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An Open Letter to the Home Minister of Bangladesh, Mr. Abdul Hassan Mahmood Ali, MP, Calling for the Immediate Release of Shahidul Alam

Dear Sir,

On August 5th, nearly a month ago, Shahidul Alam was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by twenty-five officers of the detective branch of the police which is ultimately responsible to you.  Shahidul Alam is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist, human rights activist, social entrepreneur, and much more.  He has played a singularly critical role in putting Bangladesh on the international map as far as photography is concerned, and he has nurtured the talents of two generations of Bangladeshis who have grown up on the camera.  As I’m certain you know, he is the founder of the picture gallery DRIK, the Chobi Mela International Photography Festival, and the Pathshala Institute where hundreds of young photographers have been trained.  It would be safe to say that he has also done as much as anyone else in Bangladesh to highlight the lives of those who are dispossessed, marginalized, and most vulnerable to exploitation.  Mr. Alam, as those who know him or are at least conversant with his work will tell you, does not allow his sentiments of humanity and his craving for social justice to stop at the borders of the country which you serve as its Home Minister.  He was one of the first to speak of “the majority world” to signify the solidarities that exist between the peoples of what is more often described as the “Third World” or “the developing countries”.

Mr. Alam is therefore one of those comparatively rare intellectuals, artists, and social activists who has been a fearless and persistent advocate of the rights of those who are in fact in a majority in the world—the poor, the working class, the politically oppressed, and the exploited, the preponderant portion of them in countries that were formerly colonized.  It is perhaps because he represents the majority that he is feared by your government.  Does that not explain why no fewer than 25 police officers were assembled to arrest a nonviolent and unarmed activist who has never carried anything other than a camera?  Why was he abducted in the middle of the night, if not because under the cover of darkness the state hoped to disguise its own unlawful action?

A week after his arrest, Mr. Shahidul Alam was produced in court without being given an opportunity to have his lawyer represent him.  He was charged at his arrest, under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act (2016), with disseminating “false, confusing and provocative statements that could deteriorate the law and order situation, as well as incite the sentiments of students to engage in destructive activities.”  Mr. Alam has not only denied all these charges, he has also alleged that he was tortured by the police in jail.  He was certainly beaten badly on the night that he was hauled away and he can be heard screaming in footage that is widely available.  No one who knows him well is at all prepared to believe that there is even an iota of truth in any of these charges; moreover, it is quite apparent that the charges have been framed in such a fashion as to enable the apprehension of anyone whose views might appear even remotely hostile to those who wield political power.  Mr. Alam exemplifies the idea of nonviolence in practice and in spirit, and he is one of the gentlest persons I have had the good fortune of knowing.  He left an extremely favorable impression on everyone during the one week that he spent at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 2009 as a Regents’ Fellow at my invitation.

Mr. Alam has now filed a petition in the court asking for bail and he has stated that he would appear in court whenever a hearing might be set in his case.  Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as hundreds of internationally renowned intellectuals and activists from India, Australia, Britain, and the United States, have called for Mr. Alam’s unconditional release and the removal of all the charges that have been alleged against him.  I join them in asking that Mr. Alam be released at once, but I would like to place before you two others considerations which I hope will appeal to your imagination and moral sensibility. I hope you will find my first point particularly germane in view of the fact that the present government is headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  Let me remind you that it is the repression of intellectuals in what was then East Pakistan that, among other things, inspired Sheikh Mujib  to advocate for the independence of East Pakistan and which eventually led to the creation of Bangladesh.  Mr. Alam’s arrest and continued detention points to your government’s desire to intimidate intellectuals and silence all voices of opposition.  My earnest entreaty to you, therefore, is not to repeat the very same mistakes that characterized the egregious conduct of the Government of (West) Pakistan.

Secondly, even if the Information and Communication Technology Act under which Mr. Alam has been charged is of recent vintage, in spirit it is unfortunately guided by colonial-era legislation.  In this respect, as well, it does the state of Bangladesh absolutely no credit at all to be moved by archaic and repressive legislation.  We are all aware that in the name of preserving “law and order”, states often undertake actions which can only cast a blot on their reputation.  Surely a country guided by the spirit of Sheik Mujib and the great poet Kazi Nazrul Islam can do a lot better than take into unlawful custody one of its most prominent citizens who is widely recognized as a person of unimpeachable integrity and who has done selfless work on behalf of especially the less fortunate citizens of your country.

I end, therefore, once again with the call for Mr. Shahidul Alam’s immediate release and request from you an assurance of his safety.  I remain entirely open to an exchange with you on any of the points raised in this appeal, which I have now made public as the private letter that I addressed to you a week after Mr. Alam’s arrest did not elicit any response.

Yours sincerely,

Vinay Lal, Professor of History, UCLA

 

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John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran, a “real gentleman”, and “an American hero”, was laid to rest on Saturday.  Since he passed away a week ago the previous Saturday, the media has been awash with eulogies and celebrations of his life.  In a ‘bitterly divided Washington’—an argument sensible only to those who are strongly of the view that Democrats and Republicans are from different planets, or at least have very little in common, never mind their shared love for unvarnished capitalism, gun culture, military prowess, and much else—what the Americans call “bipartisanship” has always been spoken of as some desirable objective, and the adulatory tone that has been adopted throughout the last few days in writing about McCain owes much to the fact that he spoke, or is alleged to have spoken, to those across the aisle.  Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times’ headline read, “Farewell to John McCain transcends partisanship.”  “A Rare Moment of Unity Inside the Capital”, noted the New York Times as it recounted the “dignity, seriousness and respect” with which the deceased senior senator from Arizona was remembered in the Capitol at a time when these qualities are “so lacking in American politics.”  The same newspaper described him as a “towering statesman”, though the article in question offers barely any hint of what made him either “towering” or even a “statesman”. One hopes that the definition of a statesman in the United States of America has not been reduced to “a public figure who is quite unlike President Donald J. Trump.”

