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Despair and Hope for the New Year

30 Dec

 

W.H. Auden wrote these suggestive lines in the poem ‘Lament for a Lawgiver’ that can be found in his Age of Anxiety:

 ‘The gods are wringing their great worn hands

for their watchman is away, their world engine

Creaking and cracking…’

 

If we pause to look about the world, we will observe many signs of creaking and cracking. Among the most alarming forms of creaking and cracking is the appalling failure of political leadership. Where are the Roosevelts, DeGaulles, Chou En-Lais, Sukarnos, Titos, and Nehrus? Is the dumbing down of political leadership a consequence of the reordering of the world economy in ways that constrain and corrupt the role of governments? Or has the technology of control, surveillance, and destruction become so overwhelming as to make the moral and political imagination seem irrelevant, giving exclusive historical agency to those who propose doing nothing while the fires ravaging the earth burn out of control? Or even propose pouring more and more oil on the fires? In this respect, should we not regard the ‘climate denier’ as the true hero of our time, he that worships that which destroys, and so distresses the wearying gods.

 

Or should we blame the structures that have evolved to constitute modernity, especially the fragmenting impact of the sovereignty of states as reinforced by the passions of tribalizing nationalisms? This optic of the national tribalized self that controls our visionary capability has so far been virtually paralyzed when confronted by the advent of nuclear weaponry, global warming, and waves of desperate migrants seeking sanctuary. Instead of generating policies and practices responsive to human and global imperatives of collective and species survival, the feeble responses that were forthcoming depended on the aggregation of what little states would agree upon to satisfy their collective interests. The hierarchy among states is also responsible for the infernal spiral by so awkwardly imposing itself on the principle of juridical equality. It has contrived such devices as claiming a right of veto in the UN Security Council on behalf of the permanent five (P5) and by invalidating the acquisition rather than possession and use of nuclear weaponry.

 

Or maybe we should pause long enough to contemplate the religious resurgence that can be understood from many angles: As a revolt against the spiritual aridity of modernity, that is, the failures of instrumental rationality and a false consciousness that equates technological innovation with progress, and material gain with happiness. We find ourselves haunted by the prospect of perpetual war fought with ever more extraordinary technological prowess, but giving rise to apocalyptic phantasies of wars between good and evil, the self and the other, drained of empathy and drenched with displays of hyper-violence. Is it any wonder that it is ‘Star Wars’ that best entertains and diverts while the greatest human gift of the imagination prolongs its hibernation despite a growing realization that this is a time of unprecedented species danger?

 

Or did the gods grow weary, fatigued by such a record of shattered hopes? When the Soviet experiment became totalitarian criminality rather than an emancipatory process of collective liberation, many lost their confidence in revolutionary change. Utopian landscapes of the future were derisively put to one side, and the market and the moderate ‘selfie’ state were accepted as the outer limits of healthy human aspiration. We have lost that bit of biblical wisdom recognizing that a society without vision perishes. We as a nation and our citizens as members of a species need badly to recover ‘horizons of desire.’ At present, we find ourselves trapped, gradually becoming aware that ‘horizons of feasibility’ (what politics as the art of the possible deems feasible) is disastrously separated from ‘horizons of necessity (what science, morality, and common sense deem as necessary). When this gap between feasibility and necessity becomes understood, it seeks refuge in denial, escapism, and extremism. That is, the gap is either ignored or a simplistic alternative narrative of what is wrong is seized upon, a quack remedy with a terrible taste—the sort of vacuum that Trump seems to be filling for those many Americans who want enemies to blame and lethal promises to keep.

 

Consider the failure to rid the world of nuclear weaponry or the refusal to deal with climate change in a manner that heeds the consensus among climate experts. Or consider the Syrian babies washed ashore on Turkish beaches and Greek islands as an ultimate metaphor of a species that endlessly moralizes yet behaves with spectacular inhospitality and insensitivity in the face of even the most horrific suffering by fellow humans. The opposite of cosmopolitan ethics is the psychologically dominant template of tribal and communitarian loyalties, combining with the othering of those whose presence among us poses a challenge of some sort. The post-Holocaust pledge of ‘never again’ has a hollow ring, if even recalled.

 

Or maybe we should worry most about the collective forms of ecological alienation that are daily ravaging our planet. We have become a species that destroys its own habitat, forgetting the evolutionary reality of an ultimate dependence of all living beings on its natural surroundings. We have lost these elemental moorings that seemed self-evident to pre-modern peoples who understood the need to live with nature, not as domineering exploiters but as stewards and partners, sensitive to such abstractions as ‘carrying capacity’ and ‘sustainability,’ but also to the exotic wonders of biodiversity and the natural beauty of our extraordinary planet.

 

We should not overlook the salience of racially driven police brutality and the several failures of the justice system to impose some appropriate measure of accountability. We can be grateful for the emergence of Black Lives Matter dedicated to bringing this kind of governmental racism to an end. Laws are not enough if public consciousness is not committed to their implementation,

without which the application of law seems synonymous with injustice. Let us pause as the new year begins to remember the shocking deaths of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Quintonio LeGrier, Bettie Jones among many other African American lives destroyed, and then recall the series of distressing acquittals, especially the impunity legally accorded to the police killer of Michael Brown shot dead multiple times in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014. It is time to realize that it is up to each of us to make black lives matter applicable in our own lives, our own experience. To grasp the complexity of what this means I recommend three extraordinary books: Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus, and Ta-Nehisi, Between the World and Me. To understand the menace of police violence as expressing the persistence of racism in the sort of plutocracy that the United States has become, I urge all to read Gerry Spence’s extraordinarily timely Police State: How American Cops Get Away with Murder.

 

As always, I feel an especial bond of solidarity with all those resisting Israeli oppression and seeking justice for the millions of Palestinians trapped in Gaza, oppressed in the West Bank, cleansed in East Jerusalem, victimized in refugee camps, and languishing in exile. I would also wish that pressures from within and without might prompt, however belatedly, Israeli soul searching and with it, the realization that it is never too late to walk the path of peace and justice

  

 

Yet we should not greet the arrival of 2016 without words of consolation and hope. My friend, Robert Lifton, many years ago usefully quoted Theodore Roethke who poetically observed “in the dark the eye begins to see.” The future is unknowable, and history teaches us that both disasters and miracles happen unexpectedly, and that what we do and don’t do makes a difference even if the outcome of our dedication to a humane future cannot be known to be worthwhile in advance. It makes a difference to engage in such a struggle even aside from whether it is vindicated by achieving the goals that animate such a quest. Pursuing a humane future is a process, a journey or pilgrimage that alone can elevate our strivings to correspond with our values, dreams, and hopes, leaving the eventual outcome at the mercy of the gods.

 

Those caught in despair believe we are living on borrowed time, amid the dusk of the species. Those clinging to hope consider ourselves enduring the morbid symptoms of transition (Gramsci’s illuminating comment that the old has not yet died while the new has yet to be born), and that emerging forces are shaping a cosmic consciousness that will overcome ecological alienation and all varieties of racism, allowing us to think, feel, and above all discover that we belong to the only species assigned by the gods this sacred vocation to serve as the guardian angel of planetary wellbeing that includes racial just, and in so doing clip the wings of avenging angels. Pope Francis seems to have best grasped this ultimate form of human responsibility, and one can only hope that more of us act within the circle of his vision before it is too late. Most needed in these dark times is to hold tight to what we believe with an unruly embrace of faith, patience, and urgency. This is my most fervent New Year’s wish for 2016. 

