Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work

danticatFew 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.



Become M.A.D.E. It’s A Lifestyle: How to Live a Good Life by Building Great Relationships

MADE ReviewAmong 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.
huey o newtonIn 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.

Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?

WDWGFHConventional 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.
latin america
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.

The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, & the Poverty of Liberal Thought

41U9bCoyn0L__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Since the release of the Oscar nominated film American Sniper there has been plenty of heated discussion about the life and attitudes of the film’s protagonist Chris Kyle. A brief look at some of the excerpts from his autobiography reveals a soldier immersed in delusions of American exceptionalism and the rightness of the US invasion of Iraq. Pitifully little of this made it into Eastwood’s film but this is to be expected. Imperial societies are notorious for their inability to look in the mirror. Constructing elaborate fantasies about one’s own benevolence and heroism is much less painful. Nevertheless, those serious about overcoming this severe moral deficiency would not pass over this norm silently. In particular, one would not ignore the critical role that anti-Arab racism and highly reductionist conceptions of Muslims plays in ensuring that dehumanizing portrayals of Arabs, like those featured in American Sniper, are ignored or, more insidiously, celebrated. Steven Salaita’s Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought is essential reading for those willing to explore this recurring theme in American entertainment culture and US political culture at large. Consisting of twelve essays covering topics from anti-Arab racism in Michael Moore’s healthcare documentary Sicko to the thinly veiled bigotry embedded in liberal critiques of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, professor Salaita challenges readers to move beyond the obvious and interrogate those prejudices which form the foundations of intellectual discourse about Arabs and Muslims in the US. On the topic of Israel, he highlights the tendency of commentators to begin their criticism from the position that Israel’s interests are paramount. In this form of criticism the fate of the Palestinian and Lebanese people is rendered invisible.

As Wisconsin-based political analyst John Nichols stated in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, “Israel’s attack on Lebanon, which has already killed and wounded hundreds and destroyed much of that fragile democracy’s infrastructure … has done nothing to make Israel safer or more secure from threat posed by the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah.” Nichols went on to add “no one in their right mind thinks Israel is going about the mission in a smart manner.” This position, that illegal wars of aggression should be evaluated on the basis of its efficacy (is the war crime “smart”) and not on the basis of international law or morality, is standard in liberal circles. Focusing on this practice, Salaita notes, “Nichol’s analysis reinforces Israel’s right to violence and then encourages it not to terminate its attacks but to practice a wiser form of aggressiveness.” Incidentally, this type of unquestioning support for violence as a purely tactical matter was replicated in President Obama’s condemnation of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war.” Like Nichols’ critique of the Israeli invasion, Obama was merely calling for a “wiser form of aggressiveness.”

Another notable example of the liberal disregard for Arab and Muslim lives could be found in Michael Moore’s healthcare documentary Sicko. In an attempt to lampoon the US healthcare system, Moore exploited the very real and intense suffering of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. After Republican Senator Bill Frist made the claim that “prisoners on the US military base at Guantanamo receive excellent healthcare,” Moore attempted to make the healthcare available to ailing 9/11 rescue workers who were “unable to obtain adequate medical coverage.” Ostensibly, the premise of the action was to illustrate that the US healthcare system was so hopelessly corrupt that it would more readily attend to the healthcare needs of “terrorists” than 9/11 rescue workers. But this point could only be made if Moore completely ignored the verifiable fact that many of the prisoners at Guantanamo were kidnapped and imprisoned illegally in violation of international law (therefore, they weren’t “terrorists”). Furthermore, many of the prisoners were also subjected to cruel and sadistic forms of torture, another fact conspicuously omitted from Moore’s documentary. Consequently, Moore’s critique of the US healthcare system relies on the invisibility of the victims of US power, an erasure that is made more troubling by the appeal to patriotism. “The detainees,” observes Salaita, “are rendered props in Moore’s rhetorical circus and are thus precluded from the luxury of basic human identification … Here the Guantanamo prisoners become dehumanized tableaux.”

