A four-legged whale, fossils and the public understanding of science

Scientists in Egypt have made the discovery of a four-legged whale, an ancestral species and a transitional form between land-dwelling mammals and modern, purely aquatic whales.

The newly discovered ancestral whale, called Phiomicetus anubis, is named partly after Anubis, the canine-headed Egyptian god associated with death and the afterlife. Found in the Fayum depression, it is in line with similar ancestral semi-aquatic fossils found in other continents.

Whale evolution is amply documented with a strong evidentiary basis in the fossil record. Evolving from aquatic artiodactyls, palaeontologists have been examining the ancestral species of modern whales – and the related cetaceans – for decades. Protocetids are semiaquatic whales that inhabited a niche midway between their semi-terrestrial predecessors and the ocean-going whales.

Possessing a raptor-like feeding style, they were fearsome predators. Phiomicetus anubis weighed an estimated 600 kilograms, and was three metres in length. The Phiomicetus is not the only ancestral quadrupedal whale fossil that has been found.

Back in 2019, scientists in Peru discovered the fossil of an ancient four-legged whale with hooves – adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Located in marine sediments off the coast of Peru, that finding, of a 42.6 million years old creature, shed light on the transition from land to sea by the ancestors of today’s largest mammals.

Fossils which are morphologically transitional from land mammals to modern, purely aquatic, whales are not without precedent. In 2010, National Geographic magazine reported that whales are descended from aquatic, hoofed ancestors. Indohyus, an amphibious ancestor of modern whales, had hooves with slender legs, and would take to water in the course of feeding and avoiding danger.

Indohyus, now extinct, lived 50 million years ago in what is now Southern Asia. It is an early member of the cetacean stem, related to whales and dolphins. While Indohyus had legs resembling a small deer, it also possessed the dentition of early modern whales. It lived life in both terrestrial and aquatic milieus, it possessed an involucrum, an ancient cetacean trait – a thickened piece of bone which helps whales to hear underwater.

Do palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists expect to find a transitional form of half-salamander and half-giraffe? Of course not. Creationist commentators make ridiculous claims, imputing them to evolution. They have no understanding of phyla and existing morphological similarities.

Back in 1985, when I was learning high school biology and geology, creationist Michael Denton made the following statement about a purported difficulty in evolutionary biology – a hyperbolic claim repeated in different forms over the years:

to postulate a large number of entirely extinct hypothetical species starting from a small, relatively unspecialized land mammal and leading successively through an otter-like state, seal-like stage, sirenian-like stage and finally to a putative organism which could serve as the ancestor of the modern whales. Even from the hypothetical whale ancestor stage we need to postulate many hypothetical primitive whales to bridge the not inconsiderable gaps which separate the modern filter feeders (baleen whales) and the toothed whales.Denton (1985) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis Adler & Adler Publishers:Chevy Chase, MD. p. 174

Be careful what you wish for – because the quadrupedal and semi-aquatic ancestral whale is precisely the finding that renders Denton’s observation completely irrelevant. Back in 2007, former child actor now creationist preacher Kirk Cameron, mocked evolution by presenting a fictional hybrid animal consisting of half duck-like features, and half-crocodile – a crocoduck.

Once again – be careful what you wish for; Kirk should make the acquaintance of Anatosuchus, a species among numerous examples of what can be reasonably described as a ‘crocoduck.’ The purpose of the current article is not an exercise in egotistical chest-thumping. Learning about evolutionary biology and geology in high school – a Catholic school – was a rewarding and enriching experience. The curriculum was set by the Australian Academy of Science.

Science education, and the public understanding of science, are crucial areas which impact public policy. In this age of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become painfully obvious why more people should engage with scientists and achieve scientific literacy. Of course, no single individual can become a subject matter expert on every branch of science. However, we cannot afford to be indifferent to the developments of science – and not just because of the impact of technology.

Understanding new technology is important, but it is only one part of the full interplay between science and society. Science denialism is a serious hindrance to the public acceptance of policies based on scientific issues. Climate change denialism, while relatively new, is actually based on earlier denial of evolutionary biology, and anti-vaccination hostility for that matter. We have trained ourselves to be deniers – it is time to retrain our minds to accept evidence.

Ancient alien astronauts, UFOs and Atlantis – pseudoarcheology is not just harmless fun

Alien astronauts building ancient megastructures, the lost continent of Atlantis, the Kensington Runestone and the Roswell UFO – all these are examples of pseudoarcheology. The History Channel and cable tv generally, under the pretext of promoting academic debate, has given credence to one or more of these claims, posing as a contrarian outsider challenging the ‘orthodox’ archeological establishment.

Playing the Galileo gambit – the courageous genius maverick waging a lonely fight against the dominant forces of orthodoxy – is a cynical ploy, one that has enabled misleading and dangerous pseudoscientific nonsense to gain credibility. It is impossible to refute each and every pseudoarcheological claim, however, we can make important observations here that will enable us to be skeptical next time outlandish claims about the past are made.

The Atlantis myth

The story of Atlantis, and the perpetual search for that alleged continent, is the mother lode of pseudoarcheological theories. Plato, the Ancient Greek philosopher, first elaborated an allegorical tale in his Socratic dialogues – Timaeus and Critias – about a lost paradise. Criticising the hubris, corruption and greed of his time, Plato was making a commentary regarding the sociopolitical issues of his time.

A lush paradise inhabited by people who were half-god and half-human, Plato employed this allegorical device about Atlantis as a cautionary tale regarding the cataclysmic downfall of hubristic civilisations – and the superiority of his theory of the ideal state. Atlantis was abundant in minerals, a utopian state that became morally bankrupt. It sank, 9000 years before Plato was writing this story in 360 BC, and remained a cautionary tale.

