Archive | February, 2013

Envisioning and Demanding a World Without Nuclear Weapons

26 Feb

Book Review

ZERO: THE CASE FOR NUCLEAR WEAPONS ABOLITION by David Krieger (published in 2013 by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation); $14.95

 

 

            I have known David Krieger for the past twenty-five years, and he has never wavered, even for a day, from his lifelong journey dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war. If I were given to categorization, I would label such an extraordinary engagement with a  cause as an instance of ‘benign fanaticism.’ Unfortunately, from the perspective of the human future, it is a condition rarely encountered, posing the puzzle as to why Krieger should be so intensely inclined, given his seemingly untraumatized background. He traces his own obsession back to his mother’s principled refusal to install a nuclear bomb shelter in the backyard of their Los Angeles home when he was 12 years old. He comments in the Preface to ZERO that even at the time he “hadn’t expected” her to take such a stand, which he experienced as “a powerful lesson in compassion,” being especially moved by her unwillingness “to buy into saving herself at the expense of humanity.” (xiv). Nine years later after Krieger graduated from college his mother was again an instrumental force, giving him as a graduation present a trip to Japan to witness first-hand “what two nuclear weapons had done to the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” (xiv) The rest is, as they say, ‘history.’ Or as Krieger puts it in characteristic understatement, “[t]hose visits changed my life.” (xiv)

 

            On a psychological level, I remain perplexed by two opposite observations: we still lack the key that unlocks the mystery of Krieger’s unwavering dedication and why so few others have been similarly touched over the years. What ZERO does better than any of Krieger’s earlier books on nuclear weapons, and indeed more comprehensively and lucidly than anyone else anywhere, is to provide the reader with the reasons for thinking, feeling, and acting with comparable passion until the goal of abolishing the totality of nuclear weaponry is finally reached. Krieger himself extensively explores and laments the absence of widespread anti-nuclear dedication and tries to explain it by calling attention to a series of factors: ignorance, complacency, deference to authority, sense of powerlessness, fear, economic advantage, conformity, marginalization, technological optimism, tyranny of experts. (90-92) The argument of the book, concisely developed in a series of short essays is reinforced by some canonical documents in the struggle over the decades to rid the world of nuclear weaponry, including Obama’s Prague Speech of 2009, the Einstein/Russell Manifesto of 1955, and Joseph Rotblat’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of 1995.

 

            Krieger’s approach as an author is multi-layered, and includes analytic critiques of conventional strategic wisdom that finds a security role for nuclear weapons, a worked out conception of how a negotiated international treaty could safely by stages move the world toward the zero goal of abolition, poems that seek to recapture the various existential horrors of nuclear war, essays of appreciation for the courage, commitment, and insight of the hibakusha (Japanese survivors of the 1945 atomic attacks), and a concerted inquiry into what needs to happen to make nuclear disarmament a viable political project rather than nothing more than a fervent hope. For a short book of 166 pages this is a lot of ground to cover, but Krieger manages to do it with clarity, a calm demeanor, and an impressive understanding and knowledge of all aspects of this complex question of how best to deal with nuclear weapons given the realities of the early 21st century.

 

            Krieger is not afraid to take on critics, even those who tell him that his quest is ‘silly’ because the nuclear genie, a favorite metaphor of liberal apologists for the status quo, is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back. Krieger acknowledges that the knowledge is now in the public domain, and cannot be eliminated, but makes a measured and informed case for an assessment that the nuclear disarmament process poses far fewer risks than does retaining the weaponry, and that retaining the weaponry exposes humanity to what he believes to be the near certainty that nuclear weapons will be used in the future with likely apocalyptic results. For Krieger the stakes are ultimate: human survival and the rights of future generations. In other words, given his strongly held opinion that the weaponry will be used at some point in the future with disastrous results, there is for him no ethically, politically, and even biologically acceptable alternative to getting rid totally of nuclear weapons. Krieger argues both from a worldview that regards nuclear weapons as intrinsically wrong because of the kind of suffering and devastation that they cause and consequentially because of their threat to civilization and even species survival.

 

            Ever since I have known David Krieger he has been deeply influenced by Albert Einstein’s most forceful assertion: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” Krieger even gifts his readers with an imagined dialogue between Einstein and the most celebrated interrogator of all time, Socrates. In their exchange, Socrates is convinced by Einstein that the necessary adjustments “won’t come from our leaders.”(85) Socrates gets the point in a manner that unsurprisingly resonates with Krieger: “Then the people must be awakened, and they must demand an end to war, and a world free of nuclear weapons.” (85) There is a certain ambiguity in this statement when placed in the larger context of Krieger’s thought and work: is it necessary to end war as a social institution in order to get rid of nuclear weapons? In one way, most of Krieger’s efforts seem to separate nuclear weapons from the wider context of war making, but from time to time, there is a fusion of these two agendas.

