Saturday, 16 February 2008

Sisters and power

Some light exchanges from the previous Zenpolitics posting has me reflecting on the varying motivations of women in political life.

As intimated, geneticist Steve Jones has already documented the gathering 'redundancy' facing the male of the species, an outlook which, alongside the apparent soaring of girls' academic performance over boys', suggests a gloomy prognosis for the male power-seeker.

Ergo, for all of us other over-inflated male egos. Ah, well, if any other woman tells me I'm useless, I can always just blame it on evolution.

But while the 'glass ceiling' for women in politics may have been 'shattered', the recent record and current prospects of a female-led politics of humanity is despairingly bleak.

With Hillary Clinton promising to re-cast the US of Amnesia as a more caring, sharing land for the forgotten poor, we can be reasonably sure that, as with her spouse's past promises, any 'new female deal' won't be at the expense of the private health insurance companies or the corporate beneficiaries of America's war economy.

Ascendancy to the Oval Office carries hopes for many of a new politics in the making. But, of whose making? Beyond the symbolic novelty of the White House's first lady not to be just the First Lady, are we persuaded by the suggestion that "change" means anything other than a moderated version of corporate-ordered 'democracy'? Are we really to believe, beyond the glaring fascinations of our slavish media, that this 'sister' is remotely intent on changing anything?

Whether elected or not, Clinton's political rise has been assumed as a defining statement of 'woman power'. It's part of the same bourgeois conceit that 'career fulfilment' and 'market success' represent the pinnacle of female liberation.

In fact, while more women are, thankfully, making greater headway in public and political life, the unthankful truth for the vast majority of women is a lifetime of service-sector wage slavery as well as all the perennial bonds of domestic 'duty'. In short, most women are worse-off in the great gender re-division of labour with all its promised liberations and remunerations.

Maggie and the clones

And, here in Britannia modernica, we have our former dear leaderene to thank for much of that. It's a cruel irony that Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in actually setting women back so much.

Thatcher infamously asserted that there is "no such thing as society". Need we recall the brutalisation of the society she presided over?

Actually, yes, for it reminds us very starkly that the present generation of defeated youngsters and the brutalised locales they inhabit owes much to the inhuman philosophy of selfish individualism she idealised. And if that's not a central issue for how we advance a more caring (female?) politics, I don't know what is.

While many, male and female, from all classes, recorded their outright or sneaking admiration for this 'game woman in a man's world', the neoliberal policies Thatcher enacted were laying the blueprint not just for the destruction of whole communities but for the Blairite development of that amoral project, with all the widening inequalities we see today.

It's notable that one of the first Downing Street guests of the man responsible for mass crimes in Iraq was none other than the Iron Lady. Blair, no doubt, wanted his own 'Falklands legacy'. Perhaps Iraq was the Thatcherite realisation of his 'female side'.

In desperate need of a politics that cares about how to redress such social breakdown, we see nothing but vacuity in the current crop of female notables. From Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith, Wendy Alexander and other New Labour she-clones to erstwhile Thatcherites lke Ann Widdecombe, the female parliamentariat has failed to offer the first inkling of how a compassionate politics might be constituted.

Wedded to power

We need, of course, little reminding that men have been responsible for the vast proportion of wars, genocides and atrocities in this world. Yet, we are all, male and female, capable of being co-opted and corrupted by power. Lynndie England, who eagerly participated in the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, is a frightening case in point.

I've witnessed female Israeli soldiers and border officers act as if they took their cues from the Gestapo handbook. From the standard uniform to the power suits and dresses of high political office, a disturbing transformation seems to takes place when men or women secure even a modicum of authority.

And, on the big political stage, that usually coincides with a basic adherence to dominant interests. Again, Hillary might represent for many, men and women, that longing, liberal hope of a 'more feeling' 'female America'. But, of course, like Obama, she wouldn't even be in the running if she harboured the slightest threat to corporate America and the Wall Street mandarins who really run the country.

