Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Baby steps to the revolution

And stumbles on the way

Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it,” says Arundhati Roy. “To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we are being brainwashed to believe.

“The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

“Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”

Thank you, Arundhati Roy. This should be our mantra.

But we also have our bad moments when we forget where we are headed, forget what we are trying to do. I have had such moments, moments when I should have been channeling Arundhati Roy. Or channeling any one of a thousand other activists I have known who did not believe that the obligation to make change was somehow a personal obligation, an outcome on which they personally would have been judged. But we all have our bad moments, moments in which our frustration and confusion leads us to the conclusion that we, as individuals have failed. Our egos get in the way.

I recall just such a missed opportunity. At the time, I might have said, channeling Ms. Roy, something like this:

“So tell a story—any story—that shares your vision of what ought to be, of what real justice looks like, of why you resist, of who you remember, who you honor, what you hold sacred, of the community that sustains you.”

But I didn’t.

That moment, which has stuck with me, came a little more than a decade ago. I was the publisher of In These Times (ITT), a left-wing magazine based in Chicago. A few years before that I had been, with Marrianne McMullen, the co-publisher of an alternative weekly originally named the Dayton Voice, later Impact Weekly.

I was not generally a person who could be relied on to focus on a task until it was done, but some of Marrianne’s motivation and work ethic had rubbed off on me, and together, and with a cadre of dedicated staff, we had pushed the Voice more or less forward for seven years.

Our explicit mission was to select, report, edit and publish stories that treated working people, women, communities of color and the LGBTQ community as legitimate subjects, sources and audiences for the news. We did not always succeed in this mission, but as a staff we tried to remain mindful of our goal. The larger reality of the paper, editorial consistency or no, was that as an entrepreneurial effort, the Voice was permanently (and fatally) undercapitalized.

Designed to be a for-profit enterprise, we did not have donors, but investors, who were never rewarded with profits. More often, they were the targets of desperate appeals to “invest” more. But our editorial ambition consistently outran the resources available to support it. Never flush to begin with, Marrianne and I went broke trying to hold up our end of the financial bargain. By the time our son, Brendan, was born in December 1998, I had fallen into the habit of sometimes covering expenses, occasionally an entire payroll, with credit cards.

We staggered through another year with the paper, but spent part of the time looking for jobs that would pay us. Eventually, Marrianne found a position in Chicago with the Illinois State Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Soon after we moved, I found a job, too. Together, and for a couple of years, Marrianne and I made more than five or six times what we had been able to pay ourselves at the Voice, had benefits, good health insurance, paid down debt, and managed, with next to no down payment, to buy ourselves a place to live.

Then I took the job with In These Times, an estimable publication on the left, but one that required a constant transfusion of funds from reliable donors, especially from its founder, James Weinstein. As it happened Weinstein was nearing the end of his life and tiring of the magazine’s inability to provide for itself. As publisher, my principle task was to correct that condition, but, though I made a few smart moves to keep the magazine going, I ended up using funds that Weinstein had intended for another use, pissed off the entire Weinstein family, and alienated several other donors along with virtually the entire board of directors.

Into the bargain, and without telling Marrianne, I used my personal credit cards to inject thousands of additional dollars into the ITT operation without creating a proper paper trail to account for what I gave. With the magazine in bad shape, the board arrived at the defensible conclusion that I had done far more harm than good and fired me with a warning that I should make no claims on the magazine to repay loans that I could not conclusively document.

Despite the two-year debacle that constituted my term as publisher at In These Times, I have to say that I learned more than just a few grim lessons while I was there. In fact, I met a long list of skilled and passionate writers and activists, and got to participate in a variety of ways in valuable discussions about defining and working for social change.

One of my more instructive experiences came in the spring of 2004 with the opportunity to meet with a journalism class at Northwestern University. The class kicked off with my overview of high-priority peace and justice issues of the time.

This included a long look at the preparations for war in Iraq, especially the accusation that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction (WMDs),” and a further look at the massive loss of Iraqi lives and destruction of civilian infrastructure that accompanied the war when it was finally launched in March of 2003. In discussing the war, I also observed that the global anti-war movement, which had been celebrated as the largest and most significant anti-war mobilization in history, had failed to stop the war, though it may have succeeded in keeping a few European countries from joining in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Other topics I covered with the class included the anemic economic “recovery” of the time and the continuing erosion of the purchasing power of the average wage, and the fact that the United States imprisoned a larger percentage of its population than any other country in the world and targeted, in particular, young black men, at a considerable cost in lives, treasure and human potential.

These problems, I observed, were linked. A country whose leadership manufactured non-existent weapons and argued that an enemy with an imaginary capacity for destruction could only be stopped by going to war, was also a country that would logically underfund public education, neglect crucial domestic investments, embrace climbing prison populations as an economic development strategy, and ignore widespread environmental damage in favor of laying waste to several countries in the Middle East.

By the time I concluded my indictment of the policies and political leadership of the country, the class of aspiring journalists was pumped, ready to do their part in the work of exposing fundamental problems with our politics. One student raised her hand and asked a broad general question along the lines of “what can we do about all this bad stuff?”

I should have been ready for the question. I had written stories and op-eds for In These Times and The Voice about the movement for social change that I thought was developing across the country and manifesting in a variety of ways. I had been part of any number of union and community organizing efforts and worked on a variety of political and issue-oriented campaigns. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I had even run for public office. Ordinarily, I was an optimistic sort, seeing in every initiative and every new organizing effort the potential to make a significant difference, to connect to and support suddenly promising movements for social change.

Nevertheless, the question threw me off. I looked out at the classroom of 20-somethings and felt a wave of despair. For more than 35 years, I had been organizing, writing, protesting, above all, believing that together we, the people, were finally on our way. But we were nowhere.

We hadn’t stopped the war in Iraq. Hell, we hadn’t stopped the one that had begun in Afghanistan two years earlier. The rate at which Americans were being thrown into prison had been increasing for two decades. Wages had been stagnating since the 1970s. Industrial unions were collapsing. And the presidential election of 2000 had been outright stolen from Al Gore, who was nothing more than a centrist Democrat who seemed overmatched by the son of the man who, in Texas Governor Ann Richards phrase, “had been born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”

What could they do to fix things? At that moment, somehow focused only on myself and the notion that I had been on a very long losing streak, I forgot completely that I was part of an effort much larger than myself. I had no answer. I felt the weight of failure. I got nothing I told them. I wish I could tell you what to do. I’m sorry.

The air went out of the room. The instructor tried to save what was left of the class. Well, thank you, she said and shook my hand. As I walked out the door, I could hear her try and refocus. “Well, what do you think we can do?” she asked.

I don’t know how the class ended. I never talked to the instructor, again. And I’ve returned to that terrible moment over and over in the years since. What can we do about all this bad stuff?

