Tag Archives: racism

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

26 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This post was originally published on March 22, 2017 by The Nation under the title “The Inside Story of Our UN Report Calling Israel an Apartheid State,” the text of which can be found at this link: https://www.thenation.com/article/the-inside-story-on-our-un-report-calling-israel-an-apartheid-state/ What is below is somewhat modified.]

 

 

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

 

Six months ago, the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) asked Virginia Tilley and me to write a study examining the applicability of the international criminal law concept of apartheid to Israel’s policies and practices toward the Palestinian people. We were glad to accept the assignment, and conceived of our role as engaging in an academic undertaking. ESCWA, one of several UN regional commissions, requested the study as a result of an uncontested motion adopted by its 18 Arab member governments.

Almost within hours of its release on March 15, our report [bearing the title “Israel’s Practices Toward the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid”] was greeted by what can only be described as hysteria and derision. The newly appointed US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, denounced the report and demanded that the UN repudiate it. The newly elected Secretary General, Antonió Guterres, quickly and publicly called for ESCWA to withdraw the report from its website, and when Rima Khalaf, the head of the commission, resisted, Guterres insisted. Rather than comply, Khalaf resigned, explaining her reasons in a gracious, principled letter to the Secretary General, an eloquent expression of public conscience that is itself extremely rare in UN experience and worthy of the most favorable notice and commentary. [for text of letter see Soon thereafter, the report was withdrawn from the commission’s website, despite containing a very clear disclaimer at its outset noting that the report represents the views of its authors and not necessarily that of ESCWA or the UN.

 

What is striking about this pattern of action and reaction, which resembles in many respects the US government response to the Goldstone Report (the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict of 2008-9), is the degree to which Israel’s officials and supporters, in response to criticism, have sought to discredit and wound the messenger rather than address the message by offering a detailed substantive explanation and defense. Each time such a technique succeeds in this mission of discrediting, wounding, and diverting attention the role of the UN as a promoter of the public good is weakened, and the Organization becomes rather an instrument by which dominant geopolitical forces assert their will at the expense of truth, reason, and human wellbeing.

 

Virginia Tilley, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a leading world expert on apartheid, and I, as well as ESCWA, would welcome substantive discussion and critical feedback, and we had hoped that our analysis and conclusions would provide the basis for debate, dialogue, and further consideration of the recommendations appended at the end. ESCWA, for its part, took steps to ensure that the report lived up to scholarly standards, submitting the draft text to three prominent international jurists, who had been anonymously solicited to offer objective vetting. Each submitted a strong positive appraisal along with suggestions for revision, which we gratefully incorporated before the final text was released. Against this background, it is irresponsible for government officials and others to dismiss our report as a biased polemic, and to do so damages the authority of the UN and respect for international law.

 

It is also misleading to do what the American and Israeli diplomats did, as well as the media– treating this study as if a report officially endorsed by the UN. Such treatment overlooks the disclaimer on the opening page of the report, which clearly states that the analysis and interpretations presented are those of the authors alone, and are not to be attributed to the UN. In effect, it is a document initiated by a UN agency, appraised for quality by reference to scholarly standards, but not adopted nor even endorsed at this point, although this might happen in the future, a step we as authors would welcome.

 

During my tenure as the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories (2008-14), I witnessed how defenders of Israel attempted to discredit critics. My reports in that post often included sharp criticisms of Israel and other actors, ranging across various topics including defiance of international law, unlawful expansion of settlements, excessive use of force, and complicity of international corporations and banks that do business for profit with the settlements, and others. To my surprise, I never received substantive pushback regarding these specific allegations, but I did have the unpleasant experience of having my words on completely unrelated issues torn out of context, and brought to the attention of UN high officials and important diplomats representing member states. Among my harshest critics were not only the usual ultra-Zionist NGOs, but also Barack Obama’s diplomats at the UN, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power, as well as then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I mention this personal experience only to note that it falls into a longstanding pattern of diversionary rebuttal that prefers to smear rather than engage in reasoned debate about the important issues of law and justice at stake.

 

The international crime of apartheid was authoritatively specified in the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. The main elements of the crime consist of deliberate and systematic acts of racial discrimination with the purpose of maintaining unlawful structures of racial domination, that is, a dominant race subjugating another race. Our report also considered whether, in the context of inquiring into the presence of apartheid, it was appropriate to consider Jews and Palestinians as distinct races; we found that there were abundant grounds for doing so. As our report shows, “race” in this legal context is treated as a socially and politically constructed category developed to identify a distinct people. It has no necessary correlation with biogenetic realities, which in this case actually shows an overlap between Jews and Palestinians.

