Workplace meetings are dreadful when unnecessary, but they can be made effective

Every business organisation requires workplace meetings. The most effective meetings are brief (around 30 minutes), everyone contributes, decisions are made and each participant leaves with specific action points. In reality, 99 percent of workplace meetings – in my own experience – were long-winded, totally unnecessary, and most participants do their level best not to fall asleep.

Should workplace meetings be replaced by emailing? The short answer is – it depends on why you think a meeting is needed. For a few quick questions, certainly an email will be enough. Setting out the goals of a new project, reporting on progress and status updates, a workplace meeting is required. Face-to-face communication is always preferable, even in this day and age of online meetings.

The best advice is – set out clear goals for a workplace meeting, and do not overuse them. Repeated and unnecessary meetings waste time and money, and distract participants from their urgent priorities. Similarly for emails, establish clear reasons for emailing. Limit CCing everyone so the email becomes one long document of similar length to a nineteenth century novel. Important information gets lost in an over lengthy email.

Indeed, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, online meetings such as through Zoom have become overused – overcompensating for the reduction in onsite work and face-to-face communication. Zoom fatigue – the overuse of online team meetings – has become a serious topic of conversation. Sitting in your home environment to have an online meeting, but what happens when the kids, or the cat, run in and interrupt?

We have all read the stories of people, while in a Zoom meeting, having their partner walk in naked. Or the similarly prurient story of a man – shall we say, pleasuring himself – while participating in a livestream meeting. While we laugh at these examples of private habits becoming public, there is a serious consideration here – the encroachment of workplace life into our private spaces. The work-home life balance is being lost as we become more available through digital communication.

As we work longer and longer hours, our personal life space suffers. Being reachable by online communication apps helps to increase our workload availability, which includes workplace meetings.

In the days of on-site work, a Kanban board was very effective in setting out the deliverables and status updates of every element of an IT project. Every morning, we attended a daily scrum meeting, and this was great, because we all had a focus – the Kanban workflow. In brief, Kanban is a workflow management technique, defining each step of the production process, to deliver real-time outcomes in a project. It was first developed by an industrial engineer at Toyota corporation to improve workplace efficiency.

When calling a meeting, whether face-to-face or online, always bear in mind if this meeting will boost productivity, and maintain accountability for all the participants. Years ago, when I was an eager university student, we used an old but effective comedy-documentary film series called Meetings, Bloody Meetings, featuring English comedian John Cleese. In the days before office computerisation and the internet, workplace meetings were already the bane of existence for managers and workers.

Written by Cleese and Antony Jay in 1976, that kind of documentary needs to be updated. Its basic points are still valid; plan, prepare, inform participants, keep the meeting structured and controlled. However, times have certainly changed since then. While this article is not the place to extensively examine the impact of social media, it is necessary to make some relevant observations.

We all live in an immersive world of digital media, where we share our opinions, preferences, beliefs, photos, images – and we increasingly ask search algorithm to make decisions for us. Medical questions, concerns about romance, love, shopping, prices – all our questions and searches are increasingly interconnected. I do not care about celebrities and trivial gossip, however, consider the following.

When Kanye West, now known as Ye, shares antisemitic conspiracy theories and advocates a worldview based on that prejudice, millions of his followers read his opinions and take them in. All of us now have access to the opinions and decisions of others. His followers constitute an instant online ‘meeting’, where people can exchange their ideas and make decisions based on those considerations.

No, I am not suggesting that every workplace meeting can reach millions of people. We need to aware that social media has a huge outreach, and we should understand ways to use that reach wisely, including having workplace meetings that are effective. Do what is right for your organisation – workplace meetings can be efficient; an email can be equally effective if a meeting can be replaced. Don’t overuse one kind of communication over another.

The Holocaust, and the doctrines of those who murdered Jews, cast a long shadow

The Holocaust, and the perpetrators of that hideous crime, may seem like a purely academic subject. However, its lessons, the racism underlying that systematic industrialised murder, and the tribulations of the victims, have contemporary relevance. First, let’s look at a human interest story, and then elaborate on how the memory of the Holocaust (and World War 2 more generally) impacts political developments today.

Zoe Zolbrod, writing in Salon magazine, explains her emotional and heart-rending struggle with the realisation – when she was an adult – that her great-grandparents perished in a concentration camp. This information was kept from her throughout her childhood. This revelation – that her great-grandparents were among the millions exterminated – was profoundly shocking to her.

As an adolescent, she wondered about what would have happened to her if she had lived through the Nazi German experience. She explained how she wrestled with her concept of Jewishness – was it cultural, passed down through the genes, or a combination of both? She grappled with wider questions, even though her experience of Judaic identity was largely confined to religious-cultural celebrations of Jewish holidays with extended family.

By the by, the late geneticist and professor Richard Lewontin, wrote in a lengthy article for the New York Review of Books that despite the best efforts of DNA experts, there is no such thing as a ‘Jewish gene.’

Interestingly, as Palestinian American academic Joseph Massad points out, the insistence on a gene-bloodline definition of Jewishness is shared by the Zionist and the antisemite. The characterisation of Jews as a racially distinct people forms the ideological basis not only of Zionist groups, but also of antisemitic ones too.

