From Afghanistan to Ukraine

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Six months ago, in a post about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, we wrote:

“This is a turning point in world history. The greatest military power in the world has been defeated by the people of a small, desperately poor, country. This will weaken the power of the American empire all over the world.”

The consequences of the American defeat are now playing out in Ukraine. Putin, understanding the weakness of American power, is pushing to change the balance of power further.

We also wrote, “The War on Terror has been politically defeated in the United States. The majority of Americans are now in favor of withdrawal from Afghanistan and against any more foreign wars.”

Joe Biden and the American military have no intention of going to war in Ukraine. The political consequences in the US would backfire catastrophically.

Biden has been very clear about not going to war. For weeks he has been saying that Russia would probably invade Ukraine, and that when they did so, the US would retaliate with financial sanctions. His meaning was absolutely clear – if Russia invaded Ukraine, the US would not fight.

The leaders of the other major powers in NATO and the European Union have said much the same thing: financial sanctions, and we won’t fight.

Now that Russia has invaded, the UK immediately announced that they would bring forward financial sanctions against five Russian banks and three Russian individuals. Five banks and three individuals is nothing. In the US, the Biden administration told reporters that they would begin with mild sanctions in the hope of stopping Russian escalation.

Contrast this to the Biden administration’s policy towards Afghanistan which reeks of shame and revenge. The US has confiscated the entire meagre financial reserves of that impoverished country, some 9 billion dollars. They have banned almost all trade and aid, and are purposely pursuing sanctions which are ensuring large scale famine in that country.

Or, contrast the sanctions against Putin to the long American blockade of Cuba, or their unforgiving economic and trade sanctions against Iran.

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Harvard, Sexual Politics, Class and Resistance

A long read by Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

As we write, the case of alleged sexual harassment by John Comaroff, a professor of anthropology at Harvard, is exploding. The Harvard case is particularly egregious, not least because of the elite status of the university.

In this piece we treat the Harvard case as part of a much wider set of problems concerning class, sexual politics, inequality and resistance. Our focus initially is on universities in the United States. But we need to remember that academic enterprise today is utterly international. Everywhere the industry relies on similar economic models, has similar intellectual concerns and fosters the considerable mobility of professionals and students from workplace to workplace around the globe.

We are particularly addressing anthropology and other graduate students in the United States and across the world. Our aim is to try to answer some of the difficult questions that come up again and again in online discussion of the case.

[You can download a pdf of this long read here.]

First: Why did Caroline Elkins, who wrote such an important book about the brutal suppression of Mau Mau in Kenya, sign the dreadful Harvard letter? And why did so many other people whose work you admire sign letters like the Harvard one?

The second question is one people seem to avoid asking directly, but it is behind so much of what is being said.  At Harvard, and with other abuse cases, a strange fact stands out. Most men are not abusers. But almost all male managers cover up and enable abuse. And so do almost all female managers. Why? What is going on here?

Third: The people who write the open letters, and others who want to defend abusers, go on about due process. But due process works as a Catch-22. Why should well-educated men accused of sexual harassment be the only ones to enjoy due process, when the apologists know full well that is exactly what we want for the victims of sexual abuse? Instead of banging on about due process for abusers only, shouldn’t we all be asking how can to build a genuinely fair process for everyone?

Fourth: Harvard, Columbia, and other universities in the United States and across the world go to extraordinary lengths to cover up abuse, protect abusers and thus enable further abuse. They do so even when most of the people who run those institutions don’t abuse. Why? Why does this matter so much to them?

Fifth, and finally, how can we do good work in the toxic environment of these institutions? Or to put it positively: what can we take from the struggles against sexual violence at Columbia and Harvard to help us do good, creative intellectual work as scholars and teachers?

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Anti-maskers, Anti-vaxxers and the Racist Right

Jonathan Neale writes: One of the puzzling and enraging things about the covid pandemic is the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers in the United States, Britain, and more widely. And then there are the other forms of covid denial – ‘It’s only the flu’, ‘It’s not real’, ‘There are no cases in hospital’, ‘Herd immunity will save us’.

Many people explain this by saying those other people are mad, deluded, stupid, paranoid, the victims of the internet and conspiracy theories. Or by saying it’s a mystery why they do that. I want to present a political explanation. It comes from some thinking Nancy Lindisfarne and I have been doing about big lies and fascist movements.

[First published at The Ecologist on 27 Jan 2021]

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Poetry Aflame and Unafraid

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

Yesterday, at Biden’s inauguration, we saw a moment that marked a turning point in the history of poetry in English. We saw also how three women marked and lived the contradictions of a turning point in the history of the United States.

Joe Biden’s speech was never going to be the centrepiece of the event. He does not have the skills as an orator. More important, the politics of compromise he brings to this moment could not do justice to the passions of the movement that put him there. So the weight of the moment fell on the shoulders of the artists, two singers and a poet, three women, one white, one Latina, one black, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Amanda Gorman. Continue reading

#MeToo and Class Struggle at Work

Rachel Maddow Friday night

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Yesterday we tuned in to watch Rachel Maddow’s nightly one-hour show on the US cable news network, MSNBC. Something extraordinary happened. Twenty minutes into the show Maddow began to talk about the Harvey Weinstein case. Over the next forty minutes she set forth, in powerful and coherent detail, how her bosses had attempted to protect Weinstein from the exposure of his sexual harassment and rapes on NBC News. Maddow accused her bosses, her bosses’ bosses, and her bosses’ bosses’ bosses, of lying, and of actions that were illegal and immoral. On live TV. Continue reading

Abortion politics: Lessons from US History, 1980-2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write:  With Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, the majority of justices are against women’s abortion rights. This is the second of two posts about the “abortion wars” in the United States. In retelling this history we are looking for insights that might help us to fight for abortion rights going forward. Continue reading

Defending Abortion: Lessons from US History 1964-1980

Judith Widdecombe, abortion pioneer in MIssouri

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale

This is the first of two posts looking to the history of abortion rights in America. Both focus on lessons learned that we can use in the fight for abortion rights in the future.  We make two central points in this post. Abortion rights were won by a mass movement, not the Supreme Court. Second, the abortion wars continue because abortion has come to stand for women’s equality,  sexual freedom and desire. Continue reading

Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh and seven useful insights about sexual violence

Protest in St Louis, 2 October 2018

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: Last Thursday, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the judiciary committee of the US Senate. She said that Brett Kavanaugh, the nominee for the Supreme Court, had attempted to rape her when she was 15. He denied it. She told the truth and he was lying. Everyone in the room knew this, including all eleven Republican senators.

What happened next was something else. The Republican senators rallied to defend the right to rape. Sure, class also mattered, and abortion, and Trump, and the midterm elections. But centrally, they did not want Kavanaugh to pay a price for his sexual violence. An extraordinary moment of #metoo resistance had provoked that Republican backlash, and they closed ranks fast and hard.

When a system is working smoothly the mechanics of power are hidden. But when there is a breakdown, a ‘breach case’, we sometimes have an opportunity to see how the system works. And the links and deep loyalties that keep inequality in place become visible. The hearing has offered such an opportunity. It gives us a chance to formulate seven useful ideas about sexual violence. Continue reading