Archive for the ‘politics’ category

The answer, my friend…

August 24, 2009

A few weeks ago I heard a man speaking about aid work. At one point, in the middle of a litany of problems in the world, he spoke of “countries where the winds of political change are blowing.”

I don’t know whether anyone else noticed what was happening through the plate glass windows behind him as he spoke, though: just as he dropped the tempest-as-politics metaphor a man walked into view in the background carrying a leaf blower, cleaning up outside while we sat inside listening. And there they were: the winds of change.

The contrast couldn’t have been much more stark: an older white man in an air-conditioned room talking about how we respond when the winds of change blow, discussing our reaction to the uncontrollable and unpredictable forces of political nature; and outside, a sweaty, dark-skinned man in his thirties making the wind blow, harnessing it to get the job done.

Maybe I should go on record here and say that I don’t actually think very highly of leaf blowers. Good old fashioned raking is good for me, doesn’t pollute the air and can actually get wet leaves as well as dry ones. And while I’m qualifying, I don’t want to pick on older white men or play into tired stereotypes. Actually, I’m seeing some particular older white men do amazing and visionary work these days. My point has more to do with the winds of political change. I think it’s important to realize that they don’t just blow, people make them blow.

The consequences of the distinction are notable, and significant in at least two ways. First, if we perceive the world as something that happens to us, then the best we can hope for is to react well. If we perceive the world as a space in which we move, however, our choices are much broader, and our sense of possibility much richer. We don’t just react, we act.

Perhaps more importantly, if we put the agency back into politics, i.e. we remember that movements and events don’t ‘just happen,’ but are chosen by individuals, then we are more likely to perceive not only the possibility of different choices, but also the humanity of the people involved in making them. That last part is particularly important, I think, and in a social context that so often tries to force complex reality into dichotomies— Democrat/Republican, Israeli/Palestinian, rich/poor, Christian/Muslim, us/them— it takes conscious intention to maintain a nuanced and human perspective.

When that ironic moment presented itself I almost chuckled out loud, but I caught myself, and I spent the rest of the day thinking about what it meant.

And what does it mean? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.


My First Paper

April 8, 2009
From random blog photos

I turned in my first paper of my post-grad career today. I’ve been deeply immersed in it for the last couple of weeks, and have learned a great deal. The education has come not only from wrestling with the content, though, but also from wrestling with writing an academic paper, which is a very different kind of writing for me. It’s funny, though, that whatever I know about writing I really have learned from writing songs. My undergrad studies were fine in an undergrad sort of way, but I wouldn’t call it serious academics, looking back now.

The assignment was challenging in two unexpected ways. The first is that it was quite general, and the professor explicitly left it to us to narrow down. The second reason, ironically, was that it was short. We were asked to keep the word count to 2000, with a 10% margin of error. That’s actually not a lot of space to take on a meaningful subject, and it was challenging to trim away enough of what I wanted to say to fit that parameter, while still getting a coherent point across.

The delightful thing about Dr. Bleiker is that he is a fine writer and is passionate about writing. If you’ve had much to do with academia, you may agree with me (and Dr. Bleiker) that it is populated by very bright people who write terribly. It’s a real treat to have a professor who encourages us not only to write clearly and with well-organized structure, but also to consider the question of voice, and to write humanly.

I considered posting it here, but in the end decided that it might be best not to before it has even received a grade. Besides that, it’s hard to imagine that there are many people who are so hard up for procrastination aids that they need to read an academic paper. I titled it “Who’s Zoomin’ Who? Ethical Quandaries in the Application of Cultural Boycotts,” referring to the 1985 Aretha Franklin song.

The assignment was:

It can be argued that the moral significance of boundaries is the key problem in articulating an ethics of international politics. Examine the role of these boundaries, and the respective political consequences, by comparing and contrasting at least two different ethical traditions we have discussed in class.

Anyway, glad to be done with it. Now for the next four papers that I need to be working on simultaneously… (!)


January 13, 2009

This is a long blog, and I apologize for that. I’ve been sitting with my sadness and frustration about current events in Gaza for over two weeks now, and I’m glad to have taken some time to distill some of my feelings. This is as short as I could go, and I’m sure it will have plenty of follow-up. If I had started writing on Saturday morning, I’m not sure I could have stopped.

That morning I did change my Facebook status to say that I was “enraged and heartbroken at Israel’s actions in Gaza.”

I later regretted that. This issue is nothing if not complex, and though Facebook is useful for many kinds of connections, I don’t think it’s the place to have this conversation. It’s not a bumper sticker issue; the short notes for which Facebook is wonderfully useful aren’t too helpful in this case, and may even be destructive.