It is entirely possible, indeed probable, that John McCain was in private life everything he has been described:  a devoted husband, a father who got along famously well with his children, a man who remembered his friends and was generous in spirit, and someone who acted with civility most if not all of the time.  These are all doubtless admirable qualities and one presumes that McCain will be remembered with affection and fond memories among those who knew him.  He would not be the first person, however, to be in the possession of such qualities.  It is instructive to remember that the hundreds of thousands of German men implicated in the work of the Nazi regime were perfectly good fathers:  in fact, most of them came back after a hard day’s work to share food, prayer, and Christian thoughts with their family at the dinner table.  Since McCain was an eminently political figure with a long history of public service and is among a few dozen people in the history of the US who has been honored with what is a state funeral, it behooves us to ask what it implies for a man such as him to have been practically raised to the level of a saint.  McCain has been buried; but if the United States, still a young country (if the oldest constitutional democracy), hopes to arrest its precipitous decline into senescence, it would be best if it digs up a few questions, sooner rather than later, about him.

I shall not call this article “The John McCain you never knew”.  Everything I have to say is a matter of public record; one need not search for state secrets, or resort to the Freedom of Information Act.  It is important to state as well that this critique shares absolutely nothing in common with the remarks against McCain by the trolls who form part of Mr. Trump’s “base”.  It is well and good that McCain stood up to Trump, though here again this argument is only a profound testament to the fact that the bar for any kind of ethical political life has shrunk so low that even the remotest resemblance to anything that might be called ‘decency’ or ‘civility’ is supposed to signal ‘virtue’.  I can barely think of anything that endears McCain, a public figure, to me; but I can think of a great many things that make the present spectacle of the celebration of a ‘great American life’ nauseating.

It was a life full of shenanigans, but here are a thoughts.  First, it is an indisputable fact that McCain, in common with the preponderant number of his soulmates in the US Senate, was relentlessly hostile to the working class.  By the standards of this country, where a ‘socialist’ is in many places something akin to the Black Death, McCain may not have been a die-hard conservative of the Storm Thurmond or Barry Goldwater variety, but it cannot be doubted where his sympathies lay.  He waffled for many years on the question of abortion, but did nothing to put into question the position he finally adopted in 2007 when he said, “I do not support Roe versus Wade. It should be overturned.” He then supported a constitutional amendment that would bar abortion except in cases of risk to mother’s life, incest, and rape.  His conservative credentials were never in doubt; however, it is his persistent efforts to overturn the federal minimum wage that point to his disdain for the ‘common American’ whom he supposedly championed.  McCain voted on 24 January 2007 to support legislation that would allow employers to pay less than the federal minimum wage if a state set a lower minimum.  Similarly, McCain joined the filibuster to prevent the federal minimum wage being increased from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour.  Throughout, he remained a foe of the federal minimum wage—and we can imagine what he would have thought of the idea of minimum livable wage, or the notion of Universal Basic Income.

Secondly, it should be recalled that McCain was consistently opposed to the idea of federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he went so far as to support the Governor of Arizona when he decided to rescind the holiday in his state in 1987.  McCain would, in time, come to repent of his decision and eventually called for both a state and a federal holiday to mark the life of one of the greatest figures in American history.  He issued this apology in 2008, “I was wrong and eventually realized that, in time to give full support for a state holiday in Arizona. We can all be a little late sometimes in doing the right thing.”  I have written elsewhere, and on many occasions, on this wonderful expedient of a belated apology that has characterized white civilization’s attitude to the other races:  say you’re sorry, and then throw another bomb to civilize the savages or bring them the blessings of democracy.  We may perhaps infer McCain’s sentiments on this question from his refusal to call for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Statehouse when he was campaigning for the state’s Republican presidential primary against George W. Bush.  He called the flag “a symbol of heritage” and objected to Federal encroachment on states’ rights in these matters.  McCain lost the primary, and what does one suppose he did thereafter?  He apologized, what else: stating that he had equivocated on the flag issue, McCain said:  “I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth.”

Thirdly, among those who served in either house of the Congress over decades, John McCain must be counted among those who were hawkish in the extreme.  He was, needless to say, an ardent advocate of the war on Iraq, a war-monger who turned to the neo-cons Robert Kagan and William Kristol for advice on American military intervention.  It is not an accident that the mammoth $716 billion defense appropriations bill that Trump signed into law barely three weeks ago is formally named the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019.  McCain’s acolytes and admirers trumpet the fact that, in signing the bill, Trump refused to mention it by its formal name.  Trump’s meanness is thus established, but of course we are to think nothing of the fact that McCain took pride in having the bill named after him.  With single-minded intent, McCain for decades advocated for one, and only one, position—namely, that the United States should continue to remain unrivaled as a military power.  It would never have occurred to him that no one country should have such power:  if circumstances should turn China into such a power, then one would be duty bound to oppose China.  This view would have struck McCain as implausible since he had neither the intellect, nor the capacity for self-reflection, to adopt a critical perspective on the course of American history.

