An Open Letter to Anjem Choudary

Anjem,

I feel like I can call you that, because any alternative would be far worse.

So Muslims don’t care about free expression? I suppose no one bothered to tell Hafez, Rumi, Averroes, Rhazes, Bibi Khatun Astarabadi, Naguib Mahfouz, Muhammad Iqbal, Forough Farrokhzad, or Asghar Farhadi. Read a fucking book, Anjem. Oh right, there’s apparently only one book worth reading, and that’s apparently not worth interpreting properly. You have a choice to make- either read and understand the history of Islam, which will cure you of your radicalism, or be content with being a radical and thus not representing the Muslim community at large. Your choice.

Besides, where the fuck would you and your little gangs be without free expression. Do you think you’d be able to spread your hate and your anger if you didn’t live in a country which guaranteed your right to say all the violent, inaccurate shit you want? Somehow I doubt it.

You’re a sad, dumb hypocrite, Anjem. Enjoy the rest of your pointless existence.

Go fuck yourself,
The Staff of Them’s the Breaks, Kid

On Charlie Hebdo

It is with a heavy heart that I write, as this week doubtless stands as one of the most difficult in recent memory. The tragic attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo are indefensible, and the threat that such an attack poses on the values of Western Europe is truly frightening.

Make no mistake- the point of this post is not to spread some sort of obscene, hate-filled garbage under the guise of freedom of expression. Quite the contrary. Indeed, as pointed out in articles by Gawker and David Brooks, the history of Charlie Hebdo seems to shield some interesting closet-skeletons. Again, the point of this post is not to criticize the victims of an attack for saying something they should not have said. Many of the articles written during the fallout of the Charlie Hebdo attack make a decent point- quite a lot of their material (albeit decontextualized, poorly translated and ignoring the juvenile streak present in much French comedy) seems deliberately inflammatory. But as soon as we start trying to separate the world into spheres of ‘what should be said’ and ‘what shouldn’t be said,’ we approach a situation in which this sort of psychological censorship can be applied to silencing critique of our own nations and governments. This censorship, especially in the context of a militarized police force, surveillance and torture does not fill me with confidence, and represents the erosion of vital cultural values on which the West was built.

In the past few decades since Islamic fundamentalism has become a force to be reckoned with, we have been fed the narrative that these radical terrorist attacks will serve to cripple and destabilize the West. Not only does this fear serve as a further defense of the authoritarian creep, it is also fundamentally wrong. Terrorist attacks in the West are tragic and indefensible, but radical Islamist violence poses a far more immediate physical threat to other Muslims– residents of Muslim countries- than it does in the West. The threat to the West is far more pressing in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack than it is in the moment the bomb goes off.

When we mistake individual, peaceful Muslims for terrorists- when we seek to generalize and categorize without subtlety or realism- we commit several sins. The first and most visible is, obviously, the sin of racism, which is ironic, as Muslims are not a race. While stemming racism should be the most pressing reason to stop these generalizations, we all know that racism is wrong, and to debate that fact further implies that there is anything left to debate. There isn’t. Racism is wrong and we shouldn’t do it.

The subtler sin in engaging in senseless generalization is the narrative it creates. When we assume all Muslims to be terrorists, we create a narrative in which a monolithic West stands in opposition to a monolithic Islam- a dated and frankly idiotic us vs. them mentality. The irony here lies in the fact that radical Muslim clerics want nothing more than to be accepted as the unquestioned representatives of Islam, to the exception of more sensible, moderate interpretations. Even more ironic is that the exact same binary narrative is pushed by the radical right in Western countries, with only the protagonists of the story and their goals switched. Ultra-conservatism on both sides serve the same purpose- to wear away at the already precarious pool of Western values on which we have to draw. It is thus incumbent on us- the value-driven, peaceful people who make up the overwhelming majority of people in our world- to resist the crypto-fascist creep that imperils our world.

