Another brick in the Wall

Walls JPEG

I am delighted to say that I’ve had my appointment as Peter Wall Distinguished Professor renewed for another five-year term.  It promises to be an exciting five years, since we’ve also appointed a new Director, Philippe Tortell.

The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC is a wonderful place to work, not only because it’s somewhere the boundaries between the arts and sciences are constantly pushed and breached but because it’s also a constant affirmation that truly creative research is also irredeemably social.  It’s not so much a refuge from the modern university (though I’m sure some think of it like that) as a demonstration of what a university could and should be.  We have all sorts of ways to involve people outside UBC in what we do too, as you can see from our website

Illegalities and undemocracies

121102-bds-oranges_-EI_Vredesactie

A postscript to my previous post about Palestine, solidarity and BDS.  Over at Books & IdeasBenjamin Ferron has a review essay on Ingrid Nyström and Patricia Vendramin, Le boycott (2015): Globalisation and the art of boycotting.

There’s some succinct historical context, tracing the politics of boycotts back to the late seventeenth century, but then this about the current Boycott, Disinvest, Sanctions movement:

‘Launched in 2005 at the request of Palestinian intellectuals and academics, and supported by 172 Palestinian civil society organisations, it calls for an economic, academic, cultural and political boycott of the state of Israel to protest against the colonisation and occupation of Palestinian territories, the construction of the Wall of separation and annexation, and campaign in favour of the equality of Israeli Arab and Jewish citizens, and the acknowledgement of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return. The penalisation of these actions in Israel and in France (through the so-called Alliot-Marie circular) shows that this mode of action is threatening to the intended targets or their allies.’

I knew about moves by the Cameron government in the UK and the now mercifully extinct Harper government in Canada to outlaw BDS – the irony of the former Prime Minister threatening to use ‘hate laws’ against anyone with whom he disagreed is wholly unexceptional –   but I now realise that their authoritarian response is much wider than I had imagined, and for the reasons supplied by those last eight words in the quotation.

Of particular relevance to the upcoming plenary at the AAG is this report from Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept that details attempts in the US to suppress pro-Palestinian voices and peaceful actions: ‘Greatest Threat to Free Speech in the West: Criminalizing Activism Against Israeli Occupation‘.

Reach from the Sky

Tanner_V2

I’ve been invited to give the annual Tanner Lectures in Cambridge on 13-14 January 2016. The Lectures are given in parallel at nine universities in the UK and the USA: Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Michigan and Utah.

Appointment as a Tanner lecturer is a recognition for uncommon achievement and outstanding abilities in the field of human values. The lecturers may be elicited from philosophy, religion, the humanities, the sciences, the creative arts, and learned professions, or from leadership in public or private affairs. The lectureships are international and intercultural and transcend ethnic, national, religious, and ideological distinctions.

The purpose of the Tanner Lectures is to advance and reflect upon the scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values. This intention embraces the entire range of values pertinent to the human condition, interest, behavior, and aspiration. The lectures are published in an annual volume.

The Tanner Lectures were established by the American scholar, industrialist, and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner. In creating the lectureships, Professor Tanner said, “I hope these lectures will contribute to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. I see them simply as a search for a better understanding of human behavior and human values. This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

It’s a huge honour, and thoroughly intimidating when I look at the roster of previous speakers and those delivering the other lectures in 2015-16, and I’m thrilled – though so far I’ve only got as far as a title: ‘Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war‘.  The clock is ticking, so watch this space for progress reports…

Virtual Gaza

idffacebook

I had originally thought The everywhere war would include a reworked and extended version of my discussion of cyberwarfare and Stuxnet which appeared in the Geographical Journal (DOWNLOADS tab), but the chapter is now about ‘virtual’ battlespaces more generally – which are far from being purely ‘virtual’, of course – and includes some of the jottings I’ve made on the role of digital media in later modern war (see here and here).  With that in mind – but rather more than that in mind – I should update the part they are playing in Israel’s latest war on Gaza where, as the Wall Street Journal‘s headline on 23 July had it, ‘Israel and Hamas take fight to social media’.

The IDF is no stranger to information warfare and to the power of social media.  John Timpane explains the back-story succinctly:

In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense – on Twitter. It thereby became the first nation to initiate hostilities by social media. Starting with a YouTube video of the aerial assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari, Pillar of Defense escalated the social-media war. The Israeli Defense Force (Twitter following: 292,000) tweeted times and places of rocket strikes against Israel. A rag-tag bunch of pro-Hamas Twitter feeds (such as the oft-shut-down @alqassam, with 11,000-plus followers), Facebook pages, and YouTube videos published images of torn bodies and bombed schools.

