Sunday, December 27, 2009

Men into Monsters

Today I saw a photo that made me both joyful, and unutterably sad. It was of a Palestinian man holding a baby aloft. The baby is bundled in a striped sweater and green pants, and is standing in the man’s hands as he holds them out in front of him. Both are laughing, and the baby’s arms are straight out from its body.

This photo and the emotions I felt, and the actions a ‘friend’ took when I posted a response to this photo on Facebook are emblematic for me of both what’s absolutely right and what’s terribly wrong in the world.

My first reaction was one of joy – my heart literally filled with joy when I looked at this man’s face, the little baby, the way the man held it with such love, the moment of happiness they shared. Unadulterated love, unmitigated and whole.

On the heels of that joy came a sharp sadness akin to despair. The fact that these were Palestinian people brings with it a hundred other associations, the most potent of which for me this morning was that in the world today, joy and happiness and fat little babies standing on outstretched arms can be obliterated, destroyed by hatred and ignorance.

I am not talking specifically of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. I am not talking of the Middle East. I am not talking of today or yesterday or last year or the last decade, but of all of that time, and as far back into the past as people have been looking at each other and seeing anything other than themselves.

I look at this photo and I see people in a moment of joy, and I ache for the joy that is shattered every day, in all parts of the world, because people cannot see each other.

We – everyone, a generic ‘we’ – turn people into monsters and then send bombers to drop death into their midst. We call them heathen, infidel, terrorist, evil-doers, and thereby give ourselves license to kill. And we create hell from a distance and then don’t understand how this creates hatred in return.

I am astounded that death of any kind is acceptable, that war is seen as inevitable, that ever bigger and more lethal weapons are created and used to destroy cities, ancient art, history, families, people. Babies standing with outstretched arms on men’s hands.

Can it be simply that these people who condone this kind of death are unaware of what death looks like – the blood, the body parts, the screaming of those left alive? Can it be that they think the worth of a person is measured by their belief in a certain god or a way of living? Can it be that they believe in a cause so wholeheartedly that it does not matter whom they destroy on their way to a the desired goal? Can it be that they don’t see that for every lost parent, a child mourns?

All this was in my mind as I posted on Facebook a very simple statement about the photo, the baby, and how my day was made brighter by their existence. Less than an hour later, a ‘friend’ unfriended me. This person is Jewish. She believes that death is justly visited when it involves a ‘homeland’ she has never been to, clothed in a religion she was not born into. I don’t know if my post is why she decided I am no longer someone she wants to be associated with. I don’t actually care. The coincidence is too striking not to be noteworthy, and I suspect that, given her postings during the Israel/Gaza conflict last year, in which more than one thousand Palestinians died at the hands of the IDF, the fact that I found the smiles of these particular people in this particular picture beautiful, was abhorrent to her. I suspect it also frightened her. If she begins to think of them as people who love their children, they become harder to kill.

Maybe this is the whole point: that those who choose not to listen, who choose not to look at photos of men with children, who can think of ‘them’ as somehow other than ‘us’ can be so frightened by evidence of love that they need to turn their eyes away.

When will enough be enough? When will death and killing and destruction of lives be unacceptable to enough people worldwide to shift the balance, to make killing not a last resort, but a non-option?

How many babies looking with joy at their fathers, at their mothers, at their grandparents, need to die before the blood stops flowing? And when will mothers of children be able to see and understand that same love in an-other’s eyes, and not turn away?

I am often on the verge of despair.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Things Fall Apart

As I read this week’s readings for a class I am currently taking, which were all about rational choice, realism, and international war, I was unprepared for the overwhelming feelings of both despair and anger that washed over me.

So, let me rant polly-anna-ish for a moment, although typically I’m not a ‘let’s all just get along’ kind of person. However, just for now, I need to pretend that another way is possible.


As far as I can tell we - the world, the leaders who could make a difference if they only just stepped back and looked at the world a bit differently - are caught in old patterns and assumptions… for instance, the assumption that war is necessary, that war is an option and that empathy or some kind of humane-ness is possible when you’re destroying lives, livelihoods, civilizations, hope.

