Colin Kaepernick sat down to make all of us consider what we stand for

28 Sep

The quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the American national anthem prior to the commencement of an NFL game. Why should this small act of defiance generate so much controversy and debate?

Firstly, the NFL is huge business in the United States. A multibillion dollar extravaganza, the NFL, along with baseball and other national sports, are fused with unbridled patriotism in American popular culture. The national anthem is played as a matter of routine. Chris Hedges, long-term commentator and political writer, wrote in an article back in 2014 that sporting events have largely become mass religious ceremonies tied to blessing American wars and militarism. The virtual religious reverie of the sporting arena – typified by NFL games – is used to normalise inflated war budgets, cultivate public support for the US military forces, and reinforce public opinion in favour of endless wars overseas. He wrote that:

The heroes of war and the heroes of sport are indistinguishable in militarized societies. War is sold to a gullible public as a noble game. Few have the athletic prowess to play professional sports, but almost any young man or woman can go to a recruiter and sign up to be a military hero. The fusion of the military with baseball, along with the recruitment ads that appeared intermittently Saturday on the television screens mounted on green iron pillars throughout Fenway Park, caters to this illusion: Sign up. You will be part of a professional team.

While traditional places of worship remain empty on Sundays, the sporting arena is where religious fervour is expressed. The uniforms, caps, and paraphernalia of football (and baseball as Hedges wrote) form modern-day holy relics, preserved in the museums and halls of sporting fame across the land. The collective outpouring of euphoria is accompanied by, among other things, the singing of the national anthem. It is not unusual for military aircraft to stage flyovers prior to NFL games. The beauty, power and precision of the airplanes – according to the NFL – demonstrate the close fusion of sporting prowess and military heroism in the public mind. However, there is no mention of the horrific toll that war takes on the population. As Hedges reminds us:

War is not a sport. It is about killing. It is dirty, messy and deeply demoralizing. It brings with it trauma, lifelong wounds, loss and feelings of shame and guilt. It leaves bleeding or dead bodies on its fields. The pay is lousy. The working conditions are horrific. And those who come back from war are usually discarded. The veterans who died waiting for medical care from Veterans Affairs hospitals could, if they were alive, explain the difference between being a multimillion-dollar-a-year baseball star and a lance corporal home from Iraq or Afghanistan. At best, you are trotted out for a public event, as long as you read from the script they give you, the one designed to entice the naive into the military. Otherwise, you are forgotten.

The NFL crowds roar their enthusiastic approval during the prematch flyovers – the military that produces crippled and traumatised veterans, while libraries and schools close, and billions are allocated to ever-expanding military budgets. Back in 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when the United States pummeled Iraq – the latter a military pipsqueak compared to the US – patriotic fervour was at an all-time high. Prior to the commencement of the SuperBowl that year, in Tampa, Florida, Whitney Houston – a black woman – sang a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Her talent was incredible and indisputable. Here was an America that had vanquished the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ – public opposition to overseas wars. America was patriotic and great again – what could be more emblematic than a black woman, surrounded by American flags, belting out the national anthem at the SuperBowl?

Decades later, America remains mired in the Iraqi quagmire struggling to turn defeat into something resembling a positive return on investment, the United States remains the starting point and epicentre of the terminal phase in the capitalist economic crisis, and a professional black American footballer refuses to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick’s simple protest action has sent shock waves throughout American society, and his action has filtered through not only the sports world, but also into the political system. Kaepernick, and those who have stood by him throughout this controversy, are challenging the blind faith in patriotism, the latter that makes all of us ignore the ills plaguing the country. Police violence against African Americans is at epidemic proportions, and Kaepernick highlighted this issue as one of the reasons why he took the action he did.

Not only are police officers avoiding accountability for their murderous actions, the financial oligarchy that is responsible for the current economic downturn has also avoided facing the consequences of its culpability. Kaepernick’s action is gaining support not only from African Americans and supporters in the Black Lives Matter movement. American war veterans, white and black, are also organising support for the quarterback. They are refusing to join the violent right-wing backlash against Kaepernick, pointing out that military service does not blind them to the fact that African Americans are being assaulted and killed by brutal police forces across the country. Former US Army Ranger Rory Fanning expressed his support for Kaepernick, stating in an interview that:

Anyone who’s been to a sports event in this country, or seen one on television, knows full well the connection that is made between sports and military. From the national anthem to the jets flying overhead to the convenient trotting out soldiers to “thank them,” nationalism and “patriotism” is constantly forced down the throats of sports fans.

Many soldiers thought they were going overseas to sacrifice for freedom and democracy. But they are not seeing those ideals being practiced in this country.

Kaepernick’s protest is resonating with soldiers who feel like they’ve been lied to. One thing that has come across clearly from so many soldiers’ tweets and posts is that soldiers do not feel like they are risking their lives so the state can kill with impunity here in the United States.

Fanning added that while the United States kills people overseas with impunity, the same thing is happening inside the US itself. He explained that he had served in Afghanistan; however:

Then after returning from Afghanistan I saw how the security state had grown at home. I saw that the United States has the largest prison population in the history of the world, with African Americans (there are a lot of people of color in the military) being disproportionately incarcerated. Public schools are being gutted in every city. The media and politicians barely mention our endless trillion-dollar wars and drone operations.

Let us listen to what Kaepernick is trying to say about the condition of his own society, rather than wrap ourselves in the false mantle of wounded patriotism. He is using his status and fame as an NFL player to raise awareness about the legalised, systematic form of racist police violence and jarring economic inequalities. As Dave Zirin commented in his column about Kaepernick’s protest:

It is also pathetic that so many in the sports media, who a few months ago were praising the legacy of Muhammad Ali, are coming down so ferociously on Colin Kaepernick. As if sports and politics can mix only in the past tense, and racism is something that can only be discussed as a historical question. People can choose to agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s analysis or arguments, but they should deal with the reality of the facts he’s risking his career to bring into light.

Kaepernick’s true sin – if you can call it that – is to highlight the injustice of an economic and political system in which he has thrived. Make no mistake – Kaepernick acquired wealth and fame in the NFL structure, and is risking losing all of that in taking the stand that he did. He is willing to sacrifice millions in endorsements, corporate sponsorships and salary to raise awareness of, and take a stand against, the racist injustice of an unequal corporate state. Kaepernick has broken the silence around the bargain that successful athletes make with corporate America – remain silent about the racism in society, and enjoy your millions as you rise the sporting ladder.

The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States drew a false finish line beneath the question of racism. After all, has not racism ended with the rise of a black man (actually a biracial man) to the top political office in the land? Is not Kaepernick himself biracial and successful? What grounds for complaint does he have? It is interesting to point out that Kaepernick, being of biracial background, is not the first person with mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Malcolm X had white ancestors, those ancestors passing on their reddish hair and lighter skin to the main who rose up eloquently and bravely against racism. Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery writer and activist;  W E B Du Bois, sociologist and the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University – both had white ancestors, and yet both became, each in their own generation, courageous and intelligent advocates for African Americans.

An elite composed of black faces is taken to indicate that America has resolved its racial divisions. Kaepernick reminds us that African Americans, regardless of whether or not individuals have ‘made it’, face a racist corporate state determined to defend its wealth and privileges at all costs. Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that human solidarity and empathy cannot be banished, while the fundamentalist doctrine of neoliberal austerity ravages the community. Individual success, while noteworthy, should not be acquired at the expense of societal resources. Kaepernick’s motivations are not unrealisable pipe-dreams; his colleagues in the NFL have taken their stand as well.

