Mar
04

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

In this book Mahmood Mamdani look at the US role in embracing, promoting, funding and engaging in terrorism around the world. Written in 2004 Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror seems to reflect conversations that the author was having in the years after 9/11. In the first chapter he covers the us/them division of so-called clashes of civilizations of the so-called modern and tradition, of what was projected to the public as the good Muslim and the bad Muslim in the press and in policy. Following the first chapter, Mamdani details American terrorism during the Cold War (which the Americans did not call terrorism, but "low intensity conflict", including the intentional targeting of civilians, as outlined within their manuals). For those interested in better understanding the American role in the Cold War throughout Africa and Asia, as well as Afghanistan, this book is excellent. Mamdani also details how these "low intensity conflict" operations came home, not in the form of "blow back" as we know them, but as American operations to delude, deceive, and lie to the public, manufacturing consent through propaganda and avoiding any accountability via covert operations that were not overseen by Congress. Readers of Chomsky will be well informed of American roles in Central and South America, and in that sense this adds new geographies to critical conversations. The book does not speak much of the ways the "good Muslim, bad Muslim" discourse has influenced opinion and policy, and instead focuses the subtitle "America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror".

A few quotes:

"Pervez Hoodbhoy gives the following examples from children's textbooks designed for it by the University of Nebraska under a $50 million USAID grant that ran from September 1986 through June 1994. A third-grade mathematics textbook asks: "One group of maujahidin attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?" A fourth-grade textbook ups the ante: "The speed of a Kalashnikov [the ubiquitous Soviet-made semiautomatic machine gun] bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian's head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead." The program ended in 1994, but the books continued to circulate: "US-sponsored textbooks, which exhort Afghan children to pluck out the eyes of their enemies and cut off their legs, are still widely available in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some in their original form." (p. 137)

"Nicholas D. Kristof of the New York Times reported that "the United States shipped seven strains of anthrax to Iraq from 1978 to 1988." Training in the use of chemical and biological agents had been provided to Iraqi military officers as early as the 1960s. An official army letter published in the late 1960s noted that "the U.S. army trained 19 Iraqi military officers in the United States in offensive and defensive chemical, biological and radiological warfare from 1957-1967"... [Later] When Saddam began gassing the Kurdish minority in Iraq in May 1987, the United States was already providing Iraq with aid worth $500 million per year. In spite of public revelations about the use of chemical weapons, the United States doubled aid to the regime... Hussein became an example of the price that must be paid by any regime that violates the terms of its alliance with the United States. The 1991 Gulf War was literally a punishment..." (p. 181-183)

"Propaganda has been an integral part of war in modern times. The history of America's war with Iraq, from the Gulf War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, has seen the upgrading of propaganda from distortion and exaggeration of known facts to the deliberate invention of lies. Decisive in persuading members of Congress to vote for the Gulf War was a statement by a Kuwaiti "nurse" who claimed to have seen Iraqi soldiers looting the maternity department of a Kuwaiti hospital and killing babies. Later, it came to light that the "nurse" was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington, and her account was fabricated for the Rendon Group, a media consultancy firm employed for the war, by Michael K. Deaver, a former media adviser to Ronald Reagan." (p. 196) 

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Feb
27

Decolonising the University

Following demands - Rhodes Must Fall, Why is My Curriculum White?, #LiberateMyDegree - three editors brought together a diverse group of authors to think about what decolonising the university means (historically and pedagogically) and its experience (in universities and curricula) and reflections of those leading such efforts. Decolonising the University is edited by G. K. Bhambra, D. Gebrial and K. Nisancioglu (2018). I find most edited books challenging to review, as each chapter tells its own unique story, the book aimed to "question the epistemological authority assigned uniquely to the Western university as the privileged site of knowledge production and to contribute to the broader project of decolonising through a discussion of strategies and interventions emanating from within the imperial metropoles." (p. 3)

Dalia Gebrial (one of the editors) writes a chapter on the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement, and situates it as "the university is a site of knowledge production and, most crucially, consecration; it has the power to decide which histories, knowledges and intellectual contributions are considered valuable and worthy of further critical attention and dissemination. This has knock-on effects: public discourse might seem far off from the academy's sphere of influence, but 'common sense' ideas of worthy knowledge do not come out of the blue, or removed from the context of power - and the university is a key shaping force in this discursive flux." (p. 19)

From Shauneen Pete: "When I question faculty about why they want me to do this work for them [e.g. guest lectures], they often reply, 'You are so good at it...' or 'You have the experience...' and when I press them further, then I come to understand that their lack of understanding actually makes them feel fearful of saying the wrong thing, or being perceived as racist. That settler 'move to innocence' that Tuck and Yang address has a real effect on the distribution of work in our faculty. Now that I've been here for ten years, and have served as the cultural broker for all that time, I am no longer willing to allow my colleagues to shirk the responsibility for this work. This is not my work alone. I need my colleagues to address their own learning needs and I need them to engage deeply in the process of curricular decolonisation." (p. 183-184)

Why curriculum? William Jamal Richardson suggests that as "a basic unit of the university itself, the classroom is, I argue, one of the key places that the colonial nature of universities, especially in the metropoles and settler colonies, manifests itself. Works such as The Death of White Sociology and White Logic, White Methods have highlighted how the 'imperial unconscious' of these curricula shapes how undergraduates, graduate students and academics understand and study the world. This is one of the reasons why curricula have become a popular target of marginalised students and academics seeking to decolonise the university." (p. 231) 

