On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

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My Federalist Reservations about Scottish Independence (Continued) (September 14, 2014)

Much of the intense separatist activity going on in the world right now has made me feel rather cynical. I suppose that I have simply become reflexively suspicious of appeals to turn away from larger associations in the interest of smaller ones—at least when it comes to ethnic or regionalist partisanship. Whereas many are calling for more local governance, more attention to the nearby (and such calls are sometimes, of course, well worth heeding), I have come to instinctively be suspicious that behind such calls, however couched they may be in the rhetoric of freedom and a yearning for independence, lies little more than a desire for gaining economic advantages. Call me a federalist.

It is the Scottish Independence movement that is the primary inspiration for these thoughts (though the violent separatism in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea also come to mind—though I suppose those separatists should be seen as actively trying to join an even larger federal entity). Don’t get me wrong: I know that many people want Scottish independence for purely patriotic reasons. As a medievalist who has worked on the highly militarized Anglo-Scottish borderlands of the late Middle Ages, and who has also spent a lot of time studying various strains of nationalism, I am well versed in the long-standing issues surrounding a Scottish desire for independence. (That same training does raise some questions for me, however. I am sometimes mystified that many commentators skip over the uncomfortable fact that Scotland itself was an empire, whose unity was forged through medieval regimes that were very successful at using violence to make various independent lords and whole regions (eg, Galloway, the Highlands) to submit to central rule. Not that any of that is out of the ordinary: history is written by variously successful military states.)

The more I have read of the Scottish National party and the Independence movement, however, the more I have focused on the rather petty pecuniary motives accompanying (or, if I am feeling even more cynical, I would say fueling) the independence movement. As I have commented on before here and here, I have found rather off-putting the coexistence of the Romantic rhetoric of independence and the pursuit of social justice with an independence movement that keeps highlighting its plan to maximize an independent Scotland’s oil reserves (even as it makes gestures at seeking an environmentalist regime, that insists it can thrive economically while not declaring independence from the UK pound-sterling, and which pledges to remain subject to the British monarchy for what to my mind may well be the very pragmatic reason that the oil-rich Orkney and Shetland islands are personal possessions of the said monarch (though continuing subjection to a traditional monarch also seems to be part of this “independence” push).

I understand that nation-states need to have economic revenue to survive, but certain other promises made by Independence activists in the SNP have reminded me more of United States Tea Party activists than the leftist advocates for social justice recoiling from the conservative ravages of post-Thatcher Great Britain that many Independence activists claim to be. As this Seumas Milne Guardian piece points out, and the SNP has been promising that an Independent Scotland would cut corporate taxes to 3% below the UK to attract business. Rather than an inspiring movement for social justice and freedom from a conservative Westminster, a Scottish National Party that seeks to gain independence votes by promising more tax breaks to corporations seems rather like the pro-business right0wing party currently plaguing my own United States with constant claims that corporate taxes must be lowered to be competitive with the rest of the world. When UK MP (and admittedly partisan) George Galloway describes the SNP’s call for lower corporate taxes as promising a “race to the bottom” in this BBC clip, I am very familiar with this late-capitalist logic, since US corporations have so effectively used lobbyists as to make the call for lower taxes (along with a panoply of tax-dodging strategies that use various foreign shelters to cut domestic tax costs) an ongoing one in American politics.  Salmond’s corporate-friendly Scotland seems an ill fit with Romantic notions of an ancient Scottish people yearning to again be free.

Another source of my annoyance with the rhetoric of the Independence movement has been Salmond’s propensity to refer to “Westminster elites”. Again, this rhetoric reminds me of US Tea Party activists and their description of anyone in the US federal government as Washington elites—even as they lobby to win elections and enter that same rarefied Washington space. I am not alone here. As Simon Schama observes in a memorable tweet, the rhetoric of referring to Westminster elites ignores the fact that 59 Scottish MPs are part of Westminster governance: are “they the enemy too?” Schama inquires.

