We bow our heads in a moment of silence, Bowed to remember those murdered, Bowed to reflect on the human carnage, the horror, the unspeakable terror
Sandy Hook: moment of silence Emanuel AME: moment of silence Aurora, Virginia Tech, the Sikh Temple, San Bernardino: a moment of silence We demand silence when what’s needed is loudness.
Loudness over the oppression, the learned aversion of the eyes, the easy rationalization, the racism, the misogyny, the white supremacy, the Islamophobia, the homophobia, the amalgam of ancient prejudices cleverly concealed for prime time consumption between commercial breaks.
A moment of silence? Silence amidst the deafening sounds of shotgun shells, handgun blasts, shrieking parents, and broken lives.
Silence accumulating like mold within the expanding shadow of propaganda, warlords, acceptable gangsterism, and scatterings of war paraphernalia.
Out of respect we solemnly bow our heads in a moment of silence. But does this silence inspire memory or feed our forgetfulness?
49 dead, 53 wounded. A familiar tragedy with new characters. And now the shadow has expanded to the Sunshine State™. How will we respond?
Another moment of silence?
Few countries have endured as much violence and terror at the hands of imperial power as the island nation of Haiti. Liberated from French colonialism in 1804, the world’s first Black republic has become synonymous with the poverty and degradation that colonial powers have imposed on populations across the world. Nonetheless, these narratives often shield us from more humanizing portraits of Haiti that do not rely on stereotypes and clichés. Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work provides such a portrait. From her commentary on the Haitian influences in the works of Basquiat to her account of the resilience of the Haitian people in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, Danticat’s writing leaves a lasting impression of an artist whose love of culture and ancestry is as vast as the waters which separate her from her native country. “Create dangerously for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer,” Danticat states in the opening chapter. This tension between the liberating potential of art and the oppressive power of dictatorship is a theme that emerges in several of Danticat’s essays.
Reflecting on the execution of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, two guerilla fighters committed to the overthrow of the Duvalier dictatorship, Danticat provides the reader with a graphic example of the human costs of dissent. “After the executions of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin … the young men and women of the Club de Bonne Humeur, along with the rest of Haiti, desperately needed art that would convince,” Danticat writes. “They needed art that could convince them that they would not die the same way Numa and Drouin did. They needed to be convinced that words could still be spoken, that stories could still be told and passed on.” Far beyond dead material for museums and libraries, Danticat portrays art as a living source of social and cultural uplift, a dialogue unfolding in history which finds its most potent expression in the collective memory of the Haitian people. Toussaint Louverture’s heroic battle against French colonists opens the door to this perspective and the subsequent resistance on the part of the “Great Powers” against any move toward total emancipation.
After all, “Haiti’s independence remained unrecognized by Thomas Jefferson … who [declared] its leaders ‘cannibals of the terrible republic.’” Echoes of this refusal to recognize the sovereignty of Haiti were likely heard in 1915 when US Marines invaded Haiti (beginning a 19 year occupation) and again during the two US-backed coups against the island’s first democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide. Danticat zeroes in on these events as central to the cultural memory of Haitians and the artwork they produce. As Jean-Michel Basquiat commented in an interview with the New Art International, “Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live.” Incidentally, Haitian influences figured prominently in the paintings of Basquiat. Untitled 82, To Repel Ghosts, and Toussaint L’Ouverture Versus Savonarola are just a few of the works Danticat cites as representative of this Haitian influence. “Haiti, like Puerto Rico and the continent of Africa, was obviously both in Basquiat’s consciousness and in his DNA,” Danitcat writes of the late artist, adding that the “arrow-wielding men” depicted in his paintings may represent the Haitian god of war Ogoun while one can see a “tribute to Baron Samedi and Erzulie [in] his heart-covered skulls and crosses.”
In addition to the theme of cultural memory, Danticat examines the climate of suspicion that burdens those forced into the margins of society. The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina is given specific attention as an example of how the line between the citizen and those despised as the Other is blurred in moments of social crisis. “The poor and the outcast everywhere dwell within their own country … that’s why one can so easily become a refugee within one’s own borders.” Observations of this type mirror those made by other contemporary writers who have grappled with the complexities of exile. Late Palestinian American writer Edward Said is arguably the most noted scholar in this regard. In his 1993 study of colonial terror and its cultural consequences Culture and Imperialism he describes exile as “predicated on the existence of, love for, and a real bond for one’s native place.” For Said, “the universal truth of exile is not that one has lost that love or home, but that inherent in each is an unexpected, unwelcome loss.”
