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Posts by Justin Podur

Israel/Palestine lexicon for mainstream media

If you are writing for mainstream media, you need to learn special uses of words and phrases that are specific to Israel/Palestine. If you use common usage, you will run into confusions, paradoxes, and hostile responses from pro-Israel people. Please f…

Continue reading at Justin Podur …

Q/A on Palestine

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24 Q: Didn’t Hamas start this fighting by provoking Israel? A: According to this interpretation of events: 1. Palestinians killed Israeli teens -> 2. Israel responded -> 3. Hamas began rock…

Continue reading at Justin Podur …

The Reordering of Iraq and Syria

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24.

How far back do we look to understand the breakup of Iraq and the declaration by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June 29, 2014 of a caliphate?

Do we start 11 years ago, in 2003, when the US invaded Iraq (in the operation called Operation Iraqi Freedom), occupied it, put Nouri al-Maliki’s government in power, and has supported it since?

Or do we need to start a decade earlier? The 2003 invasion was preceded by a 13-year regime of sanctions, starting in 1990/1, and periodic bombing that prevented Iraq’s economy from functioning, or developing. And the sanctions regime was preceded by a devastating bombing and invasion conducted by the US in 1990/1, Gulf War I (called by the US Operation Desert Storm). The death toll of Gulf War I and the sanctions is at least in the hundreds of thousands; The toll of Gulf War II and the occupation is estimated to be close to one million.

But let’s not forget that the 1990/1 Gulf War I, conducted by US President Bush I, came just two years after the 8-year long Iraq-Iran war, 1980-1988, which killed hundreds of thousands of people in each country (by conservative estimates) and devastated both.

Or, does it go even further back, to the post-WWI arrangements that imposed artificial, colonial boundaries on the countries of the region?

Not all of the blame for Iraq’s thirty years of war can be blamed on the US, or the West. Yes, the US supported Saddam Hussein in the war on Iran’s then-new regime in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. Yes, the US conducted a multi-decade assault on Iraq starting in 1990. Yes, after the 2003 occupation, the US reorganized Iraq and its oil industry for its own ends. In spite of all that, much of what is happening in Iraq today are unintended consequences, rather than planned or anticipated consequences, of US actions.

But whether the explosion today in 2014 of the order the US imposed after 2003 was foreseeable by US planners then, or not, the US has been incrementally steering Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the region towards an order that, however horrific for the people living there, is tolerable for US power. That order consists of transnational refugee populations ministered to by international agencies, helpless civilians trapped in sectarian states or statelets, perpetual, low-level civil war on the ground, and US surveillance and assassination technology in the sky and on the sea.

When the US occupied Iraq in 2003, it deposed the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who ruled over a country whose divisions he suppressed using the tools of a police state. Even though he favored one group (the Sunni) over the others (Shia and Kurdish), it was the US occupation that created the ‘security dilemma’ that forced everyone into sectarianism. By supporting Saddam’s opponents, the US effectively supported the Kurds in their movement towards autonomy and eventual independence, and the Shia, al-Maliki’s group, who are the demographic majority and who are close to Iran. A Sunni-Shia civil war broke out on US watch, and it was never resolved, except through a de facto partition – a separation of the populations who had before lived among one another.

A decade after the 2003 invasion, the government of Iraq, now nominally sovereign and no longer occupied, is in the strange position of being supported by the US and also by Iran. Their common enemies are Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which has diverse threads, among which are those ousted by the 2003 invasion, as well as al-Qaeda and other religious and sectarian groups.

While supporting the increasingly sectarian (Shia) leadership of Iraq, and its Iranian ally, against the increasingly sectarian (Sunni) insurgency, the US also continues its decades-long absolute support for the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These monarchies have their own sectarian agendas in the region, opposed to the Shia, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and against the ‘Alawi, a minority in Syria, to which the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, belongs.