It would be marginally acceptable if this were the first time we failed so tremendously to do the mature thing when faced with the prospect of Islamist terrorism. But we- and by we, I mean the most powerful Western governments- have been consistent in our failure to deal adequately with Islamist terrorism throughout our attempts to do so. Icing on the cake: it probably wouldn’t have ever become a political force in the first place if it weren’t for us.

The first groups to espoused an Islamic fundamentalist ideology- Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Fedayan-e-Islam (lest we forget, there is nothing ancient about Islamic fundamentalism, it is purely a 20th century development) arose as a result of hostility toward Western colonialism and Mohammad Reza Shah’s pro-Western regime. Throughout the mid-20th century, the West consistently turned a blind eye to Islamic fundamentalism, under the assumption that it was preferable to Marxism-Leninism. Famously, for the same reason, the US and the UK largely downplayed the hostility of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fundamentalists until they entered power and their true colors were shown. President Reagan then proceeded to fund the Iranian fundamentalists against Iraq, and the Afghan fundamentalists- the forebears of the Taliban- against the Soviets. And, finally, when the various alliances of convenience ended, and they ‘turned against us,’ we responded by buying their divisive propaganda and adding our own propaganda to it, gutting civil liberties of our own people (Muslim or otherwise) and beginning a campaign of persistent, unceasing warfare.

Yes, Islamic fundamentalism is, at its heart, a death cult with little respect for anyone, Muslim or otherwise. But when we witness an act as horrific as what we saw on Wednesday, we cannot ignore that we did precious little to hold the responsible actors and figures within our own countries to task. We cannot ever forgive those with blood on their hands- whether they wear breads and robes or impeccably tailored suits.

Groundbreaking Work in the Field of Economics (That We’d Basically Already Figured Out)

Another addition , this time on the part of the OECD, to the growing body of economics literature on income and wealth inequality here attempts to highlight a causal relationship between inequality and a reduction in economic growth, particularly in long-term economic growth potential. For those readers not particularly interested in reading a 65-page economics paper, here is the key point the paper makes:

Drawing on harmonised data covering the OECD countries over the past 30 years, the econometric analysis suggests that income inequality has a negative and statistically significant impact on subsequent growth. In particular, what matters most is the gap between low income households and the rest of the population…It follows that policies to reduce income inequalities should not only be pursued to improve social outcomes but also to sustain long-term growth

None of this is surprising to me, nor, I should expect, would it be surprising to many of my readers. In fact, I believe I have made a similar point in prior posts, albeit not backed up with any sort of data whatsoever. Simply because it is intuitive and sensible, however, does not make it trivial. The impact of inequality on growth is a question that has been plaguing economics for years, and the relative paucity of income inequality research (relative to other questions in economics) has prevented a decent answer to this question from emerging. Given the recent trend toward empiricism in economics, this paper (and, indeed, others like it) could prove to be definitive, not only in allow economics to take a stand on the issue of income inequality, but to pay the necessary attention to it in the first place.

Of more practical relevance to the general public, however, is that findings such as these could help create an ideological alliance of convenience. Economists pride themselves on their non-partisanship (a suspect claim), but it is difficult to argue non-partisanship in a field that has effectively ignored questions of income distribution, despite being by far the most equipped to tackle these questions. You can hardly blame them- one could argue that it is not strictly possible to be non-partisan at all, as people are all subject to prior beliefs regarding fairness, justice and morality.

Ideology (or, at least, the Western conception of ideology) has tended to pit growth vs equality, long before any relationship between the two was clarified or even studied. The study above may indeed be a first step to breaking that false dichotomy. We will never turn socialists into growth hawks or capitalists into bleeding hearts, but we may approach a grudging consensus in which we all accept that economies require some base level of equality in order to grow. Holders of capital are also often holders of power, and holders of capital tend to put stock in what the economic consensus has to say. As such, it is crucial to expand and strengthen this consensus so that we may have a shot at reversing (or at least reducing) the trend in which Western economies have headed.

