Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Last week I attended an event at Hunter College called Palestine: Then & Now – The Road to Freedom, presented as part of Israeli Apartheid Week, a seven-year-strong show of support for Palestinian rights, observed on approximately 50 US college campuses each year, and usually attracting some much-needed attention to the BDS movement of nonviolent resistance against the Israeli occupation and brutal treatment of the Palestinian territories. I was still fired up from the previous week’s Baird-Weiner debate and was eager to get information on the growing movement from the mouths of activists on the front lines, so I arrived early. Good thing too, since the organizers failed to mention in any of the advance publicity for the event that attendees would need to go to a different building on campus to receive a pass to be admitted to the North building where the Lang Auditorium was. This, unfortunately, was the first of many frustrations I, and others, had with the event. The lackluster organization, presentation, and attention to detail was a constant irritant, directing attention away from the importance of the message being conveyed and the messengers’ qualifications. Fortunately for the organizers, the audience appeared to be largely sympathetic. Absent was the usual squad of loud-mouthed, young pro-Israeli men in yarmulkes, shouting back at the speakers. Perhaps the word just hadn’t gotten out.

I left my camera bag and coat to save my front row seat and went out to the hall to look for the printed handouts the guy next to me was reading. There was a small group of students outside, none of whom offered me any welcome or any materials, so I dug around in some nearby boxes and found a few cards and a one-sheet that urged anti-Israeli activists to avoid anti-Semitism. Typical apologist Left, I thought. Like the Democrats who allow themselves to be forced to the defensive against the Republican framing of events, here, I thought is the anti-Israeli version. We’re going to be attacked as anti-Semites and as being against the very existence of Israel, so we have to put some pre-emptive energy into emphasizing that it isn’t any more anti-Semitic to deplore the actions of the Israeli government than it is anti-Christian to deplore the actions of the US government and its military. It’ an important point, but I feel that these defenses as a pre-emptive are a waste of time and worse. They buy into the framing of the issue used by dogmatic Zionists, diverting attention away from the litany of Israeli human rights violations, violations of international law, and the ongoing US support for same. It’s a kind of rhetorical dualism that is very easy to get sucked into. Stating these apologies and defenses upfront don’t sway entrenched loyalists to Israel. They’ll still call someone like me a self hater and any Arab an anti-Semite. It doesn’t matter. In the rhetoric of defenders of Israel they will still attribute all opposition to anti-Semitism, and insist that Israel is merely defending itself, an innocent victim, an open democracy, not an abuser of human rights.

The first speaker at Palestine: Then & Now, was Tahani Salah, a Palestinian slam poet from Brooklyn who fired off a couple of spoken word pieces in the now cliched style of hip hop rhythms and angry first-person posturing. I have nothing against performers taking an “in your face” approach, like Salah’s, in fact I appreciate it, but I prefer when they have something coherent and meaningful to say. To me, her performance was all about her delivery and the feelings she spoke of having, or witnessing, without much indication of what brought those feelings forward. I didn’t catch anything of direct relevance to the question of Palestine. She did introduce one piece as being about a conversation she had with a Palestinian mother, but between her lines about “a place of forgotten beginnings,” and her assertion to herself that “if tomorrow never comes you’ll be happier,” she might as well have been wailing about conditions in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. The audience obviously appreciated her a lot more than I did, cheering her on. I’m used to that. A lot of people seem to respond to the conformist style of slam and reward its practitioners for their forcefulness and fire above any genuine gift of language or storytelling. I need something more. Tell me about that place, and its people. Tell me about their plight and yours, not just your anger and sadness. Throwing big truths into the air demands more than volume and passion. True gravitas comes from somewhere more inventive, crafted, and wise.

