We’re facing a new Cold War

Noam Chomsky: 

The linguist and philosopher on the warped coverage of Putin’s Russia and the ways we whitewash our war crimes

Noam Chomsky: We're facing a new Cold War
Noam Chomsky (Credit: AP/Nader Daoud)
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

JacobinEarlier this month, Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson, both high school educators, sat down with Noam Chomsky in his Cambridge, MA office. In a brief conversation, edited and condensed here for clarity, they covered a wide range of topics — the projection of US power abroad and the stories told to justify it; COINTELPRO and domestic repression; the failures of the mainstream media; the West’s posture toward Putin; and much more. As always, we’re happy to publish Professor Chomsky’s invaluable insights.

Dan Falcone

I was recently in correspondence with a good friend of yours, Richard Falk, and we were discussing Juan Cole’s idea of “essentialism” as it pertains to the Muslim world. And this led me to think about how essentialism is present in liberal education.

For instance, take a good and appropriate cause like education for Muslim girls and how they face Taliban oppression. This is important to fight, obviously, but often the struggle is taught without the mentioning of American foreign policy or our own international crimes isolated from the entirety of the phenomenon.  This type of lesson planning in secondary education gets laudatory reviews. Could you help me in contextualizing this?

Noam Chomsky

Well take, say, the Taliban education that comes out of madrassas in Pakistan, and is funded by our main ally, Saudi Arabia, and was supported by the Reagan administration — because it was part of the support of Pakistan, primarily as a war against the Russians.

Well, the United States tried to keep the Russians in Afghanistan, and the goal was very explicitly stated by the CIA station chief in Islamabad, which got around the insurgency. What he said was, we don’t care about the liberation of Afghanistan. We want to kill Russians. A large part of that was to also support the worst dictatorship in Pakistan, the General Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, who was allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

The Reaganites pretended they didn’t know, but of course they did, so that they could keep pouring funds in. The other thing that they were doing was radically “Islamizing” Pakistani society. So, the Saudis are not only the most extreme radical fundamentalists in the Islamic world and our main allies, but also a kind of missionary, and they have plenty of money. They have other wealthy sectors too, but they pour money into building mosques, Quranic schools, and so on. That’s where a lot of the Taliban came from.

So yes, we had a big role in it — plus, it’s worse than that.  I mean if you take a look at the serious history after the Russians withdrew, they left behind the Najibullah government, which was pretty reasonable in many ways. In fact, for women, at least in Kabul and places like that, they’re way better off than they’ve been any time since the Russians.

And the Najibullah government, which was pretty popular, maintained itself until two events took place. 1) The Russians withdrew, pulled out, ended support, and 2) The US maintained support for the mujahideen, who are mostly religious extremists and fundamentalists — guys who throw acid at women if they aren’t wearing the right clothes and so on. And they devastated Kabul, they practically destroyed it. They took over. Their rule was so awful that when the Taliban came in, they were actually welcomed.

Well, that’s part of history too, you know? Plus a lot that’s happened since isn’t very pretty. So yeah, if you want to study the education of the Taliban, these are things to do. And it’s not that we can’t read things, like you can read the story of Malala Yousafzai, which is very evocative.

She talks about the warlord society and so on, which the US instituted. There are other things one could read. I mean, there’s a very good book by Anand Gopal which came out recently. Although he’s pretty sympathetic to the US position, so it’s mostly about what he calls “mistakes” — how the United States essentially reconstructed the Taliban by misunderstanding the society.

But what he describes is very persuasive. He goes through, and he knows the country very well. And he describes in great detail how the gangsters and warlords and criminals manipulated the US forces. Some group would say, you’ve got to attack these guys over there, they happen to be a personal enemy claiming that they’re Taliban supporters. So the US would send in Special Forces and bombers and beat the shit out of everyone — and upgraded Taliban supporters.

Gopal says the Taliban basically withdrew when the US invaded. But then we helped them come back by means like these; through reconstructing the insurgency, which the government now can’t control. 


So, there’s a simultaneous support for the bandits . . .


Part of it was purposeful by the Reagan administration. Part of it is maybe just kind of arrogant ignorance. Assuming we understand how to do things when you know actually nothing about the society and just hit it with a sledgehammer and you end up supporting, maybe inadvertently, the most criminal elements who then are using the sledgehammer for their own purposes. You know, to smash up their personal enemies.


I remember some of your talks after September 11, 2001, you were mentioning how there was a lot of praise for works in the social sciences where authors were reviewing books that would say America’s really only flaw is not doing enough in reaction to other people’s crimes.


It goes on right now. Take a look at the current issue of Middle East JournalIt is one of the more free, open, most critical of professional journals. It’s been pretty good in the past, but there’s a symposium. It’s a large part of the issue, and it includes ambassadors, generals, and all kinds of big shots. They’re discussing the problems in the Middle East, the total chaos and what can we do better than in the past to stabilize the Middle East?

I mean, where did the chaos come from in Iraq and Libya? We did it. But the only question you can ask is how can we perform better in stabilizing the Middle East? Then of course there are these destabilizing elements like Iran, a rogue state, and the greatest threat to world peace. How are they to be stabilized in the Middle East?

If you take a look after the nuclear agreement, immediately there’s a lot of commentary. The New York Times had a front page, a think piece, from one of their big thinkers, Peter Baker. It says basically in agreement, you can’t trust Iran. You know, they destabilize the Middle East, and then he gives a list of reasons — each of them very interesting. But the most interesting is that one of the main crimes of Iran is that they were supporting militias that killed American soldiers.

In other words when we invade and destroy another country, that’s stabilizing, and if someone defends themselves that is destabilizing. That shows up in popular culture like this horrible film American Sniper. Take a look at it. The memoir is worse than the film, but it comes out that the first kill, the one he’s really proud of, is a woman and a child who are holding a grenade when their town is being attacked by American marines.