Antisemitism is the crucial underpinning of Nazism, and also of the ethnonationalist Eastern European organisations that collaborated in the mass killings of European Jews in WW2. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its associated military formation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), participated in the ethnic cleansing of Jews in lands that the Nazi forces occupied in Eastern Europe.

With that in mind, let’s consider another human interest story, but this one has more direct political implications. The Canadian Dimension magazine published a report highlighting the presence of a rather curious statue in Oakville, Toronto; a commemorative monument to the Ukrainian 14th Grenadier Waffen SS division. A unit made up mostly of ultranationalist and racist Ukrainians, this division fought in the service of Nazi Germany, and participated in the mass killings of Jews, Poles, Russians and non-Ukrainian ethnic minorities.

Deriving its ideology from the OUN, this outfit made no secret of whom it considered the main enemy – the Jewish people. The OUN leadership, under its cult-like leader Stepan Bandera, singled out the Jews as the original enemy to be annihilated. Blaming ‘Muscovy Communism’ – shorthand for Marxism – on the Jews, the ultranationalist outlook of the OUN found common cause with other Germans and Eastern European formations with a similar racist ideology.

It is no secret that the malicious trope of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ has experienced a resurgence in Eastern European nations where the far right is politically active. Why are Ukrainian communities in Canada actively rehabilitating the reputation of those ultranationalist groups which cooperated in the Holocaust?

That is a question only the Canadian Ukrainian community can answer. What we can observe here is that it is an appalling rebuff to the memory of the Holocaust’s victims to rehabilitate the doctrines and practices of their murderers.

Before any simpletons accuse me of recycling Red Communist propaganda from Kremlin, consider the following. The Polish government, which is a strong ally of the Kyiv regime, nevertheless maintains a principled position regarding the Volhynia massacres. The latter involved the widespread killings of Polish people, in the Nazi-occupied Volhynia region, by the Ukrainian Nazi collaborator group, the OUN and its military wing. These massacres of Poles, in the northwest region of today’s Ukraine, were carried out in pursuit of the stated Ukrainian nationalist goal of an ethnically ‘pure’ nation.

While the Polish government has stood by its Ukrainian ally, it has also insisted on commemorating the Polish victims of homicidal Ukrainian ultrarightist nationalism. Bilateral relations between the two nations are ongoing, but the lack of acknowledgement by Kyiv of the OUN’s atrocities committed against Polish people during WW2 has left a sour note between the two neighbours. The Volhynia massacres remain an emotional touchstone for Polish recollections of the war.

Let’s make one last observation about the importance of remembering the Holocaust and understanding who helped in the commission of that crime. Please do not think it is intentional to ‘pick on’ Ukraine; earlier this year, the graves of 700 Yugoslav partisans, interred at a necropolis in Mostar, Bosnia, were systematically vandalised. These graves, of those who fought for a multiethnic Yugoslavia, were attacked by Croat ultrarightists, the ideological heirs of the genocidal and Nazi-collaborating Ustashe.

The Ustashe, whose adherents were provided sanctuary after WW2 by the United States and Australia, advocate a view of history untainted by their active participation in the mass murder of Jews and ethnic minorities. What is the purpose of vandalising the graves of anti fascist fighters, if not to repudiate the multiethnic vision of a united Yugoslavia? It is high time to respect the victims of the Holocaust by repudiating the ideology of those who participated in it, and whose ideological heirs today wish for its repetition.

Harriet Tubman, the CIA and diversity in the workforce

Earlier in September this year, current CIA director William Burns cut the ribbon for an official ceremony outside CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. The occasion? The unveiling of a statue to anti slavery activist and African American abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The latter, best known for assisting fugitive slaves escape their condition by operating an Underground Railroad, worked as a military spy for Union forces during the American Civil War.

Why is the CIA promoting, or at least attempting to co-opt, Harriet Tubman to its cause? If you listen to the CIA director and his associates, it is all about cultural diversity in the workplace. The CIA’s upper echelons are almost exclusively white males. Burns, and the director of the CIA museum Robert Beyer, bolstering a diverse workforce is of paramount importance.

The conservative Right responded with predictable contempt – former CIA director Mike Pompeo dismissed the statue, stating that a woke military is a weakened military. This way of thinking is in line with the hard Right’s hostility to any measures promoting cultural and ethnic diversity in the workplace. However, there is another aspect of this statue unveiling that is important to note here. The cooptation of Tubman’s cause by the CIA is a perverse and cynical exercise to whitewash the many crimes of the CIA as an organisation.

Tubman, an anti slavery proponent, helped slaves in a practical way. Her efforts place her in the tradition of those fighting to expand the democratic rights and freedoms of those who are economically and racially oppressed. She did indeed help the Union cause during the Civil War, spying on Confederate shipping in South Carolina in 1863. The information she secretly relayed to the Union side helped the US navy avoid many casualties, and attack Confederate positions on the Combahee river. She led troops into battle against Confederate troops.

The CIA, by contrast, has done all it can in its power to undermine and overthrow democratically elected governments the world over, cultivated secret criminal insurgencies for such purposes, and overseen a network of torture chambers and secret rendition sites located in American-allied nations.