As the ever-cogent Pilger puts it:

"That the leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a black man is of supreme irrelevance; the fanatical Condoleezza Rice is both female and black. Look into the murky world behind Hillary Clinton and you find the likes of Monsanto, a company that produced Agent Orange, the war chemical that continues to destroy Vietnam. One of Barack Obama’s chief whisperers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, which spawned jihadism, al-Qaeda and 9/11."
Clinton has always proclaimed an independent spirit, showing her 'I'm no Tammy Wynette' fortitude during the Lewinsky saga. But where was her (and America's) indignant hurt or human outrage over Bill's order to drop Cruise missiles on an aspirin factory in Sudan on the spurious pretext that it was procuring weapons? More appallingly, where was her (or America's) shame over the president's direct part in the sanctions policy that, by all official UN accounts, saw the deaths of at least half a million Iraqi children? Like Cherie with Tony, Hillary has 'stood by her man' in basic denial of her partner's crimes against humanity.

Recall, also, that it fell to another female Clintonite, Madeleine Albright, to state the immortal words when asked by CBS reporter Lesley Stahl if the deaths through sanctions of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying. Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it." Despite later expressing regrets over the utterance, she remains convinced of the case for the sanctions that caused those deaths.

Female icons

Among the now-expanding list of female prime ministers and presidents, iconic political women have nurtured the hopes and devotional support of third world nations. But, few were radically concerned with replacing their internal systems of privilege. Indira and Sonia Gandhi's National Congress may have defended a secular politics for India, but it spawned and continued a party nepotism more concerned with political security and pandering to Western capitalism than addressing the country's vast caste and class inequalities.

More 'romantically', Eva Peron advanced female suffrage and welfare gains for the poor in Argentina. But Peronism was always a cult conservative politics of top-down 'reform' with neo-fascist leanings, not a movement to revolutionise the society.

Indonesia's Megawati Sukarnoputri, likewise, lived-off her father's reputation rather than challenge the ruthless IMF neoliberalism that has ravaged her country.

The recently-assassinated Benazir Bhutto maintained a loyal populist following. But she also presided over a corrupt and venal regime, paying the ultimate price in the latest contest to become Washington's favoured proxy over Musharaff.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir - who held the "Iron Lady" epithet long before Thatcher - is a more fearsome example of the emboldened female blind to the injustices of the system she lovingly upheld. Here's how Meir neatly rationalised the ethnic cleansing of Palestine:

"There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? ... It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."
From the "they did not exist" 'logic', it was an easy step for Meir to the corollary that Israel could not return what it had appropriated:

"How can we return the occupied territories? There is nobody to return them to."

"Arab sovereignty in Jerusalem just cannot be. This city will not be divided—not half and half, not 60-40, not 75-25, nothing."
A denial of existence typifying the zero-sum bluntness we see today over Israel's 'final status' demands.

Like Mrs T, Meir wasn't just being 'a female in a man's world'. Both, like their male peers, were knowing and willing players in a politics of naked aggression, greed and self-preservation - in sum, a politics of inhumanity.

This week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood at a joint press conference with Israeli PM Ehud Olmert reaffirming her unwavering support for Israel. One might, of course, recognise the sensitive implications of such a 'special alliance'. But why should that preclude Merkel from condemning the state of Israel for persecuting the Palestinians? Where, in short, is Merkel's concern for the ongoing victims of the Holocaust?

Adherence to neoliberal orthodoxy is, likewise, consistent across the spectrum of female leaders. From the disastrous privatisation policies of Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark in New Zealand to Merkel's welfare cuts and right-wing economics in Germany, there's been no serious deviation from the standard text.

Sisters in strength

And yet, and yet.

I reserve this deep inclination that a 'female politics' can be a force for radical change. Indeed, I'd go further and suggest that it won't happen without that female lead.

For most politicians, male and female, the prime motivation is a desire for office, not a commitment to liberation politics or humanitarian policies. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, as in the brave political leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

But it's actually away from the public glare that we see a true female politics in action. In contrast to Clinton's money-driven electioneering, women are taking an emerging role in real political life through NGOs and grassroots organisations, building, albeit incrementally, the kind of lasting communal projects that don't depend on party machines and neoliberal relations.

This is apparent in those parts of the impoverished world the media rarely see fit to mention. For example, the Grameen microcredit Bank in Bangladesh was founded very specifically on the allocation of loans and control to women.