McCain&SarahPalin

Finally, McCain’s admirers and all those who now swear by him, often for no other reason that he was (to return to an earlier argument) not Donald Trump, should ask what role McCain played in bringing his nemesis to power.  It is a curious but pertinent fact that his running mate during the Presidential race in 2008, Sarah Palin, was also not invited to the funeral ceremonies which McCain had himself planned in meticulous detail.  (Narcissist would seem to be the operative word to describe one who had decided upon a magisterial state funeral for himself, notwithstanding his unenviable record of constantly striving for, but never achieving, the highest office of the land, but I fear that the followers of neither Trump nor McCain will tolerate this comparison.) That McCain should not have invited his vice-presidential pick, more so when he congratulated himself for anointing a woman to fill the second highest office in the country, for his funeral ceremonies is puzzling if not astounding.  McCain had gone on record in recent months, expressing “regret”—no surprise, since McCain’s entire life can be written in this vein—that he had picked Palin, rather than Joe Lieberman, for his running mate.  McCain doesn’t specify exactly why he regretted his decision, but it had to do with more than the fact that Palin was not even remotely an asset for him.  Perhaps McCain had come to the realization, quite late in his life—yes, here again that pattern of late recognition, long after others had reached some degree of enlightenment—that in legitimizing the Tea Party—and Palin was nothing if not the Tea Party—and the lunatics who have come to dominate American politics, he had played a substantial role in birthing the political rise of Trump.

John McCain believed profoundly in American exceptionalism.  The best that can be said for him is that, as a member of the US Congress over several decades, he led a life of exceptional mediocrity and mendacity.

 

Earlier this year, newspapers reported an unusual development in Britain before the subject of the story was quickly orphaned.  Considering that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her ministers have the lofty and calamitous matter of Brexit on their minds, it is a wonder that anything else gets reported at all.  According to the Guardian and the New York Times, Ms. May has appointed a “Minister of Loneliness”.  It has been said that those who wield power at the very top are generally lonely:  as the example of Donald Trump suggests, the strong man always expects the unyielding loyalty of his inferiors and the slightest deviation from that norm puts the offender under suspicion.  It is not only dictators or autocrats who have few, if any, friends.  Many have sought to augment the (to put it mildly) deservedly tarnished reputation of Winston Churchill by suggesting that at critical moments in the conduct of the war against Nazi Germany, the British Prime Minister cut a very lonely figure.  Churchill’s supposed heroism, as it is described by some of his admirers, can never be appreciated by those who fail to recognize how he relied only on his strength and indomitable will power in the face of resistance from his own cabinet colleagues.

It is, of course, not this kind of loneliness that Prime Minister May had in mind when she appointed Tracey Crouch “Minister of Loneliness”.  Strictly speaking, Ms. Crouch is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society, having previously served as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport, Tourism, and Heritage.  Ms. Crouch’s present brief includes the portfolios not just for sport and civil society, but also lotteries, horse racing, gambling, and, since January 2018, “loneliness”.   This entire list is itself worthy of comment, but let it pass for the moment.  In announcing Ms. Crouch’s new responsibilities, Prime Minister Theresa May deplored the fact that “for far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life”, and she went on to say:  “I want to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by carers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”

The Prime Minister’s comments appear to have been prompted by the release, late last year, of a report from the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, named after the Member of Parliament who was murdered by a white supremacist in 2016. The Commission found that, in Britain, 9 million people, or around 14% of the population, described themselves as always or often lonely.  Nearly 52% of parents had experienced a “problem with loneliness” in the past, and 21% had felt lonely at some point in the previous week.  Among those who are at least 75 years old, one in three stated that “feelings of loneliness are out of their control”, and among the disabled and care givers the feeling of loneliness was similarly very high.

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Just exactly how the Commission arrived at these findings is not at all evident from the report, but the numbers reported seem more than just plausible.  Nor is the “problem”—whatever the problem may be—one that uniquely afflicts the British.  The Japanese, in their customary fashion, have even coined a word, kodokushi, to designate “lonely deaths” among the elderly, that is the deaths of people which remain undiscovered for a long period of time.  The Japanese attention to this matter was spurred a few years ago by the discovery, in a residential complex where the apartments were packed cheek by jowl, of a 69-year old man three years after his death; all that remained of him, to be more accurate, was his skeleton, as rodents, maggots, and beetles had done their job.  The problem of loneliness in the United States may be even more acute, if the opinion of the former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, carries any weight.  Murthy’s considered view is that social isolation is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day”, and the title of his essay, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic”, suggests that we ought to be paying at least as much attention to loneliness as we do to the opioid or obesity epidemics.

The Jo Cox Commission report is, in the argot of the day, “a call to action”, and the authors recommend the close monitoring of loneliness across all ages, the inclusion of measures of loneliness in “major national studies”, the issuance of annual reports, the creation of a literature with “easy-to-understand messages” to help people connect with others, and a nation-wide strategy to combat loneliness under a “lead Minister”—thus the appointment of Ms. Tracey Crouch.  The report exhibits some taste, insofar as it does not dwell on how much the “loneliness epidemic” has cost the exchequer; however, the co-chairs of the Commission, in a separate pamphlet, estimate that loneliness inflicts massive pain on the British economy, to the tune of 32 billion pounds [$42 billion], annually.  Ouch!

