During a broadcast of The John Batchelor Show on Tuesday, Stephen Cohen, contributing editor at The Nation, expressed his grim concern about the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict.
“John, I don't know if I've ever said this to you before, but every time you say, by way of greeting, ‘A very good evening to you,’ I keep hoping one day there will be a very good evening in this Ukrainian crisis because, this evening, the news is all terrible,” Cohen said as he began his remarks. Cohen expressed concern about the ongoing conflict and recent attacks in Mariupol, a city in southeast Ukraine. He said the tension might lead the United States and NATO to enter war with Russia.
“Now, I think it’s fair to say that all-out war has broken out in eastern Ukraine between the rebel armies, backed by Russia, and the Kiev armies, backed by the United States,” he said. “That’s what’s going on, into a certain extent of Europe. So, the question politically becomes who started the new fighting.”
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It’s a true clash of civilizations: France vs. Fox. Fox and the right have been deriding France as a left-banky, “old Europe,” weak-sister nation ever since it refused to support George W. Bush’s Iraq war. But now, in a turnaround, the French are pummeling Fox—with savage satire and threats of lawsuits, and gleefully transforming Roger Ailes’s bully boys into a bunch of Bianca-spraying surrender monkeys.
It’s Fox’s penchant for no-facts zones, not to mention its Islamophobia, that led to this fix. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said this week that she may sue Fox News over its false portrayal of her city as full of frightening “no-go zones,” where only Muslims are allowed and police dare not tread. “The image of Paris has been prejudiced, and the honor of Paris has been prejudiced,” she said. And in the sort of dig you might expect from Russell Brand, she tweeted something about the “stigmatizing stupidity of Fox News.”
Bill O’Reilly, whose own “no-spin zone” may have inspired the equally fallacious “no-go zones,” dismissed Hidalgo’s complaints because—zut alors!—she’s a socialist.
The lawsuit, if Hidalgo goes through with it, would seem to have almost no chance of succeeding in the United States, given that libel law here requires proof of “actual malice” and Fox’s actual stupidity could fall short of that. Plus, there’s no real precedent for a city suing for libel. If, however, a suit were filed in France, where standards for proving libel are different, it could, Gawker speculates, make life a little tougher for Fox.
Whether or not Hidalgo sues, she was probably emboldened by the truly breaking news! that Fox had apologized not once but four times recently for its repeated claims that France and much of Europe are pockmarked with areas where Sharia, not local law, rules—“like a caliphate within a particular country,” as Fox’s Judge Jeanine Pirro eagerly pointed out.
Pirro was one of the apologizers, which she did almost with a smirk. She previously had “terrorism expert” Steve Emerson on her show, where he claimed that Birmingham, England, was a city-sized no-go zone and was “totally Muslim.” (In fact, the population is closer to 22 percent Muslim.) British Prime Minister David Cameron called Emerson “a complete idiot,” and Fox soon released a statement saying he was unlikely to appear on air again. (Emerson apologized, profusely, on his website.)
Maybe even more embarrassing was journalist Nolan Peterson telling Fox & Friends’s Elisabeth Hasselbeck that there are “741 no-go zones throughout France.” He said his own past trips to Paris were “pretty scary. I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kashmir, India, and at times, it felt like that, those places in these no-go zones.”
Turns out, as Snopes found, the “no-go zones” are an international urban myth based on a bad translation for “zones urbaines sensibles” (ZUS) or “sensitive urban zones,” areas that “are not exempted from policing or French law, and are simply targeted for renewal initiatives.”
Fox left it to host Julie Banderas to give a surprisingly detailed mea culpa:
Over the course of this last week, we have made some regrettable errors on air regarding the Muslim population in Europe, particularly with regard to England and France.
Now this applies especially to discussions of so-called no-go zones, areas where non-Muslims allegedly aren’t allowed in and police supposedly won’t go. To be clear, there is no formal designation of these zones in either country and no credible information to support the assertion that there are specific areas in these countries that exclude individuals based solely on their religion.