The idea of an ultimate catastrophe destroying a once-prosperous civilisation – the Armageddon in Christian theology – is a powerful literary device used by political writers, poets, and commentators throughout the ages. However, the question that lingered bedevilled writers since Plato’s time – was he referring to an actual place?

This question remained in the background for centuries, until the discovery of the Americas. Here was a previously continent, peopled by indigenous civilisations, with no connection to any of the monotheistic religions – and they developed independently for centuries. The existence of entire nations, developing their own science, ethics and technology shattered the exclusivity of the biblically-based worldview – there was no mention of indigenous Americans in the Bible.

Could Atlantis be another lost continent, inhabited by its own resident peoples, with its own science and technology? Interest in Atlantis pseudohistory erupted with the publication of books such as Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, by Ignatius Donnelly, a populist American politician. Numerous publications followed, with an intermingling of speculation about a ‘race’ of Atlanteans, and their allegedly superior intelligence responsible for seeding the achievements of various non-white civilisations.

Ancient alien astronauts and megastructures

The notion that superior extraterrestrial intelligence – visiting aliens – built the majority of the world’s ancient megastructures has a long lineage. Erich von Danikin got the ball rolling in 1968 with his book Chariots of the Gods? Speculating that alien astronauts are responsible for constructing ancient monuments, such as the Egyptian Pyramids, alien astronaut responsibility for megastructures has made its way around the world.

Indeed, nonwhite civilisations have had to defend themselves from claims that extraterrestrial visitors seeded their nations and built their structures. Numerous popular culture movies – such as Stargate – have popularised notions of ancient Egypt, and the pyramids, being enmeshed with alien races, demons and curses. The Nazca Lines, a series of geoglyphs in Peru, have also been assigned to alien creativity.

What is the harm of these kinds of pseudoarcheological beliefs? So what if a person thinks aliens built the pyramids, or indigenous American structures?

The problem with this kind of thinking is the inherent racism in such an outlook, dismissing the possibility that indigenous civilisations could develop the mathematics, science and technology to construct sophisticated megastructures. Julien Benoit, writing in The Conversation magazine, states that misdirecting responsibility for great archeological structures in nonwhite civilisations to alien intelligence contains a component of dismissive racism.

African nations have extensive archeological records, and impressive monuments in their own right. While Egypt has the well-known pyramids, Africa also has the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, not to mention archeological sites in South Africa and Mali. The proponents of alien architects not only misunderstand the depth of knowledge and scientific skills in nonwhite civilisations, they go to great lengths vandalising such monuments in order to prove their outlandish theories.

The Egyptian pyramids have attracted the speculations of alien enthusiasts, occultists and Atlantis advocates. Pyramidology is a particularly fertile branch of pseudoarcheological obsession. Sir Isaac Newton, the noted English scientist, spent hours not only on physics, but also examining the geometry of the pyramids, looking for signs of the Christian God’s presence in its design. The pyramids as a product of some ‘lost superior wisdom’ has preoccupied Atlantis enthusiasts and alien advocates for decades.

The purpose here is not to denounce each and every instance of ancient alien speculation. It is to highlight that archeologists deal with unsolved mysteries every day; they are passionate about their work and driven by a profound sense of curiosity about the past. They explore numerous evidentiary avenues to bring the past back to life – alien astronauts and Atlantis theorising are dead-ends.

Afghan refugees, Vietnamese asylum seekers and the weaponisation of immigrant stories

The victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has, correctly, prompted demands of the Australian government to increase the intake of Afghan refugees. Other capitalist states, such as Canada and Britain, are opening the doors to provide sanctuary for Afghans fleeing the misogynist Taliban.

Historical comparisons have been made between today’s outflow of Afghan refugees in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, and the post-1975 Vietnamese refugees, the majority of whom were loyal to the former Saigon South Vietnam regime. Such comparisons, while giving us a sense of comfort that ‘we have been through this before’, can be misleading. For while the Australian government of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) admitted Saigon loyalist Vietnamese refugees, Fraser was not the champion of human rights and compassion that he is made out to be today.

This crisis provides us with an opportunity to examine an underlying trend of refugee-intake stories in Australia and other Western nations. The political use of good-news refugee stories to bolster domestic propaganda purposes is nothing new – but it reveals the true nature of our colonial-settler mindset.

Back in 2012, Rachel Stevens, research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, wrote that:

Australia has rarely had a humane refugee policy and the idea that the Fraser government compassionately welcomed Vietnamese asylum seekers is amiss.

Our ostensibly generous attitude towards selected refugee groups has always hidden ulterior motives. Since the end of World War 2, the United States applied the label of refugee to those fleeing from Eastern European nations and Soviet Union. Numerous white supremacist and Nazi collaborator groups – Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians and so on – were rebranded as refugees escaping Communist persecution. Their wartime crimes were swept under the carpet, and their skills in recruiting and fighting for the anticommunist cause were utilised by the US in the new Cold War.

Right wing communities, residing outside their country of origin, were in a practical and de facto alliance with US political elites. They became the politically acceptable refugees, and their stories were harnessed to the Cold War objectives of US foreign policy. These fascist collaborators became repurposed as ‘freedom fighters’, while their ideological similarities to Nazism and white supremacist ideology were downplayed.

Weaponising refugee and immigrant stories, the US has deployed ultrarightist and ethnonationalist communities as ideological battering rams against the USSR and officially-designated ‘enemy’ nations abroad. The Saigon loyalists, while not Eastern European, fit into this policy of the selective application of sympathy. Used as weapons to install a fanatical right wing regime – a regime that tortured dissidents and committed horrific human rights abuses – the imperialist nations then applied the label ‘refugee’ to this community of right wing exiles.