And they are savages, monsters, we hate them, they have to be murdered, and everybody’s applauding. I mean, even the New York Times arts pages was talking about what a wonderful film it was. It’s just mind-boggling.


Speaking of mind-boggling, and international terror, I wanted to ask about domestic terror. I wanted to ask you about COINTELPRO. It does not get a lot of mentioning in the social science or historical educational curriculum. Can you tell me about COINTELPRO and the importance of teaching and learning about it in the democratic society?


It’s an understatement to say it receives little attention. COINTELPRO was a program by the national political police, the FBI, which is basically what they are. It ran through four administrations, and it was conscious. It began by going after the Communist Party in the 1950s. It then extended into the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian movements, the women’s movement, and the whole New Left. But the main target was the black movement.

It was a major program of disruption and went all the way to direct political assassination. The worst case was Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who were simply murdered in a gestapo-style attack set up by the FBI. They were very effective black organizers. The FBI didn’t care much about the criminals, but they wanted to go after the effective organizers. It happened to have been exposed in the courts at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, in comparison to this program, Watergate is a tea party, nothing.

I was asked by the New York Review to write a brief article and a symposium when Watergate was exposed. But I had just read about this. I said look, Watergate is showing how famous people receive bad names in private and that shakes the foundation of the republic? And at the very same time you get the exposure of this incredible program, which went all the way to political assassination so it’s far more significant.


The following of the stories that are the petty crimes insulate the powerful from the major crimes.


If you look at yesterday’s New York Times, there’s a very interesting comparison between two stories. One of them is a front-page story, big continuation page. It’s about the journalistic malfeasance found in the Rolling Stone article. It’s a huge statement about terrible reporting. You know, they said the crime was a lack of skepticism, a terrible journalistic crime.

They have another article on Laos, which is quite interesting. It’s about an important woman, a Lao-American woman who’s working on trying to do something about the unexploded bombs that are killing people over in Northern Laos. And it cites a source, the right source, Fred Branfman, and his book, Voices from the Plain of Jars. And that’s where they get their information from.

Then it says, for the United States, the target of the US bombing was the Ho Chi Minh Trail where North Vietnamese were coming to South Vietnam and the Lao collaborators with the North Vietnamese. What are the facts in Fred Branfman’s book? The US was attacking Northern Laos. In fact, it’s shown on the map they were attacking, and it had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no North Vietnamese.

Why were they doing it? Fred documented it. He quotes Monteagle Stearns, who was asked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why are we bombing this remote area of Northern Laos and wiping it out? And he gives the answer. He says there was a bombing halt over North Vietnam. And we had all these planes around and we didn’t have anything to do with them. So we destroyed Northern Laos.

That’s transmuted in the New York Times into straight government propaganda. And that’s an absolutely colossal lie. Is that going to beinvestigated by the Columbia Journalism Review? We’re going to have front-page stories? No. It’s an amazing comparison, and it’s every day.

Saul Isaacson

Stephen Cohen has argued that we’re closer to war with Russia than we have been since the Cuban missile crisis. Do you think he’s overstating the crisis in Ukraine?


I don’t think so. I mean the government of Ukraine that came in after the coup, the parliament, voted almost unanimously to pursue membership in NATO. As Cohen and many others have pointed out, that is something utterly intolerable to any Russian leader. It’s kind of as if the Warsaw Pact had taken over South America and was now going to include Mexico and Canada. So, yeah, that’s serious.

It’s interesting the way Putin is treated. I think it is maybe in the same Middle East Journal I read recently, talking about supporting the US position on the Ukraine, and some serious person saying this will be opposed by North Korea, the Islamic state, and Stephen Cohen. [To question the US position on Ukraine means you will receive threats from] Stalinist apologists and get a bitter pronunciation of dismissal and ridicule.


He also suggests that we’re on the verge of a new Cold War.


It’s serious. I mean, look, Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany — and even its incorporation with NATO, which is an amazing concession if you look at history. But there was a quid pro quo: that NATO would “not expand one inch to the east,” that was the phrase, meaning to East Germany.

Once NATO had expanded to East Germany, Gorbachev was infuriated. He was informed by the Bush 41 administration that it was only a verbal promise. It wasn’t on paper, and the implication is if you’re dumb enough to accept a gentleman’s agreement with us, that’s your problem. Then Clinton came in, expanded NATO to the borders of Russia. And now it’s gone further, even to Ukraine which is right at the heart of, apart from historical connections, of Russian geo-strategic concerns. That’s very serious.


And it’s getting so little press, so little coverage in the US.


Not only little coverage but what there is, is insane. I mean it’s all about what a lunatic Putin is. There’s an article in one of the psychology journals about how he must have Asperger’s or some other articles about how he has brain damage. I mean, you can like him or not, but his position is perfectly understandable. 


Finally, can you comment on the Holocaust Memorial and how the museum connects itself to the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect?” (R2P) What is America’s interest with R2P or the “Responsibility to Protect?”


The Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in the 1970s, part of a huge expansion of Holocaust studies, memorials, etc. The date is of some significance. The right time would have been decades earlier, but that was before US relations with Israel were established in their current form (after the 1967 war), and inconvenient questions might have been raised about the US’s attitudes towards the Holocaust and particularly towards survivors.

Also striking is the absence of any remotely comparable reaction to enormous US crimes, such as virtual elimination of the indigenous population and the vicious slave labor camps that had an enormous role in the prosperity of the country. The lesson seems to be clear: we can lament the hideous crimes of others, when it is convenient to do so, but only the crimes of others.

As for R2P, there are two versions of the doctrine. One was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Changes from earlier UN resolutions are slight, and crucially, it maintains the essential provisions of the UN Charter barring the use of force without Security Council authorization (or in response to armed attack, irrelevant here).

The second version, in a report by a commission headed by Gareth Evans, is almost the same, but with one crucial difference: it authorizes regional groups to intervene with force within what they take to be their domains without Security Council authorization. There is only one regional group that can act this way: NATO.