And where is the disconnect, and why aren’t more people talking about it, between thinking of nuclear weapons as unthinkable, but compartmentalizing land mines into being okay? How could either of them be considered more humane, more okay, than the other? How can a bullet that explodes someone’s head be conceived of as something ‘thinkable’ and ‘okay’ and somehow balanced against nuclear weapons as proof. “Nukes are bad, we’d never do that. This new conventional way to kill people, though… look how cool THIS is.”

Some say ‘well, war is really not okay, but it’s the world we live in,’ or some version of that. But, it turns out that war is, on some level, okay, acceptable, understood, expected. Because if war and all that goes with it – death, maiming, destruction of ancient monuments and new families – were really, truly unacceptable, we would find a way NOT to do it.

People spend thousands of hours, thousands of dollars, all kinds of effort and energy, figuring out how to kill each other better, more efficiently, more cheaply, more… humanely (it makes me cringe to write that). I keep thinking that all that money might be better spent for food, clothing, shelter, or… I don’t know… EDUCATION maybe. And the money spent on the studies about how better to kill people could instead be spent on studies about how to help them stay alive.

Rant over.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Screaming Radio

When did the left become so loud?

I have been listening to liberal radio for a long time, and have had a few people I liked a lot, and some not so much.

For a long time my faves were:

  • Stephanie Miller
  • Rachel Maddow
  • Thom Hartman
  • Randi Rhodes
  • Ed Shultz

Things have changed.


Stephanie Miller and her mooks (Jim Ward and Chris Lavoi) are wonderful, great fun and irreverent, and have some perspectives I wouldn't necessarily pick up on. Also, hey, they DON'T SCREAM at callers or at me. They and coffee in the morning get me going.

Rachel Maddow is simply stunning in every way. Intelligent, biting, funny, insightful, and she doesn't back down. She *also* DOESN'T SCREAM.

Thom Hartman has a wealth of knowledge, acknowledges people's points, interviews both right and left people, and seems to respect others. I infer this because he DOESN'T SCREAM either.

The last two?

Ed Shultz: I used to like his approach because I felt he was balanced, would listen to people, would give credit when others had a point even if he didn't agree. I agreed with much of what he had to say.

However, sometime in the last few months he seems to have gone off some personal, internal deep end and now thinks it's acceptable to SCREAM at his callers and belittle them and shout his own opinion over theirs.
Lost me as a listener.

Randi Rhodes: Took me a while to warm up to her. Originally I thought she was overbearing and rude. Then, she either calmed down or I learned to appreciate her - and I still think she's incredibly smart and has a lot of good things to say, and some great insights. When she was in New York with Air America she was pretty aggressive and loud with callers, and belittled them, and I didn't like it then and had stopped listening. After a short time on some Florida network and then on into a new venue, she calmed down and I listened a lot.

However somehow again lately she has begun belittling callers again, and has started REALLY yelling. Often she doesn't seem to get the nuances of what people are trying to say, which surprises me; she used to be better at seeing between the lines and behind the words. Case in point: this morning, talking with a poli-sci professor (so presumably he knows more than she does about his particular area of focus/interest) she yelled at him about why he was wrong about the news. He was trying to make the point that we turn on the TV to look for those people and venues (that we interpret as news) that will reinforce out own perception of the way the world works. She locked onto the fact that people don't understand what "news" is, and totally missed his point. His answer there, had she not yelled at him, might have been 'you're right, but that's not my point... let's say people think they're turning on the news... regardless of whether that's true, that's another subject. They think it's news, and they turn on that which reinforces their already held beliefs.' She would, likely, AGREE with that, but never got there because she SCREAMED over him.

When a person loses enough track of his/her own (un)importance or (lack of) wealth of knowledge about a subject enough to not acknowledge that someone else actually might know more than he or she does, and then SCREAMS over that person... sorry, Lost me as a listener.

Mike Meloy is as obnoxious as Glenn Back.
And Rush is unspeakably... well, words fail me.

That's all I have to say about screaming radio.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Interrogations - Coco Fusco and a call to arms

A Field Guide for Female Interrogators

Coco Fusco

A review, sort of:

Coco Fusco’s A Field Guide was oddly powerful. Short, only 142 pages long, with large type, it took me less than an hour to read. Yet, I wouldn’t call it an easy book. It hits home in a number of ways – asking, in essence, that we confront our understandings of, and admit our biases and stereotypes about, women, war, torture, and fear to name just a few of the things she covers.