Danticat pays tribute to a number exiles in Create Dangerously. Above all she reveres Haitian author Marie Vieu-Chauvet. Much like Numas and Drouin, Marie Vieu-Chauvet is celebrated as a figure willing to defy the status quo in the face of overwhelming power. The intellectual kinship that Danticat feels toward Chauvet is clear throughout, most obviously in her remark that, “in Marie Vieu-Chauvet’s absence [she felt] orphaned.” Again, the ethical code of creating dangerously, which also entails “living fearlessly”, bounds the two artists across generational and geographic divides. As Danticat states in the opening chapter, “somewhere, if not now, then maybe years in the future, someone may risk his or her life to read us.”
Here one gets a clear impression of the significance of the reader in the creative process. In the production of subversive art Danticat seems to imply that both the writer and the reader enter into a tacit agreement whereby each is expected to courageously persevere in their defiance of authority for the sake of a broader social project. Instead of viewing art and revolutionary thought as operating in separate realms, as conventional wisdom demands, Danticat sheds light on the intersection between the artist and the revolutionary, alerting readers to the responsibilities artists must fulfill as agents of cultural change. In short, artists must practice “creating fearlessly … even when a great tempest is upon you.”
As witnesses to the repeated assaults on our common humanity and environment, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously couldn’t be a timelier read. Breaking violently with one-dimensional explanations of global affairs, Danticat’s commentary is a valuable contribution to a more informed discourse about those “on the other side of the water.” Furthermore, it offers paths forward so that citizens of the “first world” can begin their own initiatives to kill the silences that have long dominated the stories of their culture and dishonored the cultural memories of distant Others. Only when these lessons are absorbed can we begin to rise above the prejudices which inspired Jefferson’s denunciation of the “cannibals of the terrible republic,” and value the danger of art that nurtures our innermost desire for dignity and authentic self-determination.
Among the many genres of literature that are available for public consumption perhaps the least appealing is the so-called “self-help” book. Often they adopt formulaic approaches to life’s most pressing challenges leaving readers completely unsatisfied and their innermost questions unanswered. Yet sometimes books appear in print that are written for the explicit purpose of edifying others and they manage to light a spark, not necessarily from the artistry of the written word alone but through the authenticity of the experiences reflected upon by the author. Eldredge E. Washington’s Become M.A.D.E.It’s a Lifestyle: How to Live a Good Life by Building Great Relationships delivers in this respect, which makes it an excellent primer for youth of any background seeking purpose or direction in a world where the costs of inaction are steadily rising. A self-described “hard-headed kid, who thought he was a thug because his pants were three sizes too big,” Washington takes the reader on a journey through his life as a Monroe native who moved to the heart of Atlanta and became infected by the hustling spirit that permeates the city. As he phrased it, “areas like Downtown, Midtown, and Buckhead help me to stay on track and work hard … being around people who look like they are doing something productive makes me more productive.”
The theme of managing one’s environment is dominant throughout Become M.A.D.E. Barely beneath the surface in each chapter is a constant tug of war between the author’s efforts to remain psychologically centered and true to himself and ensuring that the people he surrounds himself with facilitate rather than impede this process of self-discovery. Consequently, Become M.A.D.E. acquires a dual function as part autobiographical snapshot and part Socratic dialogue. Several dialogues are taking place: between the author and his environment, the author and his family, and perhaps most significantly from a pedagogical perspective, the author and the reader.
Each chapter is framed by a series of questions, designed to stimulate introspection and a weighing of one’s priorities. Do you feel you need to create new relationships with people who support your dream? What do you normally do for fun with your friends? Name one mentor you feel you should model? Explain.
These queries serve as handy interludes which allow the reader to insert themselves as interlocutors in the conversation of self-development. Here we see another theme rise to the fore: the centrality of family and community as the foundation for one’s personal and professional development. Defying the capitalist myth of the “self-made man”, Eldredge overflows with appreciation when it comes to acknowledging the pivotal role that his parents, his sisters, and even some of his earliest employers played in helping him to achieve the level of success he has reached.
