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Reading Elisabeth Weber’s KILL BOXES

11 Mar

[Prefatory Note: The purpose of this post is to recommend highly a book by Elisabeth Weber addressing the interrelated issues of torture, indefinite detention, and drone warfare from a perspective that is both humanistic and deeply steeped in European philosophical thought, treating especially the work of Jacques Derrida as illuminating and situating these complex questions of state violence and technology in the special circumstances that unfolded after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Appearing below is a review of the book that appeared in a recent issue of The Huffington Post followed by my Afterword that is printed at the end of Weber’s important book. Kill Boxes can be ordered in the normal ways, including by Amazon, which these days I mention reluctantly as it remains one of the few respected companies that continue to advertise on the Breitbart alt-right website. The publisher’s website with information about how to obtain the book can be found at https://punctumbooks.com/titles/kill-boxes-facing-the-legacy-of-us-sponsored-torture-indefinite-detention-and-drone-warfare/

 

Book Review: “Kill Boxes: Facing the Legacy of US-Sponsored Torture, Indefinite Detention, and Drone Warfare,” by Elisabeth Weber

Rebecca Tinsley, Contributor

Journalist and human rights activist

 

In her timely book, “Kill Boxes,” Elisabeth Weber ironically notes the “long history of images uniting figures of torture and sacredness or divinity.” She explores the use of “no touch” “positional” torture in which the terrified victims are forced to inflict suffering on themselves, leaving no marks. When the Abu Ghraib photos emerged, the media focused on the pornographic aspects and the exploitation of cultural sensitivities. Most commentators accepted that “a few bad apples were to blame,” rather than seeing it as standard CIA and military practice. Yet, despite the 2014 Senate report on the use of torture, those responsible have enjoyed almost total impunity. What’s more, torture is back on the political agenda, and with popular backing, according to opinion polls.

 

Weber, a professor at UC Santa Barbara, explores the writing of Jean Amery, a survivor of the Gestapo during World War Two. He described torture as being let down by one’s own flesh, and experiencing death while still alive, prompting Weber to draw parallels with the paintings of Francis Bacon. With the first blow received from an agent of the state, Amery wrote, a person’s trust in the world broke down irreparably, and with it any expectation of help. Disturbing as some might find torture, evidently the producers of the “24” phased out torture from the show’s plots because it had become “trite” and was no longer a novelty.

 

“Kill Boxes” also traces the post-Abu Ghraib shift from capturing and interrogating suspects to extrajudicial drone assassinations. The NGO Reprieve has counted 4,700 attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, all places where the US is not, officially, at war. Weber writes of the post-traumatic stress experienced by people living in places where the hum of drones overhead is constant, and where concentrating on school lessons or work is impossible if one fears attack at any moment.

 

Drawing on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is transformed into an insect, Weber cites the term “bug splat,” used by drone operators to describe those they kill. As the leading interpreter of Jacques Derrida, she also examines his “two ages of cruelty;” scientifically and technologically sophisticated, and allegedly surgical and precise, as opposed to archaic, indiscriminate and bloody. As Derrida concluded, “One does not count the dead in the same way from one corner of the globe to the other.”

 

“Kill Boxes” concludes with a scorching essay by human rights authority Richard Falk. He recalls Henry Kissinger’s post-Vietnam aim to maximize effectiveness while minimizing the risk to Americans, enjoying invulnerability while the enemy is completely vulnerable. It is, Falk, warns, the surest way to convince young Muslims that only violent resistance can protect their cultural space from American aggression.

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

Afterword

 Richard Falk

The United States emerged from World War II with a triumphal sense that its military power had defeated evil political forces in Europe and Asia, and should not be subject to scrutiny despite causing massive civilian casualties along the way to victory. There were few tears shed as a result of the firebombing of Dresden, an occurrence given a long literary life thanks to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or in reaction to the firebombing of Tokyo, or even in reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two Japanese cities were selected because they had not been previously bombed in the war as they contained no important military targets and would be ideal sites to convey the extent of devastation caused by this new hyper-weapon.

 

There is little doubt that if Germany or Japan had developed the bomb and used it in a similar fashion, and then despite this, lost the war, their leaders would have certainly been charged with crimes and held accountable. What the United States learned from this major wartime experience was that military superiority ensured the triumph of justice as well as gained for the country diplomatic ascendancy and enormous economic benefits. The unpleasant fact that the vehicle for such success included recourse to genocidal tactics of warfare was put aside as irrelevant, or worse, a demeaning of a just war and those who fought it. Ever since World War II there has been this psychotic doubling of moral consciousness that fractures the coherence of law by violating its essential imperative: treating equals equally. The contrary approach of ‘victor’s justice’ is to grant impunity to the victor while imposing accountability on the loser as by way of the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials.

