PULSE: 20 Top Global Thinkers of 2009
December 16, 2009 § 39 Comments
On 30 November 2009 Foreign Policy magazine published its ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’ list. We were naturally skeptical since the selection included Dick Cheney, General Petraeus, Larry Summers, Thomas Friedman, Bernard-Henri Lévy, David Kilcullen, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salam Fayyad, The Kagan Family (yes, all of them) and Ahmed Rashid among others. We don’t consider any of these people thinkers, let alone having global significance, and we couldn’t help but notice that the main thrust of all their work aligns with the global military and economic agenda of the US government. In response we asked twelve of our writers and editors to nominate their Top 20 global thinkers of 2009. Our criteria included choosing those who inspire critical thinking, as well as those who have been able to buck received wisdom and shape public debate. Always agreeing with their statements and positions was not a requisite, but in all cases our selections involved nominating those who have spurred people to challenge or enhance their own thinking in different ways. The following is our unranked list.
The top nominee when it came to number of votes among PULSE contributors, Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy is as much known for her non-fictional political work as she is for her award-winning fiction. She is a spokesperson of the alter-globalization movement and a critic of hegemonial US foreign policy, as well as vocal on behalf of the anti-nuclear and environmental movements both in India and abroad. She is also a staunch critic of the repressive Indian policies in Kashmir. Most recently a contributor to We Are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples (October 2009), Roy continues to be passionately engaged and eloquently outspoken in building a social movement towards developing alternatives. Her latest book is Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt went public with their opposition to war at a time when most in the mainstream were cowering under the neoconservative propaganda assault, first with a paid advert in the New York Times on 26 September 2002 followed by an op-ed piece on 2 February 2003. They returned in 2006 with an explosive article in the London Review of Books published after it had been turned down by every publication in the United States, including the Atlantic Monthly which had first commissioned it. They had finally broken what the late Edward Said called ‘the last taboo’ — the causes of the so-called ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel: the Israel lobby. For the first time the power of the lobby was subjected to the scrutiny it had hitherto escaped — as much due to the complicity of the mainstream as due to leftist orthodoxy which has frequently given AIPAC and the neocons a free pass. The article was subsequently turned into a bestselling book, and both Mearsheimer and Walt have remained engaged with the subject since, both in their writings and on the lecture circuit. The impact that these two individuals have had in shifting the debate on the US relationship with Israel in the past few years is palpable in the new, more focused, activism it has inspired, directly challenging the institutions responsible for sustaining Israeli rejectionism. Walt’s blog is an essential daily stop for anyone with interest in US foreign policy, and Mearsheimer continues to write for the London Review of Books and others.
Mamdani is one of the world’s most respected public intellectuals, and the leading authority on Africa. He has been a dynamic figure since his days at Harvard when he led a student strike against tuition hikes in the 1970s. He has written many important and timely books on the colonial legacy and state formation in Africa, citizenship, identity, the politics of the War on Terror, Islamophobia, and humanitarian intervention among other issues. In 2009 he made yet another splash with his explosive new book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, a book in which he unraveled the politics of the Save Darfur Coalition and the quasi humanitarian rationales marshaled in support of the expanding ‘war on terror’. Mamdani is also an impressive public speaker, with a confident, deliberate and engaging manner which, coupled with his impressive command of the various subjects he lectures on, rarely leaves an audience unpersuaded. Mamdani is the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University and he is married to the filmmaker Mira Nair (director, most recently, of the excellent Amelia, starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere).
Professor of history at Tel Aviv University, Shlomo Sand has written one of this year’s most important books. The Invention of the Jewish People shows that the notion of the Jews as a race, and the direct descendants of the ‘chosen people’ of the Old Testament, is a myth developed in the nationalist-fascist environment of 19th Century Europe. The closest relatives of the ancient Israelites are today’s Palestinians; and today’s Jews are the descendants of converts from southern Russia and North Africa. A crucial contribution, Sand’s work undermines the blood-and-soil aspects of Zionism as well as the fantasies of Christian Zionism.
Novelist, journalist, historian of ideas and social commentator Pankaj Mishra continues to analyse change in South Asia and Europe. A polymath, his “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World” integrates the rise of the Indian middle class, Nietzsche, the Taliban, and Mishra’s own life story in a seamless whole. The Kashmir chapter of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” should be a compulsory text on journalism courses. Mishra’s criticism is refreshingly aware of class, but also refreshingly free of the leftist approach which degrades culture to ‘superstructure’. His “Culture of Fear”, an important essay on contemporary Islamophobia and a riposte to Christopher Caldwell, was published in the Guardian (and here at PULSE) this year.