It is no surprise that ex-Surgeon General Murthy’s article should have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, which is not exactly a journal known for exhibiting any concern for the poor, the disabled, and the lonely.  If the Harvard Business Review has any interest in the subject of loneliness, one can speculate that some economist or policy wonk at that esteemed institution must have modeled loneliness and derived a formula which would help to alleviate this condition.  One suspects, too, that much of the concern about the lonely is feigned, inspired only by the thought that the lonely, like the poor, are a problem.  If the poor are despised because they cannot enter into the ranks of a consumer society and cannot therefore be fulfilled as human beings, the lonely are suspect because they appear to have brought their malady upon themselves.  However, under the present dispensation, that is to say on the worldview that predominates today, there is absolutely no problem that cannot be resolved through management techniques.  So long as one has clear “outcomes”, good “thought leaders” (an abominable phrase, if there was one), and and a healthy appetite for the gobbledygook that passes for English at the great business schools and other “centers of excellence”, problems can be managed effectively.

What, however, is loneliness?  Have societies always suffered from loneliness?  Is there more loneliness in some countries than in others?  Do the rich get afflicted by loneliness as much as the poor?  Might one even dare to think that the rich are perhaps lonelier? For all its limitations, the Cox Commission report offers a definition of the malady which is not entirely inane.  “Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship,” write the authors, “which happens when we have a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want. It is often associated with social isolation, but people can and do feel lonely even when in a relationship or when surrounded by others.”  The turgid prose of the first sentence, adverting to the “mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want”, is far from being helpful; indeed, after encountering such a sentence, it occurred to me that I would much rather be lonely and depressed than have the company of the authors of the report.  But the second sentence suggests that the authors are not without some insight, as it reminds us that “people can and do feel lonely even when in a relationship or when surrounded by others.”  This is of singular importance, since there is a commonplace view that loneliness can be alleviated by placing oneself in the company of others.  If one is by oneself and yet desirous of company, one is lonely; but the loneliness that one sometimes experiences when one is surrounded by friends or “loved ones” is yet more wretched.  Henry David Thoreau captured this well in Walden:  “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers.”

HenryDavidThoreauSolitude

The Jo Cox Commission report on loneliness does not venture into the more difficult terrain of trying to understand why such a large percentage of Britain’s population describes itself as feeling lonely.  Public spaces survive in Europe to a much greater extent than they do in the United States:  public transportation is heavily in use, cafes spill over onto the streets, and pedestrians often command the streets.  Europeans do not generally live in gated estates; the idea of the communal meal still has its attractions, as anyone who has spent an evening in Barcelona, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, or countless other cities and towns across Britain and Europe can testify.  The Post-Millennials who do not know of an age when there was neither the internet nor the cell phone are perhaps surprised to hear that anyone could be lonely at all:  after all, one has merely to turn to Facebook, Twitter, or Google to be on one’s way.  There is little awareness of how digital technologies, which claim to foster relationships and produce a highly inter-connected world, produce distancing.  The social implications of such distancing are not apparent to most people.  One can also be quite certain that the Post-Millennials, perhaps more so than any other generation, will face the brunt of the loneliness epidemic.  Loneliness has yet to extract its pound of flesh from those who most mightily mock it.

It is a telling fact that the Cox Commission report has nothing to say about “solitude”.  The word does not appear in the document.  It matters because a phenomenon such as loneliness can only be understood dialectically, through its opposite; and the opposite of loneliness is not the company of others, or ‘relationships’, but solitude.  It is an egregious mistake to suppose, as often happens, that loneliness and solitude are one and the same thing.  Loneliness is never cultivated or sought; it is something to be avoided.  The sources of loneliness in pre-modern societies were rather few, most likely the loss of a family member, bereavement, enforced exile, and imprisonment; in such societies, a surfeit of human company rather than loneliness was more likely the source of discomfort for some.  Solitude, by contrast, is something that is cultivated and sought for, even valorized among those who value creativity or are predisposed towards a life of reflection.  In American, and more broadly modern, culture a dread of solitude is pervasive:  those who prefer solitude are often taken to be misanthropic in disposition.  Here, again, is Thoreau:  “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time.  To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating.  I love to be alone.  I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

The cure for loneliness is not going to be found merely, or even at all, by connecting the lonely person with others.  The management gurus with their mantras of efficiency, and the personal relationship managers who pedal the anodyne languages of ‘caring’ and ‘customer satisfaction’, have nothing worthwhile to contribute in understanding the largely modern pathology of loneliness.  Perhaps, only perhaps, some sustained reflection on solitude may yet help us better to minister our loneliness.

Fourth and Concluding Part of “Dispossession, Despair, and Defiance:  Seventy Years of Occupation in Palestine” 

As I argued in the last part of this essay, there is no gainsaying the fact that anti-Semitism remains rife among most Arab communities—and indeed among Christians in many parts of the world, as the attacks on synagogues, which have increased since the time that Mr. Trump assumed high office, amply demonstrate.  Nevertheless, it is equally the case that the charge of anti-Semitism has itself become a totalitarian form of stifling dissent and an attempt to enforce complete submissiveness to the ideology of Zionism.  On the geopolitical plane, the leadership (as it is called) of the United States, has done nothing to bring about an amicable resolution, even as the United States is construed as the peace-broker between Israel and the Palestinians.  Indeed, one might well ask if the United States is even remotely the right party to position itself as an arbiter, and not only for the all too obvious reason that its staunch and nakedly partisan support for Israel, punctuated only by a few homilies on the necessity of exercising restraint and Israel’s right to protect itself in the face of the gravest provocations, makes it unfit to insert itself into the conflict as a peacemaker. We have seen this all too often, most recently of course in the carnage let loose on the border last week as Israel celebrated the 70th anniversary of its founding and the Palestinians marked seventy years of the catastrophe that has befallen them: even as Israel was mowing down Palestinian youth and young men, most of them unarmed and some evidently shot in the back, the United States was applauding Israel for acting “with restraint”.

