Monthly Archives: April 2012

Latin American Summit a Disaster

A Pan-American summit has ended in discord here as regional leaders failed to agree on Cuba’s inclusion in future summits in the face of U.S. and Canadian opposition.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who defended his stance on Havana at a post-summit press conference, also faced questions on Washington’s approach to the drug war and found himself on the defensive over an embarrassing Secret Service prostitution scandal.
This is downright shameful, and continuing evidence of America’s thuggery when it comes to Latin America.
The embargo of Cuba for being a non-democratic, communist state seems to forget that our largest trading partner is a non-democratic, communist state!
The drug war is, by any measure, a complete and utter failure, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals in the hemisphere. Whether it is to appease old voters or to continue to support a huge prison industrial complex and its lobbyists, Obama continues to carry the water for one side in this war, a side he went to late in his life, if he can be believed. The indirect costs of our drug policies are incredibly hard to measure, but measured they have been:
More than 300 economists, including three nobel laureates, have signed a petitioncalling attention to the findings of a paper by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron, which suggests that if the government legalized marijuana it would save $7.7 billionannually by not having to enforce the current prohibition on the drug. The report added that legalization would save an additional $6 billion per year if the government taxed marijuana at rates similar to alcohol and tobacco.
 The Secret Service scandal was just icing on the cake, and perhaps ended up shielding the American government from criticism about actual policy, not just praetorian guards run amok. However it is without a doubt a sign of the times that the SS is involved with prostitution while the General Services Administration also runs their “arrogant” and extravagant parties. Corruption is rampant.
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Cross post from “”

Ageism, not just for the elderly anymore

Kracauer’s essay, AHASUERUS, OR THE RIDDLE OF TIME, became somewhat drawn out for me, but had some very intriguing opinions on the tension between chronological history and periodicity.

It seems to me that what I might call the practice of periodicity, or the practice of creating ages and eras as a way of building a historical narrative, is a result of the immeasurable gaps in context that the historian immediately senses when examining historical fact. This can creep up anyone reading primary sources: indeed Kracauer says that “…period seems to be so indispensable a unit that it is invented after the fact if it cannot be discovered in the material” (147). Those practicing history consistently fall into a habit of filling the gaps in the narrative with what they themselves believe to be clarifying context. Kracauer goes as far as to say that this resembles the human mind’s tendency to create similar patterns to categorize lived experience. How often have I justified my own actions by saying, “Well, I was sick at the time” or, “That was that period when I was mourning [something]”? The historian is not far removed from this kind of consideration.

Recognition of this practice reveals some very interesting things. I’ve always been interested in the lack of coherent thought when Western narratives of history are confronted with “peoples without history”, to borrow the title of anthropologist Eric Wolf’s famous book. Take, for instance, almost any primarily nomadic socio-economic system, such as the Roma in Europe, or the pastoralist Native Americans here in the Americas. Not only are these cultures often ignored, the subject of anthropological field work, but rarely garnering historical or political investigation, but their status in relation to the narratives of periodicity usually guarantees their abuse. This is currently being played out in the Sahel region, where the Kel Tamashek people, many of whom were employed in the army of Libya’s previous leader and whose nomadic culture was devastated by the introduction of the nation state to the Sahara, are once again battling the Malian government in order to secure an autonomous zone that would not be subject to blood soaked (and let’s face it, imaginary and arbitrary) lines in the sand.

It is doubtful that their demands will ever be recognized by any authority. There is silence, in academia, media, and policy on the plight of peoples without history, and so it has always been. Often, this is due to a lack of a written language or, more importantly, a lack of archival material. This lack presents a radical problem for the practice of periodicity, because without a ground for which to make leaps to overarching trends and patterns, the practice stumbles. That vacuum defies timely or “accurate” interpretation, and methodology becomes a ball and chain instead of a crutch. Rather than come to new conclusions about the way in which we practice history, and more importantly, what we do with the results, we ignore cultures that do not fall into the methodologies we have created. For the Saharan nomads, the dominance of “ageist” historiography will inevitably result in the failure of the Tuareg’s cause.