So why did Fraser provide sanctuary for the Saigon loyalist Vietnamese? Australian big capital was orienting towards business with the emerging markets in the Asia Pacific. Former Australian PM Gough Whitlam had abolished the White Australia policy, and opened direct relations with Beijing. Fraser, continuing this trend, demonstrated Australia’s willingness to abandon its racist past and accept Asian immigrants as equal citizens in a multiethnic Australia.

With the fall of Saigon, the outflow of refugees increased, and the Fraser government responded to this crisis with a combination of opportunism and cynicism. Whipping up hysteria around the ‘boat people’, it was Fraser who set the stage for increased anti-refugee paranoia. Denouncing boat arrivals as ‘queue jumpers’, the Fraser government was at pains to reassure xenophobic anxieties about Asian immigrants ‘not fitting in.’

By 1981, 53 refugee boats arrived in Australia, bringing with them a grand total of 2100 people – hardly a tsunami of unauthorised arrivals. The rhetoric used by Fraser government ministers was very similar to the tropes recycled today – that of unscrupulous operators bringing economic migrants to Australia, seeking a better life and thus not ‘real’ refugees. In fact, Fraser’s approach seems generous by today’s standards precisely because Canberra has moved even further to the far right on the question of refugees. Today’s inhumane compulsory detention of asylum seekers has its origins in the Fraser years.

Our refugee intake should be based on humanitarian concerns, and not narrow ideological interests. We must remember the time that Peter Dutton, Home Affairs minister in 2018, suggested the fast tracking of refugee visas for white South African farmers, based on reports of persecution.

Yes, there is a moral obligation to take Afghan refugees. That ethical obligation did not begin with the victory of the Taliban. Imperialist nations had the opportunity to take Afghan refugees since 2001 – ethnic minorities in Afghanistan have been persecuted for every year of the US/NATO war on that nation. Australian authorities ignored their moral obligations to refugees for the duration of that war, and only invoke sympathy for asylum seekers in the aftermath of the military defeat of the imperial project.

Afghanistan and the defeat of the US military

Afghanistan has witnessed the swift victory of the Taliban insurgency, and the complete disintegration of the US-backed Afghan government. The former President, Ashraf Ghani, and his colleagues have fled the country. While the situation remains in flux, it is possible to examine the defeat of the US and UK military forces, after nearly twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan.

The evacuation of the US embassy in Kabul – which US authorities are rebranding as reducing its functions to a ‘core presence’ – is an indication of the staggering defeat of US forces and its Afghan proxies. Highly reminiscent of the chaotic evacuation of US embassy personnel from Saigon in 1975, the fall of Kabul, and the disintegration of the Afghan security forces, occurred much faster than predicted by US intelligence.

The ease with which the American-supported Kabul regime was defeated, and the ousting of former President Ashraf Ghani, points to the failure of American state-building and the fragile nature of the US occupation.

The Kabul government, a collection of anti-Taliban fundamentalists, Tajik and Uzbek warlords, and pro-American Pashtun nationals, turned into a kleptocratic elite unable to meet the needs of the majority of Afghans. Foreign Policy magazine, back in 2014, noted that Afghanistan under the US/NATO occupation, had become the world’s most sophisticated kleptocracy.

There is no pleasure to be derived from a victory for the misogynistic Taliban insurgency – Afghan civilians are fleeing from territories under their control. Religious terrorism, while disgraceful, was not introduced into Afghanistan by the Taliban. The practitioners of fundamentalist terrorism were the Afghan Mujahideen, supported by the US-Saudi-Pakistani axis. This was the largest and most expensive anti communist fundamentalist insurgency during the Cold War.

Please do not deploy the cynical claim of defending ‘women’s rights’ to provide an ethical spin on this 20-year military occupation. There was no concern for women’s rights as the US-sponsored Afghan Mujahideen, in the 1980s, steadily undermined the Afghan socialist government which implemented and extended women’s emancipation. From schooling for girls, higher education for women, financial independence and employment opportunities, the 1979-92 Afghan socialist regime empowered women in ways not seen since its demise.

The Mujahideen forces cultivated by the US – and its Saudi and Pakistani allies – are the socially regressive, misogynistic militias which were welcomed as ‘freedom fighters’ by US ruling circles in the 1980s. Rebranded as the ‘Northern Alliance’ in the mid-1990s, it is completely hypocritical for the United States to condemn the mistreatment of women in Afghanistan, and denounce the (allegedly) culturally regressive practices of Islam – all the while supporting and promoting those very same culturally regressive fundamentalist groups.

The Afghan Mujahideen, bankrolled by the US, provided the ideological breeding ground for the subsequent emergence of the ultrarightist Taliban. In the 1980s, then President Reagan welcomed the leaders of the Mujahideen – the latter involving a young Saudi Arabian fanatic called Osama Bin Laden – as ‘freedom fighters’, comparable to the founding fathers of the 1776 American war of independence.

The Bagram air base, speedily evacuated by US forces earlier in July, was a small implantation of ‘Americana’ in Afghanistan. It had car dealerships, swimming pools, fast-food outlets, internet connection – but it was not a state. The air base was actually built by the Soviets back in the 1950s. In fact, from that time onwards, the USSR maintained friendly and cooperative relations with its noncommunist neighbour to the south, and constructed numerous infrastructure building projects.