The objective of such criminal activities by the CIA is to reverse any progressive economic and social gains made by the targeted government, and install pro-US proxies. The latter then set about dismantling all the redistributive measures of the overthrown regime, and implemented pro-business policies friendly and amenable to US corporate interests. The policies pursued by the US-backed military dictatorship of General Pinochet in Chile are a classic example of this reversion to neoliberal capitalism.

In the 1970s and 80s, when the CIA supported the politically ultrarightist Afghan mujahideen insurgents against the then socialist government of Afghanistan, the associate allies of this American/British project were Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – two US allies which can best be described as petro-dictatorships. While religion was certainly a factor in the hostility of the Afghan mujahideen towards the socialist government, the British and American governments knew that the mujahideen were also feudal warlords, opposed to the far-reaching agrarian and social reforms of the Afghan regime.

The CIA actively supported an insurgency – one with an Islamist flavouring – which rolled back the gains of women’s rights, land reform for the peasantry, education for girls, and all the social reforms implemented by the socialist government in Kabul. Women in Afghanistan were returned to patriarchal subjection.

In fact, if the CIA was truly serious about promoting diversity in the workplace, they could highlight the long-standing and deep links that the organisation has with the Ukrainian diasporan far right communities. There is a durable relationship between the ultranationalist Ukrainian diaspora, and its role as footsoldiers for CIA initiatives in Ukraine. There is no need to be shy – let’s examine the multicultural footsoldiers for US empire deliberately cultivated by the CIA.

Cultural and ethnic diversity in the workplace is indeed a laudable goal – the political and economic institutions of a society should reflect the composition of the people which make up that society. However, being woke is not just a cosmetic exercise in window-dressing; reducing diversity to a catchy slogan is a worthless exercise. Actually, there is a point to that exercise; providing cover for the criminal policies of US imperial over-reach. As I have written previously, praising the ‘humans of the CIA’ is a slick public relations exercise.

Promoting women and ethnic minorities is very commendable. However, if they continue to provide rationalisations for the same predatory and criminal practices, then they are nothing more than mascots for US empire. Gina Haspel, the first female director of the CIA, certainly faced misogyny in the workplace. Her record as CIA chief confirms that she oversaw the same policies of torture and rendition as her predecessors. That is the exact opposite of the kind of change for which Harriet Tubman stood.

The exaggerated Mozart-Salieri feud, and the colour line in classical music

The great anti racist scholar and activist, the African American W E. B Du Bois, greatly admired the music of antisemite and pan-German racist, Richard Wagner. This may seem like an incongruous picture – Du Bois, noted for his anti racism work, respected the music of a white nationalist.

We will return to the issue of the colour line in classical music later. The Radetzky march, Johann Strauss from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Mention of the Austria-Hungary empire makes us consider one of the most famous (infamous) musicians from that confederation – Antonio Salieri. Born in Italy, Salieri rose through the ranks to become Kapellmeister – the top musician in the land – at the court of Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna.

Let’s address an ongoing urban legend – did Salieri, driven by jealousy and professional resentment, poison Mozart? No. This legend was given an enormous boost by the 1984 film Amadeus, based on the 1979 play of the same name. Were Mozart and Salieri rivals? Yes. But Salieri did not murder Mozart by way of poisoning or overwork.

If Salieri, as the most powerful musician in the Hapsburg court, wanted to get rid of Mozart, he could very easily have had Mozart fired. This would have abruptly ended Mozart’s musical career. Salieri was director of Italian opera, court composer and conductor. While Salieri and Mozart were rivals, they also cooperated on numerous projects. So they were ‘frenemies’, to use a modern colloquialism.

Vienna, the seat of the Hapsburg court, was a place of self-interested factions, rivalries and seething intrigues. Various groupings competed for jobs and the attention of the royal court. The Italians, such as Salieri, were targets of whispering campaigns by the loyal Austrian-Germans, whose musical traditions were being challenged by an emerging Italian nation.

Mozart himself, in numerous private letters to his father, bitterly complained that the Italians at court were sabotaging his career and undermining his chances of promotion. No doubt Mozart was seeking a scapegoat to blame for his career setbacks. Nevertheless, in this atmosphere of petty jealousies and professional rivalries, gossip was bound to circulate – an early example of swirling misinformation.

In 1830, five years after Salieri’s death, Alexander Puskhkin wrote a play, turned into an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov decades later, presented a jealous Salieri resentful of the success of the upstart Mozart. From there, the story took hold and became an urban legend. In fact, when Mozart passed away in 1791, a small group of mourners gathered to say their final goodbyes. One of those mourners was Antonio Salieri.

While it is important to restore Salieri’s reputation, and remove the portrayal of him as a resentful loser, there is a more important issue to address – the unalloyed whiteness of what is considered classical music. It is perfectly okay to enjoy the work of Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner and Johan Strauss. As we noted above, the antiracist activist W E B Du Bois enjoyed classical music.

As the European nations set out on colonising other nations, they brought with them their musical canon – a series of sacralised musical bodies of work elevated into a gold standard. However, they did not acknowledge, whether intentionally or not, another important fact; the Africans brought to the new world through the transatlantic slave trade also brought with them their own musicality, separate and distinct from white European standards.

Added to that was a further twist – the contribution of immigrants to the musical tradition in the United States. As the US constructed its own racial pyramid, the contributions of black and indigenous musicians was studiously excluded. When Antonin Dvorak (1841 – 1904), noted Czech composer, traveled to the US, he famously remarked that the future of music lay with African American composers and performers. He was both right and wrong.