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Feb
22

The Triumph of Injustice

Is there a tax collection problem? Are companies not paying their fair share? If so, how much? And, who cares? Is it just because they are smart, as Trump proclaimed when asked about his lack of paying taxes? The Triumph of Injustice: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay (2019) by Saez and Zucman answer these questions (most of which is available and updated on their website. A few notes:

"At the heart of today's tax dodging lies a powerful and versatile technology: the offshore shell company. Popularized in 2016 by the revelations in the Panama Papers, the offshore shell company is like a multi-tool. It can be used to avoid estate taxes, capital gains taxes, ordinary income taxes, wealth taxes, corporate income taxes, withholding taxes on cross-border payments of interest, dividends, and royalties. It can also come in handy if you want to defraud the IRS, ex-spouses, children, business partners, or creditors. It's not unhelpful if your goal is to practice insider trading, launder money, pocket illegal commissions, fund an electoral campaign under the table, or finance terrorist groups. As an emblem of the zero-sum economy, the offshore shell has no rivals." (p. 63-64)

"In 2003, a year before it was listed as a public company in August 2004, Google sold its search and advertisement technology to its own "Google Holdings," a subsidiary incorporated in Ireland, but for Irish tax purposes a tax resident of Bermuda, an island in the Atlantic where its "mind and management" are supposedly located... In just one year, 2017 (the latest year available), Google Holdings in Bermuda made $22.7 billion in revenue. How so? Because it's the legal owner of some of Google's most valuable technologies. Google Holdings licenses the right to use its technology to Google's affiliates throughout Europe. (A similar scheme is used in Asia, with Singapore in lieu of Bermuda). Google's subsidiaries in Germany or France pay billions of dollars in royalties to Google Holdings for the right to use to so-called Bermudian technology, reducing the tax base in Germany and in France, and increasing it in Bermuda by the same amount. The corporate tax rate in Bermuda? Zero." (p. 75-75)

"A recent study estimates that globally, 40% of all multinational profits - profits made by firms outside of the country where they are incorporated, such as the profits made by Apple outside of the United States, or those of Volkswagen outside of Germany - are booked in tax havens today. This corresponds to around $800 billion in income earned in the United States, France, or Brazil that ends up being booked and taxed in the Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, or Singapore, usually at rates between 5% and 10%. In this war of all multinationals against all states, US multinationals appear to be the boldest: they shift not 40% (the world average) but 60% of their foreign profits to offshore tax havens each year." (p. 78)

"With tax avoidance reduced to a minimum, there's a wide consensus that increasing the amount of revenue collected from the wealthy is possible. But how much exactly? According to our computations, by about four percentage points of national income, or $750 billion a year in 2019." (p. 143)

"Among the many policies that can curb the power of established wealth and contain rent-seeking, the quasi-confiscatory taxation of very high incomes historically has proved effective. But it faces a major limitation: as we've seen, it's become too easy for the very rich to own a lot of wealth while reporting little taxable income. Reinstating a 90% top marginal income tax rate would not make a meaningful difference to the tax bills of many of America's billionaires. Overcoming this limitation requires taxing top wealth itself at high rates. A moderate wealth tax at a marginal tax rates of 2% above $50 million and 3% above $1 billion, such as the one discussed in the previous chapter, would generate a lot of revenue - about 1% of GDP each year, according to our estimates." (p. 173-174) 

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Feb
17

Ending Aid Dependence

Looking for a different perspective on aid? A short publication (144 pages) called Ending Aid Dependence (2008) by Yash Tandon, with a forward by the former President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa, is well worth your read. The book is published by Fahamu, which also published Shivji's book on NGOs. A few notes:

"The political rationale and teleological direction of the South Commission Report was succinctly summarised by Nyerere in these five headings: development shall be people centred; pursue a policy of maximum national self-reliance; supplement that with a policy of maximum collective South-South self-reliance; build maximum South-South solidarity in your relationships with the North; develop science and technology." (p. 16) 

"Historically, all imperial projects begin with military conquest, then with economic restructuring so that the colonised country's economy services the needs of the imperial nations, and finally ideological conversion of the colonised leadership and population through education, training, etc. It is the same pattern with the present development aid architecture." (p. 22)

"It is clear that IMF bail-outs to the hard-pressed economies of all these countries in the South that, through ignorance or naivety, accepted them, were not to protect these economies. The objective, or at any rate the effect, was to bail out hard-pressed American financial and banking interests, and to create conditions for further control by American (and allied) capital over the national economies of the developing countries in distress. In other words, these developing countries were placed in distress through debt burden, trade liberalisation, and the other Red Aid conditionalities of donor funding, and then to get them out of the distress, the IMF moved in and cleared the way for AmericanEuropean-Japanese capital to take over. This, at least, is what evidence shows on the ground, whatever the neoliberal theorists might say in their erudite books." (p. 62)

 "Ending aid dependence is not a one-day project. Deeply embedded structures and the power of vested interests do not disappear overnight. Neither do they disappear on their own. Cutting off from aid dependence is an act of political will. Aid's demise has to be strategised carefully, like fighting a war, no less. It cannot be left only to politicians, or officials, or experts. However, without their active involvement the strategy cannot succeed. It is the combined efforts of the people and their leaders that can lift the mental shackles of the past." (p. 77)

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