The Soviets contributed towards building a functioning society. The twenty-year US occupation of Afghanistan built a failed narco-trafficking state. Not only did the US-installed Kabul kleptocracy take advantage of the narcotics trade, the proceeds of this trafficking business were used in the 1980s by the CIA-backed Mujahideen forces. It is a Hollywood myth that the Soviets were building an ‘empire’ in Afghanistan – such myths assist the US is recycling tropes about regime change and ‘humanitarian intervention.’ Due to rightward shifts in Moscow in the late 1980s, the Soviets withdrew their forces.

Ironically, and perhaps understandably, it is Russia along with China and Iran, who are stepping up to provide stability in the new Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. In the late 80s and early 90s, the last Communist president of Afghanistan, the late Dr Mohammad Najibullah, proposed a national reconciliation policy, involving multiparty elections, including non-Communist politicians in any new government, and a reconciliation between the Pashtuns and various ethnic minorities. This proposal was never implemented – resigning in 1992, Najibullah was brutally murdered by the Taliban in 1996.

The American ‘war on terror’ – ostensibly begun to demolish Al Qaeda in Afghanistan – was portrayed as a just, legally-sanctioned response to the September 11 terrorist atrocity. This rationale stands exposed as utterly hypocritical. After the trillions of dollars spent on fighting in and occupying Afghanistan, it is time to dispense with deceitful claims about waging a ‘good war.’ Wars of imperial conquest always end in defeat.

US President Joe Biden has the opportunity to learn from this military defeat, and abandon ‘regime change’ policies that have led to so much death and destruction. As an initial step, it is necessary to hold the political and military leaders of the US (and their allies) accountable for the crimes they have committed in Afghanistan.

Let’s stop misusing the Nazi analogy – it’s sloppy and trivialises the Holocaust

In this age of social media, it is inevitable that we will come across a debate where one party will portray their opponents as modern-day equivalents of Nazis. The latter is evil personified – and accusing someone with that word stirs the passions.

We have all heard or read the words – Eco-Nazi, feminazi, Soup Nazi – and now a variation on a theme, Chinazi, a portmanteau deployed by Hong Kong protesters comparing the Beijing regime to Nazi Germany. Ok, I understand that Seinfeld was being comical when writing the soup Nazi episode.

However, the misuse and exaggerated recycling of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy is anything but funny. It is sloppy thinking, serves to inflame polarising rhetoric, and trivialises the serious nature of the historical nature of Nazism, but also underestimates the growing problem of white supremacist ideology today.

Anti-vaccine protesters have misused the Holocaust analogy, and in their latest protest in France, in July, they displayed their wilful distortion of contemporary history. Wearing the yellow Star of David similar to the symbol imposed upon Jewish people in Nazi-aligned Vichy France, anti-vaxxers portrayed themselves as a beleaguered minority, objecting to the proposal by French President Macron to implement a health pass only for vaccinated individuals. That vaccine passport would allow people to mingle and visit public areas, vaccinated against Covid-19.

Arthur Caplan, an expert on medical ethics, wrote that in discussions about medical practices, inevitably, a participant will invoke the Nazi analogy:

Whether the subject is stem cell research, end-of-life care, the conduct of clinical trials in poor nations, abortion, embryo research, animal experimentation, genetic testing, or human experimentation involving vulnerable populations, references to Nazi policies or practices tumble forth from critics. “If X is done, then we are on the road to Nazi Germany” has become a commonplace claim in contemporary bioethical debates.

In countering the anti-vaxxer protest in France mentioned earlier, Holocaust survivor Joseph Szwarc, now in his nineties, condemned the far right protesters. He stated that he and his fellow Jews were victims of white supremacy and antisemitism; the anti-vaccination crowd knew nothing about the horrendous suffering of Jewish people under Nazism.

The discussions today surrounding euthanasia, gun control, medical testing conducted on animals, stem cell research and so on, are grounded in a strong foundation of bioethics, respect for the dignity of each individual person, and promoting individual human autonomy and decision-making. The Nazi party, and its cothinkers around Europe, were motivated by the philosophy of eugenics and white supremacy. Classifying people into racial categories, they were determined to exterminate all those whom they regarded as sub-human.

The Nazi euthanasia programme, for instance, had nothing to do with consideration of quality of life, nor with the provision of palliative care for the terminally ill. In fact, labeling the Nazi policy of systematically murdering the differently-abled ‘euthanasia’ is a misnomer. The white supremacist ideology is that of a death cult, condemning the nonwhite nations to oblivion through industrialised killing.

Scientifically informed and medically sound responses to the pandemic, medical approaches to serious illness and public health measures have nothing to do with the mass slaughter of the Holocaust. In fact, the latter is being trivialised when we invoke horrid comparisons with that crime against humanity, demeaning the suffering of those who lost their lives.

When Ben Carson, former Republican presidential candidate, misuses the Nazi analogy in a debate about gun control – comparing Obama’s proposed gun control legislation as akin to Hitler and the Nazis – he is demonstrating his appalling ignorance. The Weimar Republic, the regime prior to the Nazis ascent to power, had tougher gun control legislation that the Nazi regime.

Carson recycled the damaging myth of ‘good guys with guns’, stating that Jews could have reduced the numbers killed in the Holocaust if only they were allowed guns. This ridiculous, good cowboy-with-a-gun stereotype is demolished by the facts of World War 2 – Jewish people in the ghettos did fight back, with guns, and were overwhelmed and killed by German forces.

Mike Huckabee, Republican stalwart, denounced any kind of deal with Iran on the subject of nuclear weapons, by stating that former President Obama’s arrangement with Iran was like marching Israelis to the door of the ovens. Such inflammatory and wildly inaccurate statements fit the pattern of reductio ad Hitlerum. Accusing your opponent of ‘behaving like Nazis’ shuts down debate, and distracts from the very real and growing problem of white supremacist groups around the world.