Laos and the long shadow of an American criminal war

16 Sep

US President Barack Obama visited the small nation of Laos in early September 2016. He is the first sitting American president to set food in that country. He did so after attending the G20 summit in China, a meeting of the largest economies and central bank officials, the purpose of which is to encourage economic and political cooperation to stabilise and strengthen the capitalist system. Laos was one of the invitees to the 2016 G20 summit. It is always encouraging when economically smaller nations, such as Laos, are recognised as growing in importance, and are invited to further their integration into the international community. Obama visited Laos specifically to welcome the Vientiane government, and boost bilateral ties between the two nations. This is all very well and good, but it does raise serious questions about the role of the United States in South Asia.

American investments and influence in Asia was acquired, not by peaceful means of trade and economic ties alone, but by waging criminal wars of aggression to carve out spheres of influence at the cost of millions of lives and casualties. This is illustrated no better than anywhere else than by the experience of Laos. In the context of the American war on Vietnam throughout the 1960s, Laos was also targeted by the US authorities. It is true that Laos, like Vietnam at the time, was experiencing a civil war between the Royal government, backed by the imperialist states, and the Pathet Lao, the nationalist and Communist political movement which was eventually supported by the former USSR and China. Laos became a battleground state, locked into the Cold War, in much the same way as Vietnam. Successive attempts to establish a Pathet Lao regime were undermined by the secretive political machinations of the West, cooperating with the Laotian Royalist forces. When these intrigues failed, the United States turned to a devastating, but no less secretive, type of warfare.

From 1964 to 1973, the United States air force dropped at least two millions tonnes of bombs on the nation of Laos, conducting 580 000 missions over the population of 6.8 million people. That effort means that a planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world. This counterinsurgency effort was undertaken ostensibly to disrupt the supply lines of the North Vietnamese inside Laos, and bring further pressure on North Vietnamese forces. Actually, this aerial bombing campaign was part of the secret war, the CIA-sponsored programme of regime change, intended to establish a friendly pro-Western government in the country. The Americans had taken over from the French in trying to subdue the anti-colonial and nationalistic movements for independence, not only in Laos, but also throughout Indochina.  The bombings killed thousands, displaced many more – villages and towns were completely destroyed, the landscape left a cratered desolate wasteland. Areas of farmland were rendered useless and uninhabitable – more tonnage was dropped on Laos than on Germany by the Americans during World War Two.

The CIA and American authorities were heavily involved in all aspects of the Laotian fighting – the Royal Laotian army was trained by US personnel, CIA operatives armed and trained anti-Communist guerrillas from among the Hmong tribespeople, supplementing them with mercenaries from Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. The Hmong guerrillas, assisted and abetted by the CIA, funded their activities with the production and sale of opium. Countless thousands were not only displaced by the aerial war, but had their lives ruined by the outflow of heroin as part of this secret war. It was a secret war for the American (and Australian) populations, but not for the Laotians who endured this suffering.

Laos is still coping with the trauma of that war, with unexploded ordnance (UXO) dotting the countryside. Close to half the country is contaminated by UXO, and thousands have been maimed and killed long after the war and foreign invasion ended in 1975. In June 2014, Democracy Now published the stories of those who are living with the deadly legacy of the American bombing. The Democracy Now team spoke with Thoummy Silamphan, a bomb accident survivor from Laos, who explained what happened on that fateful day when as an eight year old, he went out to collect bamboo shoots:

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: One day, I needed to find some bamboo shoots for to feed my family, to make soup. So—and when I saw the bamboo shoots, and I tried to dig into bamboo shoots. After that, the bombie explode to me.

AMY GOODMAN: What you call a “bombie,” like a bomblet, exploded?

THOUMMY SILAMPHAN: Yes, because at that time in my village or in those areas, we have a lot of the bombing, and we don’t know the bomb under ground. And when we’re digging for bamboo shoots, and then the UXO explode to me, yeah. And it get—I lost my left hand. And that time, it’s very, very difficult for me to continue my life.

The Legacies of War web site summarises some of the startling realities that Laotians must contend with in their everyday lives, surviving in the dark shadow of this criminal American war on their country. For instance:

  • Between 1993 and 2016, the U.S. contributed on average $4.9M per year for UXO clearance in Laos; the U.S. spent $13.3M per day (in 2013 dollars) for nine years bombing Laos.
  • In just ten days of bombing Laos, the U.S. spent $130M (in 2013 dollars), or more than it has spent in clean up over the past 24 years ($118M).

In a way, the United States is still terrorizing Laos, by not providing sufficient funds and resources to adequately clean up the Laotian countryside and detoxify it in order to make it at least livable again. This malignant neglect has got to stop. This lack of funding reflects the grotesque priorities of a decaying social and economic system – boosting funding for large banking and financial institutions to stabilise the terminally ill system; neglecting the ecological and human costs of wars that are the products of that system.

President Obama, when speaking during his Laotian visit, expressed regrets about the consequences of the bombing campaign, and pledged 90 million dollars to help remove unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs from the country. That is all well and good, but it does leave us with two relevant observations to make; firstly, 90 million is still a pittance given the scale of the cleanup, and the horrific barbarism of the bombing visited upon the Laotian nation. Back in 2010, Brett Dakin, writing about this issue in The Guardian newspaper, stated that:

So far, the US has contributed an average of about $3m a year to bomb removal efforts in Laos. In contrast, the US spent more than $2m a day (about $17m in today’s dollars) for nine years dropping the bombs in the first place. The US can, and should, do more.

The state department must make a sustained commitment to solving this problem, starting with an allocation of at least $7m next year for the removal of unexploded ordnance in Laos. According to the department’s own weapons removal and abatement experts, this would dramatically reduce the impact of unexploded ordnance in Laos. A modest increase in funding would have an enormous impact for the people who live among the hidden remnants of the Vietnam war in Laos.

The horrific legacy of the US assault on Laos (and Vietnam) is still afflicting the people in that region until today. Millions lives in fear of their lives from the unexploded cluster bombs that litter the countryside. These cluster munitions are particularly lethal weapons because they contain multiple sub-munitions within one canister. The main ordnance disperses its payload over a wide area, causing casualties and injuries indiscriminately. Until today, the United States still uses, and trades in, cluster munitions.

The trade in cluster munitions brings us to the second relevant observation; while it is commendable that Obama has acknowledged the Lao victims of the US bombing, his administration is still creating more war victims. That is the point made by the writer and historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, in an article published in the Huffington Post. He wrote that the aerial and CIA-war on Laos provided a disturbing template for the current war on terror, a war that Obama has maintained and escalated throughout his years in office. As Kuzmarov observes:

The U.S. pioneered weapons systems in Laos such as drone surveillance and electronic ground censors connected to computerized bomb targeting centers that are a feature of the so-called revolution in military affairs guiding U.S. operations in the Middle East.

The U.S. government strategy in Laos was to subcontract counterinsurgency to proxy forces and rely heavily on Special Forces units and air power in the absence of regular ground troops while censoring media coverage. The manipulation of public opinion was epitomized by the fabrication of a story of a North Vietnamese invasion, during the monsoon season no less, when the roads were actually impassable.