So the Evans version essentially allows NATO (meaning the US) to resort to force when it chooses to do so. That is the operative version. Appeal is made to the innocuous UN version to justify the resort to force.

The case that was in everyone’s mind was the NATO attack on Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, bitterly condemned by most of the world but applauded by the NATO countries as a wonderful tribute to their magnificence.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.

UN imposes arms embargo on rebels as Yemen slaughter continues


By Niles Williamson
15 April 2015

The UN Security Council voted on Tuesday to impose an arms embargo on leading members of the Houthi militia as well as Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the son of former longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The resolution was passed with 14 votes in favor and Russia abstaining.

The text of the embargo was drafted by Jordan, a nonpermanent member of the Security Council. The Jordanian monarchy is actively participating in the anti-Houthi air assault in Yemen being spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.

The Salehs have given support to the Houthi militia that seized control of Yemen’s capital in September, ousting President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and placing him under house arrest. Hadi fled for the southern port city of Aden in February before leaving the country in March for Saudi Arabia in the face of a Houthi-led assault on his compound.

While the Security Council resolution calls for the Houthis to “immediately and unconditionally end violence,” it says nothing about the airstrikes being carried out on a daily basis by a coalition of Arab Gulf States headed by Saudi Arabia.

Since March 26 Saudi coalition air forces have launched more than 1,200 airstrikes against targets throughout Yemen, with some strikes killing scores of civilians. A bomb dropped on the Al Mazraq refugee camp in northern Yemen on March 30 killed at least 30 civilians. An airstrike on a dairy factory in the port city of Hodeida on April 1 killed at least 37 workers.

The Saudi monarchy, with US backing, has launched a widespread air assault against Houthi-controlled military targets as well as major urban areas. Street fighting in Aden between Houthi forces and armed forces opposed to them has left hundreds dead and hundreds more wounded, littering the streets with corpses.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, released a statement Tuesday warning about the destruction of infrastructure and the high rate of civilian casualties in the three-week-old campaign. “Every hour we are receiving and documenting disturbing and distressing reports of the toll that this conflict is taking on civilian lives and infrastructure,” he said. “Such a heavy civilian death toll ought to be a clear indication to all parties to this conflict that there may be serious problems in the conduct of hostilities.”

Hussein noted that coalition airstrikes have hit residential areas and homes throughout the country, including in the provinces of Taiz, Amran, Ibb, Al-Jawf and Saada. An airstrike that hit a residential area in Taiz on Sunday killed ten civilians and injured seven others.

Schools and hospitals throughout the country have been damaged or destroyed by airstrikes. Eight hospitals in the provinces of Aden, Dhale, Sanaa, and Saada have been hit by coalition bombs.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Monday, Ivan Simonovic, UN Deputy Secretary General for Human Rights, warned about the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, saying that a majority of those killed so far have been civilians. “Over 600 people killed, but more than half of them are civilians.” Of the civilian deaths counted by the UN, at least 84 have been children and 25 were women.

While the United States has provided intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi coalition from the onset of the assault, it has been gradually increasing its involvement in the conflict. American imperialism has long sought to maintain its control over Yemen, which lies next to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a major oil choke point.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration has a direct hand in the selection of targets for airstrikes. Pentagon war planners at a joint operations center are directly approving every target selected by the Saudi military. The US military planners also provide the Saudis with the specific locations where they should drop the bombs.

“The United States is providing our partners with necessary and timely intelligence to defend Saudi Arabia and respond to other efforts to support the legitimate government of Yemen,” Alistair Baskey, White House National Security Council spokesman told reporters on Sunday.

US warships stationed off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea have also begun assisting the Saudi-led coalition in enforcing a blockade of the country. On April 1, US sailors boarded a Panamanian-flagged ship in the Red Sea in search of weapons supposedly bound for the Houthis. The search did not turn up any weapons.

American drones continue to fly over Yemen in support of Saudi operations against the Houthi militia and the targeting of members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

An apparent drone strike on the southeastern port city of Mukalla Sunday killed senior AQAP leader Ibrahim Al Rubaish and as many as six other people. Rubaish, a Saudi national, had been held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp from 2002 until his release back to Saudi Arabia in 2006. He reportedly fled to Yemen in 2009 and joined AQAP, and the US recently placed a $5 million bounty on his head.

While neither the CIA nor the Pentagon have claimed responsibility for the attack, it was likely carried out by the US, since Mukalla, which was seized by AQAP fighters earlier this month, has yet to be targeted by Saudi airstrikes. If confirmed, the attack would mark the first US drone strike in Yemen in nearly six weeks.

It has been three weeks since US Special Forces evacuated the Al Anad airbase north of Aden. Al Anad had served as the main hub for the officially secret American air war, which has killed more than 1,000 people in Yemen since 2009.

Meanwhile, both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are actively preparing a possible ground invasion of the country. The Egyptian military dictatorship reported that it and the Saudi monarchy are discussing a “major military maneuver” along with other Gulf states in the coming days.



At Auschwitz-Birkenau, Preserving a Site and a Ghastly Inventory

CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

OSWIECIM, Poland — To visit Auschwitz is to find an unfathomable but strangely familiar place. After so many photographs and movies, books and personal testimonies, it is tempting to think of it as a movie-set death camp, the product of a gruesome cinematic imagination, and not the real thing.

Alas, it is the real thing.

That is why, since its creation in 2009, the foundation that raises money to maintain the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau has had a guiding philosophy: “To preserve authenticity.” The idea is to keep the place intact, exactly as it was when the Nazis retreated before the Soviet Army arrived in January 1945 to liberate the camp, an event that resonates on Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Thursday.

It is a moral stance with specific curatorial challenges. It means restoring the crumbling brick barracks where Jews and some others were interned without rebuilding those barracks, lest they take on the appearance of a historical replica. It means reinforcing the moss-covered pile of rubble that is the gas chamber at Birkenau, the extermination camp a few miles away, a structure that the Nazis blew up in their retreat. It means protecting that rubble from water seeping in from the adjacent ponds where the ashes of the dead were dumped.


