Monthly Archives: June 2013

Right-Wing Blood and Soil Nationalism in London

Just a few days ago I returned from a conference in London (the International Communication Association). Reading the local newspapers is one of the pleasures of international travel. I thoroughly enjoy immersing myself in the local issues and journalistic agendas of wherever I am. Of course such “news of the world” is easily available these days online, but I reserve regular online reading for a few particular favorites. In any case, in reading the English newspapers I was struck by the resurgence of the English Defense League (EDL).

The EDL is a right-wing movement, characterized by all the standard fears of foreigners and militaristic jingo we have come to expect from these groups. The EDL is particularly anti-Islam and has been reenergized recently by the large-scale immigration of Muslims into Europe and in particular by the murder of Lee Rigby. Briefly, the EDL has much in common with sports hooliganism but has developed into a right-wing nationalist group that calls for the support of particular political parties and mobilizes up to 3000 supporters when necessary. Little is known about their membership or actual size but they have been successful at gaining public attention in turning out larger crowds.

I asked two British colleagues about the EDL and one said they were a minor nuisance and not to be particularly concerned about. The other said their influence was growing and we should definitely pay attention to them. I think we always need to “keep our eye on these groups” even if they do not seem to be effective. They are associated with violence and other groups such as fascists, racists, and violent civil disobedience. The EDL has been accused of burning down mosques, fire bombings, ugly graffiti, and all sorts of provocative street behavior designed to incite violence.

An interesting reason for the resurgence of the EDL, according to an article in The Guardian and a few other analyses, is that the press in general and the population is more put off by Islam and sympathetic to Islamophobia. The media are generally full of hostile attitudes about Islam and Muslims whereas in the past they were more sympathetic to targeted groups such as Jews. The EDL has all of the organizational and discursive standards of highly nationalistic groups whose particular ideology is rooted in racism but flowers in immigration laws. These groups are in serious conflict with democratic values and can represent harsh blood and soil nationalism. The possibilities of violence are always present in these groups and things get tense very quickly.

The Home Secretary, for example, last week was asked to ban the invitations for two right-wing American speakers whom the EDL invited to speak. On June 29 the EDL is planning a march on Armed Forces Days as a show of military might and militaristic symbolism in support of “pure” English culture. The two American speakers are Pamela Geller leader of the American Freedom Defense Initiative and Robert Spencer who manages a Jihad watch website.

Violence is the most defining characteristic of these groups and is justifiable grounds for preventing speech. Even though extreme opinions are not by themselves necessarily dangerous, they are typically the inducement to violence. Unfortunately, over the last few years we have increasingly defined others as “enemies.” This language immediately categorizes the other as more extreme and potentially dangerous and hence justifies more extreme behaviors. The word “enemy” is the language of the military and responsible for the ethos of undemocratic and morally indefensible tactics.

Through the growing network of television and new media it’s easier to reach large audiences by organizations like the EDL. Moreover, the immediacy of new media keeps emotional intensity stimulated and makes it easier to continue the vision of politics as warfare. The maintenance of principles for free expression will always require nuance and disagreement, but we should never lose our outrage for extremism wrapped up as nationalism.

What’s Happening in This Picture?

It’s always a legitimate question to ask whether or not a photograph is telling the truth.

Mideast Israel Palestinians
This photograph was captioned by Time magazine on April 29, 2013. It is reproduced here from Hariman and Lucaites’ No Caption Needed. The photo was slightly enhanced but apparently within journalistic limits.The original caption had an incorrect date and location and although such mistakes can be important it is not my concern at the moment.

You can see, however, that there are additional issues at stake. If you look closely the man being restrained by the police is rubbing his eyes and the one soldier is holding a spray can and pointing it toward him. The restrained man apparently resisted and the soldiers resorted to spraying something in his eyes. You can actually see a small cloud of the spray coming from the canister.

Every time I see one of these photographs I’m reminded of the Eddie Adams photograph of the Saigon chief of police holding a gun to the head of a Vietcong and about to pull the trigger. You can see it here.
Eddie Adams Photo of Vietcong

This is a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph. Regardless of what you think of the picture it is a powerful and compelling moment that communicates the tension and anxiety just before the instance of having your brains blown out.