Yes, the Obama administration changed the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror, referring to it as ‘overseas contingency operations’ (OCO). However, the content and substance has remained the same. Obama, throughout his two terms in office, has done nothing but escalate American military operations, deployment of US special forces, expand drone surveillance and warfare, and pivot increasingly to Asia, securing alliances with countries that can serve as allies in any potential conflict with China. Obama’s Laotian visit can be understood within the context of this pivot to Asia. Obama’s motivations to set foot in Vientiane is not just to spread a charm offensive, but also tactical – Laos is a potential gateway to Southeast and East Asia.

Laos has been getting on with rebuilding its country – after the end of the Laotian war in 1975, it was the former USSR that assisted in rebuilding the country from scratch, providing technical and financial assistance. Laos remains dependent on Chinese and Russian investment, though it has been steadily opening up to Western investment. The United States would like to claim a stake in the Laotian economy, and Obama’s historic visit is the first step in that endeavour. It is one thing to remember the Lao victims of the American bombing. However, Obama shows a perverse disregard for the Laotian casualties of that war and its lethal legacy by adopting the central doctrines of aerial bombardment and war by proxy – the very tactics developed by those responsible for bringing calamity on that country. It is time for the Obama administration to be held accountable for the war victims that it creates.

The Long Tan commemoration – a manufactured controversy

2 Sep

In August 2016, Australian government officials and the corporate media denounced a decision by the Vietnamese authorities to downgrade the scale of the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Long Tan. The Hanoi government, after much diplomatic wheeling-and-dealing, decided to reduce the scope and extent of the planned ceremony for the Long Tan battle. The event itself was intended to be on a much larger and more lavish scale than previous years, with a concert planned and that visiting Australian veterans were to wear their full uniforms and medals. The Vietnamese government decided to deny permission for such an event to proceed, and returned to their usual practice of allowing a low-key event.

The fact that a controversy erupted in the pages and web sites of the major Australian newspapers and media outlets is quite telling – it reflects on how Australians are manufacturing the memories of the Vietnam war. This particular battle is usually depicted as an unequal contest – a David-like Australian contingent, far outnumbered by the superior Goliath-like Vietnamese enemy, bravely holding out and winning against insuperable odds. This way of commemorating the battle, couched in terms of Australian courage in the face of overwhelming enemy advantage, plays an important role in disguising the true nature of the Vietnam war. The hypocrisies that surround this commemoration allow us in Australia to remember the Vietnam war, not as a savage assault by a militarily superior imperialist power against a rural people fighting for their independence, but as a study in platitudes.

Binoy Kampmark, writing in Counterpunch magazine, elaborates on the hypocrisies of this type of commemoration. The war of US imperialism against Vietnam, extending over decades, was a sustained assault on the majority of the population. The Vietnamese were firebombed, scorched, poisoned and tortured, and are still dealing with the calamitous consequences of that attack until today. While Australia’s role in that particular slaughter was only small, it was however complicit. The Australian government at the time, headed by then Prime Minister Robert Menzies, deliberately and aggressively pushed for a more active combat role in Vietnam.

While Canberra does play the role of subservient underling to the imperial power of the North, it never forgets its own calculated and cynical self-interest. Menzies and his cabinet colleagues aggressively lobbied the power-that-be in Washington for an Australian military mission in Vietnam; they did not wait to be asked. Participating in the assault on Vietnam was motivated partly by Menzies’ anti-Communist ideology, but also partly by self-interest. As the Canberra authorities saw it at the time, making a small investment now on the side of the Americans would pay large dividends in the long-term.

The Australian socialist writer and activist Tom O’Lincoln wrote about Australia’s contribution to the Vietnam war:

One way Australia’s peculiar boutique imperialism is presented as superior is to suggest our troops are free of war crimes. Is it true? The Australian troops in Vietnam committed no major massacres, but there’s much more to be said. The main culprits of atrocities are not the soldiers at the front line, but the leaders in Canberra and their mates who backed – even-egged on – the genocidal American war effort.

The commemoration of Long Tan attempts to wash away any guilt about or association with the crimes of US imperialism in that country. How can a heroic stand by a small and determined troop of Australian soldiers against a numerically superior enemy be considered part of a larger criminal enterprise?

The battle itself was the largest loss of Australian lives in a single battle – 18. Each one of these deaths is an individual tragedy, and the families of those killed live with the trauma and emotional scars of that time. We would do well to remember that the losses sustained by the Vietnamese in that battle were ten-fold the number of non-Vietnamese casualties. The Australian veterans of that conflict are fully entitled to commemorate their experiences as they see fit – in Australia. To travel to the country that was devastated by the conflict, a victim of a larger imperial assault, and expect their views to correspond to ours indicates either a willful conceit to expunge Vietnamese suffering from remembrances of the war, or a startling ignorance about the impact of that war on the domestic population of Vietnam.

Allen Myers, long-time socialist and activist, wrote in an article for the Red Flag newspaper ‘What’s behind the carry-on about Long Tan?’ that there are definitive political objectives behind the fuss about Long Tan;

The reason is that the veterans are being used by Australian governments and media, who want us all to believe that wars waged by Australian governments can be noble and just and worthy of our support. This propaganda strategy uses the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers involved to conceal the vile purposes of the people who organise and benefit from war.

To do this, the propagandists seize on one or a few events and build a myth around them, attempting to make them emblematic of the whole war so that we will forget what it was really about.

It is interesting to note that at the official Long Tan commemorations in Canberra, there were a number of activities, including aircraft flyovers by two B-52 bombers from the United States air force. It was the US air force’s use of the long-range B-52 bombers, carrying out the indiscriminate bombing of densely-populated regions of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for years, that cost so many millions of lives. It was not just the carpet-bombing that devastated the region and resulted in millions of casualties, but also the constant use of chemical defoliants.

Rather than react with arrogant and condescending indignation regarding the decision of the Vietnamese authorities, there is another course of action open – disagree, but respect and accept their decisions about affairs in their own country. Let us remember the Vietnam war, address the trauma and suffering of that conflict, but avoid turning Long Tan into a shrine to aggressive militarism.

Obama’s Africa policy – an expanding military footprint to grab resources

9 Aug

US President Barack Obama, the first African American to occupy the White House, has used his part-African background to leverage influence in the continent of his ancestors. Let us first get something out of the way – no, Obama is not a secret Muslim; no, he is not ignoring the rest of the world to focus exclusively on Africa; no, his ethnic heritage is not anything to be ashamed of; no, his place of birth is not in dispute – let us dispense with these Trumpist, ultra-right Republican talking points for what they are – rubbish. Obama has used his personal heritage as a political bridge into an important part of the world; Africa.

What kind of African intervention has Obama carried out over his two terms in office, and how exactly has he intervened in Africa? The answer to this question is put forward by John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC and author of numerous books and articles about US foreign policy. In an article published in Common Dreams magazine, Feffer outlines that Obama’s initiatives, putting asides the public relations spin about entrepreneurial outreach, is an extension of the previous colonial, imperialistic policies: “Strip away all the modern PR and prettified palaver and it’s an ugly scramble for oil, minerals, and markets for U.S. goods.” As Feffer states in his article:

Unfortunately US policy towards Africa have largely translated into holding the door open for U.S. multinationals to do what outsiders have done for centuries: extract the continent’s wealth.