Much of this reminds me of secessionist rhetoric of a civic sort that I experienced while growing up in Los Angeles. I am from the San Fernando portion of Los Angeles, where there were often grumblings about a need to secede from Los Angeles and create a civic San Fernando Valley. The reasons cited would often include gestures at self-governance and independence, but they always bore within them a purely economic logic: San Fernando Valley separatists would regularly claim that “their” tax dollars were going to fund programs going on elsewhere in the city, and that they would pay less in taxes and be better off financially if the Valley could finally break free of the power-hungry government of a greedy Los Angeles. There was indeed a secessionist referendum in 2001 which failed (see Tom Hogan-Esch and Martin Saiz’s analysis here, as well as Rick Orlov’s Daily News retrospective analysis)– primarily because, unlike in the Scottish Independence referendum, all citizens of the Los Angeles out of which the San Fernando Valley sought to carve an independent space, got to vote on the matter. Whether out of civic love or indeed a desire to keep those tax revenues flowing, more Los Angeles members voted against Valley secession than the 50.7% of Valley residents who sought it out (by the Scottish referendum model, which restricts voting to current residents of Scotland are those Scots working abroad due to military or government service, the Valley would have seceded).

As someone proud to say I grew up in Los Angeles, I was extremely glad that the San Fernando Valley secession effort failed.  I have always been proud of the Valley and all the other parts of Los Angeles—and I am glad that what I thought were the rather ignoble motives of lowering tax bills and increasing a business-friendly environment free of the meddling hands of Greater Los Angeles did not win out over the desire for a bigger, more varied place to call home. I suppose that another, not very insignificant background to my federalist reaction against this separatist drive has been my sense that the major experiment in separatism in this country was also one that traded in Romantic visions of independence and freedom but which was rooted primarily in economic motives—namely, the rise of the Confederate States of America. I don’t mean to be polemical here– and I don’t want to compare a brutal regime focused on maintaining slavery with a Scottish Independence movement seeking to carve out its own economic independence. I know this is a rather extreme example and is not really very comparable to the Scottish case (after all, the United Kingdom involved the fusing of two independent kingdom-states in 1707, and so this is not a dissolution of an originary bond as it was in the case of the Confederacy)— but I find it interesting to realize how strongly the American experience in separatism leads me to be suspicious of various attempts to break away from larger associations into smaller communities that are held to be more closely aligned to one’s self-interest. The more I have read about the Scottish Independence referendum, the more I have looked beyond all those Romantic notions of national pride and independence—and more towards the pro-corporate bottom line fueling much of this separatist fervor. Indeed, I am not surprised that, with its emphasis on exploiting oil reserves and lowering corporate tax rates, the Scottish Independence movement has attracted the attention of secessionist interests in Texas, as this Joshua Fechter San Antonio Express-News article relates.  But maybe I’ve just become an inveterate federalist.

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My Increasing Ambivalence about Scottish Independence (September 10, 2014)

As the momentous September 18 vote on Scottish Independence draws nearer, I have become increasingly perplexed by how ambivalent the case for each side of this very polarized debate seems. I should note from the very beginning that I have (as far as I know) no ethnic or political stake in this event: I am an American citizen who adds neither “English” nor “Scottish” (nor indeed “British”) plus a hyphen before “American.” However, not only as a medievalist who has done quite a bit of work on both Middle English and Middle Scots literature, and who has spent quite a bit of professional time studying the fraught history of the border between the kingdoms and empires of England and Scotland (and, yes, I use “empires” in the plural advisedly), but also as a critic who has taken up intersections of nationalism and imperialism as a major subject-area of my research, I have been paying particular attention to this issue. Indeed, this issue was the subject of the very first entry for this blog.

            Firstly, I have been unsettled by the combination of both nationalist and pragmatist discourses in arguments for Independence. Surely any major political movement will involve a coalition of agendas, and it does not seem shocking that some of those seeking independence are doing so primarily out of a sense of nationalist pride—a sense that their own proud “nation,” Scotland, made a gross mistake in hitching itself to England’s (and its insular conquests’) destiny by creating Great Britain in 1707, and that Scotland should willingly choose to leave what UK Prime Minister just recently called the United Kingdom’s http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/10/uk-scotland-independence-cameron-idUKKBN0H50FV20140910 “family of nations”—while others are pursuing more pragmatic agendas (namely, the argument that Scotland, which is alleged to hold some 90% of potential British oil reserves, would be doing better financially if its natural resources were restricted only to Scotland as an independent economic nation). Nationalist separatism seems never far away from aggressive capitalism, as the fervent arguments for creating Scotland seem always to be shadowed by the confidence that oil resources legally belong to Scottish people and that the advanced technologies of the modern world can fund a retreat into a more exclusive Scottish nation-state (and all this talk of oil exploitation, it should be mentioned, sits rather uncomfortably alongside the insistence, in the draft Scottish Constitution, that an independent Scotland will work towards a greener world and towards climate change—see sections 31.3b and 32b).

