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What is the American obsession with grandeur, a kind of stuffy pedigree that we thought we had outgrown?

In Obama’s Tuesday night address to the nation, Americans clapped and cheered and urged each other to believe that we could again achieve primacy in education, in manufacturing clean energy and automobiles. ” We will be first,” Obama said, “because we are the greatest nation on Earth.” Really? Is this really what we should be striving for? Instead of building healthy communities where everyone can feel a sense of purpose, well-being and opportunity; we are striving to be # 1 in the fields of technology, business, entrepreneurship, etc. I am not against hard work and living up to one’s highest potential. But isn’t this what got us into this mess in the first place? 

I love this imagery, despite the spelling mistake: “The Americans, the British are all raising huge amounts of capital and there is a giant sucking sound you can here (hear) going in that direction.” http://english.aljazeera.net/business/2009/03/20093965640468145.html

Filled with the need to be # 1 in their class, a bunch of hedge funders took risky bets and inflated the housing market. Meanwhile they bought mansions in the Hamptons for themselves and their wives bought $700 shoes. Filled with the need to be # 1 in the world, the US consumed 25% of the world’s resources despite having only 4% of its population. We gobbled up oil and consumer products until we hit peak oil and our deficit ballooned. Filled with the need to be # 1, we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan to prove that “terrorists” would pay for daring to attack us. 

I liked this quote, even though it is about US-Mexico trade relations. I think it illustrates some important points. 

Capital’s “creative destruction” has meant, among other things, that dynamic expansion has co-existed with social polarization—between capitalist and working classes; between core and peripheral states. US transnational interests dominate the US and the US dominates Latin America. Policymakers have little, if any, interest in debt relief, labor rights for workers, job retraining, or effective health, safety, and environmental standards. Trade agreements should, and could, contain such provisions. They will not so long as working classes remain subjectively divided—nationalistic, protectionistic, and xenophobic.

http://www.greens.org/s-r/06/06-13.html

Maybe we just need to slow down. Instead of aiming ourselves at a steep and narrowly defined vision of success, we could learn to value other things, a more humane way of living. Instead of this arrogant posturing like a turkey ruffling its feathers, we need to realize our own absurdity and make choices that other nations have been making for decades. If we are not first in everything, the world will not end. Shocking, I know.

Continuing with this theme, this NYTimes article asks whether, in these dour economic times, it is better to spend or to save? I think the issue is not important. The real question is, are we going to let the government continue to bail out the banks, reinvest in science and technology and keep troops in Iraq and Afghanistan without engaging with and broadly reconsidering the economic and political philosophies that underpin them? 

The article worries about the waiters at fancy restaurants, the party planners and others who made their living catering to an elite used to elaborate celebration and indulgence. Don’t worry about them. They will adapt and find jobs with more dignity. We should not live “in sackcloth and ashes,” but we should reconsider just what is necessary to live well; friends, family, a sense of purpose, rather than tinsel and “sea trout fennel mousse.” 

http://theconversation.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/let-them-eat-a-little-bit-of-cake/

Forced to Admit…

February 23, 2009

american-flag-2a

“The Obama administration should immediately suspend U.S. military aid to Israel,” Smart said.Much of the key equipment used by the IDF in the Gaza bombing campaign is produced in the United States, including the F-16 fighter and Apache AH-64 helicopter.

Many of the controversial weapons used in the campaign, such as white phosphorus shells and flechettes, also originate in the United States.

http://www.metimes.com/International/2009/02/26/amnesty_slams_hamas_israel_for_war_crimes/7193/

Even after the start of the current conflict and reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in Gaza, U.S. authorities continued to authorize large shipments of U.S. munitions, including white phosphorus munitions, to Israel. 

Amnesty International researchers found fragments and components from munitions used by the Israeli Army — many U.S.-made — littering school playgrounds, in hospitals and in people’s homes. They included artillery and tank shells, mortar fins and remnants from Hellfire and other airborne missiles, large F-16 delivered bombs, and still-smoldering, highly incendiary white phosphorus remains.

http://www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/israel/occupied-palestinian-territories/investigate-misuse-of-us-weapons-in-gaza/page.do?id=1641009

According to Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, “A State which aids or assists another State in the commission of an internationally wrongful act by the latter is internationally responsible for doing so if: (a) that State does so with knowledge of the circumstances of the internationally wrongful act; and (b) the act would be internationally wrongful if committed by that State.”

http://blog.amnestyusa.org/middle-east/silence-is-betrayal/

 

Medea Benjamin, in this article for AlterNet, tells us that “Compassion, the greatest virtue in all major religions, is the basic human emotion prompted by the suffering of others, and it triggers a desire to alleviate that suffering.” After seeing the photo that accompanies this essay, after remembering the voices of the many, many apathetic, misguided or ideologically subservient members of the American Congress, the Israeli news network and our own president, I am not quite so sure. 