Aside from these scathing critiques of “well-intentioned” liberalism, Salaita’s book also offers emotionally moving autobiographical glimpses into the life of a public intellectual grappling with the complexities of being an Arab in America and the Othering effects that come with this particular ethnic and cultural identity. Reflecting on the national mood during the First Gulf War, Salaita states, “I knew that I wasn’t merely an American, I was also an Arab, like the Iraqis. Like Saddam Hussein. This reality wasn’t lost on my classmates, who routinely demanded that I reaffirm my loyalty to the United States.” Accordingly, Salaita reaffirmed his “loyalty” by “[pumping] [his] fist along with everybody else when American warplanes blew things up”, acts that “weren’t traitorous but immoral.” Stories of this kind echo those featured in his previous book Anti-Arab Racism in the USA. In both cases they touch on a highly relevant theme in American nationalism, namely the theme of redemptive violence and how the politics of exclusion are necessary to cement a “national identity” (what Salaita calls in Anti-Arab Racism “imperative patriotism”).

Special treatment is given to the topic of redemptive violence in the essay on the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Departing from conventional narratives that portrayed the mass shooting as a shocking aberration which was entirely unpredictable due to the fact that the killer was thoroughly “assimilated”, Salaita argues that Cho Seung-Hui’s crime must be understood within the context of American society at large and how the survival of American institutions depend crucially on the reproduction of violence, physically and systemically. Taking these realities in mind, we must acknowledge “the ugly truth” that “the American government does a fine job on its own nurturing a culture of violence in the United States.”

Reviewing the hideous record of anti-Arab racism, regularly intensified by periodic military “incursions”, one gains a new understanding of the significant barriers that prevent the emergence of a genuinely humanistic discourse free from the patronizing and simplistic explanations of establishment liberal discourse. In order to surmount these difficulties it will be necessary to dispense with Orientalist assumptions about Arabs and Muslims. Moreover, it will be necessary to listen to those who are on the receiving end of US violence. In Salaita’s words, “Please disagree with me; please argue with me; please point out where I am wrong; but please don’t be so damn certain from the outset that I represent a culture or world-view that is fundamentally inferior.” Sadly, such certitude is something that Hollywood movies like American Sniper are designed to cultivate, a fact made glaringly obvious when one considers the public expressions of bloodlust that have characterized some of the more enthusiastic fans of the film. Throughout his autobiography Chris Kyle refers to the Iraqi people as “savages.” This attitude did not form in a vacuum. It was nurtured by a political culture that rationalizes the most barbaric of actions under the pretext of “national security”, “patriotism”, and “American values.” Professor Salaita’s essays are indispensable in demystifying these pernicious doctrines and combatting the Chris Kyles of history, the big screen, and (if these insights aren’t seriously absorbed) the near future.

Goliath: Life & Loathing in Greater Israel

Blumenthal-GoliathIf there ever were a manual designed to instruct colonial administrators on how to best manage an oppressed population there’s little doubt that one of its leading principles would be to repeatedly, and emphatically, portray every resort to violence, no matter how egregious, as an heroic attempt to promote peace. Such is the case with Israel’s long, brutal, and US-backed (crucial detail) occupation of Palestine. After the Palestinian Authority’s decision to seek membership in the International Criminal Court, what Newsweek described as Abbas “[rolling] the statehood dice”, US and Israeli officials wasted little time in venting their rage. While Israel reacted “by saying it will withhold $120 million of tax and customs receipts it collects on behalf of Palestinians each month” (a reality that flatly contradicts the Israeli self-image as a fortress of “democracy” and not a military occupier), the US State Department, in typical paternalistic fashion, condemned Palestinians for making a move that “badly damaged the atmosphere for peace.” Conversely, US military support for Israeli atrocities, a policy that made 2014 the most devastating year for Palestinians in terms of casualties since 1967, did not “badly damage the atmosphere for peace.” These crimes, as our colonial instruction manual would surely contend, enhanced “peace.”

Anyone observing this state of affairs could learn a great deal by asking how a worldview of this kind is sustained, and more importantly, what we can do to undermine it. Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel offers a deeply unsettling look into what is often called “the only democracy in the Middle East” and in doing so challenges readers to defy these propagandistic constructs which exert such tremendous influence on American attitudes and US political discourse generally. Separated into ten parts, bearing titles like “Indoctrination Mills”, “This Belongs to the White Man”, and “Feeling the Hate”, Blumenthal is unsparing in his examination of a country drowning in toxic ideologies of racism, nationalism, aggressive militarism, and ethnic supremacy. Reading Blumenthal’s study it’s extremely difficult to ignore the fact that the anti-Arab (and in many cases anti-African) racism within Israel extends far beyond the confines of illegal settlements. The Israeli political establishment has not only legitimized these hateful ideologies but has been in the lead in ensuring that they are treated with the reverence of sacred truths.