I’d like to say I’m optimistic about our ability to extricate ourselves from what is ultimately a damaging practice. However, I think the new emphasis on written communication in the electronic medium will cause people like the Kel Tamashek to fall further into this dead zone of history. Only a comprehensive review of the way in which we conceive of history will save these people. The discipline of history, should it wish to save these people, would be wise to create an alternative methodology with which to consider them: these groups of people are not truly silent. They are simply without a history that is comprehensible under the current model of interpretation. Recognition of this fact is not an indictment, but instead is a recognition that thought does translate into very real consequences.

I’ll close by quoting Kracauer:
“In referring to history, one should speak of the march of times, rather than the “March of Time”, (149)
and then quoting Khalil Gibran, in The Prophet:
Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, ”I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths…
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.

Tuareg Rebels Declare the Azawad an Autonomous Homeland; Echoes of Ibn Khaldun

In 2008 I finished my thesis on the religious movements that possessed medieval trade entrepot of Sijilmassa, a town on the edge of the Sahara in what is now Morocco. Ibn Khaldun was a major figure in my thesis, and his work on the Berbers is indispensable for anyone studying the medieval Maghrib. I am going to quote from my thesis in order to demonstrate the concept of ‘asabiyyah: 

Ali ibn Yusuf ruled while living the life of an ascetic, oblivious to the concerns of his kingdom. While he was an intellectual and a very pious man, the fall of the Almoravid would stem from his inaction in the face of threats from the north, east and south. In the introduction to his Kitab al-‘Ibar, the famous historian Ibn Khaldun points to the concept of ‘asabiyah as being integral to the failure of Ali ibn Yusuf’s regime. Being translated loosely as “group feeling”, ‘asabiyah is the glue that holds an empire together121. Ibn Khaldun, hypothesizing one of the first sociological theories, believed that the Almoravid, at the beginning of their conquests, held a strong group feeling that was born out of their religion and their willingness to fight and die for one another: ‘asabiyah was the mutual cooperation that formed the basis of the movement. Using the fall of the Almoravid as a centerpiece for this theory of cohesion, Ibn Khaldun theorizes that a dynasty’s ‘asabiyah becomes dispersed the longer they rule. Several generations will usually spell the end of a dynasty, as the ‘asabiyah of the movement will become so dispersed that the individuals will forget what bound them together in the first place122. Thus, Ali ibn Yusuf’s unwillingness to set straight the complicated local affairs of his kingdom only hastened the downfall of his regime. As the loot from conquest began to disappear into the coffers of the empire, and the conquest of land stopped at the furthest borders of this Muslim empire, Ali ibn Yusuf instituted a set of taxes that would have been abominable to the forerunners of his movement like Abd Allah ibn Yasin123. The outer provinces no longer felt a need to support the Almoravid regime, and thus, the next Berber movement’s conquest came from the periphery; Ibn Khaldun says that as ‘asabiyah is lost, it is the fringes of an empire that disintegrate first, eventually threatening the center of the empire. This is the cyclical nature of Ibn Khaldun’s historiography – an empire is established, gradually becomes more decadent and loses cohesion, and then is overtaken from the periphery of its territory. The Almoravid movement capitalized on similar circumstances: with the Umayyad and Fatamid caliphates in decline, they found a Moroccan population that was uncommitted to a religious movement. Sijilmassa itself even requested the intervention of the Almoravid religious movement. In turn, the Almohad, led by two charismatic religious figures in Ibn Tumart and Abd al-Mumineen, would capitalize on the Almoravid weakness and thus bring religious reform and centralized government to the land for the second time.

For Khaldun, a decline in asabiyyah is a result of urbanization and consolidation of power. As group cohesion decreases, the chances of another group with more asabiyyah threatening the incumbent becomes more and more likely. It is one of the earliest sociological theories out there, and I believe it may be his most important next to his identification of the Laffer curve.

