Archive | August 22nd, 2020

Statement on Male Violence and Sexual Harassment in Kurdish Studies

Statement on Male Violence and Sexual Harassment in Kurdish Studies

By : Jadaliyya Reports

[This letter was issued in English and Kurdish by a group of anonymous women within the field of Kurdish studies. When asked for background and context, they shared the following via email: This letter is written by a group of women in Kurdish Studies. We would like to call attention to the long-time neglected issues of male violence (both direct and indirect forms) and sexual abuse in academia. We express our support for women who have been targeted and harassed by anyone speaking from the position of power. Kurdish women are underrepresented in academia and we hope that this letter opens a venue for further discussion on why this is the case and how it can be changed towards the better.]

Male Violence and Sexual Harassment in Kurdish Studies

Women are sexually and physically abused every day. Male violence and sexual harassment can be physical, psychological, verbal or online. Any behavior of sexual, psychological and physical nature targeting women’s integrity is extremely stressful and life-threatening. Although the definition of male violence and sexual harassment is clear in universities’ policy documents, violations of the policy are neglected and normalized as part of the unequal power relations existing in academia. Both male violence and sexual harassment are systemic problems.

We, a group of women scholars, students, and researchers in Kurdish Studies, condemn any form of male violence and sexual harassment. We stand up against male violence and sexual harassment and remind everyone that none of us are alone anymore.

The abusers silence women in multiple ways:

  1. they re-victimize the survivors by invalidating the violence as slander and by twisting the boundaries of consent and coercion;
  2. they ostracize and shame women for being abused, and
  3. they call for the support of the senior members (women & men) to legitimize the violence.

Bureaucratic tools are often used to (re)produce abusive sexual relations. The police and the academic structures are often misogynistic and patriarchal.

We extend our support to our brave colleagues who struggle against any form of male violence and sexual harassment.

We condemn any form of disrespectful actions of our colleagues. We also condemn anyone who gives support to the perpetrators. It is easier to talk about sensitive topics when there is no risk for one’s self. But genuine support means standing with women who have been targeted by those in positions of power.

We are stronger together. We say it loud one more time: Women in Kurdish Studies act in solidarity!

Signed anonymously by a group of women in Kurdish Studies

Posted in Human Rights, IraqComments Off on Statement on Male Violence and Sexual Harassment in Kurdish Studies

World-Renowned Actors, Filmmakers, and Writers Call on Egyptian Authorities to Release Sanaa Seif

World-Renowned Actors, Filmmakers, and Writers Call on Egyptian Authorities to Release Sanaa Seif

By : Jadaliyya Reports

Over two hundred of the world’s most prominent artists, along with nearly two dozen leading human rights groups and film organizations, are calling for the immediate release of Sanaa Seif, a film editor arrested in Cairo last month.

Among the signatories to a public statement published on Tuesday, August 4th are Juliette Binoche, Laurent Cantet, Noam Chomsky, JM Coetzee, Judi Dench, Claire Denis, Dave Eggers, Danny Glover, Paul Greengrass, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Hall, Naomie Harris, Khaled Hosseini, Anish Kapoor, Naomi Klein, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Paul Mason, Simon McBurney, Ruth Negga, Thandie Newton, Michael Ondaatje, Philip Pullman, Miranda Richardson, Andrea Riseborough, Arundhati Roy, and Stellan Skarsgård. 

In addition to Seif, the statement calls on Egyptian authorities to release “all those detained for peacefully exercising their rights,” and to “end the abuse of pre-trial detention” as well as a “global assertion of the rights of all people to live in dignity and justice.” 

Leading advocacy groups, including Amnesty International, PEN International, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve, have also signed onto the letter, as have prominent film organizations, including Sundance Institute, IDFA, the European Film Academy and Société des Réalisateurs de Films.

Campaigners are inviting artists and members of the public to sign on to the call at: 

Seif was abducted by plainclothes security forces in front of the public prosecutor’s office in Cairo on June 23rd, where she had arrived to file a complaint as a victim of a physical assault and robbery that occurred in front of the Tora prison complex the day before. She is currently being held in pretrial detention, a widespread practice used by Egyptian authorities to keep thousands locked up for months or years without ever being convicted of a crime. 

A new video on the case of Sanaa Seif was published on on Tuesday, August 4th at 9am GMT:

A film editor, writer, and activist, Seif worked on the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, and the award-winning film In the Last Days of the City. Her brother, Alaa Abd El Fattah — a prominent figure of the 2011 revolution—was released from prison last year, after serving a five-year sentence on trumped-up charges. Upon his release, he had to turn himself into a police station for 12 hours every day, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m, as part of an additional five-year probationary sentence. He was re-arrested in September, and remains behind bars in pretrial detention. 

Seif and Abd El Fattah are among thousands of activists, artists, lawyers, journalists, LGBTQ+ people, writers, publishers, librarians, and translators held in prison in Egypt today.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, human rights groups have documented multiple cases of COVID-19 inside Egypt’s crowded prisons as well as several deaths. In March, the Ministry of Interior banned all prison visits and thousands of detainees have little to no communication with their families in nearly five months.

For additional information, including the full public statement, list of signatories, background information, video material, and photos visit: 

For media inquiries email:

Posted in Egypt, Human RightsComments Off on World-Renowned Actors, Filmmakers, and Writers Call on Egyptian Authorities to Release Sanaa Seif

Past is Present: Settler Colonialism Matters!

[SOAS Palestine Society Organizing Collective; Image from their website]

By : Jadaliyya Reports

On 5-6 March 2011, the Palestine Society at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London will hold its seventh annual conference, “Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine.” This year`s conference aims to understand Zionism as a settler colonial project which has, for more than a century, subjected Palestine and Palestinians to a structural and violent form of destruction, dispossession, land appropriation and erasure in the pursuit of a new Jewish Israeli society. By organizing this conference, we hope to reclaim and revive the settler colonial paradigm and to outline its potential to inform and guide political strategy and mobilization.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as unique and exceptional with little resemblance to other historical or ongoing colonial conflicts. Yet, for Zionism, like other settler colonial projects such as the British colonization of Ireland or European settlement of North America, South Africa or Australia, the imperative is to control the land and its resources — and to displace the original inhabitants. Indeed, as conference keynote speaker Patrick Wolfe, one of the foremost scholars on settler colonialism and professor at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, argues, “the logic of this project, a sustained institutional tendency to eliminate the Indigenous population, informs a range of historical practices that might otherwise appear distinct–invasion is a structure not an event.”[i]

Therefore, the classification of the Zionist movement as a settler colonial project, and the Israeli state as its manifestation, is not merely intended as a statement on the historical origins of Israel, nor as a rhetorical or polemical device. Rather, the aim is to highlight Zionism`s structural continuities and the ideology which informs Israeli policies and practices in Palestine and toward Palestinians everywhere. Thus, the Nakba — whether viewed as a spontaneous, violent episode in war, or the implementation of a preconceived master plan — should be understood as both the precondition for the creation of Israel and the logical outcome of Zionist settlement in Palestine.

Moreover, it is this same logic that sustains the continuation of the Nakba today. As remarked by Benny Morris, “had he [David Ben Gurion] carried out full expulsion–rather than partial–he would have stabilised the State of Israel for generations.”[ii] Yet, plagued by an “instability”–defined by the very existence of the Palestinian nation–Israel continues its daily state practices in its quest to fulfill Zionism’s logic to maximize the amount of land under its control with the minimum number of Palestinians on it. These practices take a painful array of manifestations: aerial and maritime bombardment, massacre and invasion, house demolitions, land theft, identity card confiscation, racist laws and loyalty tests, the wall, the siege on Gaza, cultural appropriation, and the dependence on willing (or unwilling) native collaboration and security arrangements, all with the continued support and backing of imperial power. 

Despite these enduring practices however, the settler colonial paradigm has largely fallen into disuse. As a paradigm, it once served as a primary ideological and political framework for all Palestinian political factions and trends, and informed the intellectual work of committed academics and revolutionary scholars, both Palestinians and Jews.

The conference thus asks where and why the settler colonial paradigm was lost, both in scholarship on Palestine and in politics; how do current analyses and theoretical trends that have arisen in its place address present and historical realities? While acknowledging the creativity of these new interpretations, we must nonetheless ask: when exactly did Palestinian natives find themselves in a “post-colonial” condition? When did the ongoing struggle over land become a “post-conflict” situation? When did Israel become a “post-Zionist” society? And when did the fortification of Palestinian ghettos and reservations become “state-building”?

In outlining settler colonialism as a central paradigm from which to understand Palestine, this conference re-invigorates it as a tool by which to analyze the present situation. In doing so, it contests solutions which accommodate Zionism, and more significantly, builds settler colonialism as a political analysis that can embolden and inform a strategy of active, mutual, and principled Palestinian alignment with the Arab struggle for self-determination, and indigenous struggles in the US, Latin America, Oceania, and elsewhere.

Such an alignment would expand the tools available to Palestinians and their solidarity movement, and reconnect the struggle to its own history of anti-colonial internationalism. At its core, this internationalism asserts that the Palestinian struggle against Zionist settler colonialism can only be won when it is embedded within, and empowered by, the broader Arab movement for emancipation and the indigenous, anti-racist and anti-colonial movement–from Arizona to Auckland.

SOAS Palestine Society invites everyone to join us at what promises to be a significant intervention in Palestine activism and scholarship.

For over 30 years, SOAS Palestine Society has heightened awareness and understanding of the Palestinian people, their rights, culture, and struggle for self-determination, amongst students, faculty, staff, and the broader public. SOAS Palestine society aims to continuously push the frontiers of discourse in an effort to make provocative arguments and to stimulate debate and organizing for justice in Palestine through relevant conferences, and events ranging from the intellectual and political impact of Edward Said`s life and work (2004), international law and the Palestine question (2005), the economy of Palestine and its occupation (2006), the one state (2007), 60 Years of Nakba, 60 Years of Resistance (2009), and most recently, the Left in Palestine (2010).

For more information on the SOAS Palestine Society 7th annual conference, Past is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine:

SOAS Palestine Society Organizing Collective is a group of committed students that has undertaken to organize annual academic conferences on Palestine since 2003.

[i] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, Cassell, London, p. 163

[ii] Interview with Benny Morris, Survival of the Fittest, Haaretz, 9. January 2004,

Posted in Palestine Affairs, ZIO-NAZI, Human RightsComments Off on Past is Present: Settler Colonialism Matters!

Quick Thoughts: Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi on Lebanon’s Multiple Crises

By : Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi

Beirut, Lebanon: Protesters gather at central bank. Lebanon is plunged in its worst economic crisis and deflation has risen in a country with one of the world’s major foreign debts (30 December 2019). Photo by Karim naamani via Shutterstock.

[The COVID-19 crisis arrived in Lebanon on the heels of widespread protests that commenced in late 2019 against the country’s political system and elites. Lebanon today is beset by a resurgence of coronavirus infections, and in addition to the public health crisis is facing the prospect of genuine economic collapse. Jadaliyya Co-Editor and Quick Thoughts series editor Mouin Rabbani interviewed Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi, both Jadaliyya Co-Editors, to get a better understanding of the context and consequences of Lebanon’s multiple crises. The Quick Thoughts series provides background, context, and detail to issues that are, or should be, currently in the news.]

Mouin Rabbani (MR): Lebanon has seen a series of protests since 2019, predating the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic reverberations. Can you tell us a little about those protests and where they stand today? 