When his parents had to leave Georgia for a job opportunity Eldredge was tasked with the responsibility to exercise guardianship over his two younger sisters Winnie and Victoria. “In my head, I was their new daddy and in their head, I was the overprotective big brother who kept getting on their nerves,” he observed reflecting on the enormity of the challenge before him. Far from a choice, Washington embraced tasks of this kind as obligatory. Speaking on mentoring younger siblings he writes, “this relationship is sometimes overlooked … but the truth is that person is watching your every move and you are their mentor.” In fact, a careful reader may notice that Eldredge navigates roles from a mentor (with regard to being a guardian to his two younger sisters), to “peer” as it relates to the competitive relationship with his older sister Paula, to an “apprentice” (the third form of relationship) under his older brother Nick of who he admiringly writes, “where he went, I went; what he wore, I wore,” and eldest sister Shardia who “showed him that practice does make perfect and hard work will pay off in the end.” Indeed, a rich psychological portrait of the human self and its many permutations within the family unit is provided within these pages. Parts of it come off as a contemporary Anton Chekhov play. In this regard, Eldredge resonates in the text as the archetypal dreamer who through a variety of human experiences becomes a revolutionary. Again, this component of the book could be more keenly perceived in the context of the author’s full story which is given partial, though in-depth, treatment here. Nonetheless, subtle indications of this revolutionary mindset appear near the end of the text where he memorably intones, “Your name is the only thing you will have when it’s all said and done, so make it stand for something when people mention you.” Such appeals to legacy building is a trademark feature in the writings of all revolutionaries whether it be Thomas Paine who wrote “We have the power to begin the world over again,” in his radical 18th century pamphlet Common Sense, Malcolm X’s prescient closing remarks in his autobiography that he had “cherished [his] ‘demagogue’ role,” under the knowledge that “societies have often killed the people who have helped to change these societies,” or Marcus Garvey’s fiery proclamation that “If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live, in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory.”
Apart from the situation within his own family, it’s obvious by the end of the book that Eldredge has internalized this ethic of guardianship, an ethic he had to adopt at an unusually young age, and expanded it as a social doctrine to be implemented in our everyday lives and throughout the world. “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may be the best example I can think of when it comes to starting a M.A.D.E. Generation. He discovered his purpose in life and he realized where he could help his generation.” The radical possibilities latent in this message cannot be overstated.
We currently live in a period where many of the civilizational traumas and evils that Dr. King faced loom large over any attempt toward self-determination or collective progress. #BlackLivesMatter has risen as the clarion call of a generation of youth discontent with the status quo and fully prepared to sever the generational chains that have bound them to lives of despair for far too long (the recent protest and removal of Mizzou University President Wolfe is a clear example of this). These cultural and political waves can only be sustained if we uplift and celebrate those who are not only willing to critically analyze the concentration of forces arrayed against the oppressed but leverage that analysis to constructively engage and undermine existing powers (if necessary to the point of collapse). However clearly it’s conveyed in the pages of his book, there can be no doubt that Eldredge Washington is among this number in the overlooked streets and alley ways of empire and for this reason Become M.A.D.E. is an essential read. A practical tool for liberation in the hands of Black youth and a valuable historical document for those who come after.
Conventional narratives terminate the Civil Rights Movement after the signing of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. The iconic photograph of President Lyndon Johnson signing the landmark piece of legislation as Dr. King admiringly watches on is portrayed as the culminating moment of many years of mass marches and civil disobedience. While the significance of this achievement should not be understated, this only offers a partial picture of the crises and challenges that defined Dr. King. Beneath all the fanfare of signing ceremonies and presidential speeches was a nation stubborn in its attachment to economic injustice, white supremacy, and imperial warfare. It is this post-1965 America that Dr. King confronts in his urgent appeal to a dramatically polarized society Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? “The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge,” observes King. This loss of support from white liberal allies, what King terms the “white backlash”, serves as a dominant theme in his writing and illustrates the necessity of a systemic, rather than piecemeal, critique of the status quo. Central to Dr. King’s indictment of the status quo is his condemnation of poverty, a plague as “cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism.” In an America indelibly altered by the emergence of mass based social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street King’s words resonate with a disturbing relevance. Furthermore, solutions were proposed to eradicate this “curse of poverty.” “Two conditions are indispensable if we are to ensure that the guaranteed income operates as a consistently progressive measure,” King insisted. “First, it must be pegged to the median income of society, not at the lowest levels of income … Second, the guaranteed income must be dynamic; it must automatically increase as the total social income grows.”
A brief look at contemporary America reveals an economic order passionately hostile to these prescriptions. Neoliberalism and its most committed enthusiasts in the business class have all but destroyed the possibility of a genuine social democracy. Foreshadowing the rise of this highly corporatized and anti-democratic organization of power King notes, “Automation is imperceptibly but inexorably producing dislocations, skimming off unskilled labor from the industrial labor force. The displaced are flowing into proliferating service occupations.” Faced with this exploitation King stressed the importance of unionized workplaces: “In days to come, organized labor will increase its importance in the destinies of Negroes.” As with the proposal for a guaranteed income, much work remains to be done in this domain.
Beyond the radical injustices of poverty in the US, King also directed his outrage abroad where America sent “black young men to burn Vietnamese with napalm, to slaughter men, women, and children …” The glaring contradiction within a country that “applauds nonviolence whenever Negroes face white people in the United States but then applauds violence and burning to death when these same Negroes are sent to the fields of Vietnam,” was indicative of a deeply rooted hypocrisy that permeated American life. “All of this represents a disappointment,” stated King. “It is disappointment with timid white moderates who feel that they can set a timetable for the Negro’s freedom.”
