Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Vcard to CSV conversion for Mac users

Vcard to CSV conversion instructions (for importing Apple Address Book contacts into Gmail):

[If you are simply trying to export AOL's addresses to a mail program like Gmail (or to Apple's Address Book), I suggest using Although you have to open an account, it's free and this is the easiest method by far.]

You can try using an online converter, such as this, but I don't know whether it's secure. I myself prefer not to use an online converter.

Before reading my instructions, you may also want to try some of the existing mini apps for doing this. I tried one and found it unsatisfactory because I couldn't choose what to export to csv. Because I wanted Gmail to keep phone and address information in addition to email addresses (for remote access when I travel), I think my own instructions below are more useful.

For an on-board technique, try the following. Use Andreas Amann's AppleScript Address Book Scripts to export contact data from Address Book. This may take some time, depending on how many contacts you have in Address Book. Be sure to tab delimit and to set the script to include a header row. Open the output file -- contacts.txt -- as a spreadsheet in Excel. If you keep a list of home and work (and other) email addresses of your contacts in Address Book, there are now at least two email columns (Work and Home) in the Excel file. To preserve all the data (because Gmail's contacts importer only recognizes one email column), copy and paste the Home email column to a new column and name it "Home Email"; then cut and paste the Work email column into the original Home email column using the command Paste Special:Skip Blanks. Name the header on this column "Email" and make sure it comes right after the First Name and Last Name columns. This will allow Gmail to recognize the main email column ("Email") but to save the secondary one ("Home Email"). Get rid of any misinterpreted data: e.g., in my case, bad phone numbers by globally replacing “=1” with [nothing] where the script incorrectly interpreted the country code +1 in Address Book phone numbers. Save the edited Excel file as a .csv file. Open Gmail and select contacts:import in order to move your contacts into Gmail.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

More AIPAC Mischief?

Reviving suspicions that AIPAC exercises undue influence on US policy, a new report by Time magazine claims that the FBI is investigating a possible political deal between the pro-Israel lobbying organization and Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Whatever the truth of the allegations, new polls by Zogby International reveal that nearly half of Americans surveyed believe that the Lobby was improperly involved in the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. With American sentiment increasingly turning against the war as a money pit and a quagmire in the making, how will voters view the Lobby's tendency to conflate Israeli and American interests in the Middle East? And just as troublingly, how clearly will Americans be able to distinguish the Lobby and its motives from the interests of American Jews at large, especially when AIPAC and its Jewish organizational allies so often claim -- falsely, but seductively -- that they represent the views of the American Jewish community (as if that community were, despite all evidence to the contrary, a monolithic entity)?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Phone message to Evely in Kenya

Monday, September 25, 2006

Benedict XVI's Comments on Islam

Gush Shalom founder and frequent Israeli government critic Uri Avnery writes a convincing explication of the Pope's comments on Islam last week (see comment 1 on this post for full text of the Avnery article). In it, he sharply criticizes Joseph Ratzinger's decision to cite a Byzantine Emperor on the Moslems, but he finds it consistent with what he regards as a historically significant rapprochement between Rome and Washington. George Bush, Avnery writes, is to Pope Benedict XVI what certain Byzantine Emperors of old were to the Church: a very powerful ally in the global political and economic struggle between the West and its designated Others. Avnery energetically contests the Pope's implied accusation that Islam is religion of violence and irrationality. Christianity, Avnery reminds us, historically has much more frequently resorted to the sword when faced with perceived religious and political antagonists. Avnery's historical overview of Islam's relatively benevolent relation to its Others may be somewhat reductionistic, but on balance he is correct that the historical record supports the old adage about those who live in glass houses. More importantly, Avnery cuts through the Pope's apologists' obfuscations to point out that we must keep our eyes on vested interests here as elsewhere: clash-of-civilizations neoconservatism -- and its mystification of the non-West -- is not the sole province of the American right.