Should the use of the Nazi/Holocaust analogy be completely terminated? No. Just make sure you know the history of WW2, Nazism and fascism before you start casually throwing around the Nazi analogy. Ensure that your comparison does not serve to simply slander your opponent, or merely turn up the heat of a debate without shedding any new light on your case.

The fanatical Iranian cult, the MEK, deserves condemnation

This month, Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President elect, will assume office. This provides an opportunity to restart the stalled dialogue between Tehran and Washington. For its part, the Biden administration should stop listening to the advice of a fanatical and delusional cult, which has steadily gained access to, and high-level supporters on, Capitol Hill.

The Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK), People’s Mujahedin of Iran, began as an anti-monarchist, semi-socialist and Islamist group fighting to overthrow the US-backed Shah of Iran. Participants in the 1979-80 Iranian Revolution, they have gradually metamorphosed – deteriorated – into a dictatorial exile cult, dependent on imperialist support. Serving as a cat’s paw of the US, they have gained a devoted band of neoconservative supporters, and plush offices – and have incited the US into a belligerent and bellicose stand against Tehran.

Once regarded as a terrorist group, the MEK was delisted from that classification in 2012, by an American administration intent on cultivating exiled Iranian forces able and willing to confront the regime in Tehran. Bravely fighting the US-supported monarchy in the 1960s and 70s, they played a strong part in the overthrow of the Shah and the defeat of his US-trained secret police.

After the success of the anti-American 1979-80 revolution, the Ayatollah Khomeini and associated mullahs turned again the MEK. The latter fought back with bombings, street-battles and guerrilla warfare, but their days were numbered. Most of the MEK militants were killed, or fled to neighbouring Iraq. Here, with the official support of the Ba’athist regime, they became willing footsoldiers of the Iraqi army in its long war against revolutionary Iran.

In the 1980s, setting up at Camp Ashraf, the MEK lost its support inside Iran, viewed as an accomplice to a foreign regime. Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein, was an ally of the US and the western powers. Only after the Iraqi regime became an officially demonised enemy of the US in 1991, did the MEK gain listing as a proscribed terrorist organisation.

Headed by Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, the MEK began its descent into a dictatorial, obsessive cult. Former members have spoken of the strongly controlled lifestyle, enforced gender segregation and celibacy, and the indoctrination of MEK members. Abandoning its origins in the struggles of pre-Revolutionary Iran, MEK militants had only one purpose in life – to sacrifice their lives to overthrow the Islamic republic.

In 2003, with the American invasion of Iraq, the MEK transferred their base of operations to Albania – a client state of the US in the Balkans. There, the MEK soldiers live in their compound, shut off from the outside world. Massoud Rajavi, disappearing in 2003, is rumoured to be dead. Maryam Rajavi has since become the public face of the totalitarian cult, and has deliberately cultivated links with the most hawkish ultrarightist politicians in Washington.

However, it would be shortsighted to focus exclusively on the US Republicans who support the MEK, such as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton, and previously mayor of New York and Trumpist advocate Rudy Giuliani. Democrat politician Howard Dean, former Congressman and civil rights activist the late John Lewis, former FBI director Louis Freeh, former CIA chief Porter Goss, and former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, have all spoken at MEK events, lent their voices to the group, and successfully lobbied to have them delisted from the proscribed terrorist groups label.

Republican and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich compared Rajavi to George Washington in one of his many occasions championing the cause of the MEK. Lauded as a ‘government in exile’, the latter has gained the support of strongly pro-Zionist voices, such as Alan Dershowitz, and the late Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, has used MEK operatives to carry out terrorist acts of sabotage inside Iran, in line with ‘regime change’ policy in Washington.

Delusional and terroristic cults, like the Rajavi MEK, are fostered by powerful American politicians to create an illusion of legitimacy. This cult, agitating for outright war with Iran, is not a credible source on which to rely for policy decisions. The US administration, already a belligerent protagonist with regard to Iran, has contributed financially and materially to what was considered by US authorities until 2012 as a terrorist organisation. Removing the MEK from the terrorism listing does not retroactively legalise the activities criminalised by the original legislation.

It has been a long way to respectability on Capitol Hill for the MEK.

Last year, when the US House of Representatives voted to condemn QAnon and its harmful conspiracist ideology, Democratic Congressman and chair of the House Rules Committee Jim McGovern, called it a sick cult. In that spirit, it is high time to condemn the MEK as an equally destructive and delusional cult, and its influence on American foreign policy towards Iran must be cancelled.

Kamala Harris, pro-imperial refugees and racially diverse imperialism

Current US Vice President, Kamala Harris, made her first overseas trip as sitting VP to Mexico and Guatemala in June this year. She had a blunt, concise messages to the people of Central America seeking refuge in the US – do not come. She pointedly told the asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the main countries from where Hispanic refugees originate – that they will be turned back if they approach the US border.

Interestingly, there is one group of Hispanic refugees who are received with welcoming arms in the US – the pro-imperial anti communist Cubans, largely based in Miami. They were on full display as participants in the January 6 2021 assault on Capitol Hill, waving the pre-Revolution Batista flag. The Miami Cubans have long circulated ultranationalist conspiracy theories in their immediate circles, and have supported the most belligerent, war-mongering policies of successive US administrations.

Intersectional imperialism

Harris’ statement, while lacking Trumpist vulgarities, is essentially the same message that the anti-immigrant Republicans have advocated. Harris, whose African American and Asian background was leveraged by the Biden campaign, ignored the fundamental role of US imperialism in undermining the living conditions of Central American republics, thus creating the outflow of refugees. Harris, herself the child of migrant parents, was upheld as a candidate purportedly sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants.