Ethiopia has always been important

A series of outstanding articles and interviews in Tuck magazine have correctly highlighted the international importance and growing regional influence of the African country of Ethiopia. In interviews with Ethiopian academics and foreign policy experts, the importance of Ethiopia, a lynchpin in the East African region, has been emphasised and it has an increasing role in the African Union. Major international players, such as the United States, are giving Ethiopia and the East African region more attention and are establishing cooperative relations with that country. However, there is an assumption underlying these articles that has as yet remained unexamined.

Ethiopia, and East Africa generally, has always been strategically important to the great powers. It is not just from the early 1990s onwards that Ethiopia acquired the attention of the imperialist states. When Ethiopia was governed by the Communist regime (1974-1991), it was always regarded as a strategically important ally, for the former Eastern bloc countries. It maintained extensive trading, cultural and political relations with the other socialist countries, such as Cuba. The latter provided technical assistance, agricultural products, trade based on a system of mutual benefit and not profit-making with fluctuating stock market prices, and educators to school young Ethiopians in the socialist world-outlook.

The United States, Britain and other imperialist powers viewed Ethiopia as a battleground – indeed, Africa was in the midst of a Cold War fought between the allies of the rival superpowers.Ethiopia was no exception to this, and the United States sponsored various ethnic-based militias in secessionist wars to topple the socialist regime in Addis Ababa. The United States at this time was interested in opening up Ethiopia to its economic imperatives, and using the disguise of humanitarian intervention, funneled arms and support for the ethnic-separatist groups, gathered together in the Maoist-oriented Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This formation, having acquired power in 1991 after the disbanding of the Eastern bloc and removal of the socialist regime in Addis Ababa, has hung onto power ever since through dictatorial measures.

The EPRDF quickly abandoned any pretence of commitment to Maoist-style socialism and became an enthusiastic ally of the capitalist West. It has implemented IMF economic programmes, where corruption and mismanagement have become endemic. Human rights violations, including the suppression and torture of dissidents, is normalised. Agricultural products account for the largest portion of exports from Ethiopia, even though there are chronic food shortages in the country. The threat of famine is never far, and indeed famine has struck Ethiopia with depressingly regularity given the levels of poverty and food insecurity. As Graham Peebles explained in one of his regular articles for Counterpunch magazine about Ethiopia:

More than half the population live on less than $1 a day; over 80% of the population live in rural areas (where birth-rates are highest), and work in agriculture, the majority being smallholder farmers who rely on the crops they grow to feed themselves and their families.

The people of Ethiopia have suffered chronic food insecurity for generations: the major reason, as is the case throughout the world, is poverty. Other causes are complex; some due to climate change, others result from the ruling regime’s policies. Action Aid (AA) reports that unequal trading systems are a factor. The Ethiopian government purchases crops from farmers at low, fixed prices. International organisations encourage Ethiopia to produce cash crops to export, which reduces the land available for growing domestic crops – yes, Ethiopia – where millions rely on food aid every year – exports food. The country’s top exports are Gold (21%) Coffee (19%), vegetables and oily seeds, followed closely by live animals and khat – a highly addictive narcotic.

The Ethiopians experienced drought and famine during the socialist regime in the 1980s. The widespread famine of the mid-1980s brought the political situation to the attention of the international community. This reaction of the imperialist powers was to exploit the suffering of the Ethiopians for Cold War political purposes – food became a political football, with the BBC and various corporate media outlets broadcasting heart-rending images of the famine’s victims and concerts were organised to raise money for food aid.  There were no humanitarian motivations on the part of the governments of the imperialist states; they promoted the Euro-centric view that black Africans – and in particular, socialist black Africans – cannot feed and govern themselves. Any suggestions that there were natural causes contributing to the famine were dismissed out of hand, and the blame was placed squarely on the shoulders of the regime.

Here we are in 2016, and Ethiopia is facing famine and food insecurity – as of late last year, the number of people requiring food aid doubled to 8.2 million. Schools, hospitals and facilities have been forced to close down due to water and food shortages. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released startling figures that place the number of food-insecure people in Ethiopia at just over ten million. The OCHA report makes clear that there are definitive natural causes for this drought and resultant famine – the OCHA states that:

More than 80 per cent of the population live in rural areas and rely on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood. Their vulnerability is frequently exacerbated by natural and man-made hazards, including drought, flooding, disease outbreaks, intercommunal conflict and refugee influxes from neighbouring states. Drought and flooding increase the risk of water-related disease outbreaks, particularly Acute Watery Diarrhoea, malaria and measles and especially among children under age 5. Access to clean water and basic health care, including life-saving maternal and neonatal services, remains low.

How has the Ethiopian government responded? Firstly by denying the severity of the crisis, and secondly by downplaying its deleterious effects. The regime has imprisoned its opponents, suppressed journalists and has carried out repressive measures against Muslim and ethnic minorities, namely in the Ogaden region in the south-east of the country. These are crimes of which the former socialist regime was accused and condemned. As Graham Peebles explained his article called “Ogaden: Ethiopia’s hidden shame”:

The ruling party, the EPRDF, uses violence and fear to suppress the people and governs in a highly centralised manner. Human rights are ignored and a methodology of murder, false imprisonment, torture and rape is followed.

The ethnic Somali population of the Ogaden, in the southeast part of the country, has been the victim of extreme government brutality since 1992. It’s a familiar story of a region with a strong identity seeking autonomy from central government, and the regime denying them that democratic right.

However, the Addis Ababa regime has avoided outright international condemnation – because it is a valued proxy of the United States. In July 2015, US President Obama visited East African countries, including Ethiopia. He celebrated Ethiopia’s role as a solid ally in the ‘war on terror’, praised the regime of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and expressed his appreciation of the Ethiopian military’s role in American-supported wars in Somalia, the latter having been the target of various ground-invasions by Ethiopian and Kenyan troops in a bid to stop Islamist militias in that war-torn country. Obama let slip on the real nature of Ethiopia’s post-1991 friendship with the United States:

Obama, who has delivered vague homilies about the importance of “democracy” and “human rights” in Africa, avoided, as he did in his previous stop in Kenya, any direct criticism of the Ethiopian regime. Instead, he bluntly spelled out what Washington values in the regime in Addis Ababa: “We don’t need to send our own Marines in to do the fighting. The Ethiopians are tough fighters.”

This is not to romanticise the period of socialist government in Ethiopia. There was political and economic mismanagement, the suppression of the ruling stratum from the former feudal-monarchical regime, the demand for political loyalty to the new regime and its allies in the Eastern bloc. The point is that we are quick to present the United States as an ethical friend of Africa, uniquely committed to human rights and democracy, unlike all the other major powers. Ethiopia, along with its neighbours Kenya and Uganda, is a military and economic outpost of the United States in the East Africa region, and provides its US-sponsored military force as a willing recruit for American foreign policy objectives in the region. Its lack of internal democracy does not provoke the slightest whisper of protest or rebuke from Washington.

Red Africa

The Soviet Union, in its day, intervened in the affairs of Africa. The political leadership of Moscow paid great attention to the politics and emergent nation-states of Africa in the wake of decolonisation after World War Two. How did they intervene? An article in The New Statesman provides an answer. Anoosh Chakelian, deputy web editor at the magazine, wrote an article called “What the untold Soviet history of “Red Africa” reveals about the racism of modern Russia”. She writes that there was a time, during the Soviet period, when anti-racist solidarity was a distinct component of Russia’s support for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in Africa. Racist violence in Russia today is endemic, and it is a terrible problem for Russia’s current authorities. However, as Chakelian explains:

But there was once a time when Russia was ahead of the rest of the world in welcoming migrants, and its attitude towards Africans and African Americans. Overshadowed by the Western preoccupation with the Cold War in Europe, the USSR’s relationship with Africa is a forgotten piece of Soviet history.