One glaring example in the legal realm is the 2010 Acceptance to Communities Law. Proposed by Israeli Knesset member David Rotem, this law “officially [sanctioned] ethnic segregation in the small Jewish towns planted across the Galilee and the Negev Desert.” Policies of this kind conform neatly to Israeli public opinion, which views Arabs as a “demographic threat” to be contained, if not expelled entirely in accordance with exclusivist doctrines of ethnic purity. “A poll taken in August 2012 by Tel Aviv University statistician Camil Fuchs revealed that a majority of Israeli twelfth-graders supported the total deportation of non-Jewish African asylum seekers living in the country, and the expulsion of their Israeli-born children.” Meanwhile, “almost half of secular high schooler seniors declared their refusal to live next door to an Arab,” and “nearly 90 percent of their religious counterparts endorsed the segregationist view.” Openly racist viewpoints of this kind are the rational results of a society with a school system geared toward “the transmission of nationalist attitudes through Israel school textbooks, both through implicit and explicit messaging”, an educational model Blumenthal described as “systemic and comprehensive.”

Along with Israeli atrocities in the Palestinian territories, these racist attitudes are given scant, if any, attention in mainstream US discourse. Part of this silence can be attributed to the routine hypocrisy that ignores unpleasant realities about so-called allies while amplifying those of declared enemies, but another, much deeper reason may lie in the fact that the United States is not immune to this brand of systemic racism. Indeed, US political and media elites almost certainly identify with it. This congruence between race relations in the US and those within Israel came into sharp focus in the aftermath of the highly publicized murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. In addition to casting light on the close cooperation between Israeli security forces and US police departments, these events demonstrate how state violence relies heavily on obscuring the humanity of oppressed populations, whether it be through everyday forms of racial discrimination, which constitutes the core of apartheid regimes, or the dissemination of Founding myths designed to whitewash the historical grievances of others. Just as political elites in Arizona worked feverishly to purge public school curriculums of ethnic studies programs that provided an alternative to the Eurocentric narratives of establishment discourse, Israeli public figures have dedicated themselves to removing any trace of the Palestinian Nakba from the historical record. “Since the foundation of the State of Israel,” Blumenthal writes, “Palestinian students in the country’s segregated Arab schools have been forbidden from learning about the Nakba.” He continues, “though textbooks in Arab schools are replete with Holocaust history, references to the Nakba have been completely omitted.”

Given the savage assault on the Gaza Strip last summer, and the enthusiastic support for it within the US Congress (“progressives” included), it’s incredibly tempting to succumb to defeatism. But only if one ignores the enormous sacrifices of the Palestinian people. If this—the courageous and irrepressible spirit of Palestinians—is acknowledged one can easily adopt the opposite approach: a moral urgency to denounce the indignities of a social and political order that values degradation above human affirmation and the consolidation of power above the defense of the powerless. Very much in the tradition of classic texts like W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Blumenthal’s Goliath takes what could have been a very dispassionate work of investigative journalism and brings it to life it with emotionally moving glimpses into the lives of those on the other side of the gun. Whether it’s his writings on the resilience of the Tamimi family after being subjected to a litany of tragedies at the hands of Israelis—wrongful arrests, imprisonment, exile and murder—or the families of the Abu Eid Refugee Camp whose homes were demolished under Benjamin Netanyahu’s “campaign of ‘Judaization’”, these stories serve as an inspiration to all who are sincere in their desire for justice in the region.