This leads us to the name of the group that has declared the caliphate, ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Even though the Arabic rendering does not include the name ‘Syria’, the English rendering of the group’s name is accurate enough. ISIS’s most spectacular military breakthroughs have come in Iraq, but they grew strong fighting alongside (and, alternatingly, against) al-Qaida and other insurgents against Assad’s regime in Syria’s now three-year old civil war, which has itself had hundreds of thousands of casualties. Assad’s external backers include Russia, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and the US’s ally in Iraq, Iran. Syria’s insurgents are backed by US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. So, the US is on both sides of this conflict.

This is not the only conflict that the US is on both sides of. The US invaded, occupied, and established a government in Afghanistan in 2001/2, overthrowing the Taliban, who retreated to Pakistan. The US spent the next decade fighting the Taliban from Afghanistan and also supporting Pakistan’s government, whose military establishment covertly supports the Taliban (as do the Gulf monarchies, also supported by the US).

What does it mean for the US to be on both sides of a conflict? Is the US working against itself? Does one hand not know what the other is doing?

Not exactly. For all their complex and contradictory dimensions, these conflicts have many important consistencies: the ones mentioned at the outset of this essay. They feature weak states, unable to protect their political sovereignty. Their economies are dysfunctional, unable to regulate or control multinational corporations that can operate freely according to rules they make up as they go along. Their populations are helpless, forced to work in the informal, illicit, and conflict economies, and for the educated, in the conflict-management and NGO economies. At the (literally) highest level, their military affairs are controlled by remote control US technology. The pattern is found in many countries: Afghanistan, Haiti, Palestine, the DR Congo – these are the models for the future of the region, and they are being steered methodically to that outcome.

The problem for Iraqis and Syrians is not artificial borders. All borders are artificial, and no re-partitioning of the countries will solve it. Nor are Iraq and Syria’s conflicts the outcome of a new, multipolar world order that is a result of collapsing US power. US power is not absolute and it may, indeed, be collapsing, but the strategy of the collapsing power might just be to ensure that everyone else collapses first. The shattered statelets of the middle east won’t fail to provide continued access for profit-making, humanitarian intervention, high-tech surveillance, and control.

Justin Podur blogs at and is based in Toronto.

Egypt’s Gulag

On Saturday June 21, an Egyptian judge confirmed 183 death sentences for what are called, in the BBC story, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them are, no doubt, Brotherhood supporters - until last year's military coup, the Brotherhood was a legal political party and, indeed, the governing party. Since the coup, the Brotherhood has become illegal, its leaders imprisoned. In April, when the initial death sentence was passed on 683 defendants, the brotherhood became the subject of one of the largest mass death sentences in Egypt's recent history. If these death sentences are carried out, they will constitute a major massacre - the largest, perhaps, since the government's massacre of protesters in August 2013, which, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, had a death toll of over 600 people.

The Brotherhood is not the government's only target, of course. Civil society activists, the force that started the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square years ago, have been persecuted continuously by governments. One such activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced in absentia to a 15 year sentence.

And then, there is the crime of journalism. Al Jazeera journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to 7 years in jail today. What did they do? They "provided a platform" for the Brotherhood. A journalist who did not quote Brotherhood people in a story about Egyptian politics would be irresponsible. But being a responsible journalist in Egypt apparently is punishable with 7 years in prison.

Another Canadian, Khaled al-Qazzaz, was a member of the ousted Brotherhood-led government before the coup last year. In jail since last year, al-Qazzaz's court date has been moved to tomorrow (June 24).

The Western response has been ambivalent. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences of the Al-Jazeera journalists "chilling and draconian". The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called them "obscene and a travesty of justice." Canada's Minister, Lynne Yelich, called on Egypt to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists.

Mixing signals, Kerry also praised Egypt's military government and its recent electoral exercise this past weekend, traveling to the country to talk about Iraq's civil war and to release hundreds of millions in military aid that had been frozen after the coup. "There are issues of concern," he said, "but we know how to work with those." Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird visited Egypt in April, expressing Canada's "willingness to support Egypt during this important transition."