“In the Twenties and Thirties, not only was Russia not racist in relation to black people, but it was encouraging migration,” says Mark Nash, curator of Things Fall Apart, an exhibition held by the contemporary Russian culture foundation Calvert 22 in London.

“Four or five thousand black people came in the Twenties and Thirties to the Soviet Union per year,” he adds. “A number of them stayed because they were equal citizens and they had equal rights, which they didn’t have in the States until the Sixties. The official ideology was really anti-racist.”

African Americans, facing lynchings, discrimination and racist mob violence at home in the US, decided to make the Soviet Union their home, with its promises of racial equality. These emigrants found acceptance and a new life in the USSR, in stark contrast to their American homelands where discrimination and strict segregation still ruled the day until the major civil rights upheavals of the 1960s. While these African American emigrants have now become footnotes in history, their example serves as a useful reminder that in the not-too-distant past, anti-racism was an official ideology in a political sphere long demonised as a totalitarian nightmare. The Washington Post asked “What would compel a black American to move to Stalinist Russia?” Many reasons are provided, but one explanation is more compelling than the others; because class mattered, but not race.

What has this got to do with Africa? The Soviet Union, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, provided material and ideological support for those African parties and groups fighting imperialism and colonialism in their home countries. The Soviets made great capital out of the systemic problems of racism and economic exploitation in the United States, and supported those African political parties that adhered to its Bolshevik ideology. Was this political propaganda? In a way, yes. There is no such thing as a racial utopia, and the Soviets were out to export their political beliefs and philosophy to African countries.

However, we would do well to remember that in the days when the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela were regarded as terrorists by Britain and United States, the Soviet Union heavily promoted the ANC, staunchly opposed the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and thousands of ANC activists were trained politically and militarily in the Soviet bloc. Mandela himself, after his release from prison in 1994, paid tribute to the role of the USSR in assisting the anti-apartheid struggle. As Russia Beyond the Headlines explained:

It is easy for critics of Mandela to label him a communist and downplay Russia’s intentions in ending state-sponsored racism in South Africa. Mandela refuted these claims in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote, with a tinge of humor, “There will always be those who say that the Communists were using us. But who is to say that we were not using them?”

The USSR had its own problems with ethnic minorities, particularly in the lead-up to and during World War Two – with the Volga Germans, the Chechens and Crimean Tatars. None of this is in dispute. Even today, we can see the political use of the Crimean Tatar issue by the United States to rally more public opinion in its current round of anti-Russian measures, downplaying the extent of political collaboration between the Crimean Tatars and hostile outside powers. The point is that racism in Russia today is a very serious malignancy, and any solution to this problem must examine the example of anti-racist solidarity and practicing international outreach provided by Russia’s recent history.

The American empire of military bases

The heading above comes from an article by Nick Turse, investigative journalist and writer for TomDispatch. Turse has written a compelling and rigorously researched series of articles demonstrating just how the United States, under a guise of secrecy, has constructed an enormous and extensive network of military bases, outposts and spying facilities that has turned the continent into a laboratory for American warfare. In an article called “America’s empire of African bases spreads”, Turse has documented his ongoing battle with the US military to uncover exactly just how many, and how geographically extensive, the archipelago of US military bases is in Africa. Turse elaborates that:

So how many U.S. military bases are there in Africa?  It’s a simple question with a simple answer.  For years, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) gave a stock response: one. Camp Lemonnier in the tiny, sun-bleached nation of Djibouti was America’s only acknowledged “base” on the continent.  It wasn’t true, of course, because there were camps, compounds, installations, and facilities elsewhere, but the military leaned hard on semantics.

The US military prefers to use a new euphemism – cooperative security locations (CSLs) to describe its military outposts in Africa. When taking into account all the other military facilities, spying locations, drone bases and considerable military settlements the US has, the number is astounding. Turse describes it as an AFRICOM base bonanza:

Indeed, U.S. staging areas, cooperative security locations, forward operating locations (FOLs), and other outposts — many of them involved in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and Special Operations missions — have been built (or built up) in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, GabonGhana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Senegal, the Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.

When the Romans built military bases, fortifications and militarised frontiers, at least they had the honesty to call it an empire.

The American military footprint, initiated by George W Bush, has escalated under Obama. The first African American president has overseen a massive increase in the US military presence in Africa, and all this activity is nothing new. Back in 2012, Lee Wengraf wrote an article for the US Socialist Worker newspaper entitled “Obama’s war in Africa”. The author writes that;

IT IS no exaggeration to say that the U.S. is at war in Africa. The continent is awash with American military bases, covert operations and thousands of Western-funded troops, and responsibility for this escalation must be laid squarely on Obama’s doorstep.

Key to the Obama administration global strategy in the post-Iraq era is a shift from “boots on the ground” towards “alliance-building.” The idea is to cement American “indispensability” to African political stability in geo-strategically critical areas–from the Horn of Africa, with its proximity to the Suez Canal and Middle East, to West African nations, with billions of barrels of oil.

Rather than the direct deployment of massive numbers of American troops, Obama has shifted to a more cautious, tactical, but no less insidious policy of proxy-building; acquire reliable allies on the ground, such as Ethiopia, and they can perform the bulk of the hand-to-hand fighting. Meanwhile, US special forces, military experts and foreign policy planners provide the backup where needed. Let us not forget that usual driver of imperialist ambition; rivalry and competition. Wengraf explains that:

Today, global competition drives Obama’s foreign policy. During the past decade, the U.S. has engaged in a fierce battle with China for worldwide economic and military preeminence. The aim has been to encircle and contain China’s growing reach. The Economist reported a Department of Defense announcement that by 2020, 60 percent of American warships would be stationed in Asia, along with “a range of other ‘investments’ to ensure that despite China’s fast-growing military might, America would still be able to ‘rapidly project military power if needed to meet our security commitments.'”

Intensified competition with China, and other powers such as Russia, is fueling the higher levels of U.S. military involvement in Africa and a new scramble for resources. This scramble is mainly about oil, in which Africa plays a critical supply role for both China and the U.S., but also about increased overall investment in resources–from diamonds and gold to land for agricultural investment.

Beijing is of course looking out for its own interests; neither the Chinese regime, nor for that matter the former Soviet Union, was motivated by benevolent altruism. China has dealings with repressive states in Africa, such as the Sudan; the latter receives military equipment and arms in return for oil. Beijing has successfully acquired the oil markets of the new nation of South Sudan, importing 77 percent of the latter’s country’s oil.

This is galling for the US, because the birth of South Sudan was nurtured by the Americans, who provided arms for its secessionist ambitions. The Chinese are building infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa, providing billions in every sector of the economy, from roads to telecommunications to health. The Chinese government is better at presenting itself as an equal trading and business partner for Africa, with the volume of trade reaching 222 billion dollars last year.

The United States is viewing the soft power approach of the Chinese in Africa with anxiety. It has responded with a mixture of escalating militarisation of the continent, and corporatisation of its business interests. The United States, while portraying its intervention in Africa as an anti-terrorist exercise, is actually the main purveyor of political destabilisation and violence. It is time to examine the US war on Africa, this undeclared offensive that the US military wants to keep hidden from public view. The election of an African American president was used to draw a false finish line underneath the problem of racism in American society. An African American president in the White House did not change the system, because it is not the presidential office that needs changing, but the imperialist system itself.