 

            Krieger realizes that changing our modes of thinking is a necessary step toward zero but it is not sufficient. He also believes that we can not achieve a world without nuclear weapons unless we act “collectively and globally” (97) to create a sustainable future. In the end, there is some ground for hope: “We have the potential to assert a constructive power for change that is greater than the destructive power of the weapons themselves.”  In effect, Krieger is telling us that what we can imagine we can achieve, but not without an unprecedented popular mobilization of peace minded people throughout the entire planet. Above all, Krieger wants to avoid a counsel of despair: “We must choose hope and find a way to fight for the dream of peace and the elimination of nuclear weapons. Achieving these goals is the great challenge of our time, on their success rests the realization of all other goals and for a more and decent world.” (105). Certainly Krieger has founded and brilliantly administered the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation over the course of more than 25 years maintaining faith of its growing band of followers with this uplifting vision. Such single mindedness is probably essential to motivate people of good will to support the endeavor, and to keep his own compass fixed over time, even in the face of many discouragements, on the destination he has identified as the one sanctuary capable of ensuring a desirable future for humanity. Although sharing all of Krieger’s assessments, values, and visions, I am both less hopeful and not as focused, being committed to other indispensable policy imperatives (addressing the global challenge of climate change) and to more proximate ends that involve current injustices (seeking realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people; seeking a UN Emergency Peace Force to intervene to protect vulnerable people facing humanitarian or natural catastrophes), but I would not for a minute encourage Krieger to dilute his anti-nuclear posture. This country and the world needs his message and dedication, and at some point, there may emerge a conjuncture of forces that is unexpectedly receptive to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and even entertains the prospect of ending the war system as the foundation of national and global security. I can only pray that it will not emerge in the aftermath of some intended or accidental use of nuclear weapons, which seems sadly to be the only alarm bell that is loud enough to have an awakening effect for the sleeping mass of humanity.

 

            From my vantage point such an anti-nuclear moment is not yet visible on the horizon of possibilities. After all, the Kissinger, Shultz, Nunn, and Perry call a few years ago for abolition, emanating from these high priests of political realism, despite being widely noticed at the time, had no lasting impact on the pro-nuclear consensus that guides the policymaking elites of the nine nuclear weapons states, and most of all the American establishment. And then Barack Obama’s 2009 call in Prague for a world without nuclear weapons, although qualified and conditional, was essentially abandoned even in the recent articulation of the president’s goals for his second term. Presumably, Obama’s advisory entourage pushed him to concentrate his energy on attainable goals such as immigration and tax reform, protecting entitlements, and retreating from the several fiscal cliffs, and not waste his limited political capital on the unattainable such as nuclear disarmament and a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Short-term political calculations within the Beltway almost always trump long-term visionary goals, “and so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut taught us to say in our helplessness in the face of the unyielding cruelty of human experience.

 

            In the end, after this adventure of response to the life and work of a dear friend, admired collaborator, and inspirational worker for peace and justice, I can only commend David Krieger’s ZERO to everyone with the slightest interest in what kind of future we are bestowing upon our children and grandchildren. The book can be obtained via the following two links: it is preferred that ZERO is ordered through the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at its online Peace Store: http://www.wagingpeace.org/menu/store/#books

It can also be obtained by Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Zero-Nuclear-Weapons-AbolitionVolume/dp/1478342846/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1361902143&sr=8-2&keywords=zero+krieger

   

 

 

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Reflections on Teju Cole’s OPEN CITY

21 Feb

 

 

Anyone interested in the world, or for that matter, an affection for the greatest of modern cities—New York—will find Teju Cole’s Open City, a feast for both mind and heart. He writes with exquisite discernment about almost everything under the sun, from the details of church architecture to reflections on the lingering impacts of the 9/11 attacks on the urban mood in Manhattan to his childhood memories of Nigeria. Open City is presented as a work of fiction, a novel, but its real interest is not in the story line, or even in the characters as presented by the narrator, which has an autobiographical feel, although this could be an accomplishment of this writer’s craft and imaginative skill, rather than what it seems to be, a disguised replication of the author’s search for meaning and moorings in the world at large, as well as a rich depository of remarkably astute observations on an extraordinary range of interesting topics. Cole in Open City delivers a master class in everyday awareness continuously transforming the ordinary experience of the non-heroic narrative voice into a quite extraordinary immersion in the lifeworld of the city.

 

This is a story of what I would call voluntary displacement, somewhat reminiscent of Edward Said’s partial memoir, Out of Place. Both of these gifted and multi-talented men chose to live as expatriates but without losing their attachment to their home country. There are also some dramatic differences, as well. Said became passionate about his Palestinian identity, a badge of honor for him, and the focus of his concerns in the final decades of his life, while Julius the fictionalized ‘I’ of Cole’s narrator is totally preoccupied with his private feelings, perceptions, and experience, noting public concerns, but avoiding engagement by deliberately adopting a modulated apolitical stance. Said as a high profile Palestinian in America in this period almost ensured that he would find himself embattled, which he was, especially as a professor at Columbia University who spoke out in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. More generally, being a Palestinian, or any kind of Arab or Muslim, in New York City is certainly a different reality than being Nigerian, or even an African. Although the difference may not be as great as it might first seem. Julius is fully conscious that history has not been kind to those with his racial identity. He makes note of the frequent reminders throughout the city that Africans were not that long ago profitably traded as slaves by New York bankers or subject to colonial atrocities, as in Belgium, where Julius visits for several weeks.