 

Even Palestinian citizens of Israel, who can vote and form political parties, are subject to many discriminatory laws that impair security and the quality of life. The report also proceeds from the proposition that whether apartheid exists or not depends on the overall treatment of the Palestinian people as a whole, and not by accepting the fragmentation that has been imposed by Israel. Adopting what we believe to be an innovative methodology, we approached this challenge by dividing the Palestinians into four domains that correspond to the manner in which Israel has exercises its authority over the course of many decades, although the specific tactics of control vary through time. In the past, a thorough study by international law scholars found that Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories are consistent with apartheid [See Virginia Tilley, ed., Beyond Occupation: apartheid, colonialism and international law in the occupied Palestinian territories [Pluto: London, 2012]. It called attention to the discriminatory treatment of Palestinians, who are subject to military administration as compared to the Jewish settler population, which enjoys the full benefit of the rule of law as it is observed in Israel in relation to Jewish nationals. That study found that “settler-only roads,” dual legal systems, and the draconian separation of the two populations into regions on the basis of race hallmarks of apartheid. Repressive practices that have made the lives of ordinary Palestinians a daily ordeal are a core dimension of this racially organized system of control. It should be also noted that according to preferred readings of international law, penalizing and criminalizing nonviolent forms of resistance to apartheid itself constitutes the crime of apartheid.

 

A second domain investigated in the report involves Palestinians who are residents of Jerusalem. Here the apartheid character of Israeli rule is exhibited in the way the government of Israel severely undermines the human security of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, manipulating their rights of residence as well as imposing a variety of discriminatory practices, ranging from fiscal measures, demolitions, to the arbitrary withholding of building permits.

 

The third domain deals with the Palestinian minority living in Israel, perhaps the most problematic component in terms of establishing a definition of apartheid that encompasses the entire Palestinian population. In this category are some 1.7 million citizens of Israel, who are allowed to form political parties and vote in elections. But this minority, which makes up about 20 percent of the overall Israeli population, is prohibited by law from challenging the proclaimed Jewish character of the state and is subject to a wide range of discriminatory nationality laws as well as administrative practices that severely restrict their rights, with effects on land acquisition, property, immigration, family reunification, and marital freedom.

International law has detached apartheid from its South African origins; it’s now a stand-alone crime against humanity that does not stand or fall by whether it contains similar features to those that constituted the apartheid regime in South Africa.

 

A fourth domain, and the one affecting the largest demographic segment, is made up of Palestinians registered as refugees by UN procedures or living under conditions of involuntary exile. In the background is Israel’s rejection of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948), which confirms that Palestinians dispossessed or displaced by Israel in 1948 enjoy a right of return. General Assembly Resolution 3236 declares this right of return or repatriation to be an “inalienable right,” which thus presumably incorporates those additional several hundred thousand Palestinians later displaced by the 1967 war. As far as is known, no Palestinian displaced since the establishment of Israel in 1948 has been granted a right of return to resume residence.

 

The report argues that the crime of apartheid has been detached from its historical origins in South Africa. Neither the 1973 Convention nor the 1998 Rome Statute underlying the International Criminal Court ties apartheid to South Africa, but rather treats its practice as a stand-alone crime against humanity. Thus, there are important differences between the way apartheid operated in South Africa and the way it is currently being imposed on the Palestinians, but these differences are not relevant to the question of whether it fairly and accurately applies to Israel. One notable difference is that in South Africa the Afrikaner leadership forthrightly proclaimed apartheid as a reflection of its ideological belief in the separation of races, whereas for Israel such a structure of separation on the basis of race is denied and repudiated, and its attribution is treated as an inflammatory insult. There are other differences as well, relating to degrees of labor dependence and the demographic ratio between Jews and Palestinians.

 

This quasi-permanent structure of domination cannot be justified or explained by reference to Israel’s legitimate security needs.

Our report concludes that Israel has deliberately fragmented the Palestinian people in relation to these four demographic domains, relying on systematic discrimination, including “inhuman acts,” primarily to maintain its control and render resistance more difficult, while continuing to expand territorially at the expense of prospects for Palestinian self-determination. On the basis of these findings—backed up by detailed presentations of empirical data, including reliance on Israeli official sources—we conclude that the allegation of apartheid as applied to the Palestinian people is well founded and descriptive of the present situation, more so than the terminology of occupation.