Oddly, I do have an answer to that question. I’ve always had an answer, even if there are also times when the question catches me standing there, looking like a deer in the headlights.

The first part of the answer is that the changes we want to make are big changes. They happen when people organize and don’t give up. They happen when people pursue justice, bit by bit, with and for their own communities. The big changes depend on the little things that each of us do. They happen because we commit to be part of something larger than ourselves. They happen when we build something that will outlast our own efforts. That will endure and continue the work when we have nothing left to give.

Individually, we don’t leave much of a mark. Our own footprints will get washed away. But we should join hands and join up and build something larger than ourselves, something that will leave a mark. Work with groups and organizations that will multiply our aspirations and leverage our energy. Support groups that will move ahead, even when we are feeling a bit feeble and very alone.

What would I tell those young journalists now? I’d say, excuse my moment of brain freeze. I’d say, reach out. Find allies. Build networks. I’d tell them I have my own list of organizations that I try to help, that I support with contributions, whose stories and positions I try to amplify, groups that don’t falter, that have an institutional existence that helps to aggregate the individual energy that each of us can add to their work, that will persist when we are tired, that will move ahead even we are not there.

If they were to ask what groups are on my list, I would say my list includes the Equal Justice Initiative, Planned Parenthood, Jobs withJustice, The Center for Economic and Policy Research, Jewish Voices for Peace, the North Carolina NAACP, and the group with which I currently volunteer, Teaching for Change. But I would add that the possibilities are endless. At the time, I would also have mentioned In These Times, of course, and maybe it should be on my list today. It has a decent on-line following, still reports important stories, and offers a perspective that is reliably at odds with the mainstream media.

Maybe my list should also include some more self-consciously revolutionary groups, as well—they are certainly out there—but I have this feeling that not only will the revolution not be televised, we won’t really know it’s upon us until it’s actually the new world we are living in. In other words, I don’t believe that there are any giant steps we can take to change the world. It’s all baby steps, a little bit at a time. It’s two steps forward, one step back, at best, and sadly, from time to time it’s two steps back, or even three. But we can make that work. We have to make that work. We build something, something small to carry on after our energy runs out. We play a long game and the moral arc of the universe will bend our way.

And, I would say, you journalists. You tell the stories that need to be told, that will help us make the choices we need to make about peace and justice and sustainability.

Go find the truth and tell it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Happy 55th, Marrianne

Loving the Case girls was gift to all of us

August 14, 2015

Today is your 55th birthday, Marrianne, and, on this day I want to publicly share my own testimony of respect and love for you.

I know I don’t need to say I love you. You know that.

Our friends and family know who you are, too, know that they can rely on you to be present when they need you. They know they can count on you to listen, to support, to comfort, to counsel, to give fully and not to demand more than they can give back. None of that requires repeating, either.

Your colleagues, past and present, know you will fully invest in the work that needs to be done, pursue just outcomes, and follow or lead with respect for the abilities that each person brings to the work you do together. These qualities are evident to almost everyone who has had the opportunity to work with you for any appreciable length of time.

As for the few who have decided to move in a different direction, somehow concluded that you are actually in the way of whatever it is they may be trying to accomplish—well, we know from experience that the work that is important to you requires progress, not unanimity. Or, as your plainspoken mother put it when you were seven years old and struggling with a mean teacher, “Honey, some people are just a**holes.”

But, even though so many people understand and appreciate these virtues, I still want to take this opportunity to testify in some detail about one continuing aspect of your life that captures something singularly important about you and about our almost 30 years together as partners and parents and comrades. I do this now because I’m 13 years older than you are and who knows how many chances I’ll get to celebrate you before I wear away and lose my mind in the process? And I do this also because I’ve been thinking about it since earlier this summer when we headed to Fort Wayne for Joyce Case’s wedding to Larry Hout. Though a good number of our friends know something about your history with Joyce and her sisters, the details about your relationship with Nancy, Allie, Leslie, Mary Ann, Kathy and Joyce says something unique about your ability to overcome obstacles to loving and being loved. For these reasons, today seems a good day to testify.

Some 30 years ago, as a member of the West Elkton, O. Friends Meeting you had made an effort to get the meeting more involved in the surrounding community. At the time, the Friends meeting was approached to help a family of girls who weren’t going to school because they didn’t have shoes. As with so many other things in your life, you decided to get personally involved and ended up making a deep commitment to the Case girls.

They were Irish twins, to be sure—six of them between the ages of five and twelve years old. Their father, inclined only to petty theft and other criminal schemes, got himself busted shortly after you met the girls. His parents, sometimes employed at primarily low-wage jobs, had somehow managed to buy themselves a home. It was barely adequate housing, but it was a place where their son could live with his family, while they lived in a trailer out back.

But having put the home up as bail, they lost it and inherited the care of the girls when their son and his wife skipped town. As it happened, though the grandparents were able to keep the girls together, they were poorly equipped to do anything else to help them thrive. And though, from time to time, a social worker took an occasional interest in helping the girls in their growing up, the truth is that from the first, and for decades after, you would prove to be the one adult in their lives who made a constant commitment to them, and who would do her best to give them the love and attention that we all require as we make our way through the world.

While they were still preteens you would pick them up at their house and bring them to yours to spend the weekend with you. You’d take them places they’d never been before, to libraries, museums, music festivals, performances, to Sunday Friends meeting where they could participate in the youth group and learn to interact with a much wider world. And before every school year began, you would take them shopping for a new pair of shoes, for new blouses and jackets. Those weekends continued, sometimes two or even three weekends a month, even after you moved to Dayton, further away from their grandparents’ home.

Not so long after you first met the girls, you and I, both working for the American Friends Service Committee, had also met. By 1988, though I was living in Ann Arbor and you in Dayton, we were deeply involved and I, too, would occasionally visit you, in the process meeting the girls, also.

When the oldest, Nancy and Allie hit adolescence they ran away with young men much older than they were, bouncing from one rural trailer park to the next. The weekend they ran away, I was visiting and tagged along while we searched the backwaters of southwest Ohio, looking for two girls the world had long ago decided were expendable. I remember being astounded that we spent our weekend in a hunt for two runaways I would not otherwise have met, and even more surprised when we found them.

Though the girls were not done rebelling, they came back to Dayton with us quietly enough. After all, you were the one adult in their lives who had ever put aside the priorities of her own life to focus on theirs. You even went and got yourself certified as a foster parent so that you could legally take them into your home and keep them outside the juvenile system.

This would prove not to be enough. Dayton public schools would also prove incapable of reaching them and the streets of Dayton, rougher and infinitely more exciting than the roads of rural Ohio, overwhelmed and seduced Nancy and Allie, and the juvenile system ended up getting them anyhow.