 

Visiting North Vietnam in June of 1968 to view what the American Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, had described as the most ‘surgical’ bombing campaign in all of history, I was shocked by the indiscriminately devastated cities that had been targeted from air. I was even more shocked by the awareness of total vulnerability of Vietnamese society to the onslaught of what was then almost limitless high tech superiority in weaponry, which translated into total American domination of air, sea, and land dimensions of the Vietnam War. One aspect of this vulnerability of this essentially peasant society, which disturbed me deeply at the time, was the relative helplessness of the Vietnamese to do anything by way of retaliation. In this respect, the war was relatively one-sided, with war thinkers at such think tanks as RAND openly advocating a gradual escalation of the pain being inflicted on Vietnamese society until the political leadership in Hanoi came to their senses and surrender as Germany and Japan had finally done two decades earlier. After lesser forms of punishment failed to achieve their desired result, American political and military leaders pondered whether to bomb the dikes in the Red River Delta that would cause flooding in heavily populated areas, thus likely producing several million civilian casualties, or use nuclear weapons with even worse results, but held back, not because of moral or legal inhibitions, but because they feared a severe political backlash and home and internationally.

 

It would be misleading to suppose that the Vietnamese were entirely helpless. The Vietnamese had the capacity to rely on relatively low tech weaponry and the advantages of fighting in their territorial homeland against a foreign enemy, to inflict significant casualties on American ground forces and even to shoot down American planes now and then, often capturing and imprisoning the pilot. Unable to overcome this Vietnamese resilience and faced with a growing political discontent at home, the U.S. Government began as early as 1968 to search for an exit strategy to cut their losses in Vietnam. The highest priority of American diplomacy was to cover up the startling reality that despite the American military juggernaut, the United States still lost the Vietnam War. This effort also failed as the outcome in Vietnam eventually became clear enough for all to see, although Washington’s effort to save face prolonged the combat for seven long years, causing tens of thousands of superfluous casualties on both sides. Of course, this was not the first time that the political resolve of a mobilized native population shifted the balance against a Western state that enjoyed a decisive military superiority. All the colonial wars after 1945 exhibited a similar pattern, perhaps most spectacularly in India, where Gandhi led a massive nonviolent movement to induce the United Kingdom to abandon its most prized colonial possession.

 

Unlike the European colonial powers that came to understand that the imperial age was over, the United States was not prepared to cut back on its global security role. Instead it made three sets of adjustments to the Vietnamese experience so that it might carry on as previously: (1) it did its best to undermine citizen opposition to non-defensive wars of choice by professionalizing the armed forces, eliminating the draft, and managing the media to minimize adverse comment during the course of a war; (2) it worked hard to find tactics and weaponry that enabled one-sided warfare, avoiding battlefield casualties for American troops while inflicting heavy damage on the adversary; (3) it struggled politically to demonstrate to the American people that its military power could again be efficiently used to achieve geopolitical goals (disguised as ‘security’) and by so doing overcome what Washington policymakers derisively referred to as ‘the Vietnam Syndrome,’ that is a post-Vietnam reluctance by the citizenry to back a distant overseas war that had nothing to do with self-defense. The United States finally found an ideal war in 1991 to rehabilitate militarism when with UN blessings it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty by forcing an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait in the First Gulf War, experiencing more American casualties due to ‘friendly fire’ than from enemy resistance. This reinstatement of American military credibility was further reinforced, again rather brutally, by the Kosovo War (1999) in which NATO achieved its political goals entirely through air power without suffering a single casualty, while causing substantial civilian casualties on the ground in Kosovo. After Serbia withdrew from Kosovo Washington think tanks began boasting about the new tactical wonders of ‘zero casualty wars,’ seeming not to be aware of the vast differences between types of warfare, thus paving the wave for frustrating repetitions of Vietnam in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

 

When approaching Elisabeth Weber’s extraordinary group of essays on how war is being waged beneath the shadows cast by the 9/11 attacks, I find this background relevant. It especially shows how reliance on one-sided warfare was being achieved by technological and tactical innovations at the close of World War II and later by a series of adjustments to the American defeat in Vietnam. There were two important changes between the wars that occurred before and after 9/11. Perhaps, the most important of these changes was the determination and capacity of the militarily inferior enemy to retaliate in ways that inflicted important symbolic harm on their militarily superior adversary and gave rise to fear and anger among the civilian population.