Similarly, Black men and women today are met with bitter condemnation in Ferguson and Baltimore. The burning of buildings and the shattering of store windows often arouses more outrage than the systematic murder of Black people at the hands of police officers or white vigilantes. And lest we imagine the immorality of the Vietnam War to be an artifact of history, it was not too long ago when America sent young men to burn Iraqis with white phosphorous, “to slaughter men, women, and children …” under the banner of “Western democracy.” In the occupied territories of Palestine such horrors also continue to unfold with Washington’s blessing. Furious denunciations could more productively be directed here.
Perhaps this is the most intriguing aspect about King’s writings. Even a surface reading of the text compels readers to engage critically with the world around them as it currently exists. Apart from ruminating on the contents of King’s famous “Dream”, Where Do We Go from Here inserts the reader squarely in King’s reality. In his description of the Black Power movement one can’t help but see many of the features it embodied echoed in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s disregard for the politics of respectability, its forceful critique of white supremacy, its passionate demand that Black humanity be affirmed by a criminal justice system designed to dehumanize Black bodies are all points of contact between these two popular movements. Simultaneously attentive to the grievances of the Black Power movement as “a reaction to the failure of white power,” while critical of it as “a nihilistic philosophy born out the conviction that the Negro can’t win,”—“… that American society is so hopelessly corrupt and enmeshed in evil that there is no possibility of salvation from within”—King offers a nuanced perspective of what happens within oppressed populations when lofty promises by those in positions of power are crushed under the weight of venal self-interest and political calculation. “This gulf between the laws and their enforcement is one of the basic reasons why Black Power advocates express contempt for the legislative process.”
Closing this “gulf between the laws and their enforcement” is likely what compelled King to take up residence in Lawndale, Chicago, where “the problems of poverty and despair are graphically illustrated,” and “the phone rings daily with countless stories of man’s inhumanity to man …” Disturbed by the intensity of suffering, the “emotional and environmental deprivation” that surrounded him, King ominously added, “I understood anew the conditions which make of the ghetto an emotional pressure cooker.” Recall this is in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion of 1965, a social and political conflagration that “signaled the end of the monopoly previously held by advocates of nonviolence as a method of protest among blacks”, Ebony magazine’s description of the uprising in its 1971 Pictorial History of Black America. Indeed, the unfulfilled hopes of Selma and Montgomery birthed the righteous indignation of Watts.
The King assassinated in 1968 was a King acutely aware of this sea change and the revolutionary potential that it held for America and the world at large. Political and economic elites are perfectly comfortable to erect monuments to a King conveniently reduced to idyllic visions of multi-racial and multi-religious harmony shorn of the particulars of authentic justice. More threatening is the King who observed “the cold hard facts today indicate that the hope of the people of color in the world may well rest on the American Negro and his ability to reform the structure of racist imperialism from within and thereby turn the technology and wealth of the West to the task of liberating the world from want.”
This is the same King who declared, according to his close colleague and author Vincent Harding, “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation … something is wrong with capitalism,” and “maybe America should move toward democratic socialism.” Washington cannot erect monuments to this King, principally because these views, and those who take the challenge they present seriously, continue to pose a grave threat to illegitimate authority wherever it brings down its oppressive boot. While the King imagined by power centers is immortalized in carefully chiseled statutes, the King of the oppressed was subversively mortal and many of his current celebrants would have much rather seen him in a morgue than on the DC mall. It is the spirit of this radical King that must be revived to guide us through the chaos of our current situation. The fate of future generations depends on it.
Ebony Pictorial History of Black America: Civil Rights Movement to Black Revolution. Vol. III. Chicago: Johnson Pub., 1971. Print.
That President Obama’s recent agreement with Iran limiting its nuclear enrichment capabilities stands as a diplomatic victory remains largely undisputed in the most prestigious circles of academic and journalistic discourse. Without this deal Iranians, much like their Iraqi and Afghan neighbors, would have suffered the wrath of the US armed forces the argument goes. Disregarding the fact that Iran, as a signatory the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has a legal right to enrich uranium and evidenced no intention to develop a nuclear weapon, the world is justified in breathing a sigh of relief knowing that “the greatest threat to world peace” is exercising its power less belligerently.
Nonetheless, this pause in international violence and aggression is unlikely to survive if some of the media’s most dedicated servants to power have their way. Enter New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In an article that can only be described as a toxic brew of anti-Arab racism, blatant falsehoods, and borderline criminal incitement we are provided a graphic illustration of the resilience of imperial doctrines in the American press and the psychological ease with which its most ardent enthusiasts petition its demands.