Next up was Lamis Deek, a passionate and articulate Palestinian-American attorney, and co-chair of Al-Awda New York. She apologized in advance for being long-winded, joking that she makes her living by talking, and has a tendency to go on a bit. I’m always a little worried when speakers or performers warn me about their shortcomings, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, having seen a couple of YouTube clips and finding her very knowledgeable, direct and charismatic. I disagree with some of what I believe are her aspirations for a one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but I’m not unsympathetic. Unfortunately she rambled and digressed her way through more than an hour’s time, attempting to explain the origins of Zionism, and the full history of the entire region of Palestine, giving special attention to the continued displacement of the Palestinian people and bringing it around to the dreary state of the occupation today. It was way too much to present, too wide in scope, and hard to absorb, considering the level of detail Deek employed and her constant leaps of digression, frequent snorting asides to rebut common pro-Israeli revisionism, which only made it harder to follow her overlong oratory. One minute she’d be talking about Lord Balfour and the next she’d jumped back to Biblical time to talk about the Canaanites and then back to the Gaza Massacre of 2008. It was very frustrating to try and take notes. At first I was with her, but frankly it didn’t seem to me that she knew what kind of talk she was there to give; was it a passionate rant of personal views or a scholarly breakdown of “the story so far?” If she had restricted herself to either approach I think she would have been wonderful, but she got herself into sticky situations more than once by blurring the lines between the two. Her introduction to Zionism was mostly very informative and illuminating, in a fairly detached, pseudo-scholarly mode, but later in her talk she made vehement statements of judgment (such as her reference to the “vulgarity of Zionism”) that injured her credibility. If her entire speech had been focused this way it would have been more effective. Instead she came off as struggling to hang on to her objectivity, the kind of demeanor that encourages the suspicions of secret anti-Semitism from pro-Israeli detractors and their cohorts. She occasionally bent facts in subtle ways to make her points more weighty and didn’t distinguish herself very well when at her first mention of Ariel Sharon she broke into an aside saying “last I heard he’s in a vegetative state now, right?” No matter how evil Sharon is, and he is evil, this mocking aside only made Ms. Deek seem callous and unserious. I can surely sympathize, and I am not suggesting we shower thugs with love, but what was the point in this immature aside? She also listed attack after attack on the Palestinians without any mention whatsoever of Hamas’ rockets and suicide bombers. By not mentioning them at all she reduced the credibility of her cause, since anyone critical could have easily assailed her as being a one-sided analyst, making her very important and factual points easy to dismiss as propaganda. Again, fortunately for Ms. Deek the audience was largely sympathetic.

When Deek finally gave the floor over to Randa Wahbe from Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine, I felt a sigh of relief from the crowd, but frustration set in very quickly as Wahbe indulged in the irritatingly all-too-common practice of projecting bullet-pointed Power Point slides and reading them to us. Few things get on my nerves as much as this, which combined with her bashful blushing at every audio-visual fuck up (the guy in the booth wasn’t much help) had many of us squirming with impatience in no time. Her slides were loaded with grammatical errors and other mistakes that distracted from her message, and some of her most adamant assertions were never backed up with facts. Early on, she insisted that “it’s very important to use the word ‘apartheid’” to describe the Israeli policies, but provided no justification other than the fact that it’s accurate. This damaged her credibility in my eyes. There actually are some good reasons to use the word “apartheid,” like the parallel it draws with the history of South Africa that Americans are more aware of and sympathetic to, as well as the inherent racism in the Israeli policies which the word “apartheid” underscores. But I didn't hear Wahbe elucidate these. When a slide came up advocating the boycott of pro-Israeli businesses, with twin logos showing for Starbucks coffee and Sabra hummus, she blushed again, as she admitted that while she personally thinks there are valid reasons to boycott Starbucks (for "corporatism") they “don’t fall under BDS guidelines,” without explaining what those guidelines were, or why Starbucks’ logo was on the slide in the first place. A few minutes later when the a/v assistants were having a hard time getting one of Ms. Wahbe’s videos to play, she took a few questions, and I asked about the Starbucks reference. She said that the logo was just there to show contrast: Starbucks = OK, Sabra = not OK. Meanwhile, there are myriad accusations online against Starbucks for raising money or offering other support for Israel and the IDF, all steadfastly denied by Starbucks’ website, but Wahbe didn’t mention any of this controversy, not even for the purpose of refuting it herself. It made her seem unprepared and less knowledgeable than I know she is, having read good commentary by her, even in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. The question blurted from the audience and met with the most in-kind enthusiasm from the panel was, “what kind of hummus CAN we eat?” Deek and Wahbe batted that one around for a couple minutes, with Deek advocating making your own, (right on) but also lauding Whole Foods’ own brand as one of the best. Funny that this was the liveliest part of the event. Hummus.

This, combined with two slides in a row containing glaring grammatical errors, and a video with unintelligible testimony from a Palestinian man about (I think) Lev Leviev’s West Bank settlements (thankfully, an audience member asked Wahbe to summarize what he’d said when the video ended) caused me to leave a few minutes before the end of the event, feeling that I’d learned nothing new. It felt like I’d just watched a little extra-credit assignment by a couple of undergrads, and if I were their professor I would have given them the credit, but as a concerned Jewish US citizen interested in making connections with pro-Palestinian organizations, learning more about the BDS movement, and maybe making a difference, I found it seriously lame.

On my way out I stopped to check out the refreshments the Hunter SJP had advertised would be available, and it was pretty comical. About a dozen little paper bowls of Lay brand-related chips and Cheetos were laid out; about enough for a tenth of the crowd, and next to them a row of Coke products in cans. Never mind that Frito-Lay are in a partnership with the Strauss Group in Israel (makers of Sabra) and that Coca-Cola are one of the most staunch supporters of Israel since the 1960’s. I had to laugh. Someone just sent out for snacks without thinking about it or checking the list of brands they’d just been showing us in the recital hall. I went home excited to write, and to criticize these women as being an utter disappointment.