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity has been one of the more vociferous zone-truthers, squawking, “Why would France or any other country allow Muslims that have come into the country to basically take over portions of the country? That is madness to me!” I pre-apologize if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall seeing an apology from him, or, for that matter, from any of Fox’s name-brand males. (Several guests and hosts on CNN had also mentioned no-go zones, though far less egregiously than Fox, and yesterday Anderson Cooper apologized for that.)
But why would Fox News apologize at all? Other than the rare “we regret if anyone was offended” non-apology, substantial sorries aren’t in their DNA. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter figured maybe it’s that Fox owner Rupert Murdoch has such “big interests in England.” Then, of course, Murdoch is still trying to live down his massive hacking scandal, as well as his tweet that even if most Muslims are peaceful, “they must be held responsible” for “their growing jihadist cancer.” (This led J.K. Rowling to Voldemort him, tweeting: “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.”)
But it’s also nice to think that, coming full circle after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Fox is apologizing because it’s been the target of merciless satire. Not necessarily from US satirists like Jon Stewart, but from France’s version of The Daily Show, Le Petit Journal. Its host, Yann Barthès, has been making Fox, heretofore barely known in France, into a laughingstock. “The credibility of the Fox News clowns disappeared,” he said, “when they show a map of Paris with some ‘no-go zones’.”
Barthès followed up with the hilarious gag of sending “Fox reporters” “Mike” and “John,” armed only with American flag pins, into the wilds of Paris, where they freak out over couscous signs and bearded men (blatantly ignoring their own beards). It’s a little Jerry-Lewis-with-an-anvil, but they nail Fox hysteria with “massive alerts!” and animated fires in the corner of the screen. And whenever Mike and John get scared, they nervously spray their mouths with breath freshener.
Which itself says something about how Fox operates.
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Last January in Phnom Penh, the garment industry seemed to be coming apart at the seams: protesters thronged through the streets, several died after security forces opened fire and union leaders were detained for weeks without trial. A year on, the unrest has subsided and workers are getting a modest wage hike, but the systematic suppression of unions continues to breed bitter outrage.
Last December, hundreds of workers rallied at the South Korean Embassy to demand justice at the Korean-owned Cambo Kotop factory, following the alleged illegal dismissal of union leaders who had planned a strike. They were opposing a court order to return to work.
Pav Sina, head of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) issued a public letter on Friday describing deteriorating conditions at the plant, which employs about 2,500 people and supplies brands like Gap and Walmart.
Nowadays, the workers’ rights and freedom are badly repressed by the company-management…. For instance, [when] the workers…talk to each other during their lunch time, the company always take photos and tell them to stop immediately, especially when the workers, employees talk about the union tasks.
The union called directly on Gap to “urgently intervene in these illegal dismissals” and pressure the supplier to “stop interfering and discriminating” against any union activities.
Cambo Kotop is just one facet of Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment export industry, which supplies a vast low-wage labor supply to the US and European brands that dominate the $1.7 trillion global fashion market. Last year, several major brands voiced public support for raising the industry’s minimum wage. But international scrutiny has since dissipated, and workers are again demanding international support for their union rights.
The Ministry of Labor has responded only tepidly to the Cambo Kotop protests. On December 30, labor official Vong Sovann told Cambodia Daily that the management had been ordered to reinstate the fired union representatives but had simply refused to comply. “Both sides are in the wrong,” he contended, “because the factory suspended the workers without permission from the ministry and the workers joined the strike without informing the authorities.”
To David Welsh of AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Cambodia, which aids local unions, such statements call into question whose side the labor authorities are on. Because “the factory is in violation of the law, and not respecting the dictates of the Ministry of Labor…their export license should be suspended, or certainly investigated,” he tells The Nation, noting that, “normally the Ministries of Labor and Commerce [could threaten having the companies’] export licenses revoked or at a minimum having them investigated, but this doesn’t appear to be on the table, which speaks to the high level of immunity the industry enjoys.”
This week, the CUMW issued another open letter condemning Chinese-owned denim producer Eastern Industrial Enterprises, located in the Manhattan Special Economic Zone (one of many regional hubs for minimally regulated foreign investment), claiming that the factory had dismissed several union activists and workers, and management had falsely accused the union of taking bribes. (Eastern Industrial and Gap have not yet responded to requests for comment, as of press time.)