A display of childrens’ shoes belonging to some of the victims of the camps.CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

And it means deploying conservators to preserve an inventory that includes more than a ton of human hair; 110,000 shoes; 3,800 suitcases; 470 prostheses and orthopedic braces; more than 88 pounds of eyeglasses; hundreds of empty canisters of Zyklon B poison pellets; patented metal piping and showerheads for the gas chambers; hundreds of hairbrushes and toothbrushes; 379 striped uniforms; 246 prayer shawls; more than 12,000 pots and pans carried by Jews who believed that they were simply bound for resettlement; and some 750 feet of SS documents — hygiene records, telegrams, architectural blueprints and other evidence of the bureaucracy of genocide — as well as thousands of memoirs by survivors.

The job can be harrowing and heartbreaking, but it is often performed out of a sense of responsibility.

“We are doing something against the initial idea of the Nazis who built this camp,” said Anna Lopuska, 31, who is overseeing a long-term master plan for the site’s conservation. “They didn’t want it to last. We’re making it last.”

The strategy, she said, is “minimum intervention.” The point is to preserve the objects and buildings, not beautify them. Every year, as more survivors die, the work becomes more important. “Within 20 years, there will be only these objects speaking for this place,” she said.

The conservators are walking a less-trodden path in restoration. “We have more experience preserving a cathedral than the remains of an extermination camp,” said Piotr Cywinski, 43, the director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, which runs the site. Auschwitz, he said, “is the last place where you can still effectively take the measure of the spatial organization of the progression of the Shoah.”

Last year, a record 1.5 million people visited to take that measure, more than three times the number in 2001, putting even more strain on the aging buildings.

Between 1940 and 1945, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz, the largest of the death camps, 90 percent of them Jews. The camp encompasses 500 acres, 155 buildings and 300 ruins.

Over the years, there have been dissenting views about the preservationist approach. “I’m not convinced about the current plans for Auschwitz,” saidJonathan Webber, a former member of the International Auschwitz Council of advisers, who teaches in the European Studies program at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. “If you have a very good memorial, you could achieve that without having to have all this effort on conservation and restoration,” he added.

The preservation lab, with high-end technology, opened in 2003. One afternoon last week, Nel Jastrzebiowska, 37, a paper conservator, was using a rubber eraser to clean a row of papers in files. They were letters on Auschwitz stationery, written in German in rosy prose designed to slip past the censors. “I’m in good health,” one read, adding, “Send me money.”

On a nearby table sat the second horn part to Tchaikovsky’s Capriccio Italien (Op. 45), which had been played by the death camp’s orchestra. Ms. Jastrzebiowska would preserve the page as it was, she said, and keep the smudges showing that the pages had been turned. “The objects must show their own history,” said Jolanta Banas-Maciaszczyk, 36, the leader of the preservation department.

“We can’t stop time,” Ms. Jastrzebiowska said. “But we can slow it down.”


Visitors to the site crossing the railway line by the ramp where those arriving at the camp disembarked. CreditJames Hill for The New York Times

Ms. Jastrzebiowska’s husband, Andrzej Jastrzebiowski, 38, is a metal conservator. He spent three months cleaning all the eyeglasses in a vitrine, preserving their distressed state but trying to prevent them from corroding further. “When I saw the eyeglasses in the exhibition, I saw it as one big pile,” he said. But in the lab, he began to examine them one by one. One had a screw replaced by a bent needle; another had a repaired temple. “And then this enormous mass of glasses started becoming people,” Mr. Jastrzebiowski said. This “search for the individual,” he said, helps ensure that the work does not become too routine.

In 2009, the infamous metal sign reading “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work makes you free,” which hangs over the entrance gate, was stolen. It was found several days later elsewhere in Poland, cut into three parts. (A Swede with neo-Nazi ties and two Poles were later charged with the crime.) Mr. Jastrzebiowski helped weld the sign back into one piece. But the scars from the welding told the story of the sign’s theft more than of its long history, and so the museum decided it would be more authentic to replace the damaged sign with a substitute.

The conservators have an easy camaraderie, but sometimes their task can become too much to bear. “Working with shoes probably is one of the most difficult parts of working here,” Ms. Banas-Maciaszczyk said. Everyone here has emotional moments. For her, it was a day when she was cleaning a little girl’s wooden sandal. She could see the small footprint inside. “This is something hard to describe,” she said. From 1940 to 1945, between 150,000 and 200,000 children died here.

Ms. Banas-Maciaszczyk said her mother thought she was crazy to come work at Auschwitz. “There are moments when I think, What am I doing here?” she acknowledged. But then she thinks of the bigger picture. “Everyone who works here must feel this importance,” she said. “If we didn’t feel that, no force would make us stay here.”

Kamil Bedkowski, 33, worked as an art conservator in Britain for eight years, even restoring ceiling frescoes at Windsor Castle. Now he is on the team shoring up the crumbling brick barracks of Birkenau where thousands slept at a time, crammed into decaying three-level wooden bunks. “This is the most challenging project I’ve ever worked on,” he said.

Almost all the conservators here are Polish and studied conservation at Polish universities — this is, after all, a Polish state museum, which employs some 287 people, plus 264 guides who operate in some 18 languages.

Most conservators are under 40, young enough not to feel any sense of responsibility for the Second World War — “It’s not our fault that the camp was built here,” Mr. Jastrzebiowski said — but old enough to have heard stories from their parents and grandparents. Few have any regular contact with Jews who aren’t survivors or visitors.

Despite the spirit of freezing the site in time, some exhibits have been redesigned in recent years — the Russian Federation’s tells the story of Russian political prisoners here; those of the Netherlands and France and Belgium talk about the fate of their Jews; the exhibit dedicated to the Sinti and Roma present the often-neglected story of those peoples murdered here. The Polish exhibit is colored by the country’s Communist past.