 

The ironic tone on race reaches a paradoxical climax when Julius is mugged and badly beaten by African American hip-hop teenagers during a walk in the vicinity of Morningside Heights. Julius reports this violent incident almost in a journalistic tone, refraining from moralizing commentary and even self-pity. He leaves for readers an implicit challenge to draw out the deeper implications of the event, which include a recognition of the difference between the ‘civilized’ Julius and his ‘savage’ attackers, which is a way of saying that race counts, but socialization counts more. Yet, Julius carries his irony to a fever pitch of self-indictment when confronted by Moji, the older sister of his childhood friend in Nigeria, who reminds him of how he sexually abused her at a drunken teenage party, and how that incident caused her enduring pain. Just as slavery is forgotten by New Yorkers who pound the pavements of Wall Street, Julius forgets what was unpleasant in his past, not even recognizing Moji when they run into each other on a Manhattan street, and she calls out his name. The unarticulated morality here is profound and in keeping with the narrator’s sensibility: we are in denial about the wrongs we do to others, as is Julius, while we being haunted by those done to us, as is Moji. This fictional template fits much that takes place in our collective lives. Compare, for instance, the contrast between the collective official memory of Hiroshima in the United States (shortened the war, saved lives) and the way the event is perceived in Japan, and elsewhere (unspeakable atrocity on a par with Auschwitz).

 

 

There are also notable differences between author and narrator that make the facile assumption of an autobiographical novel suspect. Cole is pure Nigerian, while Julius has a German mother along with a Nigerian father, which underscores a type of hybridity that can never even aspire to achieve a ‘normal’ identity. Wherever Julius is, including Nigeria, he is destined to be an outsider. In the novel Julius is finishing a psychiatric residency at Columbia Presbyterian in New York dealing with patients who are burdened with a variety of mental disorders, while Cole is described as “writer, photographer, and professional historian of Netherlandish art” in an author’s note.

 

As Julius takes his long walks through the city he contemplates the troubled lives of his patients, and is aware of how little he can do to improve their lives, how limited has been medical progress with respect to mental illness. Julius muses about the nature of severe depression and other illness of the mind that afflict patients identified by letter, ‘V’ or ‘M,’ an indication of Julius’ adherence to the code of anonymity in his professional calling. There are intimations, but nothing explicit, that there may be analogies between these private agonies that Julius confronts at work and the grotesque pathologies of our collective existence as a species.

 

Julius is estranged from his German mother who lives in Lagos while missing his recently dead Nigerian father. Thus he has little reason to return to Nigeria for visits. Instead he searches for his beloved German grandmother who he believes is living in Brussels, and once there is much more enthralled by the ambience of European culture than anything that the non-West has to offer and by a new city to explore. While in Belgium, his supposed reason for making the journey fades into the background, and is replaced by his chance acquaintance with a couple of Moroccan immigrants, who sought refuge from an oppressive monarchy in their native country. To leave for Europe was for them to realize their dream of political and intellectual freedom, but upon arrival disillusionment immediately their fate. They were daily challenged by an increasingly vicious and omni-present Islamophobia. Their reaction was to learn economic and social survival skills needed to remain in Brussels, while inwardly converting their disillusionment into a blend of anti-American radicalism and an embrace of Islam.

 

The resulting conversations between Julius and Farouk, and his friend, Khalil, are fascinating exchanges of views and perceptions. The narrative voice controls the shape of the dialogue, but it has an authenticity that fits with the variety of experiences and viewpoints that give vibrancy to the book. In essence, Farouk and Khalil hold somewhat stereotypic left views on such key issues as Israel/Palestine and the 9/11 attacks on the United States, although they distance themselves from the tactics of terrorism, they empathize with the motivations of the terrorists who are regarded as having legitimate anti-imperial grievances. In contrast, Julius, is far more detached during the conversation, reacting in a measured apolitical and evasive tone, manifestly distrustful of dogma in any form. When asked directly for a response, he speaks of attitudes toward Israel in the United States without revealing his views, choosing to occupy a neutral, uncommittal space, and somewhat derisively attributing highly critical views on Israel to “left-leaning magazines and journals.” He challenges the stereotyped views on the conflict, including that all Americans are unconditionally pro-Israeli, by explaining to these two ardently pro-Palestinian Moroccans: “There’s strong leftist support for Palestinian causes in the United States. Many of my friends in New York, for example, think that Israel is doing terrible things in the Occupied Territories.” (p. 118) By referencing ‘many of my friends’ keeps his own attitudes hidden from the reader, but they can be presumed to be more balanced, less partisan. Julius goes on, “there’s also the perception that we share elements of our culture and government with Israel.” The use of ‘we’ as America and ‘our’ as American in this sentence is an important signifier of Julius’ primary attachment to his chosen place of residence rather than to his African place of origin.

 

The Moroccans, as is the case with many progressives around the world, view the Israel/Palestinian conflict as the most important contemporary litmus test of international morality, as well as an unresolved remnant of the anti-colonial struggle. They are perplexed by why the Palestinians have failed where almost all colonized people have succeeded, and in their search for an explanation, reach for straws. In this spirit, Khalil challenges the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and alleges that to relegate the other countless genocides to a secondary status functions as a device, diverts public attention, especially in Europe, from the injustices imposed on the Palestinians, serves to silence criticism of Israel, and to punish those who dare raise questions about the uniqueness that Jews attribute to the Holocaust. “Did the Palestinians build the concentration camps? He said. What about the the Armenians: do their deaths mean less because they are not Jews.” (p.122) An agitated Khalil then proclaims, “(f)orget the Cambodians, forget the American blacks, this is unique suffering. But I reject the idea. It is not a unique suffering. What about the twenty million under Stalin? It isn’t better if you are killed for ideological reasons.” Julius is obviously made uncomfortable by such hectoring rhetoric, and does his best to change the subject by ordering food in the restaurant.

