First Chinese "Taikonaut" Spacewalk, September 2008. photobucket/emperoryu
In a recent appearance on The Daily Show, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and researcher at the American Museum of Natural History, offered an impassioned defense of the American space program. He argued that American public policy after the 1960s “no longer advanced a space frontier” – and no longer reaped the innumerable unintended technological and scientific advancements of space travel research. Ideally, policy makers would recognize the intrinsic value of inspiring young Americans to pursue scientific educations, but Tyson adds that these fields “are the foundations of tomorrow’s economies, and without it America will be ill-equipped to compete internationally. If China wants to put a military base on the moon, we’re there in ten years.” -Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Daily Show (2/29/2012)
Abraham Hassan, a self identified Palestinian-American Republican, asked a question in Thursday night’s Republican debate, raising an interesting issue of Republican credibility in the Palestinian community domestically and abroad. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in typical fashion characterized the Palestinian population as “Hamas and others who think like Hamas,” as Romney said. Both candidates were emphatic that American and Israeli interests, especially when it comes to the Palestinians, are exactly the same. Gingrich attempted to defend past suggestions that Palestinians are an “invented people” by arguing that “[the term Palestinian was] an invention of the late 1970s…prior to that [Palestinians] were Arabs.”
In his book, Palestinian Identity, Columbia University professor of history Rashid Khalidi extensively chronicles the emergence of a Palestinian national consciousness as early as the late 19th century, like modern Zionism, belies Gingrich’s proposition (ironically, Gingrich fashions himself a professional historian yet seems unaware of Khalidi’s historical work). All national movements are imagined communities, to use Benedict Anderson phrase, but that does not mean they are meaningless, as the word “invented” seems to suggest. By denying the origins of Palestinian peoplehood, and hence much of its history, Gingrich is rejecting precisely what it means to be a Palestinian. Hassan’s statement that Republicans “barely recognize” the Palestinian identity appears to be a gross understatement.
New Gingrich Speaking at CPAC 2011. Flicker / Gage Skidmore
A recent political debacle over Obama’s recess appointments raises a fascinating constitutional question and highlights the troubling, aggressive relationship that has developed between the President and Congressional Republicans. This case offers an opportunity to also examine the behavior of Congressional Republicans and the party’s Presidential candidates.
The “Other Israel Film Festival” in Manhattan chose films that related the stories of minorities in Israel. These perspectives and backgrounds rarely receive attention in the popular media. “The Promise,” or at least the first part of a four-part series, is a dramatic historical-fiction that introduces Israel/Palestine and the conflict to foreigners of the land.
When the characters speak in Hebrew or Arabic there are no subtitles; just as there are no shortcuts to understanding the complex dynamics of Israel/Palestine. The audience is limited by their individual understandings of the local cultures, the histories, and yes, even the languages.
Herman Cain and Ron Paul at the August 11, 2011 GOP/FOX News debate. flickr / iowapolitics.com
In 2010 Julian Sanchez set off a debate amongst conservatives when he argued that the movement suffered from “epistemic closure” – getting all of their ideas only from each other. This suggests a particularly ideological and rigidly conservative movement unwilling to challenge its principles despite contravening facts. Bruce Bartlett, a former economic advisor for the George H.W. Bush administration and outspoken critic of the second Bush administration, made a similar claim when he said, “conservatives have sort of reached a position of intellectual closure [italics added].” He means that the conservative intellectualism of the 70s and 80s precipitated an era of complacency and stagnation in the conservative movement. Modern conservatives debate how to implement the ideas of their ideological forbearers, but are reluctant to examine the ideas themselves. John Huntsman Jr. seems to imply this idea when he chastises other Republican candidates for their dismissal and derision of the scientific community when the science contradicts their preexisting conservative beliefs.
Steve Benen offers a particularly pertinent anecdote drawn from the writings of Herman Cain in which the presidential candidate suggests that his awareness of national issues comes primarily, if not entirely, from conservative talk radio shows. The conservative talk show hosts of today are not trained in public policy and do not develop their political ideologies. Instead, these entertainers simplify complex ideas developed by earlier thinkers in their movement. These radio shows provide talking points that assume conservative orthodoxy is fact. The scientific community is viewed with derision by hosts who believe that ideology is better suited to address these issues then the scientific process. These talk hosts are only interested in promoting, rather then examining, their ideological principles.
Herman Cain is not an outlier in terms of his dogmatic approach to national issues. The fact that these talk shows have informed his public policy positions, rather than the academic or scientific communities, on matters as dire as climate change is troubling. Are American voters going to tolerate an uncritical application of conservative ideology? Or will they demand a president who respects scholarly experts and is willing to find compromises between the competing governing ideologies of this nation?
Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen, October 2008. wikimedia commons / Muhammad ud-Deen
On September 30, 2011 a U.S. drone in Yemen assassinated Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen accused of participation in terrorist activities against the United States. While there is a legitimate debate to be had about the justification and legality of targeted killings as a matter of policy, President Obama should not be permitted to assume this authority unchallenged.
Al-Awlaki’s killing is the first instance of a U.S. administration openly targeting an American citizen for assassination and comes amid a rapid increase in the use of targeted killings abroad. This issue was last raised in 2002 when Kamal Derwish, also a U.S. citizen, was killed in a similar operation. The Bush administration denied that he was an intended targeted, thereby avoiding the constitutional question, but Condoleezza Rice argued that targeting Derwish would have been “well within the balance of…[Bush's] constitutional authority.” In early 2009 Admiral Dennis Blair reaffirmed that the president has the right to assassinate an American citizen that is believed to be “working with terrorists.” The Bush administration avoided a constitutional confrontation while creating the legal framework for a 2010 Obama memorandum that justified the targeted killing of Al-Awlaki.