Visiting Gaza filled me with unbearable sadness. Unlike the primitive weapons of Hamas, the Israelis had so many sophisticated ways to murder, maim and destroy-unmanned drones, F-16s dropping “smart bombs” that miss, Apache helicopters launching missiles, tanks firing from the ground, ships shelling Gaza from the sea. So many horrific weapons stamped with Made in the USA. 

http://www.alternet.org/audits/127675?page=2

 

The line, “Who could describe, even in words set free? ” is from Dante’s The Inferno.

The Wheels of Justice…

February 20, 2009

http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090309/horton/2

This is so exciting! It seems that American public opinion is galvanizing support for the prosecution of members of the Bush administration for illegal wiretapping and use of torture in offshore detention centers. Support is coming from members of Congress and key figures in the Justice Department. Although Obama wants to push the investigations into his second term, the curiosity and anger of the public may not let him do so! 

Though the wheels of justice grind slowly, they grind exceeding small. One year from today, it is likely that a large number of the secret documents that form the backbone of Bush detention policy will be public and many of their authors will have been publicly interrogated about them. We will have a better sense of how torture crept into the American interrogations system and whose authority was invoked to ram it through in the face of legal hurdles once thought insurmountable.

Feb. 14th

February 18, 2009

Walid Jumblatt in interview:

“Because of the failure of the past president, George Bush. In Palestine – total failure – and now with the new realities on the ground – the Iranians here, the Persian Empire somewhere on the shores of the Mediterranean, in Gaza, in Lebanon, controlling Syria – well, Obama is going to have to engage them.

And also because of the total failure of Americans in the so-called nation building process in Afghanistan, the Iranians are going to be a key player everywhere and the Americans will have to abide by the new rules. “

http://english.aljazeera.net/focus/2009/02/200921482935455857.html

 

Hariri Memorial Speeches:

“Parliamentary elections are fateful because they provide an opportunity to build a free state,” he said.

“Today we stand at the threshold of the international tribunal,” Hariri told the cheering crowd. “The hour of truth and justice has come and your voice will overcome that of the oppressors and we will know the truth.”

http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&EB8199EBC537A26FC225755D002637C8

Hope, Change and Pessimism…

February 11, 2009

barackparade_rtr

 

Egyptian writer Alaa Al-Aswany wrote this op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/opinion/08aswany.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

His words, especially the lines,

” We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law.”

echo my own growing hesitance and disappointment with President Obama. Naturally skeptical by nature or perhaps by experience, I tried so hard to suspend my feelings of doubt in order to give this man, who embodied so many hopes and dreams of the American people, a fair chance. I didn’t forget that the Republicans, used to having things their own way, were not likely to disappear without a fight. Nor did I expect the change that he promised to appear overnight. But I did expect bolder gestures, a tougher stance on critics and a more forceful message of change.

Watching Barack Obama in last night’s Presidential News Conference, I felt like I was watching a man who, upon entering the machine, is about to become very bitter. It was hard for President Obama to conceal his frustration and exasperation with Republicans in the Senate who oppose relief for taxpayers when they are responsible for creating the economic mess that we are all in. But, while he expressed his frustration, he also came across as tired, long-winded, rambling and evasive. Trying to hard to be diplomatic, he ends up alienating everyone. As a friend told me, “Barack Obama is a nice guy in a world of not so nice guys.”

Perhaps this comes as a shock to Barack’s highly educated, liberal sensibilities, but no one likes the nice guy. Politics is a cutthroat game and the winners are those who can outmaneuver and intimidate others into going along with their agenda. As much as I wish we were not like this as a collective human race, this seems to be the way it is. If Barack Obama keeps hoping that the Republicans will eventually be won over by the superior moral and intellectual reasoning of his ideas, then he is in for a long, rude awakening. He needs to get tough, embrace real creative thinking and throw his moderate, temperate caution to the wind. 

 

A similar article appears here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/22/world/middleeast/22mideast.html?fta=y

” I mean, Condoleeza Rice was black and poor, and she still invaded Iraq.”

