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The Memory That Will Not Die – Exhuming the Spanish Civil War

History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
—W.H. Auden,
“Spain, 1937”

Auden’s anthem to the doomed Spanish Republic, his somber warning, has rarely been more relevant.

Last September Spain’s homegrown “super-judge” Baltasar Garzón—best-known for his dramatic 1998 effort to arrest the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London— announced that he was investigating not only the whereabouts of the remains of the “disappeared” of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), but also the huge numbers of defeated Republicans executed by General Francisco Franco in the grim postwar years. His goal was to try to amass enough evidence to charge Franco’s regime posthumously with crimes against humanity. Could it be that, after so long, “help” and “pardon” were finally coming to the descendants of those who died defending the Spanish Republic?

According to the great Hispanist Hugh Thomas, the three-year Civil War claimed the lives of 365,000 Spaniards, a toll that includes both those loyal to the fascist rebel Franco and those who opposed him. Some historians put the figure higher. Both sides carried out brutal executions, the bodies of victims often ending up in unmarked mass graves.

When the Civil War ended in 1939, the victorious Franco regime executed an additional one hundred thousand-plus Republican prisoners, many of whose corpses were flung into yet more mass-burial pits. These unmarked mounds, visited stealthily by the families of the “defeated” during the dictatorship, are scattered the length and breadth of Spain.

Throughout the 1950s the Franco regime excavated and re-interred with full honors as many as possible of “their” mass graves—those containing the 60-70,000 soldiers and pro-Franco civilians murdered in the Republican zone during the war itself. The same efforts have never been extended to the Republican defeated. And here is the emotional crux of the debate, without which it is impossible to understand the passion and anger that the graves generate today.

There have been some gestures to honor the Republicans’ memory. In 2007 the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero—himself the grandson of an executed Republican army captain—passed the Historical Memory Law. Facing a backlash from conservatives, the new law was a much-amended version of the sweeping measures some had hoped for, backing down on earlier promises to grant full posthumous pardons to those executed in the postwar period. The new bill merely promised support to the historical memory associations—the loose network of volunteer groups whose members include descendants of executed Republicans—without providing much in the way of state-led initiatives.

Thus, many welcomed Judge Garzón’s announcement last September. For the first time, the judiciary was taking the lead. The historical memory associations were the most fervent supporters of Garzón’s initiative.

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Sotomayor and the Politics of Public Humiliation

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One of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement is of Elizabeth Eckford. She is being harassed and taunted by a group of white students, parents, and police on her way to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. On that morning Eckford missed connecting with the eight other African American students of the Little Rock Nine and their NAACP leader, Daisy Bates. Eckford was alone when the angry crowd surrounded and confronted her.

The photo is now iconic. Eckford’s dignity, strength, and self-possession are stunning counterpoint to the contorted, hate-filled faces of those following her.

This image of Eckford kept returning to me as I watched the Senate confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor. Although Sotomayor herself deplores metaphor and analogy, Eckford’s harassment seemed an apt comparison to the hearings. Although her confirmation was nearly certain, Republican senators were determined to make Sotomayor walk a gauntlet on her way to the Supreme Court.

After Anita Hill’s testimony, Clarence Thomas famously called his confirmation hearings a “high-tech lynching.” Yes, he was a powerful black man subjected to white interrogation about sex, but it was a terrible analogy because no group of white men has ever formed a posse to lynch a black man in defense of a sexually degraded black woman. The lynching imagery was powerful nonetheless and Thomas forcefully deployed it against the senators. It framed a particular, historic understanding of black men’s vulnerability within white-dominated systems of power. Women of color have fewer metaphors available to contextualize their degradation and dehumanization. For me the Sotomayor hearings were an Elizabeth Eckford moment.

Like Eckford, Sotomayor has been praised for her dignity, her stillness, and the evenness of her voice as she responded to hostile mischaracterizations. She managed to laugh off sexist jokes. She didn’t flinch when she was repeatedly interrupted. Senator Lindsey Graham warned that her confirmation could only be derailed if she had “a complete meltdown.” The rules of the game were set: the Senators could mischaracterize her record, accuse her of racial bias, and mispronounce her name but she could not respond in kind. She could not be hurt or offended or angry. She had to remain a pillar of rationality and neutrality and control.

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Berlusconi in Tehran

Slavoj Žižek in the LRB:

Two crucial observations follow. First, Ahmadinejad is not the hero of the Islamist poor, but a corrupt Islamofascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics is causing unease even among the ayatollahs. His demagogic distribution of crumbs to the poor shouldn’t deceive us: he has the backing not only of the organs of police repression and a very Westernised PR apparatus. He is also supported by a powerful new class of Iranians who have become rich thanks to the regime’s corruption – the Revolutionary Guard is not a working-class militia, but a mega-corporation, the most powerful centre of wealth in the country.