As of 2014, “both sides,” says [Lawrence] Husick, “have become remarkably more sophisticated in how they use social media to engage with the rest of the world.”

To provide some idea of the scale of operations, al-Jazeera has produced this remarkable representation of the unfolding of a global Twitterstorm about the war; what appears below are screenshots and you really need to watch the whole thing:

#Israelunderfire

#Gaza under attack

The resources each side has at its disposable are far from equal.  According to Harriet Sherwood:

The propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians is not new, but this battle-round is being fought with unprecedented ferocity. And like the asymmetry in the military conflict, the strength and resources of the Israel social media troops outweigh those of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations.

And those asymmetries have increased. Max Schindler reports,

With dueling Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts and YouTube channels, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, are trading not just fire but also barbs over social media, in an attempt to win hearts and minds around the world. But Hamas, barred from certain platforms, faces additional challenges in the Internet war.

In this round of violence, the social media battle has become increasingly important. Israel’s ability to wage its campaign in Gaza depends on the level of international criticism it sustains.

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended several accounts used by Hamas…. Twitter’s terms of service block use of the website to “a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, denying it access to American commercial products…. Facebook maintains a similar policy, and has deleted dozens of Hamas accounts due to American government restrictions.

All of this has still wider implications because many of the tweets and the cell-phone videos uploaded to YouTube(see below) re-circulate through mainstream media too – though my strong suspicion is that the cautionary ‘cannot be verified‘ tag is used more often to diminish the suffering of people in Gaza than to call into question the IDF’s hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda, take your pick).

These are more than military (or paramilitary) media operations, but the remainder is not only the work of individual ‘citizen-journalists’.  Ali Abunimah reports on a social media ‘war room’, set up on the first day of the current offensive by students at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university, to ‘explain’ Israel’s actions to overseas audiences: ‘israelunderfire’ originated here.  Some 400 volunteers from around the world are now involved in targeting online forums and producing their own (dis)infographics (more – and affirmative – reporting from the the Jerusalem Post here).

IDC Herzliya %22War Room%22

But most of the running is being made by the  IDF’s own concerted media campaign, and as I noted earlier Rebecca Stein has provided a timely analysis of ‘How Israel militarized social media’ that debunks some of the myths that have grown up around its ‘success’ (see also the link to her previous work here):

‘What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion….

In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

But the process was rife with challenges and missteps…

Today, Israelis are also concerned about losing the media war. But they tell the story differently. In their rendering, the Israeli media problem is a by-product of damning or doctored images (this was the spirit of Netanyahu’s infamous “telegenically dead” remarks), of Palestinian media manipulation, of global anti-Israeli cum anti-Semitic bias. The Israeli media manages these problems by removing most traces of Palestinian dead and wounded from national news broadcasts.’

This feeds in to a deeper narrative in which both Palestinian casualties and Israeli culpability disappear from view, deftly characterised by Yonatan Mendel:

‘”We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” Golda Meir said in 1969, ‘but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ Forty-five years on, in the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza, with more than 800 Palestinians killed, about a quarter of them children, Israel’s government, its media and Israeli society have turned Meir’s idea of Israel being ‘forced’ to do unacceptable things into a vast and dangerous superstition. It refuses to take responsibility for the killing, just as it refused to take responsibility for the military occupation and the blockade: these, it tells itself, are what it has been forced into. Killing in Gaza in 2014, killing in 2012, and in 2008. But Israel has convinced itself, despite the rising numbers of dead, that isn’t killing anyone in Gaza. Hamas are the people doing the killing; they are responsible for the siege, the destruction, the underdevelopment, the poverty, the absence of peace talks, the postponement of a ceasefire and the use of UNRWA schools for military purposes.’

One final, crucial qualification. Even as he explains how the IDF and Hamas are fighting a media war, a battle to control the story on social media, John Tirmane insists that ‘the real war is of steel and fire, flesh and blood.’  What the countervailing voices of the ‘Twitterstorm’ seek to enable and to disable is an all too material firestorm.

Mapping Aleppo – and more

Mapping Aleppo

I’ve posted about mapping the war in Syria and its spillover effects before (see here and here), but most of these projects cover a wide area with varying degrees of reliability.  Now News from Laleh Khalili of a report from David Kilcullen‘s Caerus Associates (with the American Security Project) on the civil war in Aleppo, “Mapping the conflict in Aleppo, Syria”, which provides a much more fine-grained view of what is happening on the ground.  You can download the report here or view the interactive version via First Mile Geo here, and you can read an account of the project from Wired‘s Greg Miller here.