This in an article that I wrote around the time of the election. If anyone knows how to change the order of posts, I’d like to file this one under ‘October’ so that the more recent ones will come first. Thanks. 

 

Laurel Harig

October 2008

 

America’s Moral Gridlock: We Can Believe In Change But Can We Actually Do It?

 

In speaking of inertia in America, I’d like to begin with a metaphor. As anyone who has ever tried to kick a habit knows, change is a jump- start process, you connect the wires (also known as connecting the dots), start the engine and then wait for the momentum to kick in. We are still waiting for that reassuring hum here in America, in these final weeks before the election. Besides its implications for war and ever more punitive measures against journalists and citizens detained, it was the language of the recent Bush proposal that set my teeth on edge. Those “gosh darn” terrorists, according to John McCain and Sarah Palin, are “jealous of our freedom.” In the words of rap artist Immortal Technique, “I can’t believe you bought that excuse.” 

Hawkish secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson recently echoed Bush’s call for broader executive powers in light of the economic crisis. Deja vu anyone? Will we keep following the marching bootsteps all the way to the cliff’s edge? Meanwhile, the public continues to be swept along on this carnival ride of electoral politics. The gilded imagery of the princess and the rascal, (The Lady and The Tramp) the underdog with big, floppy ears (Dumbo) and his champion are the things that capture our imagination, regardless of the generally bland and uniform rhetoric of both candidates. 

I have long been interested in political speech, even if my attempts to understand vary mostly between despair and satire (although idealism does make an appearance every now and then). Metaphor and rhetoric manipulated well are the best tools of any political candidate. By adopting the speech of the people, by telling them what they want to hear, the politician has the potential to lead but most often ends up only selling him(her)self and thereby the people whom they purport to represent to the media machine. Ergo, they become victims and champions of the populace’s desire to be uninvolved yet informed. 

A few blocks from where I live, two mega churches loom over the landscape like giant shopping malls. I do not live in Kansas or Missouri, rather very close to Philadelphia. Perhaps the French are right to disdain our politics, as Bill Maher recently remarked on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, America is “a small progressive European minority threatened by hordes of bible- waving creationists.” In taking matters into our own hands, is it also necessary that we join hands with others? Should we take ourselves seriously? Is seriousness necessary and can any real joy be salvaged from this pragmatism and worry? 

In her book The End of America, Naomi Wolf argues that only by reviving a civilian democracy (footsoldiers) can America reverse its slide towards totalitarianism. Her argument is lucid as she exhorts ordinary people, doctors and lawyers, sales clerks and homemakers, to read the news and to create it. Writing op-eds, canvassing, bringing politics to the dinner table, all of these things are needed if we hope to take our government out of the hands of experts and into our own. 

I do not know if America should strive again to be the envy of the world. We must prepare for the unseen. The promise of a better day. “We cannot turn back.” A real concerned citizen could be the next president. “Hold on firmly to that hope.” – Senator Barack Obama. Shifts in society always happen slowly, gradually, and there are many points along the course where we can step in and modify the direction. “The day we stop believing democracy works is the day we lose it.” That bit of wisdom is from Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones. May we heed George Lucas’ advice in order to avoid deepening our catastrophe.

A New Approach Towards Gaza

February 6, 2009

Laurel Harig

January 2009

 

A New Approach Towards Gaza

 

I was in Beirut during the recent Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. I was participating in a program of cross-cultural dialogue between American and European students and Lebanese and European politicians, journalists and lawmakers. We expected to cover a broad range of issues, from regional human rights to local areas of concern. Instead, we spent our afternoons and evenings with eyes glued to the television, in horror and shock at what was happening, again. The situation in Gaza, the war against Gaza, dominated many of our discussions. Most of them ended with a frustrated lament of, if only the US would end its unconditional support for Israel, if only the US would stop using its Security Council veto to stop international efforts to check Israel’s arrogant policies. In Beirut, mobs of protestors demonstrated outside the US Embassy in Awkar. In the Arab world, anger does not rise for no reason. Rather, it has been the ongoing marginalization, terrorizing and finally, slaughter of the Palestinian people that has given fervor to anti-American sentiment around the world. 