The Protest

Every subway station, from my local one in Queens, through Union Square, to Brooklyn Bridge, where the protest was located, seemed to have cops posted in it, randomly searching bags. I’d never seen that before, and it certainly didn’t help the fact that I was already slightly on edge about attending a protest. After all, who knows how cops deal with protesters these days? After all, they’re all too ready to choke innocent people to death. I doubt the police would have much sympathy for a majority-minority crowd of citizens gathered for the sole purpose of venting their police-related anger.

I rarely head down to that part of lower Manhattan, and, leaving the subway, I was ready to ask someone for directions on how to get to Foley Square. No need. The sheer volume of police cars (armored and otherwise), vans and multiple police helicopters led me directly to the site of the protest. By the time the protest began, at least couple thousand people (by my estimate) had shown up- from grotty college students to the well-dressed and suit-clad, from bearded and tattooed hipsters to teamsters, and members of seemingly every racial and ethnic group under the sun. There was barely any breathing room in the “free-speech zone” to which we were initially confined, and the two hundred or so cops (again, my estimate) did not seem amenable to us taking up any more space than what we were allotted.

A middle-aged woman held up a photo up a bloody-faced teenager. She told me the story of how the police had brutally beaten her son. His crime? Technically, standing around. “A lot of people don’t believe them when I tell them,” she sighed with clear exasperation. “I wouldn’t put it past them.” I replied. She stared at me for a second. “You know, when we used to say ‘anything’s possible,’ it used to mean ‘you can do anything.’ Now it means ‘they can do anything.'”

At the center of the protest, a protest security team answered questions, distributed slips of paper with numbers for legal aid, unloaded bottles of water, and generally acted in as civil and caring a manner as a celebration of human anger would allow. Within minutes, the protest started up. The crowd was large enough that it had effectively formed neighborhoods- the two bullhorns the security team had brought with them were not enough for the whole crowd to hear, and several pockets of the crowd were eager to begin their chants. Astoundingly, after only about 10 minutes, a series of mic checks had united the crowd. The parents of RaMarley Graham spoke- the human microphone transmitted their stories to the very edges of the crowd. Addressing the crowd consistently as ‘beautiful people,’ the main organizer started a litany of chants and re-purposed Civil Rights-era songs that darted through the crowd with near-total unity of purpose.

Apart from protesters and police, the next biggest group represented at the protest were journalists and reporters- whether tied to formal news organization or freelancing. I sincerely doubt any one of them could have seen the love, solidarity, harmony, unity of purpose, organization and genuine care this amazing group of people was showing and not be deeply touched. For several years, I had become disillusioned, assuming that hashtags, general apathy, and cynicism was bringing a slow death to genuine activism. What I saw yesterday began to change my mind. For the first time in years, I saw the power of mutual solidarity, of rage tempered by civility and of spontaneous human organization. It’s a pity that it takes police brutality and institutionalized racism to bring out the heroic capacity of human beings. But it was the realization that a commitment to humanity and progress still exists that allowed me to sleep easy last night.

An American Dilemma

Many of us (i.e., white Americans) are surprised by the recent and not-so-recent events in Ferguson. To many white people, the recurrence of such stark racial issues reeks of a time forty or fifty years past, irrelevant to a so-called post-racial America. What many of us don’t realize is that very few people outside white America- whether American minorities or people outside the US looking in- are surprised. Firstly, our memories tend to be shorter than the memories of people living in other countries. The LA riots were barely twenty years ago. Those with power tend to write the history books, and, as such, we have been very successful in ensuring that any obvious signs of racial inequality are relegated to dusty corners of the history books. Secondly, I learned US history once outside the US and once inside, and I can vouch for the graphic, brutal horror with which America’s racial narrative is taught overseas. It is simply not taught in the same way here in America. This is not to say that people in other countries are not racist. But the racism of people in other countries generally resembles tribalism or xenophobia more than the systemic societal schisms were see here. The American form of racism (much like baconnaise or deep-fried Coke) is a unique and terrible thing.

