Patriots’ Day 240

Today, in Massachusetts it’s Patriots’ Day, a holiday on which this year we mark 240 years since the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 — depicted with some artistic license in the Capitol frieze currently featured at the top of this website.

For those of you not fortunate enough to be from Massachusetts, that was the day that the great and democratic people of this state decided to liberate the rest of the dithering colonies from Great Britain, over a year before everyone else could be bothered to sign the Declaration of Independence.

You’re all welcome.

Now here’s a photo I took last 4th-of-July Weekend of a cow next to Battle Road in Lexington. This cow is wholly unimpressed by your lack of Massachusetts-centric patriotism today.

Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy

Photo Credit: Bill Humphrey for Arsenal For Democracy

Conservatives can hate Massachusetts all they want, but that doesn’t change the fact that we shot first at the monarchy.

As a native, I can assure the rest of the country that we definitely haven’t forgotten about any of the early events leading to the Revolution. Massachusetts took a lot of the brunt of the British response before and during the American Revolution. Things like the Third Amendment are mostly about how we really don’t want British troops living for free in our houses in Boston. The American Revolution is a big part of Massachusetts history classes from grade school through high school, and the historical sites are literally all around us.

Contrary to the snide remarks of conservatives in many other states, I think we Bay Staters have a pretty solid handle on what the American Revolution was about and what unreasonable government oppression looks like. Nevertheless, Massachusetts folks by and large seem pretty happy with the progressive agenda they’ve been voting their representation into office to enact. If it were tyranny — or even mildly inconvenient, as in the case of tea taxes passed without legislative representation — we would have noticed by now.

Why did Niger explode in violent protests on Charlie Hebdo?

More than 40 churches were burned in two-day riots in Niger this past weekend ostensibly over the publication of the post-attack edition of Charlie Hebdo with yet another cartoon of Muhammad on the cover.

niger-map-ciaAs the BBC notes in the quotes below, a reaction of some kind in Niger wouldn’t be out of the ordinary — there were, after all, also protests (some violent) in Pakistan, Sudan, Algeria, Somalia, and other countries on the same day the riots in Niger began — but the intensity was startling.

(Moreover, Niger doesn’t have a serious Christian-Muslim sectarian split the way Central African Republic’s now war-torn population does, which would normally be a prerequisite factor for explosive and seemingly sectarian violence like this.)

Niger’s population is 99% Muslim, so it wasn’t a surprise that there was a reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s caricature. But what was surprising was the scale of the subsequent protests and violence. Similar demonstrations in the past have been conducted peacefully, and even the authorities could not come up with an answer as to why the latest riots turned ugly.

 
So what are some of the suggested reasons for the widespread reaction? From the same BBC analysis:

One school of thought is that protesters were angry about their president attending the solidarity march of world leaders in Paris after the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s office.

A second theory is that the violence was fuelled as much by politics as religious grievance – an idea given credence by the fact that protests started in the opposition stronghold of Zinder.

The last and the most complex theory relates to Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group from neighbouring Nigeria. Officials are reportedly investigating whether the group were involved in stoking the protests – they say a Boko Haram flag was seen – though whether the government is merely exploiting the group to gain outside sympathy remains to be seen.

 
I would also venture a possible fourth hypothesis, bridging the first and second as well as the specific and unusual targeting of Catholic Churches.

Niger, in the post-colonial period, has been subjected to an exceptionally high level of French meddling and military presence relative even to the other former French colonies. In large part, this is because of France’s large domestic nuclear power capacity, which in turn depends heavily on access to uranium deposits in Niger. Niger is extremely poor, extremely underdeveloped, and extremely unstable (very coup-prone). People are persistently pretty miserable, and France has been fairly heavy-handed about interfering in politics and security affairs to ensure continued stability of access to uranium but hasn’t offered much else.

In a country that is 99% Muslim and continues to face seemingly neo-colonialist, extractive involvement by France, Catholic Churches are probably the most visible and plentifully distributed symbols of continued French influence in Niger. If I were angry at my largely failed government (or wave after wave of governments whose only consistent feature was loyalty to the former occupier), I might start looking pretty disapprovingly at those easily reachable (and thus targetable) symbols of colonialism and failed pro-French governance. Combine that with another visible show of support by the local government for the concerns of the French citizenry (and an offensive magazine that often seemed to traffic in offensive colonial-era tropes) over the Nigerien population, and it’s a particularly volatile mix.