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The Semantics of Struggle

9 May

Words Against the Grain

 

While reporting to the UN on Israel’s violation of basic Palestinian rights I became keenly aware of how official language is used to hide inconvenient truths. Language is a tool used by the powerful to keep unpleasant realities confined to shadow lands of incomprehension.

 

Determined to use the rather modest flashlight at my disposal to illuminate the realities of the Palestinian ordeal as best I could, meant replacing words that obscure ugly realities with words that expose as awkward truths often as possible. My best opportunity to do this was in my annual reports to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the General Assembly in New York. My courageous predecessor as Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, deserves credit for setting the stage, effectively challenging UN complacency with language that looked at the realities lurking below the oily euphemisms that diplomat seem so fond of.

 

Of course, I paid a price for such a posture as did Dugard before me. Your name is added to various black lists, and doors once open are quietly closed, if not slammed shut. If the words used touched enough raw nerves, you become a target of invective and epithets. In my case, my temporary visibility as UN Special Rapporteur meant being called ‘an anti-Semite,’ even ‘a notorious anti-Semite,’ and on occasion ‘a self-hating Jew.’ Strong Zionist pressures are now seeking to induce legislative bodies in the United States to brand advocacy of BDS or harsh criticism of Israel as prohibited forms of ‘hate speech.’ In April of this year pressures  by the British Jewish Board of Deputies led the University of Southampton to cancel a major academic conference on the Israel/Palestine conflict.

 

In relation to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the clarifying/some of the offending words are ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ ‘annexation,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘genocide.’ The UN evades such invasions of light by speaking of Israeli ‘occupation’ (as if a static reality without history) and without challenging certain strong normative tendencies, including the criminalization of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, the delegitimation of colonialism, and the unlawfulness of annexation (as in Jerusalem by legal diktat and the West Bank by the de facto settlement phenomenon).

 

It was my experience that using words that connect the realities with the norms changes the discourse that is used by some of those at the UN and in the media, especially among those who seek genuinely to understand the significance of what is actually happening. Right language encourages right action. What is right language follows from how convincingly the word links to the reality being pointed to, and whether ideological obstacles can be overcome. The weakness of Israel’s position from the perspective of controversy is being expressed by their avoidance of substantive debate, for instance, challenging the labeling of occupation as apartheid, and recourse instead to character assassination of those who dared to connect these dots.

 

I feel that Israel is losing this struggle to obscure the true nature of their activities, and its devastating effects on Palestinian lives and rights. Whether this will mean that Israel will alter its policies is far less clear, and certainly not assured, and the outcome of the 2015 Israeli elections and formation of the new coalition government would suggest that the most extremist Israeli government ever has been installed under the leadership of Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

 

Nothing should be more shocking to Western liberal sensibilities than the appointment of Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home Party as the Minister of Justice in Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government. Ms. Shaked, while being a member of the Knesset, became globally notorious as a result of her post sent around during the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 in which she called the entire Palestinian population the “enemy” that “should be destroyed.” Leaving no room doubt she went on to say that even that even “its elderly and and its women” should not be spared, and that the killing of Palestinian mothers is justified because they give birth “to little snakes.” Ali Abunimah asks rhetorically, “If Shaked’s post does not meet the legal definition of genocide then nothing does.” What is as shocking as these sentiments of Shaked is the silence of the Western media and leaders in the face of such an appointment in the only democracy in the region. Imagine the self-righteous angry posturing from liberals in the West if Hamas dared to select such a personality from their ranks to serve as the Minister of Justice. As it is the Hamas Covenant is invoked to confirm genocidal sentiments although subsequent behavior and political initiatives have moved in a far more accommodating direction. What is at stake is the discriminatory manner of either noticing or not noticing the elevation of adherents of ‘genocide’ to the pinnacles of state power. This two-way approach to language is fully displayed in the political discourse surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict. And closer to home, compare Ayelet’s selection as Minister of Justice after her offensive tweet with the University of Illinois’ breach of Steven Salaita’s contract to become a tenured professor in reaction to his tweets expressing his outrage about Israel’s 51 day criminal assault on Gaza last summer. It conveys a lively sense of the extremity to which double standards are carried when it comes to Israeli behavior. 

 

There is another set of intense struggles around language that arise when a single word is insisted upon because of its emotive value, and possibly its legal ramifications. I am referring to the unconditional insistence of the Armenian diaspora that the catastrophic events that climaxed in the 1915 massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians should be acknowledged as ‘genocide’ by Turkey in the form of an official apology by the government and its leaders. The Armenian insistence stems from several motivations, it seems. Above all, the fact that once ‘genocide’ is admitted, then the link to ultimate evil is established beyond controversy, the Armenian narrative is validated beyond controversy, descendants of victims are granted a kind of clisure, and what happened to the Armenians is implicitly equated with what later happened to the Jews as a result of Naziism. It is psychologically important to prevail with respect to how these events are described so as to alleviate the pain endured over the years by the Armenian people because of what they have experienced as ‘genocide denial’ on the part of Turkey.

 

Turkey’s response to the Armenian allegations has evolved over the years, but it remains somewhat edgy. The 2014 statement of Erdogan seemed to accept the Armenian narrative to the extent of acknowledging the massacres and wrongdoings of 1915, while stopping well short of using the G-word. A few weeks ago, Prior to the centenary of April 24, Pope Francis brought his moral authority to bear by describing in a solemn mass as ‘genocide’ what happened to the Armenian people, and called upon Turkey to recognize these events for what they were. In reaction, Erdogan and other Turkish leaders stepped back, declaring that the issue of what happened in 1915 has not yet been sufficiently resolved by historians to justify attaching the word ‘genocide’ to this horrific set of events, that wrongdoing was not as one-sided as Armenians claim, and that the pope stepped out of line by issuing such an ill-informed and partisan statement concerning historical events that are complex and contested. 

 

Taking a different tack than that of Pope Francis, Barack Obama angered Armenians (even more than the pope angered Turks) by refusing to include the word ‘genocide’ in his centenary message to the Armenian people, instead using the Armenian descriptive Meds Yegham (the great calamity). Obama added that the 1915 events constituted a ‘massacre,’ produced ‘a terrible carnage,’ and were ‘a dark chapter of history.’ It seemed meant to be a strong statement of solidarity with the Armenian campaign, omitting only the word ‘genocide,’ but this omission was all that was needed to turn this expression of solidarity with the Armenian call for redress of grievances into an anti-Armenian statement that was unwelcome because it refused to show its support for all that now mattered to the Armenians, namely, that their victimization be regarded as ‘genocide’ beyond any doubt. For this goal to be reached, the endorsement by the U.S. Government is deemed to be necessary, and hence the Obama formulation fell decisively short.  No denunciation of the 1915 events that did not adopt the descriptive label of genocide was acceptable for the aggrieved and mobilized Armenian diaspora. This semantic hard line shows how much meaning can be invested in whether or not a particular word is used.