Headlined If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran DealFriedman begins by stating if he were an “Israeli grocer” he would “hate [the nuclear deal] for enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium, since Iran regularly cheated its way to expanding that capability, even though it had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.” Notice Iran is “cheating” by disobeying US demands to restrict its capabilities, a capability legally protected under the NPT, but Israel (a non-signatory to the NPT) is not “cheating” in its casual disregard for every conceivable norm of non-proliferation.
Furthermore, it is not the nuclear deal that’s responsible for “enshrining Iran’s right to enrich uranium,” but the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Not only has this been repeatedly declared by Iranian government officials but in 2012 the Non-Aligned Movement affirmed Iran’s “inalienable right to develop research, production and uses of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” Only under the assumption that the majority of the world and established international law should be subordinated to US rules of Good Behavior can we take Friedman’s contention seriously. The same can be said of his condemnation of “Iran’s proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah.” Hezbollah, according to Friedman, “started an unprovoked war with Israel,” in 2006 “and when Israel retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets, Hezbollah fired thousands of Iranian-supplied rockets all across Israel.” Here we have a total inversion of the historical record. That the 2006 war was a war of aggression by Israel (Washington’s proxy), and not Hezbollah, is so well documented that any argument otherwise can only be interpreted as a deliberate evasion of the facts if not apologetics for Israeli violence.
As scholar and activist Steven Salaita observed in his 2008 collection of essays Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, “the immorality of Israel’s wanton destruction [of Lebanon] does not present much of a political or ethical debate for those who would distinguish between military targets and civilian ones, or between terrorists and ordinary people. The problem is that American media repeatedly omitted either distinction, thereby transforming Israel’s aggression into an act of self-defense.” Hence, Friedman can write about how Israel “retaliated against Hezbollah military and civilian targets (my emphasis)”, the implicit assumption being Lebanese civilians were just as culpable in their deaths as Hezbollah fighters.
And the easy resort to dehumanization did not end here. Friedman proceeds to inhabit the mind of an Israeli general, proud and confident in the assertion that “No enemy will ever out-crazy us into leaving this region”, a sentiment with a great deal of merit in lieu of recent history. Yet we gain the most insight into the unadulterated racism that influences commentators like Friedman when he lays out Israel’s war strategy:
“Israel plays, when it has to, by what I’ve called ‘Hama rules’ — war without mercy. The Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets, but it has demonstrated in both Lebanon and Gaza that it will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties when Hezbollah or Hamas launches its rockets from civilian areas. It is not pretty, but this is not Scandinavia. The Jewish state has survived in an Arab-Muslim sea because its neighbors know that for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied. It will play by local rules.”
Israel, a nation with a first world military and nuclear weapons, unleashes an aerial assault on densely populated strip of land, 50% of whose inhabitants are children. Over 2,100 people are killed, the majority Palestinian civilians. Hamas, a military faction under foreign occupation without a navy, air force, tanks, or a hegemonic military superpower bankrolling its soldiers, fires low-grade rockets into Israel killing 73 people, the majority Israeli soldiers (66). That anyone can be aware of this disparity in power and designate Hamas as the exemplar of “war without mercy” defies rational explanation, as does the ludicrous claim that “the Israeli Army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets.” It takes little effort to see that a vulgar racism underlies these conclusions. Nightmarish scenarios of the Jewish state being swept away by the turbulent “Arab-Muslim sea,” compels this island of western civilization and “Western mores” to “play by local rules”, namely the rules of “savages.” Inherent in this characterization is a sharp distinction between enlightened, restrained, white, Europeanized (“this is not Scandinavia”) Jews and crazy, impulsive, uncivilized Arabs so maniacal in their desire to kill Israelis that they would readily sacrifice the lives of their children to achieve this end (this human shield myth has also been thoroughly refuted).
Perhaps the greatest irony of Thomas Friedman’s latest contribution to the booming industry of anti-Arab racism is that he embodies perfectly the mindless bloodlust and impulsive thinking that he so baselessly directs at the people of Gaza and Lebanon. Informing readers on what he’d do as Israeli Prime Minister to diffuse any suspicions about Iranian misbehavior, Friedman states the following:
“So rather than fighting with President Obama, as prime minister I’d be telling him Israel will support this deal but it wants the U.S. to increase what really matters — its deterrence capability — by having Congress authorize this and any future president to use any means necessary to destroy any Iranian attempt to build a bomb. I don’t trust U.N. inspectors; I trust deterrence. And to enhance that I’d ask the U.S. to position in the Middle East the U.S. Air Force’s Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a precision-guided, 30,000-pound ‘bunker buster’ bomb that could take out any Iranian reactor hidden in any mountain. The Iranians would get the message.”