13 Falk cover

In an essay that Richard Falk wrote a few years ago at my invitation, entitled The Endless Search for a Just and Sustainable Peace: Palestine-Israel (2014), he advanced briefly an argument the implications of which, with respect to the conflict and its possible resolution, have never really been worked out.  Falk observed that the Abrahamic revelation, from which the two political theologies that inform this conflict have taken their birth, is predisposed towards violence and even an annihilationist outlook towards the other.   There is, in Regina M. Schwartz’s eloquently argued if little-known book, The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), an extended treatment of this subject, though I suspect that her view that monotheistic religions have an intrinsic predisposition towards exterminationist violence will all too easily and with little thought be countered by those eager to demonstrate that religions guided by the Abrahamic revelation scarcely have a monopoly on violence.  It has, for example, become a commonplace in certain strands of thinking in India to declare that nothing in the world equals the violence perpetrated in various idioms by upper-caste Hindus against lower-caste Hindus over the course of two millennia or more.  One could, quite plausibly, also argue that there is a long-strand of nonviolent thinking available within the Christian dispensation, commencing with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s injunctions towards nonviolent conduct in Romans and exemplified in our times by such dedicated practitioners of Christian nonviolence as A. J. Muste, Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and the stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement, among them the Reverends M. L. King, James M. Lawson, and Fred Shuttleworth.

SchwartzCurseOfCain

Whatever one makes of the view that the political theologies that inform the Abrahamic revelation make a peaceful resolution of the Palestine-Israel conflict an immense challenge to the ethical imagination, what is perhaps being tacitly expressed here is a serious reservation about the fitness of the United States, which evangelicals would like to have openly recognized as a land of Abrahamic revelation, to intervene in this debate. I would put it rather more strongly. The supposition that the United States, which has all too often harbored genocidal feelings towards others, and has been consistently committed, through the change of administrations over the last few decades, to the idea that it must remain the paramount global power, can now act equitably and wisely in bringing a just peace to the region must be challenged at every turn.  There is, as well, the equally profound question of whether there is anything within the national experience of the United States that allows it to consider such conflicts on a civilizational plane, not readily amenable to the nation-state framework and the rules that constitute normalized politics.Pa

Richard Falk sees, in the willingness of British government after decades of violence, arson, terrorist attacks, and a bitterness that surprised even those hardened by politics, to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as a political entity some precedent for discussions that might lead to a framework for an equitable peace.  Assuming this to be the case, one must nevertheless be aware that all proposed solutions to the conflict are fraught with acute hazards.  Those who are inclined to see the conflict entirely or largely through the prism of religion have displayed little sensitivity to the idea that if religion repels frequently because of its exclusiveness it just as often attracts because of its potential inclusiveness. Those who look at the conflict entirely as a political matter will not concede what is palpably true, namely that the present practice of politics precludes possibilities of a just peace.  The advocates of the two-state solution, clearly in an overwhelming majority today, must know that if such a solution becomes reality, Palestine will be little more than a Bantustan.  Some may claim that even an impoverished, debilitated, and besieged but independent Palestine would be a better option for its subjects than the apartheid which circumscribes and demeans their lives today, but any such solution cannot be viewed as anything other than a surrender to the most debased notion of politics.

Israel should not be permitted to use the rantings of the Holocaust deniers, or the more severe anti-Semitic pronouncements of its detractors, as a foil for the equally implausible argument that the Palestinians are committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.  The greater majority of the Palestinian leaders and intellectuals, as many commentators have points out, have signaled their acceptance of the pre-1967 borders of Israel provided that Israel withdraws from the territory it has occupied since the 1967 war and displays a serious willingness to address the refugee problem.  In a more ideological vein, most Palestinians are reconciled to the idea that the Zionist project, originating in a desire to establish a Jewish state on Arab lands, is a fait accompli.  However equitable a political solution—and that, too, seems to be a remote possibility—the more fundamental questions to which the conflict gives rise are those which touch upon our ability to live with others who are presented to us as radically different, even if the notion of the ‘radical’ that is at stake here is only grounded in historical contingencies.  Living with others is never easy, and is not infrequently an unhappy, even traumatic, affair; but it is certainly the most challenging and humane way to check the impulse to gravitate towards outright discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and extermination.  “We cannot choose”, Hannah Arendt has written, “with whom we cohabit the world”, but Israel appears to have signified its choice, terrifyingly so, not only by the erection of the Separation Wall, but also by imposing a draconian regime of segregationist measures that reek of apartheid.  In so doing, it behooves Israel to recognize that victory is catastrophic for the vanquisher as much as defeat is catastrophic for the vanquished.