Ziad Abu-Rish and Maya Mikdashi (ZA & MM): Lebanon has featured episodic protests and strikes for the last several years. While the demonstrations that began in October 2019 were a major turning point in the politics of the country, they also drew on the networks, experiences, successes, and frustrations of these previous instances of mobilization. These included a myriad of campaigns and other forms of mobilization by public school teachers, retired military personnel, community activists, and municipal voters—not to mention the 2015 garbage protests and the 2019 protests by Palestinian refugees.

Beginning 17 October 2019, Lebanon featured an intense wave of popular protests that were variously referred to as the “October Uprising” or “October Revolution.” They quickly expanded in terms of both geographic range and numerical strength, and effectively shut down business as usual throughout much of the country for months. At one point an estimated two million people were on the streets of various cities and towns, representing approximately one-third of the total population of Lebanon. While large-scale rallies, marches, encampments, and roadblocks lasted into January 2020, those that subsequently continued taking to the streets began to focus on more direct symbols and spaces of the government and status quo: parliament; various ministries; the central bank; the national electricity company; and the office of the Association of Lebanese Bankers.

This was partly a function of strategic shifts by activist groups and their coalitions, some of which were formed prior to the uprising and others during it. It was also due to violent repression by security forces as well as party loyalists. Thereafter, activist precautions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the government ban on public gatherings (part of the declared state of emergency on 15 March 2020) effectively muted the demonstrations. Episodic protests have reappeared in much more disparate and smaller numbers since June 2020. Yet, by then the intensifying economic crisis, stalling tactics by the government and politicians, and episodic violence on the part of the security forces had worn down much of the population’s capacity for direct collective action.

MR: What were/are the main drivers of these demonstrations, what are the protestors’ objectives, and do they have widespread support among the Lebanese population?

ZAR & MM: The October-January mass mobilizations encompassed a range of grievances vis-à-vis the status quo in Lebanon. They primarily took aim at the unresponsiveness of successive governments, parliaments, and main political parties more generally to address long-articulated calls for accountability, transparency, and social justice. In terms of immediate demands, first and foremost was the call for the government to resign (which it eventually did on 29 October 2019). There was also relative consensus around demands for an independent judiciary, which in turn was related to the desire of many for the full and equal application of the Lebanese constitution and of the 1989 Taif Accord that officially ended the 1975–1990 civil war and underpinned the post-war political order. Another currently somewhat-resurgent demand has been for early parliamentary elections, which in turn raised the issue of restructuring the electoral law.

There were also more systemic demands articulated and debated. Some called for an end to the confessional distribution of political office and related positions. Others demanded a rethinking of the development model as well as economic and fiscal policies that have increased poverty and unemployment, weakened purchasing power, encouraged corruption, and enriched a very small percentage of the population at the expense of the rest. Lebanon has one of the highest wealth inequality ratios in the world: between 2005 and 2014, the richest one percent claimed twenty-five percent of total national income; in 2017, twenty percent of the entire domestic banking deposit base was concentrated in 0.1 percent of all deposit accounts. Also important were feminist and anti-racist demands that challenged gender, sexual, racial, and other hierarchies inherent in the Lebanese political system, its legal edifice, and daily practices in the public, private, and domestic sectors.

It would be difficult to claim there was agreement on the majority of specific demands advanced during these numerous protests. There is nevertheless general agreement that the political elites as a whole have failed to produce a meaningful postwar order in Lebanon—one in which the average Lebanese can live in dignity and have a say in the policies that shape their everyday lives as well as long-term aspirations. The complete rejection of these political elites was palpable both in the rhetoric of protesters as well as the near-total withdrawal of these elites from public and media appearances for about two months.

MR: What are the main economic and political elements of Lebanon’s current crisis? How has the political establishment sought to address these, and do you think they are in a position to implement a successful strategy that preserves their position and power?

ZAR & MM: Lebanon today can be described as featuring a set of multiple and overlapping crises. These include developmental, infrastructural, fiscal, and currency crises. Developmentally, revenue generation has come to standstill and its over-reliance on attracting external financial flows through the service sector (primarily banking and real estate) has meant that its distribution was quite lopsided. The electricity, water, waste management communication, and transportation infrastructures of the country are dilapidated. Electricity is rationed, the potable water supply is inconsistent, while cellphone and internet services are expensive and inadequate. Fiscally, the government is unable to balance its budget, due to the combination of an annual debt servicing burden equal to a third of the annual state budget and a taxation system that is overly reliant on indirect taxes (e.g., customs and excise) as opposed to direct taxes (e.g., income tax). Politically-backed smuggling networks through both the ports and land borders—not to mention official exemptions for politicians and their allies—also deprive the state of much of these (already insufficient) indirect taxes. More recently, the government has been unable to pay its bills for many of the privatized services such as traffic light administration and waste management, leading to breakdowns in service. The government has also delayed or failed to make payments to public and private hospitals it has contracted with, causing disruptions to the health care system.

Despite being a dollarized economy, there is a massive shortage of foreign exchange in the country. This is affecting its ability to import not only luxury goods but also basic foodstuffs, fuel, and medical supplies. This is to say nothing of the fact that banks increasingly limited dollar withdrawals and eventually locked people out of their dollar deposits. One cumulaive effect of this dramatic shortage of foreign exchange has been the rapid depreciation of Lebanese lira. While the official rate remains at 1500 Lebanese lira per 1 US dollar, the (black) market rate is today approximately 8000 liras and climbing. In other words, the lira has lost more than eighty percent of its value. The banking sector’s locking of depositors out of thier dollar accounts is reflective of one of the single-most dramatic instances of wealth destruction in recent history; by most accounts the banks have squandered a large portion of their dollar deposit base. They did so by paying out extravagant shareholder dividends and executive bonuses, and more generally by making bad investments. More recently, they have allowed clients with powerful connections to transfer their wealth out of the country while simultaneously denying ordinary depositors access to their dollars.

These “bad investments” by the banking sector have been a structural feature of the post-war Lebanese political economy. They primarily involve collusion between government officials, the central bank, and the banking sector around an agenda of profiteering from public debt and financial engineering schemes. Furthermore, we contend, with others, that delays in addressing the economic crisis should be understood as a political and economic choice to foist the burden of bankruptcy onto ordinary citizens and non-citizens through inflation and other tactics. It of course bears emphasizing that many politicians and their associates are major shareholders in Lebanon’s top-tier banks. 

These developmental, fiscal, infrastructural, and currency crises predate the October uprising. Yet many politicians and banking executives have attempted to re-write history by claiming the “real” crisis began with the protests. A careful assessment of public statements, currency tracking, central bank statistics, and banking practices throughout 2018 and 2019 reveals a different story. Well before the uprising, many banks were incentivizing borrowers to convert their lira-denominated loans to dollar-denominated ones, while also making cash withdrawals or international transfers from dollar-denominated accounts more difficult. On the other hand, according to one 2018-19 estimate, seventy-one percent of the workforce was employed in the service sector, and forty percent of the workforce was informally employed (i.e., no access to social security benefits, minimum wage, work hour regulations, or fringe benefits). That same survey found that only fifty-five percent of the population was covered by any (public or private) health insurance plan. Furthermore, the months leading up to the October uprising featured gas station strikes protesting the government’s inability to secure dollars for fuel imports, and public sector employees complaining about chronic salary delays. What the uprising did was confront politicians and their business allies head on. The latter in turn responded by trying to shift the blame to the protesters while also scrambling to protect their assets. This is precisely the intra-elite struggle and debate transpiring today: devising acceptable mechanisms to distribute the financial losses and political blame.

There is also a political crisis, which has two main features. First, the ability of leading political parties to cooperate and collude with one another to keep the overall system working has run aground. Second, the ability of leading political parties to maintain their hegemony over their respective constituencies has been greatly eroded. This is not to say that a breakdown in the social order or regime collapse is inevitable.

We could of course reframe the question of political crisis and center the majority of the population by simply pointing to the fact that the political system is unresponsive to the basic needs, daily lives, and life-span horizons of the majority. Whatever savings elder segments of the populations had, were wiped out by the continuously rising cost of living, the recent currency depreciation, or the banks’ de facto confiscation of dollar deposits. Young adults have few options for professional development or upward social mobility—to say nothing of employment in a service-based economy largely dependent on the unstable influx of tourists, diaspora visits, and regional or international media outlets and humanitarian industrial complexes. Each successive parliament and government have failed to deliver on promises to improve infrastructure, expand employment, arrest the rising cost of living, and address corruption. Moreover, any economic crisis is also itself a political crisis: the economy, however liberal, open, and laissez-faire, is a function of economic policies and governing practices.

While these multiple crises form the backdrop and context for many of the grievances and mobilizations that animated the October-January uprising, many worry that the continued intensification of these crises may once again resuscitate Lebanon’s political elite in the name of stability. Others argue that only a broad-based elite coalition can enact a set of policies necessary to abate the crises, even if it also perpetuates their hold on power and resources to reinvigorate patronage networks. In the unequal terrain of Lebanon’s political economy and vastly differential access to what funds remain in the country, we—like several others—worry that the rapid impoverishment of the population is laying the groundwork for the hardening of clientelist and dependency networks between established (and perhaps, new) politicians and their publics. It is worth noting that such networks have in fact become cheaper to maintain, even if available funds are scarce. 

MR: Is the current crisis organically related to Lebanon’s confessional power structure, and if so is there a serious prospect of increased sectarian tensions?

ZAR & MM: We do not believe the current crises are organically linked to confessionalism and/or sectarianism in Lebanon, nor are they merely a function of the regional and international system. These crises are the result of home-grown policies and decisions by those in control of the top levels of the state bureaucracy, designed to maximize their political power and economic privilege at the expense of the general population. They have, of course, been supported by regional and international allies as well as multilateral institutions. But it is possible to conceive of a confessional political system in Lebanon that is at the same time a little more responsive to the needs of the people. So the real question has to do with the incentive structures and cost-benefit analysis that those in power face in deciding how to conduct themselves in the absence of any kind of legal constraint or meaningful popular accountability. 

A prominent way in which confessionalism does directly impact state policy is the distribution of certain public sector employment and government contracts in the name of proportional “sectarian representation.” Major government works projects, including power plants, waste management facilities, and other infrastructure, are divvied up among leading politicians, their allies, and broader networks. Meanwhile, sectarian parity in government employment, save for top-level jobs, is actually not required since the Taif Accord. But employment in the government sector and the distribution of government projects and infrastructure contracts is a major way that politicians cultivate sectarian bona fides and patronage networks. While we are supportive of a robust public sector and believe the solution to this problem lies in reform and massive reinvestment in the public sector rather than privatization, we also hold that employment in the public sector should not be based on sectarian parity, as this only increases the ability of sectarian leaders to entrench their networks within the state.

If the October uprising has shown us anything, it is that the sectarian card has its limits as an instrument of rule and mobilization. It is less a constant feature than it is a repertoire in the political toolbox of existing parties and officials. This is not to say that the political system, whether through the apportionment of political office according to sectarian quotas or the adjudication of personal status matters by religious and state institutions, is irrelevant to the political economy of the country. But it is to say that there is no shortage of cross-sectarian collusion among political parties and government officials. The fundamental dividing line between ruler and ruled is one of class and access to state resources, the nature of such rule is shot through with patriarchal and heteronormative hierarchies, and divisions among the ruling political parties are ultimately about international alliances and different perceptions of what constitutes an existential threat.

While sectarianism itself may not be a primary factor in the current crisis, the structural conditions of the Lebanese state are critical. The Troika system of power-sharing—specifically the division of executive authority between the offices of the presidency, premiership, and parliamentary speakership—has engendered an environment where broad-based consensus among politicians is necessary for any major policy. This has more to do with the institutional reorganization of the Taif Accord than with confessionalism or sectarianism. Even if the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament hailed from the same sect, the structural problem of distributed executive power and consensus-building (often through bartering) would persist.