Essentially, Friedman is proposing that President Obama hold together a diplomatic agreement by threatening to drop a 30,000 lb. bomb on a sovereign country (a blatant violation of the UN prohibition against the threat of force in international affairs) citing the Mafioso doctrine that such an exercise in “deterrence” would force Iranians to “get the message.” Apparently, the “local rules” of military savagery expands beyond the provinces of ultra-violent, ethno-supremacist occupier states. These rules also must be advanced by their ideological courtiers in the American press lest the menacing unpeople of the “Arab-Muslim sea” get the impression that they can’t be “out-crazied.”
Any student of history will immediately recognize that Friedman is not the first and will by no means be the last to espouse this imperialist, orientalist, and racist worldview. Indeed, the perceptions put forth in his article permeate our academic, political, and intellectual culture so deeply that it would not be an exaggeration to describe them as foundational to the American national self-image. Nevertheless, the regularity of its expression does little to diminish its insidious influence in how we, as citizens of declining empire, think of the world around us and the solutions available to solve its many crises. So while Friedman peers out at the world through the eyes of Israeli generals and prime ministers we should dare to look at the world from the perspective of those who are victimized by their decisions. Hesitation in this regard would only prolong the needless suffering that only a genuine culture of solidarity with the oppressed can combat.
The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought
“The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation and that makes my blood boil.”
–Dr. Cornel West
Arguably the most valuable aspect of democratic culture is the freedom afforded those who choose to dissent. Without constant, unimpeded criticism of the status quo societies collapse into paralysis or, in the direst of circumstances, one or another form of tyranny. Unfortunately, this ability to voice criticisms of power is not always taken advantage of. In fact, the temptation to succumb to ideological conformity is sometimes strongest in societies that purport to champion traditions of liberty. A textbook case of such conformity can be found in the two latest articles (here and here) by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson in the establishment liberal journal The New Republic.
Responding to what he describes as Dr. Cornel West’s “rage against President Barack Obama”, Dyson condemns the former Princeton professor and public intellectual for his “callous disregard for plural visions of truth”, a malady that can be overcome only through “the prophet’s duty of pitiless self-inventory.” Undoubtedly, the desire to carry out a “pitiless self-inventory” is surely an essential characteristic needed to critically engage with the most pressing problems of the day, a characteristic Dyson ought to have in abundance, at least if he counts himself immune to the hypocrisies he now attributes to his erstwhile mentor. Among the many crimes appended to Dr. West’s bill of indictment are his impassioned criticisms of Obama’s defenders, who he accuses of sacrificing elementary principles of justice for access to centers of privilege and power. “West’s attacks on me were a bleak forfeiture of 30 years of friendship,” intones Dyson. “It was the repudiation of a fond collegiality and intellectual companionship, of political comraderie and joined social struggle.” Putting aside the tone of West’s criticisms, which are of marginal significance compared to the substance of them, it’s worth investigating what kinds of critiques led to the end of this companionship. Dyson’s original TNR piece features three YouTube videos. In one 43 second video Dr. West, during an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! , describes Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in Blackface.” Presumably, this was posted to illustrate Dr. West’s penchant for “verbal brutalities”, a term Dyson used to describe West’s “hateful language” in his subsequent article. The two other videos feature a BBC appearance of Dr. West urging Obama not to become “the friendly face of American empire,” and another appearance on C-SPAN (quoted above) where he decries the hypocrisy of Obama conducting his swearing-in ceremony with Dr. King’s Bible while perpetuating policies (drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for example) that radically depart from King’s emancipatory message.
Again, ignoring the tone of West’s critiques, it’s undeniable that there is a thread that connects them, namely a principled opposition to imperial power and corporate criminality. Notably, even in the Democracy Now! video, despite its brevity, West brings attention to Obama’s “imperial foreign policy at work.” Indeed, if Dyson were truly interested in writing a “sharp polemic” (his self-description) he would at least devote some attention to these hugely consequential topics of global importance. Why else would they reappear in Dr. West’s critiques with such frequency and clarity? Strangely, Dyson’s “self-inventory” yields no results. As the intrepid sportswriter and Nation contributor Dave Zirin observed shortly after the publication of Dyson’s first piece:
The word ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does ‘Wall Street’ or ‘immigration.’ The word ‘drones’ only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with.
Likewise, author and investigative journalist Max Blumenthal, in a piece written for AlterNet, observed, “BDS might be sweeping American campuses, but Dyson has been largely silent on Israel’s endless occupation. Dyson carps about character assassination, but he is reticent on drone assassinations. Since Obama entered the Oval Office, Dyson has had much more to say about Nas than the NSA.”