When one thinks of deep ecology, eco-feminism and seed sovereignty, the name Vandana Siva is never far away. This Indian-born physicist, philosopher and alterglobalisation activist has been active in environmental sustainability, food security and global justice movements and has advocated for many traditional practices. Shiva’s globally influential thinking is a powerful amalgam of her work on the environment, agriculture, spirituality, and women’s rights. Presently she is in Copenhagen calling on world leaders to deliver on their promises on climate justice. It is also apt that 4 (with Pakistani-born Tariq Ali) of the top 10 thinkers writing in English should hail from the sub-continent, with over a billion of the world’s population.
Expatriate Australia journalist, author and documentary-maker John Pilger has been, since his early years as a war correspondent in Vietnam, a trenchant critic of the foreign policy of many Western countries, including Australia. In a number of books and documentaries he has developed his ideas about Western imperialism and motivations for war. His courage as a foreign and war correspondent, his citation for the 2009 Sydney Peace Prize in part reads, has enabled the voices of the powerless to be heard. He is the author of several influential books that engage with investigative journalism, power, displaced peoples, and imperialism, including most recently, Freedom Next Time (2006). He also writes a regular column published in the New Statesman.
In 2003, shortly after the United States had launched its illegal war of aggression against Iraq, Chris Hedges drew the ire of the right by delivering a stirring denunciation of the war. Shortly after when the New York Times tried to muzzle him he left the paper which he had served as the Middle East bureau chief for more than 10 years. He has been prolific as a writer since, and has emerged as one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. His book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is already ranked as a classic. He has written many more since, several of them New York Times bestsellers. His weekly columns for TruthDig are always a tour de force which combine solid reportage with phenomenal erudition and aphoristic eloquence. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
British-Pakistani writer, novelist and filmmaker Tariq Ali has been campaigning for peace and social justice for more than 40 years. He gained prominence as an icon of the New Left when he publicly engaged in debate about the Vietnam War with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Michael Stewart, as well as travelled to conflict zones as a member of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and journalist. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, The Guardian, and many other progressive publications. Ali has also authored several books and novels focused on politics and history, including a collection of essays entitled The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which helped spur desperately needed debate about the events of 9/11. Ali continues to appear at events endorsing progressive and peace-promoting initiatives and is among the world’s top living public intellectuals. More recently Ali’s political commentary has been focused on unravelling the rhetoric of those who advocate for continued occupation of Afghanistan and military strategies in Pakistan. A contributing editor of the popular New Left Review, Ali is also the editorial director of London publishers Verso and is responsible for helping many new progressive journalists and writers find platforms through which to make their voices heard.
Nobel laureate development economist (‘The Mother Teresa of Economics’) and academic Amartya Sen hails from India and has been globally influential for his work on poverty and famine, human development theory, welfare economics. His innovative work on the underlying mechanisms of poverty, gender inequality, freedom and capacity has developed the thesis that inequality of power matters as much as inequality of resources or income, and that gender equality is an important requisite of development, not a consequence of it. Though an expatriate, he still spends the academic winters in India every year.
Author of several books including the ground-breaking The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli-born historian Ilan Pappe has spent much of his academic career dissecting and disputing Zionist propaganda about the creation of Israel and Zionist policies against Palestinians. Born to parents who fled Nazi Germany and a former member of the IDF (he served during the Yom Kippur War), Pappe’s research into the Nakba of 1948 helped confirm that at least 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes through various means by Zionists. Like the late Tanya Reinhart, Pappe left Israel in 2008 after finding it increasingly difficult to live a normal life due to the increasingly hostile treatment he was forced to endure by his fellow Israelis, which included death threats and attacks against his teaching position by a member of the Israeli Knesset. More recently Pappe has focused on what he has called Israel’s genocidal policy against Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, and was a staunch critic of the Israeli government’s assault on Gaza in December 2008/January 2009 which took the lives of an estimated 1,400 Palestinians in less than one month.
Philip Weiss’s impact in shifting the public debate on Israel inside the United States is second only to Mearsheimer and Walt’s. Mondoweiss.net has emerged as the most influential, provocative and lively place for debate on the Israel Palestine conflict and the US role in it. Weiss has subjected the lobby, and the permissive culture within which it had until now flourished, to intense scrutiny, but he has done it in a rational, measured tone which encourages engagement without alienating anyone except the most hardened of Zionists. Weiss’s musings are passionate, cerebral, and infused with humanity. His site has also become the focus of dissent within the US Jewish community. Weiss is an inspiration to us and has shown us the potential of citizen journalism to change discourses and to hold the mainstream media accountable.
Founder of the Electronic Intifada and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse (2006), Ali Abunimah is perhaps Palestine’s most articulate contemporary voice. His universalist, rights-based approach to justice in Israel-Palestine has the potential to make as many allies as did the South African anti-apartheid campaign. Many more people realised over the course of 2009 that a viable two-state solution isn’t going to happen; as a result, Ali Abunimah’s vision of an inclusive one-state future becomes steadily more relevant. This year Abunimah has tirelessly campaigned for BDS and responded in the media to the Gaza massacre and Obama’s theatrics.