A painting on an outer wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. Flickr / pooyan
On October 11 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that an Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi Arabian foreign minister had been broken up by an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. According to the complaint, an American-Iranian tried to hire a Mexican drug cartel on behalf of Iran’s Quds Force to assassinate a Saudi Arabian diplomat in Washington D.C. As Hillary Clinton said, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
The question is, did the government actually make it up?
Despite Obama’s claim to have secret irrefutable evidence supporting the accusations, his administration has not made this evidence public. Thus, it is too early to pass judgment on the accuracy of the complaint and the truth of the accusation.
While it may sound conspiratorial to suggest that the Obama administration is fabricating intelligence to achieve some ulterior motive, the quality of available evidence is not very persuasive. It is particularly reasonable and perhaps even prudent to reserve judgment in light of U.S. intelligence failures in the past. The accusation is convenient for the administration’s efforts to isolate Iran internationally and many Americans would believe it – some because they want to – even if there isn’t proof. Still, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will be able to successfully leverage these accusations to achieve increased international support for sanctions against Iran, as Biden suggested would occur, without more definitive evidence.
Occupy Wall Street protestors organizing on September 23. Flicker / david_shankbone
The Occupy Wall Street protesters have been mischaracterized in the news as disorganized drum circlers and unwashed anarchists. After spending nights and countless hours in Liberty Plaza, I can attest that the there is an impressive, complex governing structure that maintains the occupation. These governing institutions did not emerge organically; the system was designed by the earliest occupiers of Liberty Plaza and adopted by the General Assembly (GA) at the time. The structure consists primarily of working groups that coordinate and operate the different functions of the occupation.
A working group deals with logistical issues in the park including sanitation, comfort, medical needs, and food. All of these are basic necessities of a growing socio-political movement. There are also thematic groups that deal with non-logistical issues such as seminars, sign making, outreach, and media coverage. Anyone can establish a group with a concept and initiative, which has led to a proliferation of many functioning working groups. The success of this process can be witnessed in the extensive and organized cleaning program that resulted in the postponement of the city’s order to evacuate the park due to ostensibly “unsanitary conditions.” The rapid growth of the camp is never more noticeable than during the GA, which is held nightly at 7 p.m. in the park. This is the formation of a society founded on the belief in collective action and direct democracy.
The crowd during the GA has grown so large that the “people’s mic”—the crowd echoing the speaker to compensate for the city ban on using a P.A. system—requires every phrase to be repeated three to four times in order to reach the furthest participants. The size has created logistical problems. All major decisions, including the allocation of funds, must be proposed and adopted by the GA through consensus. This process might seem absurdly inefficient, but it functions because of a core tenet of the movement: process. Whenever there is a problem, the solution is to adjust the process.
Protesters march down Wall Street on September 18, 2011. Flickr / pweiskel08
In a recent Wikileaks release, IDF Major-General (reserves) Amos Gilad was quoted as telling an American official that Israel doesn’t do “do Gandhi very well.” He meant that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have a more difficult time responding to peaceful protests than violent ones because they know that using force against non-violence will only strengthen the cause of the protesters. Every authority structure from Mubarak’s Egypt to the Obama administration faces the same conundrum when confronted by these types of protests.
In the heart of New York’s financial district adjacent to Wall Street, there has been a growing protest movement called Occupy Wall Street. This group’s occupation of Zuccotti Park for more than three weeks is reminiscent of the Egyptian revolution and Israel’s social justice protests. All of these movements occupied a public area to create a space for free expression and protest.I noticed one of the early organizers of Occupy Wall Street wearing a pin that read, “Fight Like an Egyptian.” This suggests that the protesters are committed to the same type of civil disobedience that was central to the Egyptian Revolution, including the peaceful occupation of a public area. Within sight of the World Trade Center, the protest movement in Zuccotti Park evokes a certain irony in the failed War on Terror: the U.S. focus on violent Islamism fails to recognize that the real challenge to its authority may be the impassioned peaceful protests inspired by the recent non-violent movements across the Arab World, which may themselves be a rejection of Islamism’s violent tactics.
President Lyndon Johnson meets with Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban on May 26, 1967. / White House Press Office
Obama sincerely engaged the Israeli-Palestinian peace process early in his term, but his latest speech at the United Nations suggests that he is acquiescing to Israeli interests. There is rich precedence for Obama’s behavior starting in June 1967, when Israel took its current form.
In declassified recordings throughout the 1967 Israeli-Arab conflict, President Johnson balances contradictory foreign and domestic pressures. This struggle is reflected in his five principles for peace introduced at the United Nations. The first is recognizing Israel. The fifth principal, territorial integrity, receives particular attention from Arab leaders, but Israeli interests force Johnson to allow for a Jerusalem exception. He suggests that Israel is not after Egyptian and Syrian territory, but “on Jordan, they hope that’s negotiable. This little area [Jerusalem]….I think that we have some chance on it.” Dean Rusk warned Abba Eban that mishandling Jerusalem could create “strong anti-Israel feeling in the United States,” but Johnson seemed more concerned about a pro-Israel backlash and didn’t press the issue.
Johnson ultimately succumbed to congressional pressure by authorizing the largest arms deal to Israel at that time, initiating what has become emblematic of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Obama must deconstruct this historic dynamic and ask himself: is this really in our best interest?
Source: David Johnson, Robert. “Lyndon Johnson and Israel: The Secret Presidential Recordings.” Tel Aviv University, July 2008.