Moreover, Dyson’s second article—one which he introduces as “a few lines to address the most salient responses,” to his original article—also devotes zero attention to drone warfare, Israeli criminality, NSA surveillance or imperial power quite generally. Briefly, Dyson addresses this oversight in his second article, arguing he would “leave the breadth and depth of West’s political activities to his advocates or biographers,” since he was more interested in “probing the vituperation that clouds West’s political stances no matter their variety or virtue.”
Discarding the fact that one doesn’t have to be an “advocate” or a “biographer” to expound on Dr. West’s or anyone else’s “political activities” (how one could host a political show on MSNBC with this standard is a mystery to me), that Dyson chooses not to inspect, in the least, the “variety and virtue” of West’s criticism of Obama only reinforces the reasonable suspicion that Dyson is either unwilling to denounce, or more insidiously, in complete agreement with these policies. Particularly glaring is this oversight since it was explicitly brought to his attention via Zirin’s critique, providing him ample opportunity to dispel any false assumptions.
Incidentally, what of the “vituperation” that “cloud’s” Dr. West’s criticism? Is that a crime? Uncontroversially, compared to words that would be uttered by the victims of Obama’s drone policies West would likely be counted too generous. Not only have approval ratings for Obama’s policies in Pakistan equaled those earned by President Bush, an impressive feat, but the New York Times recently reported that drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have “incited deep resentment toward the United States” (my emphasis). That this “deep resentment” may sometimes find its way to the Oval office and is sometimes directed at the man who, in the wake of the tragic killings of two western hostages in Pakistan, took “full responsibility” for drone policy is not only understandable but perfectly rational. Is it completely inconceivable that Dr. West may empathize with their outrage? Rather than criticize those who are filled with resentment over these criminal policies, Dyson ought to dedicate more time to trying to stop these policies that foster such righteous fury. And this is where Dr. Dyson and Dr. West part ways. While Dyson falsely accuses West of having his judgment clouded by “vituperation”, his own judgment is, it seems, irreversibly clouded by infatuation, not with the individual that is President Obama, but the power and achievement that he embodies (a form of power that is, at bottom, very reactionary). Examples of this infatuation are as plentiful as they are cringe-inducing. Whether it’s Dyson’s impassioned MSNBC speech announcing his talent in “riding the Obama bandwagon hard” or his less comical, but equally troublesome, appeal to 2012 voters to “join me” in “helping [Obama].” As for sustained criticism? Dyson once “riled the White House” when he bravely denounced Obama as a “gifted leader whose palpable discomfort with discussing race made him a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.” With critics like this who needs commissars?
Graphic as these testimonials are, they are of secondary importance to what Dyson doesn’t say and what these silences imply. Historically, it has always been incredibly easy to tear down public figures, especially those as vocally anti-authoritarian as Dr. West, on the grounds that they are uncivil or too vigorous in their criticism. Take the example of Native American Studies professor and Palestinian solidarity activist Steven Salaita. After condemning Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip during the 51 day massacre last summer he was denied a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Reacting to Salaita’s condemnation of Israeli crimes, university Chancellor Phyllis Wise declared that UIUC could not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them”, a justification the widely read Academe Blog deemed “ridiculous.” Fundamentally, Dyson’s dissatisfaction with Dr. West is of the same brand.
Without venturing into hagiography, which is always an unattractive trait for those genuinely committed to critical thought, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Dr. West as a voice of dissent and social uplift, not only in the Black community but in the United States as a whole. From the numerous arrests that he has undergone in the spirit of grassroots civil disobedience, to his outreach to the younger generation, to his defense of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and Palestinians languishing in the open air prison of the Gaza Strip, no amount of “philosophical meditation on prophetic vocation, scholarly craft and writerly art” can diminish his contributions to our national discourse and the movements that spring from them, a combination that is helping to construct a more just society. Legendary German socialist Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked that “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” It’s about time Dr. Dyson joined Dr. West and noticed his own.
No one remotely interested in US foreign policy can ignore the fact that massive civilian death has become an integral part of US warfare. Often termed “collateral damage”, these deaths are explained as the inevitable outcome of US hi-tech weaponry which often cannot discriminate between legal targets and innocent bystanders. Nonetheless, we can gain valuable insight into the reigning moral culture of certain societies by examining how powerful actors who wield these weapons respond to these deaths. Are the deaths acknowledged with remorse and sympathy or are they simply written off as the consequence of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”? Sometimes the news cycle offers us case studies to test this question.