One of the responses I got to my little blurb was from someone I know and care about in New York who said “Hamas has been bombing Israel for weeks, killing and injuring civilians. Any concerns about that?” and that was when I realized that it was the wrong venue for the conversation I want to have. Not because I don’t have an answer for that question, but because I have a very long one.

I visited Israel and the West Bank this summer as part of an Interfaith Peace Delegation and spent a lot of time in conversation with people all along the political spectrum on both (or maybe ‘several’) sides of the issue. That doesn’t make me an expert on the situation, only an expert on my own experience, but it did leave me with some strong and lasting impressions, and with a sense of the humanity of the people involved. They’re no longer abstract numbers and strangers to me, and life was easier when they were.

Among the places I visited is the town of Sderot which is the closest town to Gaza and which bears the brunt of Palestinian Qassam rocket attacks. I met a mother there whose teenage daughter still wets her bed and who struggles with night terrors because of those rockets. I had lunch on a kibbutz, saw the elementary school with a concrete shell built over it for protection from missiles, and stood inside the bomb shelters where everyone runs when the sirens sound to indicate incoming rockets. I wept there, and to accuse me of being insensitive to the concerns and suffering of the people of Sderot or other Israelis is simply inaccurate, and arguably unfair.

And that brings me to one of the larger questions I’ve been turning over in my head— how is it that to express sympathy and sorrow and even rage because of the suffering of people on one side of a conflict often means that we dismiss the suffering of people on another side? I vocally opposed the invasion of Iraq long before it started and I mourn the tragedy of tens of thousands of innocents who died under our fire— bullets and missiles I paid for with my tax dollars. Does that keep me from expressing compassion and sympathy for U.S. soldiers serving in that war? It doesn’t. If you doubt that I have done that, both privately and publicly, I have personal references among the military to bear me out.

So let’s establish that first rule for the conversation here — to express compassion for someone is not the same as justifying their actions, and to express anger at a party’s actions in a conflict doesn’t mean that you are without compassion for them or even that you excuse the actions of the other party. Anyone who has ever loved an addict understands that the best way to love someone is sometimes to oppose their wishes— i.e. not to buy them a drink.

As an example, I’ll go on record here and say that I oppose the Israeli occupation of all land beyond the pre-’67 borders. That doesn’t make me anti-Israeli. I’m as pro-Israeli as I am pro-Palestinian, and I think that ending the occupation is the best thing for Israel as well as Palestine. There are many Jews that agree with me on this one, and many, many Israelis (I met quite a few of them there).

I think the message underlying the question from my friend in New York, though, is ‘why all the fuss about Israeli military action and not so much about ongoing Palestinian violence?’

It’s true, though, that while I have compassion and sympathy for all the civilians caught up in this on all sides, I do tend to make more noise about Israeli military action, and in taking my own inventory as to why that is, I have these thoughts to offer. They are personal, more than broadly political.

In the end, my concerns are much more humanitarian than political. I care very little about which parties are in power except regarding how it relates to people’s lives and liberty, and while I do loudly object to the suffering of Israelis, I think the suffering of Palestinians in the current era is hugely out of proportion. The Gaza strip, at the moment, is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, and has one of the highest infant mortality rates, due to the years long blockade of Gaza.

There is a general misconception in the West, I think, that this is a struggle between equals. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not that. It’s not Iraq and Iran fighting; it’s not India and Pakistan. Israel has one of the world’s most powerful militaries, and though recent days have seen more powerful rockets coming out of Gaza, the Qassams that they have been firing for years look more similar to the model rockets I made in the garage as a kid than to the targeted drone missiles used by the Israeli military, one of the most powerful in the world. They are fueled with detergent and have no guidance systems whatsoever. Between 2004 and a week ago, Qassams killed one Israeli. Fifteen have been killed in the history of the Qassam (since 2001). Every one of those was a precious life, and I don’t excuse that in any way. There have been injuries as well, and as I mentioned above, psychological and property damage that runs deep and will take generations to heal.

To equate those homemade rocket attacks with the current blasting of Gaza, though, is incongruent.

