What is next for Syria?

Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar moderates a panel on seven years of the Syrian revolution featuring the great Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Thomas Pierret and Kristin Helberg.

The 18th of March 2011, marked the first sparkle of the Syrian Revolution against one of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in the region. But few months after the country entered dark phases of civil and proxy wars. The writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Syrian playwright Mohammad Al Attar, and Syrian writer and journalist Yasmine Merei, hosted group of Syrian and European experts and writers to discuss Syria’s complicated present and ambiguous future.

Continue reading “What is next for Syria?”

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In Harasta, force overpowers freedom—for now

by Fadi Dayoub

Today we are at the end of a story that is more than five-year-old.

A bittersweet story for sure, but one that saw people reach and touch the dream, even if they did not get to experience its full potential.

Only six months ago, we were debating what’s next for Harasta. We had just concluded the direct elections of a local council, a process that upheld electoral standards within our means–we even had debates among the candidates.

Harasta, to be fair, was not the first to lead the way with direct elections of a local council; Saqba did it only a month before.

And so, we were discussing what our next step should be. How to work with the council to increase the participation rate in the next elections, particularly that of women. We decided that the ‘Center for Social Engagement”–which was established a few months prior and had taken part in overseeing the elections in Harasta producing a detailed report–should focus on encouraging higher electoral turnout.

We did not know at the time those would be the last elections in Harasta…

Harasta today, as those who remain there tell us, is almost completely destroyed. Part of its people has been made, under fire, to leave and go north. They wanted to still be able to smell free air, even if away from home. Another part decided to stay back, even deprived of their basic freedoms.

A few days ago, several hundred people in Kafr Batna were filmed demonstrating, chanting “We do not want Freedom anymore!” They, thus, agreed to the trade the regime had asked of them: Their Liberty for their Life.

And so, as some Harastans choose to let go of their freedom, while others choose to let go of their homes, remember that none of this was actually their choice. They made their decision at gunpoint.

Today, as we turn the page on the five-year story of Free Harasta, I only hope for the safety and well-being of its people, wherever they are, and wherever they are made to be. We bow our heads to you in humility and we raise them with pride.

A Disquieting Suggestion

Precedents of cruelty can rarely, if ever, be left in the past. This psychodynamic is a rule in any relationship that’s presumably based on mutual trust. “The past never dies,” as Faulkner would remind us. Humans are hardwired to believe that if something has occurred once, it likely will happen again.

But how does this rule apply to large subsets of individuals? Particularly for a group of organized individuals who define their existence as one of a Promethean toiling for definite egalitarianism in every social and economic domain, i.e. the historic project of the Left. What happens when large segments of this group engage in widespread apologia for terror and murder? That is in fact what has happened over the past decade. Yet this transgression of values and principles for which the Left stands receives virtually no comment from its own intelligentsia.

After all, the spectacle of seeing comrades come to barbarize themselves in apologia for terror is a perturbing one. We marched with those people, organized with them and thought with them, only to see them go down in the flames of self-inflicted indignity. How does one deal with this fact? Some have dealt with it by unambiguous condemnation yet most have simply decided to look away from this unseemly sight. Why is that?

Analogizing this with another nation of strangers, France, is instrumental. As Eugene Weber argued, France had to stand for Patrie, as well as Progress, to transform its peasants into Frenchmen. Likewise, the Left had to stand for the universal emancipation of mankind and internationalism in order to transform an army of thick-skulled syndicalists, merely utopian pamphleteers and chauvinistic union organizers into socialists and communists. This is where both the Left and France draw most of their historic larger-than-life quality in the public’s imagination.

What happens when those values for which those groups stand for comes to clash with reality? A decade after the French State had ruthlessly massacred thousands of its own citizens in the streets of Paris during an uprising, Ernst Renan noted that, “Forgetting . . . is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

That, I believe, accounts for the conspicuous lack of engagement with the question of Left-wing apologia for terror on the part of leftist public intellectuals. The Left, after all, isn’t above history. Like every other nation or group, there’s a degree of trust and loyalty that must be safeguarded among its members. The more Left public intellectuals engage with this question, and the more leftists acknowledge the great crime of betrayal committed against Syrian leftists and democrats, the more difficult it will be to imagine a Left at all. If your comrades have betrayed leftists on the other side of the globe, what makes one think they won’t betray you? This must be brushed aside. In a strange reversal of Robespierre’s maxim, “The King must die so that the country can live,” Syrians and what has been said about them in the name of the Left must be forgotten in order for the Left to live. Without perceived loyalty and trust in the cadres, so to speak, the historic project of the Left and its raison d’etre is no more.