 

In response to Obama, representatives of the organized Armenian diaspora expressed their disappointment in harsh language, going so far as to say it would have been better if Obama had said nothing at all. They called ‘disgraceful’ his refusal to live up to a 2008 campaign pledge that if elected president he would identify the events of 1915 as genocide. Obama’s apparent justification for this semantic retreat is that as the head of state his primary obligation is to care for the strategic interests of the country, and Turkey as a NATO ally was too important to antagonize over such an issue. But my point here is to take account of the power of the word, as well as to notice that the language functions differently in private and public domains. To refer to 1915 as Meds Yegham is a strong affirmation of the Armenian narrative. By comparison, if Obama were to describe the dispossession of the Palestinians in 1948 as the nakba, there would be dancing in the streets of Ramallah and Gaza City. Such a designation, if ever used by an American president, would be correctly viewed as a mighty slap in Israel’s face and a great symbolic victory for the Palestinians. The point here is that the Armenians have been able to raise the threshold of semantic redress to the very highest level by this insistence on genocide, and accompanying sentiment that nothing else will be acceptable, while the Palestinians have yet to receive even a formal acknowledgement that they were victims of a calamity in the less incendiary terminology of Arabic, much less that of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

 

What are we to make of this bitter fight about the words used to describe a series of events that happened 100 years ago? First, and most obviously, words matter, and are made to matter deeply by political actors, especially when the purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom. Some words achieve a charismatic stature, and none more than genocide. [As an aside, I was never more attacked by Zionist activists and the mainstream media than when in 2007 I referred in a newspaper article to Israel’s policies of punitive siege imposed on the entire civilian population of Gaza as ‘genocidal’ (not ‘genocide’) in its intent and effect, a contention given governmental endorsement by Shaked’s appointment, but still manages to slip under the radar of Western moral and political sensibilities.

 

Secondly, the alleged Turkish reason for its objection to genocide is based on the factual contention that historical realities of 1915 remain contested, and can only be resolved by an international commission composed of historians enjoying unrestricted archival access. The Armenians summarily reject such an approach as proof of Turkish bad faith, insisting that there already exists an authoritative international consensus supportive of their claim of genocide due to the establishment of systematic, one-sided, deliberate massive slaughter designed to eliminate the Armenian presence in Turkey. Thirdly, the American position is aligned with the Armenians on the facts, but with the Turks on the appropriate language at governmental levels, which seems the weakest of all rationalizations for evading the charge of genocide. Fourthly, if the search is for a way to resolve the conflict, the Armenian tactic of invoking foreign governments and moral authority figures such as the pope, is dysfunctional although it does provide strong moral support for the campaign. If, on the contrary, the mobilization of support is primarily intended to generate a heightened collective memory of victimization among Armenians, then soliciting these external expressions of solidarity from leading moral authority figures is of great value.

 

I find my own view trapped midway between the positions put forward by Pope Francis and President Erdogan. On the facts, although as Turkey argues the events occurred in wartime with the Armenians acting as adversaries and sometimes engaged in violence against Turks, still the basic character of the events  certainly seemed to be genocidal in character, with entire Armenian communities being forced to make death marches. As a lawyer, however, I would refrain from using the label genocide as there was no crime of genocide in 1915, and criminal law can never properly have a retroactive application. As I have pointed out before, even the London Agreement of 1945 setting up the Nuremberg Tribunal to assess Nazi crimes did not include ‘genocide’ among the international crimes that could be charged even though the word genocide had been coined by Rafael Lemkin in 1944, or before.

 

Yet is it not appropriate in view of the consensus on the facts, to recognize the links to catastrophes that have been definitively called genocide by affixing the term to the onslaught against Armenians planned and executed by ‘the young Turks’ acting under Ottoman authority? Surely no sane person objects to categorizing the Holocaust as ‘genocide’ even though the death camps were established and the final solution occurred before the Genocide Convention of 1950, and was long underway before Raphael Lemkin had invented the word. Thinking along this line, and acknowledging that the crime of genocide had yet to be established, it would seem that it is politically, morally, and therapeutically correct to describe the 1915 tragic ordeal of the Armenian people as genocide, but legally irresponsible to do. In this gap between semantic contexts there seems room for a conflict resolving compromise. Yet the distinction drawn may seem obscure, and somewhat academic, unlikely in the end to be attractive for either side in the controversy.

 

How, then, can such an encounter over the word be resolved? It seems doubtful that Turkey will back down without some face saving ritual, and it is virtually certain that the Armenian diaspora having raised the temperature surrounding this single word to such a fever pitch will be content with anything less than a full fledged Turkish capitulation. The Armenian campaign will certainly continue to refuse to risk an ambiguous outcome arising from convening the sort of historical inquiry that Turkey proposes as the necessary next step in resolving the controversy. It doesn’t require much sophistication to conclude that the parties are stuck and likely to remain so for a long time.

 

This is a pity. Both sides would have much to gain by finding a way forward. It is quite likely that if the word issue was finessed, Turkey would be relieved, and go out of its way to preserve a vibrant memory of the events through such initiatives as a national museum, agreeing to a commemorative day, and hosting a variety of Armenian cultural events. If the Turkish leadership could persuade itself that the historical issue is substantially settled, and what matters is the present relationship, maybe then it could issue the kind of statement the Armenian people so fervently seek, and a mutually beneficial future could likely unfold. Both sides need to look in the mirror sufficiently to realize that more is at stake then fidelity to their fixed position for and against the use of the word genocide. Yet, the way in which psycho-political works, it is likely that the wait for such a sensible breakthrough to happen will be long. The burden of magnanimity is on the Turkish side, the stronger party and with less at stake concerning national identity.

 

Before concluding, I would mention another word that is obstructing reason and decency in the national and global political realm. It is ‘terrorism,’ used to demonize the grievances and the tactics of the adversary, and in mainstream discourse preempted by governments and their media apologists to create an unbridgeable moral distance between themselves and a political challenge.

“We refuse to negotiate with terrorists” is the rationale for keeping a hot war going. We should also notice that the language of terrorism is racialized. If the incident involves a white American, there is a tacit turn toward focusing on his mental condition and sociopathic sensibility, but if the suspect is Islamic a frantic search is undertaken to link the acts of violence with either jihadist groups or to trace its source to the Koran.

 

There are efforts to offset equalize word play. For instance, critics of hegemonic semantics introduce the phrase ‘state terror,’ to designate violence by state entities against their non-state enemies. This rejects the attempt by governments to immunize their own violence from censure, while branding the violence of their adversary as morally and legally prohibited because it is terror

 

We know that the accusatory language of terrorism is in the toolkit of governmental policymaking, and can be dropped when convenient. When a political actor is ready to negotiate, adherents of the former enemy are no longer described as ‘terrorists.’ Think how effortlessly the former leaders of the IRA, ANC, or even the PLO were seated at diplomatic dinner tables when the right moment arrived! Yet until the appointed hour, relying on the terminology of terrorism is the equivalent of a hunting license that can be used as a rationale for torture, disproportionate force, civilian casualties, extraordinary rendition, drone strikes, and special ops wherever, whenever without regard to constraints of law or morality.