The Russian scientist, indigenous people and the Australian connection

29 Jul

Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) was a Russian anthropologist, biologist and explorer who lived and worked in Sydney, NSW for a total of nine years, established himself as a respected member of the NSW scientific community. He created the first biological research station in the Southern Hemisphere, and made important contributions to the Linnean Society, the main scientific and natural history institute in the self-governing British colony of NSW at the time. He married the daughter of the five-times Premier of NSW, John Robertson. That should have solidified Miklouho-Maclay’s position in the Sydney scientific community and earned him a place in our history. However, he is largely forgotten, and his story has been revived through the efforts of researchers and historians, who compiled a fascinating documentary about him for the ABC in 2013 called ‘Remembering Nikolai’.

There is a large reason why he has been ignored – Miklouho-Maclay lived and worked among the indigenous peoples of Papua and New Guinea for three years, and championed the rights of the native nations to resist colonisation. Why is that important?

In the 1870s and 1880s, both the British colonies of Queensland and NSW were eyeing the natural resources of Papua and New Guinea for themselves. The Australian colonies, while not politically organised into a federation, were expanding on a capitalist basis. The Pacific islands, Polynesia and Melanesia were viewed as unexplored and untamed frontiers. NSW and Queensland lobbied the British government to colonise Papua and New Guinea. European colonisation of indigenous people and territory was in full swing in the late nineteenth century. The English, Germans, Dutch and French were already grabbing portions of the South Pacific and Asia – Melanesia was in their sights. Germany had set up a colony in the northern half of New Guinea, and the Queensland government strongly urged the British to get their foothold in the southern half of Papua.

Queensland’s ruling landed gentry, and to a certain extent, NSW – engaged in the practice of blackbirding. This involved the forcible recruitment, through kidnapping and trickery, of Melanesian workers into a scheme of indentured labour. Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Papua – the indigenous people of these nations were forced into a system of slavery, working in the sugar cane plantations and landed estates in Queensland and NSW. The full story of blackbirding is still being literally uncovered until today. As Jeff Sparrow explains in his article for The Guardian:

Between 1863 and 1904, 62,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia, landing in Brisbane, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay, Bowen, Townsville, Innisfail and Cairns. The majority of the indentured labourers came from today’s Vanuatu, with a substantial proportion from the Solomons, as well as smaller islands. Some came voluntarily (even accepting multiple trips). Others did not – and varying degrees of deception and outright coercion were used by blackbirders to persuade them.

By the 1890s, the so-called “Kanakas” were providing 85% of the workforce for the sugar industry.

What has all this got to do with Miklouho-Maclay?

Nineteenth century European anthropology was the hey-day of pseudo-scientific racism; the belief that different human races represented different species, and could be organised hierarchically into an evolutionarily-upward structure, with the lower races – such as the indigenous peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia – at the lower end of the spectrum, and the white race, the colonisers at the top. Anthropology was used in the service of this colonising project, with pseudo-scientific devices such as phrenology and craniometry provided a veneer of respectability to a new imperial endeavour of systematic racism. Into this environment, Miklouho-Maclay worked tirelessly to refute this pseudo-scientific nonsense.

In a powerful article for Russia Beyond the Headlines, Miklouho-Maclay’s unending efforts in defending the colonised people are discussed at length. Early in his career, he travelled to the Canary Islands as an assistant to the great German biologist Ernst Haeckel. The latter espoused the pseudo-scientific racist views prevalent at the time, and Miklouho-Maclay was determined to disprove these supremacist theories. Europeans certainly did believe in liberty, equality and fraternity – as long as you were white.

Miklouho-Maclay was the first white man to settle and work among the indigenous Papuans – he moved there in 1871 and worked for three years among people deemed cannibals and flesh-eating savages. He formed close bonds with the people there, noting their complex societal structures and learned one of their many languages. He continued his ethnographic studies, and provided ample refutation of the predominant racism of his time. He wrote the following, quoted in the Russia Beyond the Headlines article above that:

“There is no ‘superior’ race,” Miklouho-Maclay wrote after finishing his research in Papua New Guinea. “All races are equal because all people on Earth are the same biologically. Nations merely stand upon different steps of historical development. And the duty of each civilized nation is to help the people of a weaker nation in their quest for freedom and self-determination.”

While making Sydney his second home, Miklouho-Maclay spoke out against the rising tide of colonisation, and criticised the push by his adoptive home to make Papua New Guinea an economic colony. Distrust of the newcomer turned into outright hostility, as he maintained his opposition to the new imperialism, driven by economic interests in the emergent colonies of NSW and Queensland. His campaign to defend the targets of creeping colonisation was examined in a biographical program on him for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). That program quoted his words on the issue of Papuan annexation. Miklouho-Maclay spoke of his time living in Papua New Guinea:

During my stay among the natives… I had ample time to make acquaintance with their character, their customs, and institutions. Speaking their language sufficiently, I thought it my duty as their friend (and also as a friend of justice and humanity) to warn the natives… about the arrival, sooner or later, of the white men, who, very possibly, would not respect their rights to their soil, their homes, and their family bonds.’

He went on, ‘should annexation of the south-eastern half of New Guinea be decided by the British Government, I trust it will not mean taking wholesale possession of the land and its inhabitants without knowledge or wish of the natives, and utterly regardless of the fact that they are human beings and not a mob of cattle.’

‘I am perfectly convinced that acts of injustice from the white men, and disregard of their customs and family life, will lead to an irreconcilable hatred, and to an endless struggle for independence and justice.’

Sadly, the tide of colonisation was too strong, and the British did eventually carve out a portion of New Guinea, taking possession without the consent of the indigenous inhabitants. At the end of World War One, Papua New Guinea was handed over to Australia as a colonial possession. With the injustice of this act, the resultant implacable hatred that Miklouho-Maclay warned against was realised. That lead to a prolonged struggle for independence and self-determination in Papua New Guinea.

Ignored by the rising federative colonialism of Australia, Miklouho-Maclay was feted as a hero in his native Russia, and in the subsequent Soviet Union. His fight for racial equality was upheld by the Soviet authorities as a worthy example of a fighting intellectual-scientist. He was acclaimed by the Communist authorities as a man who saw beyond racial differences, and advocated the fundamental equality of human beings. Was this a case of the Soviet authorities exploiting his story for political purposes? In a way, yes. However, his life and work were celebrated during Tsarist Russian times, and his contemporaries, such as the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also sang his praises.

Tolstoy was moved to write about Miklouho-Maclay that, “You were the first to demonstrate beyond question by your experience that man is man everywhere, that is, a kind, sociable being with whom communication can and should be established through kindness and truth, not guns and spirits”. Given the serious nature of racism in Russia today, perhaps the current authorities would do well to remember that not so long ago, the Soviets did actually elevate anti-racist scientists such as Miklouho-Maclay into a cultural hero because of his humanist and anti-colonial stand. His life exemplified cross-cultural and multi-racial solidarity.

Miklouho-Maclay is largely forgotten in Australia, because his life and work reminds us of an ugly chapter in the foundational history of the Australian capitalist state. With the unfolding discoveries about our genetic makeup facilitated by the human genome project, science is providing irrefutable evidence that there is no scientific validity for racism. However, we must confront the racism that exists in our own society, a racism that is damaging and ruining people’s lives everyday.