Jon Stewart is a genius in his January 5th 2009 episode of The Daily Show, available online. He has exposed the relentless bias towards Israel in American punditry. Gazans are “emotionally disturbed” according to Mayor Bloomberg, for no other reason than an inborn hatred of American values. No other explanation, specifically, no other explanation that will humanize the Palestinian people is allowed to make it past the media filter. The human cost of Gaza has been completely ignored in the United States. Women standing in the rubble of their kitchens, relatives crying as they learn that their uncles, cousins, wives, children will never again laugh with them or eat are mentally lumped together with “insane” bearded militants with Qurans and Kalshnikovs in their hands.

Our media controls what we see and what we think. Most people parrot what they hear on the news. Our sad irony is something that we cannot export. The human cost of war has not diminished the resistance even as it has burdened their hearts. A heart in pain does not stop crying for justice, in fact, it cries louder with anguished screams. Behind that, a deep reserve of cynicism makes the kind of dialogue which Barack Obama calls for a more distant possibility. You can wake up from a dream but not from reality. This is the sad irony of Gaza. Perhaps our physical distance from the Middle East allows us to compartmentalize these things. On the other hand, America, no it doesn’t. 

So, in all seriousness, could we call Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza as a bizarre exercise of its “sound and fury” without a plan and without the need to explain to the world what was happening!? This lack of accountability is the most troubling part. International law presumes the willingness of all nations to give up some of their autonomy for the common welfare and security of all. We are not living in two separate realities! One blood-stained and the other sanitized, one liberal and the other inhuman and unrecognizeable. The problem is not that we see the face of the Other in violence and bloodshed, the problem is that we see our own face. 

The moment now, in Gaza, is a terrific (and terrifying) opportunity to repair relations with the Muslim world. The US, despite being allied with Israel, could step in to deliver humanitarian aid, build schools, start after-school lunch programs, rebuild houses and provide healthcare. By doing this, they would strengthen the democratically elected government of Hamas, but isn’t it far better to have one central authority with whom you can negotiate (terrorist or no) than a mob of disaffected angry traumatized youth who keep firing rockets from random points? Do not overestimate the authority of Hamas, which is widely known in the Arab world to be ineffective, weak and challenged by Fatah. If there cannot be one government in Palestine then I have no other solution. Why do we not demand from our government that it live up to the ideals of freedom and democracy that have been maimed by being used as justifications for war? 

The solution is simple, if implausible as conditions currently exist. Israel must acknowledge and commit publicly to its Arab and Semitic heritage. Imagine an Israel with two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic. Instead of clinging to a mythologized European racial status, Israel needs the humility and the true strength to reach out to a people it has alienated for the past 60 years. With the Palestinians and with its neighbors, Israel could become a regional force for leadership on economic, environmental and social issues. Unfortuntely, this ideal seems as far away from reality today as the earth from the moon. Tzipi Livni’s recent statement calling for the “transfer” of all Israeli Arabs out of Israel into Lebanon or Jordan is haunting and haunted by the memory of the Holocaust that informs most or perhaps all of the modern Israeli state’s policy toward its neighbors. 

Hamas has emerged from this most recent attempt to decimate it almost completely unscathed. Hospitals, roads, factories, schools, government buildings are in ruins. It seems, strangely, that a war meant to stop the production and launch of missiles from Gaza into Israel has instead completely crippled its civil society. This begs the question, is this what Israel intended all along? A military strategy without a military goal, the Israeli excursion into Gaza was perhaps intended to cripple the government of Palestine and drive a wedge between the already isolated West Bank and Gaza Strip. It seems the old colonial strategy of “divide and conquer,” still rules today. What can we do? 

Peace is not inaction or lack of conviction. It is crossing one option off the list and going to battle with every other option; diplomacy, sanctions, creative thinking and cross-cultural dialogue. They are by far the harder options because they require us to examine our own predjudices and engage in the art of compromise. In this case, however, before we can talk about a peace process, we must talk about a justice process. Israel must stand trial for war crimes in Gaza, including the illegal use of white phosphorus, lack of respect for the dead and indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in a densely populated area. The complex history of the region will not have it any other way. 

As Americans, we cannot just fold our hands and think that electing Obama has cleared us of the responsibility to be engaged citizens. We must do so much more than we have been doing. Obama was elected as a result of a huge grassroots effort, one that hoped and dreamed and created a leader in its own image. This is democracy, this is the power of people. Whether or not Israel and Hamas, as the current balances of power lay and after the upcoming elections, are willing or able to compromise on a situation that has so recently caused so much bloodshed remains to be seen. Americans, however, have their work cut out for them.