 

Public reason in democratic society would greatly benefit from a renunciation of terrorism as a respectable term of art. Instead, the focus could be placed on what to do in effective and humane ways to sustain security and safeguard just political orders. In effect, to forego the temptation to call the enemy ‘a terrorist’ the path would be clear to talk as well as fight, and to resist the absurd dichotomy that we are totally ‘good’ and the adversary is totally ‘evil.’

 

But what if the insurgent challenge is demonizing the established order by contending that it is decadent, corrupt, and oppressive? Is it not reasonable if such a critique jumps the barriers of law, and mobilizes for violent struggle, to respond? Of course it is not only reasonable, but morally and politically imperative to respond as persuasively as possible, and to uphold the security of what is deemed legitimate societal arrangements. What is not helpful, actually diversionary, is to respond as if the struggle was between good and evil, and that is what happens as soon as the insurgent challenger is labeled

‘a terrorist.’ Such language exempts the defenders of the status quo from self-criticism and considering accommodationist tactics, proscribing negotiation and assessment of grievances. The response to ‘terrorists’ is war talk, rendering peace talk as irrelevant of worse.

 

Shall we also abandon the label of ‘state terror’ for crimes of the state associated with violence directed toward the innocent? Yes, as part of a wider semantic contract to banish ‘terrorism’ from the lexicon of political discourse. Yet, not unilaterally, as under existing conditions ‘state terror’ at least creates some understanding that it is the manner of deploying violence that should be repudiated rather than the blackening of insurgent reputation. As terrorism is used on behalf of the state, even violence carefully directed at state structures and their human instrumentalities are called ‘terrorists.’ In any event, state terror calls attention to policies and practices, and does not purport to demonize the state itself, leaving open possibilities of diplomacy and reconciliation.

 

At the very least, it would be a salutary move to call for a moratorium on the use of the word ‘terrorist’ from this day forward. And as with the fierce ideological struggles over ‘genocide’ it is best to know when to be provocative so as to expose suppressed realities and when to be pacifying so as to calm the atmosphere raising hopes for compromise and a shift of energies in the direction of nonviolent struggle.

Armenians 1915: The Genocide Controversy

19 Apr

Armenia: The Genocide Controversy

 

Of the many current concerns associated with historic wrongs, none is more salient these days than the long simmering tensions between modern Turkey and the Armenian diaspora (and the state of Armenia). And none so convincingly validates the assertion of the great American novelist, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This year being the centenary of the contested events of 1915 makes it understandable that was simmering through the decades has come to a boil, with the anniversary day of April 24th likely to be the climax of this latest phase of the unresolved drama.

 

The Armenian red line for any move toward reconciliation has been for many years a formal acknowledgement by the Turkish government that the killings that occurred in 1915 should be regarded as ‘genocide,’ and that an official apology to the descendants of the Armenian victims should be issued by the top political leaders in Turkey. It is not clear whether once that red line is crossed, a second exists, this one involving Armenian expectations of reparations in some form or even restorations of property and territory. For now the battleground is over the significance of granting or withholding the G word from these momentous happenings. The utterance of this word, alone, seems the only key capable of unlocking the portals leading to conflict resolution, but it is a key that Turks across the political spectrum refuse to use.

 

What has recently raised the temperature on both sides is the clear alignment of Pope Francis with the Armenian demands. At a solemn mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on April 12th that was devoted to the centenary of the Ottoman killings of Armenian Christians Francis quoted with approval from the 2001 joint declaration of Pope John Paul II and the Armenian religious leader Karenkin II to the effect that these massacres in 1915 were “widely considered the first genocide of the 20th century.” The pope’s reliance upon an earlier declaration by a predecessor pontiff was interpreted by some Vatican watchers as a subtle indication of ‘restraint,’ showing a continuity of view in the Catholic Church rather than the enunciation of a provocative new position. Others equally reliable commentators felt that situating the label of genocide within a solemn mass gave it more authority than the earlier declaration with the 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, with likely more public impact. The unusual stature enjoyed by this pope who is widely admired the world over as possessing the most influential voice of moral authority, exerting a powerful impact even on non-Catholics, lends added significance to his pronouncements on sensitive policy issues. There are some in the Catholic community, to be sure, who are critical of this latest foray into this conflict about the application of the word genocide at a delicate time. For instance, the respected Vatican expert, Marco Politi, said that Pope Francis’s comment were typical of this pope who “uses language without excessive diplomatic care.”

 

For these very reasons of salience, one supposes, the Turkish response has been strident, involving some retreat from the more forthcoming statements made just a year ago by the then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In an apologetic and conciliatory speech addressed directly to the Armenian community Erdoğan in 2014 said: “May Armenians who lost their lives in the early twentieth century rest in peace, we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.” His language in 2015 reverts to a much harsher tone, in a pushback to Francis declaring that religious leaders make a ‘mistake’ when they try to resolve historical controversies. In an effort to constructive, Erdoğan restates the long standing Turkish proposal to open the Ottoman archives and allow a joint international commission of historians to settle the issue as to how the events of 1915 should most accurately be described, and specifically whether the term genocide is appropriate. Both Erdoğan and the current prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, continue to regard the core issue to be a historical matter of establishing the factual reality. The Turkish position is that there were terrible killings of the Armenians, but at a level far below the 1.5 million claimed by Armenian and most international sources, and mainly as an incident of ongoing warfare and civil strife in which many Turks also lost their lives, and hence it was an experience of mutual loss, and not ‘genocide.’

 

The almost internationally uncontested historical narrative is that the essential factual questions have settled: the Ottoman political leaders embarked on a deliberate policy of mass killings of the Armenians living in what is now modern Turkey. From this international consensus, the Armenians claim that it follows that Armenian victimization in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ the position endorsed and supported by Pope Francis, the European Parliament, and about 20 countries, including France and Russia. As might have been expected the NY Times jumped on the bandwagon by publishing a lead editorial with the headline, “Turkey’s Willful Amnesia,” as if was a matter of Ankara forgetting or a dynamic of denial, rather than is the case of selective perception, nationalism, and fears about the fragility of domestic political balance that explain Turkey’s seemingly stubborn adherence to a discredited narrative.

 

Yet there are weighty problems here, as well. The conclusion of ‘genocide’ is ambiguous. Not only did no such crime, labeled as such, exist in 1915, but there was not even the concept crystallyzed in this manner. Indeed the word was not coined until 1944 by Rafael Lemkin in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, written in reaction to the crimes of the Nazis. Lemkin’s text does indirectly lend support to the Armenian insistence that only by acknowledging these events as genocide is their true reality comprehended. Consider this often quoted passage from Lemkin’s book: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times in history. It happened to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action.”