Australians should be interested in Antarctica

25 Jul

The title above comes from an engaging article published in The Conversation online magazine earlier in July 2016. Entitled ‘Why Australians should care about the South Pole’, the essay is a summary of a book on that subject by Associate Professor Elizabeth Leane from the University of Tasmania. The article, written by Leane, provides a succinct overview of her findings in answering the question above. A number of countries make claims on Antarctic territory, each with its own history of scientific and exploratory involvement in that continent. The Arctic and the North Pole have long been the targets of interest and competition by the various imperialist states, until today. However, let us not dismiss the importance of Antarctica.

Let us not miscontrue anything here; Australians are already interested in Antarctica, with increasing and disturbing news of the adverse impact of global warming on the icy continent: the East Antarctic glaciers are melting rates more rapid than the initial expectations of scientists; the eastern Totten glacier being the main cause of concern. A team of scientists returned from an expedition to East Antarctica in 2015 and reported that warmer ocean waters were causing the Totten glacier to melt from below.

This news is on top of the already worrying trend that in West Antarctica, the ice sheet there is losing twice as much ice now as compared to the last survey, and its collapse is a critical possibility. The West Antarctic ice sheet is a sword of Damocles hanging over the head of humanity, and its melting has been observed and cataloged by climate scientists for half a century.

The specific, measured adverse consequences of global warming are one big reason to be interested in the icy continent. But these concerns are part of the wider campaign around human-induced global warming. There are many other reasons, specific to Antarctica, that make that continent an endlessly fascinating and rewarding experience in its own right. The scientific value of continued exploration and discovery in Antarctica make that icy region one of the most interesting places on Earth.

Whenever I raise the subject of Antarctica and the South Pole, my fellow Australians usually respond with a mixture of bewilderment and condescension borne out of a sense that interest in Antarctica is a general waste of time and energy. My first instinct is to respond with the enthusiastic contempt exemplified by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, brandishing a weapon of some description, loudly daring my interlocutor to repeat their inane question of ‘why Antarctica?’ on pain of physical obliteration.

This method, while personally satisfying, is not the preferred technique of esteemed writers and creators of cultural capital. So, placing our initial response on the back-burner, it is with great pleasure that I can highly recommend The Conversation as a source of information regarding the scientific and political importance of the Antarctic.

Australia has had a long and deep involvement in the continent. While the popular image of the Antarctic is one of icy remoteness, isolation, ferocious weather and tragic exploration events, this is only one side of the story. As Professor Leane writes in her article:

The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which declared the continent a place of peace and science and put national claims on hold, seemed to leave behind the imperial ambitions that produced the “race to the pole” in the early 20th century. And while Antarctica’s potential mineral resources are an ongoing source of concern, the South Pole, sitting atop almost 3km of ice, is not an obvious place to drill.

Now occupied by a large scientific research station, where (among other activities) astronomers use giant telescopes to study cosmological events, the South Pole is often assumed to be a politically neutral place, immune to the clamour going on in the north.

So it is not just the fact of ecological change that makes Antarctica important. The Antarctic Treaty was intended to place inter-imperial rivalry on hold, avoiding the unnecessary competitive outburst over that land in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It provided a framework for international scientific cooperation, and this has produced results: scientific and cultural ties between Australia and China have been evolving positively since 1984, the year the Chinese government began its first scientific expedition to Antarctica. China now has four Antarctic bases, and in 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hobart and signed a memorandum of understanding with Australia for the purpose of expanding cooperation in the Antarctic region and Southern Ocean.

However, not all is smooth sailing – various countries, including Australia, have made territorial claims over portions of Antarctic territory. The competing wedge-shaped territorial assertions by the rival countries have resulted in making Antarctic territory resemble portions of a meringue pie, as Professor Leane stated. All of the claimants mapped out territory that all meet at the South Pole. The latter is not the geographic centre of the continent, however, it is the southernmost point of the Earth.

Interestingly, at latitude 90-degrees South, it is easier to travel to than the North Pole; the latter is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the South Pole sits on stable solid land. The United States established a scientific station, the Amundsen-Scott South Pole station. Sitting in the middle of the rival territorial claims, the US does not currently make any claims in Antarctica, but is positioned to do so in the future, should that decision arise.

There are only a few frontiers left on the Earth that can truly be said to remain unexplored. Vast sections of Antarctica fit this definition. However, it is not just the icy land mass of the continent that is open to exploration; the enormous land underneath the ice sheets is a large area of terra incognita. That is the description of the territory that lies underneath the Antarctic icy mass provided by an article published in The Conversation called ‘What lies beneath Antarctica’s ice? Lakes, life and the grandest of canyons.’

The authors go on to explain that deep beneath the solid ice-mass, lies a complex and as yet unmapped system of subglacial lakes, rivers and canyons. There are currently 400 known lakes in this subglacial environment, and more are being identified:

Under such a large volume of ice, how is it possible for water to exist at all without freezing? The answer is pressure: when a large weight of ice is pushed onto water, it can stay liquid at temperatures well below the normal freezing point. What’s more, the large body of ice actually insulates the bed and protects it from the very cold air temperatures above.

The liquid water is created by heat from the Earth’s interior and from the friction generated as ice flows over the bedrock, which can melt the underside of the ice sheet. It is this water that flows into the subglacial lake basins and eventually into the ocean.

The largest of these known subglacial lakes is Lake Vostok, covering an area of 12 500 square kilometres, located underneath Russia’s Vostok science station in the Southern Pole of Cold, part of the East Antarctic ice sheet. In these climatically harsh environments, microbial life has been found.

In Lake Whillans, located in West Antarctica, a diverse ecosystem of single-celled organisms was discovered in 2013 by an American research team drilling through the overlying glacier to extract water samples from the lake. These microbes have never before seen the sun. So how do they survive? The microbes rely on the minerals from the sediments and bedrock, with the constant pressure of the glacier above grinding the rock into powder, thus making minerals available for microorganisms without the need for photosynthesis. As the authors Dow, Graham and Cook explain in their article:

Such life thrives in this harsh environment without sunlight for photosynthesis. Instead, the microbes depend on the oxidation of methane and ammonia, derived from sediments that are hundreds of thousands of years old. This momentous discovery of life in such a harsh and unforgiving environment may provide scientists with critical information on the development of marine life cycles.

Antarctica is not the exclusive preserve of one country or international power. It is the common heritage of humanity. As such, international scientific and political cooperation is not only desirable but necessary to study that land, preserve its ecosystem, and avoid the climatic catastrophe that awaits us should Antarctica continue its current disastrous course towards sustained melting and collapse due to global warming. The future of Antarctica should be of top priority not just for all Australians, but for the international community.

Israel, Uganda, and Netanyahu’s Entebbe visit

8 Jul

In early July 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a multination tour of East African countries, starting with Uganda. He made a significant stopover in Entebbe, Uganda. Why? This was the 40th anniversary of the Israeli commando raid, a military action that  was aimed at rescuing Israeli hostages kidnapped by Palestinian militants. The latter found sanctuary at the time in Uganda, then under the rule of General Idi Amin. Israeli forces stormed the Entebbe airport, and during this action three hostages, all the hijackers, 45 Ugandan soldiers and one Israeli commando were killed.