The new Jewish pavilion opened in 2013. It was designed by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It shows black-and-white films of Jewish life in Europe before the war, then of Hitler’s rallies. In one room, the Israeli artist Michal Rovner has copied children’s drawings from the camp onto the wall. In another, all the names of the six million Holocaust dead are printed on a long row of pages, their edges yellowing from human touch.

The permanent exhibitions here will be updated over the next decade to include more evidence focusing bearing on the perpetrators, not just their victims. In the collection’s storage is a box with neat rows of red-handled rubber SS stamps conserved in acid-free boxes. These will eventually go on view. This is part of the long-term plan by the museum, aided by the foundation, which has raised nearly 120 million euros, or about $130 million, about half of it donated by Germany, to ensure conservation in perpetuity.

The museum has decided not to conserve one thing: the mass of human hair that fills a vast vitrine. Over the years, the hair has lost its individual colors and has begun to gray. Out of respect for the dead, it cannot be photographed. Several years ago, the International Auschwitz Council of advisers had an agonizing debate about the hair. Some suggested burying it. Others wanted to conserve it. But one adviser raised a point: How can we know if its original owners are dead or alive? Who are we to determine its fate?

It was decided to let the hair decay, on its own, in the vitrine, until it turns to dust.


Bill Maher’s bigoted atheism

His showdown with Fareed Zakaria shows how far he’s fallen

Bill Maher's bigoted atheism: His arrogant shtick is just as ugly as religious intolerance
Bill Maher (Credit: HBO/Janet Van Ham)

You know what you call someone who makes sweeping generalizations on billions of people based on the extreme actions of a few? A bigot. Bill Maher, for example, is a bigot. And if you’re a fan of his smug, dismissive shtick, you’re a bigot too.

On Friday’s “Real Time,” Maher, who has been openly atheist his whole career but has been increasingly vocal against organized religion in recent years, squared off against Fareed Zakaria, who gave a powerful rebuttal to Maher’s reiteration of the “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” assertion. “My problem with the way you approach it,” Zakaria said, “is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing. Frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines.” Instead, he urged, “Push for reform with some sense of respect for the spiritual values.”And on behalf of Muslims, Christians, Jews and anybody else who prays to somebody sometimes, let me just say, thank you.

As the threats of terrorism and right-wing Christianity have risen in the past few years, Maher’s aggressive brand of atheism — also popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — has gained a strong following among a certain type of self-professed intellectual. Maher has famously said, “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do” — which is pretty funny, given the know-it-all arrogance of the anti-religion big leaguers like Maher himself. As Zakaria very eloquently pointed out, that stance has given Maher more power and reach than he’s ever had in his long career. But whatever you believe or don’t, if you’re selling blanket intolerance, you don’t get to call yourself one of the good guys. You shouldn’t even get to call yourself one of the smart ones.

I’m a Christian, which in my urban, media-centric world is basically equivalent to self-identifying as a hillbilly. It also means that I have to accept that I apply the same word to myself that a lot of hateful morons do. But on Sunday at my little neighborhood church, our priest delivered a sermon in which he said, “I can’t understand how in places like Indiana, people are using Christianity as an excuse to close their doors, when we should be welcoming to everyone.” Guess what? That’s faith too. I am also keenly aware that in other parts of the world, people are being murdered for a faith that I am privileged to practice openly and without fear. And anyone, anywhere, who is openly hateful to others for their religion is part of a culture that permits that kind of persecution to endure.

Here’s what I would like Bill Maher and his smug, self-righteous acolytes to understand. There are literally billions of individuals in this world who are not murderous, ignorant, superstitious, hatemongers, who also happen to practice a religion. Billions of people who I swear — to God — have no investment in forcing their beliefs on Bill Maher. Right here in the U.S., there are millions of my fellow Christians who are strongly committed to the ideals of the Constitution, and who don’t want to live in a theocracy any more than they do.

I recently had a conversation with an atheist friend who asked why, knowing all I do of the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church, disagreeing as strongly as I do with many of its positions on women’s rights, LGBT equality and reproductive justice, I continue to stay within it. And my reply was that this is where I feel I can do the most good. I am not a disinterested party. I’m a citizen of my church and I’m going to continue to demand better of it. I don’t, however, want to sell it to anybody else. You don’t have to believe in God — or however else you may define the concept of something else out there. I don’t have all the answers to life, the universe and everything; I’m just trying to get through this plane of existence in a manner that’s philosophically satisfying and guides me in the direction of not being a selfish jerk. That’s it. All I ask — all that many, many, many of us who practice their respective religions ask — is that you conduct yourself with respect and compassion and a spirit of coexistence, and we’ll do the same. I ask that you not make assumptions about the vast majority of the world’s population based on your own need to feel good about yourself and how smart you are. Like Zakaria says, you’re not going to bring about reform that way. And as Maher and his ilk prove, you don’t need a religion to be in the business of spreading hate.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.



‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

By Peterson Rasamny On April 12, 2015

Post image for ‘We love being Lakota’: native autonomy in Pine Ridge

‘The Native and the Refugee’ documentary project explores the similarities between the struggles and experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians.

By Matt Peterson & Malek Rasamny, photo by Chris Huber for Rapid City Journal.

In December 2014, we visited the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in what is now South Dakota. We chose to begin our project at the archetypal site of struggle for land, sovereignty and autonomy among natives in the United States. It was the Lakota people, including warriors Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who put up some of the most historic fights against the US military forces in the nation’s expansion westward.