 

From a Turkish perspective, it is notable that the Nuremberg Judgment assessing Nazi criminality avoids characterizing the Holocaust as genocide, limiting itself to crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. If in 1945 there was no legal foundation for charging surviving Nazi leaders with genocide, how can the crime be attributed to the Ottoman Turks, and how can the Turkish government be reasonably expected to acknowledge it. Also in the Nuremberg Judgment there is a clear statement to the effect that criminal law can never be validly applied retroactively (nulla poena sine lege). This principle is also embedded in contemporary international criminal law. That is, if genocide was not a crime in 1915, it cannot be treated as a crime in 2015. Yet from an Armenian perspective, this issue of criminality is tangential, and is not the ground on which the Turkish narrative rests. Both sides seem to agree that what is at stake is whether or not to characterize the events as ‘genocide,’ regardless of whether genocide was a distinct crime in 1915.

 

But here ambiguity abounds on this issue of criminality. The preamble of the Genocide Convention (1950) includes language compatible with the wider import of Armenian contentions: “Recognized in all periods of history that genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity.” In effect, that the reality of genocide long preceded the conclusion of the treaty. And even the premise of prior criminality is reinforced by Article 1: “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace, or time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and punish.” By using the word ‘confirm’ it would appear that the crime of genocide preexisted the use of the word ‘genocide’ invented to describe the phenomenon, and thus no persuasive jurisprudential reason is present to oppose redescribing the events of 1915 as an instance of genocide.

 

Such a discussion of the pros and cons of the legalities is far from the end of the debate. The pressure to call what happened to the Armenians as genocide is best understood as a pycho-political campaign to achieve an acknowledgement and apology that is commensurate with the magnitude of the historical wrong, and possibly to set the stage for a subsequent demand of reparations. The insistence on the label ‘genocide’ seeks to capture total control of the moral high ground in relation to the events by authoritatively associating the tragic experience of the Armenians with the most horrendous events experienced by others, and most particularly by the Jewish victims of Nazism. In this sense, although Nazis were not indicted at Nuremberg for genocide, the whole political effort to criminalize genocide as a crime was in reaction to the Holocaust, lending an initial credibility to the ‘never again’ pledge. In other words, only by calling the events of 1915 genocide can the issues of guilt and responsibility be resolved in accord with the Armenian narrative with sufficient gravitas. The Armenian claim is thus not to be understood as primarily expressive of a criminal law perspective, but reflects the key contention that what took place resembled what is prohibited by the Genocide Convention, and thus in this extra-legal sense is appropriately called ‘genocide,’ which functions as a way of concluding that the Armenians were victimized by the worst possible type of human behavior. And further, that no other word conveys this assessment as definitively as does ‘genocide,’ and hence the Armenian insistence is non-negotiable. Any step back from this posture would be interpreted as a further humiliation, thereby dishonoring the memory of those who suffered and opening the wounds of the past still further.

 

At present, both sides are locked into these contradictory positions. No way forward is apparent at present. Each side is hardening their positions, partly in retaliation for what they perceive to be the provocation of their adversary in the controversy. Erdoğan’s relatively conciliatory tone of 2014 has been replaced on the Turkish side by a relapse into defensiveness and denial, and the revival of the largely discredited nationalist version of the events in 2015 as a mutual ordeal. The Armenian campaign, in turn, has intensified, taking advantage of the centenary mood, and now given the strongest possible encouragement by Pope Francis. In this setting, it is to be expected that Armenians will mount further pressure on the U.S. Government, considered a key player by both parties, to abandon its NATO-oriented reluctance to antagonize Turkey by officially endorsing the view that what happened in 1915 should be acknowledged by Turkey as genocide. Barack Obama had assured the Armenian community during his presidential campaign that he believed that Armenians were victims of genocide in 1915 but has to date refrained from reiterating this position in his role as president.

 

The contextualization of this tension associated with the redress of a historical grievance is also an element in the unfolding story. There appears to be an Israeli role in deflecting Turkish harsh criticism of its behavior in Gaza by a show of strong support for the Armenian campaign. Then there is the peril in the region especially faced by Christians, the Yazidis (an ancient syncretist religion drawing on Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam, and believed by many Iraqi to be devil-worshipers) and non-Muslims, especially at risk from ISIS and other extremist groups seeking to ‘purify’ areas under their control in the Middle East. In this picture also is the rise of Islamophobia in Europe, as well as the moral panic created by the Charlie Hebdo incident and other post-9/11 signs that religiously induced violence is continuing to spread Westwards. When Pope Francis visited Turkey last November there was reported an agreement reached with Erdoğan that the Vatican would combat Islamophobia in Europe while Turkey would oppose any persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East.

 

I have known well prominent personalities on both sides of this Armenian/Turkish divide. More than twenty years ago I endorsed the Armenian position in talks and some writings. In more recent years, partly as a result of spending several months in Turkey each year I have become more sympathetic with Turkish reluctance to apologize and accept responsibility for ‘genocide.’ Among other concerns is the credible anxiety that any acknowledgement of genocide by Turkish leaders would unleash a furious right-wing backlash in the country imperiling social order and political stability. Aside from such prudential inhibitions there are on both sides of the divide deep and genuine issues of selective perception and identity politics that help maintain gridlock through the years, with no breakthrough in sight. Augmenting pressure on Turkey as is presently occurring is likely to be counter-productive, making the Turkish hard line both more mainstream and inflexible. Indicative of this is the stand of the main opposition leader, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu (head of the CHP) who seldom loses an opportunity to oppose the governing party on almost every issue, when it comes to the Armenian question is in lockstep solidarity with Erdoğan.

 

I see no way out of this debilitating impasse without finding a way to change the discourse. It serves neither the Armenians nor the Turks to continue this public encounter on its present path. The Turkish proposal for a historical joint commission is a bridge to nowhere as either it would reinforce the existing consensus and be unacceptable or the gridlock and be unacceptable. What might be more promising would be a council of ‘wise persons’ drawn from both ethno/religious backgrounds, and perhaps including some third parties as well, that would meet privately in search of shared understanding and common ground. A Turkish columnist, writing in this same spirit, proposes renewing the Erdoğan approach of 2014 by moving beyond sharing the pain to making an apology, coupled with offers of Turkish citizenship to the descendants of Armenians who were killed or diplaced in 1915.[See Verda Özer, “Beyond the Genocide Debate,” Hürriet Daily News, April 17, 2015] One possible formula that might have some traction is to agree that if what was done in 1915 were to occur now it would clearly qualify as ‘genocide,’ and that was done one hundred years ago was clearly genocidal in scale and intent. Perhaps, with good will and a realization that both sides would gain in self-esteem by a win/win outcome, progress could be made. At least it seems worth trying to use the resources of the moral imagination to work through with all possible good will a tangle of issues that has so long seemed intractable.

Pope Francis, Salman Rushdie, and Charlie Hebdo

20 Jan

 

 

(Prefatory Note: This post is a much modified piece published a few days ago in AlJazeera English, and republished elsewhere on line. As many have now done it tries to enlarge the context in which the Charlie Hebdo events are understood beyond a highlight film clip in ‘the war on terror.’ The alleged link between the Chouachi brothers and Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) allows the attack on Charlie Hebdo to be experienced as the French 9/11, and with this a return of France to a status of post-colonial geopolitical relevance. Without grasping the relevance of how the dominant treat the dominated within our societies and throughout the world, we are consigning ourselves to many repetitions of the private and public horrors experienced in France on January 7, 2015.)