I don’t know if this is what the rioters were actually thinking when they attacked the churches, but it would probably make the most sense as an explanation in a situation where there had not been a recent history of sectarian religious war. In that light, the riots would not be religiously grounded but rather a reaction to the French system and continued abuses of the people, locally and from abroad.

Unfortunately, this kind of instability will probably only make France reinforce its permanent military presence in the country because it will convince them they were right not to trust the locals to maintain the stability and security of the country’s uranium deposits, upon which France relies so heavily.

Odd moments in decolonization: São João Baptista de Ajudá

Fort São João Baptista de Ajudá was an early 18th century Portuguese fortress embedded within the city of Ouidah in Dahomey. The latter was an African kingdom that had itself just conquered the coastal city when Portugal was granted the territory for a fort, and then it became a French colony until 1960, and it was ultimately renamed Benin in 1975 during the country’s Marxist revolution.

While the fort zone and city were influential, initially, in the history of Portuguese slaving in West Africa and in the kingdom’s interface with the European powers, the fort was soon handed to a Brazilian company and later abandoned — whereupon it fell into disrepair until Portugal reclaimed it in the 1860s. But after this brief restoration to power, it rapidly lost influence and territory as France came to power in the kingdom around it. Even a late 19th century effort to establish a Portuguese protectorate over the city ended with complete French control of everything outside the physical walls of the fort. Quietly, Portugal began disengaging and pulling out but continued to assert authority over the “territory” into the second half of the 20th century.

When French Dahomey was decolonized in 1960, the fort at “Ajudá” was still a Portuguese-ruled enclave in Ouidah, and the Portuguese dictatorship was very determined to retain all its overseas possessions (most of which were then in or approaching open revolt, or had already been annexed to other liberated countries). However, despite its military and strategic origins, São João Baptista de Ajudá proved neither very valuable nor defensible a year later when Dahomey’s new republican government demanded control of the enclave. Mainly because it was infinitesimal in size and had almost no people. That being said, those still there seemed pretty darn determined to not go down without a fight … a really, comically pathetic fight.

From the Wikipedia summary of the final event:

Until its annexation by Dahomey in 1961, São João Baptista de Ajudá was probably the smallest recognized separate modern political unit, initially around 1 km2 and being reduced until only 2ha (5 acres) by that time: according to the census of 1921 it had 5 inhabitants and, at the moment of the ultimatum by the Dahomey Government, it had only 2 inhabitants representing Portuguese sovereignty, who tried to burn it rather than surrendering it. When the fort was captured, they were hastily escorted to the Nigerian border and expelled from the country.

 
So…not exactly the Alamo or 300 Spartans against the Persian Empire.

I assume that the lesson “pick your battles” was not taken to heart by those two residents and their five-acre colony.

In the end, the fort was not burned and was eventually restored as a historic site with funds from the post-colonial Portuguese government some time after the 1975 transition to democracy.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew "Black Bart" Roberts following the capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.

Dramatic engraving of Pirate captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, following his capture of 11 ships outside the Portuguese Fort at Ouidah in the other dramatic episode it is famous for. Engraved by Benjamin Cole.

Destined to fail? The hardline-Sharia breakaway states of history

Since the 19th century, various leaders and groups across North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East have attempted to establish brand new states with Islamist theocratic and expansionist governments. This tradition merely continues today with organizations acting in the vein of ISIS and several others today as well as a few rapidly derailed others in recent years. These efforts have fallen apart pretty easily every time, as discussed in a New York Times op-ed by David Motadel, a University of Cambridge historian, who has studied these movements.

They are formed in response to crisis, civil war, state failure, anti-colonialism, or some combination. They progress from rebel force seizing territory to seeking to establish states to expand their military capacities (via revenue collection and such), but then they make themselves into highly visible (and attackable) fixed targets, and they inevitably prove inept at governance, resulting in a rapid loss of popular support. Here’s one of several examples provided:

Equally short lived was the Mahdist state in Sudan, lasting from the early 1880s to the late 1890s. Led by the self-proclaimed Mahdi (“redeemer”) Muhammad Ahmad, the movement called for jihad against their Egyptian-Ottoman rulers and their British overlords, and it established state structures, including a telegraph network, weapon factories and a propaganda apparatus. The rebels banned smoking, alcohol and dancing and persecuted religious minorities.

But the state was unable to provide stable institutions, and the economy collapsed; half of the population died from famine, disease and violence before the British Army, supported by Egyptians, crushed the regime in a bloody campaign, events chronicled in “The River War” by the young Winston Churchill, who served as an officer in Sudan.