So there is a huge power imbalance in this situation, and in every conflict I hold the more powerful more responsible. The other reason, though, is that I try very hard to take personal responsibility for my own actions in the world, and while I profoundly disapprove of the actions of Hamas, I’m not paying for their rockets myself. That’s not the case with the Israeli rockets. The U.S. sends billions of dollars in explicitly military aid to Israel each year, then sells them the bunker-busting thousand-pound bombs they are dropping as I type this. In this very moment, bombs that I chipped in to pay for are taking the lives of innocents and breeding generations more of hatred. There is a line in my own faith tradition about removing the log in my own eye before I worry about the mote in my brother’s, and that tends to make me more vocal in my criticism of Israel.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that though I sometimes hear U.S. citizens arguing that we should ‘stay out of it,’ ignorantly implying that we ever were out of it, the rest of the world is keenly aware that the U.S. provides huge funding to the Israeli government. They don’t “hate us because we’re free” as President Bush famously suggested. They hate us because we’re bombing their children.

So about Gaza…

Israeli military apologists like to say that Israel “pulled out of Gaza entirely” in 2005 and gave it back to the Palestinians. It would be more accurate to say that Israel moved the prison guards out of the prison to the outside wall (keeping in mind that there are 1.5 million people inside that prison who haven’t been convicted of anything). There is a huge wall around the entirety of Gaza except for the ocean and a checkpoint into Egypt. Egypt is under intense pressure from the U.S. and Israel to keep that one closed, and largely does so, though they’ve been letting ambulances through in recent days. Israel enforces a naval blockade around Gaza that allows nearly no one through, and no goods and supplies. As a result, the economy has completely collapsed.

You may wonder if I’m exaggerating about Gaza being a prison, and all I can do is show you these pictures, which I took this summer.

This is the edge of Gaza:

From Israel/Palestine

And this is an Israeli prison:

From Israel/Palestine

Hamas, which rules Gaza, is in my view a violent and corrupt bunch of thugs, and I explicitly oppose both their position that Israel has no right to exist and their ongoing rocket attacks. It’s important to note, though, that they came to power democratically, by harnessing generations of frustration with oppression among Palestinians.

I’ve walked through the checkpoints that Palestinians have to deal with daily to go to school, to work, to do their lives at all. Sometimes those checkpoints are closed arbitrarily for days, and no matter what you may need to do, whether it’s important business, your wedding or life and death surgery, you can’t get through. I’ve also been on cattle ranches in Wyoming, and I find the checkpoints resemble nothing so much as a cattle branding run, with long cages (the roof caged as well) and full-body turnstiles that one has to walk through to reach a central chamber where you are either allowed through or sent back after pressing your papers against glass on the side of the chamber. It’s terrifying and humiliating, and of course, I didn’t have to be there. Israeli citizens and foreigners with credentials like mine can just drive right past it on a road that Palestinians are not allowed to use.

Collective punishment of a people for the crimes of a group within that people is explicitly illegal in international law as well as immoral. Hamas was democratically elected for two reasons— one, the Palestinians were frustrated by the lack of any progress on the part of more moderate voices, and two, Fatah is notoriously corrupt and Hamas seemed at the time to be less so.

On Sunday I went to listen to Raphael Danziger, who is the Director of Research and Information for AIPAC, the Israeli Government lobbying organization in the U.S. He gave talking points to defend the Israeli action, and as part of his talk he gave the two objectives of this current military action.

• One, to bring peace to the people of Southern Israel by stopping the Qassam rockets.

• Two, to significantly weaken or destroy the resupplying tunnels from Egypt that have been dug to get around the blockade.

This first objective seems staggeringly naive to me— killing 900 people inside Gaza will weaken the party that calls for a violent response to violence rather than peaceful efforts? The killing of civilians always strengthens the military factions within a political struggle unless the entire population is wiped out so that there are no more relatives of the dead.

It reminds me of the story of the crab man who found starfish eating his crabs, so he cut them into tiny pieces and threw them back in the ocean. Each piece becomes a new starfish. That’s not a productive strategy.

The second objective, to destroy the tunnels, also seems like a weak justification for the loss of so many precious lives. These tunnels, which have been used to smuggle in arms as well as to bring water, food and medical supplies that have been blockaded by Israel, will doubtless be hugely damaged— and then quickly replaced. I’m sure the current military action will do huge damage to that tunnel system, and I’m also sure, as I think almost everyone is, that they will be rebuilt in a few weeks.

Another note that I received on Facebook from a friend whose views and wisdom I deeply respect said this: “What were the options for Israel? Hamas waited until the end of the truce, I guess just out of political deference to Egypt, and then started firing rockets into Israel. I don’t understand what Israel is supposed to do.”