Now is not the time to tell the whole story of the Case girls, nor am I the one to do it. You might be that person, or one of the girls, Allie, perhaps, or Mary Ann. Who can say for sure?

But what I do know is that if not for the commitment you made, I would never have crossed paths with the girls. And I wasn’t equipped to love them without hesitation, either; not the way you did. Nor, for that matter, were they equipped to easily survive what the world does to poor, mostly abandoned children, with only a single adult around to treat them with respect. For Nancy and Allie, the oldest, who suffered longer and more relentlessly from neglect and abandonment, your love, coming as late in their childhoods as it did, had less of an impact than it did on their younger sisters. Still, the girls were each distinctly different personalities and, each with a different set of skills, made their separate ways in the world.

Mary Ann, the most reserved of the sisters, likely learned how to avoid self-destructing from watching how challenging adolescence was for her older sisters. The only one who went to college, she has proved to be a capable, careful and thoroughly committed mother, able to put herself second and insure that her daughter, Kiya, would have a secure childhood so very different from her own.

Joyce, the baby, always seemed to be the most comfortable with the thought that someone could absolutely like her and love her. The stable home and family life she has built for herself, with her daughter, Alisha, husband, Larry, and her stepdaughters and their children, makes it clear that one can start off on a hard road and still make it to a very good place.

Allie, too, bright and always quick to fight, has somehow survived multiple tribulations and gotten to a place as an adult that seems to suit her. Along the way, she has acquired a delightful and capable companion with whom she shares life, work and travel.

Of course, these are not happily ever after stories. Life does not stop throwing mud pies and bricks at us. Thirty years ago one might have guessed that the girls faced a future filled with nothing but sadness, want and tragedy. It has not happened that way for Alice and Leslie and Mary Ann and Joyce, mostly because they found within themselves the strength and endurance to overcome.

But they also found you. They are your daughters, not because of some miracle of birth, but because you volunteered to love them a long time ago and never stopped. In the process, they are mine, too, and let me say now that I love them because you showed me the way to do that.

Have a happy 55th b-day, Marrianne. You flat out deserve it.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Separately and together, we must invent joy

I'm trying to complete a post I started on July 25. Though I don't remember my original intention, the post has quickly become a mashup of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's Lila, Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, and an estranged childhood friend who occasionally takes a swing at me via e-mail or Facebook message. Since the piece, tentatively entitled "Life crushes us all," ranges across issues of class and race and whiteness and the deepest disappointments that life can deliver, it has proven not merely difficult to bring to an integrated, well-reasoned conclusion, but has also become, into the bargain, no damn fun.

Of course, I am quite familiar with all the tactics I routinely rely on to both avoid bringing a writing project to a conclusion, and to excuse each failure to simply sit down and write. I should add, also, that in regard to the twin challenges to write and to keep writing, though familiarity does breed contempt, it does not reduce the effectiveness of those stale, old maneuvers.

In the 1990s, the decade that Marrianne McMullen and I shared major responsibility for publishing the Dayton Voice/Impact Weekly, I had the happy experience of quite often bringing writing projects, news stories, opinion pieces, et al., to a conclusion. But even then stories begun in a burst of inspiration would sometimes grind to a halt and find themselves forever abandoned. As any writer can testify, such failures are common and ought not even be remarked. After all, the opportunity to succeed once more, or even for the first time, arises with each new day, with every new story.

Sometime, in that period, I came across The Courage to Write, a book by Ralph Keyes, who lived in nearby Antioch, Ohio and was a leading figure in the Antioch Writer's Workshop. I fell instantly in love with the title, with the idea of the courage it takes to write. Surely a whole book on the subject was just the thing, and so I bought a copy; several copies, in fact, and gave some of them to people I knew who also trekked through the unmapped writer's swamp.

As it happened, the book did me no obvious good. Keyes' repeated assurance that no writer is alone in that boundless swamp did not seem to empower me, however hard he worked to document the point. But, in struggling with "Life crushes us all," I have found myself thinking about The Courage to Write. And for about four days running, I'd sit down and read a few pages from the book and find myself able to add 300, 400, even, 500 words after each reading. It was as if I had finally found the secret that works for me, that gets me sitting down, that gets me confidently picking my way through the swamp.

Alas and predictably, the moment I felt that I had discovered the right path for me, it turned out to be a mere trick, dissolving quickly into wisps of smoke. But a day or two ago, I encountered a 2013 Atlantic Magazine post of a video featuring Ta-Nehisi Coates himself talking about writing. In the video, he also uses the phrase "the courage to write."

"I think breakthroughs," Coates says, "come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take and hoping you can grow some new muscles. It's not really that mystical. It's like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could be... I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage, almost an act of physical courage..."

Writers, Coates says, need to go back to their work repeatedly. Revise, rewrite and after awhile the idea you had in your head is 50 percent realized, then 60 percent, then 70 percent. It's never fully realized, he says, but you can get closer when you don't let up.

I am certainly writer enough to know that Coates is correct. You don't let up, you go back repeatedly and you revise and refine and every once in a while, after all that pressure focused on putting an idea into words, you achieve real clarity, a sentence, a paragraph, a whole piece to make you proud.

So, I'm going to get back to "Life crushes us all," though it might help if I came up with a new working title that was less of a club with which to whack myself, but not right this instant. In point of fact, the struggle with the piece really is not merely about the courage to write, it is also about clarifying my own thinking in a way that weaves together several related ideas that are nonetheless separate and most often considered independently of each other.

There is whiteness and the struggle, as Coates describes it, of black folks to both live with and within the havoc that white supremacy visits on a daily basis and to live and to forge independent identities beyond the reach of whiteness; there is also the injuries and insults of class as portrayed in Lila, and the special victimization of women who are further silenced and marginalized even in a time of extreme poverty when solidarity ought to be the default state of human relations; and there is also the accumulating losses and humiliations that the world has inflicted on my estranged childhood friend.

All of these are part of the collective experience of life and history in the country we live in together, and are more easily considered separately, but if we are ever to move into a world of justice, deep and shared, we need a more profound understanding of who we are separately and what we each have been through. And since it is impossible to both succinctly and comprehensively explore the variety of oppressions that afflict both our separate and collectives selves, the challenge is, to pervert a phrase from Lord of the Rings, to construct the one metaphor that will rule them all.

I haven't figured out how my draft of "Life crushes us all" gets from where it started to that happier place. But while I've been thrashing about in search for the courage to write, I've tried also to write in my journal, to sneak up on the problem(s) before me, to write around and through it. I might be getting somewhere. Yesterday, in my journal, I got to here:

is for the love, the people, the things
taken from us...