The uprising and the current period reveal a truism about Lebanon: sectarianism is most often a strategic mechanism to access scarce resources. Indeed, sometimes one has to participate in sectarian networks in order to access what are supposed to be public goods. Such networks are currently less able to perform this function. The fact that sectarian discourse is in this period less effective with protestors and the public at large, and the fact that protests were against all political elites and sectarian leaders, demonstrates yet again that Lebanese citizens are not “ride or die” for their sectarian leaders. Rather, their support is contingent on these networks being able to perform particular functions that meet their needs. In this sense, we should also explore specific sectarian networks and political parties to understand these dynamics, as they do not all operate at the same capacity, resonance, constraints, or scales.

MR: How do you assess the COVID-19 situation in Lebanon?

ZAR & MM: As of 15 July 2020, Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health has confirmed a total of 2542 COVID-19 cases, and thirty-eight deaths, since the first case was confirmed on 21 February. For the last four months, government officials and many international observers have claimed the COVID-19 pandemic is under control in Lebanon, especially given the total estimated population of six million residents. That assertion was always problematic, for at least three reasons. First, there was very little one could do to verify the statistics provided by the Ministry of Public Health, or the claims of public and/or private hospitals to be COVID-19 ready. This is not to deny the efforts that were made with respect to testing, tracing, quarantining, and otherwise identifying/containing the spread of the virus. However, we were never given consistent data, for example concerning the number of available hospital beds and ventilators, nor provided with the proper context to measure the broader picture (e.g., the total number and geographical distribution of tests). Second, accessto and the quality of healthcare are endemic problems in Lebanon. This is due to the effectively privatized nature of the health care system and its marked discrepancies with respect to costs, the legal status of patients (e.g., citizens, refugees, migrant laborers), and regional variations. Third, there is nothing “under control” about the economic dislocations and psychological pressures caused by the government-imposed lockdown in Lebanon.

This is not to challenge the idea that a lockdown was necessary. But it is to highlight the fact that it was not accompanied by any meaningful social safety net. While the pre-existing crises discussed earlier certainly facilitated such problematic responses, the government and leading political parties could have used the COVID-19 crisis to turn a corner and, even if only temporarily, demonstrate a genuine interest in the well-being of the population. Instead, as soon as the political utility of the lockdown abated (i.e., mass protests were nullified), the government completely re-opened the country, placing a higher premium on the influx of foreign currency and resumption of general economic activity than on public health, which was placed at dangerous risk. The fact that Lebanon has now featured three consecutive days of record-breaking increases in new COVID-19 cases—coupled with revelations the healthcare workers in several hospitals have tested positive and that many hospitals are in fact insufficiently prepared to respond to the pandemic—highlights the fact that the worst is yet to come.

MR: There has recently been increased media attention to the fate of migrant workers in Lebanon. Could you tell us more about these dynamics and how these are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? 

ZAR & MM: Lebanon is a multinational space. Approximately one-third of residents in Lebanon are not citizens but rather refugees, migrant laborers, foreign expats, and children of Lebanese mothers who are structurally excluded from Lebanese citizenship. Each of these groups has a different social, economic, legal, and bureaucratic relationship with the state. In the case of migrant laborers, who primarily hail from East Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, racism forms an additional and significant dynamic.

As the economic crisis has deepened, racist and xenophobic language directed at migrant laborers has flourished. A US professor teaching at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a Syrian man working in construction, and an Ethiopian woman working as a domestic laborer are all technically “foreign workers” and temporary residents. However, labor laws and contractual rights apply to them differently, as do societal practices of racism, classism, and segregation. Nationalist, racist, and xenophobic discourses targeting foreign workers in Lebanon have increased in response to economic catastrophe. Of course, these discourses do not target US academics, French advertising executives, or British humanitarian workers—when perceived to be white—but rather, those perceived to be black and brown. Some Lebanese go so far as to scapegoat migrant laborers and their remittances to families abroad as a major source of the country’s foreign exchange crisis.

Most migrant laborers in Lebanon operate within the kafala (sponsorship) system: a set of laws, policies, and practices that tie the employee’s ability to legally work to specific employers, and giving the latter immense power over the employee’s everyday life, bodily health, financial security, and legal status. The kafala system excludes these migrant laborers from the Labor Code and standard labor protections and benefits, while also operating with little-to-no oversight. The result is systematic human rights abuses. Migrant labor activists in Lebanon have described the kafala system as a form of “modern slavery”, and there is a growing campaign to abolish it entirely

Both COVID-19 and the economic crisis have put a stress test to the kafala labor system. For example, many upper- and middle-class Lebanese families are currently expelling their domestic workers from their homes because these families can no longer (or will no longer) pay their salaries or repatriation. There is no shortage of testimonials of cars pulling up in front of the Ethiopian Embassy as migrant laborers are forced out and left to fend on their own (in some cases without their belongings). Other migrant workers recently expelled, laid off, or simply seeking respite have taken to camping outside their respective embassies. Hundreds of South Asian sanitation workers have organized petitions and strikes demanding payment in dollars (as previously agreed) or in Lebanese currency at the market rather than the official rate. Some have demanded to be repatriated to their home countries. Consider that their 150-dollar monthly salary, now paid in Lebanese lira at the official rate, is worth a mere thirty dollars. These and other sanitation workers have been brutally suppressed by company managers, who in some instances invite in security forces and in others literally torture and imprison dissenters. At the same time, over two-hundred Syrian sanitation workers have been quarantined after approximately 140 of them tested positive for COVID-19. These statistics reflect the well-known overcrowded living quarters and precarious working conditions imposed by the sanitation company.

The publicity of these actions—the literal dropping off of women on the street and the entry of security forces into the living quarters of sanitary workers—are a portal through which to imagine what the relationship between the employing family or company and the employee look like in private, during what some analysts refer to as prosperous times. None of this is news to anyone that has followed the struggles of migrant workers in general and domestic workers in particular over the past several decades. We can add to this the complete lack of any proper statistics, resources, or guidelines for protecting, testing, and treating migrant workers (or refugees) for COVID-19. The fate of these two sets of labor migrants—domestic workers and sanitation workers—reveal the intersections between political economy and institutional and social hierarchies, and how they have in turn been amplified by both economic crises and the COVID-19 pandemic.

For years migrant workers have been active in speaking out and organizing their ranks. Mutual aid networks have sprung up to help alleviate the particular challenges of domestic workers, sanitation workers, and other forms of labor organized under the kafala system. As has been amply demonstrated across the globe, structurally subordinated communities experience COVID-19’s effects in compound fashion.

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Preliminary Report from Beirut: Port Explosion and Its Reverberations

By : Ziad Abu-Rish زياد ابوالريش

Port of Beirut and surrounding area, 2007. Photo by Yoniw via Wikimedia Commons

Port of Beirut and surrounding area, 2007. Photo by Yoniw via Wikimedia Commons

The nature of Tuesday’s explosion in the port of Beirut and the extent of the damage across the city and beyond is not yet clear. There are plenty of unconfirmed reports and it is hard to take official statements as transparent. That being said, the effects of the explosion were felt across the city and beyond. For those familiar with the geography, nearby areas such as Karantina and Gemmayzeh as well as further away areas such as Manara, Hamra, Burj Hammoud, Sin al-Fil, and Brummana felt the explosion.

The port area itself is largely decimated, with adjacent neighborhoods destroyed and those one neighborhood removed reportedly looking like a warzone. Much of the most damaged areas are only now being accessed by those searching for victims, rescue teams having been forced to wait out the flames or make sure remaining structures would not collapse on them. The anecdotes and reports of windows shattering, balcony doors collapsing, and ceilings caving in across Beirut (to say nothing of the “exterior damage” on the streets that are today lined with broken glass) and beyond are true and a testament to how powerful the explosion was.

As of 10pm Beirut time (3pm EST) on Wednesday 5 August, official estimates claimed 135 dead, 5000 wounded, dozens missing, and approximately 300,000 made homeless or unable to properly make use of their homes. At least three hospitals in Beirut have either closed down or evacuated significant parts of their facilities. One estimate puts the material damage in the 3-to-5 billion US dollar range.

Most everyone was terrified, immediately assuming what is the worst-case scenario in their minds, having flashbacks to their own previous experience with bombings/shelling, or reliving some type of trauma. Many folks sitting in their homes were injured, others who were leisuring, meeting, or working at cafes or hotels had window panes fall on them. Office and other buildings experienced similar damage or injuries. In all cases, most people were frightened and panicked.

Many ERs were overwhelmed the night of the bombing and even the morning after. Anecdotal evidence indicates some people had to visit several hospitals before being able to get treated, some going to Tripoli, Saida, or parts of Shuf. In other cases, folks waited hours to contact the Civil Defense or the Red Cross. Ambulance sirens, typically a weekly (if at all) occurrence in some neighborhoods, were that night a regular feature despite being relatively far from explosion.

People were/are panicked in Beirut and the country. This explosion comes in the wake of a massive surge in COVID-19, a development crisis, fiscal and monetary collapse, and escalating internal and regional tensions. It is worth stressing that the major port of a food- and otherwise import-dependent political economy is now completely non-operational. The Beirut port processed an estimated sixty percent of Lebanon’s imports. This is to say nothing of how a population experiencing approximately forty-percent unemployment, sixty-percent poverty, and fifty-percent inflation, combined with a foreign currency shortage and incapacitated primary port, will be able to secure the necessary materials to treat the wounded, fix homes, and rebuild the port. Beyond the immediate deaths, injuries, material damage, and individual/collective trauma, there is no way to know which of the many explanations are in fact the case. This lack of clarity (at best) or confusion (at worst) only intensifies the sense of devastation and rage felt by many. Devastated by yet another crisis that eviscerates people’s sense of security. Rage at a dense and interlocking network of government officials, bureaucrats, party leaderships, and businesspersons who provide no transparency and shirk any accountability for the policies and decisions that directly led to this and so many of the other crises.

What we do know is that a port hangar containing 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate is quickly becoming the consensus cause of the large explosion (note: Timothy McVeigh used 2.3 tons of this substance—mixed with another—in his 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City). That highly explosive material, used for bombs and fertilizer, had been at the Beirut port for at least six years. It was initially confiscated, was known to top-level officials in the relevant Lebanese bureaucracy, and was the subject of several formal warnings about the hazardous nature of the material and its current storing. What triggered the explosion of this ammonium nitrate is not yet clear, though various video footage reels show a pre-existing nearby fire that had already caught the attention of both the public and on-the-scene officials.

Beyond this, we do not know much. There is no way to confirm or deny the two most circulating explanations (not to mention other possibilities). First, an accidental spark of some sort caused nearby materials (some say fireworks) to catch fire and explode, eventually spreading to the nearby ammonium nitrate. If true, this, along with the criminality of leaving the explosive material unaddressed for years, is another example of how policies and negligence of governments, ministries, and various bureaucracies in Lebanon cost people their lives, livelihoods, and sense of security. Second, the site was targeted by fire, bomb, or rocket to either destabilize the country in general or target a port-located arms depot/shipment belonging to Hizballah. If true, this is another example of how regional rivalries and the ability of external powers such as the United State and Israel to wage elective wars, assaults, and bombings with impunity cost people their lives, livelihood, and sense of security.

Neither scenario is beyond the realm of real possibility. There is no way at this point to confirm or discount either of these or other explanations regarding what caused the ammonium nitrate to explode. Therefore, it remains best to wait for the unanimous “official” explanation in Lebanon. But until then, and long after, it will be those people living in Lebanon (whether citizens, refugees, migrant workers, or others) who pay the price. In both potential scenarios, the criminality of willfully storing such explosive materials (i.e., ammonium nitrate) at the port, without proper precautions, and despite repeated warnings, is a condition of possibility for how devastating the overall outcomes were in this particular instance. Even so, there have been no apologies, no resignations, and no indictments. 