But then I woke up the next day feeling guilty pangs. Who the hell am I to criticize? Here are these well-intentioned young people doing important work, direct action to oppose brutal policies my government supports, and I am doing…what exactly? Blogging? Writing? Photographing? Isn’t it rather pathetic of me to sit in judgment while these people, whose lives have been far more directly affected than mine by the Israeli occupation, put themselves out there in a very real and substantive way? I offer my criticisms of the event at Hunter in the spirit that I hope my honest observations will be helpful, just as the work of these women was instructive to me. I mean that. However, the discussion of Israel-Palestine is so important…and I meet compassionate, intelligent American people all the time who were completely unaware of the reality of the Israeli occupation until hearing about it via the BDS movement. This is life and death stuff. We’re not fighting for longer hours at the school library; this is human rights! We need to be serious to be taken seriously. Maybe that’s why the pro-Israeli youth brigade didn’t show up to scream back at Deek and Wahbe--they knew it wasn’t that big a deal. It should have been a big deal.

Friday, March 4, 2011


When I posted on Facebook that I was going to a debate at the New School about the Goldstone Report, a friend of mine responded, “What is there to debate?” I felt the same way, having read large portions of the Report myself, and finding its revelations about the IDF’s “Operation Cast Lead” truly shocking, but I do have some awareness that there are in fact people who question its legitimacy, and that some peoples’ dogmatic defense of Israel and its brutal policies are so ingrained that you can put any sort of evidence you want in front of their faces and they either won’t see it, or they’ll purposefully deny its implications, so I fully expected to see some fireworks. The event, sponsored by Nation Books, was tied in with their new volume of and about the report, edited by three Jewish-Americans, with contributions by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, human rights activist Raji Sourani, legal expert Jules Lobel, Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, congressman Brian Baird, author Naomi Klein, and many other notable journalists, authors, historians and experts. I look forward to reading it. Promising “an engaging conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report's findings, and the ramifications of the changing landscape in Egypt for the future of peace in the Middle East,” Nation Books invited as speakers last night former congressman Baird, a firm critic of Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY), a supporter of Israeli policy and a critic of the Goldstone Report. Weiner has been finding a lot of visibility and favor lately from progressives due to his full-throated defense of public health care legislation and other left-leaning issues. However, at this event Weiner unleashed a litany of blatant falsehoods so brazenly in denial of established facts that even moderator Roger Cohen of the New York Times was visibly shocked and in more than one case, made a point of correcting him.

The evening began with Cohen asking congressman Baird, who traveled to Gaza shortly after Cast Lead, to compare what he saw there personally to what he read in the report upon his return. Baird was eloquent and heartfelt in speaking about his decision to visit Gaza, his observations of the destruction there of homes, schools, hospitals, factories, in many cases after the areas were fully secured by the IDF, and that the Goldstone Report is very consistent with what he saw and learned there, including its charges against Hamas for its own crimes, establishing it as a balanced view of the conflict. Baird went on to say that no one on Capitol Hill was the least bit interested in hearing about his experiences there before voting on the resolution to not accept Goldstone, and furthermore to ban any further consideration of it. Said Baird, “member after member after member went down to the floor to vote on a report they’d never read on a place they’d never been.”

Moving on to Rep. Weiner, moderator Cohen asked him to explain how he came to his view that the report was illegitimate and biased against Israel. Weiner said that first of all the organization that commissioned the report (The United Nations) was determinately anti-Israel. Weiner moved off the topic to defend the devastation of Gaza as being the inevitably ugly result of war, saying that war is a bad messy thing and, “any time armaments are exchanged there is destruction.” He revisited this point many times over the course of the evening, as if motives and proportionality was a non-issue. At this point Weiner chose to laud Israel for being an “open Democracy” which conducts self-investigation when questions of its conduct are raised. No one challenged him on this last point, which was a sadly missed opportunity. The U.S. also conducts self-investigations and repeatedly finds itself justified in its actions, offering nothing more than apologies to victims if unable to slink out of responsibility, saying in-effect “it was a regrettable mistake.” Weiner expects us to believe that the same Israeli regime that would conduct an illegal occupation and attempts at ethnic cleansing should be trusted to do their own investigating and that international scrutiny, including that made by the countries that arm it, are unnecessary. Baird rebutted Weiner’s argument about bias, pointing out that not only did the Report also take Hamas to task for its own crimes, it walked though mountains of objective evidence. Baird made an impassioned statement that not only were Israel’s actions illegal, but also strategically foolish because if they desire peace they aren’t going to make many friends doing things like this.

Weiner further justified Cast Lead by pointing out that there were more than 130,000 phone calls made to Gaza, and numerous leaflets dropped on them, to warn that a military operation was coming, so they were given fair warning. Weiner seemed to not care that these Gaza residents have nowhere to go, being mostly confined to the tiny territory, and that even if they could leave, the destruction of their homes doesn’t become more just simply because they were told in advance that they could expect it.