Second, we have to draw a clear distinction between the two main candidates opposed to Ahmadinejad, Mehdi Karroubi and Mousavi. Karroubi is, effectively, a reformist, a proponent of an Iranian version of identity politics, promising favours to particular groups of every kind. Mousavi is something entirely different: he stands for the resuscitation of the popular dream that sustained the Khomeini revolution. It was a utopian dream, but one can’t deny the genuinely utopian aspect of what was so much more than a hardline Islamist takeover. Now is the time to remember the effervescence that followed the revolution, the explosion of political and social creativity, organisational experiments and debates among students and ordinary people. That this explosion had to be stifled demonstrates that the revolution was an authentic political event, an opening that unleashed altogether new forces of social transformation: a moment in which ‘everything seemed possible.’ What followed was a gradual closing-down of possibilities as the Islamic establishment took political control. To put it in Freudian terms, today’s protest movement is the ‘return of the repressed’ of the Khomeini revolution.

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Montreuil: Voynet met en cause la police

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Dominique Voynet, maire de Montreuil (Seine-Saint-Denis), a dénoncé mardi de la part de la police «une démonstration de force totalement inutile qui a généré à son tour le désordre», au lendemain des affrontements qui ont opposé manifestants et policiers dans sa ville.

Entre 250 à 300 personnes protestaient lundi soir contre l’expulsion mercredi dernier de plusieurs squatters qui occupaient une ancienne clinique, au cours de laquelle un homme affirme avoir perdu un oeil à la suite d’un tir de flashball par les policiers.

Un premier face à face tendu s’est produit entre forces de l’ordre et manifestants, non loin de la mairie, durant lequel ces derniers ont tiré à l’aide de mortiers de feu d’artifices et de fusées en direction des gardes mobiles qui n’ont pas répliqué.

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* Montreuil : le Flash-ball en question (Police et cetera)

De nouveau un homme est touché au visage par un tir de Flash-ball et de nouveau les critiques fondent sur la police : tir à hauteur de tête, distance trop courte, etc. Depuis la vulgarisation de cette arme, les accidents ne se comptent plus. Faut-il en déduire qu’elle n’est pas adaptée au travail de la police ?

Eh bien, au risque de passer pour un provocateur, je ne le crois pas.

Arme conçue pour ne pas tuer, le Flash-ball « super pro », celui utilisé par les forces de l’ordre, a néanmoins été classé en 4° catégorie, comme le fameux revolver MR 73 qui équipait autrefois la police, avant qu’il ne soit remplacé par le Sig 9mm. Mais il est évidemment beaucoup moins dangereux. C’est la raison de son intérêt.

Alors pourquoi tant d’accidents ?

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From anger into change

It was in 1976 that the office of No 10 was first criticised as an ‘elective dictatorship‘. Thirty years later and now the Prime Minister hasn’t even been elected to his supreme position, while his First Secretary of State, and arguably the most powerful member of the Cabinet, sits in the Lords. So too do six other Ministers. Perhaps we should be grateful that at least his constituents voted for Gordon Brown to be an MP. Such is the way we are now ruled.

It is putting our democracy, and perhaps British politics itself, at risk. A symptom of this is mass abstention. In last month’s Euro election only one voter in eleven voted Conservative and this made them the winners! (One in eighteen voted Labour).

The combination of a weakened democracy and strengthened executive is very dangerous, as, to take just one notable example, our liberties themselves are imperilled by an extraordinary expansion of surveillance and controls that is permitted by the spinelessness of a suborned parliament. This is far from the only area where the controlling instinct of an over-centralised state constantly lobbied by vested interests and unchecked by countervailing power is doing great harm, think of what the City has got away with. Critical coverage in the media has helped limit the damage. But for all its welcome noise this is not much more than the proverbial dogs barking at the caravan.

At last there are signs of a breakthrough. The expenses outrage has aroused the public from its lethargy. The awakening was long overdue. Larger scandals, from the financial crash to mendacious wars, were the real weight that broke the public’s trust. The exposure of MPs’ house flipping, moat cleaning and attitude of entitlement were just the last straw. Today, voters desire for change could prove irresistible – provided it can gain and retain its full voice.

But the political class is showing every sign that it thinks it can isolate and manage the anger. ()

Who will save the Palestinians?

Mark LeVine in Al Jazeera:

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According to David Theo Goldberg, a South African scholar, the example of the defeat of apartheid in his country points to the importance of “de-normalising” the Israeli occupation – showing the world that its actions are not normal, and cannot be justified with claims of self-defence or security.

Instead, Palestinian terrorism, first by the PLO and later by Hamas and other groups, helped to normalise the occupation, enabling the Israeli government to transform an occupation that has always been about settlement into one premised on legitimate security needs.

Rhetoric matters too.

