Swimming against the tide – a supportive voice for Palestine in a settler-colonial society

We do not live in an ideal world, where everyone is treated equally regardless of race, ethnicity, skin colour, gender and religious differences. However, issues of race and racism matter in the real world.

Australia and Israel are two white sisters, in many ways. Both are settler-colonial societies, birthed by the British imperial project, and sustained by obeisance to the American empire. Both have adopted racist policies towards the indigenous nations, and that racism is reflected in their corresponding domestic structures.

Australia is generally a pro-Israeli society and polity. Of course there are exceptions, but most Anglo Australian society is either pro-Zionist, or indifferent to the issue of Palestine. The indifferent people basically accept the overwhelming pro-Israel narrative which emanates from the corporate controlled media.

Antony Loewenstein, Australian journalist of Jewish background, wrote of the fanatical loyalty with which Canberra regards the Israeli state:

It’s painful to witness Australia’s visceral hatred of Palestinian human rights, as someone who was born here, but the evidence is overwhelming. Most Australians are unaware of how diplomatically isolated their country has become. Australia is almost unique globally in its consistent support for Israel in diplomatic forums like the United Nations.

There are many pro-Palestine advocacy groups, socialist activists and trade unionists who bravely speak up for Palestine. Most of the major media organisations in Australia face bullying and pressure from pro-Zionist groups, and while occasionally presenting a pro-Palestine perspective, generally reflect the priorities of the pro-Zionist Anglo-American cultural imperialism.

Nobody is under any obligation to listen to me. No, I am not angling for pity or emotional sympathy. No, I am not suggesting that I have undergone enormous tribulations or ordeals. I can only relate the obstacles and difficulties faced by pro-Palestine voices in Australia.

This month marks 75 years since the United Nations resolution partitioning Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. Supposedly motivated by humanitarian considerations, the British authorities entrenched a system of ethnic division that has remained in place for decades. This history remains largely unknown amongst the majority Anglo Australian population.

In fact, the word Palestine is usually associated with the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘antisemitism.’ The entry point for any discussion about the colonisation of Palestine is normally – at least in the mainstream corporatised Australian media – is the condemnation of alleged Palestinian terrorism.

The relentless, stubborn questioning – why don’t you condemn suicide bombing, Hamas, airplane hijackings – places the supporter of Palestinian rights on the backfoot. The moral equation is already tipped in favour of the Zionist state. In Australia, along with other settler-colonial nations, we have witnessed the incessant campaign by the Zionist organisations and their supporters to demonise any criticism of Israel as antisemitic.

The Palestinians have had to shoulder a propaganda burden – while fighting the systematic dispossession of their homeland, carefully calibrating their criticisms of Zionism so as to avoid any charge of malicious antisemitism. The victim of colonial violence is compelled to conform to a stereotype of a ‘perfect victim’ before they are deemed worthy of support.

The main charge against any supporter of the Palestine cause is that of antisemitism. When raising your voice to defend the Palestinians, you need to be prepared to confront this accusation. There is no question that antisemitism is a form of racism. That particular virus was invented, not in the Arab or Islamic world, but as a project of Christian Europe. Opposition to the policies of the Israeli government and its foundational ideology, Zionism, has nothing to do with antisemitism.

The weaponisation of antisemitism – the charge that Palestine solidarity is motivated by a racial hatred of the Jewish people – is not a new tactic, but has become increasingly deployed in Europe and America. In the UK, the electoral campaign of former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, was attacked and undermined, even by righting elements in his own party, by charging antisemitism. Criminalising any activity of solidarity with the Palestinians is intended to intimidate any supportive voices for Palestine into silence.

None of this is to suggest that the current Palestine solidarity groups are futile or wasting their time. It is necessary to educate ourselves to ensure that pro-Palestine voices are arguing from a position of informed advocacy. Earlier this month, Israel has another general election – the fifth in four years – which saw the return of former Israeli prime minister and wily political operator Benjamin Netanyahu.

The shape of any incoming government will be influenced by the political allies upon which Netanyahu’s Likud bloc depends. He has counted on the support of ultrarightist and fanatical racist parties and politicians to secure a majority position. Such politicians, such as ultranationalist Itamar Ben-Gvir, make no secret of their determination to suppress the Palestinians from the occupied West Bank. Gvir is an ideological disciple of the late Meir Kahane, whose followers can be accurately described as the Jewish version of the KKK.