The photograph has been associated with lawlessness and the street justice that took place during the Vietnam War and rightfully so. But the man who was shot was a known Vietcong sympathizer who apparently had committed violent acts of his own and was far from innocent. Again, I am not in any way defending the street lawlessness portrayed in the photograph but it is helpful to know what happened immediately before the moment of the photograph. Israelis often complain about a lack of context or understanding about what preceded an Israeli military incursion and that using tanks as weapons is usually a response to earlier aggression rather than an initiative. It is typical for newspapers around the world to show for example an Israeli tank destroying a house and leaving it at that – with the conclusion that Israel is engaging in excessive force. The Israelis are always chagrined at how no one asks who was in that house and what preceded the tank attack. It’s a matter of context.

We might ask the same question about the fellow rubbing his eyes and the soldier holding a spray can. I presume the soldiers are trying to disable the man so that he is no longer a threat.The caption for this picture could have read “Israeli police pepper-spray protester” and directed attention to perhaps improper behavior on the part of the police. Or, the caption could have read “man being arrested” and framed the protester as a criminal.

Lucaites and Hariman (see No Caption Needed link above) elaborate on the role of captions by pointing out that they can tell you what to think about as well as tell you what to ignore. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that this photograph is typically cast as an Israeli “peace image.” Such a classification equates peace with security which, on the one hand, is consistent with the Israeli sense of existential threat that it lives with on a daily basis. Yet, it is not an image of a warm peace rooted in cooperation and mutuality.

Images are powerful and persuasive. The public often forgets that images are designed for particular audiences on the basis of the message they express. Sometimes these designs are highly calculated and represent strategies to reinforce or create new attitudes. The role of images in the peace process – the strategic role – remains reasonably unexamined. There are, for example, moral questions that still challenge the best practices of using photographic images.

Hold onto your hat! Israeli-Palestinian Violence Is Coming

Ethan Bronner of the New York Times last week wrote about the disconnect between Israelis and the general problem they face with the Palestinians. Bronner, who was a former Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times, had recently returned to Israel and found Israelis to be almost intoxicatingly removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They could “care less” about it and are more removed from the political situation than ever. Israel is a very successful economic culture and, various social inequities notwithstanding, they are enjoying the fruits of Western democracies and market economies. Bronner writes that even the Israeli left is increasingly insignificant, and a shell of its former activist self.

I must say that this is generally consistent with my own experiences. I was teaching in Israel last year at this time and quite struck by how “bored” the average Israeli is with the entire matter. They don’t believe there is anyone to talk to or that the Palestinians are serious. I spoke to plenty of students, wait staff, bartenders, and average citizens and the majority is fed up and has simply decided to ignore the whole thing. Cynicism about the peace process is so great that nobody cares to talk about it. Israelis don’t understand the extent of their international condemnation; Israelis don’t understand how anyone could offer up political and moral support for organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah; Israelis don’t understand why the world can’t learn from the lesson in Gaza that giving the Palestinians in Gaza what they wanted (an Israeli pullout) resulted in more rockets fired into Israel.

The Palestinian Authority is in bad shape and things will get even worse with the resignation of Salam Fayyad who was focusing on economic and institutional security in the West Bank. Things are quiet at the moment with John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts deserving of some credit. Even though the Palestinian Authority continues to receive criticism, it’s unlikely for now that the system will be pushed to its limits. The Palestinians are just as tired as the Israelis but for different reasons. They are fed up with their own political leaders and divided amongst themselves with respect to how to proceed. The issues of checkpoints, settlements, prisoners, and financial matters are weakening with respect to their individual issue capabilities. In other words, these matters do not hold the intensity they once did because the population has spent the political capital associated with them and the peace process is still elusive.

The International Crisis Group (go here) issued a report on May 29, 2013 concluding that the Palestinian Authority is in financial trouble and cannot pay salaries. And although they have been recently lulled into a sleep-like state with respect to larger peace issues with Israel, things are beginning to change. The Palestinian Authority, according to the crisis group, is under threat of dissolution. It is simply likely to evolve away into a different reality as Abbas ages. Abbas has a certain amount of historical legitimacy and is committed to a negotiated settlement. But with the Palestinian Authority so fragile, and enough time has gone by such that patience is running thin, any political act (settler violence, clashes in Jerusalem, hunger striking prisoners, or some act of violence) will spark the combustible mixture into a conflagration.

It does not matter how complacent Israelis feel or how content they are about their own good faith efforts, the current situation is not sustainable for very much longer. There remains economic fragility, violence, humiliation, and perceived injustices that cannot stand a much longer test of time. Images of the Titanic come to mind with some killer iceberg waiting in the not-too-distant dark.

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