 

He fails. Farouq “steers the conversation back,” letting on that he is not unfamiliar that Jewish critics of Israel exist and several are living in America. In this vein, he recommends that Julius should read Norman Finkelstein’s searing expose of the holocaust industry, which he says deserves special respect, not only because Finkelstein is Jewish, but because his parents were Auschwitz survivors. Julius admits that he has not heard of Finkelstein, and when Farouq offers to write down the title, Julius indicates that this is not necessary as he will remember it, but this is said in such a way as to convey disinterest, and to let the reader know that he has no intention whatsoever of following up. Throughout the entire book Julius seems deeply uncomfortable with passion and partisanship unless it is historically removed from the present or is apprehended in artistic form.

 

Farouq is depicted as a kind of fugitive philosopher from the non-West who had hoped that he could cope with the poverty of his Moroccan background working in Belgium as a janitor, while devoting himself to his studies. He declares that he was driven by the grandiose ambition of becoming “the next Edward Said! I was going to do it by studying comparative literature and using it as a basis for societal critique.” (p.128) Proceeding on this path after arriving in Brussels, he wrote an M.A. thesis on Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which was rejected by a Belgian university on the grounds of plagiarism. “They gave no reason. They just said I would have to submit another one in twelve months. I was crushed. I left school. Plagiarism? The only possibilities are either that they refused to believe my command of English and theory or, I think this is even more likely, that they were punishing me for world events in which I had played no role. My thesis committee had me on September 20, 2001..That was the year I lost my illusions about Europe.” (p.129) Again Julius offers no response, even refraining any comment on the rather strained effort of Farouq to explain the arbitrary rejection of his thesis as a punishment to be visited on all Muslims after 9/11. Julius does not hide his distaste for the Farouk’s extreme rejection of the West, which is the counterpoint to his own cautious constructions of a life and career in New York undertaken with a full awareness of the crimes present and past of the West. If this is a correct reading, then one wonders whether Coles lineage is better tied to anglophilic V.S. Naipaul rather than to Said.

 

Julius makes his own position clear both by seemingly ignoring Farouq’s advice to read Finkelstein and even more emphatically by mailing him a copy of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism, a diametrically opposed intellectual posture to that of political engagement. The choice of Appiah as a preferred alternative to Finkelstein is a perfect expression of Julius sensibility, and a telling sign that he is self-aware. Appiah is a much heralded and impressively cultured exponent of an apolitical cosmopolitanism that affirms rootedness in the familiar landscape of home with an appreciation of the world as a whole, including its many forms of strangeness and diversity. For Appiah a true cosmopolitan celebrates both the homeland and the world, and privileges that which is near at hand over all that is distant. As with Cole, Appiah has a superb command of the English language, as well as a vast intellectual comfort zone that manages to encompass the whole of Western thought. It is worth noticing that Appiah, like Julius, but not like Cole, has an African father and a European mother, and chooses to leave Africa for a life in America.

 

While mailing Cosmopolitanism at a local post office, an African American clerk greets Julius with mock familiarity as “Brother Julius.” The clerk announces that he is a performing poet and recognizes at first glance that Julius is a visionary; hence that they have much in common, and should get to know each other.  Julius brushes off this unwelcome approach with a hypocritical assurance that he will keep in touch, informing the reader his true feelings: “I made a mental note to avoid that particular post office in the future.” (p.188) I do not interpret this to be black on black racism, but rather an unabashed expression of snobbery and intellectual elitism. Julius showed clearly that he was offended by the purported camaraderie of this uneducated postal clerk who had evidently proceeded on mistaken assumption that their shared skin color was sufficient to make them ‘brothers.’

 

Julius consistently shows that he is not fond of any intense attachment, while at the same time exhibiting his somewhat anguished solitude. Even those who are too worried about climate change offend Julius’ sense of cool. As usual, his words of rebuke are carefully chosen: “..I was no longer the global warming skeptic I had been some years before, even if I still couldn’t tolerate the tendency some had of jumping to conclusions based on anectdotal evidence; global warming was a fact, but that did not mean it was the explanation for why a given day was warm. It was careless thinking to draw the link too easily, an invasion of fashionable politics into what should be the ironclad precincts of science.” (p.28) Of course, Julius is correct to make the distinction between a warming climate cycle and the temperature on any particular day, but by dwelling on this minor point he sidesteps any reference the serious dangers posed by climate change, as established by a consensus of experts. Instead Julius contents himself by complaining about those who embrace ‘fashionable politics.’ It is this refusal to engage the world, and its destiny, that I find most disturbing about the Cole/Appiah/Naipaul worldview. I find their shared cosmopolitanism a posture of a superior mind that seems frightened of taking stands that might be treated as controversial in public space or seen as too humdrum for such finely attuned intellects. Such detachment operates as a denial of love for the world and signals an unwillingness to lift a finger to reduce human suffering.