A reckoning may not bring redemption, but destruction, so the logic goes. And that may well all be correct. Yet that one too many Left public intellectuals think this actually will work should give us all pause on the question of whether the Left will continue exist. 

 

The Permutations of Assadism

Splintered Eye

The history of the past century is littered with episodes of anthropogenic evil: Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur. In their aftermaths, reverberated the collective riposte of “never again.” Only to be followed by Syria, awaiting its eventual transcription into modernity’s catalog of barbarism.

Seven years in the making, the internecine conflict has mutated into nothing short of a global catastrophe: culminating in the worst humanitarian tragedy of the postwar period, spawning a refugee crisis of unparalleled proportions, and fermenting a belligerent sectarianism where ‘disaster Islamism’ wound up thriving. As the world looked on in horror and outrage, it simultaneously resigned itself to the conclusion that the Syrian byzantine precluded any objective extrapolation; that it is far too “complicated” to acquire neutral information is invoked with almost chronic exhortation.

A sub-thread to this sophism of withdrawal is a rancid Assadist discourse that has colonized debate in radical circles…

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Stop pretending that you can’t do anything to save Syrians

This open letter was first published at the New York Review of Books.

The UN says it has run out of words on Syria, but we, the undersigned, still have some for the governments, parliamentarians, electorates and opinion leaders of the powers on whom the international legal order has hitherto depended.

The world is a bystander to the carnage that has ravaged the lives of Syrians. All has happened in full view of a global audience that sees everything but refuses to act.

Through Russian obstruction and western irresolution, the UN Security Council has failed to protect Syrians. To the extent that it has been able to pass resolutions, they have proved ineffectual. All they have done is provide a fig leaf to an institution that appears moribund. Perhaps conscious of the stain this might leave on its legacy, the UN has even stopped counting Syria’s dead. After seven years, these nations appear united only in their apathy.

It will be redundant to list the nature and magnitude of all the crimes that the Assad regime has committed against Syrians, aided by local and foreign militias, by Iranian strategic and financial aid, by Russian airpower and mercenaries—and by international indifference. The world that watched and averted its eyes is its passive enabler.

Syrians were shot and killed in broad daylight for protesting injustice. They were imprisoned, tortured and executed. They were bombed and shelled. They were besieged, raped and humiliated. They were gassed. They were Adisplaced and dispossessed.

Continue reading “Stop pretending that you can’t do anything to save Syrians”

Hope: two new books

the-hope-store-okitaIt just so happens that two friends of mine have new books out on hope — one fiction, one nonfiction. And both are doing readings in Chicago this month:

The Hope Store, by Dwight Okita

Book launch at Women & Children First, Thursday January 11 at 7:30 pm

Two Asian American friends, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next no one could have predicted. Meanwhile an activist group called the Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store.

 

We: Reviving Social Hope, by Ronald Aronson

Reading at The Book Cellar, Saturday January 20 at 6:00 pm

The election of Donald Trump has exposed American society’s profound crisis of hope. By 2016 a generation of shrinking employment, rising inequality, the attack on public education, and the shredding of the social safety net, had set the stage for stunning insurgencies at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Against this dire background, Ronald Aronson offers an answer. He argues for a unique conception of social hope, one with the power for understanding and acting upon the present situation. Hope, he argues, is far more than a mood or feeling—it is the very basis of social will and political action. It is this kind of hope that Aronson sees brewing in the supporters of Bernie Sanders, who advocated the tough-minded and inspired disposition to act collectively to make the world more equal, more democratic, more peaceful, and more just.  And it was directly contrasted by Trump’s supporters who showed a cynical and nostalgic faith in an authoritarian strongman replete with bigotry and misogyny.

Beneath today’s crisis Aronson examines our heartbreaking story: a century of catastrophic violence and the bewildering ambiguity of progress—all of which have contributed to the evaporation of social hope. As he shows, we are now in a time when hope is increasingly privatized, when—despite all the ways we are connected to each other—we are desperately alone, struggling to weather the maelstrom around us, demoralized by the cynicism that permeates our culture and politics, and burdened with finding personal solutions to social problems.