 

 

There is some common ground, but not much. The killings in Paris last week were horrifying crimes that expose the vulnerability of democratic societies to lethal vigilante violence, whether facilitated from outside or as a spontaneous expression of homegrown psychopathic alienation. Beyond this naked, morbid reality associated with the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, police officers, and the supermarket hostages there is nothing but darkness, and in that darkness some dangerous monsters lurk.

 

We can be again thankful for the moral clarity of Pope Francis who a few days ago in the impromptu setting of a plane taking him from Sri Lanka to Manila shined a light upon the darkness. Unlike those who so ardently wielded the slogan “Je suis Charlie” the pope understood that free speech without limits is an invitation to indulge the worst negative impulses that will then operate as viruses destroying the vital organs of the body politic.

 

What Pope Francis underscored was the impossibility of reconciling dignity with hurtful insults, especially as directed toward the already marginalize and socially vulnerable. He illustrated his view by saying that if one of his companions on the plane, Dr. Alberto Gazparri a Vatican official, hurled obscene insults at his mother Gazparri could expect to receive a punch. The pope called such a physical response normal: “It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Perhaps, this is too strong an expression of limits, but it does indirectly raise the Derrida urgent question of how and whether we can ever learn to ‘live together’ in peace, with respect within globalizing social space, while swallowing differences of race, class, religion, ethnicity, gender.

 

Francis went on to say the obvious, that to kill in response to any provocation, however severe, hurtful, and lewd, is not compatible with religion properly understood. If it claims a religious motivation, such behavior is an expression of “deviant forms of religion.” He goes on to say “To kill in the name of God is an aberration.” At the same time, how lines are drawn with respect to acceptable and unacceptable forms of provocation is highly political, changeable, and culturally influenced and even constructed.

 

In one respect France and other governments understand both sides of this argument, but twist it for political purposes. The popular African comedian Dieudonné has been repeatedly charged with criminal offenses because his humoraous routines deeply offend Jews, Zionists, and Israel. He is being currently prosecuted in France for ‘defending terrorism’ It turns out that there are no less than 54 pending cases in the country associated with ‘condoning terrorism’ by way of speech. The Associated Press reports that despite present tensions and the public celebration of free speech the government in Paris has “ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and glorifying terrorism.” But note no message by the French government is sent mentioning ‘hate cartooning’ or addressing the surge of ‘Islamophobia’ in the country in the days following the January 7th attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial offices. A large number of mosques in France and elsewhere in Europe have been desecrated in the last week. There are numerous reports of harassment of Muslims as they walk the streets of the country, and indeed throughout Europe. It is understandable that the Muslim community as a whole feels on edge given the ambiguity of the ‘je suis Charlie’ fervor that includes a new press run of 5 million, compared to the former figure of 60,000, that features a cover demeaning the prophet Mohamed. The ambiguity arises because there is a merger of solidarity with the victims and their families after such a shocking attack and an endorsement of their depiction of the Muslim religion as depraved and degrading.

 

This kind of double standards toward these two kinds of hate speech performs a variety of insidious functions for the French state. It uses the language of ‘terrorism’ or ‘anti-Semitism’ to demonize its political enemies and ‘freedom of expression’ to insulate its political allies from any adverse consequences. It blends the criminalization of terrorist advocacy and anti-Semitism with public action taken in the face of strong criticisms of Israel, especially if proposes concrete nonviolent action as is the case for the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign. And it makes it even clearer to Muslims that they are fair game for Islamophobes and xenophobes. In effect, a French political community is being upheld that seeks to include Jews as valued and protected members while reinforcing the Muslim understanding that their residences and social standing can be fully understood by reference to the negatively imaged banilieus of the country depicted by the corrupted custodians of public virtue as virtual no-go zones for ordinary Frenchmen, and hazardous neighborhoods even for public officials and the police.

 

In the wake of these events, there is in the West the mainstream media has given a renewed prominence and sympathetic look back at the ordeals that Salman Rushdie endured after the publication of his satirical novel The Satanic Verses in 1988. Rushdie, appearing as a guest on Bill Maher’s talk show and delivering a lecture at the University of Vermont, understandably defended freedom of expression as an absolute right. His words, deeply felt, are worth heeding as the counterpoint to the views expressed by Pope Francis: “And so artists who to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance..At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that.” To speak as an ‘artist’ is not a warrant for hate speech that is directed at a group where there needs to be a balance struck between opposed societal values.

The context of Rushdie’s recent remarks was the Charlie Hebdo incident, but his outlook was intended to be sweeping in its generality as applicable to Islam in general. And yet he did not, nor did Bill Maher, pause to take note of those powerful forces in the West that have tried to shut down critics of Israel by shouting ‘anti-Semite’ at the top of their lungs. Some sensitivity to Jews is certainly appropriate as a social value in our post-Holocaust world, but such sensitivity should not be coupled with insensitivity to the victimization of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel. Without some degree of consistency it is difficult to consider clearly how societal balance should be struck in a given situation. The intermingling of East and West has given rise to deep grievances among many Muslims throughout the world, and calls attention to exploitative structures of political, economic, and cultural life within our world that link the domineering to the dominated, giving rise to desperate forms of resistance in response to despicable forms of domination by the powerful and rich.

 

It should not be surprising that the killers in Paris were moved to action by Abu Ghraib pictures portraying the torture and humiliations of Muslims held in American run Iraqi jails. In 2007 Chérif Kouachi said these words in a French court: “I was ready to go and die in battle. I got this idea when I saw injustices shown by television on what was going on over there. I am speaking about the torture that the Americans were inflicting on the Iraqi.” Was it wrong for Kouachi to be appalled? Was it wrong for him to want to act in support of his beliefs? What were his real life options? Of course, it was wrong to do what he did. As W.H. Auden wrote in a famous poem: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.” This is essence of blowback, a kind of warning to the rich and powerful to act justly. Yet we find the rich and powerful in denial, and so the vicious cycles of blowback persist in their fury.

 

What makes this confrontation so difficult to resolve is that it engages at least two truths, not the single one that has dominated public space. The essential beginning of ethical credibility is an insistence upon consistency. Either Rushdie and France have to uphold the freedoms of Dieudonné whose humor they find abhorrent as well as safeguard the publication of Charlie Hebd discriminating as between various ethnicities and religions in its midst when it comes to drawing lines between protecting the freedom of expression and punishing hate speech.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court long ago decided that free speech does not entitle someone to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. This is what courts are for, to draw these lines in specific cases, balancing opposing truths in the light of practicality and the evolving values of the community. What a judicial body had to say about race or homosexuality a century ago is different than what is says today. And as we in American know too well, the prevailing ideology among the justices is often of greater relevance in determining how such lines are drawn than are the legislative, constitutional enactment, and cultural norms being interpreted. In some respects, then, such determinations are more part of the problem than of the solution.