            I am perfectly aware that there are a multitude of reasons for those seeking Independence, and that not all can be reduced to a pragmatic marriage of nationalism and pragmatism—however, whenever I listen to debates or read articles about the desire for independence, all seems to be reducible to these twin energies. There are, of course, other key rationales for independence, such as the argument that an overwhelming majority of Scots voted against Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies and so Scotland has suffered more acutely than other areas as the United Kingdom has become more and more conservative, with Labour having swung to the right in the apparently un-Scottish neoliberal world created by the Iron Lady. (For an excellent presentation of this argument, see Owen Jones’s article here). However, such an argument raises deep concerns—including a rather arbitrary take on whose suffering matters enough to bring about separation, since no one advocating Independence in Scotland seems to be suggesting inviting non-neoliberal leftists in England, Cornwall, Wales, and Northern Ireland who are presumably equally disappointed in the post-Thatcher UK are invited to become part of Scotland: the move is that of a nationalist-separatist voting bloc, which in some ways can be seen as using a kind of bullying tactic, stating that if its demographic majority does not dictate policy then it will depart the union. As Paul Krugman argues in this analysis (which is largely devoted to undermining confident assertions that Scotland would do well if it chose to yoke its destiny to the pound), the desire to imagine a nation that was more tailored to one’s own biases is tempting, with liberals on either coast of the USA often entertaining fantasies about how much more enlightened a United States without its (previously Confederate) South would be. Such logic, of course, cuts both ways, and the shrill cries to take back “our” country made by Tea Party extremists in the post-Obama United States reveal, to my ears, how ugly the logic that voting patterns must reflect one’s own region’s (or class’s or religion’s) wishes can be (and, indeed, the US Civil War mentioned by Krugman weaves a most bloody example of such an extreme into my own nation-state’s history).

            I also remain a bit mystified by how many of those seeking Scottish Independence seek nevertheless to preserve other key affiliations—namely, to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth, to keep the British pound as the primary currency unit, and to remain a member of (or rejoin) the European Union. As I argued earlier, the desire to remain subjects of Queen Elizabeth involves more than just nostalgia and traditionalism: the evidently oil-rich territories of the Orkney and Shetland Islands became part of Scotland as personal possessions of King James III in 1475, and so, if Scotland were to remove itself from subjection to Queen Elizabeth or her heir as the head of state, then it would presumably lose its claim to these territories. Keeping the British pound also seems to bear within it both pragmatic and nostalgic impulses: while some Scots clearly want to keep the thriving pound merely to ensure that the new nation-state would have a valuable currency, others seem merely to want to continue with the status quo (On the currency issue, see Esther Webber’s overview of the debate, this UK-drafted study of the issues surrounding any currency union, these articles on Bank of England resistance to pro-Independence plans to keep the pound, this pro-independence assessment of currency issues, and another Krugman analysis here). It seems hard not to see some sense in Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s assessment that a currency union would be “incompatible” with Scotland’s assertion of sovereign independence —certainly financial dependency on UK banking undermines any claim for independence.

            The clear desire of many, if not most Scots seeking independence to remain in the European Union also leaves me perplexed. While I understand that this is in no way incompatible with national independence in the way that, it seems to me, retaining the pound-sterling definitely, and the British monarchy probably is—after all, the European Union is an association of independent nation-states—I am also a bit mystified by the simultaneous linkage of going it “alone” jostles alongside arguments for retaining the benefits of European Union membership. Again, I know this is not incompatible with national identity—after all, many nations belong to larger associations, such as the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—but the clear focus on profitability and relative prestige within the European Union ties the nationalist fervor of much of the independence movement with what seems a primarily calculating, capitalist decision about European Union membership. Independence, again, is merely relative—a recalibration of a financial community’s place in a lucrative multinational organization.