Last week, the MNLA declared that the Azawad would be an autonomous homeland:

In the days after the coup, town after town fell in the north to the Tuaregs. They declared a ceasefire Thursday, announcing they had captured the territory of Azawad, which they see as their homeland.

“The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognize, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad,” Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the MNLA said on the group’s website.

The Tuareg have been lost at sea, as it were, since French colonialism. The Azawad was never recognized as a Tuareg homeland, and as a result, the Tuareg became a people with no state. Hannah Arendt spent much of her political philosophy on the subject of refugees without a homeland, often through the lens of the League of Nations and the Minorities Treaties. In Arendt’s view, the homeland is the basis for natal rights. Belonging to a land is so incredibly important to the human experience, such that the loss of a homeland can mean disaster for the refugee.

A resurgence in Tuareg nationalism has captured the imagination of the Kel Tamashek, and their statelessness is being challenged in the same cyclical turn of asabiyyah that Khaldun pointed out hundreds of years ago. The best example of this renewed asabiyyah is the rise of Tuareg rock groups like Tinariwen. Tinariwen’s members grew up in refugee camps making guitars out of rubbish, and some were conscripted into Gaddafi’s armies. These men and women lived through the reality of the grim life of the Kel Tamashek, giving an extra punch to their acid rock style.

In the song Imidiwan (Companions), the group speaks directly to Africa:

“My friends from all over Africa,
I have a question that still haunts me,
Is the revolution like some tree whose branches only grow if we water it?”

Tuareg artists like Tinariwen are framing their struggle in a wider context of a pan-African struggle. Tinariwen calls the people of Africa their imidiwan. The struggle of the Tuareg thus becomes the struggle of an entire continent trying to heal terrible wounds.

Mali is preparing to strike against the Tuareg rebels in the north with the full support of an undisguised imperial ally in France. Given how badly equipped the Malian army is, it is unclear whether they could do this alone. However, they most likely will not attack the Tuareg alone:

  • The AU has said publicly that the MNLA declaration is null and void and that it respects the totality of Malian sovereignty.
  • Other Sahel countries have pledged support to Mali, provided they get their government in order.
  • The LA Times article mentions this little tidbit:
  • Western governments are alarmed about a second group, Ansar Dine, which has swept into some of northern towns on the MNLA’s coattails. It has ordered shopkeepers to pull down pictures depicting people, declaring them un-Islamic, and it has told residents it plans to impose Islamic law. Ansar Dine has links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, raising fears the terror group could strengthen its hand in the region, already a hub for cocaine trafficking, crime and kidnappings. The ghost of Osama Bin Laden strikes again.

Once again the Sahara will see competing societies, competing asabiyyah, and a war for a homeland. It would be very hard to say where things will go from here.

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The Daily Show on US’ Pullback on UNESCO Funding

The Daily Show has a scathing piece on a 20 year old law that has resulted in the pulling of $60m in UNESCO funding. Part of the law stipulates that any UN agency that recognizes a Palestinian authority would immediately lose its funding from the United States.

The piece points to an interesting trend in American politics: we absolutely have to do the wrong because it’s the law, and it’s “hard” to change laws. In fact, my wife and I ran into the same appeal to law when in a General Assembly: the GA could not change the text of a proposal because of something decided in the previous GA about proposals being only an up or down vote. It was interesting to see the facilitators squirm when confronted with a completely different group of people in that day’s GA who were angry that rules were being laid down on what was said to be the most open form of democratic discussion there is.

If we are consistently doing the wrong thing because of laws we’ve created decades ago, the law should be up for discussion. Period. To say that there is no room for discussion on the law simply because it is a law is to invite tyranny through rulemaking.

The indirect cost of our Palestine policy takes on new global dimensions with the loss of funding to UNESCO. As the Daily Show piece amusingly points out, even tiny Gabon has ponied up $2m to fund this agency.

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