With the possible exception of Brazil, in no other post-Enlightenment country were labor and capital ever divided cleanly along racial lines. In no other post-Industrial Revolution society did labor ever own zero wealth and resources. Nowhere else in the world was national unity ever challenged and redefined by the right to own other human beings. In no country were slaves ever literally half the population, as they were in the US at the peak (trough?) of slavery as an institution. Nowhere else did it take a hundred years to ‘clean up the law books’ (read: establish a series of marginally less unequal equilibria) after slavery ended. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there should be small wonder we’re still struggling with the idea of racial equality.

When people say things like ‘there’s still a lot of racism in this country,’ I can only think ‘no shit.’ There’s very little else in American history that rivals the centrality of the racial narrative as a driver of the American identity. The concept of individualism may come close, but, lest we forget, the right to own slaves was itself for years couched in the language of individual rights. It was varying opinions on this racial divide that formed the biggest challenge to the American identity in its formative years, and it wasn’t until that schism came to a head and quite literally tore the country apart that the identity of the country coalesced into something remotely unified. White Americans- even white liberals- don’t want to hear any of this. We want to be in charge of opening and closing the debate on race. We want to define when racial America ends and post-racial America begins. Realistically, we can’t do that. The debate has been open for well over four hundred years, and we can’t close it unless we discuss our own failings as a society. Until then, there will only be more Fergusons to come.

Why Doesn’t Anything Make Sense Anymore?

Often, we tend to forget that oil supply, and hence oil prices, are heavily influenced by cartels and political pressures as much (if not more so) than they are by the whims of commodity markets. The recent dip (or crash, depending on your degree of sensationalism) in oil prices seems to be an excellent example of the interconnectedness of global politics and economics, as well as the complexity of the political situation in the early 21st-century. It seems increasingly clear that the us vs. them mentality that got us through World War II and the Cold War no longer suffices, and that the survival of any one nation on the global arena depends on its ability to navigate the increasingly complex network of relations being built.

The consensus view on the recent oil price shock seems to be that it’s primarily the cause of Saudi Arabian manipulation. Specifically, the aim of this manipulation seems to be two-fold. Firstly, it is an attempt to control the effects of the shale oil boom that North Dakota is currently undergoing. It’s fundamentally a question of price elasticity of supply- Saudi Arabia knows that it has more than enough oil such that a downward shift in price will not hugely impact its coffers. The amount of extant shale oil, however, is much lower, and a price shift could affect not only shale oil revenue, but also investment in the booming shale oil industry. This apparent Saudi hostility to US interests is not new- the relationship between the Saudis and the US has always been a rather vitriolic alliance of convenience, at best; simmering hostility at worst.

The second goal of this price manipulations seems to be targeted toward Russia and Iran who, as large oil producers, effectively depend of oil revenues for balanced budgets and (broadly) functioning economies. Russia and Iran’s fingers in Syria, specifically their support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are a threat to the Saudi’s regional dominance, and weakening these two states may well serve as a decisive shift in the conflict. This move, coming several months into a Western effort to stop the spread of ISIS, also lends some credence toward the “the Saudis are totally funding ISIS,” which has as yet gone “unproven.”

It’s fairly clear that the aim of the Saudis is a bipartite destabilization- finding the one political move they can make which would help to weaken both their neighbors to the North and their frienemies to the West. I have long been a critic of Saudi foreign policy- they have historically shown themselves to be far too willing to shake with one hand and backstab with the other. As such, the only sensible course of action given the Saudi’s latest move is to ensure that their plan backfires. Otherwise, the terrorists, quite literally, win.