"This, of course, is not enough because one cannot be forever sorrowing. In the face of the standard litany of loss that people endure, we must each rise up again after every lying down. We must proceed, not merely stoically. We must rise and proceed in spite of the beat-downs. Separately or together, we must invent joy."

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Cops who want the guys on the corner to speak up should go first

Time for the police to step up

Last week, I went to a neighborhood meeting called in response to four separate shooting incidents in or near Taft, the neighborhood park at 18th and Newton NE. No one was hurt, but the gunfire aroused understandable concern in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Apparently other somewhat less ominous incidents had prompted a similar meeting just a couple of weeks before.

In any case, meeting attendees included all sorts of officials from the Parks Department and from the city agency that manages construction projects, from Councilmember Kenyon McDuffie's office, and three police officers, one of them the actual Fifth District commander. There were neighborhood residents of all ages, with varying lengths of residency in the 'hood--the established residents mostly black, the newcomers, mostly white.

There was also a group of probably a dozen young black men, most of them with roots in the neighborhood that go back a generation, or more. A neighborhood advisory board member had managed to persuade the young men to come to the meeting, but they sat separately from the other attendees, some wearing an expression of glowering disapproval.

At the invitation of the meeting's chair, the police commander and Councilmember McDuffie's representative kicked off the discussion acknowledging the crime problems and the real fear for safety in the neighborhood. Both speakers declared themselves willing to work closely with residents in order to develop a truly strategic plan for building neighborhood solidarity and improving safety.

But the young men, who seemed to be loosely led by a man named Fats, were not inclined to dance to the conciliatory tune called out by the district commander. Several of them spoke in a challenging even angry tone. Collectively, their message went something like this:

Yes, we hang out in the park, but we respect the rules and respect the community. We don't drink in the park and we let other people know, from in and out of the neighborhood, that there will be no messing around with neighborhood residents. But that doesn't appear to make any difference to you folks. When something happens, we get the blame for it. We say hello to some of you and you ignore us. And the thing is, we've lived here all of our lives. Some of you just got here, but you act like we're the ones who don't belong.

In response, one homeowner, indeed a newcomer, stood up to declare himself free of any such attitude, and to assert his emphatic concern for the safety of his young family. We use the park, he said, but I don't make trouble for anyone. I just served two tours in Iraq, he added, and I expect that my wife and child and myself will be safe here. What I want, he said, is to hear what others think will make us safer, I don't want to go over this other stuff, I want to move on.

Following, as he did, immediately on the heels of the declarations of indignation and wounded pride laid out by the young men who had just spoken, his apparent lack of interest in acknowledging their concerns led to immediate blowback. The young men muttered and cussed under their breath, and stood up to grab the floor without being recognized by the chair. A couple of them repeated their earlier positions and pointed out that the previous speaker was a good example of newcomers to the neighborhood who blame them for the problem.

It was a perfect, we-say-they-say sort of set up and promised to pretty much blow the meeting apart if the character of the discussion didn't change quickly. But one fellow stood up and, out of order himself, pretty much claimed the floor. I agree, he said, that the goal of this meeting ought to be about how we can work together to make everybody safer, but if we want to move on in that direction, I think we should begin by acknowledging how important and valuable it is that these young men showed up to speak for themselves. His statement provoked universal applause and reduced the gathering heat. But it didn't put the meeting on a productive path and things wound down without any real clarity about how to get to an effective strategy that would serve our collective concerns.

I didn't even stay for the end, but on the way home I stopped off at the park to see what might be happening. Not much, it turned out. The park itself is mostly closed at this time for resodding the big field, and for restoring the basketball courts. And, perhaps because they were at the meeting or otherwise engaged, there weren't any young men hanging out. But there were two cops, one in a car idling nearby and one sitting on a picnic table.

I told the cop at the table, Officer Smith, as it happens, about the meeting and told him what the young men had said. He heard me out, but challenged a bit of what apparently seemed like a sanitized story to him. Well, they may say they don't drink and smoke, and there might be some truth to that, he said, but there's an awful lot of times when there's empty liquor and beer bottles lying around, so we have to tell them sometimes to cleanup. But they usually do and it's only some of them making a mess.

He also observed that they might be innocent of some of the things that they get accused of doing, and they may not be doing the shootings, but somebody is coming by here to shoot at somebody else for a reason, and they all say they don't know anything, which, he added, is hard to believe. What he said made sense, but it didn't invalidate the story the young men at the meeting told.

Mindful that some of these young men are not much different from others around the country that have been wrongly detained and arrested, and sometimes beaten and shot by police officers themselves not discernibly different than the officer to whom I was speaking, I simply observed that police in big cities like DC have a responsibility to figure out how to keep everybody safe. I said I sympathized with the stress that the Metropolitan Police must experience at times, but there must be some cops who don't relate to these young men with the same understanding that he appeared to bring to his job.

Then I told him how two days in a row I had seen a cop, the same cop both times, following kids walking from the Brookland Metro stop to the high school nearby. In neither instance did I see those kids doing anything except acting like school kids engaging each other. The situation looked like bad policing to me, like a white cop sending a nonverbal but clear message to black children that they needed to be watched by someone in authority.

The second time it happened, I walked quickly around the block to get to the kids before they got to school and to ask them if the same cop had ever followed them before. No, they said. I asked if they knew why he was following them. No, they said, we weren't doing anything.

As my conversation with the kids concluded, the cop stopped up the street, about half a block away. But when I walked toward him to tell him that I'd seen him doing the exact same thing the day before and to ask him why, he drove away.

Officer Smith's reaction to the story was to vaguely acknowledge that what I was describing probably wasn't right, but we hardly knew all the facts. Yeah, maybe, I responded, but I'd seen enough two days in a row to provoke concern on my part.

Still, I wished Officer Smith well and moved on. But here's the thing. The young men at the neighborhood meeting probably did know the names of some of the people who had driven by the park and started shooting. But they hadn't shared any information with the police--a choice that the district commander said was extremely frustrating.

But consider, also, the white police officer following black children to school for no obvious reason. In itself, perhaps, not a meaningful indication of a problem. But in every big city, there are, indeed, police officers who their fellow officers know to be brutal. Police officers who police differently in black neighborhoods than they do in white neighborhoods, and treat black suspects differently than white ones.

Odds are that Officer Smith himself knows the names of a couple of cops who have mishandled incidents and roughed people up. But neither Officer Smith, or his fellow officers, are inclined to go public with such information. Neither are they likely to raise a concern internally.

This, I think, brings us full circle to the young men who might know full well who the perpetrators were in the recent shooting incidents. They ain't talkin', even though sharing what they know might make the neighborhood just a little bit safer.