This brings us back to the second half of the opening question: what can we do to undermine the easy resort to dehumanizing clichés and violence? A recent editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz acquires new meaning in the context of Blumenthal’s book and provides a possible answer. Summing up the general mood in Israel, the board observed, in disturbingly casual tone, “Few things are more popular in Israel than making life harder for Palestinians.” The horrors concealed in this throwaway line merits more than idle contemplation when the US contribution to this policy is fathomed. As journalist and activist Ali Abunimah eloquently stated in his latest appearance on Democracy Now! “I’ll tell you what didn’t help the atmosphere [for peace] … during the summer in Gaza when dozens of people were being killed every day by Israeli bombs, when entire neighborhoods were being destroyed and carpet-bombed by Israeli shelling, when, during that time, the Obama administration, President Obama, decided to resupply the Israeli military with bombs so it could continue to murder people in Gaza. To put it mildly, that didn’t help the atmosphere.” As much as this book puts Israel under the magnifying glass, we must not lose sight of the country that has consistently undersigned these policies of state terror, namely the United States. Meaningful change requires more than negotiations over Israeli and Palestinian borders, (central as they are to a just resolution). It also requires long-lasting social, cultural and political transformations within our own society. Goliath is essential reading in helping us embrace this grave responsibility.




A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

9780805080414_custom-f738395eec5b7662a84419a1012990e3e9b54ce5-s800-c15Since the highly publicized release of the US Senate Torture Report reactions have ranged from outrage, to shameless apologetics, to cold indifference. The New York Times, in an unusual display of adversarial journalism, decried the revelations as “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,” while the Washington Post declared “Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked.’” Both of these responses, while properly critical of state criminality, offer only a partial picture of the culture of power responsible for the atrocities detailed in the report. In order to grasp fully how the CIA constructed this global torture regime it’s necessary to explore the history of US policy, specifically when it comes to the treatment of “enemy” populations. Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture is essential reading in tracing this history, beginning with CIA experimentation with Soviet-inspired methods of “mind control” and culminating with the sensory deprivation, stress positions, and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape) of today’s agency. Contrary to myths that the barbaric actions of the CIA represented an assault on “American values”, McCoy demonstrates how torture has long been a key instrument of US policy throughout the Cold War period and in its aftermath. During the Vietnam War the US military enforced a national torture program drawing its tactics from a document called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Contained in this handbook were instructions for the implementation of “a revolutionary two-phase form of torture that relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical.” Alongside this embrace of psychological torture was the Phoenix Program, a highly complex assassination program that led to the deaths of 40,994 Vietcong guerillas (Saigon government figures).

Shortly after the inception of these policies, they were replicated in Latin America, first in US-backed South American dictatorships (Brazil for example) and, eventually, in Central American terror states like Honduras. This continuity between US policy in Vietnam and policy in Central America during the 1980s could be perceived most clearly in the Human Resources Manual that the Honduran state drew from in their torture of “communist” subversives. Among the methods relied upon in this manual were sensory deprivation, with an emphasis on forms of solitary confinement, and manipulation of the environment. In one particularly gruesome instance of this paradigm in action, the Caballero unit, named after Honduran Sergeant Florencio Caballero, brutally tortured a “young Marxist” named Ines Murillo. While in Honduran custody Murillo was “stripped naked and subjected to electrical shocks for thirty five days.” Afterwards, she was “moved to a second, secret prison near Tegucigalpa where her questioners … ‘gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner, threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate.”

Overshadowing all of these crimes, from those in Indochina to those in Central America, was a culture of impunity that shielded all responsible from even the slightest forms of legal accountability. In this respect, America followed the same path of its imperial predecessors in France and Britain. When colonial France was found to have committed heinous crimes against the Algerian resistance, crimes which included, among other things, the waterboarding of Algerians, a government organized inquiry (the Wuillaume Report) exonerated all high-ranking officials on the flimsy argument that the torture methods employed were “more psychological than physical and therefore [did] not constitute excessive cruelty.” Similarly, when it was exposed that British forces were engaged in torture in Northern Ireland—“five techniques” consisting of wall standing, sleep deprivation, starvation, subjection to noise, and hooding—a government-led investigation (The Compton Report) absolved the perpetrators arguing that the crimes were “necessary against terrorists because ‘information must be sought while it is still fresh … and thereby save members of the security forces and of the civil population.’”