 

Along these lines Julius offers some rather strained observations on matters large and small, always worth pondering for their style even if not for their substance. For instance, Julius notes without qualification, “[w]e are the first human beings who are completely unprepared for disaster. It is dangerous to live in a secure world.” (p.200) This sentiment seems spoken by Julius from within his cocoon of condescending detachment.  Not only the mounting dangers associated with climate change, dangers now admitted at even the highest levels of government, but also living decade after decade beneath a nuclear sword of Damocles should at least establish remove from serious discussion any claim that we are living in ‘a secure world.’ True, there may not be the existential immediacy of earlier ages when the threat of epidemics, natural disasters, and bloody tribal warfare created pervasive and acute insecurity, but in our time there is more reason than ever before to apprehend the precariousness of our modern way of life, and even the fragility of the human species that appears so far heedless of the wailing sirens of planetary distress.

 

By establishing Julius as such a precise and subtle commentator on many aspects of the passing scene, Cole makes his readers think hard, while enjoying the pleasure of the beautifully crafted prose. The narrative smoothly navigates the succession of moods, experiences, and memories that lends an aura of coherence to this novelistic journal that delivers the reader to nowhere and everywhere. Despite my admiration for Cole’s artistic achievement, what a flock of admiring reviewers agree as the excellence of his ‘debut novel,’ which has received several honors, my experience the book is more ambivalent. This is partly, as earlier noted, a discomfort with attitudes that are fully aware of injustices and yet opt for a response of passivity. Also it is partly the overall impression of being under the spell of a rare, and ultra refined version of Orientalism, which is paradoxically and obliquely acknowledged by references to Edward Said. Julius is wonderfully articulate in describing the nuances of painting, poetry, literature, and especially music. Super-sophistication is exhibited not by namedropping, but by treating the reader to extremely illuminating comments on particular paintings, buildings, musical compositions and memorable performances.

 

Truly Julius is a man of arts and letters, but almost exclusively those of the Western world. The artists and writers mentioned are prominent in the Western canon or Westernized, and there is only a passing reference to two Chinese poets revered in the West and none at all to such African stalwarts as Soyinka and Achebe. We readers are left with the misleading impression that any celebration of aesthetic cosmopolitanism needs to be totally anchored in Western creativity. This may not be Cole’s intention, but it reflects my experience of this fine literary work. Cole demonstrates he is not only of a master of English but also an almost omniscient observer of all that is worth noticing and appreciating in the world around us. The fact that Julius refuses either to judge or to apologize for either private or public wrongdoing can be interpreted generously as the author’s modesty or more harshly as his arrogance. At this point I am not sure which, and maybe it is best grasped as a Hindu mixture of both, a non-Western infrastructure of contradictory feelings for the things and beings of this world, including its good and evil aspects. So conceived, maybe the Cole worldview after all transcends its self-imposed Western boundaries.

 

Urgent UN Press Statement: Release Palestinian Hunger Strikers Now

13 Feb

The following press statement was issued 13 February 2013 under the auspices of the UN Human Rights

Council in my capacity as Special Rapporteur for Palestinian Territories Occupied since 1967. This nonviolent

resistance to unlawful and abusive detention practices by Israel is a human rights outrage that should be the

occasion of media attention and a worldwide outcry. I encourage all who can to exert pressure on Israel before

these individuals die in captivity. They are currently reported to be in grave condition. Please use all

social networking tools to alert contacts.

 

**********************************

 

 

Press Statement – UN expert calls for the immediate

release of three Palestinian detainees on hunger strike held by Israel without

charges

 

GENEVA (13 February 2013) – United Nations Special Rapporteur Richard Falk

today called for the immediate release of three Palestinian detainees held

without charges by Israel. Mr. Falk expressed deep concern for the fate of

Tarek Qa’adan and Jafar Azzidine, who are on their 78th day of hunger

strike, and Samer Al-Issawi, who has been on partial hunger strike for

over 200 days.

 

“Continuing to hold Mr. Qa’adan, Mr Azzidine and Mr. Al-Issawi under these

conditions is inhumane. Israel is responsible for any permanent harm,”

warned the independent expert designated by the Human Rights Council to

monitor and report on Israeli rights violations in Palestine. “If Israeli

officials cannot present evidence to support charges against these men,

then they must be released immediately.”

 

“Mr. Qa’adan and Mr. Azzidine are reportedly on the verge of death, with

the threat of a fatal heart attack looming,” the expert noted, recalling

that both men were arrested on 22 November 2012 and began their hunger

strikes on 28 November, after being sentenced to administrative detention

for a period of three months. They were transferred to Assaf Harofi

Hospital near Tel Aviv on 24 January 2013 after their conditions

deteriorated sharply.

 

This is the second time that Mr. Azzidine and Mr. Qa’adan have undertaken

hunger strikes against administrative detention, since they took part in

the mass hunger strike of Palestinians from 17 April to 14 May 2012. Mr.

Qa’adan had been released after 15 months of detention on 8 July 2012 and

Mr. Azzidine had been released on 19 June 2012 after three months of

detention, before being re-arrested.

 

“Israel must end the appalling and unlawful treatment of Palestinian

detainees. The international community must react with a sense of urgency

and use whatever leverage it possesses to end Israel’s abusive reliance on

administrative detention,” urged the Special Rapporteur.

 

Mr. Falk noted that Israel currently holds at least 178 Palestinians in

administrative detention.

