Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The politically incorrect necktie: on boycotts and secular coercion

 Republished with permission from karlremarks.blogspot. Click on the link for the original article.

Karl Sharro

A Lebanese friend recently revealed on a social networking website that he had bought a tie from Marks and Spencer. This otherwise insignificant revelation provoked a tirade of angry comments from Lebanese vigilantes that chided the irresponsible tie-wearer on his unpatriotic choice of neck wear. Even though I was aware of the M&S boycott policy as being one of the cornerstones of anti-Zionism among the Arab Diaspora, I was taken aback by the intensity of the reaction and people’s willingness to publicly chastise someone simply because of their fashion choices. This militant censoriousness is chiefly practiced by people who regard themselves as ‘secular’, and even liberal, making it much more problematic. It points to the disturbing emergence of a secular piety that is far more insidious than one stemming from a religious worldview.

Before I left for Britain several years ago, I was instructed by several Lebanese friends on the necessity of boycotting M&S because of its ‘support for Israel’. Some assured me that all the profits that it made on Saturdays went directly to the IDF. The blunt way of phrasing the argument insisted that every pound spent in M&S translated into bullets fired at the Palestinians and the Lebanese, and no one would want to live with this burden on their conscience. But aside from the veracity of the claims, which I will come back to, this argument fails to comprehend the reasons for Israel’s military superiority. This superiority is not attained through private and public foreign aid but because Israel is an advanced industrial economy that is capable of developing advanced weapons through a combination of industrial and technological development.

Although Israel receives a large amount of military aid from the US annually, in percentage terms, this aid amounts to just 15% of Israel’s military expenditure. But in parallel, Israel is now one of the largest weapons exporters in the world, with up to two thirds of its weapons production made for export. In fact, Israel exports more than double the amount of US military aid it receives. It’s worth noting that Israeli weapon exports span the full range of military equipment from ammunition to advanced warning systems and drones. By contrast, Arab countries have a very small share of the production and sales of weapons globally, despite the fact that some of them have very large defence expenditure. (Saudi Arabia had the 8th largest military expenditure in the world in 2009 for example.)

Of course the large difference in weapons production between Israel and Arab countries reflects the overall difference in levels of industrialisation and research and development capabilities between them. The notion that Israel’s military capability can be damaged through consumer boycotts in the West is misguided. Of course, most advocates of such boycotts are aware of this, that’s why boycotts are not intended as practical measures but as largely symbolic actions. A consumer boycott can be an easy and convenient way of appeasing one’s conscience and, but it is not a serious political act. But once such behaviour becomes imperative and social pressure is applied to monitor adherence to it, it becomes a form of grassroots authoritarianism that is fundamentally undemocratic in nature. The irony is that the same people who would normally oppose other forms of conformity in Arab societies would voluntarily act as social enforcers in the case of boycotts.

Going back to the claim that all the Saturday takings at Marks & Spencer tills go to the IDF, there is certainly no record of it anywhere. However, activists insist on boycotting Marks & Spencer because it trades with Israel, although its historic position of supporting Israel has been altered in recent years. I am not interested in defending Marks & Spencer, but I find the idea of promoting the Palestinian cause through consumer boycotts in the West seriously flawed. Aside from all arguments on the effectiveness of such boycotts, pretending that complex political problems can be solved through altering consumer behaviour is a perverse notion. The most dangerous aspect of this is that it turns people from active political actors into passive consumers, both of products and of political/ethical choices that are distributed via ‘trusted sources’.

Solidarity has of course played a vital role in the promotion of political causes historically; this is why it is important to understand how the expression of solidarity has altered in recent years in parallel with this shift from active political subjects to passive observers. The international volunteers that participated in the Spanish Civil War left their families and friends behind and fought alongside their republican comrades against the Fascists. This was a conscious and active political choice as opposed to the mundane consumerist choices that we are now told are legitimate expressions of solidarity. I am obviously not asking for people to volunteer in global conflicts today, but asking for a reassessment of what forms of solidarity are politically meaningful. Where you buy your underwear is not one of them.