Caerus has also joined with the Pentagon’s Center for Complex Operations to produce a special supplement of PRISM (vol.  4, 2014) on the Syrian conflict, which includes an essay by Kilcullen and Nathaniel Rosenblatt on ‘The Rise of Syria’s Urban Poor: Why the War for Syria’s Future Will Be Fought Over the Country’s New Urban Villages’; the whole issue is available on open access here.

These interventions are important and interesting for several reasons.

First, the report is based on exacting local fieldwork.  Acknowledging that local people in conflict zones develop vitally important stocks of local knowledge as a means of survival, the report also accepts that this ‘information-rich environment remains analytically poor.’  For that reason, the field teams ‘provided training and cloud-based tools to help local actors collect locally understood knowledge about their conflict for rigorous analysis.’

From September 16, 2013 to January 6, 2014, we collected four types of information: a monthly survey of perceptions among 560 residents in Aleppo’s 56 neighborhoods, biweekly location and status data for bakeries (a key indicator of humanitarian conditions due to the centrality of bread in the Syrian diet), biweekly location and status data on security checkpoints (a key indicator of security, territorial control and public safety conditions), and a monthly neighborhood-level assessment filled out by our enumerators. These four data streams not only allowed the research team to detect and visualize shifts in the environment in near-real time, but also provided an extremely rich source of insights on the geo-social dynamics at play. All field research was conducted in Arabic.

First Mile Geo notes that it will make the data available to organisations ‘for responsible use’: see Open Data here.

KILCULLEN Out of the mountainsSecond, Kilcullen’s analytical argument (he is described as ‘Principal Investigator’ for the Mapping project) is, naturally enough, fully conformable with the thesis he develops at length in his latest book, Out of the mountains: the coming age of the urban guerrilla (2013); the report reveals the grisly details of contemporary siege warfare and urbicide – central themes in the book, where Kilcullen notes the work of  Steve Graham and Eyal Weizman – and gestures towards a future ‘feral city’ (how I hate that phrase) broken into multiple fiefdoms where gangs and militias exact violence and provide rudimentary services to the residents:

‘The inability of opposition groups to aid residents of neighborhoods they control suggests Aleppo – and Syria as a whole – will become a mosaic of small, intersecting fiefdoms, each providing assistance to its respective neighborhood without regard to macro-level concerns for national governance and reconciliation. Growing warlordism may be particularly acute in Aleppo, where economic rent-seeking opportunities will attract armed gangs who will attempt to seize control of its neighborhoods. These “conflict entrepreneurs” will have little incentive to end a conflict from which they derive power, prestige, and profit. Even in the event of peace, Aleppo’s strategic location will help these actors establish roots for illicit networks that may endure well beyond the present conflict. Moreover, as a non-capital city, Aleppo will not benefit from national government attention. Instead, Aleppo’s future may resemble that of similarly conflict-plagued second cities in the Middle East, such as Mosul in Iraq or Benghazi in Libya. These cities are plagued by warlordism and dominated by illicit economies. They have quickly become safe havens enabling terrorist networks to plan, recruit, and launch attacks.’ 

I’ve posted about Out of the Mountains here, when I promised an extended commentary: Laleh and I will be working on a joint examination of Kilcullen’s larger thesis in the near future, so watch this space. We already have Mike Davis‘s thumbnail view:

‘Although an enemy of the state, I must concede that this is a brilliant book by the most unfettered and analytically acute mind in the military intelligentsia. Kilcullen unflinchingly confronts the nightmare of endless warfare in the slums of the world.’

Here, incidentally, it’s revealing to read Kilcullen’s theses alongside Neil Brenner‘s ‘Theses on urbanisation’, Public culture 25:1 (2013) 85-114, which makes a series of suggestive proposals – but from which war is strikingly absent.  So Kilcullen’s thesis certainly demands serious scrutiny, particularly by those who think that the future of war is somehow encapsulated in the drone.  In my previous note, I joined Geoff Manaugh in being sceptical about the ‘aerial-algorithmic’ interventions that attracted Kilcullen in a series of talks based around the book, but ‘Mapping the conflict in Aleppo’ reveals a much more substantial interest in ‘the facts on the ground’, local actors and local knowledge.  (And here a good counter-text would be the brilliant work of AbdouMaliq Simone; see also his blog, Villes-Noires, here).  So, as I say, watch this space.