In Venezuela, women are at the heart of the Bolivarian revolution to bring real participatory democracy to the barrios.

Peace movements are also being driven by female influences. At Faslane and other nuclear bases there's a much higher proportion of women demonstrating and being arrested in opposition to Britain's WMD.

While none of this necessarily excludes men, it does suggest a female understanding of power more attuned to the root causes of oppression.

The international network Women in Black, for example, view war and injustice as particular expressions of male power. Founded in defence of Palestinian rights, WiB:

"have a feminist understanding: that male violence against women in domestic life and in the community, in times of peace and in times of war, are interrelated. Violence is used as a means of controlling women. In some regions, men who share this analysis support and help WiB, and WiB are supporting men who refuse to fight. Women-only peace activism does not suggest that women, any more than men, are ‘natural born peace-makers’. But women often inhabit different cultures from men, and are disproportionately involved in caring work. We know what justice and oppression mean, because we experience them as women. Most women have a different experience of war from that of most men. All women in war fear rape. Women are the majority of refugees. A feminist view sees masculine cultures as specially prone to violence, and so feminist women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war."
Unlike Hillary and the mainstream, there's been no shortage of notable radical women throughout history, from Rosa Luxemburg to Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein, articulating a politics of serious change, the kind of change which requires a proven political understanding and concern for how people suffer through brute force and corporate life.

Challenges to that hegemony are particularly evident in the political actions of women running anti-nuclear protests, Palestinian human rights groups, stop-the-war campaigns and multiple other actions concerned with the preservation, rather than elimination, of life. Beyond the adulatory politics around Condi and Hillary, this form of female action at least has the merit of caring about whether people live or die in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.

Most men, I suspect, will never really understand the deep and, I would venture, more advanced, 'mindset' of women. I gave up a long time ago, happy just to ponder and appreciate the enigma. But beyond the special intuitions and sometimes (with a nod to Kipling) 'deadly wiles' that seemingly drive the female of the species, female liberation of the political, economic and social kind is a process that requires unity of, not a battle between, the sexes.

Sisters and brothers together.


Friday, 1 February 2008

Demystifying the Palestinian issue

Resolving the Palestinian issue? It's as simple as one, two, three.

Well, relatively simple when we strip-away Israeli rhetoric and look clearly at the key legalities of the situation.

Israel cynically portrays the issues as being deeply complex, part of its long game of evading international criticism while trying to break the Palestinians. Alongside the perpetuated myths of 'Palestinian intransigence' that followed Oslo, Olmert and his predecessors have sought to foster the notion of fiendishly difficult peace details bogging-down negotiations, requiring some kind of Olympian effort on their part to resolve it.

Not so, according to the esteemed US academic Norman Finkelstein. In contrast to many of the seriously intractable conflicts around the world, potential resolution of this one, he believes, is strikingly straightforward. Indeed, it's remarkable "how uncomplicated it is".

In his recent lecture at LSE, Finkelstein stressed this central fact: that all the key legal arguments over Palestinian rights have already been adjudicated in their favour by the International Court of Justice, or World Court. These, of course, stand alongside the multiple UN resolutions clearly condemning Israel's Occupation and aggressions.

Finkelstein is particularly keen to emphasise the significance of the ICJ ruling (9 July 2004). And with good reason, when we look closely not just at the ruling, but in how it was interpreted. In its deliberations over the "separation" wall, the Court had to consider not just the wall itself, but the core legalities surrounding the case. On three central points, which coincide with the three main "final status" issues, it found Israel to be in gross violation of international accords, which view as illegal the appropriation of land through aggression. As Finkelstein outlines, Israel was deemed to have acted illegally with regard to the 1967 borders, the West Bank settlements and annexation of East Jerusalem.

The UN Charter holds clear that it is "inadmissable to acquire territory by war", rendering Israel's 1967 land seizure, including East Jerusalem, illegal. Article 49 of the Geneva Convention, likewise, renders all Israeli settlements contrary to international law. All these violations clearly informed the actual ruling on the wall.