His prophecy came to pass, in that black Americans contributed to jazz, hip hop, soul as well as classical music; but he wrongly underestimated the depth of racial hostility to the nonwhite population, even among the classical music world. American classical music orchestras and performers were nearly exclusively white. German immigrants, leftists and liberals fleeing Germany after the suppression of the 1848 revolutions, were a foundational element for the Boston and New York Philharmonic orchestras. Black musicians were present in American life, but excluded from the classical music canon.

Am I suggesting that everyone who listens to Beethoven or Brahms is a vicious racist? No, of course not. Should the entirety of the German-European canon of classical music be thrown out? No, of course not. The curriculum of classical music should be diversified and widened to include the hitherto ignored black and nonwhite composers. Let’s take advice from George E Lewis in the New York Times – lift the cone of silence surrounding black composers and give them their due.

If positive thinking works for you, that is great – do not turn it into a money making cult

We are all familiar with uplifting aphorisms – accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade – sound advice. There is a basic validity to all of this; it is important for our mental health to maintain an upbeat, optimistic attitude, even in the face of life’s difficulties and obstacles. Nobody wants to be around a person who has a misery-guts temperament.

However, the positive thinking-self help mantra has become a huge multibillion dollar industry. There is a plethora of self-help books, podcasts, webinars and publications all exhorting us to adopt a positive, upbeat attitude in the face of setbacks and obstacles. As Newsweek magazine explained, this corporate philosophy has seeped into the school room, the military, and workplaces.

The late Barbara Ehrenreich (1941 – 2022), who sadly passed away only recently, exposed the dark side of relentless positivity in her work. While known as a writer documenting the growing inequality of capitalist society, it is her work elaborating the positive thinking as a scam that is relevant here. Sonali Kolhatkar wrote about this topic in her recent article.

Being bright sided

In 2009, Ehrenreich published her book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In it, she elaborates that while being upbeat in difficult times is all well and good, positive thinking has turned into an American mass delusion. Focusing relentlessly on the individual mindset, we have ignored the many structural inequalities and problems that produce individual down time in the first place.

From the 1990s onwards, as the corporate world experienced mass redundancies, and overwork for the remaining staff, positive thinking became a tool to offset outrage at industrial closures by misdirecting attention to purely individual mindsets. Positive thinking became a measure by which economic inequalities – and the downsizing decisions corporations make which exacerbate those inequities – can be obscured.

In this way, the negative impacts of layoffs and business closures can be reduced to a failing of individual mindsets – the unemployed person is exhorted to simply change to positive thinking (being laid off is an ‘opportunity’) and all will be well. Poverty, rather than being the product of neoliberal economic policies, is presented as an individual failing that can be overcome by specific individual choices.

The phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ contains an element of truth – but in this age of unbridled positive thinking, it has replaced the age-old religious exhortation ‘it’s God’s will’ as a defensively pessimistic aphorism. Speaking of religion, the rise of the ostentatious mega churches is also associated with the cult of positive thinking. The fraudulent prosperity gospel – God wants me to be wealthy – has acquired millions of adherents, particularly in the United States and Latin America.

Jimmy Swaggart, a motivational speaker, performer and ideological charlatan masquerades as a Christian preacher. He promotes his own theologically influenced variety of the positive thinking mantra. Joel Osteen, Jesse Duplantis, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar – these are just some of the ultrawealthy pastors whose riches are allegedly bestowed upon them by an ever-loving God. The prosperity theology downplays collective solidarity and action, and promotes a purely individual approach geared towards embracing consumerism.

Let’s balance out the equation here; it is not only the megachurch religious institutions which promote a variety of positive thinking. Oprah Winfrey, billionaire entrepreneur, media mogul and motivational speaker, has provided a platform for all kinds of pseudoscientific hokum, including positive thinking. Recycling the basic philosophy contained in the books by Norman Vincent Peale and Napoleon Hill, Winfrey did her utmost to promote The Secret, a purported ‘law’ of attraction.

Think positive thoughts and goals, and you will attract only positive things into your life. Sounds like an eminently sensible idea, only that Winfrey turned this book into an overwhelming ‘philosophy’ of life. There is a resemblance here to the idea of the Protestant work ethic – that capitalism was built through the individual hard work of each person, implementing a Protestant work ethic.

Attributing the success of the capitalist project to individual self-reliance and motivation is a convenient myth we tell ourselves, ignoring the collective efforts of working class people. Max Weber elaborated this spirit of capitalism idea in his famous book. The notion of individual success dovetails nicely with modernised claims of positive thinking.

While a detailed critique of this alleged work ethic is out of place here, it is necessary to make a relevant observation; the late Rev Dr Martin Luther King stated that capitalism was not built on the Protestant work ethic of self-sacrifice, but upon the enslavement and exploitation of African labour power. The vaunted can-do attitude of American capitalism, where success is simply up to each individual, is based upon the collective labour of millions of people.

In this age of social media, where anyone with a Facebook account can market themselves as a guru in whatever subject they enjoy, we are surrounded by ‘influencers’ and self-proclaimed experts on positive thinking. Let’s put aside the influencers, and start thinking of ourselves as comrades, working together to implement collective solutions to our common problems.