 

In the period between 1945 and 2001 the wars fought could be described as ‘Westphalian Wars,” that is, wars either between territorial sovereign states or within one such state, and mainly wars involving Northern countries seeking to retain their positions of dominance in the South. In these wars the combat zone was confined to the South. After 9/11 the ensuing wars were more properly understood as North/South with reactive violence in the South directed at targets in the North, sometimes with great effect, as in the 9/11 attacks. True, the military superiority, although taking new forms thanks to technological and tactical innovations, remained in the North, particularly the United States, but the other side developed the will and capacity to retaliate, although in a manner that was accurately perceived as immoral and illegitimate, and characterized as ‘terrorism.’

 

The second fundamental change in the nature of warfare, also of a post-Westphalian character, was to make the whole world a potential battlefield including, or even particularly, the homeland. In effect, the United States developed weapons and tactics to hunt for the prey wherever on the planet they might be hiding, including within ‘sleeper cells’ in its own society. Similarly, the adversary used what ingenuity it possessed to find soft spots in ‘homeland security’ and deliver violent blows wherever it might inflict harm and cause fear, a kind of low tech ‘shock and awe.’ The entire world, without much respect for boundaries and sovereign rights, has become a global battlefield in which the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is being waged between two non-Westphalian political entities. On one side is the United States as the first ‘global state’ in history with its network of hundreds of foreign military bases, navies in all oceans, militarization of space, and its many allies among foreign countries. On the other side are a variety of non-territorial extremist networks (Al Qaeda, ISIS) spread across the globe, and capable of attracting followers in the heartland of its enemies who are willing to undertake suicide missions either by following orders or spontaneously.

 

Weber’s brilliant essays shine the bright light of philosophical, cultural, and psychological interpretation on these new patterns of violent conflict that have completely overwhelmed the outmoded Westphalian political consciousness. Her approach is heavily influenced by the complex illuminations of Jacques Derrida, especially his electrifying insights into the inevitability of living together on this planet, his profound application of the auto-immune mechanism to the kind of monstrous political behavior that these post-9/11 shockwaves have produced, and his depictions of the unnerving equivalencies between the sophisticated cruelties of the ‘civilized’ countries and the ‘barbaric’ cruelties of their supposedly primitive enemies.

 

These are fundamental realities that elude the conscience, and even the consciousness, of the political class that devises the war policies for the West, which, above all claims the high moral and legal ground for its counterterrorist campaigns. It is helpful to remember that the consciousness of the politicians and decision-makers has been shaped for centuries by a form of cynical realism misleadingly attributed to Thucydides and Machiavelli that allegedly adopts the simplistic amoral formula of ‘might makes right,’ which has the secondary effect of marginalizing considerations of law. Henry Kissinger, the arch realist of our era, makes no secret in various writings of his annoyance with ill-tutored aides that remind him of legal or moral constraints that should be considered when contemplating policy choices. For the Kissingers of this world, the only considerations that count are effectiveness and the minimization of risks, underpinned by the idea that the principal agency of history is military power the results of which tended to be mostly vindicated by nationally oriented historians, although also challenged by a few historians with revisionist interpretations.

 

What Weber’s essays of exploration help us understand is that this Kissinger worldview directly leads to torture, kill boxes, indefinite detention, and drone attacks in response to the post-Westphalian non-territorial reconfiguration of conflict that currently controls the political imagination in the West. Put more explicitly, the conventional Westphalian geopolitical constructs of deterrence, defense, and retaliation do not work in non-territorial struggles in which the combat soldiers of the enemy engage in suicide missions, lack high value targets to destroy, and do not threaten invasion or occupation. What works, then, is gaining information as to the intentions and location of the potential attackers, places of refuge, and the leaders. Given this understanding, normalized recourse to torture was an irresistibly attractive option for those who saw the world through a realist optic. As well, preventive war and preemptive tactics of taking out anyone deemed by word or deed to pose a threat to compensate for the absence of an effective reactive option; this circumstance contrasts with Westplalian patterns of warfare where the stonger side militarily always retained a retaliatory capability even if the adversary struck first. An exemplary victim of a drone strike was the extra-judicial, presidentially approved killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, accused of delivering extremist radio broadcasts from his Yemen hideout that allegedly inspired ‘homegrown terrorists’ to launch lethal attacks against Americans. The realist mentality has a hard time accepting social science findings that question the utility of torture as the preferred means to gather information, and since there is only lip service given to normative considerations, it is not surprising that torture persists despite being unconditionally criminalized internationally. True, torture is sanitized to some extent for the sake of modern liberal sensibilities by leaving the victim unscarred or transferring the suspect to a CIA ‘black site’ or to a torture-friendly foreign government by way of ‘extraordinary rendition.’ We are perceptively reminded in two of the prior essays how the CIA relied extensively on the secret use torture during the Cold War, having made a great effort to develop methods of torture that did not leave the victim physically disfigured.