**********

 

 

 

 

Beyond The Haunted Imagination

12 Feb

 

            Ever since atomic bombs were exploded over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the closing days of World War II end of the world forebodings have been present in Western cultural consciousness. In the background of such thinking is the religious anticipation of a day of judgment when life in earth will be replaced by the consignment of everyone then living to either the hell of damnation or the heaven of salvation. The first type of end time thinking is based on the fear that the Promethean gift of technological innovation when carried to its omega point will produce a big bang terminal moment in the human experience. The second kind of end time thinking imagines that the gift of planetary life was a testing time for the human species that would end with endless punishment for the many and eternal rewards for a few, and was divinely programmed in a fatalistic manner beyond human capacity to control or alter. We live now amid both types of end time thinking, a realization made more troublesome because such alarmist patterns of awareness while rather widespread have not generated any strong reactive movement based on prudence and preservation. Instead, all of us avert our eyes most of the time, and most manage to look away all the time often with the help of drugs and denial. Only a few are able to fix their full gaze on the impending cosmic wreck without turning away.

 

            One of those few is a poet named C.K. Williams who in an essay, “Nature and Panic,” which appeared in the October 2012 issue of Poetry magazine, acknowledged panic in response to what he observes in the world around him. In words that resonate with me Williams wrote: “Like many people I know, I often have a somewhat—no, a wholly—frightening vision of the future of humanity and of our earth. There are periods when I live in a state of acute anxiety, indeed, near panic, about what awaits our children and grandchildren. Last year, I realized one day that every poem I was writing or attempting to write, had global warming and its consequences either as its overt or implied theme. Sometime I’m depressed beyond writing or saying anything at all; I fall into a funk that threatens never to end.”

 

            Williams goes on to refer to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which paints the darkest possible picture of the desperate aftermath of a totalizing apocalyptic catastrophe that reduces human existence to the barest of survival struggles waged among roving gangs of desperate people ready to feast on one another. Such an extreme playing out of dark forebodings provokes an attitude of resentment in Williams, not because it is an exaggeration of what lies in store for humanity, but because it rings true! In Williams’ words: “I’m not the only person I know who’s expressed regret at having injested the book: I feel sometimes indignant that I have to have it in my consciousness. If there ever was a book that embodies the extremity of the emotion we call panic, this has to be it. I find it’s like having a piercing scream in my mind, one that, when the book comes to mind, which it does more often than I’d like, goes off like a siren.”

 

            From this low point of panic, Williams finds his solace in beauty as an authentic manner of not succumbing to the torments of reason and the all too realistic tremors of a beckoning end time. He takes note of the pervasiveness of beauty in all its forms—music, painting, architecture, poetry—“if not in every day then in every age” as something that lifts human experience to a higher realm of being that is no longer vulnerable to panic no matter how dire the warning signs. Williams writes “[o]ften our first experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul.’ This allows our exposure to great art of any kind to carry us beyond ourselves and whatever conditions we fear in the world. Williams notes that the first creators of painting retreated to caves so as to avoid being distracted by the lesser wonders of nature that he seems also to regard with awe, yet a lesser awe, because these wonders are there to be found rather than there to be discovered in the solitary mineshafts of the creative imagination. Williams ends his extraordinary pilgrimage beyond the realms of end time with these almost hopeful words: “Beauty saves us. Beauty will save us. The world, though, is still ours to cherish, and ours to protect.”

 

            This brave sentiment is less an act of will than a refocusing of the human spirit. While we are alive, let us be saved by beauty, and I would add by love, but let us not forget that the world is not yet alien, but contains flowers and birds and stars and moonlight and rainbows and many beautiful people of all shades and beliefs. It is worth protecting, and cherishing, and who really knows what the future will bestow? Despite sharing with Williams  “a pessimism of the intellect” I also know deep down that the struggle for the human future is far from over, that the world and all those who are being made to daily suffer close by and at great distances are both “ours to protect.”      

An Indispensable Book on Palestine/Israel

8 Feb

Responding to Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by Pamela Olson (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press)

 

I realize that without knowing it, I have long waited for this book, although I could not have imagined its lyric magic in advance of reading. It is a triumph of what I would call ‘intelligent innocence,’ the great benefits of a clear mind, an open and warm heart, and a trustworthy moral compass that draws sharp lines between good and evil while remaining ever sensitive to the contradictory vagaries of lives and geographic destinies. Pamela Olson exhibits an endearing combination of humility and overall emotional composure that makes her engaged witnessing of the Palestinian ordeal so valuable for me as I believe and hope it will be for others.

 

Early on, she acknowledges her lack of background with refreshing honesty: “Green and wide-eyed, I wandered into the Holy Land, an empty vessel.” But don’t be fooled. Olson, who had recently graduated from Stanford, almost immediately dives deeply into the daily experience of Palestine and Palestinians, with luminous insight and a sensibility honed on an anvil of tenderness, truthfulness, and a readiness for adventure and romance. Upon crossing the border that separates Israel from the West Bank, enduring routine yet frightening difficulties at the checkpoint, she find herself in the Palestinian village of Jayyous, not far from the Palestinian city of Jenin. Her first surprise is the welcoming warmth of the villagers whose hospitality makes her feel almost as if she is on a homecoming visit to Stigler, the small town in eastern Oklahoma where she grew up. Almost at once Olson finds herself in the midst of a social circle in Jayyous that harvests olives during the day and sits together on porches in the evening puffing on a nargila (water pipe) and conversing about the world.