But should we be surprised when young men prove unwilling to share what they know about bad guys in the 'hood with cops who have proven themselves equally unwilling to share what they know about bad guys with guns and badges?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The question to ask

After a lifetime of weird and, even, epically stupid decisions, I have recently reached the conclusion that one should always ask oneself, “Am I stoned?” And, in the aftermath, give the answer some time to develop.

Think of all the situations when that question is/was/will be precisely the right one to be asking oneself before proceeding with whatever seems to be next on the agenda. As a for instance, consider what might be the reality when one is, say, considering a rather hard surface below and pondering the question, “Would falling from this height kill me?” Wouldn’t that be the moment to ask oneself, “Am I stoned?”

This question is more generic that it might seem. After all, it subsumes all the more particular types of questions that get asked by both interveners and bystanders. “Are/were you drunk?” comes to mind, but care should be taken to consider the terms of the question as broadly as possible.

Regardless, we are talking here about asking oneself the question, “Are you stoned?” with a great deal more frequency and in a much wider range of situations than those moments when the question might otherwise be asked. And, in that spirit, never mind the answer, which could cover an almost infinite range of possibilities, like, say, “Don’t know, but I can tell you that I. Am. Completely. Ripped;” to “Maybe I better call the dentist. I’m in a lot of pain;” to “Yeah, I’m stoned, but I still believe the more important question is, ‘Can I survive a fall from this height to the ground below?’”

To repeat, the important thing is the question, “Am I stoned?” which should be asked by oneself of oneself a great deal more often than it is in reality. The answer is almost always less relevant than the question except in regard to legal matters and insurance issues.

Related story, I think. A few short weeks ago, I was in the hospital with a concussion after falling—catapulting, really—off my bike and doing a helmetless face plant on the street. Concussed, I went to the hospital where I dimly remember being asked, “Were you drunk?” and in near-instant follow-up, “Were you stoned?”

These questions seemed focused on liability and criminality. In any case, I do remember thinking something along the lines of “Why do you care? I don’t.”

And, although I hesitate to add this last bit, my father was an insurance lawyer to whom such questions meant a lot in the narrowest possible way. Dad was also the tree from which this apple happened to fall, albeit not without the sort of bruising that accompanies falls. Inevitably the experience of falling away from old dad, and the injuries that accumulated in my subsequent lifetime of weird and, even, epically stupid decisions, also taught me that one ought to embrace one’s bruises.

I recognize that this is piling on so-called “lessons of life,” and we most certainly should return to the question, “Am I stoned?” Nevertheless, the tangential point bears repeating. Embrace your bruises. They are you, and you are your very own particular reward.

At any rate, the question I am proposing that one regularly ask oneself, “Am I stoned?” is intended to provide a fresh opportunity to consider the moment that will inevitably follow the asking. If you are stoned, in the broadest possible sense, and you are mindful that you are, you might possibly make the next moment more objectively memorable than you had anticipated.

As I write this, images of loved ones and friends, here and elsewhere, flicker across the memory screen inside my head, the screen that at this moment is showing, in something like an endless loop, a piece entitled The Life of Jeff. And so, I ask myself, “Am I stoned?” in the fervent hope that the answer is take the next moment and mold it.

This is the moment of your next step in a direction you were always headed. Doesn’t matter if the path you followed to get here was straight (more or less) or, if you were actually, and most of the time, aware of choices you were making, or, in the alternative, delusionally ignorant of the choices you made along the way. This is you, regardless. This is you arrived at this moment, however much you may have stumbled to get here, and the step you take next is yours to decide. Now, answer the question, “Will I survive the fall from this height?”

Dedicated with gratitude to Dr. Phil, and to my sister, Dale.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Palestine and Israel, 10 Points to Remember

Religious belief leads to bad policy, but remembering when we were slaves in Egypt might work

I've blogged about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict 38 times during the past six years* and I keep repeating (I think, I hope) pretty much the same fundamental points. Particularly these:

1. It is unproductive to insist that Hamas has to stop firing largely ineffectual rockets or drop its propagandistic opposition to the existence of Israel before real peace and justice are achieved. To get to such a state, Israel must negotiate with enemies.

Further, it is not merely unproductive, but fundamentally unethical to argue that Hamas' feeble rocket attacks on Israel somehow justify Israel's lethally disproportionate attacks on Gaza, which cause thousands of civilian casualties.

2. The record of the last 65 years suggests that Israel's survival cannot be secured by force of arms unless the Israeli government intends to annihilate the Palestinians. This, of course, would completely destroy the moral integrity of the Jewish faith (even though Israel and Judaism are not at all the same thing).

3. Other than continuing upheaval, which creates mortal danger for themselves, or complete surrender (and, barring an improbable, nearly universal, non-violent, sit-down strike in both Palestine and Israel), Palestinians are not in a position to lead the way. It is Israel, the occupying force in possession of a nearly absolute monopoly on power, that must move the furthest, must make the most changes and the frankest confessions, before peace and justice and real security come into being.

But until Israel decides to change, to transform itself dramatically, in the interests of true safety and security for Israelis, the best thing Palestinians can do is to be ungovernable.

4. It makes no sense to blame the Palestinians for "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" for peace (or a Palestinian state, or whatever). No true peace can be achieved that doesn't include an acknowledgement that many Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza today were pushed out of their homes or off their land in Haifa, or Jaffa or elsewhere, as part of the process that created the Israel we know today. Acknowledging such a fact doesn't create an insurmountable barrier out of a "right of return." It creates a basis for negotiation, and compensation, and a removal of some of the settlements to which many Israelis are understandably attached.

A stable peace will require that Palestinians get a state with borders as contiguous as possible, a state with borders guaranteed and secured by something other than overwhelming Israeli force, a state which shares equally in the regions resources (like water and arable land and efficient and unobstructed access to the region's transportation resources).

5. The claim that Israel acts only in self-defense deceives no one, except perhaps Jews in Israel and around the world who would like to believe it. Given the absolute certainty that noncombatants will die, bombing Gaza isn’t self-defense. It is assault on a civilian population. It does not make Israelis safer. It creates more enemies, more enemy combatants, perhaps more suicide bombers.

6. Palestinians must acknowledge that Israeli Jews are justified in their fear for themselves. The perception of Arab hostility to Israel's survival is rooted in reality. But it does not make much sense to compare Israeli fear to the status of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. By every measure of suffering—combatants killed, innocents killed, homes demolished, families separated, family members imprisoned, jobs and businesses lost—the consequences for Palestinians are intense, pervasive and unrelenting.

But Israeli suffering is also real. The psychological and physiological damage Israelis suffer from tensions and explosions and hostility and deaths and and military call-ups and jobs lost and sleep interrupted shortens lives and causes illness.

As it becomes clearer and clearer that the cycle is both self-replicating and intensifying, Israelis (and American Jews) must begin to recognize that ending the cycle will take a complete reassessment and positive moves by Israel. When that reassessment comes, full Israeli recognition of Palestinian grievances will be a huge step toward peace.