At many points Weiner made statements that contradicted his earlier assertions. At one point he made enthusiastic statements about the Egyptian revolution, praising the desires of its young people for democracy and human rights, but earlier in the debate he used the Egyptian participation in the blockade of Gaza as proof that Israel isn’t the only one who think the Gazans are dangerous, so we shouldn’t be so focused on Israel as a culprit. Does Weiner think that the actions of a dictatorship he now vilifies are something to hold up as proof of his beliefs?

But then things got truly surreal when Rep. Weiner made the claim that there are no IDF soldiers in Gaza or the West Bank, that there is “no occupation.” Roger Cohen appeared startled and incredulous as he asked Weiner to clarify his statement, and after hearing the exact same thing told Weiner he was quite mistaken. It should be noted that Weiner has never been to Gaza, despite wanting to go, because, “I’ve been told it wouldn’t be safe for me there.”

Baird’s rebuttal of Weiner’s lies was emphatic and full of direct experience. He pointed out that he was at the Knesset the day they voted to make it a crime to state that Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish State. Some democracy! Baird pointed out that crimes against speech were not exactly a sign of open democracy, and that first amendment rights were an essential component for all. (Weiner later remarked that the US is the "only country with a 1st amendment," as if that excused Israel from the moral responsibility.) Baird also responded to Weiner’s claim that there was no occupation, asking if there is no occupation, why can the Gazans not get lentils, tomato paste, toothpaste, and supplies to rebuild their destroyed homes and hospitals? If there is no occupation, how is it that thousands of Palestinians are indefinitely imprisoned without trial? Not to mention the indignities their citizens suffer through day after day, including being forced from their homes.

Weiner moved into further fantasy land and claimed that the occupation (which he insisted was a “blockade”) was legal and in keeping with the Geneva Convention because it’s Israel’s legal right to keep out of an enemy country the items it could use to attack. Someone in the crowd called out, “LENTILS??”

At this point it became hard to keep track of Weiner’s lies. When asked about the recent veto by the Obama administration on the UN resolution to condemn Israeli settlement activities in Palestinian territory, he defended the activities saying that the settlements are not happening in Palestinian territory. When he was asked where in fact they were happening he said, “Israel.” Cohen demanded he explain where Israel was and what he considered it’s borders. Weiner said that Israel extended from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, making it clear that he believes there is no such thing as Palestinian territory and that Israel has a right to do whatever it wants in the West Bank and Gaza. He also claimed the the sole purpose of the UN was to “beat the bejeezus out of Israel.”

After the debate ended I stuck around and listened in on some conversations that went on between the participants and the audience. Baird explained the Israeli system of defending its actions, a four-step process:

1) Tell the US what it wants to hear (i.e. that the actions were in self-defense, etc)

2) If that doesn’t work, deny the facts.

3) If that doesn’t work, attack the other person.

4) If all three fail, say “we are conducting our own investigation into this and we’ll get back to you.”

One need look no further than the response to the Gaza Flotilla Raid for a recent example of this methodology.

Weiner, in his own post-show conversations made further shocking assertions. I overheard one woman arguing with him about borders, pointing out to him that it is against international law to annex land by acts of war, to which Weiner insisted, “no it isn’t! We’ve done it!” Another audience member questioned his defining Israel as a democracy even though it systematically violated people’s rights, to which he quipped, “there was a time when black people couldn’t vote in this country, but it was still a democracy!”

During the debate Weiner repeatedly characterized himself as a “progressive” and I think on the national stage he is considered one, frequently taking on the Tea Party and speaking passionately about positions held by many who also consider themselves progressive, but if being progressive can stop at the issue of Israel, how progressive are we? This same man who supposedly stands for progressive causes asserts that freedom of speech is not a right everyone should have, but only in those countries who have a law on the books establishing it. He says that countries have the right to annex land they win through war, despite the fact that this same argument would give anyone the right to take over his beloved Israel and call it their own. I had to wonder if he thought the Native American lands stolen by the US were fairly won?

Index cards were handed out to the audience last night for us to submit questions to Baird and Weiner. (Very few made it to the discussion, unfortunately.) I wrote on mine, “To Rep. Weiner: Do you think it would be fair to demand the tribal councils of the various Native American nations make a statement recognizing the USA’s right to exist?” I wish it had been asked. When I think about Israel-Palestine I can never stop thinking about the Indians. The parallels are plentiful, and will only increase if the Palestinians continue to be crushed under the boot of the Israeli regime, eventually dooming them to be a permanently impoverished minority, defined by the lies of their occupiers, and characterized by hatred, despotism, and having a primitive nature and morality. Last night’s display from Weiner would have at one time caused me to descend into depression and hopelessness, incredulous that a so-called progressive leader could espouse such revisionist bullshit, but Brian Baird gave us something very real and beautiful to take home with his intelligent, eloquent words, keeping his cool while hearing Weiner lie through his teeth, and made a strong case for the rights of all people, everywhere, and how the US ought to be promoting the availability and protection of such rights, rather than supporting those who would deny them. I’ll stick with that.