 

I find myself siding with the abstract sentiments of Pope Francis, but in sympathy with Rushdie’s view of minimizing the role of law and the state. In this respect, if we impose limits by way of government we are entering the domain of censorship. At the same time, we need to protect individuals and groups against malicious forms of defamation and hateful attacks on identities without confusing such protection with efforts to channel public awareness in certain prescribed directions. My own experience suggests that ‘freedom’ of this sort has been used by some pro-Zionist and pro-Israeli organizations to discredit and deter and criticism of Israel, and especially of Israeli state crimes victimizing the Palestinian people. In Rushdie’s case we need to protect his right to publish The Satanic Verses, while condemning the fatwa imposing a death sentence for blasphemy and apostasy, yet respecting the right, and possibly the duty, of non-Western political communities to prohibit distribution of such a book due to its provocative nature in certain civilizational settings.

 

Obviously, there are no cookie cutter answers. The proper limits are a matter of history, ethics, cultural priorities, political leadership, societal circumstances, and most of all, spiritual sensitivity. I feel that the central question is raised by Derrida’s inquiry into how we can learn to live together as well as possible, or at least better. For me living together, given the originality of our historical moment, involves the construction of overlapping communities of destiny—from family to world, with a major focus on national and sub-national political communities without forgetting the wholeness of humanity, our too often suppressed or distorted species identity. Such an undertaking needs to be combined with a greater effort to establish a global political community so that challenges posed by climate change, nuclear weaponry, infectious disease, religious and ethnic intolerance, world poverty, and societal marginalization can be addressed more effectively and humanely.

 

 

Pope Francis and Religious Cosmopolitanism

10 Jan

 

Points of Departure 

Perhaps, the most hopeful recent development in human affairs is the emergence of Pope Francis as the voice of global conscience. Although Francis speaks with papal authority to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, he also increasingly speaks with human authority to the rest of us. How significantly this voice will resonate might be viewed as the ultimate test as to whether ‘soft power’ is overcoming the geopolitical death dance that imperils the human species as never before.

 

When visiting occupied Palestine in May of 2014 Francis prayed at the notorious Israeli separation wall in Palestine that the World Court had ordered dismantled as unlawful back in 2004. The pontiff chose to pray near a scrawled graffiti that read ‘Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.’ While in the Holy Land Francis articulated what justice should mean in relation to the Palestinian reality: the pope called the existing situation ‘increasingly unacceptable,’ defied Israel by speaking of the ‘State of Palestine’ while touring the West Bank, and urged the establishment of a ‘sovereign homeland’ for the Palestinian people where there would be freedom of movement (so long denied). By this visit and declaration, Pope Francis indirectly underscored the ethical insight of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu that after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the great symbolic moral challenge directed at the conscience of humanity is the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people. Such an affirmation also confirms Francis’ credentials as an independent world leader who will not defer to Washington’s craven submission to Israel’s continuous trampling upon Palestinian rights.

 

More broadly, Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he is a critic of global inequality and of a capitalist world economic system that has produced ‘plunder of nature,’ a ‘frenetic rhythm of consumption,’ and worship of ‘the god of money.’ Above all, according to the German cardinal, Walter Kasper, this is a pope who “wants to lead faith and morality back to their original center” in authentic religious experience. Such leadership is definitely taking a form that is responsive to the array of unmet global challenges that threaten future harm to all peoples in the world, as well as to those most marginalized and vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. The spirit and substance of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry is clearly within the framework of the Roman Catholic tradition, but its outreach is essentially ecumenical, touching deeply all who care about spirituality, survival, and global justice.

 

The Failures of Secular Global Leadership

 

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 there was a hope throughout the world that he would provide the kind of inspirational leadership that could nurture political confidence in the human future. Surely, such expectations are the only conceivable explanation for awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize the following year while America was involved in two major wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq) and was pursuing a militarized foreign policy of global scope involving navies in every ocean, hundreds of overseas bases, and the potential weaponization of space. It still seemed plausible in 2009 to suppose that only a charismatic American leader possessed the will and ability to forge cooperative solutions serving the human interest in response to global challenges. The United States at its best managed to combine the pursuit of its national interests with some sense of responsibility for upholding global interests. This role was played by the United States with varying degrees of success. It has been a characteristic of world order since 1945.

 

In the months after his inauguration as president, Obama seemed to share this sense of historic mission by making in the Spring of 2009 rather visionary speeches in Prague proclaiming a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and then in Cairo about turning a new page in the Middle East, including exerting pressure on Israel to create finally the political basis for resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, all too soon it became apparent to all who observed the scene that Obama was a president committed to the continuity of American global power and influence, and not at all ready to engage in battles against entrenched forces that would be required to achieve global justice. On both the Middle East and nuclear weapons Obama quickly yielded to those who insisted on the absoluteness of Washington’s support for Israel and gradually showed his willingness to appease the American political establishment that was far more interested in modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal than considering prudent moves toward its abolition.

 

On a global scale, the failure of all efforts to heed the warnings of climate scientists to curb carbon emissions on an urgent basis or continue the trend toward global warming with dangerous intensifications of its attendant harms. Conference after conference each year under UN auspices have exhibited the inability of states to cooperate for the global common good to nearly the extent called for by a prudent response to what the scientists are saying about climate change. What prevails in these gatherings of over 190 states is the unwieldy interplay of national interests, and a grim recognition that the only practical way forward is to rely on the voluntary pledges of governments, and in doing so, abandoning the goal of imposing ‘common but differentiated’ legal obligations on all states. In effect, this shift to voluntary undertakings gives up any pretense of establishing an effective public order of climate protection. There is no doubt, as has been evident since the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the domestic political situation within the country makes it unrealistic to seek a responsible climate change treaty if it makes encroachments on national sovereignty, as it must, as well as likely on profit-making, economic growth, and employment. In effect, the structure of international society based on the interplay of sovereign states and market driven economic actors makes it politically impossible to reconcile patterns of global governance with upholding the human or global interest. This structural reality of statism has become more relevant given the inability of the United States to any longer possess credibility as the chief promoter of global interests of benefit to all peoples of the world.

 

There are also ideological resistances to acknowledging limits with respect to human activity, mainly associated with the persisting strength of nationalism as compared to competing transnational belief systems. As became evident as long ago as World War I, working class solidarity promoted by socialist values was no match nationalist sentiments supportive of European colonial interests overseas. In effect, political leaders of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, are products of political cultures that continue to be shaped by the predominance of nationalism. Such a reality underscores growing tension between the human exploitation of the natural environment and a variety of threats to ecological sustainability.

 

Pope Francis as an Agent of Global Revolution

 

It is precisely here that Pope Francis’ entry upon the scene has potential revolutionary consequences. In line with this, it seems entirely appropriate that his most concerted commitment to date is to awaken the world to the menace of global warming arising from unchecked climate change. The Vatican has announced the Pope’s intention to issue a major encyclical that will set forth an authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s thinking on climate change. This will be followed by a speech to the UN General Assembly in the Fall and after that, by a Vatican call for a global summit of religious leaders drawn from around the world. What the Pope brings to the table is a meta-political promotion of the human interest that has so far been absent from all efforts, including those of the UN, to meet global challenges. In this sense, mobilizing the pope’s Catholic base and reaching out to other religions is the kind of global leadership needed to have any prospect of fashioning the sort of robust response to climate change that is needed with growing urgency.