 

Another puzzle of these post-Westphalian challenges involves figuring out how to retain the strategic and tactical benefits of military superiority in essentially non-territorial contexts of conflict and political inhibition. The main goal becomes how to find and destroy the enemy while losing as few lives as possible on the technologically advanced side. Drone warfare, at first glance, seems like the ideal solution, a technology that puts to ‘battlefield’ use the information procured through torture and bribery, in a manner that identifies and locates suspects in the most remote parts of the planet, and delivers precise lethal blows with supposedly minimal collateral damage to those nearby. Yet as Weber so well shows the reader, the real circle of devastation is far broader than the ‘kill box’ within which the targeted individuals are closeted. Studies have now shown that the entire surrounding communities are literally terrorized and so acutely alienated as to be receptive to extremist recruitment efforts. It is revealing that a mainstream film, Eye in the Sky, claimed to address the morality of drone strikes by limiting the civilian collateral damage to one young female street vendor in an African town while the use of the drone was justified to avoid a terrorist attack on the local market that would have killed 80 persons. What was occluded from the movie watcher was the realization that the entire community would be indefinitely traumatized by this attack launched from the sky.

 

On further reflection, drone warfare may turn out to be a Pandora’s Box for the United States. Already there are reports of ISIS making use of drone, and unlike nuclear weaponry the idea of a nonproliferation regime for drones is generally dismissed as utterly fanciful. But the seductive short-term appeal of drone warfare seems irresistible even to a Nobel Peace Prize recipient like Barack Obama. What drones offer is a way of ignoring sovereignty and geography without provoking widespread protests likely to erupt if either lots of civilians died (civilian casualties were not even counted in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Rumsfeld Defense Department as a matter of policy and if deaths do not result, while the Obama presidency ignores completely the community terrorization caused by drone strikes) or American pilots were occasionally shot down or captured. It also avoids the Guantánamo range of problems. Drone operators can sit comfortably in their Nevada office complex thousands of miles from the target, and yet have an eerily intimate relationship to the human damage done due to remote visualization technology. Weber’s commentary here tells us much about the paradoxically unnerving relationship between distance and proximity in this new era.

 

The greatest blow to our Westphalian sensibilities is undoubtedly what Derrida describes as the dynamics of the ‘auto-immune response.’ It is here that horror is reproduced by adopting methods to protect the threatened political organism, the homeland, that are no less cruel than what has been experienced. In effect, terrorism begets terrorism, and humane values, always precarious and subject to rights of exception, are explicitly subordinated to the alleged requirements of ‘security.’ The post-Westphalian turn encroaches upon the rights of the threatened society by making everyone a potential suspect, and especially implicates those who share a religious and ethnic identity with the assailants, and become too often designated as secondary targets. Weber shows the rather grotesque equivalence between the suicide bomber and the drone operator, simultaneously inflicting death and situating their bodies outside the zone of retaliatory violence.

 

One of the greatest contributions made by Weber takes the form of indicating the extreme censorship imposed on the publication of poems written by those detained at Guantánamo. The justification given was that poems might transmit coded messages, although it is hard to imagine what useful information could be conveyed by those held in conditions of prolonged captivity. A better explanation might be the reluctance of Guantánamo officials to give these prisoners an opportunity to bear witness to their sufferings and often personal and spiritual aspirations, which would undermine security by ‘humanizing’ terrorists that need to be thought of as ‘the worst of the worst’ to sustain homeland morale. Such a line of interpretation adds weight to Weber’s central claim that the humanist sensibility poses a real challenge, if not a threat, to the militarized mentality that allows the modern forms of cruelty to pass undetected through the metal detectors of ‘civilized societies.‘

 

I think a reading of Kill Boxes is particularly valuable at this time to unmask the inhumane features of post-Westphalian forms of violent conflict. We are left to ponder whether it is too late to wish for a humane future in which there is respect for and deference to the dynamics of self-determination in the non-West. We need also to seek to have the deadly mechanisms of the post-9/11 auto-immune reactive politics pass through ethical filters before carrying out their deadly missions, sometimes in foreign countries that are even remote from the declared combat zones. At the very least, the challenges posed throughout this book point to an urgent need to reconstruct international humanitarian law in light of the realities of these non-territorial patterns of transnational conflict.