In the coming months and years, the Palestinians will need ever more support from non-Palestinians, including here in Australia. Now is time to be resolute, and face the obstacles and challenges of being a pro-Palestine voice in a settler-colonial society.

Racial passing, ethnic identity and DNA as all-embracing metaphor

Is the result of a DNA swab, revealing a person’s genetic heritage, more important to individual identity than a person’s lived experiences and cultural upbringing? Does a genomic test override a person’s cultural and linguistic milieu? Do genes have any determinative role in influencing a person’s non-physical traits, such as ethnicity or intelligence?

Surely a person’s racial identity, embodied in their unique DNA, is unmistakable. After all, African Americans cannot be confused with white Anglo people? Are not racially stratified societies, such as the United States, Brazil, and other settler-colonial structures, following the inevitable dictates of a person’s DNA?

Alexander Pushkin – Russian and African

Alexander Pushkin, the preeminent Russian playwright and author, the equivalent of Shakespeare in the Russian language, had an African maternal great-grandfather. That places him within the ‘coloured’ family according to the racial strictures subsequently adopted by America and similar settler-colonial societies. Does this mean that Pushkin’s literary output belongs within the canon of black literature?

The great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was from Cameroon, and was apparently bought as a slave. Arriving in Tsarist Russia, he worked his way up the ladder in the land of feudal lords; the entrenched Russian nobility were the boyars. Gannibal, employed at the court of Peter the Great, eventually became a general and military engineer.

Pushkin was particularly proud of his African heritage – this from a snobby man, who as one of the landed nobility looked down upon the nouveau riche pushing their way into the imperial court. Pushkin could trace his ancestry all the way back to the twelfth century boyars of Russia. He wrote an unfinished historical novel, The Moor of Peter the Great, published posthumously in 1837. Sadly, Pushkin died that year – killed in a duel.

Pushkin transcended his racial heritage because, it could be argued, Imperial Russia did not have a racialised concept of human hierarchy. This is not to suggest that Tsarist Russia welcomed non-Russian nationalities; Lenin famously called imperial Russia a prison house of nations. The point here is that a person’s cultural experiences are decisive in the construction of an ethnic identity, rather than DNA.

Racial passing and DNA

Bliss Broyard, author and speaker, discovered a long-held family secret in 1990, as her father Anatole was dying. Broyard was told that she was biracial – her father was actually part Creole. Anatole, born in Louisiana in 1920, had been a white-presenting person. Keeping his coloured heritage a secret, he passed as white, and provided a comfortable, privileged upbringing for his children. Bliss had been raised as white, and never thought much about race or DNA.

Anatole Broyard, who was an editor for the NY Times, engaged in the pragmatic deception known as racial passing. Lighter-skinned or white presenting African Americans often passed themselves off as white to access the social and economic opportunities denied to black and nonwhite Americans. This practice was widespread, and though it has declined in recent years, is still a device used today.

The history of racial passing has lessons for us in our current genomic age. Rigidly defined racial categories can be flouted, and secretly mocked, for centuries. Even if we use the less politicised term of ethnicity, rather than race, genomics does not provide the ultimate arbiter of who were are. DNA is not the sum total of a person’s destiny or identity. Ethnic identity cannot be constructed exclusively on an edifice of biological building blocks.

Dr Caitlin Curtis, research fellow at the University of Queensland, makes the crucial but often overlooked point that DNA does not define a person’s cultural upbringing. She rightly ridicules the proposal from One Nation politicians, to implement a DNA test to determine a person’s Indigenous heritage before being allowed to access welfare payments. Not only would such an idea not work, it is based on simplistic and incorrect ideas about a supposed linear causative connection between an individual’s DNA and their cultural identity.

There is no straightforward progression from a single gene to a human behavioural trait. We have gone overboard, using DNA as a metaphor in tracing all sorts of behaviours to genes. It’s all in the DNA has become a lazy, shorthand explanation for all kinds of human cultural practices and traits – from warfare, to greed, to the national character of ethnic groups.

We will have more to say about the overextended myth of the selfish gene in future articles. However, let’s conclude with a few necessary observations here. It is appealing for ethnic minorities, especially those that have experienced persecution and displacement, to advocate ferociously for the survival of their unique gene pool.