When during the past year Hamas leaders talked proudly of making “death an industry of the Palestinian people” and creating “human shields” composed of old people and children, or declared Jewish children everywhere to have become legitimate targets of murder (as did Hamas commander Mahmoud Zahar in a televised broadcast on January 5), the movement helped normalise the intensifying siege on Gaza, playing into deep-seated Western – and particularly American and Israeli – stereotypes of Muslim irrationality and brutality.

Indeed, such statements have long made it easier for the media, and the public, to ignore or even justify similarly racist or bigoted statements by Israeli leaders.

In this context, once the truce agreed to by Israel and Hamas in June 2008 broke down, the relaunching of Qassam rockets – even if they were in response to an Israeli provocation – normalised Israel’s massive response in the eyes of its citizens, and a large majority of Americans as well.

In this discourse, any ‘normal’ country would feel compelled to respond militarily when thousands of rockets are fired into its territory by an adversary who uses its own children as human shields while threatening to kill one’s children the world over.

That such a narrative avoids the larger context in which the Qassams were fired does not change the role played by the rockets in normalising the occupation.

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A Farewell to Harms

Peggy Noonan (WSJ) on Sarah Palin’s resignation:

To wit, “I love her because she’s so working-class.” This is a favorite of some party intellectuals. She is not working class, never was, and even she, avid claimer of advantage that she is, never claimed to be and just lets others say it. Her father was a teacher and school track coach, her mother the school secretary. They were middle-class figures of respect, stability and local status. I think intellectuals call her working-class because they see the makeup, the hair, the heels and the sleds and think they’re working class “tropes.” Because, you know, that’s what they teach in “Ways of the Working Class” at Yale and Dartmouth.

What she is, is a seemingly very nice middle-class girl with ambition, appetite and no sense of personal limits.

“She’s not Ivy League, that’s why her rise has been thwarted! She represented the democratic ideal that you don’t have to go to Harvard or Brown to prosper, and her fall represents a failure of egalitarianism.” This comes from intellectuals too. They need to be told something. Ronald Reagan went to Eureka College. Richard Nixon went to Whittier College, Joe Biden to the University of Delaware. Sarah Palin graduated in the end from the University of Idaho, a school that happily notes on its Web site that it’s included in U.S. News & World Report’s top national schools survey. They need to be told, too, that the first Republican president was named “Abe,” and he went to Princeton and got a Fulbright. Oh wait, he was an impoverished backwoods autodidact!

America doesn’t need Sarah Palin to prove it was, and is, a nation of unprecedented fluidity. Her rise and seeming fall do nothing to prove or refute this.

“The elites hate her.” The elites made her. It was the elites of the party, the McCain campaign and the conservative media that picked her and pushed her.

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Cringe moment of the month (This must have come via inter-party memos. I doubt the Foreign Office would be so wrong): “Turning the Tide on Democratic Pessimism”: The speech David Miliband delivered at Monday’s memorial lecture.

Now that Labour knows about Marousi that fourth term is in the bag =)

But I am struck by an example from a Parliamentary system closer to home. Only one European socialist party really did well in the European elections – in Greece – is also the party that has been most radical in its institutional reforms. The changes have been profound:

opening up the party so that now over 900 000 Greeks, out of a population of 11 million, have equal rights as members or ‘friends’

tackling a macho culture with quotas for male and female representation

taking forward innovation with the use of deliberative democracy to select the PASOK candidate for an Athens municipality, and open primaries to select party candidates for local elections

promoting high standards through a Members’ Ombudsman to guard ethical standards

committing to education through an Institute for Adult Education for all officers, members and friends

improving society through Every Day a Citizen, an organization dedicated to citizen engagement

and a pre Congress dialogue with debate on the political programme in 1600 teams and committees

We need to be exploring all these ideas.

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(via @vrypan)

Barack Obama keeps his cool in hothead Washington
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Andrew Sullivan‘s Sunday column at the Telegraph:

The instinctive conservatism and constitutionalism of Barack Obama were core reasons for his election. He was a liberal in policy but a conservative in temperament: cautious, consensus-seeking, empirical. After the wild swings of the Bush administration, this seemed like balm with an Eisenhower vibe. Obama even started golfing during foreign policy crises.

Decisions were made after deliberation and study, not impetuously. Strategy was stuck to, even at the cost of a few tactical setbacks. There was no big emotional breast-beating on the international stage; all options were kept open — even as we watched the brutal repression in Iran.

The new president also understood the real role of his office — not the decider, but the presider; one branch of three co-equal branches of government, subject to the rule of law and the constitution.

So the president resisted the temptation to jump in and nationalise the banks; he picked Wall Street-friendly Tim Geithner for the Treasury; he postponed any big early withdrawal from Iraq; he added troops in Afghanistan; he gave up his tax hikes because the recession was so steep. While he banned torture, he moved towards careful compromise on rendition and preventive detention and state secrets.

As he had once written when describing his strategy as a black man in a white world: no sudden moves. And we have seen none. Obama likes the system; he just wants to make it work for more people.

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Photo soure: DavidAngelo