Israeli government’s hostile and discriminatory policies towards African Jewish refugees. While Tel Aviv has presented itself as a friendly homeland for the Jewish communities in the diaspora, its mistreatment of Ethiopian and African refugees indicates otherwise. African asylum seekers, Sharansky stated, were not welcome in Israeli society, were unassimilable in his opinion, and constitute an unnecessary drain on precious financial resources.

Every person has the right to express themselves without fear of persecution, including Sharansky. If he wishes to write books and give lectures – good luck to him. During the Cold War, anti-Soviet dissidents were glorified, even though many of them had ultra-rightist and racist views.

When a person is elevated to a status of a human rights icon, upheld as a courageous advocate for democracy, we have the right to expose and denounce their hypocrisy. If Sharansky’s politics make him a solid ally of the American neoconservative Right – the politicians who advocated for war against Arab-majority nations – then Sharansky deserves condemnation for his pro-war views.

Sharansky’s contemptuous view of, and racialised hostility towards, Arabs and Palestinians in particular is not uncommon in the wider Israeli society. In fact, the heroic view of Jewish immigration to Palestine – framed as the Aliyah – has served to disguise the colonising project of Zionist ideology. That template of Jewish return to Palestine has also defined Anglo-American (and Australian) attitudes to the Palestinian question.

Leon Uris, the late Zionist writer, set the tone for Western audiences with his best-selling 1958 novel, Exodus. The latter was made into an award-winning movie in 1960. The novel sets out a fictionalised version of escaping Jewish refugees, who fight official British intransigence and indifference, to make their way to Palestine. Upheld as heroic settler-pioneers, the novel and subsequent movie have formed the basic framework through which audiences have interpreted the Israeli settler state.

It has been an exceptional work of propaganda, and it is its depiction of Arabs that most concerns us here. While the Israeli settlers are portrayed as valiant, dedicated fighters for the cause of liberation, the Arabs (if they rate a mention) are portrayed as dirty, uneducated, irrational savages. The Israelis of Uris’ imagination – generally white-skinned and blond – are resourceful in developing the land. The Arabs in contrast, are stuck in medieval ways, live in unsanitary conditions and are motivated only by an obsessive and fanatical anti-Semitism.

When the colonised people are dehumanised – the word ‘Arab’ is consistently prefaced with the adjectives ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ – their humanity as a people is denied. There is an abundance of Palestinian writing – novels, short stories, poetry, academic books – that articulate the experiences of dispossession and exile. Their suffering is ignored or minimised, and their works do not receive corporate or government largesse available to Sharansky.

While the Palestinians have appealed for international support from antiracist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, Sharansky has shown where his sympathies lie – with the Hong Kong ultranationalist protesters. The latter have consciously allied with far right American politicians, as well as the Trump administration, who advocate the suppression of BLM and the antiracism protests.

A commitment to human rights cannot exclude the demand for Palestinian self-determination. The hypocrisy of at the heart of Sharansky’s perspective stands exposed.