Revisiting the war on terror, Afghanistan and the assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri

There are numerous retrospectives available to mark the 21st anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather than regurgitate the manufactured sentimentality of official commemorations, it is better to examine the underlying lessons of the foreign policy decisions taken in the immediate aftermath of those attacks.

History always has contemporary relevance and ramifications. US officialdom gave the global war on terror a propaganda boost in recent months with the drone assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan. Allegedly the ‘number 2’ of Al Qaeda and plotter of the Sept 11 atrocity, he was killed on the orders of US President Joe Biden.

There are no tears for Zawahiri – his ideology was repugnant. He was actually a qualified surgeon, and by the time of his death, irrelevant to the politics of the region. Dismissed and disrespected by ISIS and other jihadist offshoots, his death will do absolutely nothing to solve the problem of ideologically inspired terrorism. Let us not join Washington in gloating over his death either – because malignant hypocrisy underlines US policies in the region.

Salafi jihadist groups are hardly an exclusively indigenous product, arising spontaneously from the Muslim majority nations. As Dave Mizner observes in his article on the rise of Islamist groups, the US and Britain have longstanding policies of deliberately cultivating and using violent ultrarightist jihadist groups. Socially regressive and with only a passing familiarity with the Quran, these organisations are not only instruments of US foreign policy, but are also instrumentalised into the stereotype of the ‘culturally backward’ Muslim Washington likes to criticise.

Amy Zegart, a political scientist writing in The Atlantic, writes about the challenges of teaching students about Sept 11, which they regard as long-ago history. She explains how she has to convey the contemporary relevance of an event that happened 21 years ago. It is commendable to have an historical perspective. Bearing that in mind, the road to Sept 11 began in the 1970s and 80s.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani writes that the deliberate cultivation of fanatical and ultrarightist Afghan rebels, to undermine and overthrow the 1978-79 Afghan socialist government, turned an anticommunist insurgency into a hotbed of extremist jihadist groups. Al Qaeda, ISIS and similar organisations trace their ideological lineage back to this effort, with the US using these fighters to reverse the gains of the Afghan revolution. This policy began before the 1979 Soviet intervention.

In the 1980s, then US President Ronald Reagan welcomed the political representatives of the Afghan mujahideen groups, while Saudi Arabia and Pakistan both joined the anticommunist crusade by sponsoring and arming their own proxy groups for the Afghanistan insurgency. Out of this cauldron of hatred grew what eventually became the Taliban, in the aftermath of the 1992 overthrow of the Afghan revolutionary government. As Ed Rampell wrote in the People’s World magazine, the US original sin in Afghanistan began in 1979, not Sept 11.

One of the rationales provided by Washington for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent assassination of Zawahiri, was complicity in the Sept 11 attacks. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was actually an exercise in a neo-colonial imperialism, the the US and Britain establishing a modern satrapy run by a kleptocratic elite. That is interesting, because there was a time when terrorism perpetrators were actually captured and convicted in federal courts.

In 1993, ultrarightist Islamist militants detonated a bomb at the World Trade Centre. While the bombing failed to bring down the twin towers, the intention was no different to the later Sept 11 atrocity. The perpetrators were captured, charged with murder and conspiracy, and convicted. This was done before anyone dreamt of the Patriot act, and with the cooperation of other nations.

Why was not the same done with Zawahiri, or Osama bin Laden? The US wanted to make a large blockbuster splash for the world’s media. Bragging about ‘taking out’ your opponents, like a mafia godfather, certainly generates publicity. Trials get bogged down in legal details, and do not make for gripping drama.

It is worth bearing in mind that in the early 1960s, Francis Gary Powers, flying a U2 spy plane through Soviet territory, was put on trial and the evidence of his guilt displayed to the world’s media by the Moscow authorities. Shot down and captured, his guilt as a CIA spy was conclusively established, exposing Washington’s evasions.

August this year was the first anniversary of the American retreat from Afghanistan, after a nearly 20 year occupation of that country. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon 1975, Kabul 2021 witnessed the ignominious defeat of powerful military force. It is high time to admit that this war on terror has failed to reduce terrorism, or make the world a safer place. In fact, the paranoid mindset and associated surveillance techniques accumulated by state power, has only resulted in creating the kind of authoritarian state we claim to oppose.

For a start, if President Biden was serious about implementing meaningful changes, he could start by stopping drone strikes, though his recent conduct suggests this prospect is remote. He could also stop Washington’s long-standing practice of arming and training ultrarightist Salafi militants, which generates the reservoir of hatred and political violence that led us to September 11.

Hollywood war movies, selective sympathy and covering up war crimes

Propaganda is usually thought of as something other nations and governments do – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea to name but a few. Yet the most effective propaganda comes from Hollywood, intricately interlocking with the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. Writing in Counterpunch magazine, David Swanson observes:

Propaganda is most impactful when people don’t think it’s propaganda, and most decisive when it’s censorship you never knew happened. When we imagine that the U.S. military only occasionally and slightly influences U.S. movies, we are extremely badly deceived. The actual impact is on thousands of movies made, and thousands of others never made. And television shows of every variety.