The perennially unstable three-bloc system that pits the West against Russia-China-Iran against the Sunnis Middle East is inefficient, given that two of these blocs depend on the other for their energy needs, their budgetary health and their economic competitiveness. Similarly, although the Western bloc and the Russian bloc may differ in ideology, neither bloc would be opposed to a serious reigning-in of Islamic fervor around the world. Finally, while the current set up does not provide a sufficient bulwark against the rising tide of Islamism, the combined might of four of the world’s military forces might just do the job.

The problem here is that we’ve already gone down the rabbit hole far enough that the only way out, even if temporarily, is ratcheting up brinksmanship. I am fully aware that the suggestion I gave in the above paragraph is no solution at all. Fortunately, there is a genuine solution to this issue that is technically possible- to relegate energy policy to an independent, non-sovereign, international body- much as was attempted with capital policy as a result of Bretton Woods. Unfortunately, this solution is unlikely to be enacted until we’ve gone too far- human beings have a sad tendency not to see the writing on the wall. Even more unfortunately, this solution is far from perfect- nothing says “potential corruption” like “independent international body.”

Regardless of where we end up, it’s clear that “us vs them” is dead, buried and consummately rotting.

About Last Night

Now that the fog (or red mist, rather) has cleared, I’m beginning to piece together what exactly happened last night. All told, last night’s results were, I suppose, a mixed bag. Maybe that’s a good thing- after all, a functioning (or at least semi-functioning) democracy has less unity of purpose than a dictatorship, especially in a large, diverse country. So maybe we can take some solace in the fact that our democracy seems to be working. Similarly, the ‘midterm swing,’ a shift of confidence away from the President’s party, is a tried and true American tradition, although this was a swing of historic proportions- rightly worrisome to many progressives. But, lest we forget the silver linings, Cory Booker got elected in New Jersey, and my home state of Connecticut re-elected Dan Malloy, the best governor we’ve had in years. Cold comfort, though, given the number of utter whackjobs that did get elected. When is this right-wing populist obsession with ‘political outsiders’ gonna die? Who- or what, for that matter- are these people going to elect next? There is a worrying lack of historical information here: right-wing populism, especially when combined with a taste for political outsiders, rarely ends well. Hyperbolic? Sure. But, in the eternal words of Lisa Simpson, the price of democracy is eternal vigilance.

In addition to a lack of historical information, there seems to be an even more troubling gap in basic American civics. Voters, disturbed by a seemingly weak President and a do-nothing Congress, vote for the opposition. In the moment, isolated from any context, this makes sense. They assume this inaction stems from traits inherent to the President and his party, ignoring the institutional checks and balances we all apparently learned about in school. To them, the solution to an apparently milquetoast President being blocked at every juncture by the opposition party who controls the half the legislature is forcing the control of the whole legislature into their hands. The whole system of checks and balances was set up to prevent changes from taking place too quickly, and the slow pace of change in this country is, again, a sign that some aspects of our democracy are, unaccountably, still working the way they’re supposed to. Listen, if you guys want a dictator, I’m sure that can be arranged.

Bear in mind, for the handful of aspects of American democracy that are working, there’s a whole lot that aren’t. The Republicans lagged the Democrats by 1.1 million popular votes in the House election but swept a cool 34 seat majority. The article above pins this fact on politically partisan gerrymandering, and its not far from the mark. Throughout the country, most urban areas districts are crammed together, ensuring massive Democratic majorities, rather than blending urban, suburban and rural districts together to make district races in any way predictable. Some districts, such as the one I live in, don’t even field Republican candidates, and I’m sure there’s at least some rural districts out there that don’t field Democrats. One solution would be to redistrict the way we’re supposed to- through the use of politically independent census data. A better solution would be to scrap the first-past-the-post district system entirely and replace it with a proportional system which would not only allow for significantly better representation, but also a true, multi-party democracy. Imagine that- a Republican Party that isn’t held hostage by its most militant wing. We can always dream.

But what’s done is done. It’ll be a messy two years, but maybe- possibly- we’ll be in better shape for 2016. Probably not, though.