I found myself taking notes on almost every page. Not just about my project on the Hercules Teams in NYC but about the importance of thinking about how our accepted cultural norms are embedded so deeply that even those of us who consider ourselves feminists, even those of us who (think we) oppose(d) the War on Terror and all it entails, and even those of us who were horrified and sickened by the (fraction of the total number of) abuses revealed in Iraq, are in many ways complicit with the very actions we (conceptually) abhor.

Fusco starts with her own reactions to the photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and follows those reactions through to a rather despairing conclusion: that at least in the military, feminism seems to have devolved into a simple equation: equality = act just like a man. And that includes perpetrating violence in a number of arenas – particularly in interrogation rooms.

In order to understand interrogation techniques so she can hope to understand why women seem to be participating without qualm, Fusco and a group of women academics attend an interrogation school. While she learns a lot, she doesn’t seem to learn quite what she’d hoped to; she was looking for the why, and she got the how. Still, she successfully gives us a sense of the setting, and the possibility for understanding how sexuality and vulnerability come into play in the wielding of power.

Fusco’s continued use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ to refer to women bothered me at first. In essence this phrasing pulls all women into her point of view, and assumes that our perceptions and reactions will be the same as hers – because we are women. Cultural theorists and feminists have spent a great many years taking this notion apart. “Women” is not ‘a group’ defined by any characteristics that cross all the boundaries, and cannot be understood as such. Eventually I realized that Fusco does this on purpose. ‘We’ are indeed who she speaks for – maybe women, maybe Americans, maybe Westerners, maybe the readers of her book. Whoever ‘we’ are, she is part of us.

This is based on the same argument as her exploration of the source of our shock when we find out that women have participated voluntarily in strategic aggression: power plays with fellow soldiers, and harsh and violent interrogation techniques. Her argument is that our shock at finding out that women participated in the abuses in Abu Graib, and that female soldiers in fact (appear to) use their femininity as power, is unfounded because it is based on American society’s belief in a false collective female ethical or moral high ground based on our history as oppressed victims. In other words: we believe women wouldn’t really participate in torture because they / we are somehow not wired that way; they / we are ethically / morally unable to use power in that manner.

I felt the same resistance to her use of the initials US (without the periods, as in U.S.) to refer to the United States). The United States became US became us, became me. Her use of language made me part of the problem.

And yet, that indeed is her entire point. I am complicit. Her book is a call to arms, really, and a challenge. Do ‘we’ sit back and continue to rationalize this War on Terror and the abuses it is perpetrating on hundreds of thousands of people away by ignoring it, by assuming that our protests of its inception were enough, by feeling horrified? Or do we step up?

At least, that’s what I took from it. And my answer is that I step up.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Obama Reads??

I received an email the other day about Obama's reading habits. As it turns out, at least with this one book, his reading habits are exactly mine: The Post American World by Fareed Zakaria.

Zakaria, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was born in India to Muslim parents, and attended a private school in India through Grade 12 that is one of the best in Mumbai. He has been called a conservative, a centrist, and a liberal, and is know for actually paying attention to what’s going on in the world and thinking through issues. He does not identify himself based on party lines or issues, but on logic.

He has a BA from Yale where he was president of the Yale Political Union, and a PhD from Harvard where he directed a research project on American foreign policy. He is currently editor of Newsweek International, has written for the NY Times, Wall Street Journal and others, and hosts CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

So he’s kinda smart, and has a lot of insight into the world, and his books are well-received by the international political and foreign affairs communities.

The fact that our president is reading his book heartens me. Unlike Bush, who didn’t crack a book and as a result had no clue about anything other than… well, had no clue, Obama actually thinks, and wants to be well-informed, and takes others’ opinions and ideas, and consults experts. Zakaria is one such expert.

But do you know what was appended to this photo? This text:

“The name of the book Obama is reading is called The Post-American World, written by a fellow muslim. Post-America – The world After America ??? Please forward this picture to everyone you know, conservative or liberal to expose Obama's radical ideas and intent for this country!”

So the issues here are legion but I’ll focus only on three.

First, Post American does NOT mean after America, and anyone who reads and believes THAT simply does not understand post-anything in cultural terms. Those people are going to be starting from a foundation that is false; they will therefore come to false conclusions.