(concluded)

See also Part III, “Settlements, Judaization, and Anti-Semitism”

Part II, “A Vastly Unequal Struggle:  Palestine, Israel, and the Disequilibrium of Power”

Part I, “Edward Said and an Exceptional Conflict”

For a Norwegian translation of this article by Lars Olden, see: http://prosciencescope.com/fjerde-og-avsluttende-delen-av-bortvising-fortvilelse-og-defiance-sytti-ar-med-okkupasjon-i-palestina/

Part IV of “Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

The student-initiated “March for Our Lives”, two months old to this day, has already been characterized as a novelty in the annals of American political action.  History is, of course, always being ‘made’ in the United States: in a metrics-obsessed culture, this or that phenomenon—ten dunks in a single game by LeBron James, or the single-season rushing record in a NFL game, ad infinitum—becomes ‘one for the history books’.  The “March for our Lives” has doubtless made it to the history books as the expression of a certain sentiment involving a larger number of school students than any previously recorded movement of dissent—and perhaps this is all the more ‘historical’, if one is accepting of such a worldview, in that the present age is often described as one characterized by student apathy.  It may be that the noxious and equally nauseous politics of the Trump regime and its supporters has energized student bodies into political action.

NandlalBoseGAndhiWalking

It is well to remember, however, that “the march” is not a singular thing.  The “Long March” was itself comprised of several marches; most famously, it entailed the movement by Mao and fellow comrades from Jiangxi Province to Shanxi, a distance of some 4,000 miles across mountain ranges and two dozen rivers, over a period of 370 days from October 1934 to October 1935.  The stranglehold that Chiang Kai-shek had attempted to place around the communists was broken; the march would help to seal Mao’s ascent to power.  Gandhi’s march to the sea likewise may have done more than anything else to transform him into a world-historical figure, just as Nandlal Bose’s rendition of the Gandhi of the strident walk would yield one of the most iconic images of the Mahatma.  In its wake, came the Round Table Conferences:  whatever their place in the narrative of independence, and some have critiqued the conferences as clever stratagems on the part of the colonial power that deferred Independence for another fifteen years, the British for the first time sat down to negotiate with Indians.  Numerous marches have sought to reconfigure the American landscape, none more so than the 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”, which itself demonstrably took a page out of Gandhi’s march to Dandi.  A quarter of a million were gathered to hear some of the stalwarts of the Civil Rights movement; none present there had any anticipation of the soaring speech that King was about to deliver.  Less than a year later, the Civil Rights Act, inarguably the most transformative piece of legislation in modern American history, was passed.

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The March on Washington, 28 August 1963:  civil rights supportres carrying placards seeking equal rights, equal employment opportunities for black people, and an end to discrimination.  Photograph:  Warren Leffler.  Source:  Library of Congress.

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (C)

Martin Luther King, Jr. waving to supporters from the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington, 28 August 1963.  Source:  AFP/Getty Images.

The most recent “March for Our Lives” cannot be likened to any of these marches, and yet it has earned the moniker of a “march”.  Will it, in time, be similarly transformative and thus be deemed historic?  Few remember today the Million Mom March, held on Mother’s Day in 2000, when an estimated 750,000 women and men converged in Washington in support of gun-control legislation following a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California.  Another 250,000 people then took part in sister marches held simultaneously around the country.  The legislation that may legitimately be described as having in part emerged from this activism, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (November, 1993), mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers and imposed a five-day waiting period for purchases, though the latter provision was rendered obsolete by the introduction in 1998 of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).  The NRA, expectedly, offered stiff resistance to the Brady bill; its defeat, at that moment, was roundly celebrated as a demonstration of the fact that dents can be made in the NRA armor.

The Brady Act, however, did nothing whatsoever to put into question “the gun culture” that occupies an immense space in the American imaginary.  The long-standing and militant Executive Vice President of the NRA, Wayne La Pierre, is scarcely the only exponent of American exceptionalism, and believes with many of his countrymen and women “in America as the greatest nation on earth”; but he is also certain that America’s greatness owes everything to the Second Amendment, and that gun owners were critically important in handing Hilary Clinton an unexpected defeat.  Clinton is far from being an enemy of the Second Amendment; much like the students who marched on Washington, she believes only in sensible gun control—though, it is necessary to state, gun control laws in most nations are far more stringent than anything that could be contemplated under the rubric of “sensible gun control” in the United States.

The NRA has absolute mastery over this domain: it defines, names, and maims its enemies, except that its enemies are merely somewhat more reasonable more human beings, and nothing like the radicals who, as the NRA claims, are determined to take America down and strip its citizens of their cherished freedoms.  Apart from all this, it should not be forgotten that the provisions of the Brady Act continued to be whittled down, and the NRA successfully and relentlessly waged battles to augment the rights of gun owners in other respects.  As the events of the last twenty-five years have amply shown, the Brady Act has been rendered toothless; one study, based on an exhaustive study of data from 1985 to 1997 at the National Center for Health Statistics, concludes that the Brady Act may have done something to reduce suicide rates among those who are 55 years or older, but that it had no impact nationally on homicide rates or even suicide rates for those under 55 (see Jens Ludwig and Philip Cook, “Homicide and Suicide Rates Associated with Implementation of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act”, Journal of the American Medical Association 284, no. 5 (2000), 585-91.

(to be continued)

See also:

Part III, The March for Our Lives:  A New Generation of Activists?