In the 1876-1877 Black Hills War, the US intervened militarily on behalf of settlers searching for gold in the Lakota’s most sacred site, now known as the Wind Cave National Park. It was in this context that the Battle of Little Bighorn took place, when the Lakota famously defeated George Armstrong Custer’s Battalion of the 7th Cavalry. Pine Ridge was later the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, in which that same 7th Cavalry killed hundreds of Lakota in its struggle to disarm and forcibly relocate them to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

In 1973, Wounded Knee was the site of a 4-month standoff and occupation organized by the American Indian Movement (AIM) against both the federal government and local tribal council. In 1975, two federal agents were killed in a shootout at Pine Ridge, for which AIM member Leonard Peltier remains held as a prisoner at the US Penitentiary Coleman in Florida. To add insult to injury, the presidential monument Mount Rushmore currently stands within what’s called the Black Hills National Forest.

The traditional Lakota territory includes parts of North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming. The Lakota historically were a semi-nomadic tribe that would follow herds of buffalo for food. In order to force them onto reservations, the US military encouraged the wholesale slaughter of buffalo in the Great Plains, resulting in their almost complete extinction.

It was through the destruction of their food supply — and not through any victories in battle — that the United States was able to force the Lakota into a position of economic subservience and dependence. Through a series of treaty violations, the borders of “Great Sioux Reservation” declared by the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty were reduced to the present situation in which the Lakota are now spread out over a number of non-contiguous reservations including Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock and Crow Creek.*

The current unemployment rate on Pine Ridge is between 80-90%, and life expectancy is 50 years. Despite being one of the poorest areas on the continent, the Lakota refuse to accept a 1980 government settlement now totalling $1.3 billion in compensation for the theft of the Black Hills. They insist that no amount of money can be exchanged for the return of their sacred land to its rightful inhabitants. They are currently leading the resistance against TransCanada’s proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would be built directly through Lakota territory.

The histories and particularities of the Native American and Palestinian struggles are indeed quite different, but what they share is the experience of settlers moving to take over and control their traditional lands, later assisted by a military force which facilitated and justified the resulting displacement. The reservation and the refugee camp then become the essential sites to locate this history, identity, and struggle for land and sovereignty.

We met with veteran members of the American Indian Movement, and Owe Aku,Bring Back the Way to hear about the present situation on Pine Ridge, and to discuss their horizon for autonomy.


We Love Being Lakota is the first in a series of videos and texts from the documentary project ‘The Native and the Refugee’, which connects the struggles taking place on Indian reservations in the United States with those in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East.

In February and March, this video was presented at T Marbouta in Beirut, Lebanon; at the Jordanian Women’s Union in Amman, Jordan; and at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank. It was produced in collaboration with Adam Khalil.

We Love Being Lakota
from The Native and the Refugee on Vimeo.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny will return to Akwesasne, Pine Ridge and the Navajo Nation this Spring to continue working on The Native and the Refugee. They are based in Ridgewood, New York.

* For an in-depth account of the Lakota’s struggles to maintain control of its land over the last 200 years, read Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014, pp. 186-191).


Obama’s war against Yemen

Saudi warplanes Targets al-Maseera TV

10 April 2015

As the bombing campaign against Yemen extends into its third week, the Obama administration has stepped up direct US involvement in what constitutes an illegal war that threatens to precipitate a massive humanitarian catastrophe.

The nature of this war is indisputably defined by the character of its combatants. Backed by the US, the most powerful and aggressive imperialist country in the world, is a coalition of reactionary tyrants and royal parasites consisting of the monarchical dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states together with the savagely repressive regime headed by General al-Sisi in Egypt.

Their target is Yemen, the poorest country of the Middle East. Even before Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sent warplanes to drop tons of explosives on crowded urban neighborhoods and mobilized warships to block all food and fuel imports from entering its harbors, over half of the population lived in poverty and roughly half the country’s children suffered from malnutrition.

Now, this desperate situation has grown immeasurably worse. Basic infrastructure is being bombed into rubble. Food supplies have grown critically short, while electricity, including power to pump water, has been cut off. Attempts by aid agencies to deliver relief have been thwarted repeatedly by the Saudi-led bombings.

While official UN estimates place the number killed at over 600, this includes only those reported by medical facilities, with the real death toll far higher. Thousands more have been maimed. The overwhelming majority of the casualties are civilians, with the bodies of entire families being pulled from the rubble of their homes.

This death toll may soon skyrocket. UNICEF has warned that if the bombing continues, more than a quarter of a million children are at risk of starving to death.

US officials acknowledged this week that the Pentagon is playing a decisive role in making these war crimes possible. It has accelerated the delivery of bombs, missiles and other weapons to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of killing more Yemenis and boosting the profits of the US arms merchants. Just between 2010 and 2014, the Obama administration reached $90 billion worth of arms deals with the Saudi monarchy, making it the top US customer.

On a trip to Riyadh, Antony Blinken, the deputy secretary of state, revealed that the US has also stepped up its intelligence sharing and logistical support for the Saudi-led onslaught, establishing a “joint coordination planning cell” in the Saudi capital. McClatchy News cited unnamed Pentagon officials as saying that this operation is being headed by a two-star general from US Central Command.

And on Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that US Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers have begun daily aerial refueling of Saudi warplanes, to allow continuous airstrikes.

Thus, the US military is not only shipping the bombs to drop on Yemen, but providing Saudi pilots with the targets to be struck and the fuel to reach them. The Obama administration’s hands are covered in the blood of the thousands of civilian victims.

US Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a bellicose defense of this intervention Wednesday, blaming Iran for the crisis in Yemen for allegedly providing aid to the Houthi rebel movement that has established control over much of the country.

“Iran needs to recognize that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilized, or while people engage, you know, in overt warfare across … international boundaries,” he said in a PBS News interview. Kerry vowed that Washington “would stand up to interference that is inappropriate or against international law, or contrary to the region’s stability.”

One really has to go back to the 1930s to find such levels of lying to justify imperialist aggression. “Operation Himmler” comes to mind, when Germany’s Nazi regime used propaganda about “Polish aggression” to justify its Blitzkrieg against Warsaw.