            With all of this having been said, Scotland has since the Middle Ages had a unique sense of community, and it would be folly to think that somehow one could ever separate the fraught emptions of patriotism with the practical interests and calculations of an advanced economy. Again, I have no ethnic or political horse in this race, and so I write this as an outside, if professionally interested, observer. The process of devolution has brought much autonomy to Scotland, ranging from administrative independence in such areas as education to, as I have written of here, independence as a competing “nation” in the World Cup (which makes me think of the possible fragmentation of the United Kingdom’s Olympics teams as another factor that many might be considering)—but evidently, devolution has not brought enough for many. I suppose what makes me feel most ambivalent about all this is that the intense desire for separation, which has been admirably done entirely through reasoned debate in the United Kingdom, is normally worked out more violently elsewhere—whether it be in the shelling going on now in eastern Ukraine, or the bombings and raids currently wracking Syria and Iraq. Does separatism, however urbane, breed more separatism? Will a Scottish breakaway intensify the fragmentation that seems to be contagious in today’s world? I know that a desire for independence can come from a dual sense of local self-respect and of a need to redress past injustices in a non-violent way—but separatist instincts seem most often to come from ethnonational zeal…and I don’t think the world needs more of that. Localism can shade as easily into parochialism as into humble pride in one’s proximate environment—and the gesture of throwing up one’s hands and erecting exclusive national walls seems to me to risk taking us further from the cosmopolitan world that I wish we were all seeking to generate.

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The Crows of Militarism Are Coming Home to Roost (August 19, 2014)

Both tragic and outrageous, the police shooting and killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown has cast a powerful light on the increasing militarization of police within the United States. Images of protests in Ferguson, MO, are unsettling, to say the least—however used we may have become to images of police in riot gear and in military formation. With images circulating online and on television of such modern war-gear as armored vehicles, semiautomatic assault weapons, and camouflage uniforms, as well as of tear-gas, rubber bullets, and stun grenades being deployed against protesters, many commentators have likened the area to a war zone, as this BBC analysis details.  Capturing the uncanniness of seeing weaponry and tactics that we associate with US militarism being deployed on US soil (Josh Levs summarizes this well in this CNN article), many commentators, such as Mike Bonifer on the Huffington Post or “Trotskyite” at Culture War Reporters, have taken to calling the area Fergustan.

            I am quite taken by the rise of the term ‘Fergustan,’ since its fusion of foreign and domestic locales captures the essence of the increasing availability of military equipment associated with distant war-zones appearing here in the United States. While racial injustice is at the heart of the Ferguson protests, the stakes clearly go well beyond this single, albeit horrific, trend. Blurring the lines separating the civilian and the military, police militarization should frighten all of us—for the war material we thought we had sent safely way out there is being used here.

            As Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, explains in this BBC video,  the explicit militarization of police can be traced at least as far back to the 1967 formation of the Los Angeles Police Department’s SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics Unit) through Inspector Daryl Gates’s consultation with US military experts (see the Wikipedia history here; and see the LAPD’s own self-description of the unit here). Chillingly, the creation of these SWAT units were in response to the August 1965 Watts riots. As Balko makes clear,  the incorporation of military tactics and gear in urban policing was quickly coupled with the political rhetoric of war, particularly the “war on drugs” that President Nixon chillingly declared on June 17, 1971, by naming drugs as “public enemy number one” (see this PBS timeline of this so-called “war,”). Once militarizing police departments found a constant set of targets supplied by the political rhetoric about a drug war, such disturbing trends as a consistently escalating number of “no-knock drug raids” ensued—with something like a 10-fold increase of such raids since the 1980s, according to Balko.

            Especially insofar as I have been swayed by Stuart Elden’s powerful analysis of terror as a tactic that, while popularly held to be used only by non-state actors, is a fundamental part of modern state military strategy (see Elden’s Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, University of Minnesota Press, 2009; articles related to the book are archived here, at Elden’s fantastic blog, Progressive Geographies), I find the shocking deployment of military gear and tactics in Ferguson deeply alarming. While this case is, once again, in one respect solely about institutional racism (and on the ongoing problem of racial inequality in terms of police activities, see this response to Michael Brown’s killing by Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dara Lind’s disturbing history of racism on Vox, as well as the multiple excellent essays available here from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center on Race, Crime, and Justice), it is also very much another reminder of the disproportionate, quasi-military force being increasingly brought to bear upon protesters exercising their civil rights on American soil.