Beyond solidarity, there is a further dimension to global boycotts that is particularly pertinent to Arab countries. Not doing business with Israel is one thing, but boycotting companies purely on the basis that they do business with Israel is a luxury that the developing economies of the Arab world. The list of companies to be boycotted because of links with Israel has Intel among many others; the consequences of boycotting Intel products will certainly have a severe impact on Arab societies. (That’s why it’s much easier to focus on Marks & Spencer, much like animal rights activists direct their energy against fur instead of leather, on the basis that it’s easier to harass rich old ladies than biker gangs.)

Taking the boycott argument to its logical conclusion reveals the arbitrariness of singling out specific companies. Should we boycott the Western countries that support Israel financially and militarily? Would anyone seriously propose not studying in the US or going on a holiday in the UK? Should we stop using American textbooks and boycott all German cars? If boycotts are not about the actual economic impacts but represent a moral imperative as some insist, then where do we draw the line of responsibility? Why is boycotting Marks & Spencer more morally pressing than the US? It seems to me that pro-boycott activists have taken their cue from another UK retailer: their message seems to be every little helps.

Like it or not, global trade links are so wide and complex today that singling out companies to boycott is impractical. But more importantly, as long as Arab countries remain as net importers of industrial products, as well as technology and knowledge, such boycotts will definitely harm Arab societies more than the intended companies. The international economic sanctions on Iraq that followed its invasion of Kuwait were a stark example of the devastating effect of disengaging from the global economy. I witnessed firsthand the deterioration in Iraqi society during the 90s as a result of the sanctions. Within the space of a decade, one of the most advanced Arab societies was set back several decades. Boycotts are in fact a form of self-imposed economic sanctions.

The advocates of boycotts are of course aware of this. They are not interested in implementing wide-ranging boycotts but in altering individual behaviour and maintaining conformity to a ‘shared’ idea. They insist on those meaningless symbolic gestures as a way of showing commitment to The Cause. But boycott vigilantism is only a symptom of widespread intellectual intolerance. By volunteering to behave like secular coercers, educated and politicised individuals are only contributing to this problem. No just cause will thrive on a climate of intellectual repression. And while we’re at it, let’s keep where we buy our underwear out of public discourse.

Monday, August 30, 2010

!بدعة لبنان: عدم التضامن الوزاري

خالد برّاج

لا زال السياسيون المنتمون إلى هذا الفريق أو ذاك إضافةً إلى الصحافيين و المحلِلين السياسيين (و ما أكثرهم) يُتحِفونا كل يوم بإستعمال تعابير و مفردات هي على الأقل هرطقة من الناحية القانونية و الدستورية و أبرز هذه العبارات التّي نسمع تردادها بشكل يومي على لسان "كبار القوم" من نوّاب و وزراء إلى رؤساء و أمناء " الدكاكين الحزبية " (و هو الوصف المنطقي و الفعلي للحالة و الجسم الحزبي في لبنان) هي عبارة " الموالاة و المعارضة ".

فعن أيّ موالاة يتحدّثون حين تكون غير قادرة على الحكم بمفردها بسبب طبيعة النظام اللبناني الطائفي المذهبي و منطِق القوّة الميلشيوي و عن أي معارضة يتحدّثون حين تُصبح هذه المعارضة شريكاً أساسياً في حكومةٍ تُفترض أن تكون حكومة وحدةٍ وطنية, فمنِ الغير المنطقي (في بلدٍ غاب فيه المنطق منذ عقود) تصنيف الأفرقاء السياسيين المشاركين في الحكومة كفريقٍ موالٍ و فريقٍ معارض لأنّ الجميع و لمجرّد المشاركة في حكومة وحدةٍ وطنية أصبحوا بالعرف السياسي و الدستوري موالون و عليه فإنّ وزرائهم المعيّنون أصبحوا مُلزمين بمبدأ التضامن الوزاري.

إنّ المعارضة لا تكون من ضمن الحكومة بل هي تأخذ طابع معارضة شعبية في بعض (أو كثير) من الأحيان أو معارضة برلمانية في مجلس النوّاب عملاً بدساتير معظم الأنظمة الديمقراطية (يُستثنى من ذلك بطبيعة الحال النظام العربي الرسمي بشِقيه التقدمي و الرجعي أو بتصنيفه الجديد بين ممانع و معتدِل) لكن بمجرّد دخول حزب معارض (أو عدّة أحزاب معارضة) إلى حكومة وحدةٍ وطنِية فإنّ صفة المعارضة تسقُط عن هذا الحزب أو ذاك و يتحوّل الحزب إلى حزبٍ موالٍ يُوافق و يطبِق من خلال وزرائه سياسة الحكومة الرسمية من الناحية السياسية, الإقتصادية, المالية و الإجتماعية.