The Houthis have not crossed any “international boundaries” to wage war, and neither has Iran. The Houthis are an indigenous movement whose successes stem from the hatred among broad sections of the population for both the old regime of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi—the puppet installed by Riyadh and Washington—and Western intervention in Yemen. As for Iran, for all of the denunciations, neither the US nor anyone else has produced a shred of evidence of its direct or even indirect involvement in the fighting. Those violating the sovereignty of Yemen are the Saudi and Gulf State potentates backed by Washington.

As for the United States “standing up” for the “region’s stability,” who does Kerry think he’s kidding? The interventions of US imperialism, with the direct collaboration of the Saudi monarchy, have plunged the entire Middle East into chaos and bloodshed—from the destruction of Iraq, to the transformation of Libya into a militia-ravaged “failed state,” to the ongoing carnage inflicted upon Syria in a US, Saudi-orchestrated war for regime change spearheaded by Islamist militias.

In Yemen itself, the US destabilized the country through a protracted campaign of drone warfare that has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people.

For the last several years, the Obama administration and the US military and intelligence complex have painted Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as the premier terror threat to the US “homeland” and the US drone campaign as a model “success” in the “war on terror.”

Now, in the face of the Houthi rebellion, the campaign against AQAP is a dead letter. While elements of the Islamist group have overrun entire cities in the past week, no one even suggests that the Saudi warplanes continuously bombing Yemen should take any action against them.

This is no accident. AQAP is the most militantly anti-Houthi force in the country and therefore a de facto ally in the US-Saudi coalition. AQAP, like the Saudi regime itself, is viciously sectarian in its hatred of the Houthi movement, which is based among the Yemeni Zaydi population, a Shia-related religious group comprising up to 40 percent of the population.

Washington has virtually ceased even attempting to invent new lies to justify such head-spinning realignments. The Obama administration has said next to nothing about this latest war being carried out behind the backs of the American people.

The “war on terror,” “human rights,” “democracy” and even “regional stability” are all equally fraudulent pretexts for naked aggression aimed at solidifying US hegemony over the Middle East and its vast energy resources.

This predatory imperialist offensive threatens to ignite a region-wide conflagration, even as Washington deliberately ratchets up military tensions with both Russia and China. The threat of these separate conflicts coalescing into a third world war grows by the day.


Bill Van Auken



The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?

By Rayya El Zein On April 9, 2015

Post image for The Wanted 18: depoliticizing the intifada?
A new film on the Palestinian intifada provides an interesting perspective — that of a group of Israeli cows (!) — but fails to tell the real story.
Amer Shomali and Paul Cowan’s film about how one Palestinian town hid eighteen cows from Israeli authorities during the first intifada won the Abu Dhabi film festival’s “Best Documentary in the Arab World” in late 2014. The film, after five years in production, is generating a buzz for its light-hearted, feel-good take on this critical period in Palestinian history. But a closer look reveals a missed opportunity in telling an important piece of the history of the intifada.The 75-minute documentary combines Shomali’s illustrations with interviews and re-enactments. The story begins with Shomali hiking in the desert. He tells us how, growing up in exile in Syria, he came across a comic strip about eighteen cows sold to the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour.

The story of the cows begins with their sale from a kibbutz outside Haifa to the residents of Beit Sahour. We follow their perilous journey by truck, their difficult birthing ordeals, their trials with the novice Palestinian dairy farmers who don’t know how to milk them, their pursuit by the Israeli authorities who deemed them a threat, and finally their second and final sale to the butcher, soon after the Oslo Accords.

The intifada in Beit Sahour, or this recounting of its history, thus begins with the sale of the bovines and their forced departure from the land of their birth, the kibbutz. Significantly, we understand this inciting moment through the fears and anxieties of the cows: Goldie, Ruth, Lola, and Rivka. Humanized via voice-over in Shomali’s illustrations, the cows internalize this selling off as a great trauma.

Before we meet the residents of Beit Sahour in any substantive way, we identify with these four female cows as the real victims of the story, sold off against their will to this strange and scary place called Palestine, under the tutelage of the equally scary Palestinians. That the real subjects of the film are the cows and not the Palestinians is indeed a peculiar take on this piece of Palestinian history, especially considering their anthropomorphization as Israeli cows.

“We deserve to have cows!”

Practically, Shomali and Cowan’s story is about a town’s struggle for self-sufficiency in the face of considerable military, economic and socio-cultural oppression. But the weight of this reality is never fully communicated — or at least, it is not sustained. The very real (and still very current) political question about how to counter Israeli repression with Palestinian self-sufficiency is replaced by a comicality induced by the use of cows as the story’s protagonists, their funny sounds, and the absurdity of dealing with one when you have no training to do so.

The music score contributes to this, the editing of the interviews contributes to this, and the animation itself contributes to this. At one point, the town physician is edited into a sound bite saying, “We are Palestinians. We deserve a home, we deserve our land, we deserve our freedom — and we deserve to have cows!” The subtext here is “We have the right to be self-sufficient. We deserve not to pay taxes to an occupying power. We deserve to be able to feed our own children.” But the framing put forth in the initial sequences of the film trivializes all of this into a rather absurd declaration of the right to a cow.

Which is to say that the film is seriously lacking a proper contextualization of the situation in which residents of Beit Sahour found themselves that led them to buy the cows in the first place. This history is summed up in a few minutes which point to the existence at the time (1988) of popular “neighborhood committees.” This historical reality is then inexplicably sidelined throughout the rest of the film. Instead, we are encouraged to identify with the cows and their fears and aspirations. After an initial tempted escape on the way to Beit Sahour, the cows rally themselves and submit to the oppression they face at the hands of the Palestinians. The oddity of this opening framework needs to be emphasized.

Turning names into things

One could forgive the filmmakers if it were simply that: an easy opening into Palestinian history. Indeed, one could almost write it off as necessary, given the dehumanizing and demonizing depictions of Palestinians in the mass media over the past several decades. We need the cows in order to approach the Palestinians: a necessary detour. But it is through the cows that we continue to see their new Palestinian shepherds. And absurdly enough, one of them is even outwardly racist, delivering a steady stream of jabs like “tiny terrorist,” “towel head,” etc., at her human overlords, declaring they are “lazy” and that they “don’t want to work.”