The military-industrial complex has had an influential presence in the production of Hollywood movies for decades. This relationship has been mutually beneficial, providing movie studios with financial backing, military equipment and supplies worth billions in exchange for creating military-friendly film content. The scripts are subject to approval by the US military or Pentagon.

Top Gun recycled – belligerent jingoism

American-advocated solutions, based on the deployment of violence epitomised by the latest military-grade hardware, is a common cinematic theme in modern Hollywood. Films churned out under the influence of the Pentagon are not works of art, but rather forms of propaganda intended to legitimise and glorify American militarism.

Hollywood recently released the highly anticipated, and long awaited sequel, to the 1986 film Top Gun. The new offering, Top Gun: Maverick, is basically a recycling of the original movie. A military recruitment advertisement masquerading as a film, Maverick solidified the superstar status of its main protagonist Tom Cruise.

The original Top Gun, made with the close collaboration of the US military, resulted in a huge increase in naval recruitments. However, there is another more insidious consequence of such propaganda; the portrayal of American military power as a benevolent force for good in the world. The audience is invited to marvel at the sophisticated technology, the smart bombs and massive warplanes, and sympathise with the ostensible suffering of the aviators and troops. The victims of American war crimes are nowhere to be seen.

Humanitarian American military intervention

The few antiwar movies that Hollywood has made, such Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise – deal with the American crisis of confidence after their defeat in Vietnam. Films of a pro war orientation have assisted in overcoming the ‘Vietnam syndrome’; popular opponent to American imperialist wars. Movies such as Top Gun are not unusual or exceptional in pushing a pro war message.

The movie Zero Dark Thirty, released in 2012, made a positive case for torture. It portrayed the capture of Osama Bin Laden as a result of information gained through torturing suspects. This movie was made with the direct supervision of the CIA. Even the US Senate, after a huge outcry against this favourable depiction of torture, was compelled to admit that the capture of Bin Laden was not a direct consequence of information obtained through waterboarding, but through old fashioned methodical police work.

Not long after the release of the original Top Gun movie, American air power demonstrated its barbaric ferocity in the first Gulf War (1990 – 91). American military aviators attacked Iraq’s infrastructure, destroying the electricity grid, hospitals, sewage systems and schools. The supposedly accurate and precision-guided smart bombs devastated the Al-Amiriyah air raid shelter, killing 400 Iraqi civilians. Iraqis commemorate the victims of this criminal bombing every year.

Such crimes reveal the true face of American military violence overseas, but yet in the Anglophone nations, the Hollywood war propaganda movies pervade the public consciousness. The long and subversive involvement of the US intelligence community in the internal political affairs of Iran remains obscured behind the commercially successful output of Hollywood – Argo, the 2012 movie, fills our collective void.

The United States was instrumental in overthrowing the democratically elected nationalist government of Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. The US helped to prop up the savagely repressive Shah of Iran, and trained the Iranian secret police. Yet this historical context is forgotten as we are invited to cheer on CIA agent Ben Affleck in Argo, leading a rescue of American hostages in Tehran. What matters to Anglophone audiences is the suffering of Americans – the Iranians, and nonwhite people in general, are reduced to a hysterical, irrationally violent chaotic mass.

While propaganda in the so-called enemy nations may be crude and overtly political, propaganda in the capitalist nations – usually called public relations – is more technically sophisticated and insidious. As Joe Giambrone wrote, Hollywood presents a nonpolitical face to the world, but its messages are highly politicised. Let’s abandon the hyperpatriotic waffle, and critically examine the war propaganda that pervades our lives.

Imperial auxiliaries, refugee status and cynical political expediency

The fiftieth anniversary of the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community by the Amin regime should make us pause and reflect on two things. Firstly, whom we classify as refugees, and how the refugee policies of the imperialist nations are driven by cynical political considerations. Secondly, people such as Idi Amin, rather than being evil aberrations of nature, are products of deliberate and calculated policies of the imperialist nations.

On August 4, 1972, General Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian (mostly Indian) community. He gave them 90 days to leave the country. His decision was part of a marked deterioration in Kampala’s relations with the British government. Idi Amin himself, was a career British soldier.

Idi Amin was very much a creation of the British military. As a young man, he fought with distinction in the King’s African Rifles, a unit made up of African recruits and deployed to fight anti-colonial insurgents. He made his bones fighting for the British empire in various conflicts in Africa. He fought against the Kenyan nationalist insurgency of the 1950s, sometimes called the Mau Mau uprising. He also fought against anti-British Somali secessionists during the Shifta war in the 1960s.

During his service in the King’s African Rifles, Amin was promoted through the ranks by the British. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, Amin rose rapidly through the Ugandan military, becoming Commander of the Ugandan armed forces in 1970. Britain was not the only nation which deliberately cultivated relations with Amin – the other nation which supplied armaments and support for the newly independent Uganda was Israel.

During the presidency of Milton Obote, Uganda’s first President, the Americans and Israelis kept informed of developments inside Uganda, and cultivated close links with General Amin. Obote had been planning on nationalising foreign-owned assets, such as mines, in Uganda. In 1971, Obote was overthrown in a coup d’état, carried out by the Ugandan armed forces, with the surreptitious cooperation of the Israelis and British.