 لكن هامش الإعتراض موجود من خلال تحفظّ وزير على قرارٍ أو مرسوم خلال جلسات مجلس الوزراء و هو تحفّظ يحصل أيضاً في حكومات من لونٍ واحد لكن مهما كانت درجة التحفظّ أو الإعتراض فإنّ ذلك يجب أن لا يمسّ بمبدأ التضامن الوزاري و هو مبدأ أساسي و مُلزِم من الناحية القانونية و الدستورية و في حال الإخلال بقواعده فإنّ ركائز الحكومة (من لون واحد أو وحدة وطنية) تُصاب بالخلل و تدخل البلاد في أزمةٍ لوجود تعارض علني داخل الحكومة ممّا يهدِد إستمراريتها (إستقالة رئيس الوزراء – إستقالة الوزراء المعترضون إلخ....)

طبعاً الوضع في لبنان مغاير تماماً, فعدم التضامن الوزاري هو السائد و التصنيف الخاطىء لفرقاء في الحكومة الحالية (أو أي حكومة وحدة وطنية) على أساس موالاة و معارضة أصبح عادياً جدّاً حتّى أنّ بعض رجال القانون المنتمون إلى الأحزاب (أو الدكاكين الحزبية كما يحلو لي أن أصف الواقع الحزبي في لبنان) يطلقون تلك الصّفات على فرقاء الحكومة الحالية في البرامج السياسية على مختلف المحطّات اللبنانية.

إنّ عدم إحترام مبدأ التضامن الوزاري و خرقه بهذا الشكل الفاضح كل يوم من قبل وزراء حكومتنا الحالية يُبيِن لنا مدى هشاشة و رجعية النظام اللبناني , لا شكّ أنّ عدم إحترام مبدأ التضامن الوزاري يستمِد قوتّه من الخلل البنيوي للنظام اللبناني الذي أعطى كيانات و جماعات طائفية و مذهبية أفضلية و أحقِية على النظام العام المدني, إنّ الوزير الذي يخرق مبدأ التضامن الوزاري من خلال تصريح أو موقف إعلامي غالباً ما يفعل ذلك ليس دفاعاً كما هو ظاهر عن مصالح المجتمع إنّما دفاعاً فقط عن مصالح الطائفة التي ينتمي إليها.

إنّ إطلاق صفة موالٍ و معارض على وزير في حكومة وحدة وطنية هو بحدّ ذاته خرق لمبدأ التضامن الوزاري, فكيف لشخصٍ (أو حزبٍ) أن يكون معارضاً لحكومة هو مشارك فيها ؟؟؟ بدعةٍ أخرى من بدع نظامٍ طائفي مذهبي زبائني مهترء.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Moronic responses to moronic behaviour: Burj Abu Haidar 2010

By now, everything that needs to be said about the 'spontaneous' 'non-sectarian''non-political' 'isolated' clashes that took place in Beirut on the night of Wednesday 25th August has been said. No matter the level of outrage, sadness and despair expressed by the Lebanese, they will all calmly get back to their Iftars and their cocktail parties while avoiding Burj Abi Haidar for the next 48 hours. What grabbed my attention in the meantime were the stale stock phrases used by a number of politicians that seemed to echo the discourse of the civil war we thought had long been buried. The lowering of expectations is now in fashion across the board. Fares Soueid led the way with his call for a ' demilitarised Beirut' , a slogan popular circa 1987, as if the rest of the country deserved being turned into a shooting range. MP Houry, a shining bright light of the Future movement, tended to agree. He came short of calling for an Afghan approach to security, with Verdun functionning as a provincial capital (read Kandahar without the British). Khodr Habib, another Hariri invention, would like to add Tripoli to the list, supposedly with a direct naval link to the capital manned by Sunnis for Sunnis.