 

As earlier suggested, we are keenly aware that our report is the work of academic investigators and does not represent an authoritative finding of apartheid by a formal judicial or governmental institution. As mentioned—contrary to media coverage and diplomatic denunciations—the report has never been endorsed or accepted by the UN, or even ESCWA. We do recommend such an endorsement, and we urge the UN, national governments, and civil society to take measures designed to encourage Israel to dismantle its apartheid regime and treat the Palestinian people in accord with the dictates of international law and human rights, as well as elementary morality.

 

The broader setting associated with our contention that Israel has become an apartheid state draws on the reality that there is no peaceful resolution to the conflict on the diplomatic horizon, and thus no foreseeable prospect for ending the discriminatory regime and the attendant suffering of the Palestinian people. This quasi-permanent structure of domination cannot be justified indefinitely by invoking Israeli security needs, which are themselves partly created by the unwillingness of Israel to respect Palestinian rights under international law. A people cannot be permanently repressed in by military force and administrative coercion ways without viewing the structure that has emerged as an apartheid regime. Indeed, part of the reason for not awaiting a more formal assessment of these charges of apartheid is our sense of urgency in ending a set of arrangements that have for so long been responsible for so much suffering and denial of basic rights, above all the right of self-determination.

 

It remains our central hope, one shared with ESCWA, that the widespread availability of this report will lead to a clearer understanding of the Palestinian plight and encourage more effective responses by the UN, by governments, and by civil society. Beyond this, it is our continuing wish that people of good will throughout the world, especially within Israel, will work toward a political solution that will finally allow Jews and Palestinians to live together in peace, with justice.

 

 

 

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A Somewhat Anguished Open Letter to Blog Subscribers

4 Mar

 

In recent weeks, once again this website has been dominated by polarized debate about the relations between Israel and Palestine. My affinities in this debate are clear, but it has become for me and most others who share my viewpoint a very unproductive process. It reminds me of the sort of venom on display in the Republican primary struggle to select a presidential candidate, and at this point, the secondary struggle to offset the proto-fascist surge of Trump-mania that promises to make the choice of the next American leader a perverse and masochistic form of entertainment. This will be a tragedy not only for America, but for the world, considering the reality of its self-anointed role as the first global state in human history, and the implications this has for who is chosen to lead such a country.

 

I realize that such a free association is off point. What I want to express is that I have found the many comments contributors supporting Israel, while granting their sincerity, to resemble my experience in South Africa during the 1960s. In 1965 I spent the year in The Hague as an international law advisor to the Ethiopian and Liberian team in the South West Africa Cases being argued at the International Court of Justice. I learned many things, including being impressed and appalled by the skill and dogmatic convictions of the South African legal team in making their moral and legal case for apartheid, which I had previously uncritically viewed as a vicious form of racism that was not worth arguing about. It was not that I found these proponents of apartheid convincing, but it was my first experience of how ideological closure in the defense of a horrible situation can allow decent and intelligent people, pursuing their own social and material interests, to align themselves with what appeared to me to be a depraved structure of power and exploitation.

 

When I went to South Africa in 1968 to be an official observer at a political trial of activists in South West Africa, now Namibia, this dual experience of confrontation was deepened: with apologists for the apartheid regime and with those being victimized by it. I was told by the apologists a variety of things: “you don’t live here, and have no right to criticize what we do,” “blacks are better off here than elsewhere in Africa,” “it is either us or them, our survival is at stake,” “those who oppose apartheid are terrorists,” “we have brought prosperity and order to South Africa,” and on and on. My experience of the victimization of the African majority told, of course, a different story, one of fear, poverty, degradation, hardship, and the role of law in the service of oppression and degrading double standards.

 

I am not saying that the reality of Israel/Palestine relations are identical to those of apartheid South Africa, but there are essential similarities, including South African claims at the time of being a constitutional democracy governed according to the rule of law. There are also vast differences of history and circumstances, and the path to a just solution is very different, but the nature of debate between apologists for the status quo and its critics is sufficiently similar to make the comparison relevant and instructive.

 

While teaching at Princeton I agreed to debate a prominent American apologist for apartheid in an event sponsored by a conservative campus group. My opponent, an editor at the National Review with a Dutch background, made all the familiar pro-apartheid arguments in a cogent, even passionate form, and I angrily countered them, feeling afterwards ashamed that I had lost my poise having become so outraged by the distortions he was telling a mainly uninformed young student audience. It convinced me that such a debate, while sometimes captivating for its fireworks, is not the sort of communication and dialogue that I find worthwhile.

 

I have reached the same conclusion on several occasions with respect to the comments section of this blog. Over these years I have constantly vacillated between ignoring and engaging with the hostile and dogmatic comments submitted by Israeli apologists, which have frequently included nasty allegation or innuendo questioning my integrity and identity, and demeaning in various ways those who agreed with me. Such a dialogue of the deaf is repetitive, wasteful, hurtful, and initiates an intellectual race to the bottom.