The 1971 coup by Amin was welcomed by ruling circles in London, and Tel Aviv. Amin had long-standing ties to Israeli intelligence, and participated a paratrooper training course run by the Israeli military. Another nation which accepted the rise of Amin in Uganda was Canada. While Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asian community caused friction between Kampala and Ottawa, the Canadian government never actually broke off diplomatic relations with the Amin regime.

Ottawa had become increasingly concerned that Obote, Amin’s predecessor, had planned to nationalise Canadian owned mines in the nation. A copper and cobalt mine, Kilembe had reaped its Canadian owners millions of dollars in profits. After Obote’s overthrow, Amin pledged to maintain Canadian majority ownership of the mine. In another unsurprising move, Amin promises to break the African embargo of apartheid South Africa, selling armaments to the white supremacist regime in defiance of the majority of African nations.

It is important to keep these machinations in mind, because Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, when commemorating the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community, lauded the alleged generosity of Canada in accepting thousands of Asians from that nation. Trudeau wilfully omitted any mention of Ottawa’s continued business dealings with the Amin regime, and played up the supposed compassion of Canada’s ruling circles. Trudeau’s cynical posturing as a generous benefactor of desperate refugees falls flat in the face of the documentary evidence.

Amin may have been ‘deranged’, but this alleged condition was not recognised until after the Amin regime became a disobedient and troublesome child for British interests. The image of Amin as this onerous, mentally ill lunatic with no friends – the stereotype of the ‘cannibalistic’ African – does not stand up to scrutiny. The purpose of this propaganda campaign turning Amin into an ‘evil’ monster is to dismiss the capability of African nations to govern themselves independently. The ‘look what happens when you give Africans power’ is a historically ignorant and cynically deployed claim to undermine African attempts at self-governance.

The UK took in around 27 000 Ugandan Asian refugees. While this has been upheld as an act of generosity, there were definitive political calculations behind the move. Gaining economically prosperous groups of refugees is a financial boon to a flailing economy. Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary and of Ugandan Asian heritage herself, launched the Britain-Rwanda relocation scheme, forcibly sending refugees to the African nation of Rwanda.

Britain’s refugee policy has never been about compassion, but about providing for imperial service refugees. Let’s not pretend, fifty years after the expulsion of Uganda’s Asian community, that the UK has suddenly adopted a spirit of generosity.

The cult of Winston Churchill, racist legacies and Anglophone colonial nostalgia

No other British prime minister is lionised to the point of deification as Winston Churchill. Libraries are chock full of Churchill biographies, multiple documentaries have been made about his life. Numerous biopics have been produced – the latest being the 2017 movie Darkest Hour. Gary Oldman joined a long list of British actors who have portrayed Churchill on the silver screen.

However, the lionisation of Churchill should not blind us to the fact that he advocated a worldview based on white supremacy and British empire-building. Indeed, Churchill came of age at a time when the maintenance of the British empire was paramount. The myth of Churchill – the British bulldog ever defiant in the face of tremendous obstacles – is not based on his wartime record. It is in fact a deliberately constructed cult, from the 1980s onwards, to justify Britain’s role as an imperial overlord.

Tariq Ali, in a new book about Churchill, writes that the manufactured adulation of him dates from well after World War 2, and serves distinct political purposes. Colonial nostalgia – a hankering for the ‘good old days’ of empire – is deftly buttressed by the cult of Churchill. The latter was an unrepentant empire loyalist, supportive of the criminal policies that sustained the British empire, and contemptuous of those the empire ruled.

The 1982 Malvinas/Falklands war, when the British government of Thatcher fought to hang on to its colonial possession in the south Atlantic, was the crucial turning point in the construction of the Churchill cult. Thatcher positioned herself as a new Churchill, confronting a ‘new Hitler’, Argentine military ruler Galtieri. The Conservative party, along with its Labour counterparts, participated eagerly in this new cultural construction of Churchillism.

Churchill’s racism and advocacy of mass violence

Churchill himself made numerous racist statements – which informed his worldview. The British empire was everything, governing over millions of people. Any challenge to the authority of the empire, and the financial aristocracy that ruled it, was to be met with salutary violence. In his submission to the 1937 Peel Commission, which was tasked with making recommendations for the governance of Mandatory Palestine, Churchill stated that:

I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.

His eugenicist viewpoint came through strongly when expressing his contempt for the non-white peoples of the world. His hatred of Indians was widely known, and he called them a beastly people with an equally beastly religion. When informed that the Bengal famine required urgent food supplies, Churchill refused to help thus condemning millions of Bengalis to die of starvation. He rationalised his refusal to help on Malthusian grounds – Indians ‘breed like rabbits’ and would consequently outstrip the food supply.

As Tariq Ali points out, if we hold Stalin personally responsible for the policies of enforced collectivisation, and Mao for the Great Leap Forward, then we should be ethically consistent and place the blame for the fatalities of the Bengal famine at Churchill’s doorstep.

While Churchill is celebrated for his foresight in opposing Nazi Germany, his opposition was not so much on fascism’s domestic methods, but on its external ambitions. Churchill fulsomely admired Mussolini’s Italy, and praised the Italian dictator’s use of savage violence in dealing with socialist, communist and trade union opponents of the regime. Franco’s Spain, a fascistic remnant from World War 2, was also an object of admiration in Churchill’s eyes.