There will be time for more analysis (in coverage and quality) of causes and culpability, and for understanding the extent of the material damage to the port, the city, and the country—all of which are lived spaces. But for now, all eyes must be on immediate medical attention for those in need, including search and rescue.

[Click here to read an Arabic version of this article.]

Posted in LebanonComments Off on Preliminary Report from Beirut: Port Explosion and Its Reverberations

Ireland and Slavery: Debating the ‘Irish Slaves Myth’


Mural of Frederick Douglass, Falls Road, Belfast. Irish people’s history has embraced both a legacy of identification with the oppressed, and in propagation of the Irish Slaves Myths, elements of racism. Photograph by
Ross – CC BY-SA 2.0

Over recent months, social media in Ireland and the United States has been saturated with claims and counterclaims about ‘Irish slaves’ and a broader controversy about Irish complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. The timing of the ‘debate’ is far from coincidental: a series of false and malicious assertions that the American far Right have pushed aggressively for more than a decade, embraced with enthusiasm by the most conservative elements in Irish America, have grown wings in the new context opened up by the rise of Black Lives Matter. A controversy that has simmered below the surface has taken on new urgency as a fascist Right, emboldened by Trump, finds itself confronted for the first time with a powerful mass movement capable of pushing back. In this context racists in the US are attempting to weaponize a false version of Irish ‘history’ to undermine BLM. In the south of Ireland, especially, a small ‘anti-globalist’ Right sees in the controversy a possibility for redeeming their dismal showing in the recent election by drawing people in on the basis of a mawkish, fairytale nationalism. Socialists and all anti-racists have a responsibility in this situation to counter these lies, to build solidarity with BLM here in Ireland and abroad, and to confront racism wherever it is manifested in Irish society.

For the past seven years much of the burden of refuting these lies has been taken on by the Limerick-based independent scholar Liam Hogan. Working his way meticulously through a complicated historical record, Hogan has published extensively on the controversy, and is the main source for coverage that in recent weeks has appeared in leading newspapers in Britain, Ireland and the US. His research shows that a version of the ‘white slave memes’ first began surfacing in US websites associated with hardcore white supremacists around 2003, but made its way into broader Tea Party circles from about 2013, and has more recently become a staple in the larger far Right that has grown in size and confidence under Trump’s patronage. In the article below – focused on the whether the experience of Irish indentures in the 17th and 18th century world is comparable with that of African slaves – and in a second installment that will follow on Irish complicity in transatlantic slavery, I argue that there are problems in Hogan’s approach, and in the framework in which he situates these questions. But it should be acknowledged unequivocally that his work has been critical for arming anti-racists against a deluge of lies and misinformation. All anti-racists are indebted to Hogan for taking this on almost singlehandedly.

Far Right Weaponizes ‘History’

At the outset it’s worth taking the measure of the scale of the problem we confront. The notion of ‘Irish slavery’ may have floated around Irish America in some vague form before 2003, but it does not seem to have played a significant role in underpinning white (Irish American) racism before then, and although by 2013 it had seeped into sections of the Irish American press, it was the white nationalist-influenced far Right rather than these outlets that drove its early dissemination. In Ireland former Irish army officer Sean O’Callaghan’s highly problematic To Hell or Barbados (published in 2001) popularized the belief that Cromwell’s Irish deportees had been enslaved in the British Caribbean, and was almost certainly the source for Gerry Adam’s cringe-worthy 2016 assertion that “through the penal days [the] Irish were sold as slaves.” The careless blurring of the lines between slavery and indenture in O’Callaghan’s work, rooted in sentimental nationalism than a commitment to white supremacy – provided an aura of credibility for the ‘Irish slaves’ meme that it would not have otherwise enjoyed.

To the extent that these falsehoods have taken root more broadly across Irish society, it is important to confront them. But it’s also worth pointing out that the surge in discussion of the ‘Irish slaves’ meme on social media does not necessarily indicate growing support for racism. In the south of Ireland at least, where between May and early July 2020 there has been a staggering increase in the volume of such discussion, posts debunking the ‘myth’ seem to exponentially outnumber those defending it. The five most popular facebook posts over this period related to ‘Irish slaves’ all debunk the myth; only one in the top ten (from the right-wing student publication, The Burkean) defends it, but with only about 2% of the traction of the leading five.[1]

There are of course right-wing activists and individual racists in Ireland who want to weaponize the meme in the same way their American counterparts aim to do – to discredit Black Lives Matter and undermine calls for racial justice – but it’s clear also that there are (confused) BLM supporters and anti-racists even among those who believe at some level that Irish indenture and African slavery were equivalents. The assertion that Africans had been ‘third in slavery” in the Americas (after indigenous peoples and white indentures) was earlier popularized by the race conscious editor of Jet magazine, Lerone Bennett Jr., who wrote at the height of the Black Power movement that Africans “had inherited [their] chains, in a manner of speaking, from the pioneer bondsmen, who were red and white”. Clearly Bennett was blurring the lines here in the same way many do today, but he can hardly be accused of soft-pedaling the horrors of racially-based chattel slavery, and was obviously motivated by the hope that history might be put to work in building cross-racial alliances. The point here is not that populist renderings of the past should be given a free pass when they are put to service in building interracial solidarity – they shouldn’t – but that we need to be attentive to the context in which particular versions of the past gain traction, and the present emphasis on marking off the sharp line between indenture and slavery itself reflects important ideological shifts over recent years.

A Mountain of Falsehoods

Let’s get to the heart of the matter: on all the key questions – of whether the Irish were ‘the first slaves’, or whether their experience as indentured laborers in Britain’s colonies in the so-called ‘new world’ was equivalent to that endured by Africans, or of whether ‘indenture’ is just a euphemism for ‘slavery’ (as many on social media want to insist), the record is crystal clear and there should be no equivocation. These are all false assertions, almost always deliberately concocted at source through flagrant manipulation of numbers and chronology. Hogan has forensically dissected the numbers game here, and demonstrates repeatedly the dishonesty, embellishment and manipulation of the facts underpinning the Right’s disinformation campaign.

There is nothing to be gained by trying to diminish or downplay the suffering endured by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Irish indentured servants – a point that some of those arguing Hogan’s corner seem oblivious to, and one I will come back to in some detail below. But even if we acknowledge the hardships many of them had to endure, and even if we accept at face value the hugely inflated numbers that those disseminating the ‘Irish slaves’ myth place in circulation, any attempt to conflate or render equivalent their nightmare with Africans’ experience as slave chattels is untenable, and callous in the extreme.

In scale, in duration, in the wrenching and long-term legacy of transatlantic slavery on Africa itself, in the absolutely central role which black slave labor played in generating the colossal wealth that helped fuel Europe’s industrial transformation – in effect launching global capitalism and the modern world as we know it – any attempt to draw equivalences is beyond absurd. By way of illustration, let us take at face value the hugely exaggerated numbers of Irish indentures purported in one prominent meme, which asserts that over an eleven-year period in the middle of the 17th century the British “sold 300,000 [Irish people] as slaves”. Leaving aside momentarily the question of status, as Hogan points out this number represents six times the total number of Irish migrants to the West Indies for the whole of the 17th century, and almost double total Irish migration to the West Indies and North America in the century and a half after 1630. But leave this aside as well: let’s accept that – for argument’s sake –there were 300,000 Irish laborers condemned to some degree of unfreedom in the plantation societies of the Americas.

Now consider a second figure: over nearly three centuries of the transatlantic slave trade some four million enslaved Africans died en route to the new world – either while being transported overland to coastal ports in west Africa, at sea during the Middle Passage, or shortly after landing in the ‘new world’. That is, thirteen times as many Africans died in transit to the ‘new world’ than the total number of Irish which the Right insists were deployed as ‘slave’ laborers. If we use instead the numbers for Cromwellian deportations accepted by credible scholars (10-12,000) then this single measure reveals the absurdity of trying to render these experiences equivalent: forty times as many African died in transit than the total number of Irish sent into indenture in the 1650s. The scale of the far Right’s intended swindle is breath-taking: that such idiocy can gain any traction at all shows an almost pathological aversion to facing up to the past among those circling the wagons against the renewed challenge to white supremacy.

Marx on Slavery and the Birth of Capitalism

Marxists understand the centrality of African slavery to the making of the modern world in ways that others, including liberal defenders of the present social order, miss or deliberately evade. For Marx himself, bloody conquest in the Americas (almost everywhere involving genocide against indigenous peoples) and chattel slavery on a scale the world had never previously seen were twin cornerstones of a newly emerging capitalism that would, over a remarkably short period in historical terms, bring under its ambit diverse and far-flung societies across the globe. “The different momenta of primitive accumulation [of capital] distribute themselves now,” he wrote in the first volume of Capital, “over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a [systematic] combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute forcee.g., the colonial system.” More broadly, he insists

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulationOn their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.[2] [emphasis added]

The leading African American scholar-activist WEB Du Bois, deeply influenced by marxist materialism at the height of his intellectual powers, expanded on this argument from the vantage point of the early 20th century, when the global system that Marx identified in embryo had developed into mature form: “That dark and vast sea of human labor…the great majority of humankind,” he wrote in Black Reconstruction, “shares a common destiny…despised and rejected by race and color, paid a wage below the level of decent living[.] Enslaved in all but name,” he insisted, they gather up raw materials “at prices lowest of the low, manufactured, transformed, and transported,” with the resulting wealth “distributed and made the basis of world power…in London and Paris, Berlin and Rome, New York and Rio de Janeiro”. Written in 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, one could hardly find a more fitting depiction of the world we inhabit today, marked by exploitive relations between global capital and a racially stratified, multinational labour force. And of course it is impossible to understand the deep resonance that protests in the US have found across the globe without understanding the ways in which police violence – directed disproportionately at this ‘dark and vast sea of human labor’ – reinforces the wider system of exploitation that Marx and Du Bois identified.

This approach to understanding the centrality of slavery serves up a crushing riposte to far Right apologists, but it also marks off an alternative framework from which to understand the evolution of chattel slavery in the Americas – one that captures complex aspects of its development missing from the debate thus far, and perhaps excluded by the way it has been framed by Hogan and others. In Ireland the enduring legacy of the ‘revisionist’ reappraisal of the past is evident in writing on indenture and, more obviously, on Irish complicity in the transatlantic slave trade. Fearghal Mac Bhloschaidh has written perceptively of the ideological thrust of the revisionist project in Ireland: the “main current dominating Irish historiography,” he asserts, can be best understood as an ‘idiosyncratic Irish manifestation of a wider liberal defence of power”, which “employs a vulgar empiricism and constrictive ontology to prohibit a radical reading of the past or an awareness of history as process.”[3]

Framing Slavery and Indenture

The salience of this historiographical context for framing discussion of Irish indenture and its relationship to African slavery is obvious. Though the terrain of this discussion has been profoundly shaped by the regressive trends identified by Mac Bhloschaidh, this background will go unnoticed by many who happen upon the ‘debate’ online or in the press. The convergence of the revisionist sensibility in understanding the Caribbean is most obviously manifested in Donald Akenson’s lectures on the Irish presence in 17th century Montserrat, collected in a volume published under the suitably provocative title If the Irish Ran the World. Drawing on a recent literature that simultaneously denies Ireland’s colonial past and upholds the notion of an ‘Irish empire’, Akenson asserts that the smallest of the main Leeward islands constituted “Ireland’s only 17th and 18th century colony”. Indenture figures in his account as a story of rational-choice ‘upward mobility’; the text strains to obliterate the distinction between Irish (mainly though not exclusively Anglo-Irish and Protestant) planters and indentured servants, and asserts that indenture “was so very different from black slavery as to be from another galaxy of human experience”. [emphasis added] Though Hogan is mostly forthright in acknowledging the misery that attended indenture,[4] traces of Akenson’s cheerier rendering are evident in the present debate.