 
I think probably the only example of a surviving anti-colonial Islamist theocracy is Iran after 1979, which isn’t discussed in the article. But that’s because there’s not much similarity, despite the apparent end game. The Iranian radicals seized complete political power in a defined, pre-existing country with an existing and functioning state. There wasn’t a huge external crisis or war happening at the time, and they didn’t have to fight their way into power with a full-scale rebellion or insurgency. Moreover, the Iranian revolutionaries immediately turned the engine of the state (albeit with heavy purging of old regime loyalists) toward populist provision of services. And then they were soon invaded by Saddam Hussein, which helped mobilize the population for a patriotic defense against him, thus further securing the continuance of the new government in the state. In other words, the Iranians came to power very differently from how groups in the mold ISIS have tried to establish state authority, and they did everything they needed to so that they would be on a durable footing.

ISIS may be more tech-savvy and one of the best armed of these groups over the course of more than a century — though they’re also facing modern armed forces and not 19th century French infantry — but they have already shown themselves to be repeating the same patterns that led to the collapse of the prior efforts. You can alienate the people some of the time, if you provide food and services, but you can’t provide that without risking external attacks (like we’ve been seeing) or else a demonstration of gross incompetence in governing…and you can’t stop providing those things and continue alienating the people, without falling from power.

As Motadel observes near the end of his column: Read more

Can Guinea-Bissau’s new civilian president dump the military leadership?

One of the major challenges in trying to reform a country’s military to keep them from interfering with governance is whether the meddlers can be removed without them meddling again. Guinea-Bissau’s Army chief, General Antonio Indjai, who was indicted last year in U.S. court for a scheme to send weapons and drugs to Colombian rebels, has been relieved of command by President José Mário Vaz of Guinea-Bissau this week.

The latter only became president in June of this year in free elections after defeating the military’s candidate. He was a finance minister in an earlier government before it was overthrown. Guess who overthrew that government? Why, none other than General Indjai.

In fact, Indjai staged the military coup in 2012 — which blocked presidential elections from being completed — in response to an earlier effort to reform the military under the supervision of Angolan advisers and troops. (Angola is a fellow ex-Portuguese colony that became independent about the same time.) In 2010, Indjai staged a mutiny to become army chief in the first place. Will he go peacefully this time? The better bet is probably no, but perhaps Vaz has an ace up his sleeve and is confident he can make this go off without a hitch.

Guinea-Bissau is one of the least stable countries in the world, with no elected leader having ever left office peacefully, voluntarily, and/or alive in the four decades since independence. In the last fifteen years, the capital power struggles have been particularly intense and bloody — including three successful coups, two high-profile assassinations, and one civil war. Drug traffickers suggested in 2009 that Guinea-Bissau might actually qualify as more dangerous and unstable than Somalia.

To replace General Indjai, President Vaz appointed a close ally and veteran soldier from the country’s war for independence, which ended in 1974 with the overthrow of the Portuguese home government.

The appointment of General Biague Na Ntan, 61, an ethnic Balanta like Indjai, could smooth over any resentment from the ethnic group that makes up about 60 percent of the army and security forces and 25 percent of the population.

 
He had been commanding the presidential guard prior to his promotion to head of the army.

Far across the continent of Africa, the leader of Lesotho also recently tried to fire the head of his country’s armed forces, only to find himself fleeing a coup attempt, which has now divided the military’s loyalties. That crisis, which has still not been resolved, has to be weighing heavily on the mind of President Vaz in Guinea-Bissau as he tries to remove his own army chief and past coup leader.

As an additional stressor, Guinea-Bissau remains on high alert right now for any signs that the Ebola outbreak might have arrived from neighboring Senegal or Guinea-Conakry, the outbreak epicenter.

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

Colonial sci-fi

Very interesting Atlantic article this week: “Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People”

A researcher doing a meta-analysis of science fiction found its initial rise to prominence and formation as a coherent genre is tied directly to the height of imperial Britain and colonial France, both in time and place. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and so on.

(And though it wasn’t mentioned in the piece, American sci-fi like A Princess of Mars/John Carter of Mars, a serialized allegory about the American Civil War, rose to prominence just a little later as America became a global power, between the Spanish-American War and U.S. entry into World War I.)

After its origins in imperial Britain and colonial France, the genre’s allegory has broadly bifurcated into “we’ll get what was coming to us for the horrors of colonial oppression” versus “man, this is awesome — we should keep killing everyone who doesn’t look like us because we’re the best, and if we don’t, we’ll be oppressed, and white people don’t deserve that.”