Such a case study can be observed in the killing of two western hostages, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. An American and an Italian, they were killed in a US drone strike targeting a “suspected Al Qaeda compound,” in Pakistan. As the Wall Street Journal reported “The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program that human-rights groups say endangers civilians.” That drone strikes “endanger civilians” has been well documented for several years by reputable organizations like Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Latest statistics reveal between 2,449 and 3,949 people have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. Of that figure between 421 and 960 were civilians (172-207 children killed). Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan are among the other countries targeted by drone strikes with the civilian death toll in Yemen between 65 and 96.
Unlike the tragic deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, none of these deaths elicited serious commentary within the US press beyond the predictable dismissal of unfortunate “collateral damage.” In fact, this indifference sometimes ventured into pure callousness. Take for example White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ response to the extrajudicial killing of Denver born teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki, a killing Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized on the grounds that he was “not specifically targeted.” After being asked by a reporter why this strike was authorized, Gibbs coldly replied that Abdulrahman “should have had a more responsible father,” a reference to Anwar Awlaki who was killed weeks before his son met the same fate. Needless to say, Gibbs would be ridiculed as a mindless sociopath if he expressed a similar sentiment in response to the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, who, like Abdulrahman Awlaki, were not implicated in any crime. So the question is where does this indifference come from and, more importantly, what measures can be instituted to overcome it. Scholarship has plenty to say in this regard. MIT professor John Tirman explores this in his exhaustive study of civilian deaths The Death of Others. “The very fundamental norm of nation building and national survival as enabled by violence against savages,” Tirman observes, “is enormously consequential for how the deaths of the savages will be viewed.”
Further into the text Tirman adds:
“Correlating beliefs in a just world with beliefs in American ‘values’ is an essential addendum to understanding indifference … It is a foundation of American culture and has been from the beginning, and it powerfully shapes the attitudes and behavior of Americans from childhood. In its sheer explanatory power for the ‘American experience,’ it really has no rivals. It is an account of the entire scope of European immigration, expansion, and subjugation of the indigenous tribes, class conflict, and finally, American globalism.”
Therefore, engaging with the roots of American indifference to the deaths of others entails far more than merely becoming more “sensitive” to civilian suffering but a much more fundamental reevaluation in our complicity in crimes against humanity and what we can do to terminate these crimes given our ability to influence state policy. Recent polling illustrates that such an engagement has been severely lacking. Global polls published by Pew Research reveal the US as an international outlier in their support for drone strikes. Opposition in other countries is not only held by majorities but overwhelming majorities. In Lo Porto’s native Italy only 18% of its citizens supported drone strikes. Nevertheless, US public opinion has remained relatively stable in the face of these enormous costs to civilian populations abroad. It was only after the deaths of these two western hostages that MSNBC raised the question if US drone policy should be changed. If one believes in an afterlife, there were no doubt hundreds of Yemeni, Pakistani, and Somalian ghosts asking themselves why this question could not be raised after their deaths. The huge role that pure racism plays in entrenching popular indifference to non-western victims of drone strikes cannot be ignored. In Tirman’s words, “because of the long history of racism in America, its powerful political effects over the whole of American history, and its insinuation into U.S. expansion, its plausibility as the base of indifference is apparent.”
Further insight how racism serves as “the base of indifference” can be deciphered in the rules of engagement surrounding the Obama administration’s drone policy. In all the commentary that has flooded newspapers and television programs about these tragic killings, not one person has thought to ask what right the US has to bomb Pakistan in the first place. Legal questions of this kind are inconceivable. Instead we are subjected to presidential platitudes about the unintended outcomes inherent in the “fog of war.” Incidentally, this question about the legality of drone strikes is alive and well outside of circles of US power. Not only has the Pakistani High Court in Peshawar condemned drone strikes as an act of aggression but UN official Ben Emerson has raised many, albeit mild, criticisms of the Obama administration’s drone program, particularly what he described as “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” When Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar attempted to enter the US to testify about drone strikes his entry was blocked. “Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visa. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years,” Akbar remarked when interviewed by the UK Guardian. None of these valiant efforts to shed light on the US drone program influenced US policy makers or public opinion in the slightest regard nor were there any polls on MSNBC (as there have been since the killing of the two western hostages) asking viewers to go online and vote if drone policy should be rethought.
There’s plenty more that could be said about the illegality and blatant immorality of a program world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky has described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”, but these insights should suffice in exposing the glaring double standard that drives media discourse about drones and, by association, the hideous policies that increase civilian casualties outside the gaze of public scrutiny. Perhaps if the people of Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia could magically evolve into blonde haired, blue-eyed white people this conversation would have emerged earlier. It’s utterly disgraceful that it took the tragic deaths of two western aid workers for it to finally begin but that doesn’t diminish the significance of the fact that this conversation has begun and that’s a promising start for all genuinely concerned about human life both in the “west” and abroad.
The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars by John Tirman