Second, this book will not have been read by most people who will be horrified by the photo, and who will believe the implied message in the accompanying text. See above paragraph for false assumptions and false conclusions.

And third, reading a book does not intent prove. Reading Alice in Wonderland does not prove the reader will go eat mushrooms. Reading the Bible does not prove the reader will not commit adultery, steal money from his constituents, or get divorced. Reading Bukowski does not mean one is an alcoholic. And reading a book written by a Muslim does not a Muslim make. (And even if it DID, that is another entire issue for another post - Muslim does not equal bad, evil, wrong, monster, and those who would believe THAT are a whole other problem inherent in this post-9/11 world... and that isn't even addressing the fact that that belief about Muslims has existed for centuries. Again, another post.)

I am incensed and stymied by the masses of America. Are they (yes, ‘they’ – I refuse to be lumped in with them) REALLY this stupid? Are the masses of people really this uneducated, really this gullible, and really this ready to believe the worst of President Obama? Can this implied threat truly be credible to anyone?

I can only shake my head and forge on, and hope that, possibly, the next generation won’t be afraid of becoming educated, and won’t spend their lives wallowing in ignorance and fear.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I Don't Want Equal Rights

I am a woman who has benefited immeasurably in my life from the actions and bravery of women before me who fought oppression, who stood up for themselves and declared their rights and abilities to do whatever the hell they chose to do. I have studied the lives of Gertrude Bell, Alexandra David-Neel, Harriet Tubman, Margaret Sanger, Arundhati Roy…. and women pirates for that matter. I get that women have had to fight damn hard for their rightful place as equal in all things.

As a result of those women’s actions (and hundreds more women through the ages), I have never felt constrained by the ‘limits’ of being female; it never occurred to me to question whether I could do something. I ran a printing press for years, long before many women were in that field. I traveled alone for most of my life – across the country and across the world. I worked as a horseback guide into the wilderness areas of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and was a working ‘cowboy’ – the only woman among many men – on a working ranch in Texas.

So I get it.

Women can do whatever they want.

I agree, and think they should not only ‘be allowed to’ do whatever they want, but should just DO whatever they want, without assuming they need anyone’s permission to do it.

Today I opened the New York Times and on the front page was met with this headline: “G.I. Jane Stealthily Breaks the Combat Barrier.”

The article is a long one. Essentially the gist of it is… women are now going into battle with ever more frequency in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are working hard and earning the respect (another issue, one I’ll save for another post… why is it assumed women have to earn the respect of men in some kind of different way than men would??) of those they go into battle with. And they are getting shot at, and they are shooting back.

I don’t believe battle is innately against women’s nature, I don’t believe women should be or are any more suited for taking care instead of taking lives, and I don’t think there is some essential womanhood-ness these women soldiers are betraying. Identity is fraught with problems and pitfalls, and I don’t presume to believe women “shouldn’t” go into battle if that’s what they want. I even understand the impetus behind wanting maybe to ‘defend my country’ (if I believed that killing people in Afghanistan qualified as that), or help others (if I believed that killing people in Afghanistan qualified).

What makes me shudder is that war has become (no… there is no becoming in war, it has always been, on some level and to some people) an acceptable part of life on earth. We mouth the words ‘peace on earth/goodwill toward MEN,’ we prattle on about how sad but necessary it is that the U.S. must ‘help’ others less-aware/able/advanced to reach (our version of some kind of acceptable) democratic government, and we talk peace while hiding behind our country’s status as the most powerful – and a very aggressive – nation on earth. It’s easy to subscribe to the rhetoric of peace when you’ve got a big stick to enforce it.

And into this milieu of war-as-necessary, homeland-in-need-of-defense (i.e., running around the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq), women have thrust themselves, searching for yet another barrier to break. (For the sake of my argument, I’ll ignore the fact that this barrier has been broken for centuries; women have been warriors in many cultures throughout history – check out Boudicca for one early example.)

I don’t make light of these women’s service. I never make light of the service of soldiers – they are, for good or ill, for right or wrong, in a literal line of fire for what they believe. This takes courage. I get that too.

And, still, I read this article with a sick feeling in my stomach. History, women’s rights, and equality aside, it comes down to one thing: Essentially, women have earned the (equal) right to kill. Yay for them.

For you see, I don't want this right. I refuse to claim it. In this area of 'women's rights' I refuse to step up.