The Vice President’s statement, a continuity of anti-immigration and refugee-hostile policies, is also evidence of a deeper political process. While overt white supremacy is out of fashion, there is a distinct adoption of a multicultural facade for US imperial policies. The cooptation of racial diversity by the US ruling class is indicative of an important tactical ploy – intersectional imperialism.

American imperial wars, and institutions, now come with a rainbow flag and multicultural appearance. Thomas Friedman, the court jester for US empire, encapsulated this sentiment in one of his drivel-pieces masquerading as journalism. Writing in April this year about the US war on Afghanistan, he noted that the strength of US military forces derives from one essential feature – racial diversity. White, black, Hispanic, Asian – all the ethnicities are represented in the special forces and elite troops occupying Afghanistan.

Barely three months after Friedman wrote that, the multicultural forces of the US empire quietly packed up their belongings and, in the dead of night, fled the sprawling Bagram air base, once the pride of the US imperium in Afghanistan. Be that as it may, the ruling circles in Washington have relentlessly pursued this message of ‘wokeness’ – posturing as racially inclusive, LGBTQIA-friendly, ecologically-sound institutions, all the while carrying out the same predatory policies overseas and domestically.

To be sure, this is not a new or original PR tactic. The Israeli military, to improve its image abroad, has frequently run pinkwashing campaign, as well as showcasing its transgender-friendly policies. Disguising the violent and inhumane character of its occupation of Palestinian Territories, the Israeli armed forces have deliberately cultivated an image of a socially-progressive institution.

Humans of the CIA

Earlier this year, an American institution known for its secrecy and covert activities tried its hand at wokewashing – the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Releasing a recruitment video in March this year, the CIA featured personnel from nonwhite backgrounds, speaking about the exciting and rewarding careers they have in an ethnically diverse organisation. One young woman, describing herself as a cisgender millennial with generalised anxiety disorder, spoke glowingly about the awards she has won while working for the racially-respectful CIA.

The CIA would like its audience to forget its long, sordid and criminal activities in overthrowing democratically elected governments overseas. Perhaps we should forget the CIA’s underhanded and predatory role in arming nationalist Chinese in Myanmar (Burma) in the 1950s and 60s, organising the remnants of the Kuomintang party as a secret army waging a terroristic war against China.

The CIA-supported Chinese rebels, not only found sanctuary in Burma to carry out their covert war, but also financed their activities by turning to the drug trade. This secret operation, in which the CIA was fully involved, is the origin of the booming Golden Triangle narcotics trafficking business.

Myanmar (Burma) is not the only instance where the CIA has aided and nurtured a criminal enterprise – Afghanistan, long a target of a secret war of destabilisation by CIA-backed Mujahideen militants, became a safe haven for the cultivation and export of opium. While the politicians in Washington hailed the Afghan Mujahideen as ‘freedom fighters’, the CIA allocated billions to a covert war that still casts a long shadow over Afghan affairs to this very day.

When the late great Reverend Dr Martin Luther King demanding racial equality, he was tackling not only the ideology of white supremacy – important as that is. He was also exposing the intricate linkages between imperial wars overseas, economic inequalities and racial disparities at home. Let’s not reduce the demand for racial diversity to a PR exercise in wokewashing the racist nature of American capitalism.

Pan-Turkism, the Ottoman Empire and Turkish imperial ambitions

Pan-Turkism, the ideology that underpins the modern Turkish state, provides the impetus for the imperial ambitions of President Reyyip Erdogan. Negotiations are currently underway between the US and Turkey, the latter intending to deploy troops to Kabul airport once the US completes its Afghanistan withdrawal. Turkish military forces are already present in Libya, staking out a claim in that nation’s affairs.

Pan-Turkism is the political philosophy that holds all Turkic people, regardless of their cultural and linguistic particularities, belong to one supranational and racial Turkish nation – with Ankara at its head. This idea is not new, originating in the late 19th century with the rise of European and Balkan nationalist movements. However, Pan-Turkism acquired a new lease of life in 1990-91, with the disbanding of the USSR. The newly independent Central Asian republics, most of whom have Turkic ancestry, established relations with Turkey.

Is Pan-Turkism a resurrection of the Ottoman Turkish empire? Yes and no. Certainly, bringing all the Turkic peoples into one overarching political and economic union has its similarities with the Ottomans of old. However, Pan-Turkism is also a distinct departure away from the Ottoman Empire template. The modern day Turkish Republic, established by the Young Turk Revolution (1908), advocated a specifically racial definition of a Turkish person.

The Kemalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), deliberately cultivated a racist concept of Turkishness, and projected this template onto any territory where Turkish people lived. For instance, Crimean Tatars, while under Russian sovereignty, were said to be one branch of the Turkic family, and therefore to be brought under Turkish control. The Kemalist authorities set about eliminating non-Turkish minorities, carrying out the genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians, and purging vestiges of Hellenism in Turkey.

This is in stark contrast to the cosmopolitan nature of the Ottoman Empire. For while there were conflicts, the Ottoman Sultan accepted the presence – grudgingly – of non-Turkish minorities within the Ottoman realm. Arabs, Greeks, Jews – all found their place within the Ottoman territories. In fact, Ottoman identity was an ethno-religious one, not a racial category. While the Sultan dealt with nationalist rebellions in his empire, the Ottomans attempted to meld a distinctly Ottoman identity from the diverse peoples of the empire.