 

 

 

 

 

A Poetic Illumination at the Start of a New Year

1 Jan

[Prefatory Note: At the dawn of the new year, while the bitter embers of the departing year glow in the dark, it is the mysterious outreach of poetry, more than the sobering reflections of the Enlightenment mind, that best touches the raw nerves of the many disturbing realities that menace the human future. In this spirit I came across a few lines of the Zen poetry of the late eighteen century Zen poet, Ryōkan. For those with an interest in further exploration of Ryōkan’s meditative sensibility I suggest One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan, with superb translations by John Stevens, published by Weatherhill (Boston)  in a third edition, 2006.]

 

a verse from ‘The Long Winter Night: Three Poems’:

 Another year lingers to an end;

Heaven sends a bitter frost

Fallen leaves cover the mountains

And there are no travelers to cast shadows on the path.

Endless night: dried leaves burn slowly in the hearth.

Occasionally, the sound of freezing rain.

Dizzy, I try to recall the past—

Nothing here but dreams.

Reading Claudia Rankine On Race

1 Jul

 

We white people have lots to learn about racism in America no matter how progressive our attitudes toward race. I realized this some years ago when I found Toni Morrison’s Beloved so grimly illuminating in depicting the cruelty experienced after the abolition of slavery by our African American fellow citizens left in a malicious shadow land of unknowing, a reflection of white indifference. It made me abruptly realize that I had never effectively grasped the intensities of hurt and pain of even close black friends afflicted or threatened with affliction as a result of societal attitudes of hatred and fear that lie just below the surface, behavior socially conditioned to be ‘politically correct.’ White consciousness was preoccupied with the condemnation of hideous events that capture national attention, but remain largely unaware of the everyday racism that is the price African Americans of talent and privilege pay for ‘success’ when penetrating the supremacy structures of society that remain predominantly white.

 

I recall some years ago being picked up at the airport in Atlanta by a couple of white undergraduates assigned to take me to the University of Georgia where I was to give a lecture. On the way we got onto the subject of race, and they complained about tensions on their campus. I naively pointed out that the stars of their football and basketball teams were black, and since white students were fanatic collegiate sports fans at Southern universities, wouldn’t this solve the problem. I assumed that these black athletes who won games for the college would be idolized as local heroes. The students taking me to the lecture agreed with my point, but claimed that the black athletes refused to socialize with whites, displaying an alleged ‘reverse racism’ that the white student body resented. In explaining this pattern of multi-culturalism to me, whether accurate or not I have no idea, these young Southerners did not pause to wonder whether this reluctance by campus blacks, including the sports stars, to mingle socially might have something to do with the history of race relations in the South, and not just the history but an of nasty earlier experiences of racism as well, and not just in the South, but throughout whole of the country, and that this was their reason for choosing to be racially aloof!

 

It is with such thoughts in mind that reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (Greywolf Press, 2014) became for me a revelatory experience, especially against a foreground filled with such extreme reminders of virulent racism as lived current experience as Treyvon Martin, Ferguson, Charleston, and countless other recent reminders that the racist virus in its most lethal forms continues to flourish in the American body politic. The persistence of this pattern even in face of the distracting presence of an African-American president who functions both as a healing ointment and as a glorified snake oil salesman who earns his keep by telling Americans that we belong to the greatest country that ever existed even as it reigns down havoc on much of the world. On a more individual level, I can appreciate the extraordinary talent, courage, and achievement of Barack Obama, hurdling over the most formidable psychological obstacles placed in the path of an ambitious black man. Yet looked at more collectively, it now seems all too clear that the structures of racism are far stronger than the exploits of even this exceptional African American man.

 

What makes Rankine’s work so significant, aside from the enchantment of its poetic gifts of expression, is her capacity to connect the seemingly trivial incidents of everyday race consciousness with the living historical memory and existential presence of race crimes of utmost savagery. In lyrically phrased vignettes Rankine draws back the curtain on lived racism, relying on poetic story telling, and by so doing avoids even a hint of moral pedantry. She tells a reader of “a close friend, who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you be the name of her black housekeeper.” [48][*] Or a visit to a new therapist where she approached by the front door rather than the side entrance reserved for clients, and was angrily reproached, perceived as an unwanted intruder: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?” When informed that the stranger was her new patient the therapist realized her mistake, “I am so sorry, so so sorry.” [115].