As for myself, I find my tastes distinctly in the former camp. Box office bomb aside, I refused to watch Disney’s “John Carter” on principle, because the original story is an obvious allegorical paean to the Confederacy and antebellum South through the lens of a race war between aliens on another planet. The antebellum South, of course, being the height of America’s internal white supremacist colonialism.

Also my tastes tend that way just because I’m totally the type of person who would try to surrender the entire planet to an invading alien military, instead of trying to re-enact “Independence Day.” Maybe that makes me the Marshal Philippe Pétain of our planetary future, but I just assume that if a huge landing force of aliens arrives at Earth while we’re still sending people to our dinky “space” station (which is actually still in our atmosphere) on barely-upgraded-from-the-Soviet-era spaceships, we’ve probably already lost that conflict. Better to surrender quickly and wage a guerrilla resistance to wear the occupiers down — what we humans do best — than try to fight off the initial invasion and lose everything. Or, failing that, we’ll just get what’s coming to us.

Illustration: "Martians vs. Thunder Child" from a 1906 printing of "The War of the Worlds" by H.G. Wells.

Illustration: “Martians vs. Thunder Child” from a 1906 printing of “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.

Communism, political Islam, and resistance

Yesterday in a post about the Uighurs wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, I made an allusion to U.S. Cold War policies toward anti-colonial movements in developing nations, which I want to explore further today:

And the United States in particular needs to stop lumping together every rural Muslim male with a gun as an “Islamic terrorist.” It’s not a helpful approach to the conflicts from southeast Europe to northwest China and everywhere south of that (including much of Africa now). It’s just as bad as our refusal to make nuanced distinctions among different Communist-affiliated nationalist independence movements in Africa and Asia during the Cold War.
[…]
We’ve heard this before, after World War II, when the United States decided to fight pro-American independence groups like the Viet Minh because of their Communist alignment, instead of embracing fellow anti-colonialists.

 
In hindsight, many American intellectuals can see that there were alliances to be made, which we rejected to our detriment. But even today, a lot of people — particularly on the conservative end of foreign policy — are still refusing to make the distinctions.

We saw this come up a few weeks ago in discussions over the legacy of Nelson Mandela. The Cold War mentality produced a lot of tangled, unlikely, and unfortunate alliances all around, for both the Americans and the Soviets. Nelson Mandela, while not a communist himself, was willing to work with communists who shared his core principles of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, and often (but not always) a unitary nationalism.

The United States ought to have joined in that approach, rather than siding with the crazed white supremacist regime that Mandela was resisting. But we couldn’t see past the communist involvement in the movement.

Why communism?

The reality of the situation in much of the developing world after World War II was that the communists were often the best organized members of the wider nationalist independence movements in those nations. And their affiliation with the independence movements — while sort of contrary to original Marxian views that all borders, boundaries, and national divisions were lies intended to divide the global working classes and turn them against each other — was not a huge surprise, given the influences of Lenin on 20th century communism around the world.

Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, certainly had a range of terrible policies as a leader. But before he became a dictator, he was a key contributor to communist theory.

Perhaps his biggest contribution was toward explaining the merger of colonial economics and political imperialism. When other thinkers were still purely obsessed with overthrowing industrial governments in Europe, Lenin was actually raising pointed criticisms of colonialism and explaining how the extractive relationship was harming poor and working class people both in the colonized and colonizer nations.

(The low-cost or enslaved labor of colonized nations, Lenin felt, had made possible the manufacture of so many cheap goodies back home in the colonial powers that The People in those countries were content enough not to rise up. He further argued that colonialism was just one tool of a global financial system geared toward big business capitalism and that it provided the cheap, raw resources necessary to fuel the wealth accumulation of the industrialists’ growing mega-companies. Lenin wanted to cut the legs out from under the big capitalists and spur their European workers to rise up, and neither development was helping.)

So the Soviet Union, despite what was essentially its own colonization of the outer periphery of the former Russian Empire, ended up expending a lot of energy and resources in aiding independence movements in developing regions. The deal was that you would get help in exchange for becoming a communist and pledging to support the Soviet Union.

And so it was that many activists in the developing world joined communist movements out of a sense that Lenin’s theories and Soviet assistance offered the best route to political and economic independence for their home countries.

More broadly, they also saw communism as a way toward a more egalitarian and inclusive society than the divide-and-conquer political strategies of the occupying powers and the economic inequality they were fostering as they created ruling elites, whether white or native.