7. Palestinians living in Israel will need more than de jure guarantees of equality, they will need de facto equality. A Jewish state that legalizes a “right of return” for Jews who never lived there and refuses to acknowledge a right of return for Palestinians who lost homes and property must stop privileging Jews at the expense of Palestinians. How long it will take to get there is a wide-open question, but it will be very, very hard. It will require that at some point Israel cease to be a "Jewish" state and become a more inclusive democracy. When that point is finally reached (100 years, maybe? 200? never?), Israel and Palestine might find themselves a single state, a true light unto the world.

8. The biblical story of the Exodus undergirds the argument in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

One summary phrase from the Passover service expresses the hope that the seder will be held "next year in Jerusalem." Indeed, these last many years a good number of seders have been held at various locations in Jerusalem (one wonders how the phrase is turned when the seder is, in fact, in Jerusalem).

Stories that Jews tell each other for religious reasons, during ritual meals and otherwise, are not a good basis for making policy. Establishing a theocratic state on land occupied by others based on a history of events that didn't actually happen was, and is, an undemocratic and unethical way to proceed. (More on this in my essay "Monotheism and the Accidental God.")

9. All the available archaeological and documentary evidence places the development of Jewish states in the area somewhere between 1500 and 1200 BCE. These states, Israel and Judah, were descended from hill tribesmen who may have called themselves Ibaru (Hebrew) and who, over time, exerted increasing political control over the relatively barren highlands in the area of present-day Jerusalem. The northern state of Israel, larger, more prosperous and more cosmopolitan than Judah, was smashed by Assyrian conquerors around 800 BCE.

After the disappearance of Israel, scribes in Judah, in the service of a likely real-life Judean king by the name of Josiah, wrote what would become the Book of Kings, a story attributing the destruction of Israel to the failure of the Jews there to properly honor Jehovah, a particularly intolerant and demanding god who found himself unable to abide the proximity of other gods.

Telling a story about how the northern state of Israel broke faith with Jehovah, with the added implication that Judah had kept faith, made for good propaganda [at the time].

As it happens, Biblical accounts of such things still make good propaganda.  Almost 3,500 actual years after the supposed events of the Exodus, the justification for the establishment of Israel and its maintenance as a Jewish (theocratic) state is frequently based on the notion that the Jews were promised the land of Canaan.

10. Yes, Jews have lived in the area a good, long time. But their presence there was as a small minority (sometimes only a few hundred families) among a much larger and diverse population, who also regarded the area as their own ancestral homeland. The historical presence of Jews in the Middle East is a legitimate basis for a "right of return" for Jews in much the same way that history justifies a right of return for American Indians and Armenians and Tibetans and Palestinians. But it does not justify the establishment of a state that privileges Jews on land most recently occupied by Palestinians.

Passover seders should be reminders that "next year in Jerusalem" has arrived, and some of us are celebrating religious feasts on land and in homes taken from Palestinians by force. We are also commanded to "remember that we were slaves in Egypt.” However legendary the memory that we Jews were once enslaved and oppressed by a mighty and pitiless enemy, it ought to expand our understanding of "never again."

*No one should read them all, but what would be the point of maintaining my own blog and not linking to myself once in a while?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Windup Girl

Florida governor Rick Scott probably won't read Paolo Bacigalupi's novel. But he should.

I let this fragment of a review linger incomplete, while Marrianne lent out our copy of the book (with my consent). I find that the notes I pencilled in the margins to be the basis for whatever else I might write about The Windup Girl are gone for now, perhaps for always. Is a piece half-done worth the trouble of reading it?

Probably. After all, it's probably less than 400 words. Who's going to pretend that they haven't ever before wasted the time it would take to read 400 words?

So Florida, the state likeliest to suffer most from rising sea levels caused by climate change, has, under the dubious leadership of Republican governor Rick Scott, developed a de facto policy that scrubs the use of terms like "climate change" and "global warming" from documents produced by state employees and contractors. Such a policy moves Scott to the very front rank of climate-change deniers and, given Florida's particular vulnerability, would likely make Scott a candidate for some kind of Darwin award if he wasn't also past his peak period of reproductive activity.

Scott probably isn't planning to read Paolo Bacigalupi's book, The Windup Girl, but it probably wouldn't make a whole lot of difference if he did. After all, one arrives at the end of the book considering the possibility that a variety of factors, including climate change, have already narrowed the global path to the point that we can stop worrying about Florida, which is bound to become swamp, and start worrying about our own skins, which are likely to sweat copiously and fry quickly for extended periods on both sides of high noon.

In Bacigalupi's dystopic world, most of us in the West are pretty much in the same boat as Floridians. The exceptions are likely to be chemists and geneticists and engineers working for global corporations that own seed copyrights, possess the firepower to enforce and exploit those copyrights, and do not let ethical considerations weasel their way into strategic plans. But the catastrophes that The Windup Girl imagines, predictions of a world less than, say, 50 years away, do not seem (with a few exceptions) like events from which we will run screaming, but more like moments we will watch like frogs in a hot tub, unaware that the temperature of the water is rising toward the boiling point.

Of course, some of us already recognize that the temperature is rising and some of us do what we can to address that developing problem. But Bacigalupi's point seems to be that whatever it is we are doing, it's not enough. And though some few of us will survive, sign on with one of those global corporations with the reach and power of government, or find a remote, little tub where the water is cooler, those survivors will find that the regret that they did not do enough is a crushing weight on what life they have left. The difference between their regrets, however, and the regrets of humans who are simply aging out and passing on, will be the difference between dying in the full knowledge that one has failed a most important moral challenge and dying ignorant of one's failure.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Benjamin Netanyahu's singular achievement

His cluelessness somehow makes dissenters out of Robert Kagan and Richard Cohen

Critical as I am about Benjamin Netanyahu, I must acknowledge that he does have the virtue of bringing out the best in op-ed writers with whom I ordinarily disagree. Robert Kagan, somewhat of a militarist to my mind, wrote a nice piece, "At what price Netanyahu?" in the Washington Post a couple of days ago.

Kagan noted that Netanyahu's speech was not going to add much, if anything, to what the U.S. government and the public already knew about his thoughts about Iran. Neither was Netanyahu's appearance likely to prove beneficial to the U.S.-Israel relationship, Kagan noted. (As it happens, Kagan was correct. Nothing Netanyahu had to say advanced the discussion about how to deal with Iran.) But he made both of those points on the way to the larger observation that "the precedent... set [by Speaker John Boehner's partisan invite of Netanyahu] is a bad one."

The invitation creates another opportunity to exacerbate political divisions, when they exist, between congress and the president, Kagan observed.