Three key elements prominent in earlier writing on indenture in the Caribbean and British North America are obscured in the way the recent controversy has been framed. First, an earlier historiography acknowledged, significantly, that indenture was one in a series of solutions by which planter elites attempted to solve the problem of labor scarcity in their ‘new world’ colonies: in short they could not reap profits selling staple crops on the transatlantic market without an adequate supply of labor, and for a while – in the earliest period of Anglo/European settlement – white indentured labor seemed a viable option. As the distinguished anthropologist Sindey Mintz put it, “‘planters were, in one sense, completely without prejudice [and] willing to employ any kind of labor…under any kind of arrangements, as long as the labor force was politically defenseless enough for the work to be done cheaply and under discipline”. In parts of the Caribbean Irish indentures seem to have played an especially prominent role early on (rooted in the Cromwellian deportations) but in North America indentures were drawn from England (mainly), Scotland and Ireland, without any obvious distinction being made between them. A second element, now largely absent from the ’debate’, is the sense that the turn to African slavery as the foundation for plantation labor was a contingent development, and not preordained by history. A complex convergence of circumstances pushed Anglo planters toward a full commitment to black slavery: improved conditions in Ireland and Britain meant the flow of ‘voluntary’ migrants dried up; the turn from small-scale tobacco cultivation to sugar in the Caribbean (and from hopes of outright plunder to tobacco export further north in Virginia and the Chesapeake) generated an exponential increase in the planters’ labor requirements. Finally, British entry into and then domination of the transatlantic slave trade brought a sharp decline in the costs of deploying slave labor, to the point where African slaves-for-life could be deployed on the plantations more economically than white indentures.[5]

Labour, Identity and the Construction of Race

In the face of the malicious attempt to muddy the waters around the horrors of African slavery, it is important to point out the very real, and substantial, differences between indenture and slavery for life. But the evolution of chattel slavery, its place in an evolving system of labor exploitation, the declining importance of indenture – indeed any sense of change over time – is almost entirely absent from the narrow framework of national identity through which discussion is now focused. And what do we lose in this shift? Most significantly we miss the possibility of grasping what the African American historian Barbara J. Fields has called the incremental “construction of race”.[6] If it is true, as is now widely accepted, that ‘race’ is a fiction, and that ‘whiteness’ was deliberately constructed as a way of marking off racial boundaries and securing the loyalty of white laborers to their social betters, then the new world plantation societies of the 17th and 18th centuries served as the setting in which this process was initiated and then consolidated.

Here Akenson’s assertion that indenture and chattel slavery were ‘galaxies apart’ – or his insinuation that Irish indentures were simply slaveowners-in-the-making who had not yet found their true calling – is misleading, and marks a retreat from a more dynamic and potentially productive framework. Those pushing the ‘Irish slaves’ myth suggest that ‘indenture’ is synonymous with slavery, but there are important distinctions: most (though not all) indentures from Britain, Scotland and Ireland were voluntary; in return for transatlantic passage and a modest package of land and tools, etc. at the end of their indentures, they signed away their freedom for terms ranging typically from 4 to 10 years. Historians will continue to debate the evidence from colonial North America and the Anglo Caribbean: there is a basis for emphasizing the ‘special unease’ that planters exhibited toward their African laborers, and the indications that ‘racial’ demarcation between African and ‘Christian servants’ [i.e. whites] was underway from outset. But there is countervailing evidence – especially from colonial North America, that points to a period in which ‘race relations’ at the bottom were more fluid. It was not uncommon during the first half of the seventeenth century for Africans, Europeans, and indigenous ‘Americans’ in the colonial Chesapeake to work alongside one another, and even to share the same living quarters. No sharp racial division of labor had yet emerged to prescribe which work would ‘belong’ to a particular group. Contrary to the assumption that racism has always divided blacks and whites, unfree laborers of all ‘races’ in the early seventeenth century Chesapeake seemed “remarkably unconcerned about their visible physical differences”.[7] Their lives intersected in many ways, and there is clear evidence that they shared not only living quarters and daily toil, but close personal ties as well. From the fragmentary record we know that at least some ‘white’ laborers were conscious of the common lot they shared with blacks: “We and the Negroes both alike did fare,” one servant-poet wrote: “Of work and food we had an equal share.”[8] An investigation into the death of a Dutch servant at the hands of his master in 1647 illustrates the sense of vulnerability shared among the ranks of the unfree. A plantation overseer testified that when he visited the servants’ quarters just after hearing of the death of one of their co-laborers, they all

sate very mallanchollye in the quartering house, and [the overseer] asked them what they ayled to bee soe mallanchollye. The Spanyard made answer and said Lord have mercy upon this boye hath been killed by b(l)owes, his conscience told him. Tom Clarke said Lord have mercy upon us that ever it was my hard fortune to come to this countrye for, if this bee suffered, it maye bee my turne to morrow or next daye. The Negro said Jesus Christ my mayster is not good. And they all wept bitterlye.[9]

The ‘construction of race’ in the vortex of ‘new world’ conquest, exploitation and inter-imperial rivalry can also explain the fundamental distinction between the form of slavery that took shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic world and every other form of slavery that preceded it. What was distinct about the system that provided the foundations for modern capitalism was its elevation of racial distinctions: though the timing of its development varied here and there, black skin became everywhere in the Americas a marker for slave status. Unlike slavery in the ancient world, where ethnicity and national origin seem to have barely figured in denoting the status of human beings, what developed in the Americas was a racially-defined system of exploitation. And the stigma attached to race, the comprehensive system of racist ideology concocted to rationalize and justify the selective enslavement of black Africans (notions of black inferiority, white superiority), gave grounding and coherence to a set of deeply embedded racial assumptions that outlived slavery, and which very obviously retain their destructive power well into the 21st century.

Wherever historians come down on what the records show for the formative period in race-making, there can be little dispute that racial boundaries became more rigid over time, and that this hardening of the color line was reflected in evolving law and custom. In British North America the critical turning point in the fastening of racial hierarchy – the invention of ‘whiteness’ – came as a direct response by colonial elites to a multi-racial rebellion driven by the ‘lower orders’.[10]

Finally, understanding both slavery and indenture as evolving solutions to the labor problem rather than as mere reflections of a hierarchy of identities can explain how, as Kerby Miller has suggested, “the records of almost every major slave revolt in the Anglo-American world – from the West Indian uprisings in the late 1600s, to the 1741 slave conspiracy in New York City, through Gabriel’s rebellion of 1800 in Virginia, to the plot discovered on the Civil War’s eve in Natchez, Mississippi – were marked by real or purported Irish participation or instigation”.[11] The planters’ dread of rebel combinations between the Irish poor and African slaves – like their more general tendency to perceive slave plots all around them – was more often based on paranoia than firm evidence. “What worried masters in Barbados, above all,” Hilary McD. Beckles observed, “was Irish involvement in slave revolts.” In most cases “fear outran fact in this regard,”[12] he notes, but if it is true that the conditions which black slaves and white indentures worked and lived under were ‘galaxies apart’, how can we explain the persistence of this deep anxiety among Anglo slaveowners throughout the plantation societies of the Americas? Ironically, as Miller points out, “it was not the much-maligned Irish nationalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who first constructed the image of Ireland’s Catholics (and [their] Protestant allies) as inveterate rebels against political and social authority. Rather, it was earlier Protestant (and Catholic) conservatives and counter-revolutionaries, for whom ‘essential’ (or ‘wild’) ‘Irishness’ seemed the inveterate enemy of the hierarchical systems, deferential habits, and genteel norms that maintained the prevailing, unequal distributions of rights, property, and power”.[13]

In obvious ways, the terms of the debate around slavery and indenture have been outside the control of Liam Hogan and others who have stood up to refute the intense disinformation campaign mounted by the far Right and a softer element of right-leaning, sentimental Irish nationalists. Clearly, they have performed an important service in deploying the historical record against sordid attempts to make light of the horrors of chattel slavery. But the narrow terms in which these issues have, until now, been discussed reveal also the persistent influence of conservatism in Irish history writing, itself a variant of a more general retreat among historians – away from an engaged social history that attends to the complex relationships between race, class and power and toward a fixation with culture and identity. This can obscure as much as it reveals. Indentured servitude and racially-based slavery for life were not equivalents, nor were they comparable in terms of scale or importance in generating the economic foundations that would launch global capitalism. But they were related forms of exploitation at the birth of the modern world, and the best way to honor the victims of both is to commit to rebuilding the rebel combinations that flickered, tentatively, across the color line among those at the bottom. The odious racism that the Black Lives Matter Movement confronts today has its origins in that harsh world, and it’s time we buried that part of our past.


1. Buzzsumo app, 29 June 2020: data in author’s possession. 

2. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 31: “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”, available online at

3. Mac Bhloscaidh, “Objective Historians, Irrational Fenians and the Bewildered Herd: Revisionist Myth and the Irish Revolution,” Irish Studies Review (April 2020): pps. 2,6. 

4. On this point see Liam Hogan, Laura McAtackney and Matthew C. Reilly, “The Irish in the Anglo-Caribbean: Servants or Slaves?, History Ireland (March-April 2016); pps. 18-22. 

5. On these interlinked developments see David W. Galenson, “The Rise and Fall of Indentured Servitude in the Americas: An Economic Analysis,” Journal of Economic History 44:1 (Mar. 1984), pps. 1- 26. On parallels in the North American context see Kelly, “Material Origins of Racism in North America,” available at

6. See Field’s important discussion of this issue in Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 1/181 (May/June 1990): available online at

7. Kenneth Stampp, cited in Winthrop D. Jordan, “Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery,” Journal of Southern History 28:1 (1962): 21. 

8. Jacqueline Jones, American Work: Four Centuries of Black and White Labor (1999), p. 76. 

9. North Carolina Deeds, Wills, etc., 1645-51, cited in J. Douglas Deal, Race and Class in Colonial Virginia: Indians, Englishmen, and Africans on the Eastern Shore During the Seventeenth Century (1993), pps. 117-118. 

10. On the importance of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676) in galvanizing Virginia elites and solidifying racial hierarchy in the colonial Chesapeake, see Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), and Theodore Allen, “’They Would Have Destroyed Me’: Slavery and the Origins of Racism,” Radical America (May-June 1975): pps. 41-63. 

11. Kerby Miller, “Epilogue: Re-Imagining Irish and Irish Diasporan History,” in Ireland and Irish America (2008). 

12. Hilary McD. Beckles, “A ‘riotous and unruly lot’: Irish Indentured Servants and Freemen in the English West Indies, 1644-I7I3,” William and Mary Quarterly 47:4 (Oct. 1990), p. 517. On indenture and cooperation between Irish indentures and African and creole slaves in the British Caribbean see also Aubrey Gwynn, “Indentured Servants and Negro Slaves in Barbados (1642-1650),” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 19:74 (Jun. 1930), pp. 279-294. As a corrective to Akenson’s story of ‘upward mobility’, Gwynn reminds us (284) that although after their term of indenture “had been completed, the servant was free, and might be allotted land on the island. But not many lived to see the day”. Mortality on Caribbean-bound ships was high, a fact that seems to be missing from recent discussions of indenture. In Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (1972), for example, Richard S. Dunn reports that on one ship eighty of 350 passengers died of sickness by the time it arrived in port in Barbados in 1638. 