Part II, School Shootings, the Lockdown, and an Aside on Masculinity

Part I, High School Shootings:  Fragments of Americana

Part III of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

Seventeen students’ lives were taken at the Parkland school shooting and they could have, after the customary eulogies and testimonies to their lives, ended up as only as statistics.  However, the aftermath of the massacre has made the story of the Parkland school shooting somewhat unusual in contemporary American experience.  Rather than turning the gun upon himself in one final act of desperation as most shooters have done, Cruz allowed himself to be taken captive; perhaps, “his story” will be heard, though it is doubtful that anything particularly striking will emerge beyond the by-now familiar narrative of a white boy in his late teens or early twenties who routinely engaged in slurs against Muslims, black people, and Jews, sported swastikas and was drawn to neo-Nazi videos on the internet, and appears to have thought of white women who had entered into inter-racial relationships as traitors to their race.  The shooters, whether at school or elsewhere, have been, as I have pointed out previously, predominantly white; their admirers, drawn from the ranks of those who harbor a fascination for guns and are evidently advocates of racial purity, are also overwhelmingly white.  In another piece of Americana, as Cruz remains confined in prison while awaiting trial, he is being inundated with fan mail from across the country, with a few stray pieces from Europe, mostly from girls, women, and grown men.  His interlocutors include mature women who have sent Cruz photos of themselves in lingerie, as well as young women who have written him love letters or are solicitous of his welfare [Flores 2018].

More significantly, however, it is the resolve of the students of the Parkland school to bring the subject of gun control to the attention of the nation that has differentiated this shooting from many others.  Just days into the shooting, some of the school’s students had already become emissaries for a cause, appearing as spokespersons for gun control at other schools, on news channels, in town hall meetings, and at community forums.  Emma Gonzalez, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas who was raised in Parkland, emerged three days after the shooting as the face of the student-led gun control movement.  At a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she ended her speech with the rallying call, “We call B.S.”  Emma, like the other students, had had enough of politicians informing families of victims and traumatized students that their “thoughts and prayers” were with them.  She had heard far too many politicians piously vowing, time after time, to make the country’s schools safe from gun violence, and then unabashedly proceeding to collect donations from the NRA for their re-election campaigns.  She now knew what it meant to have to cower in fear:  on the day of the shooting, she was in the school auditorium when the alarm sounded; though she sought to make good her exit, she and other students were held in the auditorium for two hours before the police arrived and unlocked the doors.  On February 20th, Emma and other students met with state legislators in Florida at Tallahassee and watched them vote down debate on a gun control bill.  The day after, Emma let the NRA and the politicians who stand by it have an earful: “You’re either funding the killers, or you’re standing for the children.”

On March 14th, one month to the day the massacre of the innocents took place, students from across the country staged a school walkout termed “Enough!”  They would be assisted in this endeavor by some of the organizations and activists in the “Women’s March” that had descended upon Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President on 20 January 2017.  Timed at 10 AM, students in perhaps as many as 3,000 schools quit their classrooms, while staying within the school grounds, for 17 minutes in memory of their 17 peers who were killed in Parkland and to signal their impatience with prevarication by legislators in initiating gun control measures.   But all this served as a prelude to the far more ambitious and purposeful “March for Our Lives” on March 24th, when a million students gathered in Washington, and several hundred cities across the country, to demand legislative action in Congress, and state legislative assemblies, that would put into place more stringent measures to regulate the sale of guns; some, taking a more complex political view of the matter, called attention to the gun violence that has blighted urban communities around the country and taken an especially heavy toll of African Americans, Chicanos, and even bystanders. There, again, was Emma Gonzalez, this time standing forth, mostly in heavy silence, for 6 minutes 20 seconds—as long as it took for Cruz to snuff out many lives and maim as many—before concluding her speech with a call for action before “someone else is shot.”

The day belonged not to Emma Gonzalez alone.  Seventeen-year old Edna Chavez recalled how, one evening three years ago, she heard what sounded like fireworks outside her South Los Angeles home, not realizing that her older brother had been gunned down in gang violence.  “I lost more than my brother that day,” she told the Washington crowd, “I lost my hero.”  At eleven years, fifth-grader Naomi Wadler took the podium and spoke forcefully for nearly four minutes on the disproportionate impact of gun violence upon black women.  Let us pause over her remarks: “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”

Wadler displayed, for someone her age, remarkable poise; and she evidently has more political awareness and acuity than one encounters among most politicians.  Much more so than school shootings, it is the violence on American streets that has destroyed families, decimated entire neighborhoods, and condemned generations of black men to prison terms and lives of destitution.  Once the gunfire has died down, it is largely women—mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, girlfriends—who are left to mourn, pick up the pieces of their lives, and—as they say—carry on.  America has little interest in resolving addressing gun violence:  it makes some streets unsafe, but the rigid segregation that is pervasive around the country ensures that, for the most part, this violence does not spill over into white neighborhoods.  In any case, much of white America has long been reconciled to the idea that a slight degree of discomfort can be tolerated, so long as gun violence does not begin to tear apart their own communities.  School shootings have, we may say, broken that barrier.