"Is anyone thinking about the future?" he wrote. "From now on, whenever the opposition party happens to control Congress — a common enough occurrence — it may call in a foreign leader to speak to a joint meeting of Congress against a president and his policies. Think of how this might have played out in the past. A Democratic-controlled Congress in the 1980s might, for instance, have called the Nobel Prize-winning Costa Rican President Oscar Arias to denounce President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America. A Democratic-controlled Congress in 2003 might have called French President Jacques Chirac to oppose President George W. Bush’s impending war in Iraq."

Would that Democrats had found a way to be more forceful in their resistance to both Reagan and Bush. Regardless, it may turn out that Kagan worries too much here about the likelihood that Boehner's ill-advised move will be the first of a future series of insults to the president that use foreign leaders as ceremonial props. Still, it is nice of him to worry.

Following up on Kagan, the Post's Richard Cohen also expressed real alarm about Netanyahu's appearance. In "Israel's moral argument is on the line", Cohen made a point about Israel's lack of strategic importance to the United States that I found surprising coming from him.

"Israel may be beloved, but for American security, it is not essential," Cohen wrote. "The fact is that the United States does not need Israel. Our special relationship was not forged, as it was with Great Britain, in two world wars, not to mention a common language and, in significant respects, culture. It is based on warmth, emotion, shared values — and, not to be dismissed, a potent domestic lobby. But these ties are eroding. Support for Israel remains strong, but where once it was universal, it has increasingly drifted from left to right. In the liberal community, hostility toward Israel is unmistakable. Some of it is openly expressed, some of it merely whispered."

There's plenty to argue with in Cohen's piece. He has always refrained from anything but the most mild criticism of Israel, and there is nothing here that is harshly critical of Israel, either. Indeed, Cohen applauds Harry Truman for disregarding advice and being the first country to recognize Israel.

"To be clear, Truman did the right thing — and he did it with commendable alacrity. (The United States was the first nation to recognize Israel.) Truman acted for a number of reasons. He was an inveterate Bible reader and he thought Jews had a powerful moral claim to what was then Palestine; he was aware that Israel was not some sort of post-Holocaust compensation package for worldwide Jewry, but a necessity for their survival. And, lastly, Truman needed the Jewish vote, particularly in New York state," Cohen wrote in the Post.

Never mind that however powerful the Jewish "moral" claim to Palestine might have been, to secure that claim required ignoring the fact that Palestinians had a quite defensible claim of their own. Nor is there anything especially ethical in recognizing Israel as a means to securing the support of Jewish voters.

Still, Cohen is generally not in the habit of conceding that the U.S. and Israel, at this point in time, have quite divergent strategic interests. The credit for Cohen's observation should be regarded as the joint achievement of John Boehner and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

A primer on humanitarian crisis in Syria and reasoning toward a solution

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

(An edited version of this piece can be found on the website of Teaching for Change(TfC). Follow the link to access TfC's incredible on-line bookstore.)

The Syrian civil war, and the collapse of the Syrian state, is the direct cause of the most severe ongoing humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world today. According to the United Nations, an estimated seven million Syrians are internally displaced, another approximately four million are refugees living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and in even more distant countries in Asia and North Africa.

The total of refugee and displaced people is more than half of the pre-war Syrian population. Hunger is widespread and, in many instances, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will not allow relief agencies access to trapped Syrians.

In Iraq, fighting between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS—a militant group that owes much of its dramatic growth to the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states) and various Iraqi and Kurdish military units and militias has created another 2 million homeless people. The death toll from the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, including civilians, is probably 300,000 or more.

Conflict in Syria began in early 2011 as civil resistance to 40 years of authoritarian control by the al-Assad family. The situation quickly deteriorated after nonviolent protest was met by escalating repression, mass detentions, disappearances, and military and police assaults on demonstrators. Rebels, both Muslim and secular, sought and received military assistance from outside sources, including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia. By 2012, the conflict had become a full-blown civil war that divided the country into multiple areas variously controlled by the Assad regime, secular and/or moderate Muslim rebel groups, and more extreme militant and fundamentalist groups, most notably ISIS.

Today, the situation remains fluid and the humanitarian crisis grows seemingly unabated. Democracy activists and advocates for civilian relief continue to agitate for more effective and sustained outside intervention by the UN and western democracies, despite the insufficiency that has characterized attempts to intervene so far. Two long and inconclusive U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq add to the difficulties in both arriving at a full understanding of the factors contributing to the crisis in Syria and developing a comprehensive, effective and sustainable response.

But The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, argues that the world has a moral obligation to intervene in Syria and relieve the suffering. Through a series of essays from a wide variety of knowledgeable observers, the book looks carefully at the many variables that will impair or outright prevent effective humanitarian relief. To the editors’ credit, the book does not settle for easy or platitudinous answers. Contributors call for antithetical solutions, for military intervention or for no military intervention, at all; for including all parties in a massive multi-party negotiation acknowledging that no peace can be achieved without the full participation of those involved and their sponsors, while others argue for the exclusion of the Assad regime, of ISIS, of Russia and others, on the grounds that those parties are guilty of war crimes or, at least, of deliberately exacerbating conflict.

Providing a useful account of the tensions and contesting agendas that are at the root of conflict and chaos both in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, The Syria Dilemma is an important example of how to thoroughly investigate the type of moral challenge that confronts the world today without forcing a conclusion on readers (or allowing them to look away).

Many of the users of Teaching for Changes website and resources will be interested in the book for those reasons, and, even, in using it in their own classrooms. The Syria Dilemma will provide a serious challenge to students, and no easy answers. But that, after all, is both the challenge of a real education, and the challenge of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Monday, February 23, 2015

After 40 years in prison, there is a life outside to live

T.J. Spytma celebrates the six-month anniversary of his freedom

At the end of January, T.J. Spytma celebrated his first six months out of prison. Incarcerated in an adult prison for murder at the age of 15, T.J. spent the next 40 years of his life in one correctional institution or another.

A reckless, thrill-seeking, drop-out growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, T.J. stumbled from one petty crime to the next until he and a friend broke into a neighbor's house and committed crimes that shocked and outraged their home town community. The crimes, which I wrote about in "T.J. Spytma is out of prison," and the outrage were more than sufficient for him to be tried as an adult, and sentenced to prison for life, subject to court review.

For almost 40 years, the sitting judge in the case, and his successor, repeatedly barred a parole hearing for T.J. But when the successor judge was replaced once more, T.J. finally got his hearing and ultimately a chance to live free for the first time in his adult life.

T.J.'s behavior during his first few years in prison were not a big improvement on his early teenage years. A juvenile in an adult prison, he made the decision that the only way to protect himself was to be a total badass. The decision and the success of his pose protected him somewhat from rampant prison violence those first few years, but did little to gain him privileges and access to the kinds of services that might help him understand the forces that drove his behavior.