13. Miller, Epilogue, p. 23. 

Posted in Human Rights, IrelandComments Off on Ireland and Slavery: Debating the ‘Irish Slaves Myth’

Native Americans Win Historic Victories in U.S. High Court Rulings


Image Source: Chipermc – CC BY-SA 4.0

Heat on the U.S. Presidential election campaign thermometer reached new highs during the dog days of summer 2020, with the final rulings of the Supreme Court calendar year favoring indigenous causes diametrically opposed to those of incumbent candidate Donald Trump.

The highest court in the land ruled in favor of the exercise of Native American rights when it determined in a long-awaited July 9 decision that the Muskogee (Creek) Nation retains jurisdiction over its 19th Century treaty lands.

In a separate ruling, it also blocked construction of the Canadian TC Energy Corp.’s Keystone XL Pipeline across unceded 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory in Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska in a July 6 ruling. Simultaneously, a Montana U.S. District judge told Energy Transfer Partners and oil industry associates to stop the hazardous liquid stream of oil flowing in the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, as the Standing Rock and three other Sioux nations demanded.

The rulings are a setback for the Trump agenda, marked by racist slurs and efforts to undermine tribal sovereign jurisdiction. The Trump administration has also vigorously promoted private oil development and pipeline building on Indian treaty land, despite near unanimous opposition from the 574 federally recognized native nations.

Legal analysis of the rulings reveals that they merely reinforce Constitutional and Congressional law that state and federal government should have obeyed in the first place. But the decisions have a very real impact on key battles for indigenous rights and establish court precedents and have been well received by indigenous groups. The rulings also inspired the general, pandemic-plagued populace, as the citizenry struggles to configure new alliances and economic alternatives for recovery, against a background of environmental justice rollbacks in the Trump Administration and the incumbent candidate’s increasingly racially divisive campaign comments

The decisions came as a respite on the heels of Trump’s campaign whistle-stop at the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial on the eve of Independence Day. The sculpture of four U.S. Presidents carved on a sacred mountain in unceded Lakota Territory has long been considered egregious to native peoples.

His private event at the public venue not only violated the right to freedom of assembly, it disregarded pandemic protocol and an areawide fireworks ban. The occasion also featured an aerial show by taxpayer-supported U.S. Air Force fighter planes.

Hundreds of demonstrators responded to a native-led action call for civil disobedience. The protesters accused Trump and his entourage of trespassing and demanded the return of the Black Hills treaty lands stolen from the Great Sioux Nation. At least a dozen people were handcuffed and jailed overnight with misdemeanor charges. NDN Collective organizer Nick Tilsen also faced two felony charges at his hearing, after three nights in jail.

The Supreme Court’s historic 5-4 vote on the case of McGirt v. Oklahoma, confirmed that the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation remain intact today, 180 years after Congress ratified the 1832 and 1833 Treaty with the Creeks. The decision rested on the legal opinion that the courts cannot undo an act of Congress.

We hold the government to its word”

An 1866 Treaty with the Creeks reaffirmed the Oklahoma land base “forever set apart as a home for said Creek Nation,” after Confederate Civil War General cum 7th U.S. President Andrew Jackson and successor Martin Van Buren commanded a policy of forced removal of the native people from east of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma via the shameful and genocidal Trail of Tears.

The Supreme Court also resolved a similar case called Sharp v. Murphy, for all practical purposes, bundling it into the same opinion. Both cases arose from crimes attributed to Indians on treaty land left to native nations, in which defendants argued they should not be prosecuted by Oklahoma state authorities for allegations in tribal jurisdiction

“On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever,” Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the narrow majority.

“Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law. Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word,” the opinion states.

Three days earlier, the Supreme Court upheld a Montana U.S. District Court order to halt the Keystone XL Pipeline construction across Lakota Territory on the grounds that the project’s Nationwide Permit 12 water crossing license violates the Endangered Species Act. The stay remains in effect until the U.S. Circuit Court rules on the pipeline company’s appeal of the lower court order.

In the DAPL oil shutoff case, the company and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the defendant, immediately appealed the decision of U.S. District of Columbia Judge James Boasberg. Tribal and grassroots leaders were quick to point out that the case had come this far due to international awareness raised by water protectors’ spirit camps mobilizing civil disobedience at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017.

The judge ordered the oil flow to stop for at least until after the completion of a proper consultation with tribes and an environmental impact statement process with public participation, as required by the National Environmental Protection Act, NEPA. The process has an estimated duration of at least three years.

The two pipeline decisions handed a victory to indigenous-led opposition to fossil fuel pollution of air, land and water. The rulings also revealed the extent to which federal agencies have succumbed to regulatory capture by industry in Trump’s first term.

The President, formerly a shareholder of DAPL’s majority owner Energy Transfer Partners, came to office on the promise that he would reinstate rejected permits for the Keystone XL Pipeline and make sure DAPL went ahead. Within four days of his inauguration, he signed decrees forcing the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers offices to expedite the licensing that has now been determined illegal..

Trump proceeded to direct the sale of public properties and indigenous sacred sites there to mining interests and gutted the provisions of the National Environmental Act that allow underserved communities to take part in EPA decision making.

The rulings reaffimed “what we knew all along”, said Chair Harold Frazier of the plaintiff Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The Cheyenne River Sioux joined the Standing Rock, Yankton and Oglala Sioux tribes in suing the Corps of Engineers for breaking federal laws and glossing over the devastating consequences of a potential oil spill in the Missouri River’s Oahe Reservoir upstream on drinking water supply intakes.

Shortly after the ban on construction of the renewed Keystone XL, Dominion Energy and Duke Energy Corp. announced the cancelation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline buildout through Virginia and North Carolina “due to ongoing delays and increasing cost uncertainty which threaten the economic viability of the project.”

Tribes hope the rulings will have a chilling effect on other planned pipeline construction and fracking projects.

The decisions reduce the room for the violation of treaty rights, considered to be the highest law under the U.S. Constitution, and the latitude for abridging federal-tribal consultation rules meant to ensure free, prior and informed consent on projects affecting original inhabitants’ lands, as established in U.N. principles.

Tribal leaders and environmental justice advocates observed that although the rulings resulted from court challenges, a key component in their momentum is the ongoing grassroots mobilization of thousands of pipeline fighters. Spanning geographical and cultural boundaries from Standing Rock on the Great Plains to the southern swamps of Louisiana, from the heartland of Nebraska and Iowa to Pennsylvania and New York in the northeast, the movements have been a powerful mandate for policy change.

Posted in USA, PoliticsComments Off on Native Americans Win Historic Victories in U.S. High Court Rulings

Reverse the New Nuclear Arms Race


Image Source: Large stockpile with global range (dark blue), smaller stockpile with global range (medium blue), small stockpile with regional range (light blue) – Public Domain

August 6 is the 75th anniversary of the only time any nation in the world dropped an atomic bomb on people.

On August 6, 1945, President Harry Truman ordered Fat Man dropped on Hiroshima. 210,000 people were killed instantly. Three days later, Little Boy was dropped on Nagasaki, killing 70,000 more people instantly.

Now would be an opportune moment for a major party presidential or US Senate candidate to make the new nuclear arms race a top campaign issue. Instead we hear nothing.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved its Doomsday Clock the closest it has ever been to midnight. Tension in the world is very high. The US has withdrawn from one nuclear weapons treaty after another, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The last bilateral nuclear weapons treaty between the US and Russia, the New START Treaty concerning strategic nuclear forces, expires next February 5.

As a US Senate condition for ratifying New START in 2010, the Obama administration initiated, and the Trump administration continued, a wasteful and reckless multi-trillion-dollar nuclear weapons “modernization” program. Russia and China have responded with their own nuclear “modernization” programs.

The new strategic arms are hypersonic – six times faster. Hypersonic means countries no longer have time to launch on warning of incoming missiles, but instead must launch a first strike in anticipation that the other side is about to strike. These new strategic arms are dangerously destabilizing.

Modernization also deploys more tactical nukes in conventional forces with the crackpot military doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate.” The tactical nukes would be used to degrade a stronger conventional force that was gaining the upper hand. The wishful thinking is that the conflict could then be de-escalated. But as former nuclear war planner Daniel Ellsberg demonstrates in his “second Pentagon Papers,” his book The Doomsday Machine, once one nuke is launched, they will all launch automatically and that will be the end of us.

The people of Japan know more than anyone how dangerous these weapons are. Since the late 1950s they have been warning the world that nuclear weapons and the human race are on a collision course.

We propose a set of peace initiatives as a way out of this life-or-death emergency. The U.S. should:

* Cut military spending by at least 50%,
* Withdraw from its endless, illegal wars abroad,
* Pledge “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and
* Disarm to a minimum credible deterrent.

On the basis of these tension-reducing peace initiatives, the US can credibly approach the other eight nuclear powers to negotiate complete and mutual nuclear disarmament, an obligation nuclear powers are already charged with under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The US would enter disarmament negotiations with world public opinion on its side. In a meeting at the U.N. in 2017, 122 non-nuclear nations agreed to the text of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons received the Nobel Peace Prize for that achievement.

Yet very few Americans know about these developments because none of the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties and none of their presidential or senatorial candidates are addressing this crisis. None of them oppose the US nuclear modernization program. None have proposals to reverse the new nuclear arms race.
None have objected to the use of nuclear weapons in US foreign and military policy. Every time US leaders say “all options are on the table,” the threat of a nuclear strike is implied. The danger of nuclear escalation is always present in the never-ending US wars abroad.

Voting for the lesser evils among these candidates is still voting for the nuclear arms race and endless wars. Voting Green is voting for peace initiatives that offer a way out of this march toward nuclear doomsday. As the great 20th century anti-war leader A.J. Muste famously said, “There is no way to peace; peace is the way.”

Posted in USA, Europe, RussiaComments Off on Reverse the New Nuclear Arms Race

The American Narrative of Hiroshima is a Statue that Must be Toppled


A photograph of Hiroshima seen from a US airplane after the attack, autographed by Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets.

In August 1945, the United States attacked two cities in Japan with nuclear weapons in the last days of World War Two. The US used weapons of mass destruction against a primarily civilian population, instantly killing over 100,000 human beings, with tens of thousands of wounded and irradiated people who would die in the subsequent months and years. The American narrative of the nuclear attacks was formalized in a piece written by former Secretary of War Henry Stimson in Harper’s in 1947. Stimson wrote that the use of nuclear weapons ended the war, and in making an invasion of the Japanese home islands unnecessary, saved millions of lives on both sides. He actually wrote that the use of weapons of mass destruction against urban centers saved lives.

The American telling of the nuclear attacks focuses on the astonishing accomplishments of scientists involved in developing the weapons, on industrial manufacturers producing the weapons, politicians “deciding” what to do with the revolutionary technology, and the highly trained military personnel who “dropped” the bombs (always a passive construction) on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It seems that every year someone finds another way to tell the story that celebrates the inclusiveness prioritized in modern American narration. Some tell the story of children expressing pride in their parents involvement in creating this weapon. Others find “inspiring” angles of inclusiveness such as gender, or of minority racial groups, leaving unmentioned the enforcement of Jim Crow style discrimination in employment practices in the Manhattan Project production workforce. But the central players in the story are Americans, there are no Japanese people in the story. Japanese people are included only as statistics: how many dead; how many wounded. It is a story of the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings in which those murdered are a footnote. No Japanese person is named.

This is a continuation of the war time erasure of Japanese humanity. In its practice of “urbacide” the US military turned human urban settlements, which were full of innocent civilians, into “kill zones,” “target areas,” and “workers dwellings,” or simply equations or statistics of burned area and bomb tonnage. Hiroshima was the culmination of a campaign that saw up to 350,000 civilians bombed, burned and strafed by the US 20th Air Force. Yet, we treat the people who executed these raids as tortured souls who hated what they were doing. That is if we think about them at all.