Robert Fisk shuns adulation and insists that he be seen as only a “journalist,” but in our view, despite the fact we take him to task on occasion, he is among the most important journalists of all time. Stationed in the Middle East for more than 30 years, Fisk has reported some of the most important stories from the region, providing context and a deeper level of analysis than one finds in mainstream journalism. Fisk has also used his years of relevant study and experience to comment on the origin of conflicts by providing a broader context in such classic works as Pity the Nation, and The Great War for Civilization. In addition to monitoring the “centers of power,” Fisk has always attempted to unravel stories beyond the standard and often limited frames within which mainstream journalism operates. He is the archetype of the scholar-reporter, and his work emphasizes that if there is a solution to be found, one must first endeavour to understand the cause of the problem.
Canadian journalist and author Naomi Klein writes on a number of social justice issues, from corporate dominance, threats to the environment, to human rights abuses by governments in conflict zones. Early in 2009 Klein publicly endorsed calls to boycott Israel for its abhorrent policies against and abuses of Palestinian human rights and more recently spear-headed the ‘Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation’ initiative. This resulted in an open letter with over 1,000 signatories (with the names of prominent public figures and celebrities) protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s City-to-City Spotlight on Tel Aviv after Israel’s recent murderous month-long assault on the Gaza Strip in December 2008. Klein’s contributions to the fight for social justice are particularly important in part because, herself a Jew, she has allowed her own evolution of thought about the Israel-Palestine conflict to become a point of public focus.
Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano began making political commentary publicly at the age of 14 when one of his political cartoons was published in a socialist magazine in 1954. He was imprisoned and forced to flee Uruguay after the military coup that overtook the country in 1973 and has committed himself to battling the “amnesia” that Latin America has been “condemned” to suffer from ever since. Never one to write without passion or vigour, Galeano’s way with his pen propels readers into feeling—there is no way to ignore his descriptions of injustice or suffering or to dismiss his retelling of history, whether he chooses to relay it through a journalistic article or a story. In 2008 (the same year that Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone was first published in Spanish), Galeano publicly commented on the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency by stating: “The White House will be Barack Obama’s house in the time coming, but this White House was built by black slaves. And I’d like, I hope, that he never, never forgets this.” One year later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was photographed giving President Obama a copy of Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (considered a must-read by Latin American history scholars) with the written inscription: “For Obama, with affection.” The American president called it a “nice gesture.”
Omar Barghouti is an independent Palestinian researcher and human rights activist who, like Abunimah, advocates an ethical vision for a secular democratic state in historic Palestine. Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and a leader of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. Combining activism with writing, he has written extensively on political and cultural affairs, including a contribution to the philosophical volume, Controversies and Subjectivity (2005) and to The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid ( 2001).
In the age of reality TV, Guitar Hero and nonsense, it is no mean feat to make philosophy popular and entertaining without compromising its complexities. With his eccentric public persona, an inimitable speaking style, and prolific writings on subjects as diverse as psychoanalysis, Marxism, postmodernism, violence, torture, revolution to pop culture, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has infused intellectual debates with a vigor which most thought had vanished with the Cold War. He may get a few things wrong, but his ideas remain fresh due to his unrelenting assault on orthodoxies of both left and right. Following the Gaza war he also proved himself as good as his words by joining the call for the boycott of Israel. His latest book is First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.
As fierce a critic of humanism as Schopenhauer was of Christianity, philosopher, writer and social commentator John Gray continues to deflate the lazy assumptions of the mainstream. Gray’s Anatomy, a collection of his work, was published this year. Previous books include Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern (2003), which confronted the triumphalist version of modernity, Straw Dogs (2003), which attacked the notion of human volition, and Black Mass (2008), in which Marxism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism and even ‘new atheism’ are shown to have been vehicles for apocalyptic religious discourses. Gray is always provocative and – unusually for a philosopher – he writes very well indeed.
A Swiss philosopher of Egyptian origin, Ramadan writes on Islam, citizenship, law, immigration and integration. Enormously influential amongst British Muslims, he remains unpopular with establishments the world over. He has been forbidden entry to the US, is not welcome in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and in August was dismissed from Rotterdam’s Erasmus University for the crime of presenting a debate programme on Press TV. What I Believe and Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation were published this year. The latter calls for a revitalised Islamic ethics which puts contemporary cultural and scientific knowledge on an equal footing with scripture.
And our list wouldn’t be complete without the following honorable mentions:
Alice Walker, Andrew Bacevich, Azmi Bishara, Bill McKibben, Breyten Breytenbach, David Harvey, Germaine Greer, Gore Vidal, Ha-Joon Chang, Howard Zinn, James Hansen, Joseph Stiglitz, Karen Armstrong, Ralph Nader, Richard Falk, Stephen Hawking, and Walden Bello.