 

Olson’s authenticity pervades the book, whether it is a matter of adoring the cuisine or acknowledging her infatuation with a Palestinian young man who crosses her path. She learns to speak a bit of Arabic, reads up on the struggle, and stays alert. The style of the book is an enchanting mixture of personal journal, travelogue, political primer on the conflict, and coming of age memoir. She writes with clarity, humor, and self-scrutiny (in a tone of almost asking herself, ‘Who is this girl from rural Oklahoma who is experiencing this extraordinary encounter with people and the sad conditions of their lives?’).

 

As the title implies, it is primarily a book about Palestine and what occupation means for Palestinians trapped under Israeli military rule for more than 45 years, and how their extraordinary qualities of humane coping make Jayyous and Ramallah so inspirational for her.  It instills an intense longing to return and share the dangers and deprivations, which are more powerfully satisfying than the pleasures of ‘freedom.’ (I am reminded of a friend from Gaza, a leading human rights activist, whose family has been living in Cairo in recent years. He tells me that when he plans a vacation, his university age children who are studying abroad insist on going to Gaza rather than Paris or London.)

 

Yet the book is sensitive to the tragic experiences of both peoples. Through the whole of her experience, Olson remains open to her Israeli friend, Dan, as well as to a Christian appreciation of the Holy Land, not as a believer but as someone whose identity was formed in a religiously Christian community. Early on in the book, when she tells Dan how disturbed she is by the occupation, he reminds her of Israeli grief and distress. Dan’s words: “Last year there was a suicide bombing practically every week, it was… unbelievable. The mall we went to yesterday was bombed last year. Three weeks ago a suicide bomber killed twenty people in a restaurant in Haifa. Just innocent people having a meal.” Olson’s response is characteristically empathetic: “I sighed and looked out over the water. What I had seen in the West Bank was terrible, but there was another side to the story, after all. I tried to imagine the horror of people sitting around having a meal, and then all of a sudden—” But in the end it becomes clear that Israel’s human rights violations have, if anything, a negative impact on Israeli security.

 

One of the most moving chapters is a description of a visit by Olson’s mother and stepfather. She pressured them to come so that “they would never have to wonder whether I had exaggerated either the beauty or the horror.” Because this was her mother’s first trip outside of America, she saw what was to be seen with fresh eyes. This experience produced joy and wonder along with tearful reactions at checkpoints, such as: “Good Lord… How can this be happening over here and no one in America even knows or cares?” Is this not the question we should all have been asking for decades? During the visit, they also spend time touring the Christian sites in and around Jerusalem and the Galilee that are particularly meaningful to her religious mother.

 

The timeline of the book covers 2003-2005. But the essentials of the occupation emerge, especially the encroachment of the separation wall, the settlements, and checkpoints, and what it means for a Palestinian to live day by day under systematic violations of human rights that show no sign of ending in the foreseeable future. When Olson inserts information about history, Israeli and Palestinian politics, international law and elementary morality, she is accurate, concise, and perceptive. She also is honest enough not to suppress her emotional responses to some extreme situations.

 

In the end what gives the book its special value is the compelling credibility of her “love affair with a homeless homeland,” a sub-title that says it all! It is one thing to lament the suffering and humiliation of the Palestinians or to condemn the cruelty and harshness of the Israeli occupation. It is quite another to be able to observe these defining realities and yet see beyond to a proud and gracious people with a generous sense of humor who manage to live as vibrantly as possible even under almost unimaginable circumstances of oppression. It is this combination of feeling the Palestinian hurt while celebrating the warmth and genuineness of the Palestinian embrace that allows a reader to achieve what I had previously thought impossible without an immersion in the place itself. Olson is a twenty-first century example of how a reassuringly normal American woman might best visit the Arab world. She is intensely curious, with a gift for observation and dialogue and a sensibility that is not afraid of danger or to acknowledge shades of gray or to register her disappointments with others, and above all with herself. Her own evolution is also relevant, from a ‘Bible-centric’ youth in Oklahoma to a scientifically oriented skepticism to a wonderfully caring person who managed to have this incredible ‘love affair’ with occupied Palestine, amid the ruins. In her words, “I couldn’t imagine a better university of human nature.”

 

Obviously Pamela Olson is blessed with talent. A girl from rural Oklahoma who had to struggle to find the funds to attend college does not make it to the likes of Stanford very often, where she majors in physics and political science, nor does the typical graduate defer entering the job market and go about exploring the world to find out what it is like, and how best to live her life. It is thus not entirely surprising that after her experiences in Palestine, Olson returned to work for a ‘Defense Department think tank’ to try to understand why American foreign policy was so dysfunctional, and found it ‘educational but disillusioning.’ She lasted less than two years before deciding to write Fast Times in Palestine, her attempt to bring what she learned in Palestine directly to the American people.

 

I have the following daydream: If everyone in America could just sit down quietly and read this book, there would be such an upsurge of outrage and empathy that the climate of opinion on the Israel/Palestine conflict would finally change for the better—even in the polluted air that now prevails within the Beltway. At the very least, as many people as possible should read the book, and if your reaction is similar to mine, give a copy to friends and encourage them to spread the word. We in America should stop subsidizing and facilitating the systematic creation of ‘a homeless homeland.’ As a close friend in Jayyous named Rania tells Pamela, “Imagine if there was no occupation! Palestine would be like paradise.”