Amidst this lax labor enforcement environment, anti-union violence persists. The labor federation IndustriAll reports that in December, the president of a local union affiliate, the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, “was brutally attacked with a metal bar by two unidentified men after she had been threatened by management to stop organizing at the factory where she works.”
Unions had hoped that the backlash against last year’s savage anti-union crackdowns would bring major reforms, especially after the violence prompted some image-conscious Western brands to promote an industry-wide wage increase. But the government raised the base wage to just $128 per month, well short of international unions’ demands of roughly $177 (the estimated “living wage” for garment workers is more than $200). Though wages in Cambodia are somewhat higher compared to other regional exporters like Bangladesh, factory work is associated with severe exploitation and health stresses.
Calling the wage measures a “missed opportunity,” Welsh says, “The wage mechanism that [the government] committed to is not in place, the process is not what they said it would be. And so they really bought a bit of time…until [the campaigning] basically resumes” on issues of wages and union rights.
In some cases, the legal process has vindicated workers, but employers remain hostile to union demands. For example, the charges brought against protesters last year were eventually dismissed, and the government’s labor arbitration council has repeatedly ruled in favor of unions in disputes over labor protections and benefits. But when they face impasses like the Cambo Kotop clash, in which both officialdom and employers are politically aligned, Welsh argues, “what recourse do unions have but to strike?”
Cambo Kotop, he adds, is “symptomatic of a much larger and very persistent assault on independent trade union rights in that sector and the country throughout the year.”
The suppression of unions is ingrained in the industry’s structure through the widespread use of short-term contracts. For the largely female workforce, earning poverty wages while supporting families in the countryside, chronic job insecurity is an intrinsic deterrent to union activism.
Meanwhile, a government investigation into the killings of protesters last year appears to have stalled. Among the brands that previously condemned the crackdown in their “corporate social responsibility” campaigns, multinationals are more muted today; Levi-Strauss and Adidas have issued only nondescript media statements about awaiting action from official investigators.
Factory bosses have chafed at the new wage mandate, despite pressure from labor advocates to adjust their operations to accommodate the pay raise (adding perhaps mere pennies to retail prices).
Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, told Cambodia Daily, “We’ve been saying all along…the higher the wage is set, the more factories will have to close.”
Unions seem willing to take that risk, as it’s not just their wages, but also their movement at stake.
The recent wildcat strike and protests show workers’ desperation has reignited once again. Though multinational brands might have turned away, labor activists haven’t forgotten the sacrifices of last year’s protests. After facing down bullets, they won’t be daunted by their bosses’ threatening words.
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During a visit to The John Batchelor Show on Tuesday, Stephen Cohen, a contributing editor at The Nation, discussed the serious impact of the recent fighting in Ukraine.
“We’re in a fog of war—an expression coming from, I think, World War I, when news reports had become innacurate news reports—misinformation, disinformation from all sides,” Cohen said. “It fueled the war by fueling unwise political decisions. What we do know, though, is your listeners can pull out their calendars and mark down the fighting that began this weekend and continues today…as another fateful lost opportunity in this Ukranian Crisis.”
The Charlie Hebdo massacre has set the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative onto a freewheeling collision course, with irreverent cartoonists catapulted into free-expression martyrdom, xenophobic rhetoric vilifying Islamism as a “cancer” on “the West,” and elsewhere in the world, fundamentalist backlash against Western blasphemers. Et patati et patata—waves of reaction ripple out in all directions. But the mass anxiety over “Eurojihadism” tends to promote confusion rather than clarity on what really drives France’s “Muslim problem,” and obscures the need for a nuanced public discussion.
One prominent theory about Islamist extremism in Europe is that it is rooted in social alienation. But in debates on the intersection of religion and security, simply blaming a lack of “integration” assumes a pathology among a certain segment of disenfranchised Muslim youth, without interrogating what “integration” actually means to different communities (Cultural homogenization? Secularization? Civic participation?).