But the biggest lowering of expectations came from an unusual source. In his address yesterday Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, better known for raising Adrenalin levels, refused to blame minister Gibran Bassil for the electricity crisis. He went even further and also absolved his predecessors from any responsibility adding philosophically that we (the people) needed to be patient. Patience is not a Lebanese virtue, but short-term memory is; something the SSNP excel at. This self-labelled Social Nationalist party (not be confused with National Socialism) called on all factions to uncouple socio-economical and political issues, because politics should only be concerned with important patriotic issues. It is worthwhile mentionning in passing the usual crowd who accused Israel of instigating the in-fighting between the two pro-SYRIAN factions. At this rate I predict that one day all the Lebanese (and some Syrians) will wake up and find themselves agents of Israel through some unconscious process. Bring on the therapists!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Facebook Garden of Eden

I agree with Eden Abergil when she says that the posting of her pictures on Facebook has been blown out of proportion.

This fresh faced lady had only intended to share with her loved ones 'the best time of her life' in the Israeli 'Defense' Forces; a formative experience in the life of many Israelis. This is a coming- of-age time to be cherished, remembered and revisited whatever career path these youngsters choose for their future. Blindfolded or not, the Palestinians are at best stooges and at worst a nuisance in an exclusively Israeli production. Theirs is not dissimilar to the role ascribed to Red Indians in a Spaghetti Western. They don't speak much, and when they do it is to utter robotic nonsense in a heavy accent. Without them the decorum just wouldn't be complete but the same could be said of the cactus or the olive tree.

So here goes Eden, a model soldier as she claims... or did she mean a soldier model. Having been dubbed 'super-sexy' by her commenting friends as she poses all smiles for the camera while elderly Palestinian men stare into the darkness of their blindfold. There is no hint of her feeling sorry for these helpless characters then, and now that she is made to explain her behaviour. Her reluctant apology addresses the potential public relation damage inflicted on Israel, not the moral dimension of her actions.

What is lacking here is not shame. Eden is not a 'bad apple' in the league of a Lynndie England torturing and sexually abusing in Abu Ghreib. No, she is boringly mainstream in a society that has relentlessly dehumanised its enemy to justify its own 'humane' project born out of the Prison camps of WW2. What is lacking instead is empathy: a skill that is harnessed in health professionals and that is actively supressed in military personnel (across the globe). The added dimension in the case of Israel is that its civilian society also suffers from the inability to empathise with 'the other'. As such, Eden cannot be blamed for not identifying at any level with the Palestinians, in their suffering but also in other mundane aspects of their lives (She jokes for example on whether the blindfolded man has a Facebook profile, as if such thing was inconceivable...for a West Bank Arab).

Having been quick to condemn, the Israeli military is unlikely to update its core curriculum in consultation with Amnesty International or the Quaker movement. Eden, had she still be enrolled would not have been lectured on the fact she has humiliated men who have daughters of her own age; living breathing human beings with an intellect, a story and a future. She would instead be encouraged to listen and learn from the polished Mark Regev as he quickly reclaims the moral high ground against the barbarian hordes that threaten civilisation.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gaza-London: A short by Dima Hamdan

'Gaza-London' is a Palestinian film about Palestinians. Dima, whom I am privileged to know personally delivers, in 15 minutes, a promising directorial debut that is no doubt close to her heart. The Israeli war on Gaza provides the background to the emotional journey of a young Palestinian, Mahmoud, played very convincigly by Sami Metwasi. The interplay between the running TV commentary in Arabic and the dark surrounding of a London winter is for me a stark reminder of another war: July 2006 in Lebanon (English summers being what they are I can be excused for the seasonal discrepancy).

It is difficult not to feel tired of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the Israeli-Arab conflict in general. Since before 1948 and the theme is one of two people pitted against each other in a spiral of violence with parallel claims to the status of suffering victim. Depending on your perspective, Israel is either a ruthless colonialist aggressor or a small country surrounded by hostile neighbours. What is less debatable is that it has succeeded in 'defending' itself for over 60 years, leaving in the process a trail of human tragedies.

'Gaza-London' covers this individual human aspect that is frequently overshadowed by the communal tragedy; the objective one that the international media tries to handle through accurate(?)bodycounts and camera shots of White phosphorus over the Gaza landscape. Anyone who has lived or fought through a war will tell you that the enduring tragedy is that of those left behind once the dead are buried. The rollercoaster of anxiety, sadness and relief experienced by Mahmoud might well turn into psychological scars. In her final scene, Dima does not answer that question for us but signals a noteworthy transformation that is very much open to interpretation.