(to be continued)

Part II of The Passions of a March–and of Gun Culture

Mass shootings have taken place at schools, university campuses, entertainment venues, nightclubs, churches, shopping complexes, and even army camps.  No venue is entirely safe; the gunman can strike anywhere and at any time of his choosing.  It is important to underscore the fact that the mass killer is overwhelmingly male.  Homicidal killings by women account for about 10-13% of the total in the United States, but mass shootings by women are even rarer.  Indeed, women account for less than 8% of homicides by firearms; when they do wield firearms, they seldom if ever carry assault or automatic rifles.  What passes for “research” these days will doubtless establish the fact that a majority of mass killers have been known to harbor considerable resentment towards women; among serial killers, who may be distinguished from mass killers, a considerable number in the United States have been known to target prostitutes.  One might argue that sex workers make for easier targets:  they are generally single, placed by the very nature of their work in compromising situations, and they may not be missed by family members or friends.  Their murder goes undetected for days, weeks, even months on some occasion.  We do not know what kind of funerals they receive, if any, and if mourners are present.  But this would be a benign reading of the serial killer’s fondness for sex workers as targets, since the serial killer is just as likely, and of course without any trace of irony, to see himself as an emissary of God sent to rid the world of sin and wickedness.  The sexual promiscuity of women is particularly bothersome to them.  Mass killers, for their part, are commonly described as sexually frustrated: a few, in recent killings, have even been found to hold to the view that they ought to have sexual rights to any number of women of their choosing.  Women, that is, owe them sex; or, to put it differently, the right to women is construed as their entitlement.

Though this aspect of mass shootings is infrequently mentioned in press reports, the profiles of mass killers point to the problem, which perhaps has not been adequately addressed by any civilization and remains the most potent locus of violence in the US, of masculinity.  It is not necessary, in ruminating about this matter, to entertain clichés about rifles as phallic objects, or, more persuasively, speak at length of the fondness of mass killers for heroic, military-style undertakings with assault rifles.  We are, and are not, in Dr. Strangelove universe:  our last scene need not be the cowboy astride the nuclear rocket, riding it to its climatic explosion in the enemy’s womb, but there is a ‘strange love’ that informs the mass killer’s worldview.  One of the more recent words to have insinuated its way into the English dictionary is incel, short for involuntary celibate.  The word describes the man who is celibate, but not by choice; his celibacy arises from the humiliating rejection to which he has been subjected by one or more women. It is these women who deny him the sex which he views as his unquestionable entitlement.  Incel is now more than a word, and is more akin to a movement—everything becomes a movement in the United States, for those who care to observe—with an arch priest, or a reigning philosopher.  It is not certain whether Nikolas Cruz was an incel, but the Santa Fe killer, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, appears to fall in that category.  One of his ten victims was a young 17-year old woman who, to cite media reports, “spurned” him repeatedly; according to her mother, the young woman “had four months of problems from this boy”, and “he kept making advances on her, and she repeatedly told him no.”

Survivors of shootings are always inclined to ask, ‘why me?’ The killer may strike anywhere and anyone at will:  there may be ‘signs’ that, in retrospect, that should have been noticed by parents, siblings, friends, school authorities, and others, but neither an uncanny ability to read signs nor sheer mindfulness can do anything to bring predictability to acts of terrorism.  That is one kind of arbitrariness; let me return, however, to the question of the school as a venue of mass shootings, even as the reader is urged to keep in mind that many other venues besides schools have been targeted by mass killers.  A shooting at a school has a poignancy that is all its own:  whatever the conceptions of childhood in a given culture, and howsoever traumatic childhood may have been rendered for some by warfare, street violence, or sexual abuse, some notion of the innocence of children persists across cultures.  A school, moreover, is a place of learning, and thus of growth and development; it carries with it the insignia of a sanctuary and a refuge from the storms of life.  The vulnerability of children is greater as they place their security and well-being in the hands of those who are empowered to act on their behalf.  It is for these reasons that school shootings seem particularly horrifying, even to those who have no children of their own, or who harbor no special affection for children.

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Santa Fe High School shooting, 18 May 2018. Source: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/events/santa-fe-high-school-shooting

A recent Washington Post study has established that since the school shooting on 20 April 1999 at Columbine, Ohio, where teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide, over 187,000 children have been caught in the hail of fire, or exposed to gun violence, across schools in the United States.  The study notes that shootings where there were no casualties, except to the perpetrators of violence, are excluded from the count; suicides are similarly excluded, as are shootings at schools and colleges.  According to the Post study, the shootings led to at least 130 deaths, and twice that number were injured; however, the study does not include, in its tally of those who were “exposed” to violence, a much greater number of school children who were informed by teachers that the school was going into “lockdown” since a threat had been received.  Reports of such lockdowns, when the anonymous tip of a threat turns out to be a hoax, make it to the local community newspaper, but no reasonable calculation of how students’ lives are upended can be made.

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An unannounced school lockdown drill conducted by Homeland Security, 2014.  Source: http://www.freedomsphoenix.com/News/152045-2014-03-15-homeland-security-conducts-unannounced-school-lockdown-drill.htm

On April 4th, to take one illustration, Menlo-Atherton High School, which is located in one of the country’s wealthiest districts, home to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and tycoons, went into lockdown in the late morning after Atherton police received a possible unspecified threat against the school.  A photograph of a 15-year old boy at the school brandishing a firearm was found on social media.  Students were sequestered in locked rooms and the lockdown was lifted two hours later.  This lockdown would not have come to my attention but for the fact that the daughter of someone who is very close to my family is a student at this school.  The incident did get reported in the local newspaper, though the day when such an incident does not get reported at all may not be very far into the future; indeed, had the school been located in a poor district, there is every likelihood that the school lockdown would not at all have been “news”.

 

(to be continued)