            Police, as Steve Herbert discusses in his excellent Policing Space: Territoriality and the Los Angeles Police Department (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), often treat urban spaces in the same manner as military do in war-zones—with any challenges to their territorial supremacy requiring aggressive actions made as if against enemy forces. It is, as many have pointed out, a profoundly unsettling move to go from conceiving of the police’s mission as protecting and serving the community to conceiving of their mission as military—for this can lead to police behaving either as if they are making incursions into hostile territory or defending territory from enemy forces. The bewilderingly disproportionate nature of law-enforcement response in Ferguson presents a stark reminder of the dangers of police militarization.

            Given such disproportionate response, the movement of military equipment from the war-zones of Iraq and Afghanistan into local police departments is deeply disturbing. The activities in Ferguson are casting a light on this problematic practice, as can be seen from Rear Admiral John Kirby’s responding today to anxieties about such movement of military equipment, as reported here by CNN’s Barbara Starr. As Starr explains, the Department of Defense’s program, the Defense Logistics Agency, created in 1999, has been involved in transferring military equipment to local police departments. Happily, Starr reports, this program appears to be coming under review, with the unrest in Ferguson having spurred President Obama to call for analysis of a program that delivers military-grade equipment to police departments who are, it seems to go without saying, neither trained for military combat nor tasked with military missions.

            While the killing of Michael Brown that initiated the civil unrest in Ferguson is irremediably saddening, it does hearten me to see both the intensity and the diversity of the protests concerning the law-enforcement response in Ferguson. Communities should always foreground shared stakes—and while not all of those present at Ferguson protests would be subject to the same institutional racism that African Americans regularly experience, all citizens should be interested in knowing that law-enforcement agencies must be held to account if they do not pursue justice impartially. Moreover, all of us have a shared stake in seeing that the trend of militarizing the police be reversed, lest we see more cities broadcast such war-zone-like scenes as to inspire names analogous to “Fergustan.”

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ISIS as Managing Medieval and Modern Communications (August 13, 2014)

In declaring a caliphate, ISIS is posing both geographical and temporal political challenges. As I have discussed elsewhere, the very name of the group in its transformation from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State if Iraq and Syria [or the Levant] inherently challenges accepted international borders. The geographical challenges are clear: the group, both in straddling the sovereign states of Iraq and Syria, and in inherently signaling its intention to take territories beyond these limits through the ambiguity of the final word in its name, the Arabic al-Sham. Indeed, along with its quite well-known successes in taking vast sections of Iraq, ISIS continues to take territory in Syria, most recently in towns near Aleppo.

            The group also operates with a temporal challenge: while caliphates have existed at various points throughout history, ISIS is clearly trying to hearken back to the very earliest eras of “Islamic empire,” as William McCants says in this CNN video-clip on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s role as the imam center of ISIS called “ISIS Leader: ‘See You Guys in New York.’” As McCants (Brookings Institution) points out, al-Baghdadi is seeking to present himself as the ruler of the entire “Islamic World”—an all-encompassing goal that can be seen in ISIS’s efforts to rebrand itself as IS, as simply “the Islamic State.”

            The medieval world does not simply lie in ISIS’s efforts to challenge modern sovereignty and assert a trans-national Islamic state associated with Islam’s pre-modern status as an expansive, imperial domain (not unlike, it must be noted, the Western and Eastern Christian empires of the Middle Ages). As the CNN video-clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ states, recent US attacks by the “so-called Crusaders” have increased the prestige of ISIS within the Islamic world, channeling the hostilities that many Muslims feel concerning the series of transnational invasions driven by the Western Christian ideology first marshaled by Urban II in his chilling 1095 Clermont speech (seen here in 5 translated versions presented by Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook).

            As is clear from my recent post on journalistic reactions to ISIS, and as is clear from the clear fascination with the “corporate” sensibilities and communications savvy evidenced in Brian Todd’s reporting in the chillingly titled clip ‘See You Guys in New York’ (the quotation comes from a statement al-Baghdadi made to Kenneth King, commander of Camp Bucca, after he had been captured some 10 years ago in Fallujah), ISIS has been very effective of late in reaping even more massive shock than it has already sown from its incredibly shocking military campaigns. In focusing on al-Baghdadi’s carefully orchestrated appearance as a “holy” and “gentle” man, even as he leads an organization that advertises such actions as “crucifixions” and other spectacular “executions,” Brian Todd and his CNN team make clear that ISIS has been making extremely effective use of bringing together both ultra-modern communications techniques and pre-modern geographic and temporal sensibilities.