Churchill was a vociferous supporter of Zionism, and advocated the establishment of a Zionist outpost in the Middle East friendly to British interests. It was in his enthusiasm in the development and use of the latest military weapons where Churchill’s fondness for empire shines through. Advocating the mass use of poison gas in Iraq in 1920, in order to suppress a nationalist revolt, Churchill dismissed criticisms of such tactics. In fact, he rationalised the use of barbaric weapons as necessary to ‘save lives’ in the long run.

The logic of the empire builder can be seen in Churchill’s way of thinking; uncivilised tribes, in his view, can be decimated by the use of the latest weapons, and thus save British lives. Such justifications have been deployed to soothe the conscience; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were similarly rationalised as acts of mercy killing in order to save American lives.

During his second stint as Prime Minister (1951 – 55), Churchill had no hesitation in using mass violence, torture and concentration camps against the Kikuyu uprising against colonialism in Kenya. One of the victims of British policy in Kenya was Hussein Onyango Obama, the paternal grandfather of Barack Obama. Churchill long regarded Africa as an imperial playground.

It is more than time to reevaluate the legacy of Churchill, and deconstruct the false edifice of Churchillism. The latter is only a propaganda tool which obscures the crimes of Empire.

Tetrapods, walking ‘fishapods,’ Tiktaalik, Qikiqtania and transitioning from water to land

The transition from water-based living to land is one of the most pivotal moments in the history of life on Earth. A number of fossils, discovered by a team of researchers in the Canadian Arctic, sheds light on this crucial question. In 2004, a team of researchers lead by Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago, discovered a series of fossils which help answer the questions surrounding this transition.

Tiktaalik – from fish to land-dwelling vertebrates

The fossils were discovered on Ellesmere Island, northern Canada, in 2004. Named Tiktaalik roseae, the genus name meaning “large shallow water fish” in the indigenous language of Canada’s Nunavut Territory nations, is a transitional extinct species possessing features of fish and also tetrapods – four-limbed vertebrates. Tiktaalik used its frontal fins to move itself in a walking fashion in shallow waters, straddling the transition to amphibious living.

Tetrapods are four-limbed vertebrates – amphibians, reptiles, mammals, me, you – it includes an extensive series of animal phyla. This body form first appeared in the Devonian geologic period. The Devonian is known by palaeontologists as the age of fishes. Amphibious animals, emerging in the Devonian, came to be the dominant form of life in the next geologic period, the Carboniferous.

Tiktaalik demonstrates the transition from swimming fish to land-based locomotion for vertebrates. Tiktaalik, while possessing fish characteristics, also had wrist bones, so it could propel itself with its front limbs. Wrist bones are lacking in fossils earlier than the Tiktaalik. Located in sediment beds dating back to 375 million years ago, this stratigraphy layer is located in Devonian geological period.

Qikiqtania – the ‘fishapod’ which went back to the water

The amphibians, the first true tetrapods, evolved from the lobe-finned fishes, but finding the transition from the fishy ancestors of amphibians and true tetrapods has been challenging until now. Related to the discovery of Tiktaalik is another fossil cousin, Qikiqtania wakei, named from the indigenous Inuit languages where the fossil was found.

Another ‘fishapod’ – no, that word is not a scientific classification, but a portmanteau made up by writers. Actually, Qikiqtania is a type of elpistostegalian, a prehistoric species of lobe-finned fish. Qikiqtania’s pectoral fin contains a humerus bone. However, Qikiqtania was more suited to life in the water, and returned there soon after its land-dwelling phase. Neil Shubin, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, stated about Qikiqtania that:

The specimen includes partial upper and lower jaws, portions of the neck, and scales,”

“Mostly importantly, it also features a complete pectoral fin with a distinct humerus bone that lacks the ridges that would indicate where muscles and joints would be on a limb geared toward walking on land.”

The media release about these findings from the University of Chicago make the following important point:

We tend to think animals evolved in a straight line that connects their prehistoric forms to some living creature today, but Qikiqtania shows that some animals stayed on a different path that ultimately didn’t work out. Maybe that’s a lesson for those wishing Tiktaalik had stayed in the water with it.

While Tiktaalik’s front fins contained bones which correspond to our humerus, wrist, ulna and radius bones, the later Qikiqtania only had a corresponding humerus bone. Qikiqtania, while closely related to Tiktaalik, took on a different evolutionary pathway. Tiktaalik, in contrast to Qikiqtania, had a mobile neck, allowing it to support its head out of the water and adjust to gravity. The fish-to-tetrapod transition marked the beginning of the vertebrate dwelling in terrestrial ecosystems.

Nowhere in the scientific literature is there any reference to a ‘social Darwinist’ competition between emergent species, nor any ‘struggle for existence’. The tetrapods did not emerge by smashing their competitors, or becoming the strongest ‘king’ of their ecosystem. Neither is there any reference to a supernatural creator, or teleological direction in the evolutionary process. If you want to discuss philosophical issues of theism, or a faith-based natural history of life on Earth, please save that for another blog article.

Evolution, rather than proceeding in a straight linear fashion, moves in a series of branching tree-like pathways. Tiktaalik, and Qikiqtania, are not merely ‘stepping stones’ on the way to the eventual emergence of vertebrate organisms.