Despite the recent electoral exercise, Egypt is currently ruled by the same military establishment that ruled it for decades. Since the 1970s that establishment has depended on Western support. Kerry, and months before, Baird, have renewed their support at a time of kangaroo courts, persecution of journalists, and mass death sentences.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. Blog: Twitter: @justinpodur

I am not a turnout

An interesting couple of weeks. A friend of mine told me about the Ear to the Ground Project, which is a kind of state of the left in the US. Another friend set me to read Myles Horton and Paolo Freire's "We Make the Road By Walking", which includes many interesting things about the Highlander Center's kind of education and also of Freire's methods of education.

Before that I was reading a lot of Alfie Kohn, including his new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, and thinking about the constructivist theory of learning.

It got me thinking about some of the more ritualized aspects of left events, at least in my city. The format for most events is borrowed from the academic conference genre: a panel of experts presents a paper to an audience. The trouble is that when this panel takes place as a one-off event, it's not the right genre. At an academic conference, the audience is also all academics, most of whom are presenting papers on some other panel. Now, there are certainly questions about the value of academic conferences, although I think there are aspects of them that are justifiable. But there would be many more questions about the value of left events that are modeled on academic conferences. Consider: over the course of an entire conference, roughly everyone, or at least a large number of people, at the conference would have spoken, at least a bit, and hopefully had some discussion and feedback about their ideas, and also been able to discuss and think about the ideas others presented. At a one-off panel discussion, this isn't the case.

But maybe it could be? What if we had events which, even if they were one-off, were events where everybody both talked and listened. Maybe they could be mini-conferences, where people worked on some common document or piece, which would stand as a record of the event. What if these were the main type of events, with one-off panels as the exception to the rule?

When you take into account Deb Meier's insight that "teaching is mostly listening, learning is mostly talking", then you have to face the frightening possibility that many educational events are mostly for the educational benefit of the speakers, not the audience. You also begin to see that if we want our events to actually be educational, then we need events that make it possible for people to talk. Maybe they read, watch, listen, and think too, but they also need to talk, if they are to learn. This means they might say things that are not as insightful as experts chosen for their special knowledge on the topic. But they might learn more about the topic by stumbling through a discussion than they would listening. Or, again, maybe they listen at home on youtube and they discuss at the in-person event.

This would mean that we might also stop measuring all events by a single metric - turnout - and start thinking about how else we could evaluate the educational value of events, and, indeed, how we could evaluate the kind of political education we are offering to ourselves and to society.

Could it be that "another (type of political event) is possible"? I hope so.


The invisible assumptions of charity driven development: reading Bill and Melinda Gates’s 2014 letter

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released their annual letter for 2014 a few months ago. It was devoted to dispelling three common myths, which they argue, block progress for the poor.

1. Poor countries are doomed to stay poor.
2. Foreign aid is a waste.
3. Saving lives leads to overpopulation.

These myths are indeed myths, and the Gateses are right to try to dispel them. It is also nice to see the Gateses sharing to their audience some important facts that they would have otherwise had to turn to some more radical scholars, to find. Myths #1 and #2, for example, was nicely addressed in 2002 by economist Ha-Joon Chang in Kicking Away the Ladder (although reading any number of the Asian, African, and Latin American nationalists from the 1940s to the 1960s or so might also have done the trick). For Myth #3, we could go back to Betsy Hartmann's 1987 book, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs (I picked it up after reading an article by Hartmann in 2000 called Cross-Dressing Malthus).

But the main point I wanted to make in this blog is one I made a few years ago here about philanthrocapitalism. That is, that the solutions for the world's problems aren't going to come from billionaires, and the billionaires know it. Bill and Melinda admit it, in a low-key way, in their letter, with an extended discussion of government aid:

"When pollsters ask Americans what share of the budget goes to aid, the average response is “25 percent.” When asked how much the government should spend, people tend to say “10 percent.” I suspect you would get similar results in the United Kingdom, Germany, and elsewhere...Here are the actual numbers. For Norway, the most generous nation in the world, it’s less than 3 percent. For the United States, it’s less than 1 percent."