The six month cease-fire that ended a couple of weeks ago saw Qassam rocket fire only reduced, not eliminated. It went down from about forty rockets a day to two, according to Mr. Danziger. Two is two too many, of course, and “what else could they do?” is a reasonable question. One thing that needs to be mentioned, though, is that Qassams are— literally— homemade rockets, and Hamas doesn’t have a military. They’re not allowed to. Some of these rockets are being fired by people who simply don’t buy into the ceasefire, and I don’t think Hamas has control over everything happening there. There are many people who support Fatah rather than Hamas in Gaza (left of Hamas), and it’s reasonable to assume that there are also people who are even farther to the right.

So the rockets went from 40 to 2 a day, which is a significant decrease, but not a complete cease fire— they were violating the terms of the agreement if those rockets were coming from Hamas, which they may have been, though they didn’t claim responsibility for them as they did for the non-cease fire rockets.

The astounding omission on the news reports of this so far, though, is that the Israeli part of the cease fire was that they were going to ease the blockade. And that simply didn’t happen at all. While I don’t excuse any Qassam, I find the question that was posed to me “I don’t understand what Israel is supposed to do” applies equally in the other direction. Is the scenario that Israel is not required to keep to its part of the bargain, but Hamas is?

I think the options for Israel could have included lessening the humanitarian suffering in Gaza, which Israel alone has the power to do, and which I believe could have had the effect of lessening the power of Hamas. I have a hard time believing that the current bombing campaign will do so.

And here’s the rub – the logic I’ve heard presented most often for this whole situation basically boils down to “he hit me first.”

We’ve got to be bigger than that. ‘I’ll stop firing when they stop firing’ means no one ever stops firing. Being the one that stops firing first does buy some moral authority, and decimating an entire people spends it.

William Sloan Coffin said “Not to take sides is effectively to weigh in on the side of the stronger.” I’m sure he didn’t mean taking the side of one people against another. I think he was suggesting, though, that silence— not taking a position on a contentious question— is not to be confused with fairness. Because I care about the people of Israel and I care about the people of Gaza and the West Bank, I loudly, firmly and compassionately oppose the current military action of the Israeli government.

P.S. U.S. government politicians seem to be uniformly supporting Israel’s actions. The House voted overwhelmingly just a few days ago to put the entire blame for the current situation on Hamas and not on Israel or ourselves. Here are a few organizations that are presenting another view (all of them Jewish, incidentally). Below that is a link to Jon Stewart’s commentary of the other night on “The Daily Show.” It was at first hard to watch for me, given that he is making comedy out of a hard situation, but that’s what he does, and does well. Beyond that, though, he makes some very salient points politically, especially his reply to Michael Bloomberg’s statement. He’s bound to be receiving more hate mail than he ever has in his career at the moment, so if you feel inclined to sign the note thanking Jon, who is Jewish, for his courage, it is included in the link.

Also, I welcome comments here, especially from those that disagree. Wrestling with each other over political questions is the heart of democracy, and I believe in it (I went to hear the guy from AIPAC and listened quietly and attentively). I only ask that you be respectful in your comments. If that isn’t adhered to, they won’t be posted. No hate. Thank you.

Something I think is worth doing

December 18, 2008

This summer I spent two weeks in Israel and Palestine, mostly in the West Bank. The group I traveled with, Interfaith Peace Builders, met with people from all sides of the conflict there, and had first-hand experience of the way people are treating each other. It left me somewhat radicalized, but not necessarily in the ways you might imagine. I didn’t end up more “pro-Palestinian,” or more “pro-Israeli.” In fact, I came to the conclusion that those terms are outdated.

What I am, if we have to put a label on it, is anti-occupation. I think the occupation is damaging everyone involved, Israelis as well as Palestinians. It is the nature of oppression that it oppresses everyone, even the oppressors, and this oppression must end, for the good of all.

This is a short video of the Shministim, who are young Israelis refusing to serve in the Israeli military on grounds of conscience. They are going to jail because of it. Below the video is an online petition that you can sign if you feel so moved.

Gandhi said that he believed in the goodness of the British people and wanted to show them their own injustice, believing that when injustice is sufficiently exposed, people stand up against it. In retrospect, he was right. I believe in the goodness of the Israeli people as well, and in fact, many do stand against the occupation, as I do.

Shalom and Salaam,


Sign the petition

A quick post-election blog

November 10, 2008

… in between all the baby photos (more soon, you can be sure).

My sister Kathy, who is a first year law student at Cornell with a focus on working on our broken death penalty system, wrote a piece on her blog entitled “Now What? A Note to my Co-Liberals.” It’s a good read, whether you’re one of the aforementioned or not, and since I’m committed to an anti-gloating platform, I’ll just send folks there to read it.