The Soviet Union, while actually quite socially progressive compared to much of the West at the time, was of course deeply flawed in many ways and extremely brutal at times.

But from the perspective of someone already living under a brutal, unequal, and impoverished colonial occupation (or post-colonial system like the apartheid regime in South Africa), it makes sense to consider communism as a way out.

Communism was offering colonized and occupied peoples self-determination, a path toward industrialization, and the promise of widely distributed and improved living standards that were probably higher than what colonialism and apartheid were offering. Even if the improvements communism could achieve might be less than what well-regulated and politically free market-capitalism might have been able to achieve, neither of those — simply put — were on offer under colonial and white supremacist rule. So communism would have looked pretty good at that point.

Rebuffing potential friends

Even so, many communists in emerging nations during their independence and early post-colonial movements actually tried to befriend the United States because they saw it as a freer alternative to following the Soviet model and they believed Americans — who had thrown off mercantilist colonial rule first and held certain truths to be self-evident for all men — would be sympathetic to the struggles of people who wanted freedom from colonialism, national independence, and upward social mobility for all.

Unfortunately, Americans were often too blinded by ideological taxonomies — and, of course, concerns over maintaining business interests of American multinational firms in developing nations. This resulted in classifying everyone as Red or Not-Red, even if that meant opposing friendly movements that identified as predominantly communist during their resistance phase against oppressive colonial and post-colonial regimes.

It also often meant supporting brutally undemocratic regimes who happened to identify as anti-communist, usually because that country’s main national opposition was communist or because pitching one’s self as a guardian of American business and political interests was a convenient means of acquiring military aid to suppress one’s populations.

Nelson Mandela wasn’t communist himself. But in the communists, he saw brothers-in-arms who shared many of the same beliefs and were willing to help oppose the apartheid regime of the Afrikaner white minority rulers. The United States was ambivalent toward the regime at the best of times and actively refused to oppose the apartheid government at the worst of times.

Rather the criticizing these past associations as we consider the passing of Mandela, Americans should reflect on how ideological blinders have warped our global relations in past eras and what we can do to ensure we are helping the right people and not helping the wrong people in future.

The more we provide help to those who need it and the less we offer aid and comfort to oppressive regimes, the less likely people will be to join radical and violent movements or to associate with movements and ideologies we consider harmful.

The United States must lead by example, not lecture, and must help economically and politically oppressed populations wherever we can.

The challenge today

With the end of the Cold War and the fizzling of many of the remaining “communist” movements in the developing world, “communism” is no longer the source of dangerous American foreign policy conflations. These days, as I suggested in my earlier post, the United States needs to do a better job of making distinctions between resistance movements that use political Islam as a convenient and unifying force against their oppressors or poor living conditions (but which do not pose a threat to the United States and likely don’t even oppose us) and those movements that use an extremist twisting of Islam as part of a delusional plan for a “global caliphate” or whatever.

The latter are angry, unemployed young men who have heard too many conspiracy theories explaining their circumstances and just want to watch the world burn. The former are also dissatisfied with present conditions and see the organized structure and shared identity of political Islam as a means of reorganizing a society away from corrupt and failed rule that benefits a few and toward a system that distributes benefits to the needy and provides basic social services as well as law and order. Some in that category also see a need to incorporate the militarism of early Islam as a motivating force to overthrow the status quo whether it derives from bad local/domestic leadership, a distant and unrepresentative central government (as in Russia or China), or foreign occupation. But this doesn’t automatically mean anti-Western/anti-American views. It’s just one type of response to local conditions.

We shouldn’t be the arbiters of the right to armed resistance oppression, but we do need to recognize who is resisting their oppressive local circumstances — poverty, corruption, occupation, inequality, dictatorship — and isn’t just trying to burn down everything for the sake of it. Between alienating moderate Islamist political parties and frequently blowing up civilians accidentally in predominantly Muslim nations because they might be near someone with a gun, we’re doing pretty badly on that front right now. And again, we don’t need to arbitrate the issue of whose armed resistance is most legitimate if we are pursuing policies that support liberation of all oppressed populations and encourage non-violent solutions.

Unlike with the past “threat” of “global communism,” there are way more people today who identify as Muslim than those who identified as communist at its peak. Learning to employ and display a nuanced understanding of who the real enemies are — the dangerous radicals who seek global revolution, chaos, and general violence — will be crucial to earning trust and good will from a large portion of the planet, whether they live under oppressive or free governments.