What billionaires can do is tiny compared to what governments can do. In their letter, Bill and Melinda are trying to do what anyone can: try to convince others of their arguments in favour of policies they think would help. That is clear from the content of their letter and the nature of their arguments. Why would they do that, if governments didn't matter?

But their organizations follow a different model. Gates made his billions on one side of a debate. What he argued and practiced was that the software programmers created could be cut up and sold for massive profits. On the other side of that debate, about knowledge, information, computers, and society, were those who argued that information should be free, that innovation occurred when people could share, that software should be under the control of its users. Gates, like the other software billionaires, benefited from collaborative innovations - then privatized them to make his billions, and then used the power that came from those billions to try to stop the innovation and freedom that he benefited from (Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks tell this story in their 2010 book The Trouble With Billionaires).

Like most corporations, Microsoft does its best to reduce its tax burden, to avoid taxes wherever possible, and to be part of a long-term trend of corporations paying less and less in taxes. Some of the billions in taxes Gates didn't pay are now part of his foundation's endowment. But if it's governments that do the real work of development, then starving those governments of revenue can't be good for development. Even as they try to lobby governments about the value of foreign aid, the Gateses practice a model where the wealthy keep money away from governments, and distribute it as they see fit, through charities of their choice, and where foreign NGOs, rather than local, sovereign governments, control the money and the power. Perhaps there are other myths that block progress for the poor, like:

4. Private aid is significant compared to government aid.
5. Rich people can't be expected to pay taxes like everyone else.
6. Priorities decided by individual, wealthy donors, yield better development outcomes than priorities decided by democratic processes.

Maybe we can watch for these in the 2015 letter...


Reading the Manifesto for Social Materialist Psychology

A little while after my Ossington Circle interview with author Paul Moloney, I was sent (by Paul) the Midlands Psychology Group Manifesto for a Social-Materialist Psychology of Distress. It's an unadorned, long, well-written text that is full of important insights. I appreciate it as someone who is trying to understand "the system" and how it impacts people, and how we could help one another first to survive in the unequal and often violent society we live in, and how we could try to make change. I am going to go through the manifesto a bit here.

The manifesto is arguing against "most psychology", which it describes as "individual and idealist". By contrast, the manifesto is "social materialist". To the manifesto, "individuals exist, but their experiences are thoroughly social, at the very same time as they are singular and personal. And cognitions occur, but their relation to the material world is neither determinate nor arbitrary."

An important consequence of the social materialist approach is that it argues "distress arises from the outside inwards", it is "not the consequence of inner flaws or weaknesses". While "all mainstream approaches to ‘therapy’ locate the origin of psychological difficulty within the individual, usually as some kind of idiosyncracy of past experience." The explanation of why some individuals succumb to distress while others can withstand it is, in the social materialist school of thought, quite simple. It is due to the "embodied advantages someone has acquired over time from the social/material environment". Understanding distress, like understanding survival, is done best by looking from the outside in - at what happened to the individual in society. Hence, trauma, inequality, and other social realities are causes of distress.

The manifesto attacks psychiatric diagnosis as a "quaint notion that distress can be neatly partitioned into robust categories", which "reflects the mistaken belief that it is caused by organic diseases or impairments." Understand distress as social and material, and the categories fall apart, as in diagnostic failure:

"This may be why psychiatric diagnosis is notoriously both unreliable and invalid. Evidence of unreliability is provided by the lives of service recipients, who frequently receive different diagnoses during their contact with services. Further evidence comes from studies showing that, even in reliability trials where normal variation is artificially constrained (by video presentations, special training and broad categories) psychiatrists frequently disagree about the ‘correct’ diagnosis (e.g. Bentall, 2003, 2009; Pilgrim & Rogers, 2010; van Os et al., 1999). Evidence that diagnosis is invalid comes from studies of comorbidity which show that patients who meet the criteria for one diagnosis most likely meet the criteria for at least one other (e.g. Boyle, 2002; Brady & Kendall, 1992; Dunner, 1998; Maier & Falkai, 1999; Sartorious, Ustun, Lecrubier, & Wittchen, 1996; Timimi, 2011). Other evidence comes from studies of symptom profiles which show (for example) that the symptoms of people given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder do not cluster separately from those of people given a diagnosis of schizophrenia (Bentall, 2003). Because psychiatric diagnosis is neither reliable nor valid, all of its claimed benefits – in respect of aetiology, treatment, prognosis, service planning, inter-professional communication, reassurance to service users and their families – are compromised."

Individual and idealistic psychology leads not only to diagnostic, but to treatment failures, because by aiming at relief through "insight" it fails to recognize that "much of our experience, including emotional arousal, is not necessarily available to conscious introspection". Social materialist psychology offers a more "multiple, complex, and open-ended" view of the causes and the possible treatments of distress.

The bad news is that social-materialist psychology does not provide any easy cures - neither, though, does mainstream psychology. The manifesto is very direct about this: "Distress cannot be cured by medication or therapy." The notion of a "cure" is harmful - "the majority of psychoactive drugs cause mental and physical harm, especially with long-term use," and "whilst the talking therapies appear more benign, too often they are just a more insidious form of control, fostering the illusion that misery is an internal failure or breakdown, awaiting correction from an expert."

On the other hand, both medication and therapy can help. Medication "can usefully anaesthetize the distressed to their woes, yielding brief bubbles of respite or clarity. During these short, chemically induced holidays from their misery, those with the resources may initiate life changes that alleviate their problems and establish positive future trajectories," while therapy "provides comfort (you are not alone with your woes), clarification (there are sound reasons why you feel the way you do) and support (I will help you deal with your predicament)," which, "in an atomised, fragmented, time-poor society, where solidarity and collectivity are derided, time limited, and relationships consistently infected with a toxic instrumentalism, these are valuable, compassionate functions."

In social-materialist psychology, success in treatment is predicted by compassion, understanding, and resources - not technique. If the therapist is compassionate and understanding, and the patient has resources to act on the new insights, the chances of success are high. Technique, on the other hand, doesn't matter. Discarding the idea that specific techniques matter might be difficult, but it would be helpful:

"In a thoroughly commodified society it is perhaps understandable that some practitioners will want to have branded, marketable products, just as in a professionalised culture some will want to identify themselves as bearers of highly specialised knowledge and skills. Like everyone else, therapists must earn a living, so it is only to be expected that interest should influence how they present themselves and their work. Nevertheless, doing so distracts attention from the actual causes of distress by bolstering the belief that it is a mysterious state amenable only to professional help; it disables friends and family, who may feel that they could not possibly understand; and it negates the contribution of community, solidarity and trust. The presentation of therapy as specialised technique cheapens and oversells psychology itself; leads to resources being wasted comparing the marginal differences between this brand and that; and deflects effort and attention from the very real opportunities for psychological research and insight that are supplied by the highly privileged situation of the therapeutic encounter."

The manifesto, like Paul Moloney's book, provides a compassionate and nuanced take on psychology and therapy. If you want to help others, take a look at it.

Ali Mustafa

I met Ali Mustafa a long time ago, when he was one of the younger activists in Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA). I was not so old as I am now but Ali's energy and anger made me feel my age then.

Ali was no single-issue activist. He spent a summer working (as an intern I think) with the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, a movement of landless peasants. That was how he did things. He wanted to go, be in it.

He was no hotel journalist. When he went to Palestine and Egypt and to Syria, he lived with the people, shared their risks, faced whatever they faced.