The European powers, engaging in their own acts of colonialism, postured as ‘champions’ of the Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire. Their concern was not humanitarian, but cynical politics – the weakening of the Ottoman Turkish polity would open up vast territories for European expansion. In fact, European colonialism, rather than providing self-determination for the formerly subject peoples, implemented a sectarian division of the Arab peoples in furtherance of colonial objectives.

When the French took over the former Ottoman territory of Syria, they created not a united Syrian nation, but a divided confessional patchwork of sectarian polities. Alawis, Druzes, Sunnis, Shias and Maronite Christians all had their sectional territory, with the state of Lebanon carved out of Syria for the Maronite minority. The Ottomans, for all their faults, allowed minorities to live together under the one political federation.

Theodor Herzl, one of the founding fathers of political Zionism, approached the Ottoman sultan with a business proposition; in exchange for a financial contribution to alleviate the Ottoman Empire’s debts to foreign powers, the Zionist movement would acquire Palestine as a territory to build a new Jewish state. Attempting to buy land from the Ottomans was initially an appealing idea; but the Sultan rejected the proposal. Indeed, Ottoman Jews rejected Zionism, professing their loyalty to the Ottoman Sultan.

The military assertiveness of the modern Turkish state derives, not from a sense of Ottoman cosmopolitanism, but from an ideology of racist Pan-Turkish exclusivity. Whether it is the Turkish republic’s covert and critical support for ISIS militants in Syria, or the tactical outreach to the neofascist regime in the Ukraine, Ankara’s motivation is not an Ottoman-era respect for multicultural confessionalism, but a desire to acquire strategic depth and establish an ethnically pure Turkish polity.

Indeed, Pan-Turkism is the application of a European settler-colonial ideology in the context of Western Asia (what we normally call the Middle East). The forced Turkification of place names, cities and villages inside Turkey is the domestic face of an expansionist Pan-Turkism. When linguistic and cultural policies are deployed to construct a racialist narrative of Turkey’s pre-Kemalist history, it is an outright denial of the multinational composition of the Ottoman Empire.

As I frequently remind members of my own Armenian tribe, the enemy is not some amorphous mass called ‘the Turks’, or Muslims, or refugees, or mosques, or Islam. The enemy is Pan-Turkism and its manifestation in the Turkish state. It is not only myself saying this – there are mass Turkish and Kurdish political parties and organisations who strongly oppose the Turkification policies of Ankara, reject imperial expansion, and ally themselves with the oppressed and anti-colonial non-Turk minorities.

An anti-imperialist platform, crossing over multiethnic and confessional boundaries, is a necessary first step in defeating the destructive ideology of Pan-Turkism.

Refugees who advocate our prejudices are repurposed into heroic dissidents

It has been at least six months since the January 6 Capitol Hill riot, incited and carried out by white supremacist and QAnon conspiracist groups. It was a jarring assault on the democratic process.

Alongside these white supremacists were a motley collection of ultrarightist multiethnic refugee groupings – South Vietnamese Saigon loyalists, pre-Revolution era Cuban Batista cultists, Tibetan independence flag-wavers, Iranian-American Shah loyalists, and xenophobically-resentful Hong Kongers agitating for US intervention. While this assortment of multicultural footsoldiers for imperialism may seem strange, actually it is not.

Cultivating a multiethnic flavour of imperialism is a cynical and perverse tactic of the United States to portray itself as a bastion of freedom. Those refugees who reflect the imperatives and ideological underpinnings of American empire receive a favourable welcome and a media platform to disseminate their views.

The Australian government imprisons refugees in offshore detention centres, marginalising their presence. However, there are refugees who acquire the status of ‘heroic dissidents’ because of their functional utility in the service of US imperial power.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch-Somali refugee, has received preferential treatment, been given a multimedia platform to advocate her views, and has had books published as a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ on radical Islam. Her personal story, that of a courageous formerly Muslim woman, escaping the clutches of patriarchal and tyrannical Islam to find sanctuary in the enlightened liberal West touches the heart strings. Fleeing war and religious persecution, Hirsi Ali has leveraged her personal journey into a remarkable story of tenacity and hope. That is all well and good, except for one consequential detail – none of it is true.

Provided a comfortable life and education in a UN-funded school in Kenya, she never actually witnessed the war-torn conditions of Somalia. In a 2006 interview, she admitted fabricating huge portions of her personal story, and she was never in danger of being forced into an arranged marriage, or subject to the threat of an honour killing. Playing up the stereotypes of the misogynistic Muslim family, she found favour with the anti-immigrant and far righting Dutch government of former PM Rita Verdonk.

Ali, elected to the Dutch parliament in 2003, did her best to advocate Islamophobic politics, pushing anti-immigrant xenophobia and denying refugees from sub-Saharan Africa a legitimate status. After her bogus claims were exposed in the Netherlands, the Verdonk government fell, and Ali fled to the homeland of the foreign-born bigot, the United States.

Taking up a position as an ‘intellectual’ at the neoconservative swamp masquerading as a think tank – the American Enterprise Institute, she has continued to outdo Donald Trump in promoting Trumpist state violence against the Muslim-majority nations. Her statements, bordering on incitement to homicidal violence, make her the perfect spokesperson for the imperialist project – an African woman demanding the genocidal intervention of the US military.

Interestingly, there is another Somali refugee woman, Representative Ilhan Omar, who has escaped war and violence in her homeland, respected the US political system, and risen through the ranks to become an advocate for the oppressed and marginalised in the US. She is the first woman of colour to represent Minnesota.

While Ali’s star has waned over the years, newer ultranationalist refugees have risen to become repurposed as ‘heroic dissidents.’ Both Alexei Navalny and Roman Protasevich, from Russia and Belarus respectively, have achieved celebrity dissident status in our corporate media. Each claims to be fighting domestic tyranny – Putin in Russia and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko pigeonholed into the respective role of ‘dictator’ – but each has a political track record which indicates white nationalist racism and subservience to American imperial power.