City sign as you enter Los Alamos (CC BY 2.0) by M McBey.

The fire raids are completely obscured by the A-bombs in American and Japanese memory. Historian Mark Selden called these, somewhat provocatively, a forgotten Holocaust. The comparison with the Holocaust is problematic for contemporary Americans. Even obscene. But, this was not always so. Already in August 1945, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Felix Morley, not exactly a Marxist firebrand, wrote “At Nazi concentration camps, we have paraded horrified German civilians before the piled bodies of tortured Nazi victims…It would be equally salutary to send groups of representative Americans to Hiroshima. There, as at Buchenwald, there are plenty of unburied dead.” We still have not heeded Morley’s advice. We are still refusing to look at the crimes we committed during our last good war. If Morley could say this in 1945, right after the liberation of the camps, American patriotism at its highest point, we should be able to think about the implications of the comparison now.

But we rarely do. The American narrative of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which are by definition, war crimes—focuses entirely on the perpetrators. When it is being recounted by experts, it often obsesses over them. Who said what to whom on what day? What materials were moved from place A to place B on what day? How were the weapons of mass destruction assembled? Who did what? The American narrative of the nuclear attacks is an obsession with the killers, and with their weapon. To the degree that the war crime itself is discussed, the focus is on the physical effects and dynamics of the weapon. The presence beneath this process of thousands of schoolchildren is unnoted.

Replica of the Fat Man bomb (used in the nuclear attack on Nagasaki) at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos.

Even amongst those of us on the left who are sympathetic to Hiroshima, the willful blindness endures. What American (and Japanese) liberals mostly renounce is not the US actions but “nuclear weapons.” As if the A-bomb “dropped” itself rather than having two billion 1945 dollars and hundreds of thousands of workers and the full power of the state behind it. So, we march for the abolition of nuclear weapons, we may learn how to fold paper cranes, even visit the peace museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we never name names. Never point fingers. We still marvel at the technological achievement while we condemn the monster it midwifed.

Some hibakusha were happy and grateful for this sympathy. Some of this was genuine thirst for peace with America and a desperate need for a silver lining. In an extreme example, one hibakusha told a Life Magazine reporter, “something good must come out of this. I now want to be sent to the U.S. so doctors can experiment with my body. It does not matter if I die as a result, as long as I can be of some use to the world of peace.” Such gestures were part of an emotional theater that Americans expected from both Holocaust survivors and Hibakusha, which always ended in a Hollywood like happy ending. Hiroshima wrapped itself in emotion. And we loved to participate and hug its survivors. President Obama hugged survivors and shed tears in his visit to the city. He did not offer compensation, nor help with treatment for the death, misery and decades-long radiogenic diseases we inflicted. He brought the “nuclear football,” the mobile command center used by the US President to authorize launching nuclear weapons, into the Peace Park with him.

Leslie Groves Park in Richland, Washington.

So, yes, we like a good cry. We like to hear heart wrenching stories about the last train to Hiroshima, or the inspiring struggle of someone’s grandma in law. All of this emotion (and these stories ARE heart breaking) actually serves to take our gaze away from the dead and into the inspiring stories of survival and reconciliation. Of course, we need to hear the stories coming out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But we also need to go a step further. We still have not heeded Morley’s advice and still have not, like the Germans, been paraded through the dead. We’d rather not look.

We have not redefined for ourselves the relationship between our Manhattan Project heroes and those whose stories we sympathize with. We somehow manage to keep these stories in separate silos.

This is not a question of simple amnesia. It is more an issue of misremembering and of pointing the torch of historical enquiry in the completely wrong direction. From the 1960s onwards, scholars have deconstructed the narrative that the nuclear attacks “saved lives” and were entirely focused on ending the war. Truman and his Secretary of State James Byrnes were clearly focused on the Soviet Union as they moved through the authorizations for the attacks. Truman did not so much make a “decision” as approve plans drawn up by others that had already been set in motion. Some Manhattan Project scientists did actively oppose the use of the weapons in Japan. This is essential scholarship in understanding the history of the attacks, the end of World War Two, and of the initial dynamics of the Cold War. The contributions of the scholars who have explored these issues are notable.

However, the annual process of reveling in the details, of “live tweeting” the various steps and movements of materials as they are put into place to commit the war crimes, seems a little disturbing at this point. Yes, it is important to inform people who may only now be paying attention to the story about the historical background, but the perennial limiting of this retelling to the actions and thoughts of the perpetrators perpetuates the American narrative—that the story is about the feelings, thoughts and actions of those who committed a war crime, not on the actual crimes or the victims. Having one final tweet, or mention of the number of human beings killed and showing one last photo of the mushroom cloud or of the vaporized sections of the cities, seen from the air—the perpetrators’ perspective—reinforces the view that those acting are important, and those being acted upon are…statistics. It is time to move past detailing the minutia of committing the war crimes and begin to expand our focus to the actual crimes and those who were attacked. Telling half of the story tells a disturbing tale about the storytellers.

Any political leader who would suggest today that the use of weapons of mass destruction against a civilian population would “save lives” because it would compel a surrender would be understood to be advocating war crimes. Why do we consider this justification worthy of anything but contempt when looking back at the spring and summer of 1945? Why do we obsess over the communications and preparations to commit these war crimes rather than clarify that what was being done was ghastly and inhumane? When we recount the history of slavery in the United States, we do not limit our focus to the “owners” of other human beings. We see the institution as the horror it was, and we recount the brutalities that people endured and how they resisted. When we recount the Holocaust we don’t obsess over the communications of Nazi leaders and the minutia of constructing the concentration camps and of transporting the Zyklon B gas (when was the purchase order written? When was the delivery received? And what about the woman guards?). While these details are an important aspect of the historical record, the story we tell is of the atrocities, and of those who suffered. If we talk about the perpetrators it is to understand how to prevent such historical events from happening again. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is as though we tell the story of slavery, or of the Holocaust, with the victims remembered only as a statistical footnote at the end.

Author Jacobs outside of Richland High School, Home of the Bombers.

While many in America have directly faced, and opposed the horrors of using nuclear weapons against human beings, our annual social media storytelling around the anniversary obscures the war crimes and casts a glowing light on the war criminals. This may be one reason that today, 75 years later, American society still embraces nuclear weapons as a valid military tool, and is preparing to spend trillions of tax dollars on “modernizing” them over the coming decades. Maybe if we call a war crime a war crime, we can more effectively resist committing our society to policies which sleepwalk us closer to what Noam Chomsky has called the “very severe threat of nuclear war.”

The American narrative of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as celebrations of American technological prowess needs to be toppled. All of the historical nuance to the development, manufacture and use of nuclear weapons must remain an important part of the historical record, and further research must be done. However, the annual “real time” recitation of those facts, driven in part by the nature of social media, serves only to reinforce a triumphal fascination with the killers and the obfuscation of the killed.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were part of a brutal war. But, it is a war crime to kill a mass population because some of those among the dead are defined as legitimate targets in war. If we want to work towards a world liberated from the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, we must stop fetishizing the mechanics of their single use directly against human beings.

We are currently in the midst of a historical awakening in this country regarding the historical injustice and systematic violence perpetrated against African-Americans. This violence was not confined to American shores. There is a direct line running between oppression at home and nuclear violence abroad. African-American activists were often among the first to recognize these connections. We are now toppling statues erected to honor those who perpetuated historical violence, and fighting back against those who celebrate the history of that violence. Meanwhile, in the midst of this awakening, this historical reckoning, one of the largest war crimes in American history is once again being celebrated. Now is the time to awaken from the American narrative of the “great technological achievement” of nuclear weaponry, and the footnoted mass murder of 100,000s of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Posted in USA, C.I.A, JapanComments Off on The American Narrative of Hiroshima is a Statue that Must be Toppled

How the Fascists Won World War II


Photograph Source: View of the IG Farben Building from the Main Tower by
EvaK – CC BY 2.5

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

–“Masters of War,” Bob Dylan

This is a mystery story. It revolves around a building that—as you will all come to agree—should have been bombed.

Before construction of the Pentagon during World War II, the two largest and most famous office buildings on planet Earth were the Empire State Building and the headquarters of German industrial behemoth IG Farben. Building these palaces of capitalism was a frantic race run in 1930-1931, at the opening of the Great Depression. Both edifices were designed to inspire awe, by “skyscraper” height in New York, by overwhelming grandiosity in Frankfurt. Unlike the original World Trade Center, both buildings still stand. There is no mystery about how the rugged steel frame of the Empire State Building survived the 1945 direct crash into its 79th floor by a twin-engine B-25 bomber, lost in fog over the city. How the IG Farben HQ survived World War II, however, is a mystery whose dark depths hold secret links between the past and the present.

The Empire State Building was an indelible feature of my mental landscape, growing up as a Brooklyn kid during World War II. But my first glimpse of the IG Farben building was only in a movie: Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express, a 1948 film I first saw while the president of the United States was doing his best to follow Hitler’s path to power. Like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 Notorious, it’s a thriller revolving around a Nazi conspiracy to regain power. I can think of no other postwar film about a Nazi comeback attempt, rather surprising since these were the years of the denazification campaign and the war crimes trials.

Berlin Express would be worth watching as a mystery thriller with excellent production values and fine ensemble acting. It is also the only postwar film I know of that warned against the nascent Cold War and pleaded for the restoration of the wartime alliance against fascism. But its knockout power comes from astounding visual revelations. Shot in 1947, Berlin Express was the first commercial movie filmed in occupied Germany. A full-screen opening credit proclaims:

Actual scenes in Frankfurt and Berlin were photographed

by authorization of

The United States Army of Occupation

The British Army of Occupation

The Soviet Army of Occupation.

When the IG Farben building appeared early in the film, I gasped. There it stood. Enclosed by acres of manicured parkland, its six monumental interconnected wings (compared to the Pentagon’s five) reached out in a soaring arc that sought to dominate space. Each wing was itself a massive nine-story building clad with blocks of exquisite Travertine marble. The camera took us through the portico’s ponderous columns into the ornate lobby, then across glistening marble floors leading to non-stop no-doors paternoster elevators endlessly whisking people to and from their work. On an upper floor, we followed one of the forty-five curved corridors that interlaced this colossal structure, which housed ten million cubic feet of office space and, from 1933 until 1945, was the nexus of the Nazi war machine. The next scene took place inside an office, through whose windows we glimpsed endless vistas of rubble, the ruins of the city of Frankfurt.

For fifteen years, this had been headquarters of the giant German conglomerate IG Farben. The main slave labor camp at Auschwitz was designed, administered, and financed within the walls, and profits from the camp were remitted to these offices. Joseph Mengele submitted detailed reports on his hideous Auschwitz experiments directly to this building, where his directors dutifully authorized his payments and requisitioned whatever equipment and supplies he requested. Here was invented the Zyklon-B gas used to murder millions of Jews, Communists, Roma, and homosexuals. Even more important, in this building were the brains and other vital organs of the company that invented and produced the synthetic rubber, synthetic oil, and new lightweight alloys that enabled the Wehrmacht’s warplanes and tanks to conquer Europe all the way from the English Channel to the outskirts of Moscow, Stalingrad, and Leningrad. At the war crimes trial of the leaders, prosecutor General Telford Taylor said these were the men who turned Hitler’s fantasies into reality. (For the definitive history of IG Farben, see Diarmuid Jeffrey’s superb Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine.)