Besides needlessly embedding and normalizing racism against Palestinians (as cute), this imaginative mindset of the cows also essentializes Israelis and Palestinians. The viewer is to understand that even cows can feel a difference between Palestinians and Israelis, between the scary West Bank and the calm and peaceful kibbutz. This sense of irreconcilable difference is finally summed up in an exasperated wish. During a raid in which Israelis are looking for the cows, one cow asks tiredly, “Can’t you all just get along?” The cows never learn, as we might hope an audience might, that the story of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is political, not cultural or ethnic.

Essentialized difference is enforced in other aesthetic choices. For example, all Palestinians in the film are interviewed, at one point or another, against a black background, usually with two sources of offset light. This gives the impression of shadow around the Palestinian interlocutors. In contrast, the Israelis interviewed in the film, all of them military or ex-military personnel, are interviewed against a bright white background, in very tight close-up.

Without pretending to know the production reasons behind these choices, the stark contrast between the two is striking. The most immediate effect is that it is the Israeli speaker that seems to carry with him truth. We meet Palestinian after Palestinian who explains why it is that they were refusing to pay taxes to Israel. But the point is finally hit home when an Israeli interlocutor, enshrined in white, laughs and concurs, ‘If I were them, I wouldn’t want to pay either!’

Cultural essentialism continues further still. Viewers of the film in Ramallah during its premiere as part of the Qalandia International Festival found the reenactment episode where three Beit Sahouri men turned a kind of daily administrative detention at the hands of the Israelis into a barbecue, funny. They also laughed heartily at a gaggle of older men, each wearing a kaffiyeh, sitting in a sidewalk café and watching calmly as some action or other played out in the street.

It is not that we cannot or should not recognize cultural features and celebrate them when appropriate (here the observation that Arabs seemingly fix everything with food; or that older men sit in sidewalk cafes). It is that the representation of cultural artifacts, or cultural behavior, in the absence of a recounting or contextualization of political activities, reduces the agents involved to stereotypes, and the resistance involved to cultural essence.

Leftist politics and Arab identities

This is a debilitating way to recount the history of a period of intensely collaborative, imaginatively furtive, and actually effective community organizing.This was a political organizing, moreover, that had at least as much to do with overtly leftist political strategizing as it did with the Arab identity of its agents. And it is after all this leftist political activity which is the primary thing we are talking about when we talk about these cows in Beit Sahour.

It is true that without a consideration of how this town deliberated its political strategies and its powerful political stance, the directors show us a united community. They succeed in completely overstepping the difficult and painful history of friction, faction, divide, and ultimately fatigue that beset not only the denizens of Beit Sahour but much of Palestine, and which in fact readied it to accept what would be the debilitating framework of the Oslo Accords.

It is to the film’s credit that, even without carefully exploring the political buildup to Oslo, it does give voice to disappointment with it. Here, in fact, the recollections of the Palestinians in the film resonate powerfully. “Oslo fucked us,” one man remembers. His testimony about how he and his friends ran away to the desert caves outside of Beit Sahour in the days after the announcement of the Oslo Accords, in order to avoid the celebratory car honking of a political resolution they felt even then would not serve them, is perhaps the most revealing moment in the film.

Similarly Shomali’s recounting of the funeral of his cousin Anton, a prominent youth organizer, after being shot by Israeli soldiers, is an equally powerful and necessary part of the story. This latter chapter rescues a film largely celebrating “non-violence” from the trap of failing to consider the human costs of the violence of the Occupation.

Abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed

In the end of the film, the Palestinians sign the Oslo Accords and residents of Beit Sahour sell off the remaining four cows, the smallest of which is a calf named Yara. In the truck on the way to their imminent slaughter, Yara’s mother pushes the youngest off the truck and tells her to run. The young cow escapes into the desert. The depoliticization of violence and of political strategy culminates in these closing sequences of the film. Shomali’s narration tells us nobody knows what happened to the calf, though rumor has it, she lives in a cave nearby.

In a return to the opening sequences of the film, we again see Shomali hiking in the desert. His voiceover tries to sum up the dreams and aspirations of the struggling Palestinians post-Oslo. Some people believe in this; some people believe in that; for his part, he says, “I believe in a white cow.” And with this, he stumbles upon a cave that looks inhabited. Any possible metaphorical tie between the cows of Beit Sahour and Palestinian self-sufficiency or “resilience” is by this point so abstracted, diluted, and de-toothed as to lose any political significance.

It is worth being clear. It is not that a film about the intifada has to be serious. It is not that Palestinian political history needs to be dry. It is not that we have to see Palestinians always in a posture of heart-broken romantic longing, trying to reach across the impossible, inhuman, separation wall. On the contrary, we need stories to shake these orthodoxies, as human histories are not as trite, melancholy, or even as militant as representations of Palestinians in films and in the media would have us believe.

But a film about the intifada, in fact, about one of the most interesting and radical parts of Palestinian history — that is, about how a town came to collectively sustain itself for years via collaborative community organization and the establishment and participation in agricultural, educational, and other committees; via the deliberations and disagreements over divisions of labor, of shared space, and of collective safety, and the difficulties that ultimately led to its unraveling — this should not be reduced to a joke, to a cute but unfortunate ordeal of four scared cows.

“Intifada” in this light loses its very real political history. The phrase “third intifada” has been repeated with sporadic frequency over the past year. What can we hope this intifada will look like? One would have hoped a documentary on this significant period of historical activity would have provided more threads to tug on, as we deliberate its contours, moving forward.

Rayya El Zein is a PhD candidate in Theatre at the City University of New York. Her research explores understandings of “resistance” in contemporary Arab cultural production. She lives in Amman.