Yet, Aronson argues, even at a time when false hopes are rife, social hope still persists. Carefully exploring what we mean when we say we “hope” and teasing hope apart from its dangerously misconstrued sibling, “progress,” he locates seeds of real change. He argues that always underlying our experience—even if we completely ignore it—is the fact of our social belonging, and that this can be reactivated into a powerful collective force, an active we. He looks to various political movements, from the massive collective force of environmentalists to the movements around Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, as powerful examples of socially energized, politically determined, and actionably engaged forms of hope. Even in this age of Donald Trump, the result is an illuminating and inspiring call that anyone can clearly hear: we can still create a better future for everyone, but only if we resist false hopes and act together.

 

On The Astonishment That Nazis Can “Still” Have Taste

Evelyn Waugh, on a visit to Germany in 1933 shortly after the boycott of Jewish businesses, wrote: “I had come across antisemitism in Eastern Europe before, but I thought racial persecution belonged to another age. Half-civilized peoples might still indulge in it but surely not the Germany I had known.”

 

Waugh’s inability to amputate the image of the exceeding greatness of the German kulturnation from the barbarism it could thus deport itself to was by no means uncharacteristic of his age, nor, apparently, ours. Consider the New York Times article in which its author is too incapacitated in his fascination with a self-described white nationalist’ highbrow cultural tastes and lifestyle (he watches Seinfeld!) to aptly represent the danger that his subject poses. The New York Times’ decision to publish it—if the institution is to be taken as a yardstick for enlightened opinion—suggests that the intellectual class, or at least a fraction of it, is no longer able to imagine, along with George Steiner, that we “now know that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

 

It’s not incidental that no other killing field can compete with symbolic resonance of the Nazis’ concentration camps in the postwar moral economy. For Tony Judt, National Socialism’s ultimate demonic status serves “a rather distinctive reminder—or a distinctive warning—of what happens when the patina cracks . . . civil society, public life, open political systems and the forms of behavior they encourage and on which they depend, are all paper-thin constructions. They are all more fragile than it suits us to believe.” Judt here is arguing in an idiosyncratically Benjaminian spirit in tangible terms. That which appears as progress—and that cultivation which Fauccet and Waugh are disarmed by in fascists’ tastes contra their monstrous beliefs—is in fact the storm that drives the Angel of History “irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”

The Nazis’ uniqueness was in their ability to successfully conceal their true nature behind the sheen of Progress to a public easily astonished by Speer’s grandiose architecture and august Wagner symphonies. At any rate, we came to see that our prewar narcissistic obsession with the modern, civilized and sophisticated causes one to be too disoriented to suspect that the civilizing mission may perhaps be a pretence for something sinister—the bread and butter of colonialism’s stated historic mission and moral valence. Hitler’s crimes occurred in the house next door. Not against faceless peasants in the Congo or the Soviet Union, but against a key, though problematic, component of Western civilization: European Jewry. This time, as Philip Lopate pointed out, it was “gentle, scholarly, middle-class, civilized people who are then packed into cattle cars . . . images of Jews lined up in their fedoras and overcoats tug at our hearts precisely because we see them as individuals.” Civilization was not a guarantee against barbarism, neither at home nor abroad.

This somewhat commonplace realization and its impingement on Europeans’ conscience in the post-war era necessitated the popularization of that now-familiar epoch-defining Herculean-pledge—“Never Again.” Lest it loses its moral valence, it had to be universalized. Atrocities at the edges of Europe and beyond were rendered more or less visible. The entire affair of memorializing genocide—be it that of the Armenian genocide or Stalin’s Gulags—wasn’t a reality before the aftermath of the Shoah. When Europeans had learned that, in Steiner’s words, “the high places of literacy, of philosophy, of artistic expression, became the setting for Belsen,” the crimes their states were committing against Non-Europeans were too unbearable to imagine. As Jeremy Rifkin noted, the developed postwar societies saw “the greatest single empathic surge in history . . . When we say to civilize, we mean to empathize.” This is a key paradigmatic shift which has facilitated de-colonization and the ascent of human rights discourse in the West. The Holocaust’s capacity to solidify this paradigmatic shift, for Judt, was in its ability to capture “something for which we lack a modern vocabulary, but which lies at the heart of our recent past and thus our present inheritance. That something is the idea of evil.”

That something seems to be an anachronism today and it can be attested to in the nation’s “paper of record.”