Eventually, T.J. did get into group counseling, built relationships with some prison professional staff, and got a coveted job transcribing materials into braille; and he did the heavy lifting necessary in coming to understand that despite his situation, despite having entered prison with no skills and no education, despite having no experience of a world that neither punished nor excluded, there was, in fact, always a possibility that he might leave prison to face and handle more rewarding and more ordinary challenges.

In time, T.J. became an in-house prison activist, helping fellow prisoners to manage the environment safely and to access services that would mature them and develop new skills, coaching still other long-timers, helping them to write letters to the parole board and prepare for parole hearings. By 1990, he was chair of the national board of a unique organization, the National Lifers of America. Even then, things could get rocky. A prison gang looking for a way to smuggle contraband into prisons approached him about using his organization's volunteers. When T.J. refused, he was stabbed in retaliation.

Finally, in 2013, T.J. got his parole hearing. Life in the free world has not meant escaping all the dreariness (and much worse) that was part of prison life. He still has to show up at the parole office on a regular basis. He has to piss clean. And he has to pay the state for his P.O.'s time and the lab costs associated with regular testing.

Penny Ryder (an old colleague of mine at the American Friends Service Committee-AFSC), who first met T.J. when she worked with a prison visitation program, has opened her home to T.J. Penny, now retired, has a pension from AFSC and gets a social security check, which covers her needs. T.J. works  two part-time jobs, one with AFSC and another as an assistant on a research project attempting to measure how Obamacare has changed health and health care for ex-inmates. But the work doesn't pay  very well, and Penny and T.J. have found that financially they have no wiggle room, at all.

T.J. is going to community college, studying to be a paralegal, but work and resources keep him from going full-time. He may be 60 years old or older by the time he gets his degree.

In the meantime, Penny and T.J. also have to negotiate a fraught family landscape. Penny's daughter refuses to see Penny as long as T.J. is living with her. Worse, though Penny's relationship with her grandchildren, her son's children, has always been a good and important thing for her (and for the children, too), her son's ex-wife has gone to court to bar Penny's access to her grandchildren, if T.J. is present. (A University of Michigan undergrad produced a short video about some of the challenges confronting Penny and T.J.)

For T.J. all of this is quite painful. He recognizes that his crimes still have a life in the present, and that Penny pays part of the penalty for what he did so long ago. But over these last 40 years, T.J. has come to understand that he cannot bury his past, and he must face the continuing consequences without succumbing to frustration or anger. In order to move on, he says, he cannot be blaming others for the position he is in now.

Shortly after his six-month anniversary as a free man passed, T.J. and I met for lunch. When I asked him how he was doing, he was clear. Time passes for him now in a way that makes more sense then it did when he was in prison, he said. Look around, he continued, extolling his sandwich and marveling at the fine tablecloths. "I'll be okay," he said. "It's a good life."

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Moral Challenge of Palestinian Rockets

I’m planning to write a long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and my personal journey from Bar Mitzvah boy and teenage Zionist to an eventual supporter of Palestinian self-determination. But to even begin to understand that political transformation, I figure that I also need to look at how I grew up believing that no fate could be more noble than dying in the defense of the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, but by the time I was nineteen, arriving at the conclusion that the U. S. was waging a war of terror in Southeast Asia that I could not support.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my freshman year at college (in 1965) was the beginning of dramatic personal change. I spent the latter half of that academic year sporadically attending classes at the University of Michigan and hanging out in coffee shops with anti-war activists for extended periods. I began, then, to move away from my youthful patriotism to a more critical view of American militarism and the war in Vietnam.

In the process, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Noam Chomsky, particularly individual essays that were later collected and published in the book American Power and the New Mandarins.  I’m rereading the book, now, trying to understand some of the emotional intensity of my political transformation some 40 years ago. And though I have every intention of following through with the aforementioned long piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I am discovering anew the power of what Chomsky wrote so long ago, and how resonant his book seems now. In particular, there are two quotes from the introduction that I would like to cite and explore here.

First: “No one who involved himself in antiwar activities as late as 1965, as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction. This opposition was ten or fifteen years too late. This is one lesson we should have learned from the tragedy of Vietnam.

And this one: “By entering into the arena of argument and counterargument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity. This is the feeling I find almost impossible to repress when going through the motions of building a case against the American war in Vietnam. Anyone who puts a fraction of his mind to the task can construct a case that is overwhelming… In an important way, by doing so he degrades himself, and insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness. There may have been a time when American policy in Vietnam was a debatable matter. This time is long past… The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured. It is not pleasant to use such words, but candor permits no less.”

Here Chomsky calls himself out twice. In the first quote he says that he was unconscionably late in his opposition to the Vietnam War. “Ten or fifteen years too late,” he writes.

In the second quote, Chomsky raises the possibility that despite the essential wrongness of the war, had the U.S. been able to secure “stability and order” in Vietnam, he might well have remained silent. Had the “fury and destruction” been transient enough, he might never have been moved, he suggests, to speak out against the war, at all.

The concept that Chomsky develops here still resonates and seems to apply decently well to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, if Palestinians did not continue to resist Israeli occupation, if they did not engage in acts of “terror,” if they did not lob rockets from Gaza into Israel, if Israel were able to exercise greater control of the Palestinians, “had stability and order been secured,” others might not raise issues with the circumstances surrounding the creation of the state of Israel, might ignore the blockade of Gaza, might remain silent about the Occupation of the West Bank, might excuse the continuous process of expropriation and settlement on occupied territory. How unconscionable would that silence be?

Do some Palestinians lob rockets from Gaza into Israel because they want to awaken our conscience? Do they do so because they want revenge for dispossession, or revenge for the slaughter of innocents? Or because they hate Jews and wish to kill them? For an awakened conscience, aroused by the mortal threat and explosive power of the rockets, which questions have a higher priority? Do we condemn the rocket attacks and look away from the dispossession of Palestinians?

The biggest problem that I can see with the certainty that seems to characterize the two quotes from Chomsky is the apparent assumption that there comes a time when the moral question has been settled, a time when everyone must conclude that to argue any further that the dispossession of Palestinians is debatable “insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness.”

That statement is too absolute, too sweeping to be true. There were lots of reasons why people had not yet begun to oppose the Vietnam War in 1965, though Chomsky may be right in not excusing himself for his own too-long delayed opposition. And there are lots of reasons why supporters of the state of Israel remain unwilling to question the circumstances surrounding the creation of that state and all the violence against Palestinians that has happened since. But in my mind and heart we ought to be thanking the Palestinians who continue to resist because without that resistance the rest of us would almost certainly look away.