The Armenians in the diaspora have a long-standing cultural preoccupation with defining and defending our supposedly pure multi-century genetic legacy. A sense of collective identity and pride is derived from proclaiming the survival of ‘our DNA’ against all odds, overcoming centuries of persecution, foreign occupation and displacement. In fact, the Armenians have been the victims of racialist-DNA thinking, in the form of Pan-Turkism; a Turkic version of Zionism.

Racialist ideologies have a certain appeal, but are ultimately counterproductive. Why? Ethnic purity is not the basis for human survival, but multiethnic cooperation and solidarity. It is only by overcoming a gene-centric view that we can surmount any obstacles, and ensure human longevity.

Moon landing conspiracy theories get a revival in our social media age

Since the 1969 Moon landing, conspiracy theorists of various stripes have alleged that this achievement was an elaborate hoax, the product of a NASA driven project in fakery. There are a number of reasons for the resilient nature of this particular conspiracy theory. People on both sides of the political spectrum – left and right – have recycled this trope, demonstrating its appeal over the years.

There have been numerous takedowns of the main claims of the Moon truthers, or Moon landing hoaxers. While we will address some of the more egregious claims in this article, a full accounting of Moon truther points would make this blog excessively long. However, we can establish enough of a foundation to refute the Moon hoaxer conspiracy theory.

The Apollo space programme began in 1961, and was boosted by then President Kennedy’s pledge of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Consisting of 11 space flights, there were multiple objectives with each mission. However, landing a man on the moon was the most publicised goal, and captured the public imagination. In 1969, the NASA space programme was successful. So why are there so many people who think it was all a fake, staged in a movie studio?

Moon truthers are very adept at exploiting mistrust of government. Since the 1970s, we have witnessed multiple and interweaving lies spouted by US government circles. The deceptions involved in rationalising the war on Vietnam, the Watergate break-ins, the Iran-Contra scandal, the criminal and clandestine activities of the CIA – public exposure and knowledge of these deceptions has cultivated an active distrust of government pronouncements.

Peter Knight, professor at Manchester University, has written how people are ready and willing to disbelieve anything emanating from sources in Washington. The Moon truthers have constructed an elaborate edifice of epic proportions based on this skepticism. In 1976, Bill Kaysing, a former US Navy officer, published a book called We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle. He elaborated what became the main tenets of the Moon hoaxer belief system.

In 1969, the USSR had achieved numerous firsts in planetary sciences – the first successful launch of an artificial satellite, the first non-human animal in space, the first man in space. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Venera programme recorded another first – a robotic probe successfully landing on the planet Venus, coping with its crushingly dense atmosphere and sending back data. So the 1969 American landing on the Moon seems a little odd; isn’t it too convenient that the US deployed a man on the Moon while the Soviet space programme was impressively successful?

There is always an underlying motivation of geopolitical competition in space exploration. The US Moon landings were a way of projecting American power, and giving the middle finger to those Russian Commies. The Apollo 11 mission, the one that deployed astronauts to the Moon, was not technologically advanced over the previous Apollo missions. The existing technology was available to land astronauts, even prior to Apollo 11.

During the Apollo 11 mission, the Soviets were listening in. The former Soviet Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov stated that he and his colleagues were watching and listening to the Apollo landings with keen interest. If the Soviet government wanted to, they could easily have exposed any alleged NASA fakery. Not only were the Soviets watching the spacecraft every step of the way, they – along with the subsequent Chinese and Indian space programmes – independently confirmed the corroborative evidence of the Apollo 11 mission.

Moon hoaxers have pointed to the absence of stars in the photographs taken by the American astronauts. Would not stars display in genuine photos from the Moon? No – because the astronauts were using photographic settings for bright sunlight. The Moon has a negligible atmosphere, so it is being hit by direct sunlight. Faint objects do not show up if your aperture and camera settings are set for bright daylight. Use those same settings to take pictures at night here on Earth, and you will not see any stars.

If the Moon has no atmosphere, how is the American flag flapping in the breeze? It isn’t. The astronauts fitted the long-crumpled flag with a lengthy metal rod to give the appearance of flapping in the wind. What about the Moon rocks? These rocks contain cosmogenic nuclides. These are isotopes which are bombarded by extremely high-energy cosmic rays. The Earth’s atmosphere blocks out such high energy rays, so cosmogenic nuclides cannot be faked in a laboratory or particle accelerator.

With the growth of social media, and the resurgence of anti-vaxxer denialism in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, Moon truthers have ridden on the coattails of such misinformed refusal. There are many reasons to question the deceptions, duplicity and hypocrisies of the US military-financial complex. We should be skeptical of government statements; we should apply equal skepticism to conspiracy theories.