 

I have been admittedly inconsistent in response, sometimes preferring a laissez-faire approach, sometimes monitoring to keep out personal insults and extremist views. I am a strong proponent of freedom of expression, although I have always found varieties of hate speech, including spurious allegations of anti-Semitism, to be troublesome and damaging. At the same time, while open to a wide divergence of views in the public square, I do not feel any obligation to invite those whose views I abhor to my home. A personal website is neither the public square nor a private dwelling, and that makes the issue messier, and undoubtedly explains why wavering between ‘openness’ and ‘boundaries.’

 

When a newspaper has opinion pieces and a comments section the case for extending the ethos of free speech is stronger, but not as convincing as it might appear on first glance. The Al Jazeera English comments section is dominated by vituperative and

hostile exchanges, polarizing and irrelevant debate and name calling, and rarely instructive. A personal blog site, even if addressing politically sensitive issues, seems to be justified in seeking to impose certain boundaries on what is acceptable. The goal is ‘productive conversation,’ which ideally would be hospitable to very divergent interpretations. I have always felt that I often learn most from those with whom I disagree, provided that these adversaries exhibit respect for the authenticity of my different experience and understanding.

 

These reflections leads me to once more adopt a more interventionist approach to comments submitted to this blog site. My goal is ‘productive conversation’ on a range of topics, and not limited to the Israel/Palestine agenda important that this is to me. I have enjoyed and benefitted from comments on a variety of issues, but rarely with respect to polar confrontations between Israel’s apologists and critics. With reluctance, but temporary resolve, I have decided to block comments that are written in a polarizing rhetoric or impugn the motives of Israel’s critics. It is

certain that the regular comment writers who I am categorizing as apologists for Israel will be offended, but I encourage them to go elsewhere. There are a variety of Zionist and pro-Israeli websites that are completely one-sided in ways they would find unproblematic, receiving either no critical comments or filtering out any that are out of tune with the spirit of the website.

 

On the basis of past experience, I have no illusions that this restrictive turn will work over time to improve the quality of discussion in the comments section, but I feel it is worth a try, and ask those who agree to be active, making it happen, providing that productive conversation on controversial issues is possible and useful.

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. 

Living in the 21st Century

13 Aug

(Prefatory Note: The following post is more personal than is my natural mode of communicating on this website. I hope it causes no offense. It is confessional to the extent of acknowledging my own surroundings of digital devices that while liberating in some respects are repressive in others. To sustain our freedom under these ‘postmodern’ conditions requires the rechristening of meditative intelligence (as distinct from the instrumental rationality that acted as wet nurse of the ‘modern.’)

 

Living in the 21st Century

 

 

Ever since I read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen I have been haunted by the suggestive resonance of its opening line: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Of course, Rankine allows this quietness to evoke her anguishing memories of past subtle racist slights that are the hurtful daily experiences of embedded racism that has for centuries undermined the normative pretensions of ‘civilization,’ not only here in the United States, but globally. Recently, a series of police atrocities throughout America has reminded us ever so forcefully that the election of an African American as president did not mean the end of racism, but alarmingly, an ugly new beginning, an apt occasion for the emergence of Black Lives Matter.

 

It is the first part of Rankine’s sentence that speaks so simply, yet so responsively, to the circumstance of our 21st century reality, our struggles with loneliness while treasuring the self-discoveries that are uniquely dependent on reflective solitude. What Rankine is telling us is that digital modernity has diminished our capacity to be creatively alone and sufficiently sensitive to the arts of self-discovery. She is instructing us that we need to be so tired that we even refrain from turning on any of our devices, presumably a rare occasion given modern life styles. These devices, whether TV, I-Pad, smart phone, and others have often been our principal nurturing experience, fill our empty hours, usually with distractive and repetitive forms of emptiness. Accordingly, if we find ourselves alone and in bed, without electronic or human others, we should gratefully recognize the occasion as fit for self-exploration. That is, make the best possible use of this precious state of consciousness situated precariously between our devices and our need for sleep. The word ‘even’ in Rankine’s sentence is strategic here, suggesting the abnormality of this condition, yet the second part of the sentence promises rewards that follow from letting “yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows.” Yet also because strong sleepiness is part of the scene, there is always the risk of losing wakefulness, losing oneself in sleep to avoid the often painful realizations of exploring what lies below the surface of our mindless immersion in the lifeworld of daily experience.