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Cinematic ISIS Studies (August 12, 2014)

I have been for some time mesmerized by this new BBC “interactive” video focused on the history of ISIS, called “The Rise of the Islamic State.” This is a truly powerful production, tracing the history of ISIS from its beginnings as Al Qaeda in Iraq, to its “rebranding” to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant during the civil war in Syria, to its current aggression in Iraq. It was “produced by Lucy Rodgers, Emily Maguire, Richard Bangay and Nick Davey,” with “Additional research by David Gritten.”

            While it is not entirely clear to me how the video is “interactive” (indeed, it seems rather to be a cinematic production, providing both historical information and illustrative video evidence such as maps and television clips, with all rendered intensely dramatic by graphic design and a carefully arranged soundtrack), I am convinced that this production marks a new era in journalism. If the BBC can keep putting together segments that offer both historical and geographical contextualization, even as they render all as dramatic as big-budget documentary, then I think many will be looking for their news exclusively from online venues.

            As readers of this blog may know, I have been quite fascinated with ISIS, particularly since its declaration of a caliphate and the ambitious ambivalence of its name pose profound threats to the global state system. In all my scouring of the internet to learn about this group’s latest manifestation, this video is by far the most powerful production.

            The BBC states that it is experimenting with “new ways” of “telling stories”—and I must say that I am quite intrigued by the power of “The Rise of the Islamic State.” While the intensity and audacity of ISIS’s actions are clearly a key to the power of this video, the production here clearly has a narrative confidence and competence of its own. The production, especially in the opening scenes that show images of confident and well-armed ISIS fighters and statistics about their numbers and money, seems chillingly to remind one of  terrorist recruitment videos, while the eerie music and the haunting clips present precisely the atmosphere of violence and paranoia upon which a group like ISIS feeds. Seeing the images of AQI and later ISI and ISIS leaders set against statements by Bush and Obama subtly equates the two factions, even as the reference to the US-led invasion, occupation, and departure from Iraq foregrounds how ISIS’s survival clearly undermines the notion of US success in its 2003 invasion. Watching the BBC video, I found it hard not to think that this might as well be an ISIS production, insofar as it accords such a powerful, almost romantic image of the group, all set against the images of massive, U.S.-led violence. At the same time, it is also crucial to note that “the Rise of the Islamic State” is incredibly effective in offering the history of ISIS, placing it in precisely the historical and geographical contexts needed to understand its origins and aims.

            Count me among those who are quite thrilled by this new method of “telling stories.”

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Potential World Cup Fever: Sport and Sanctions (July 27, 2014)

I was surprised, given how much the glow of the nationalism-suffused World Cup was still lingering in the air during the horrific intensification of violence in and around Ukraine, that it took so long for Westerners to call for the removal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup from Russia—but the calls have started to come in, ranging from allies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British politician Nick Clegg, and representatives of the Dutch Football Association.  

        No government spokesperson has yet backed up such calls, and indeed both the German government and FIFA have thus far decisively rejected such calls.  Indeed, FIFA has vigorously countered efforts to punish Russia by moving the venue of the 2018 World Cup, arguing that past boycotts of sporting events have proven “not the most effective way of solving problems,” while insisting that the World Cup can be a “powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments.”

            We still do not know who exactly brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, of course, though it is clear from the very cautious moves towards pressuring Russia that these actions are more about compelling more active participation in investigation than in responding to clear blame. Moreover, the intense violence ravaging Eastern Ukraine clearly spills beyond this particular incident, with the stunning rewriting of sovereign boundaries depending upon highly unstable ethnonational differences that thrive most in open conflict. As I have written about more than once, the ethnonational energies driving the crisis in Ukraine is profoundly destabilizing and threatens a return to much of the unsparing partisan conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

            Given the profound linkage between the World Cup and nationalism (about which I have written here, here, here,  and, more generally in terms of nation-based competition, here), it is quite apropos to link the venue of the 2018 World Cup with this Russo-Ukrainian conflict. It is hard not to recall that Russia, which clearly basked in the international attention of hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, not long afterwards performed what to me seems the most astounding and destabilizing move throughout this conflict—moving to secure the annexation of the Crimea—an action with profound territorial, economic, and diplomatic consequences that, as these articles assert, either fades into the background of current coverage of the conflict or is in fact seen as a done deal.