 

Or when as a candidate for a university job she is being shown around a college campus by a faculty member who lets her know why she has been invited: “..he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.” She shares her unspoken reaction that is the main point: “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?” [66] The repetition of these daily occurrences in her recounting let’s us better understand why an African American cannot escapes the unconscious barbs of soft racism no matter how intelligent and accomplished a black person becomes in ways that the dominant society supposedly values and rewards. She invokes the inspirational memories of James Baldwin and Robert Lowell, not that of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or even Malcolm X, as brilliant wellsprings of understanding and defiance, acting as her undesignated mentors. This experience of racism in America has been told with prose clarity and philosophic depth by my friend and former colleague, Cornel West, in Race Matters, a similar narrative of citizenship that Rankine conveys through poetic insight and emotion, allowing readers enough space to sense somewhat our own poorly comprehended complicity. Reading West and Rankine together is one way to overcome the body/mind dualism, with West relying on the power of reason and Rankine on the force of emotion.

 

As Rankine explains with subtle eloquence, what may seem like hyper-sensitivity to episodic understandable stumbles by even the most caring whites is actually one of the interfaces between what she calls the ‘self self’ and ‘the historical self,’ a biopolitical site of self-knowledge that embodies “the full force of your American positioning.” Such positioning is a way of drawing into the present memories of slavery, lynching, persecution, and discrimination that every black person carries in their bones, not as something past. And as Faulkner reminds us over and over again, the past is never truly past. On this Rankine’s words express her core insight: “[T]he world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you..” [307] Summing up this inability to move on she observes, “[E]xactly why we survive and can look back with a furrowed brow is beyond me.” [364] The mystery, then, is not the failure to forget, but persevering given the agony of remembering.

 

The longest sequence in the book is somewhat surprisingly devoted to the torments experienced by Serena Williams in the course of her rise to tennis stardom. Rankine, who in other places suggests her own connection with tennis, thinks of Serena as the “black graphite against a sharp white background.” She recounts her early career struggles with eminent umpires in big matches who made bad calls, trapped in what Rankine calls “a racial imaginary.” Serena feels victimized because black, and on several taut occasions loses her composure under the intense pressure of the competitive moment, raging and protesting, and then being called “insane, crass, crazy.” [193] While Rankine appreciates that Williams is likely to be considered the greatest woman tennis player ever, she still views her primarily as bravely triumphing over the many efforts to diminish her.

 

As a tennis enthusiast myself, it is the one portion of Rankine’s lyric that does not ring entirely true, or more precisely, that the race optic misses Serena’s triumphal presence on the public stage that has been accomplished with uncommon grace, joyfulness, and integrity. Unlike that other African American over-achiever, Barack Obama, Williams has attained the heights without abandoning her close now inconvenient associates the way Obama ditched Jeremiah Wright and even Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers so as to provide reassurance to his mainstream white backers. Williams has always continued to affirm warmly her Dad despite his provocative antics and defiance of the white establishment that controls the sport. She held out long enough so that the racist taunts she and Venus received at Indian Wells were transformed into tearful cheers of welcome on her return 13 years later after being beseeched by the sponsors. Williams, always gracious and graceful in victory on the court, with a competitive rage that is paralleled by a fighting spirit that puts her in the winners’ circle even when not playing her ‘A’ game, Serena is for me the consummate athlete of our time, doubly impressive because she does not shy away from memories of the Compton ghetto where she grew into this remarkable athlete and person and while still acquiring the wit, imagination, and poise to speak French when given her latest trophy after winning the Roland Garros final in Paris. Considering where she started from she has traveled even further than Obama, although his terrain entails a far heavier burden of responsibility and historical significance.

 

Somehow I feel Rankine perhaps absorbed by the preoccupations that give coherence to Citizen missed the deeper reality of Serena Williams as a glorious exception to her portrayal of the African American imaginary. I do not at all deny that Williams’ life has been framed from start to finish with the kind of micro-aggressions that Rankine experienced, and indeed a closer proximity to the macro-aggressions that the media turns into national spectacles, but presenting her life from this limited viewpoint misses what I find to be the most captivating part of her life story. And maybe a fuller exposure to Rankine’s reality would lead me to celebrate her life as also one that transcends race as the defining dimension of her experience. What is known is that in 1963 Rankine was born in Kingston, Jamaica, raised in New York, educated at the best schools, and is enjoying a deservedly fine career as award winning poet, honored scholar, and rising playwright.