Following judicial application of these three legal points, the court came down in favour of the Palestinians, declaring, 14-1, that the wall is unlawful and should be dismantled, with appropriate compensation paid to those whose land has been encroached upon. As Finkelstein reiterates: "There is no ambiguity whatsoever" about the rulings. "The highest judicial court in the world has resolved these issues."

The right of return for Palestinian refugees has also been made specific by UN declarations. However, Finkelstein also notes that while remaining a legitimate negotiating point, there is ample room for conciliation, involving compensation for those dispossessed, a point consistently intimated by the Palestinians themselves.

Thus, on all the crucial issues, there is clear evidence of a linear formula to resolve the conflict. So, when people say the Palestinian issue is complex, long-standing and intractable, it's worth remembering Finkelstein's assertion that once we demystify the politics, it's actually very straightforward.

If Israel complies with international law and standing judgments over borders, settlements and East Jerusalem, there will be an end of the Occupation. The Occupied Palestinian Territories - the official UN-designated title of this land - will become a viable state. In time, with a fair settlement of the refugee issue and appropriate efforts to rebuild the devastated Palestinian economy, people across this land could, with reasonable expectation, begin to live in peace.

Clear refusal

The relative simplicity of the outstanding issues here, however, highlights the zero-sum game Israel is playing in refusing to comply with international law, thus fostering ongoing conflict across the Middle East and beyond.

Israel, in short, is simply unwilling to give up what it has stolen. And neither, it seems, is Washington ready or willing to exert the necessary pressure on its favoured-client state to enforce a change of mind. Yet, while much of this can be attributed to the influential Israeli Lobby in the US, it doesn't follow that the US is simply beholden to Israel.

As Finkelstein argues (contra Mearsheimer and Walt), the Israeli Lobby may be powerful and share core goals with the neoconservatives - as in their common belligerent intentions towards Iran - but immediate US interests, rather than Israeli ones, will always have primacy in determining policy in the region. Any incoming US administration will, likewise, maintain support for Israel on that basis.

Yet, the terms of that support may be subject to change where the Occupation becomes an increasing liability for US interests, regional and domestic. In the latter regard, Finkelstein cites recent studies showing that support for Israel is diminishing among American Jews, the mainstay of its foreign political support. Identification with Israel among American Jews is waning, particularly within the younger demographic who don't share the same affinity as previous generations. Jews in the US are also, in general, liberal by inclination. And they're seeing more clearly, and with increasing embarrassment, the gross illegality and injustice taking place 'in their names'.

The situation is also unravelling from within the Israeli state. This week's report from the Winograd Commission, criticising Olmert's 'failed war' on Lebanon in 2006 (no mention, of course, of Israel's actual war crimes here), illustrates how the Israeli elite are now turning-in on themselves, seeking scapegoats and struggling to maintain the notion of Zionist invincibility.

Factor in Hamas's bravura blasting of the Egyptian-Gaza border defences, and we see a state increasingly struggling to comprehend and deal with its political and diplomatic weaknesses.

In sum, Israel's apartheid policies are approaching a state of hegemonic crisis. There's a growing awareness, domestic and foreign, of its oppressions and military limitations. And, as shown, it doesn't have a legal leg to stand on within the major international courts and assemblies. Beyond the confident posturing, these are all worrying concerns for the Israeli establishment.

In the final Q&A section of the lecture, Finkelstein takes-up the 'one-or-two-state' issue, arguing that the former only detracts from what is realistically achievable. He is also "agnostic" on the question of boycotting Israeli academia, supporting it in principle if shown to be having an impact, yet reticent about allowing Israel the space to shout about "academic freedom" rather than face the central issues.

Yet, beyond these tactical differences, the main issues and tasks remain clearly evident.

It's abundantly clear what has to be done by Israel to reach a just settlement. Its depressingly clear that it has no intention of pursuing one. Yet, it's reassuringly clear that, with all the key legal arguments on their side, the Palestinian case is gaining ground. It's also clear, for Finkelstein, that justice for the Palestinians must involve individual and collective mobilisation akin to the pressure brought to bear on apartheid South Africa.

As Finkelstein says, there's no need to mystify the conflict or complicate the practical actions needed to resolve it. "It's not rocket science". It's simple, really.