 

I have long believed that within each of the great world religions there exists an ongoing struggle between sectarian and universalist tendencies. Both tendencies can draw on their respective traditions to support contradictory claims about the nature of the core religious message. What is exciting about Pope Francis is that he seems to be moving the most globally constituted and influential world religion in a distinctly universalist direction at an historical time when such an orientation is directly related to building a positive future for the peoples of the world, and even more generally, for the human species and its natural habitat. Whether he is able to attract other religions to exert their influence in similar directions remains to be seen. As has been already observed, there are some influential doubters within his own Catholic hierarchy, seemingly threatened by his assaults on their bureaucratic positions of prestige (he has notably accused the Vatican Curia of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s and a ‘funereal face’) and privilege associated with its proper custodial role of administration and the protection of the traditions of the Church. Some forces within the Catholic hierarchy hostile to Pope Francis’ ministry are allied with predatory political and economic interests. It has also been reported, for instance, that the great majority of Christian evangelists are deeply suspicious of this pope’s emphasis on climate change as arising from human activities. They even accuse Francis of propagating a ‘false religion’ by undermining their religiously based belief that global warming and extreme weather are clear signs of an approaching apocalypse rather than being negative byproducts of a fossil fuel world economy.

 

There is a further concern. Even if the religious summit is a glowing success, it will not by itself exert a sufficient impact on the political system to get the job done, given the hegemony of the state structure of world order and its supportive nationalist ideology when it comes to the adoption of global policy norms. Overcoming statist resistance will only be brought about if religious pressures are backed up by a transnational mobilization of people, a popular movement that alters the political climate within which leaders of states act. We need to remember that even the most inspirational of religious leaders does not have access to the policy mechanisms at the disposal of sovereign governments that alone have the ability to solve problems through institutionalizing cooperative action. Only with a surge of bottom-up politics can there be mounted a sufficient challenge to status quo forces resistant to change.

 

Note should be taken of the relevance of the US-China Agreement (Novemeber 2014) to place certain modest limits on carbon emissions, less for the substance of what was agreed upon by these two governments that account for about 50% of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, then to illustrate that if a populist movement calls for change and is then reinforced by the top-down initiatives of the dominant geopolitical actors, it becomes much more likely that a prudent globally oriented policy on climate change will finally emerge. Most optimistically viewed, the US/China agreement could be a breakthrough if it heralds a recognition by these dominant political actors to combine their pursuit of national interests with assuming geopolitical leadership in defining and promoting the global interest, thereby merging 21st century humanism with geopolitics.

 

Of course, what makes Pope Francis’ presence on the global stage so welcome extends beyond climate change. It involves the entire gamut of global justice issues. It represents a dramatic move toward what might be described as ‘moral globalization.’ It challenges the statist character of world order, the nationalist hold on the political imagination, and the predatory manipulation by neoliberalism of our wants and desires. In the end, what is being offered is a spiritual and cosmopolitan alternative to human fulfillment and the meaning of life. Such a worldview is not presented through an exclusivist prism of Catholicism, but rather through a renewed nurturing of the deep roots of the human condition. These roots include a coevoultionary reenchantment of nature as the indispensable bio-political partner of humanity in the work of safeguarding this planet against the rising dangers of ecological implosion. Such a realignment of fundamental attitudes also involves subordinating the technocratic and calculative sides of modernity to more holistic cosmopolitanism. This will involve reestablishing contact with the deeper emotional and spiritual sides of our being mainly lost in the modern quest for a scientifically validated technocratic salvation.

 

At a time when there are many strident voices insisting that religion is irrelevant or worse, the example and messages of Pope Francis offer cosmopolitan hope. It has never been more important to counter the widely disseminated view that religion is inherently responsible for political extremism, and more destructively, to blame Islam as a religion for sociopathic violence when the culprits are Muslim. True, religious doctrine can be twisted to serve any values, however demonic, as can secularist thinking.

Pope Francis Visit to Palestine

26 May

 

 

            Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land raises one overwhelming question: ‘what is the nature of religious power in our world of the 21st century?’ ‘can it have transformative effects’?

 

            Media pundits and most liberal voices from the secular realm approve of this effort by Francis to seek peace through the encouragement of reconciliation, while dutifully reminding us that his impact is only ‘ceremonial’ and ‘symbolic’ and will not, and presumably should not, have any political consequences beyond a temporary cleansing of the political atmosphere.

 

            The June 6th prospect of Mahmoud Abbas and Shimon Peres praying together in the Vatican as a step toward a peaceful end of the long struggle is, I fear, an ambiguous sideshow. For one thing, Peres as President of Israel is about to leave the office, and in any event, his position exerts no discernible influence on the head of state, Benjamin Netanyahu, or the approach taken by Israel in addressing Palestinian concerns. It has long been appreciated that Peres is less than he seems, and beneath his velvet globe is a steel fist. Also, Abbas, although the formal leader of the Palestinian Authority and Chair of the PLO, is a weak and controversial leader who has yet to establish a unity government that includes Hamas, and finally provides political representation for the long suffering population of the Gaza Strip within global venues.

 

            Yet it would be a mistake to ignore the significance, symbolically and materially, of what Pope Francis’ visit to Palestine heralds. To begin with, just below the surface of what is avowed by words and style, is the contrast between the humility and sincerity of this religiously oriented initiative and the recently acknowledged breakdown of direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that was the ill-advised and contrived initiative of the U.S. Government, and became the personal project of the American Secretary of State John Kerry. In effect, the Pope epitomizes the moral and spiritual dimensions of the unresolved situation in Palestine while Kerry’s muscular diplomacy called partisan Alpha attention to the political dimensions.

 

            Undoubtedly more relevant is the degree to which Francis lent his weight to fundamental Palestinian grievances. By referring to the territory under occupation since 1967 as ‘Palestine,’ Francis affirmed the status conferred by the UN General Assembly in 2012, and since then angrily rejected by Tel Aviv and Washington. In doing so, Palestinian statehood was affirmed as a moral reality that should be endorsed by people and governments of good will everywhere, thereby strengthening the call of global solidarity.

 

            Most dramatically of all, by praying at the apartheid wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and bowing his head prayer while touching with his hand that hated metaphor of Israeli cruelty, illegality, and oppressiveness, Pope Francis has made an indelible contribution to the Legitimacy War of nonviolent resistance and emancipation that the Palestinian National Movement has waged with increasing militancy, and is being embraced throughout the world.

 

            Such moments of moral epiphany are rare in our experience of the torments afflicting the world. We need to remind ourselves that this pope has imparted a spirit of justice and spirituality. We are responding to his call because of who he is as well as what he is: his warmth, sympathy for the poor and oppressed, and identification with those brutally victimized by war. We are responding to the concreteness of his commitments and the actualities of his performances whether he points to the atrocities of war in Syria or the ordeal that has so long confronted the Palestinian people.

 

            The Pope challenges all of us to act as citizen pilgrims, having a personal responsibility to act as best we can against bastions of flagrant injustice. The Pope, the most universally acclaimed moral and spiritual authority figure on the planet has spoken by word and deed, and now it becomes our privilege to act responsively. By this means alone can we discover the ecumenical nature of religious authority in our times.