 

With brief asides, coupled with a range of visual renderings that give parallel readings (Rankine is married to John Lucas, a videographer, with whom she writes notes in this text for possible future collaborative scripts on racially tinged public issues), she brings to our awareness such societal outrages as the beating of Rodney King that was caught on a video camera, and led to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 or the racist aspects of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or a series of more recent assaults, including the diabolic frolic of fraternity boys at a university who joyously recalled the pleasures of lynching or the slaying of Trayvon Martin by a security guard whose crime was followed by his unacceptable acquittal. It is this tapestry of experience that seems to be for Rankine the American lyric that provides the sub-title of her book, and silently poses the question, without offering us the satisfaction of answers, as how these awful tales alter the experienced reality of being a ‘citizen’ of this country at this time; that is, if the citizen is viewed as one who owes loyalty to the state and is entitled to receive human security, protection, and the rule of law in return, how does this relate to the black experience of human insecurity and inescapable vulnerability. Rankine leaves me with the impression that even if these entitlements of citizenship can be somehow delivered (which they are not to those struggling), the grant of loyalty in the face of persisting racism is suspect. Raising such doubts is against the background of Rankine’s surface life as mentioned is one of privilege and success, holding an endowed chair at Pomona College, someone who plays tennis and can afford to see a therapist. Rankine is telling us both that this matters, saving her from the grossest of indignities because of the color of her skin, but not sparing her from an accumulation of racial slights or relieving her of the heavy awareness that she could be a Rodney King or Trayvon Martin if her social location were different or that whatever she might do or achieve she is still haunted by the memories of a ghastly past for people with black skin. In the deep structures of composition and consciousness that informs Citizen is a brilliant and instructive interweaving of time present and past, embodying both the memories buried within Rankine’s being and the present assaults she endures as a result of headlines bearing news of the latest hideous racist incident. Despite Rankine’s own personal ascent she as citizen confronts these past and presents challenges to her being, as underscored by the everyday racism that cannot be separated from the lynchings, beatings, and jail time that the black community as community has experienced ever since being transported to this land in slave ships.        

 

Such displays of awareness are followed by more conventionally poetic reflections on what this all means for Rankine. In lines that epitomize her lyric voice, and that she might be choose for her gravestone:

                        “you are not sick, you are injured—

                        you ache for the rest of your life.”

And again:

                        “Nobody notices, only you’ve known

                        you’re not sick, not crazy,

                        not angry, not sad—

                        It’s just this, you’re injured”

The worst effect of such an injury is an acute sense of alienation that separates

the public self from the private self:

                        “The worst injury is feeling

                                                            you don’t belong so much

                        to you—“

 

Reverting one last time to my own experience from the other side of the mirror, I recall my first intimate relationship with an African American as a boy growing up in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s. I was raised by a troubled, conservative father acting as a single parent who warily hired an African American man to be our housekeeper on the recommendation of a Hollywood friend. Willis Mosely was no ordinary hire for such a position, being a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate from UCLA, with a desire to live in New York to live out his dreams to do New York theater, a big drinking problem, and an extroverted gay identity, but beyond all these attributes, he was a charismatic personality with one of the great, resounding laughs and an electrifying presence that embodied charm, wit, and tenderness, demonstrating his intellectual mettle by finishing the Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle in lightning speed, then a status symbol among West Side New Yorkers. Willis was a challenge for my rather reactionary father who could only half hide his racist bias and on top of his, was also unashamedly homophobic; added to this my dad was counseled by family friends that it was irresponsible to have his adolescent son’s principal companion be a gay man in his low 30s. I am relating this autobiographical tidbit because despite this great gift of exposure to a wonderfully loving black man in these formative years, who influenced me greatly in many ways, I was unable to purge the racism in my bones, or was it genes.

 

Years later while dating a gifted former black student, whose outward joyfulness acted as a cover for her everyday anguish and deeper racial torment, she let me know gently that I would never be able to understand her because, as she put it, “we listen to different music.” It happened, I had just taken her to a Paul Winter concert that she didn’t enjoy, and so I missed the real meaning of her comment until this recent reading of Rankine’s Citizen. In effect, it took me several decades to hear this dear friend because until recently I was listening without really, really being able to hear! Of course, the primary failing is my own, but it is a trait I share with almost the whole of my race, and probably most of my species, and is indirectly responsible for the great weight on the human spirit produced by low visibility suffering that goes unnoticed everywhere in the world except by its victims. To become attuned to this everday racism, as Rankine shows so convincingly, is also to become even more appalled by the high visibility racism that in our current societal gives rise to public condemnations across the political spectrum.