The Israel-Palestine subject is huge, and complex, not only politically, but for many of us culturally and psychologically. I was raised to believe that anything that benefits Israel is good, and that Zionism is absolutely just. It took me many years of questioning, reading, talking, to unravel these ingrained beliefs. It’s finally dawned on me just how much of this belief system relies on racism. Underneath nearly every indictment of the Palestinians I read and nearly every defense of Israel is the unstated assumption that Arabs are inherently hateful primitive people who live to kill Jews. It infuriates me that I was taught this way of thinking as a child in Hebrew school. It infuriates me that the same mother who taught me to think in principles and to love reason also taught me that removing an entire people from their homeland was just because the Jews need a homeland. It infuriates me that decades of thuggish behavior by the Israeli government was defended to me as the proper way to “never forget” the Holocaust. To me, reason and principles direct us to another course of action and another set of beliefs, including the right of all people to speak and live free from tyranny.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Free Speech Update

For those of you who followed my recent post on the Westboro Baptist Church and freedom of speech, today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptists in the suit brought against them by Albert Snyder for picketing the funeral of his son Matthew, a US Marine who died in Iraq’s Anbar Province. Judge Alito was the lone dissenter. 21 news organizations joined other groups in urging the court to find in the Church's favor. Read about it here.

This is great news. While many will question the Court's wisdom in defending the rights of an organization who admittedly compounded the grief of someone, and whose "speech" amounts to hateful anti-gay slurs and psycho-religious idiocy, I stand with people like Noam Chomsky who once wrote, "it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense."

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Sometimes the sheer number of important causes in the country and around the world can be truly overwhelming to me. It’s so easy to look around and see problem after problem and feel confused about where to start. How do we decide what’s most important? Most of us don’t have the time to fight on every worthy front, and even if we did we probably wouldn’t be as effective as if we focused on just a few crucial issues. But with so many things going on in the world that make my stomach burn, how am I to prioritize? Any attempt at objective criteria feels doomed after a short while. Every problem has another fundamental one underneath it, and every problem subjectively harms someone more than someone else. If I take on the issue of immigrant rights am I neglecting the fight for campaign finance reform? If I focus on prison issues am I turning away from efforts to stop climate change? There’s no objective solution to this dilemma; you simply have to decide for yourself what’s most important to you, based on your passions, your background, what you value. It’s a personal choice. My pet issue if I have one, is war. That and the fact that the Democrats and Republicans are essentially the same thing with different accents.

About four years ago I started hearing a lot about the Working Families Party of New York. My immediate reaction was that I hated their name. It struck me as cowtowing to the welfare bashers and the way they frame the issues. I’m so tired of this shit. It’s like the mindset is, “the Republicans will say we want to just give handouts to lazy people who won’t work, so we have to emphasize that we are working people!” I hate it. It’s like we all have this permanent burden now to preemptively defend our intentions against the symbol of the lazy welfare mother who’s having another kid to get more food stamps to buy more McDonald’s extra value meals. Spare me. I also hated the “families” part of the name. I mean, I know that Working Individuals wouldn’t have quite rolled, but as a divorcee who never had any interest in having kids I find it hard to identify.

But when my disillusionment and disappointment with the party of my family upbringing reached full saturation I started looking into this Working Families business and saw a lot to like. They are active in the fight against hydro-fracking in New York. They vocally support public campaign finance, which would undoubtedly be a step in the right direction. In fact, I don’t really see much in their platform that really irks me. It’s what’s missing that I have a hard time with, namely any stance at all on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is incomprehensible to me. How the fuck can a group that calls themselves “New York's liveliest and most progressive political party” not take a stand on war! But if you look at their website you won’t find the words Iraq or Afghanistan anywhere. What the hell is going on here?

I did a little poking around elsewhere on the Web, and it turns out that at least back in 2006 WFP was quite vocal in their stance against the war, particularly in Iraq, with a campaign they called “Bring Them Home,” which included a promotional video featuring iconic folksinger Pete Seeger. Seeger also appeared in a companion mailer showing endorsements from Seeger, filmmaker Michael Moore and anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan. Only trouble was, they neglected to mention that at that time Cindy Sheehan was officially endorsing the Green Party at the time and WFP had to do some serious damage control to keep from appearing to have misrepresented Sheehan as being one of their spokespeople. I’m guessing Sheehan was a good deal responsible for the mistake as well. She liked some WFP candidates and had only recently become a public personae. But the people at WFP should have known better. It was a botched job to be sure. But although you can still see the Seeger video on You Tube, the webpage on the WFP site that once carried the “Bring Them Home” message is nowhere to be found. You can dig and dig in the website and you won’t find anything about war. Every day people die in Afghanistan from US military and NATO actions and New York’s “liveliest and most progressive political party” doesn’t feel it’s still worth mentioning now that everyone is too distracted by the economic crunch they’ve basically forgotten there’s a war on. The people in Afghanistan and Pakistan sure remember.