It therefore should come as no surprise to any student of history that President Obama honored this disgraceful tradition when he responded to the Senate exposures of CIA torture by urging that we not “refight old arguments” by going after the culprits (a reasonable position if we internalize the worldview of a state terrorist). Aside from conforming to a societal pattern of callousness and disregard for human life, what MIT international relations scholar John Tirman calls “collective autism”, Obama’s statement evinces a deep-seated ignorance as it relates to the long-term psychological effects of torture. In historical terms, the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a human being via torture is well documented. In 1972 a selection of Danish medical professionals examined “Greek and Chilean refugees for ‘forensic medical evidence of the after-effects of torture,” and concluded “of the 200 victims examined … nearly 70 percent still had ‘mental symptoms at the time of examination.'” Symptoms included “nightmares, depression, panic attacks, and low energy”.

Contemporary cases of torture demonstrate a similar trend. The brutalization of Canadian national Maher Arar is a textbook example. In what’s euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” Arar was kidnapped by US agents at JFK Airport in New York, “loaded onto a CIA-chartered Gulfstream III jet”, and transferred to a Syrian prison “where he remained for a year being beaten and whipped so savagely that he confessed to anything his tormentors suggested.” Two years after his release Arar reported that he “still [had] nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, [and] being in jail.” Post-traumatic stress of this kind is a common experience for torture victims who are unable to casually dismiss these crimes against humanity as an “old argument.” For torture victims the “argument” is never truly “old.” It’s perpetually present.

Examining the enormous scope and level of coordination behind the Bush administration’s torture program it’s glaringly obvious that anything less than a criminal prosecution of top administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), apologists in the legal profession (John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez), and high-ranking military figures (General Sanchez) will ensure that worse atrocities will be committed in the future. Achieving this will require an honest look at not only the criminality embedded in institutions of power but an equally honest look at the social norms and mores that enabled the US public to silently acquiesce to these monumental crimes. In the words of a recent Washington Post article, “A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture …” Disengaging from this culture of indifference is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming this tradition of state sponsored terror. Only then can the American public help provide the psychological and moral closure, and significantly, legal justice, that the victims of these savage acts rightfully deserve.


Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters

Memories_of_muhammad_coverIn a society permeated with stereotypical portraits of Muslim communities intellectually honest narratives are regularly subordinated to sensational fairy tales replete with fear, xenophobia, and dehumanizing tropes purporting to explain violent behavior. Examples of this are too plentiful to enumerate. Dr. Omid Safi’s Memories of Muhammad chronicles the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the historical developments that characterized his time, and the various scholarly and theological interpretations that followed to provide an incredibly detailed description of Islamic teachings and the enormous influence they continue to exert today. In doing this Safi offers a much needed refutation to the monolithic conceptions of Islam that pervade US discourse. As Safi puts it, “If we are to understand the Islamic civilization that rightly sees itself as being shaped by the revelation given to Muhammad, it behooves us to engage the multiple ways in which Muslims have come to cultivate the memory of Muhammad.” Several realities must be factored into this analysis. Among these realities is the fact that “perhaps over 600,000 hadith reports came into circulation in the centuries after Muhammad’s passing” (“classical hadith scholars … accepted only 1 to 2 percent of the hadith in circulation as reliable”), that there is a rich tradition of devotional poetry uplifting the example of the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslim communities, from Sunni to Shia and Sufi, have brought their own unique interpretations to this body of work.

The sharply conflicting responses to the Burda, a devotional poem authored by Sufi Egyptian poet Busiri, is a paradigmatic example of just how radically disparate certain interpretations are within Muslim majority societies. While the poem is hugely influential in many parts of the world (“the Burda was translated … into Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Punjabi, Pashto, Swahili, English, Malay, and Shila-Berber”), it has been met with hostility in other quarters. Saudi Arabia, the center of Wahhabism, has been the principal opponent of this devotional strand of Islam.

“Under the influence of Wahhabi clerics,” Dr. Safi writes “Saudi authorities have … erased all but the last line of the Burda poem in praise of the Prophet that had been inscribed on the walls of the Mosque of the Prophet during the Ottoman reign.” Safi went on to add “had the Wahhabis had their way in 1812, it would not have been merely the Burda that was effaced but the entire Mosque of the Prophet.” More than a mere disagreement over the “devotional practices of Islam”, this event was likely reflective of a much deeper tension between Islamic orthopraxy as understood by Wahhabi clerics and dominant understandings within the Sufi tradition where the “connection to the Prophet is more existential,” with “knowledge [coming] from a less mediated source.”