 

What Claudia Rankine shares and teaches is that every African American citizen must live with the existential concreteness of racism while even the most liberal of American white citizens live with only an abstract awareness of their own unconscious racism or, at best, their rather detached empathy with the historical victimization of our African American co-citizens. Just as blacks have the torments of racism in their bones, whites are afflicted with resilient mutant forms of unconscious racism. We learn through this extraordinary lyric that moving on, for either black or white, is just not an option! And yet it is a necessity!    

[*] The numbers refer to the lot #s on the Kindle edition. Citizen was a finalist for 2014 National Book Award in the Poetry category. The winner, ironically, was Rankine’s teacher at Williams College, who described her pupil as ‘a phenomenal student.’

In Further Memory of Edward Said

27 Dec

In Further Memory of Edward Said

 

Always, always

 

That voice

remains

is gone

needed

 

What he gave

we miss

we need

we want

 

Our loss

his loss

remains

an echo

 

Sunsets bright

that shine

yet soon

depart

 

Unlike waves

that beat

on shore

remains

 

Relentless

is loss

his gift

our hope

 

Remembering

our loss

our tears

his hopes

 

Honor such a loss

clear eyes

brave words

courage

 

XII..27…2012

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

 

            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

 

            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

 

            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

 

            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

 

            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

 

            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  

 

            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

 

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

 

            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

 

…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

Reflections on Two Occupations

23 Nov

 

Not long ago I took part in a workshop in London that was jointly organized by young Palestinians and Israeli, and discussed prospects for a just peace, emphasizing the imperative of ending ‘the occupation.’ At about the same time I experienced the radiant energy of the young occupiers at Wall Street and near St Paul’s Cathedral. Several months ago I was in Cairo not long after Mubarak left power, and visited Tahrir Square still alive with its memories of occupation by the protesters. Occupation became a word of many resonances, both favorable and heinous, and this poem tries to acknowledge this interplay of feelings of solidarity and alienation. Perhaps, it is too personal to be sharable.

*********

 

 

Reflections on Two Occupations

 

To live             to love

                                                is to occupy           

                                                to be

                                                            occupied

 

By whom             with whom           

Occupy/ing

                        Tahrir Square

                        Wall Street

                        St Paul’s Cathedral

                                                            the world

 

To hope to dream

                                    to act

                                                is

                                                to

                                                            occupy

 

By whom            for whom

To fear to hide

                        to resist

                                                is to be

                                                                        (pre)occupied

            from within

            from without

 

It was once your land

I entered your land

                        picking olives

                                                settling there

Buying occupying

 

Above all remembering

                                                another distant tale

Filled with tears and dying

                                                                       

                                                                        my land

                                                                                    my law                       

                                                            my birthright

 

And now ours to keep:

                        history forgives

                                                what is stolen if time passes quietly

                                   

 

Long ago now

I did ask you to leave

            in a polite voice

                        then a raised voice

                                    then a scream

                                                            then no voice at all

                                    to go             get out

 

All I wanted then was for birds

                                    to sing some old songs

All I wanted was for flowers

                                                to bend toward home

 

And now I declare

            to myself to you

                                    to the world

                                                this occupation will end:

 

The graves

                        already full

 

            as dawn

                                    splits

                                                            the Jerusalem sky in two

 

What is occupied with love lives

What is occupied with force kills

                                                            before it dies and lives again           

                                                                                                            elsewhere

 

I never wanted this earth scorched

                                                            moist with

                                                                        native blood

 

amid the ruins

                        I fight              resist    pray           

 

 

XI/22/2011

Saying No to Alan Dershowitz

10 Nov

On declining Alan Dershowitz’s challenge to debate my endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s autobiographical The Wandering Who? (my few lines are an echo of a poem by ee cummings that I recall reading many years ago). Dershowitz’s defamatory polemic can be found in the Huffington Post, but why it was considered publishable remains for me a dark mystery. Gilad Atzmon’s response can be found on his blog for those sufficiently interested.

 ********************************

 

 

A SHITSLINGER’S LAMENT

 

 

 

There is

 

                        some

 

                                                                        SHIT

 

I

 

            will not

 

            sling

 

 

 

 

 

 

XI..9..2011