After digging really hard (in vain) to see if the WFP website actually took a position on the wars (it doesn’t), I posted as my Facebook status message: “I’ll get behind the Working Families Party when they get behind ending war.” One response from a very intelligent young friend of mine made a point in response that I’m sure a lot of people buy, namely that since they aren’t really a national party, but mostly a New York-based organization, they don’t really comment that much on big national issues and don’t say much of anything about foreign policy for this reason. Sounds pretty good until you take into account that they endorse, through voting fusion, candidates for the US House and Senate. Plus, soldiers from our state are killing and dying in the wars and that makes it a state issue. Third, they did take a stand on the war when war was a big issue on the minds of voters. In August of 2006, according to CNN, 60% of Americans disapproved of the Iraq war, and most approved a timetable based pullout. To stand for ending the war was to stand with the majority. What about now? Well, the same group, CNN, released a poll on January 3rd which revealed that 63% of Americans currently oppose of the war in Afghanistan. So where are the Working Families? I became curious to see what the other so-called third parties in New York had to say in their websites about the war, so I looked them all up. The results were sad and surprising.

Of the seven parties with ballot access in New York outside the Red and Blue color wheel, most did not mention war at all, finding it more urgent to fill page after page with rhetoric about everything from paid sick days (WFP) to railing about the evils of human cloning (Right To Life Party). Down the line, they are:

Conservative Party - considers winning the "war on terror" a top priority.

Green Party - ending Iraq & Afghanistan wars explicitly listed as part of their platform.

Independence Party - the third largest party lists no position on war.

Liberal Party - almost no reference to the war at all, and what I could find bemoaned only the cost to the economy and the unwinnable nature of it.

Libertarian Party - officially opposes initiation of the use of force by anyone. Also vocally supports abolishing the Selective Service. Their website doesn’t condemn the War on Terror, Iraq War, or the Afghanistan war specifically.

Right to Life Party - no mention of war, or any other political issue not pertaining to abortion, underscoring the hypocrisy of their name and its implied defense of the "right" to life. I guess they mean it’s okay to kill babies and children as long as they’re brown and you do it with bullets and drone strikes rather than with abortions.

Working Families - no mention of war policy on their site; much policy about the fair treatment of veterans and current military personnel though.

I guess if this were a contest I’d have to go Green, but it isn’t. I don’t really see that I need to get behind a party at all. It might be fun for a while to “belong” to something, but it doesn’t really matter that much. I don’t think our real solutions are going to come through voting; I think we are going to have to find more substantive ways to act in opposition. I’m not saying you shouldn’t vote, but it’s clearly far from enough.

In July of last year the war in Afghanistan became the longest war in US history, surpassing even the Vietnam War. The promised 16-month exit became transformed into a 16-month reduction. The latest estimates I read from the DoD say they expect armed combat to end in 2014. The plan to close Guantanamo is indefinitely scrapped. Afghanistan will be our permanent punching bag, with Pakistan now getting fully rogered as well. If we are going to dare to call ourselves progressive I think we have to do something about that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Insanity: Westboro Baptists and The Power of Words

[I wrote this a few weeks ago when every other word being uttered online was "Arizona." Sorry I'm late, but I need to get this off my plate so I can feel justified moving on to more current matters. --RR]

In the wake of the recent shooting incident in Arizona, an absurd battle began to erupt in the public arena, social networking media, and the press, regarding the subject of violent language and imagery, and its power to incite. From the common arguments we can reduce down to two basic opposing points of view: 1) the poster displayed by Sarah Palin last year with crosshairs next to members of congress, including Congresswoman Giffords, definitely played a role in the shooter's action, or 2) the role of the poster is inconclusive without further evidence. The second premise is well-supported since we have reasonable information that the shooter was insane or deluded. While this doesn't rule out the influence of the ugly semiotics of Sarah Palin as an influence, it certainly provides for the possibility that he could have been influenced as much or more by other input, or even nothing one could directly connect. For what is insanity? Insanity by its very definition is the absence of reason, the absence of rational decision, and the absence of rational cause and effect relationships between influence and action. The shooter was no doubt influenced in his faulty thinking, like anyone, by a wide array of input over the course of his (so far) short life. But someone irrational or insane often distorts this input to either support beliefs they already hold, or to dismiss information that defies their crazy beliefs. Without digressing into the question of whether religious beliefs that are disproved by factual evidence constitute insanity (don't get me started), the only rational conclusion about the Arizona shooter (based on the reliable information that he was insane) is that the role of external influence on his actions that day cannot be ascertained without a lot more evidence than has been provided so far. The proponents of premise #1 above, believe that it is conclusive enough to say that because one of the targets in the Palin poster was Ms. Giffords, then Palin's poster is partly responsible. However we do not even know for a fact yet whether the shooter ever saw the poster, or if so, what he thought of it. So even if we assume he was sane (which he clearly wasn't) then we still don't know whether the Palin poster, or the "political climate" as some have substituted for the poster in arguments, was in any way an influence on this cruel and violent act. Of course the Palin poster was meant to offend her opponents and rally her base, and it worked on both counts. The outrage of Palin's opponents has continually served to garner her more attention, and cause her influence to appear larger than it really is.