Before that vast Nazi industrial war machine could be administered inside this gorgeous palace of death, it had to be financed and created. IG Farben’s first contribution to Hitler and his Nazi party came at a crucial moment in the history. The Nazis, who had won 37.5% of the vote in the July 1932 election, plummeted to 33.1% in the November election, costing them 34 seats in parliament. Outnumbered by the combined Social Democrat and Communist deputies, the Nazis were unable to form a majority coalition, but Hitler, backed by many German industrialists and some American corporations, persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint him Chancellor, with control over the police. New parliamentary elections were scheduled for March 1933. In late February, Hitler held a secret meeting with a who’s who of Germany’s industrialists. Led by IG Farben, which gave the largest contribution, the giant corporations financed a tsunami of Nazi propaganda, huge Nazi rallies, and the unleashing of Hitler’s Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung or SA, known as the Brownshirts). In that March election, the last free one, the Nazis attained their peak vote (43.9%), enough to consolidate Hitler’s dictatorship.

How could this building not have been—for military reasons alone, not to mention moral reasons–the prime target of U.S. and British bombing? But for other reasons, no Allied forces were ever permitted to attack the citadel of Nazi power and command center of Germany’s greatest war crimes. This was not because the ancient city of Frankfurt, where German kings and emperors had been crowned as early as 855AD, was spared. The cloak-and-dagger action of Berlin Express takes us on a nightmare scenic tour of the bombed-out remains of Frankfurt. Lucien Ballard’s superb black-and-white photography captures endless miles of skeletal buildings, vast piles of rubble, mutilated beggars, and the homeless. Some of the main action takes place inside the ruins, including key scenes in a clandestine pro-Nazi night club hollowed out behind the rubble. The IG Farben building stood unscathed, amid a city bombed into a modern form of the stone age.

“The masters of war,” as Bob Dylan sang to us, “hide behind walls.” Which walls? In America, the closest image of the walls they hide behind is the Pentagon. But the Pentagon is merely the workplace of their minions, henchmen, and hirelings, sitting behind desks in high-ranked uniforms or scurrying around corridors after their military retirement, now in expensive suits as representatives of our “defense” corporations. But in Nazi Germany, anyone could see the ostentatious walls behind which lurked the profiteering masters of war. They gloried in their walls, and they wanted them known by the world. The IG Farben headquarters thus combined those prime targets of the 9/11 bombers: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the two most famous office buildings in the 21st century world.

We call the 9/11 bombers “terrorists,” a term that obscures both their motivation and the astounding and ghastly success of their geopolitical mission: to plunge to the United States into endless and unwinnable war in the heart of the Muslim world. Terror was not their aim, which was to lure the U.S. into Afghanistan, where the Jihadists—with major assistance from Washington—had recently defeated the USSR. In contrast, the World War II British and U.S. bombers of Frankfurt—and the other cities of Germany and Japan—were implementing a strategy of terrorism. That was an explicitly Fascist strategy, expounded by the Italian Fascist theorist Guilio Douhet and developed in Britain by Air Marshall Hugh “Boom” Trenchard and General Arthur “Bomber” Harris and in America by General Billy Mitchell (as explained and documented at length in the “Victory through Air Power” section of my book, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination). The strategy developed from the Italian terror bombing of Libya in 1911 and the British terror bombing of Iraq in 1922.

Douhet explained his theory in a series of treatises compiled in The Command of the Airthe blueprint for what is known as “strategic bombing,” the main World War II U.S. air strategy, and later the mission of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, in which I served as a navigator and intelligence officer. Since, in Douhet’s words, the goal is “spreading terror and panic,” therefore “it is much more important” to destroy “a bakery” than “to strafe or bomb a trench.” The main targets are “warehouses, factories, stores, food supplies, and population centers.” Douhet enthused about incendiary as well as explosive bombs (and poison gas). He envisioned “panic-stricken people” fleeing burning cities “to escape this terror from the air.”

Perhaps the best known early victim of this Fascist theory of warfare is Guernica, a Spanish city of no military significance, subjected to saturation aerial bombing by the Luftwaffe in 1937. Pablo Picasso’s magnificent painting of the slaughter is rightly known as one of the greatest visual antiwar artworks. I find the horrors of Black Rain, the 1989 Japanese reenactment of the Hiroshima bombing and its aftermath, more gut-wrenching. But when I think deeply about what we see in Berlin Express and relate it to our daily news, this old Hollywood movie hits with more terrifying implications.

Why was the IG Farben HQ never bombed? How did this building become the safest building in any German city? No official explanation has ever been offered. Berlin Express repeats a rumored explanation: General Eisenhower decided in 1944 that he wanted the building for his headquarters (which is what we see in those scenes actually shot inside this structure in 1947). The problem with the explanation lies in the history of the bombing of Frankfurt.

Frankfurt was bombed fifty-four times by the British before July 25, 1942. During the rest of 1942 and 1943, massive RAF bomber raids intermittently saturated Frankfurt with explosives and incendiaries. The October 4, 1943 attack alone dropped 300,000 tons of liquid and solid incendiary bombs on the city.  The first American air raid on Frankfurt came on January 29, 1944, when a vast fleet of 800 B-17 Flying Fortresses obliterated the entire city—except the IG Farben building and grounds.

Most of the B-17 crews were veterans of raids on other German cities. On this raid, they encountered something they had never experienced. They were “puzzled,” they reported, by the lack of any German resistance on the way in. They met neither flak from the antiaircraft batteries below nor fire from Nazi fighter planes above until after they had made their bombing run and turned back to head home.

Why? The B-17s were most vulnerable while they were laden with bombs and in tight bombing formations. The defenders could hardly miss 800 Flying Fortresses, and, compared with other missions, dozens of bombers would have been shot down. I can think of only one explanation for this behavior by the Nazi forces whose mission was to defend the city. If they attacked the bombers before they unleashed their bombs, those bombs could go anywhere—including the sacrosanct IG Farben headquarters. And that makes no sense unless the defenders knew in advance, no doubt from the dozens of past raids, that the attackers would not target IG Farben.

Who were IG Farben’s guardian angels? The answer to that question helps explain how the apparent victory in our so-called Good War somehow turned into our Forever War, today led by a president who is meticulously following Hitler’s path to power. It lies in the labyrinthine maze of IG Farben’s interconnections with giant British and American corporations.

One way to navigate the IG Farben international maze is to follow the footsteps of John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles. Until the U.S. entered the war, IG Farben’s U.S. representative was Sullivan & Cromwell, a law firm headed by Foster, abetted by his partner Allen. As soon as Hitler won the 1933 election, Sullivan & Cromwell began all its German cables with “Heil Hitler.” While negotiating crucial international deals for IG Farben, including ways to hide the company’s control of strategic U.S. corporations, Foster was also an apologist for the Nazi regime and a founder of the America First appeasement movement. (The Dulles brothers’ pre-war story is told powerfully by Nancy Lisagor and Frank Lipsius in A Law Unto Itself: The Untold Story of the Law Firm Sullivan & Cromwell) During the war, Allen led the OSS office in Switzerland, where he met various German spies and agents, suppressed reports of the Holocaust, and arranged for a post-war anti-Soviet strategy. (For essential reading on Allen, see David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government.) The Dulles brothers took the helm of America’s Cold War when Foster became Secretary of State and Allen became head of the CIA under President Eisenhower.

As the U.S. was sliding into World War II in 1941, the Department of Justice exposed the byzantine cartel created by IG Farben and Standard Oil, including a jointly-owned U.S. corporation. Top executives of Standard Oil were convicted of criminal conspiracy with IG Farben. (Each of these corporate criminals was punished with a fine of five thousand dollars.) Using a host of holding companies and dummy corporations, IG Farben also gained stakes in other major U.S. competitors, including Dow Chemical and Alcoa. Its aim? To prevent the U.S. from producing its own synthetic rubber and oil, as well as light weight strategic metals, especially the new forms of magnesium so important for fighter planes. Its tactic? Lure the U.S. companies with offers of IG Farben patents and then sign agreements severely limiting any production utilizing these patents. Thanks to cordial and intimate relations between the German and U.S. executives, this worked fine for Nazi war plans.

I discovered the complex ties between IG Farben and Dow Chemical in 1966, while working to help create the movement against the use of napalm in Vietnam. Dow, of course, was the main producer of napalm. As I wrote then: “In the 1930’s, Dow Chemical and IG Farben formed an international cartel. Part of their agreement was to restrain U.S. production of magnesium and allow Germany to take world leadership in the vital element. As a result, at the outset of World War II Germany was producing five times as much magnesium as the United States.”

Could the guardian angels of IG Farben’s HQ be the same angels who saved IG Farben’s leading executives from execution or lifetime sentences? As Berlin Express was filming in Frankfurt, 140 miles away in Nuremburg twenty-three top IG Farben executives were being tried as war criminals. In the film, the Nazis are still the enemy. But by that time, America was already rebuilding German industry against a perceived menace from Soviet Communism.

Leading the charge against the prosecutors of IG Farben’s chieftains was Congressman George Dondero of Michigan, who asserted on the floor of Congress, that Josiah DuBois, the prosecution’s lead attorney, as well as five other members of the team, were all “Communist sympathizers” “who are trying to blacken the name of IG Farben.” Dondero’s Congressional district happened to include the Midland, Michigan, international headquarters of Dow Chemical, whose links to IG Farben were already being exposed in U.S. newspapers. On the same House floor, Congressman John Rankin of Mississippi branded the trial a “disgrace” where members of a “racial minority” are “trying German businessmen in the name of the United States.”

Ten defendants were acquitted on all counts. Thirteen were convicted of various war crimes. None served more than three years of their prison sentences, and most served far less. As for IG Farben, it was divided up, mostly into the three companies that had previously merged to form the many-headed beast: BASF, Hoechst, and Bayer. As soon as they were released from prison, many of the convicts became leaders of BASF, Hoechst, and Bayer. Karl Wurster, who won total acquittal despite serving as a director of the company that supplied the Zyklon B gas for the death chambers, became the head of BASF.

BASF, short for Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrik, was the main company that originally created and merged into IG Farben. When I was researching Dow Chemical and napalm in 1966, I learned that Badische Anilin und Soda Fabrick had renewed its relations with Dow and the two companies were now partners in the Dow-Badische company, with a giant chemical plant in Freeport, Texas.

As a member of the small delegation that met in 1966 with the executives of UTC, a Dow subcontractor with a huge napalm contract in the San Francisco Bay Area, I naively presented my research. Barnet Adelman, the president of UTC and a fellow Jew, responded in these exact words, the core defense of the IG Farben war criminals at Nuremberg: “Whatever our government asks us to do is right.”

When the leaders of IG Farben escaped any meaningful punishment for their monstrous war crimes (with their fortunes intact), the U.S. prosecutors dropped their pending case against Deutcshe Bank. As Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank bankrolled the rise of Nazis and amassed colossal wealth from the genocide of the Jews and the takeover of foreign banks as nations fell to the Wehrmacht. Deutcshe Bank financed both the death camps and IG Farben’s slave labor factory at Auschwitz. As Jews and other victims were gassed by IG Farben’s Zyklon-B, their gold wedding rings and dental fillings were collected and melted down. Deutsche Bank then sold the gold, thus converting it into the hard cash desperately needed by the Nazi war machine. David Enrich’s Dark Towers: Deutcshe Bank, Donald Trump, and An Epic Trail Destruction reveals the sequel. After U.S. banks blacklisted Donald Trump because he had defaulted on many loans, Deutcshe Bank gave Trump loan after loan, through bankruptcy after bankruptcy, default after default, effectively financing his real estate empire.

Born in 1934, I have often wondered, over the decades, how fascism triumphed in Germany, arguably then the most advanced nation in the world. I guess we are beginning to understand. I hope it’s not too late.

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