First Mile Geo ALEPPO

But there’s a third reason this matters.  I’ve been reading and thinking about Jeremy Crampton, Sue Roberts and Ate Poorhuis‘s ‘The new political economy of geographical intelligence’ – a fine essay in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104: 1 (2014) 196-214 – and I’ll be returning to this in the next day or two.  They emphasise the importance of satellite imagery in the production of US geospatial intelligence, whereas I’ve been developing a different (though related) argument about  the importance of satellite communications for the ‘everywhere war’.  In both cases, there is an intimate relation between ‘milsat’ and ‘comsat’, the military and commercial sectors, which will come as no surprise to those who’ve been plotting the extending contours of the military-industrial complex.

Those contours have snared all sorts of other institutions, of course, which is why James Der Derian talks about MIME-NET (the military-industrial-media-entertainment network) and I’ve talked about MAIM-NET (the military-academic-industrial-media network).  The role of universities in the development of military capabilities and military knowledge (and ultimately the production of military violence) is no less surprising, of course, and in fact there’s a session on ‘Geography and the military’ organised by Eric Sheppard at the AAG conference in Tampa (an appropriate location for several reasons) to debate these issues.  But it should now be clear that the production of these geographical knowledges is not confined to the military and civilian intelligence agencies, the academy and large corporations but also includes a host of much smaller private contractors devoted to ‘geographical intelligence’.  They come in different shapes and sizes, and with different agendas.  Caerus, for example, describes itself as a ‘strategy and design firm’ that helps clients ‘understand and thrive in complex, conflict-afflicted, and disaster-affected environments’.  But there are many others, and it’s important not to lose sight of their role in what the US military would call ‘shaping the battlespace’…

Saviours and victims

Bhakti Shringarpure has a wide-ranging conversation with Mahmood Mamdani over at Warscarpes.  It covers a lot of ground, but one of the central threads is Mamdani’s insistence on conducting a ‘history of violence’, which is to say a history of the present (Darfur, Ruanda) in ways that disclose the historical context for today’s horrors.

MAMDANI Saviors and survivorsHence Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued that the crisis in Darfur had to be read as a vicious gavotte of insurgency and counterinsurgency rather than genocide (as many commentators in the West insist).  Explaining his insistence on a dispersed, situated agency, Mamdani sets himself against what he calls the ‘new’ narrative of human rights:

‘The conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative….  The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim.’

He also talks about the politics of writing (and about the part his Harvard room-mate, Michael Ignatieff, played in the development of his own style), about audiences and public intellectuals, about the book through which I first came to know his work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror, the role Edward Said had in its publication, and his own ‘voyage in’, and he ends with this reflection on teaching at Columbia:

The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.

They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem.

But it’s not a peculiarly American conceit.  One of the characteristic gestures of modern colonialism and imperialism has been, precisely, to insist on its mission to bring ‘order’ from the outside to save those souls who would otherwise be condemned to their own chronic ‘disorder’.  This has been on view most recently in Tony Blair’s athletic support for the military intervention in Egypt: ‘Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else’s job, it’s ours.’  Perhaps it’s time somebody wrote Good Christian, Bad Christian.

Peter Wall International Distinguished Fellow Prize

PWIAS new logoThe Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at UBC Vancouver has just announced three Prize Fellowships (each worth $65,000 CDN) designed to bring international and/or national scholars to the Institute and the university for extended periods.

The criteria:

The Peter Wall International Distinguished Fellow is expected to exhibit scholarly excellence, outstanding contributions to their field of research, and an exceptional international standing.

These highly competitive awards will be selected based on merit and the calibre of both the proposed scholar and the research to be conducted during the tenure of the prize, including research collaboration with one or more UBC scholars.

The Distinguished Fellow must undertake original innovative research in a highly interdisciplinary environment, and is expected to serve as a catalyst for long-term formative research with UBC, national and international researchers and/or community partners.

22-PWIASview1

The competition is open to senior scholars from all countries; the award may be applied to a single residency at the Institute (including a sabbatical) – see the view from our offices above – or to  multiple visits over the three years, but the Distinguished Fellow must be in residence for a total of six months and each visit must be a minimum of one month.

Full details are here.  For Fellowships starting 1 March 2014 the closing date for applications/nominations is 15 October 2013; for 1 January 2015 the closing date is 1 May 2014.  I’m happy to respond to any informal queries.