Meanwhile, a new controversy rose like a Phoenix from the ashes of this nightmare. The Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to picket the funerals of two of the victims (the ones whose funerals were going to occur first) to advance a pretty crazy message, namely that God sent the shooter to do his deed because of the tolerance being shown to gay people in our society. These fools have done or threatened many similar actions and their power, like Palin's, lies largely in their ability to offend, since very few take their views seriously, but the Westboro Baptists know what their opponents don't, namely that once they have leveled their threat to picket they have won the game, because so many will leap to oppose them that it spreads their message widely without their having done anything more than announce an intention. Panic gives immense power to these religious nincompoops. Their message so offends people that the very threat of action is more powerful than their actual ability to act. If they appear, in the puny numbers they embody, outside a funeral of an innocent victim, and harass their mourners with idiotic anti-gay messages, it may be offensive to most, and upsetting to the mourners, but it is so overwhelmingly opposed by the public that groups have even been organized to oppose them with counter-protests that block their visibility to the mourners at these events. One group, who use giant costume angel wings, pledged to oppose the Westboro picket with their own action in order to nullify them. A beautiful example of citizen action. I mean that. Instead of denying the Westboro morons their right to assemble and speak, those opposed to their message pledged to exercise their own right to free speech in blocking the Westboro peoples' offensive message from being in the faces of the mourners. This is what properly takes place in a free society. The KKK marches down your street and you line up along the sidewalks with signs that say "go home!" Unhampered by laws, speech polices itself.

But this self-policing aspect of free speech evidently isn't enough for the fearful--mostly so-called Democrats, who may adopt somewhat left-leaning rhetoric when it comes to social welfare programs, but are seldom the best defendants of free speech. They commonly argue that "words have consequences" and use this justification to argue for restrictions on speech. One of their favorite analogies they use when trying to justify the limiting of speech is the one where someone yells "fire!" in a crowded theater. The foes of free speech love to use this ridiculous metaphor as an example of why some speech is dangerous and should be limited, completely leaving out the context. Context is huge. The analogy in fact depends entirely on there being no fire. If there is no fire, then I'm guilty of intentionally misleading a crowd and endangering them. This may be considered a crime if direct harm comes to some of the crowd in the ensuing panic, but the crime is that I mislead them, not the words themselves. After all, if there really had been a fire I'd be a hero for alerting them.

In the case of Westboro, panic set in before the offending speech was ever brought to the funerals. The Tuscon legislature quickly passed an emergency law to make protesting within 300 feet of a funeral a misdemeanor, and admitted it was a direct response to the threat made by Westboro Baptists. The irony is that this didn't diminish Westboro's power at all, it only nullified the response being organized by Tuscon's citizens. In the end, Westboro cut a deal with two radio stations to call off their protests of the first two funerals in exchange for airtime, allowing them to reach a much larger audience than they would have at the funerals, and unencumbered by "angel actions" or other counter-demonstrations, still leaving their options open for future funeral protests. Brilliant use of the power and consequences of free speech, really. By simply announcing an intention to protest, Westboro got huge press coverage, radio coverage in two countries (on of the affiliates was in Toronto) and caused a permanent law to be enacted that won't even need to be enforced now, but could be in the future against anyone of any ideology who protests too close to a funeral. Has the whole world gone crazy? Remember the advice anyone gives a kid who's being teased in school: They just want to upset you. Just ignore them and they'll stop.

There are of course deeper levels of meaning to the response by the Arizona legislature. Another bit of fallout in the wake of the shooting incident was the demonizing of Arizona characterizing it as a state that loves loose gun laws, and a lot of far-right political policy. Hard to argue with the facts there, just ask a Mexican, but politicians saw a PR problem and saw an easy way to address it. Arizona lawmakers from both sides of the aisle jumped over each other to vote for the new law prohibiting funeral protests. In this "political climate" it's going to score a lot of points. Who is going to come out against it and appear to be on the side of crazy people who think a nine-year-old girl was shot because "God hates fags?" No one, of course. Meanwhile, the same lawmakers left the loopholes in place that allow people like the Arizona shooter to easily buy Glocks, extended clips and ammo. Words are of course far more dangerous.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


