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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.