 

In effect, most of us, whether consciously or not, have bargained away most of our inner selves in exchange for the enjoyments, evasions, and mysteries of pervasive connectivity that brings us our favorite music, encourages our wildest phantasies through dating and social networks that merge potentialities with cravings, freely accesses information and people anywhere on the planet, lets virtual reality blur the boundaries between experience and imagination, sometime playfully, sometimes maliciously. And all the while, the drones do signature targeting and the war planners are busy beyond their wildest dreams relying on our taxes and passivity!

 

While digital connectivity simultaneously pacifies and activates, treacherous demonic forces are unwittingly devising the extinction of the species while pursuing their own deluded visions of ultimate deliverance. The restorative energies of normalcy and moderation have almost vanished, yet we go on with our work and play as if the future is not in severe jeopardy. Or if not entirely distracted by the immediacies of everyday life, we escape into one or another extremism, whether it be religious or anti-religious, new age or materialist. Lingering in our personal past may evoke memories we need to compose a better grasp on our private life, but to meet the public challenges that are threatening human destiny in pools of swirling dark waters, we need to learn quickly to master the rigors of long distance swimming against menacingly strong currents.

 

What most of us can no longer even imagine is life without our devices! I thank Claudia Rankine for this devastating insight into the perilous human condition of our time, whether private or public, individual or collective. Without it, we would be truly lost. With it, there are glimmers of hope, struggle, emancipation.

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.’

My Tribute to Serena Williams

5 Feb

My Tribute To Serena Williams    

 

There have been so many reminders in the past few months that racism remains alive in America that it is worth celebrating an occasion of its transcendence. I am referring to the announcement that Serena Williams,likely to be remembered as the greatest woman tennis player ever, has announced her return to the Indian Wells tournament after a 14 year boycott.Beyond her consummate skill and competitive exploits as a durable champion, I have always found Serena gracious, humble, generous to her opponents, full of fun, and as magnetic off the court as she is domineering and fierce while playing.

 

The boycott was her reaction to a hostile crowd reaction in Indian Wells back in 2001 when an injury to her sister, Venus, led to her withdrawal from a semifinal match in the tournament when they were scheduled to play one another. Many in the crowd assumed that the cancellation was arranged between the siblings, and shouted racist taunts from the stands during the finals that were directed at her father and then coach, Richard Williams and Venus when they entered the stadium to watch Serena play. Despite the taunting by the crowd, accompanied by racist slurs, Serena nevertheless prevailed in the match. She calls this experience one of the darkest in her long career, remembering the many tears that she shed after it was over, and being reminded at the time of her father’s stories of growing up amid a racist atmosphere in the South. She recollects her feelings with these words: “I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.” Her boycott of Indian Wells seemed both self-protective, and in a sense punitive, depriving this high profile tournament of two of its star attractions (as Venus also refused to play).

 

In a story in the NY Times (Feb 4, 2014) written by Christopher Clarey, Serena explains her decision as partly prompted by a film on the life of Nelson Mandela that taught her the healing benefits of forgiveness. It was this sentiment that she mentions as the basis of the decision, which was enthusiastically welcomed in the most affirming way by those tennis officials associated with the tournament, including its billionaire sponsor, Oracle chief Lawrence Ellison. Of course, a cynic would dismiss this kind of reaction as purely driven by commercial considerations, giving the tournament at Indian Wells to be played in March 2015 greater prestige and commercial success. Undoubtedly these motives were in the mix, but I believe that for mainstream America there has been an important shift away from the sort of racist responses that Serena Williams encountered in 2001. Call it ‘political correctness’ or a change of heart, but I believe it exhibits a deeper cultural appreciation that this form of racism directed at African Americans is no longer ethically, socially, and politically acceptable. Of course, to some extent this brand of racism has been displaced and replaced by a new racist menace, that of Islamophobia.

 

By returning to Indian Wells Serena Williams has made the double point of at once acknowledging the pain of her past victimization and the healing power of forgiveness. It is one more stage in her remarkable journey that started in the harshness of the racially segregated and impoverished Compton neighborhood Los Angeles. It is a journey that is personally moving for me. My mother was a highly ranked tennis player for fifteen years at a time when African Americans were excluded altogether, and also making me aware of the rigors of training and discipline that such a life of athletic dedication requires. Beyond this, for me tennis (and squash) was my daily therapy for many decades, and the source of several enduring friendships—certainly cheaper, more enjoyable, and even more effective than what most professional therapists have to offer. And so I take this moment to thank Serena Williams for who she is and what she has done for herself, and for all of us, especially for those of us who love the game of tennis.