The Entebbe raid, as that military operation has become known, was praised by PM Netanyahu as a significant action against terrorism. Visiting the site of Entebbe in July this year, Netanyahu gave an emotionally-charged speech – which is understandable, given that his brother was one of the commandos who died during the military operation. But he also recycled a number of propagandistic myths and distortions that are possible only by taking a pair of scissors and excising huge portions of recent history from the picture.

Tuck magazine published an article that covered Netanyahu’s visit, an article that sadly uncritically reproduces the Netanyahu version of history. Let us have a look at the claims made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and how those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. He stated that this raid was a great victory against terrorism, and that the international community needs to cooperate to defeat this particular evil in the world. Netanyahu also stated that Israel intends to increase its economic, political and military relations with sub-Saharan and East African countries. He boasted that he was the first Israeli Prime Minister in over twenty years to make an official state visit to Africa. The purpose of this contribution is not to sound peevish or annoyed, or to make any personal attacks. The purpose is to examine those relevant portions of history that Netanyahu deliberately excluded from his speech in Uganda.

There is no doubt that General Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda was a military dictatorship, where opponents of the regime were tortured and eliminated. There is no question that Amin became, in his own erratic and schizophrenic way, a supporter of the Palestinian cause and made repugnant, repulsive anti-Semitic statements praising Hitler, revealing himself to be a very troubled, hateful person. He was most definitely the head of a monstrous regime. But what is missing from Netanyahu’s truncated picture is that during Idi Amin’s rise to power, he had two powerful patrons and supporters – Britain and Israel. He was a monster created, aided and abetted by influential backers – patrons that he eventually turned against.

In an article for The New Yorker magazine published in June 2016, author Helen Epstein relates that:

One issue that probably won’t be discussed during Netanyahu’s visit is why the hijackers chose Entebbe. The short answer is that Idi Amin, Uganda’s erratic dictator at the time, was a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause and a professed enemy of Israel. But there is a longer answer: Israel itself helped install Amin in power, creating a monster who turned on his former patrons.

Israel had had a special relationship with Uganda since the latter’s independence from Great Britain, in 1962. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, David Ben-Gurion, then Israel’s Prime Minister, sought strategic partnerships with states on the edge the Arab world, including Uganda, Kenya, Iran, and Turkey, to counter the hostile nations on Israel’s own borders. As part of what became known as the Peripheral Doctrine, Israel trained and equipped Uganda’s military and carried out construction, agriculture, and other development projects.

Israeli technicians were helping to construct, among other things, the Entebbe airport, so its blueprints and structure were well known to the relevant Israeli authorities.

Amin was a British-trained soldier, having risen through the ranks of the British-commanded King’s African Rifles, a multi-battalion unit raised from Britain’s East African colonies. This unit, loyal to British King and Country, was deployed in various actions in defence of the Empire, namely fighting the Kenyan Mau Mau insurgency in the 1950s. Amin saw action in that war, and proved himself a capable leader. The British were well aware of the type of man they were promoting, and in the early 1960s, when Uganda gained independence, it was Amin among other officers who were promoted to the very top of the fledgling Ugandan military hierarchy.

Israel was a keen supporter of Ugandan independence, and established a burgeoning relationship with the new country. Armaments and money flowed into Uganda, and Amin himself was fully supportive of this relationship. The civilian authorities in Uganda at the time, while professing Pan-Africanist sentiments, found themselves heavily dependent on the Ugandan army. Amin established close relations with Colonel Baruch Bar-Lev, Israel’s military attache in Uganda. While the civilian Presidents tried to maintain their autonomy from the military, Amin and other army officers were secretly plotting to seize power for themselves. Bar-Lev had advised Amin to form a particular unit, trained by Israel, to protect Amin himself. It was this unit that provided the backbone for the 1971 coup d’etat that brought Amin to power. It is no exaggeration to state that while Amin hungered for power himself, it was his Israeli enablers that made such a seizure of power a practical reality.

Amin, having become chief of staff of the Ugandan army in the 1960s, was viewed as a great asset by the British and Israeli authorities. Amin ran a sideline operation in his position; he supplied armaments and training for rebel groups operating in the South Sudan, a predominantly African region ruled by the Arabic-speaking regime in Khartoum. Israeli-made weapons found their way into the hands of South Sudanese rebel forces via Uganda, and the Arab-majority Sudanese army was bogged down in a grueling conflict with secessionist rebels. In fact, until today, with South Sudan an independent state, its main military and political supporter has been the state of Israel. The support for South Sudanese rebels fighting the dictatorial regime in Khartoum is motivated by Israeli strategic and economic interests, not any humanitarian concerns for subjugated peoples.

It is no longer a secret that Israel maintained a flourishing and profitable relationship with apartheid South Africa for many decades, while the rest of the international community was demanded an end to any links with that racist regime in Pretoria. That particular international cause for democracy and racial equality was ignored and sabotaged by the Israeli authorities – however, now, Netanyahu wishes to invoke the moral authority of the international community’s support for his alleged stance against terrorism. Israel’s outreach to African countries is based on cynical and ruthlessly calculated political interests. The Israeli authorities are looking for friends to outflank all the Arabic-speaking countries. That calculation is no secret – Israel was fully supportive of the newly-independent African states back in the 1960s; those relations have gone through various fluctuations and changes since then, but the underlying rationale has remained the same.

Thankfully, Amin’s regime has passed into the pages of history. After his overthrow in 1979, he was exiled and never saw his native Uganda again – he remained forgotten and irrelevant. He spoke out on various issues concerning his country, but now no-one was listening. Uganda itself has remained firmly in the orbit of the United States; current Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986. As Helen Epstein explains in her New Yorker article:

Early in Museveni’s tenure, Uganda once again became a pawn in the seemingly endless undeclared war between the Arab world and the West. In 1994, the Clinton Administration began funding Uganda and other countries to destabilize the government of Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom it held partly responsible for the bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1993. Ugandan troops have also been deployed, at the West’s beckoning, in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In return, the U.S. plows roughly seven hundred and fifty million dollars annually in developmental aid into Uganda, including a hundred and seventy million dollars in military aid. Meanwhile, the Ugandan leader has for years received a free pass when it comes to human-rights abuses. These include allegations of election rigging, torture, and the killing of opposition supporters.

Was the Entebbe raid a victory against terrorism, as Netanyahu boastfully claims? Yes and no. What does that mean?

Yes, it was a victory against terrorism – if by that, you mean the terrorism of the dispossessed, desperate and vulnerable. The Palestinians, stuck in squalid refugee camps, denied a basic existence, their future hopeless and abandoned by the international community, resorted to desperate tactics, lashing out at any target however soft its vulnerability. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the very existence of the Palestinians as a nation was routinely denied by top-level Israeli politicians. Condemned to rot in refugee camps, with no education, prospects of hope of a bright future, the Palestinians struck out in dangerous, desperate and lawless ways, the only methods available to those that have been pushed out to the margins of existence.

Was it a victory against terrorism? No. The terrorism of the rich and powerful, those with the resources of a state at their disposal, goes unpunished and unaccountable. When refugee camps are bombed by warplanes, those who gave the orders for such actions remain at large, uninhibited by legal sanction. When an entire territory is blockaded and starved into submission, those who order and carry out such measures remain unpunished. When such punitive measures deny an entire population the basic necessities for survival, and undermine the ability of a society to sustain itself, the international community must do more than just watch. We would do well to remember the words of the late great humanist activist and author, Peter Ustinov, who stated that; “Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.”