Navalny, rebranded as a liberal defender of democracy in the West, has a long history of racist and anti-immigrant views. Denouncing the peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia as ‘cockroaches’, he has advocated for the creation of an ethnically pure Russia, in line with white supremacist thinking. A far rightist businessman, Navalny has fallen foul of the Russian business community, and has spent his energies condemning the Putin administration as a reincarnation of Soviet Communism – a demonstrably ludicrous proposition.

At the same time that Navalny was having health problems, allegedly at the hands of devious Kremlin agents, Roman Protasevich was fighting alongside neo-Nazi militias in the Ukraine, using that as a springboard for his regime-change activities in his native Belarus. Arrested by Belarusian authorities after his plane was forced down in May this year, his detention prompted a wave of hypocritical denunciations in the West. It is no secret that the United States, in an act of air piracy, forced the landing of former Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in 2013.

Protasevich, initially denying his neofascist connections, has lost his initial lustrous appeal once his unsavoury activities came to light. His reputation, virtually unsalvageable, has not stopped the corporate media campaign to cast him as a principled democratic crusader.

The refugees arriving in Australia are victims of wars and economic/ecological devastation wrought by the policies of the United States and its allies. Do not weaponise their stories into a toxic narrative of US ‘emancipatory’ liberation. The politics of Hirsi Ali, Navalny and Protasevich found expression in concentrated form on January 6 this year at Capitol Hill. We would do well to stop implementing destructive policies which create outflows of refugees in the first place.

Cancelling Canada Day is the first step towards justice for the Indigenous nations

Canada, in contrast to the United States, has an international reputation of being the nice one in North America. The quiet Canadian is usually held up as the nicer person as opposed to the loud, ugly American. There is a component of truth to this; any nation with a half-decent health care and education system appears reasonable in contrast to the ultraindividualistic dystopian nightmare that is the US.

However, a closer examination of Canadian capitalism reveals the brutal and racist underbelly of that nation. Why is such a deeper scrutiny warranted? In the wake of the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the grounds of the former residential school for Indigenous children at Kamloops, British Columbia – followed by a similarly grisly discovery of 751 unmarked graves of Indigenous children buried at the Marieval Indian Residential school in Saskatchewan – a spotlight is shining on the genocide of the Indigenous nations implemented by the Canadian ruling class.

These gruesome discoveries are only the tip of the iceberg; the residential school system in Canada was implemented to assimilate the indigenous children, on the presumption that the Catholic faith provided a superior set of morals and values to indigenous ethical systems.

Canadian residential schools, established in conjunction with churches, were intended to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the mainstream Christian religion and culture. Begun back in 1831, and finally abolished in 1996, the Canadian state, along with their religious counterparts, kidnapped thousands of indigenous children and separated them from their families. This policy of cultural genocide was challenged by indigenous peoples, and in June 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to investigate the full extent of the residential school system.

In 2015, the TRC concluded that over the span of one hundred years, more than 150 000 indigenous children were taken from their families. These boarding schools, usually run by the Catholic Church, were decrepit places where physical and sexual abuse was rampant. The residential schools were spread out over the nation, and thousands of unmarked gravesites remain to be uncovered. Until today, indigenous communities still struggle to maintain a level of equality with non-indigenous Canadian society – be it lack of access to potable drinking water, or racism in the healthcare system.

You may read more about the impact of the residential school system on indigenous communities here. For our purposes, let’s examine the other troubling, and no less traumatic, features of Canadian capitalism.

There is a persistent myth that Canada, the nice guy, did not have slavery, like the obnoxious United States. Is that true? Yes and no. Canada did not have a large slave-worked plantation economy like the Deep South of the US. The colder climate in Canada made it impossible to construct profitable mass plantations of tobacco, sugar, cotton, rice – all of which were worked by African slaves in the US and the Caribbean.

However, Canada did have slaves – and entrenched slave trading. British and French controlled territories in what became the Canadian federation definitely used and traded in the African slave trade. When the Canadian state was officially created in 1867, the story of slavery had to be glossed over. After all, a new nation cannot afford to admit that one group of its citizens were oppressed, and still uphold itself as an example of constitutional liberty in action.

While Canada has a reputation of being a peaceful nation, as opposed to its militaristic neighbour to its south, the Canadian military has participated in all US imperialist wars overseas. The Canadian military was deployed to the USSR, as part of the multinational foreign intervention in 1918-22 to overthrow the new Bolshevik regime. The foreign military forces, such as the Canadian forces, assisted the White anticommunist Russians in their failed bid to restore the Tsarist system.

Canada has provided military and logistical support to the ultranationalist regime in Kiev, the Ukraine. Canada has a long history of providing refuge to Ukrainian ultrarightist and neo-Nazi war criminals, giving sanctuary to those Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazi forces during World War 2. These Ukrainian communities in Canada have helped to push Canadian politics in a rightward direction.

Canada allowed itself to become a haven for Ukrainian neo-Nazis, and subsequent generations of Canadian politicians have recycled the ultranationalist view of history bequeathed to them. Racism against ethnic minorities – including Islamophobic killings – has reared its ugly head in Canada. Ottawa’s participation in the ‘war on terror’ has brought its domestic consequences of increasing racism against Islamic communities to its doorstep.

It is time to cancel Canada Day as a first step towards confronting Canada’s racist past. Only by being honest about the horrific discoveries of the recent past – and the impact they have on perpetuating racist practices in the present – can we rebuild a new equitable vision of the future.