Move over Mars, Jupiter, Saturn – Uranus is the most intriguing planet

Every decade, NASA releases a wish list of objectives it would like to see accomplished in planetary sciences over the subsequent ten years. It compiles a report after extensive consultations with, and submissions from, a wide array of major scientific institutions. One of the objectives listed by NASA is an intended exploration of another planet. Not Mars, not Jupiter or Saturn, which seem to receive inordinate amounts of attention. The planet in mind is the oddball of our Solar system; Uranus.

Firstly, if you want to make all the usual, adolescent jokes about that name, get it over with now. Yes, we all know the infantile quips about ‘your anus’ and gas. Ok, after the juvenile japes are out of your system, let’s get busy with the important issues. Secondly, the planet’s name – correctly pronounced ‘YOOR-uh-nus’ – is an homage to the Ancient Roman god Caelus, Father Sky. Named for the equivalent Ancient Greek god Ouranos, today we have the father sky of the monotheistic religions. The other planets were named after Roman gods.

Discovered by German-born astronomer William Herschel in 1781, Uranus is classified as a gas giant, along with Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune. In fact, Uranus and Neptune form their own sub-category of ice giants. Gas giants, unlike the terrestrial Earth, do not have a rocky crust, but a gaseous exterior. While Uranus has a rocky core, it is an ice giant because its internal structure is made up of ice water, methane and ammonia. The gaseous atmosphere is incredibly dense and would likely crush any spacecraft attempting to get through to any potentially solid surface.

Axial tilt

There are many reasons why Uranus is the eccentric planet, and its unusual axial tilt is one of them. As we all know, the Earth rotates on a 23.5 degree axis. It’s what gives our planet the seasons. Uranus rotates on an axis of 98 degrees – almost rolling on its side. One pole of Uranus faces the sun, resulting in decades-long summers (such as it is), and the other hemisphere has an equally long freezing winter.

How did Uranus end up with such a pronounced axial tilt? One explanation is that a large proto-planet slammed into Uranus, knocking it on its side. And let’s bear in mind that Uranus has a radius of 25 362 kilometres. In comparison, the Earth’s radius is 6731 kilometres. Uranus has an average distance of 2.88 billion kilometres from the sun, and one Uranian year is equal to 84 Earth years.

Uranus has a remarkably cold exterior atmosphere. Its average atmospheric temperature is -195 degrees Celsius. It has the coldest temperature recorded anywhere in the Solar system; -224 degrees Celsius. Inhospitable to life, the Uranian atmosphere is mostly composed of methane, ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and water. Uranus has a bluish-green tinge, because methane absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum.

Unanswered questions and why bother?

There are numerous unanswered questions regarding Uranus. Why is its magnetic field so eccentric, tilted at 60 degrees from its rotational axis? The technical hurdles in getting a spacecraft through the dense Uranian atmosphere are enormous. Why does Uranus fail to generate internal heat, a possible reason why temperatures are so cold? And what of the moons orbiting Uranus? There are 27 of them, all travelling with the planet.

This leads to an anticipatory question – aren’t there enough serious problems on Earth, so why should we waste millions of dollars exploring other planets? This kind of question, attacking the underlying reasons for planetary science, arise whenever large space projects are proposed. Surely we should be directing our resources towards solving all of our problems here on Earth. There is no shortage of issues to solve – economic inequalities, global warming, increasingly severe weather events, wars and famines – why waste money on going into space?

This question originates from reasonable sentiments – concern for life on Earth – but is misguided. Branches of science, including planetary exploration, are not engaged in a zero sum game. We have to make decisions about funding priorities of course. The billionaires, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, want to monopolise space exploration through exerting private control. We must not allow the billionaire class to define the motivations and parameters of planetary science.

Outer space is not a playground for the rich and famous. Planetary sciences answer the deep cosmological questions about the solar system and our origins. When Sherlock Holmes contemptuously dismissed knowledge of basic science, he was not only betraying a profound ignorance of the way the natural world works. He was expressing a hostile attitude to scientific knowledge, an attitude which has contributed to our current perilous state of affairs.

Explorations of other planets are inspirational, motivating the next generation of students to get excited about solving the deep scientific questions of our age. There are not only technological benefits from space research which flow on to the general public – GPS tracking as one example. Tackling the age-old scientific problems requires a detailed understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.