I didn't always get to meet him after his tours when he'd come back to Toronto, but I did quite a few times. We would talk and argue over details, facts, doctrine ("Is what's happening in Egypt really a *revolution*?" - Ali thought yes, and so did I, for the record).

He was a journalist in the sense that he went there, wherever there was, and wrote and documented, and photographed. But he was not a journalist in any of the bad ways. There was nothing careerist about him. He never pretended at any false objectivity - he was a people's journalist and he believed in their struggles. Pretty much everything I ever saw him do, he did with this motivation. He never put himself above the people he was writing about. He put himself with them, instead.

When I was Ali's age, I think I had a lot more help and support doing the kinds of things I did than he had doing what he did. I really wish more people could have seen his work, and I wish he could have been around some more decades to do more of it.

Ali Mustafa (twitter handle @_fbtm blog was a Canadian freelance journalist and activist. He died with 7 Syrians in an airstrike by the Assad government in the Hadariya neighbourhood of Aleppo on March 9, 2014.

Ali was pretty prolific. Here's a small sample of Ali's writing from his blog:

Oct 31, 2013: Reporting from the Inside - Ali interviewed by Stefan Christoff, a very nuanced and well-informed example of Ali's type of people's journalism, about Syria.

March 3, 2013: The Ultras and the Eegyptian Revolution - Ali interviewed by Left Hook. Ali's take on the Egyptian Revolution.

January 20, 2013: Kafka in the Courts Ali's reporting on the case of Mohammad Majoub.

March 24, 2011: Where Athenian Democracy Went Wrong - Ali showing off a bit with some deep historical thinking about ancient democracy and what it means for today...

A short course on development in "Post-conflict" Congo. A Radical Teacher article.

Podur, J. (2014). A Short Course on Development in “Post-conflict” Congo. Radical Teacher, 98, 52-57. doi:10.5195/rt.2014.70

This article, published in the journal Radical Teacher, is about higher education in the eastern DR Congo, based on my experience teaching a course at the Universite Evangelique en Afrique (UEA) in Bukavu in 2011.


Haiti: plans for a 2010 coup – CEPR interview with Seitenfus

With an attempted coup underway in Venezuela, those of us who studied the 2004 Haiti coup are looking back at Haiti 10 years ago and being reminded of the parallels. Actually, I wrote about the Venezuela coup of 2002, which followed a similar playbook to the coup attempt currently underway.

I write about a lot of different countries and a lot of different political situations, and people have implied to me that it is impossible for anyone to be knowledgeable about so many different contexts. It seems to me though that in many of these situations, the same external actors are intervening (for example, the US and other Western countries), and they have a limited number of ways of conducting intervention. There's some kind of a playbook out there, and for people who are concerned about development or democracy or freedom in the poor countries, there is no way to avoid trying to understand what is in that playbook of intervention. That's why I wrote Haiti's New Dictatorship, and why I really liked Peter Hallward's Damming the Flood. I think of both books as an attempt to understand the way external power operated to destroy the sovereignty of a country - in this case, Haiti. Peter showed how it was done, and I tried to focus on the post-coup results.

One of the strongest moral voices against coups in Latin America for the past decade and a half has been, and you wouldn't know it from the name, the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Their name only covers one aspect of their organization's personality - the fact that they are extraordinary researchers and that they do their homework. Their name doesn't cover the fact that they are a strong voice of principle, when the media are full of murky justifications for coups and violence, and murky accusations of violence against targeted enemies. They have been very strong on Venezuela and on Haiti.

In this interview, published on CEPR, Dan Beeton and Georgeanne Nienaber interview former OAS Special Representative in Haiti, Ricardo Seitenfus. It's a powerful account because it comes from someone who was part of the post-coup attempts to bring Haiti under control. It reveals a lot about how Haiti has been governed, post-coup. Seitenfus was fired for telling the truth about what was going on. If you read Haiti's New Dictatorship, you'll find this interview with Seitenfus verifies a lot of what I argued was going on based on other sources.