On a personal note, I’m waking up in a hotel near Clemson this morning, having driven half-way back from my last road show in Atlanta last night. It was good fun, in spite of some fall allergy vocal issues I’m struggling with.

And now I’m going home. The next thing on my calendar that will require my being away from Deanna and Mason overnight is next June when I need to attend a conference in England. Wow. Seven months. So much to celebrate.

In Light of Current Events

October 28, 2008

Sadly, it seems that my poem White Flour refuses to be outdated. There is more sad news on the topic from Tennessee yesterday. People at shows have been asking where they can get a copy, so I’ve decided to add a permanent page with the text.  Feel free to distribute as you see fit.

An email I just got

October 9, 2008

I got an email from an old friend in Wyoming today. It disturbed me.

I’ll include the text of the original email here and my response to it below that. I was writing primarily to a Christian friend of mine, and I write to her in that context, so forgive me if it’s a little long on religion for some readers.

On Oct 9, 2008, at 12:54 PM, ***** wrote:

—– Original Message —–

More on the special subject that keeps our blood pressures high.

Been around but you should read this one more time especially if you are a Democrat.

Think you know who this man is?

This possible President of the United States !! Read Below and ask yourselves, is this REALLY someone we can see as the President of our great nation!!!!

Below are a few lines from Obama’s books; In HIS words!

From Dreams of My Father: ‘I ceased to advertise my mother’s race at the age of 12 or 13, when I began to suspect that by doing so I was ingratiating myself to whites.’

From Dreams of My Father : ‘I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and animosity against my mother’s race.’

From Dreams of My Father: ‘There was something about him that made me wary, a little too sure of himself, maybe. And white.’

From Dreams of My Father: ‘It remained necessary to prove which side youwere on, to show your loyalty to the black masses, to strike out and namenames.’

From Dreams of My Father: ‘I never emulate white men and brown men whose fates didn’t speak to my own. It was into my father’s image, the black man, son of Africa , that I’d packed all the attributes I sought in myself , the attributes of Martin and Malcolm, DuBois and Mandela.’

And FINALLY the Most Damming one of ALL of them!!!

From Audacity of Hope: ‘I will stand with the Muslims should the political winds shift in an ugly direction.’

* If you have never forwarded an e-mail, now is the time to Do so!!!! We CANNOT have someone with this type of mentality running our GREAT nation!! I don’t care whether you a Democrat or a Conservative. We CANNOT turn ourselves over to this type of character in a President. PLEASE help spread the word!


To others who received and/or sent this note,

I received this email with some dismay, so I’m responding. To not respond would be disrespectful. I respect the person who sent it, and since I’ve been invited into the conversation, I’ll put in my two cents.

I highly, highly recommend that each of you get this book and read it. At least go and find the quotations and check their context. I challenge you to read Dreams From My Father and still think that these out of context excerpts represent the man who wrote it. It’s at the library if you’re concerned about sending money his way.

Until you do that, though, let me set some context.

The first excerpts about race have to do with the struggles of a biracial young man to find his identity in a world where he didn’t seem to belong anywhere. There were periods of his youth where he was angry (anyone not have those periods in their own youth?), and where he got into trouble in a search for who he is. These quotes relate to different times when as a teenager he got off-track. He is admitting that he was off-track in the book, and it is duplicitous to present these quotations as though he’s saying that’s how he feels and what he stands for.

It would be simple to pull lines out of context from the Holy Bible itself and make it look like a crazy rant, but if you actually read it, a different picture emerges. Anything can be pulled out of context and turned against itself.

It’s irresponsible to forward a fear-mongering note like this without having read the book. If anyone else has read it and wants to have a discussion of it, I welcome that – it’s the work of democracy to kick these ideas around and respectfully forge our way forward as a nation.

As for standing with the Muslims, it is the job of Christians to stand with all persecuted people when they are persecuted unfairly, as some Christians stood with Jews in southern France during the holocaust (told beautifully in the book “Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed”) Read what Jesus had to say in the Sermon on the Mount. These are our instructions, and Obama in this part of the book is talking about unfair persecution of a religion within our country. Friends, if we’ve stopped believing in religious freedom, we have ceased to be America. If we will only stand up to defend people who agree with us, we have nothing left to be proud of. What Obama refers to in this quotation is a scenario where Muslims were being attacked for being Muslim. What would you do in that situation? I’d like to think I would come to their defense, as a Christian and an American.

Thanks to everyone in the country who is participating in the dialog. It’s our job as Americans. It’s what democracy looks like. Since I received this email from someone I love and respect, I’m responding with a heartfelt and I hope helpful contribution to the conversation that was started.

God bless us all,