Beyond these points of friction, it’s also worth acknowledging the role of certain Islamic teachings as a unifying force critical not only of intellectual divisions within Islam but, more broadly, parochial elements within the older Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Christianity). “The Qur’an,” Dr. Safi argues, “makes no move to negate the earlier revelations. In fact, the Qur’an criticizes the Jewish and Christian communities around Muhammad for having become too exclusivist and for denying the truth of other revelations.” Safi highlights this thoroughly Abrahamic ethos in the following passage:

“They say: ‘Become Jews or Christians if you wish to be guided.’
Say You: ‘No! I would rather be part of the tradition of Abraham, the true one, who did not associate partners with God.’” (Qur’an 2:135)

Examples this kind greatly complicate if not eviscerate completely jingoistic ideologies that promote a “clash of civilizations” where “our” “Judeo-Christian heritage” is perpetually threatened by the rise of the “Islamic menace.” Here we realize the dangers of reading religious texts divorced from the historical context and geopolitical disputes that constantly shape the world we live in. Much of the bigotry that today’s “intellectuals” direct at Islam and the Prophet Muhammad are merely parroting others who, despite their reputations as great thinkers, were just as steeped in ignorance. “Some classics of Western literature, such as Dante’s Inferno, depict Muhammad as being cut open right down through his torso and cast into the ninth circle of Hell.” Meanwhile, the celebrated figurehead of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, wrote the following in a preface to a 1543 Latin translation of the Qur’an (note the seething anti-Semitism as well):

“For just as the folly, or rather madness, of the Jews is more easily observed once their hidden secrets have been brought out into the open, so once the book of Muhammad has been made public and thoroughly examined in all its parts, all pious person will more easily comprehend the insanity and wiles of the devil and will be more easily able to refute them.”

Quite apart from an innocent investigation of “ideas”, as contemporary bigots love to contend, Luther was acutely aware that he was “living in the aftermath of the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.” Furthermore, he was “mindful and aware—even fearful—of the presence of Muslims (‘Turks’ to him) and was keenly interested in the study of Islam. Yet he was not interested in understanding Islam per se, or getting to know Muslims as human beings.” This brand of “study”–selectively quoting text entirely divorced from the complex lived experience of actual human beings who have devoted their lives to honoring the Prophet’s example–lies at the core of all ahistorical commentaries on Islam. The fact that so little has changed from the bigotry of Dante and Martin Luther to less influential, but just as intellectually feeble, denunciations of Bill Maher and Sam Harris is a screaming testament to this.

This is why Safi’s Memories of Muhammad is such an invaluable contribution to our troubled times. Safi’s scholarship is aggressive in its rejection of easy explanations and careful in navigating the spiritual paths that each community has charted to bridge their experiences in this world with the divine. “This is the goal of the community of Muhammad: to be led to Muhammad, and from Muhammad to God.” Many of the biographical insights Safi provides with regard to the world the Prophet inhabited mirror those of Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, primarily his observation that the Prophet’s followers “saw their society as one in which the strong oppressed the weak and ‘the ways of the forefathers’ had become more sacrosanct than the ways of God.” In both biographies the Prophet resonates as a revolutionary messenger struggling on behalf of the marginalized.

“Islamic life is not usually black-and-white but rather takes on a full spectrum of color,” notes Safi. “People’s lives, cultures, ideas, and sensitivities are more fluid and water-like than rock-like: they are in constant motion.” This “fluid and water-like” character of Islamic life is embodied in the poetry of Rumi, Medieval Muslim miniatures, the thousands of hadiths, in the “well known artistic tradition called the Hilya,” where “it became customary to depict in a richly illuminated manuscript an edified description of Muhammad”, in the Dalia’il al-Khayrat—“a series of litanies” devoted to the Prophet—and in several physical sites imbued with historical significance from the al-Asqa Mosque in Jerusalem to the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. Unless this more inclusive, historically literate, and thoroughly humanizing method of analysis is embraced more widely many will be left to rely on the reductionist explanations of today’s political and intellectual elites. Reasons for avoiding this outcome are obvious, as are the destructive consequences of inaction.