OK, I'll admit to being totally overwhelmed. Ever since I decided that I want to go back to school there have been so many daunting hurdles, and questions to find answers to. An obvious one is 'how to afford it?' I'm a poor musician in a lot of debt, no credit, and ineligible for federal aid due to my status as a draft registration evader. Jen urged me to look into scholarships and did a perfunctory glance through a web index of opportunities to get me started and quickly discovered what looked to both of us like a great start. It was an essay contest sponsored by an organization I had never heard of called the SEVEN Fund, which appeared to be geared toward solving issues of world hunger and poverty. The theme of the essay was to be "The Morality of Profit." First prize is $20,000 and there are virtually no eligibility requirements. Perfect, I thought.
Then I read their guidelines. They wisely suggested reading some sample essays from previous contests to get a sense of what they were looking for. Quickly, things began to look fishy. As an example of "moral authority," they suggested applicants should read the essay "The Backbone of A New Rwanda," by Paul Kagame, current president of the long-suffering African country. I found a copy online and settled in to read a not-terribly well-written pro-entrepenourship piece suggesting that Africa needed aid less than it needed development and trade. Really? This organization thinks that business is a moral remedy to the brutal hisory of manipulation and victimization in Africa? Is SEVEN Fund suggesting that capitalism and pro-business policy is the rescue that a starving continent needs? I did a quick search on president Kagame online (being, as I must confess, pretty ignorant when it comes to African leaders of today) and saw that his human rights record is pretty bad. The Economist said, Kagame "allows less political space and press freedom at home than Robert Mugabe does in Zimbabwe", and "anyone who poses the slightest political threat to the regime is dealt with ruthlessly." Reporters Without Borders listed Rwanda in 147th place out of 169 for freedom of the press in 2007, and Human Rights Watch has accused his military of "serious violations of international humanitarian law." Moral authority, my ass.
The other examples of the type of essays they are looking for are written by a former employee of the World Bank, their own co-founder who is a self-described "angel investor" (also a founding shareholder of a major pharmaceutical company), a former head of marketing at Microsoft, and another co-founder of SEVEN who is a Swiss venture capitalist. Disappointment set in as I accepted the fact that the essay I'd envisioned about the violent nature of profit-seeking, and the numerous ways that free trade deprives people of their freedom to choose self-sufficient ways of life for their local communities was not going to have a chance in hell at winning me any damn $20,000 bucks. Even more disappointing was the thought that now I don't have a reason to write the damn thing! And I was looking forward to it! So, screw it, I am writing it anyway. I'll post it here when it's done. Maybe I'll even submit it to the SEVEN Fund and see what they say.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I don't think it's enough that we make art and vote. I don't think it's enough that we choose not to buy the products made by those companies we disagree with. I don't think it's enough to read books and watch movies that tell the truth. I don't think it is enough to sit in silent meditation on the impermanence of all.

I believe that we must speak. We must tell those in power that we are against what they stand for, and we need to refuse, resist, and organize. I went to bed last night just after receiving the news that Howard Zinn died while vacationing in Santa Monica, CA. This morning, watching the retrospectives and profiles of this truly great humanitarian and historian I was struck by how different his stance was than most of my supposed Democrat friends, who seem to have been sold on this faulty notion of bi-partisanship and bridge-building. Zinn spoke eloqently again and again on the purpose of protest being to make those in power uncomfortable, to make them upset. He stressed again and again that that was the whole point of civil disobedience, that the power of the people is most effective when it's spent making power uncomfortable.

We have been sold a lot of myths, and one of them is the idea that we can somehow create more progressive change by reaching out to those who vehemently oppose it by saying "please." But the great, meaningful changes in the past came from the people demanding it, and from demanding the genuine article, not compromised versions we think will be more soft, and more palatable. When did we become a people who don't want to offend? The Right doesn't mind offending us. What if Moses had sent a letter to Pharoah saying, "I respectfully request that you let my people go, in a gradual pullout over the next year, as long as it doesn't hurt the economy?" It's time to say things plainly, and to take action. President Obama is very good at saying the right things, but taking action is another story. He took action to bail out the banking industry, with the supposed philosophy that it was in the interests of the People, that our entire financial system was at stake. Now he is proposing that in order to pay for that huge expense, and the huge expense of our illegal wars abroad we put a freeze on domestic spending, in effect making we taxpayers the ones to sacrifice to pay ourselves back for the money we gave to the bankers. He can go on TV and admonish the bankers and we feel like, "yeah, he's taking a stand!" But his actions don't follow the rhetoric. I see this a lot from him. He admonishes the Supreme Court for their terrible decision in favor of corporate spending on elections, but what solution does he offer or suggest? He says he supports legislation. We can now sleep at night thinking "yeah, Obama is on our side," but until something is done his words are meaningless.

So we must speak, and we must do more than speak. As Manuel Zelaya, the leftist president of Honduras who exited his country in exile today (due to a military coup that ousted him in June of last year) said, "I prefer to march on my feet than to live on my knees."