 

The book can be pre-ordered from Amazon. It will be available in mid-March. 
http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Times-Palestine-Homeless-Homeland/dp/158005482X

I urge you to do so!

 

Forget ‘Normal’ Politics

5 Feb

 

 

            Political life is filled with policy choices that are made mainly on the basis of calculations of advantage, as well as reflecting priorities and values of those with the power of decision. In a constitutional framework of governance the rule of law sets outer limits as to permissible outcomes. The legitimacy of the decision depends on adhering to these procedural guidelines, and the fact that if the societal effects turn out badly it can be corrected by altering the ‘law.’ Of course, all sorts of special interests behind the scene manipulate this process, and the public debate mirrors these pressures. The results of highly contested policy choices usually reflect the power structure (class, race, ideology) more than they do the outcome of rational detached assessments of the public good. At present, the national public good in the United States is being held hostage to the lethal extremism of the gun lobby as led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which combines special interest politics with a political culture that is violent and militarist. Such a political culture seems unlikely to be able to prohibit the sale of automatic assault weaponry to private citizens even in the immediate aftermath of a series of horrific shootings in American schools and public spaces by individuals gaining access to assault rifles and pistols.

 

            If we agree with this line of interpretation, we must have the courage to raise radical questions as to whether under these conditions a flawed democracy is any longer capable of serving the national public good in fundamental respects. In my view, the only morally responsible position is to mobilize the citizenry around the need for drastic reform of American democracy. At the very least, the role of big money in shaping policy choices and the electoral process must be ended, and the glorification of violence and militarism must be repudiated. To seek such results a reliance on  normal politics is to inhabit the land of illusion. In some respects, a revolutionary situation is present in the country but a revolutionary movement is no where to be seen. Only utopian reasoning can be hopeful about the future of the country, and it is the case of hope against hope. 

 

            This politicization of policy choice is to some extent inevitable, and is usually not so threatening to the wellbeing of a country, but at present there are increasingly harmful repercussions that follow, also with respect to global stability and security. Within societies where policy choice depends on governmental action there is a play of contending forces, but the outcome is at least coherently oriented around a shared commitment to the national public good. Internationally, in contrast, there are no social forces, other than transnational civil society actors (NGOs), that are dedicated to the global public good. Governments, including that of the United States, determine and justify national policy choices by reference to the pursuit of national interests. When a dominant state opts to play a global leadership role as the United States did after 1945, it can sometimes promote a type of imperial world order that is beneficial to itself, but also at the same time helpful to most other states and to the human community generally. Such initiatives as financing the economic reconstruction of Western Europe, the establishment of the United Nations, and the promotion of international human rights illustrate such a convergence of national and global interests. But note that global interests, aside from civil society advocacy groups, have no independent base of support. Even the United Nations, which is supposed to promote peace and justice for the whole of humanity is little more than a collection of unequal states each jealous of its sovereign prerogatives. In addition, the UN gives an unrestricted special blocking power (veto) to the five permanent members of the Security Council. The UN despite its many contributions has been unable to become effective in curtailing violations of international law by leading states and their friends and has not been able to meet such global challenges as ridding the world of nuclear weaponry or fashioning a constructive response to climate change.

 

            In relation to climate change there has been an overwhelming consensus among relevant experts for over two decades that global warming is causing severe harm to the ecology of the planet, and that this situation is likely to reach an irreversible tipping point if the average temperature on the earth rises above a 2°C level compared to what it was at the start of the industrial age. This knowledge had been irresponsibly contested by a well-funded campaign of climate skeptics that has been especially effective in the United States in hijacking the public debate, and undermining policy choices that are in accord with the scientific consensus. The skeptic undertaking is funded by fossil fuel interests, and is being managed by some of the same public relations firms that delayed public appreciation of the link between cancer and cigarette smoking by several decades. This campaign has destroyed the capacity of the United States to play a constructive leadership role needed to establish an obligatory framework for prudent restrictions on the level of greenhouse gas emissions. Without U.S. leadership there is lacking the political will on a global level to act with sufficient seriousness to protect the global interest, and human destiny becomes jeopardized in a highly destructive manner from the perspective of species survival.

 

             Just as national democracy needs drastic reform, so do the structures and procedures of world order. One direction of reform would be to establish institutions with resources and capabilities to serve distinctively global interests. Steps in such a direction would include a global revenue producing mechanism, a global peoples parliament, an independent UN peace and emergency relief force, a repeal of the veto right in the Security Council, a revision of the authority of the International Court of Justice by converting current ‘advisory opinions’ into binding enforceable decisions, convening a nuclear disarmament process, and upgrading the existing UN Environmental Program (UNEP) to the status of super-agency called UN Agency on Environmental Protection and Climate Change.

 

            Such a thought experiment as this is oblivious to horizons of feasibility that befuddle politicians and set artificial parameters limiting responsible debate.  My diagnosis is anchored in an interpretation of horizons of necessity. By recognizing this huge gap between feasibility and necessity it is implied that normal politics are futile, and in their place we are forced to embrace utopian politics, which can be described as horizons of desire, faith, and hope.