            The combination of symbolic struggle, nationalist competition, and, perhaps most importantly, massive flows of transnational wealth, make the 2018 venue of the World Cup an interesting focus for the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. I will look closely at the language used to discuss this dimension of the conflict, since this is a potential sanction with such super-charged symbolism as to possibly radically alter the conversation. Prestige could be on the line—and this has a market value that is very difficult to assess.

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ISIS, Jonah, and Symbolic Violence (July 25, 2014)

In the Middle English poem Patience, the prophet Jonah, who has just woken up from pleasant dreams in his desert bower to find the shelter destroyed, lashes out:

          I received some comfort that is now seized from me—

          my lovely, lovely woodbine bower that sheltered my head.

          But now I see that you are set upon destroying all my happiness… [“I keuered me a comfort þat now is ca3t fro me, / My wod-bynde so wlonk þat wered my heued; / Bot now I se þou art sette my solace to reue,” 485-87, ed. Anderson; my translation).

          Jonah, of course, had already been through a lot—a terrifying prophecy assignment, a violent storm, a few days inside a fish, and then his great disappointment at Nineveh not being destroyed as per his prophetic statement.

            In a clear effort to use shock tactics to keep itself in the news, ISIS has continued the symbolic indignities visited upon Jonah—by apparently blowing up his symbolic resting place. As these Huffington Post, Guardian and Al-Arabiya articles relate, Sunni militants rigged explosives to the Shiite mosque built upon the eight-century BCE site alleged to be the tomb of Jonah, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonah the prophet from the eponymous book of the Hebrew Bible, who is known as the prophet Yunus  in Islam (and this after having recently destroyed a shrine linked with the prophet Daniel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel). In its ongoing effort to sow terror throughout Syria and Iraq, threatening to undo recognized sovereign borders as it attempts to create a new Caliphate ruled by the fundamentalist extremism of Sharia Law, ISIS has consistently sought to use psychological warfare in its actions. Besides its chilling broadcasting of committing such war-crimes as torture and executing prisoners who surrender, discussed in these locations, ISIS has also revived pre-modern practices of insisting that non-Sunni residents, particularly Christians, either pay extra taxes or face summary execution, as related here.  ISIS is clearly quite savvy about being provocative, and its image-consciousness can even be seen in its effort to control its own name, though its efforts to re-brand itself as the more ambitious IS, as I discuss here, has not apparently taken root.

            Destroying a shrine related to an Islamic prophet is, of course, quite provocative indeed, though such actions are hardly surprising for hardline Sunni militants acting on Wahabi beliefs. ISIS, as this excellent Wikipedia article recounts, grew out of the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which regularly destroyed Shiite mosques and shrines, in an effort to destabilize Iraq. Fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, of course, often accuse Shiites of being idolaters, so there is a religious component to such an attack, as well. As this Transasia News article on the destruction of shrines relates, ISIS are Takfiri militants—meaning that they reserve the right to accuse other Muslims of apostasy, and hence to punish them on religious grounds. ISIS aims to be religious judge, jury, and executioner, it seems.

            Despite the manner in which religiously modulated violence can barely register for us when we are used to the mind-numbing violence of post-2003 Iraq, the destruction of such a famous shrine still has the power to shock. Indeed, anyone who would blow up a spiritual site clearly seeks to marshal intense shock, since such sites bear with them all the uncanniness and mystique of many individuals’ belief in the otherworldly. I still recall how shocked I was way back in March 2001, when the Taliban blew up the two sixth-century CE Buddhas of Bamiyan—two massive sandstone statues in Central Afghanistan. The destruction of the Buddhas was, many may recall, both deliberate and well-organized (one can find the demolition on youtube, but I simply cannot stomach linking to such shameless destructive action), with both idolatry and contempt for heritage preservation being cited in this interview.  Clearly, however, the Taliban’s actions were meant to unnerve any who would oppose them, showing not just religious single-mindedness, but utter contempt for all others.

            Symbolic violence often plays a role in warfare, especially when religious ideologies come into play. It is sad enough that so much of Iraq, a geographical location filled with a mind-boggling array of archaeological sites from so many eras and cultures of human history, has been ravaged by recent military activities, such as the horrific Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, or my own country’s deeply misguided 2003 invasion and disastrous occupation (and ensuing destabilization). With ISIS clearly so ambitious in its efforts to produce a large, intolerant, and expansive Caliphate, I quake to think what destruction will come next.


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