Of course, many French youth of immigrant and Muslim backgrounds do suffer systemic social ills, but the threat of terrorism is not the reason to care. We should care because it is wrong for a democratic society to marginalize vulnerable people through institutionalized discrimination. If there is a crisis pervading French Muslim communities, it is not budding jihadism, but entrenched segregation and socioeconomic instability, which ultimately present a more extreme menace than extremism.
As for the relatively few extremists in a sea of disenchanted young people, studies show a surprisingly varied profile for so-called “homegrown jihadis.” Often, youth who become “militants” are not the most disadvantaged; some are relatively “Westernized” millennial converts. According to a study cited by the Christian Science Monitor, “many of those fighting abroad are not poor or vulnerable at all….for example, 84 percent of families of radicalized youths come from the middle class. Only 10 percent had grandparents that weren’t French.”
Two of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, Algerian-descendent brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi, were not the offspring a un-integrated, conservative Muslim home, but rather, wayward products of the French foster care system.
The real problem with extremism lies in the mass public reaction to singularly horrific acts, which tend to solidify distorted stereotypes and fuel social strife. Rising far-right movements like Germany’s neofascist Pegida and France’s Front National are milking the Charlie Hebdo killings to stoke jingoistic reaction. FN chief Marine Le Pen recently proclaimed in The New York Times that France was under attack by “totalitarian ideology” and called on French Muslims to prove their loyalty to the West. The climate of hyper-nationalism, by feeding off fear, ignorance and a crusade mentality, threatens to eclipse the very ideals of laïcité and liberté the West claims to embody, thus mirroring the very fundamentalists these campaigns demonize.
Yet that does not keep many French Muslims from adopting those ideals as their own. According to a study by researchers Natalie Delia Deckard of Emory University and David Jacobson of University of South Florida, surveys of French and British Muslims indicate a strong identification with their respective countries, but the French group by some measures reported a comparatively deeper identification with French society and culture. In contrast to stereotypes, “the French were likely to agree that their primary loyalty was to France and were most likely to strongly disagree with the idea that the French government was hostile to Islam.” French respondents displayed a stronger belief in a secular judicial system, as opposed to sharia law.
And economic grievances don’t really explain extremism, either. While studies do broadly link structural economic discrimination to patterns of social isolation and unrest in immigrant communities, on the individual level, there is no clear connection. To the contrary, another study by Delia Deckard and Jacobson ties radical jihadist tendencies to prosperity: “those that feel more affluent are more likely to espouse radical beliefs.” On the other hand, unemployment, separate from class background, does tend to correlate with extremist tendencies.
According to Delia Deckard, this suggests ideology may be a curious type of luxury: “Poor immigrants are concerned with their poverty and how to become wealthier. They don’t think of culture as irrelevant, it’s just not the primary consideration. Wealthy immigrants, however, are concerned with preserving and protecting their culture as a foremost priority.”
Myriad social and cultural factors are always at play in instances of radicalization, but the bottom line is that identity formation is a nuanced process, impossible to explain with simplistic pathologies about immigrants or poor folks. Who knows? Maybe a stable, unified, politically engaged working-class immigrant community is organically more protected from harmful ideologies than, say, an atomized, bourgeois society fraught with bitterness and self-absorption. Maybe the central challenge for every liberal democracy is to test that hypothesis.
As Gary Younge notes, “Too few, it seems, are willing to concede that while the act of shooting civilians dead where they live and work is crude, the roots of such actions are deep and complex, and the motivations, to some extent, unknowable and incoherent.” Religiosity, he argues, is one factor of many driving an act that was both morally senseless and socially grounded: “They are personally responsible for what they did. But we, as a society, are collectively responsible for the conditions that produced them.”
Juan Cole warns that reaction begets reaction: “Al Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.”
The best form of “counterterrorism” is to render terrorism obsolete, by creating the conditions for people to live and express themselves freely, and pursue dignified, meaningful livelihoods with equal rights. French Muslim youth, however, witness their communities ravaged daily by epidemic unemployment and institutionalized racism—forces more destabilizing than the supposed specter of jihad. Yes, the public should be concerned about their alienation—yet not because they are potential security threats, but because they shouldn’t have to live in a society that threatens their existence. Their marginalization doesn’t engender murderous ideologies, but can push communities toward civic death.
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