Shale Oil Extraction at Bedouin Expense

Rebecca Manski, who is the communications director of Bustan, a partnership of Jewish and Arab eco-builders, architects, academics and farmers promoting social and environmental justice in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, wrote this op-ed (full text in comment 1 on this post) this spring. She points out that Israel's energy industry continues to serve the short term interests of the most powerful in Israel at the expense of the disenfranchised. Most recently, the Ministry of National Infrastructure has been considering whether to allow construction of a shale oil extraction facility in the Negev region. Shale oil extraction is not only highly polluting, it also requires vast amounts of fresh water, even as Israel is now consuming 25% more water than is environmentally sustainable, according to internal assessments. The irony here, as Manski indicates, is that Israel's vast solar energy potential continues to be ignored. That irony is compounded, moreover, when the plans for shale oil extraction in the Negev are juxtaposed against the fact that Israeli Beduin living in the Negev largely suffer from a lack of electrification in their towns. The Beduin, who are traditionally nomadic, have been fenced into these towns but have never been afforded even the most basic state benefits enjoyed by other Israeli citizens (and settlers, of course) -- electrification in particular. It is tempting, at a time of hot warfare, to forget about the dismal condition of the Beduin, as well as that of Palestinians who live in nearly two hundred officially unrecognized villages within Israel. Manski's comments remind us that the conflict over natural resources -- outside as well as within Israel -- is inextricable from the region's chronic political strife.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In Memoriam: Ronald Shlensky, 1935-2006

Evely Laser Shlensky, my mom, and Ronald Shlensky, my dad

Shards: A Eulogy for My Father, Ronald Shlensky, 1935-2006

Offered at Congregation B'nai B'rith, Santa Barbara, August 1, 2006

Prologue: a memory trace. When I was a toddler, my father used to take me with him to the city garbage dump near Frankfurt, Germany, where we lived not far from the US army base hospital at which he was stationed. We would drive to the dump in his old VW Beetle, an occasional event that brought me great joy. In the winter, deep snow was the backdrop to the detritus of a renascent Germany piled high at the dump. How could my father guess that I would so much love accompanying him to this place of discarded remnants and ruin? My dad somehow knew that I would take pleasure in joining him on an adventure to the scrap heap of quotidian history – that going with him to the outlying spatial and temporal boundaries of civilization would mean the world to me. Perhaps he even intuited that I would carry throughout my life a memory – or was it only the image from an old photograph? – of that other-worldly experience. This was very much in character for my dad: unconventional acts appealed viscerally to him, and he, with his offbeat and tremendously charismatic charm, found life-sustenance in the eccentric and the unexpected. His untimely death on July 28, 2006, in Santa Barbara, California, in an apparent hit-and-run accident in which he was a pedestrian, was a terrible shock. The outrage of his sudden death, and the sense of tragic incompletion that makes his loss so devastating to me and my family, were no less shocking and unexpected than so much else in my dad's seventy-one years of life lived very much on his own iconoclastic terms.

   *    *    *

It is an impossible task to adequately memorialize in words one of the two first presences in my life, my father. That is the nature of memorialization, that is the nature of the father-son bond, and that is the insoluble problem, as we all well know, of words. My father, along with my mother, bequeathed me my first words and the very language I use and cling to like a life preserver in the painful chaos of grief today. One of his fundamental legacies to me is my presumed authority over and through words – an authority constantly undermined by the very nature of the words themselves, as he would understand very well. My father, the tremendously loving and caring man who knew me so well, who helped to make me a man, whose every gesture towards me was an attempt to protect me from harm and to enable my growth and success in the world, knew something of the limits of authority, his own and that of others. He also accepted and believed in the necessity of authority. Between the limits, necessity, and impossibility of authority, my dad staked his precarious ground. Despite the tremendous confidence and agility with which he would sometimes step, he nevertheless indicated to me, in a moment of intimacy, the deep and disquieting way in which he felt orphaned in the world. He had never been satisfied with the minimal guidance he felt he received from his own beloved father, my dear Grandpa Ise. This was a source of tremendous and unresolved angst for my father, who so valued the certainty and security seemingly offered by authority, and yet who spent his life in open rebellion against it.

My father, in his often exasperating pugnaciousness, and in his deep wisdom, did not believe in accidents. An accident, my dad would say, is a puzzle that calls for explanation and analysis. In his life, so in his death. This corresponds exactly with his mixed feelings about power. We are the masters of our own fate, he asserted, and yet he frequently seemed to act, in his own life, as though this first principle were irrelevant. He submitted to a sense of fatalism and even vulnerability at the intersection of mind and body, spirit and word, where the physiological and the psychological contended endlessly for his attention. This was an imbalanced point of rendezvous for him, a place where the chemical and the emotional were ceaselessly thrown off balance, but which, until the very end, held out the potential of final redemption. He so much wanted to believe in the redemptive quality of expertise: in lawyering and doctoring, and in the panoply of authoritative roles he admired, rejected, impersonated, and embodied. And it was this very wishfulness in a sustaining power, and his fear of its fragility or even of its impossibility, that allowed him to experience the most elemental personal vulnerability, and the most profound faith in his own and others’ humanity.

I cannot say whether my father believed in anything at all, whether he had any faith in a power greater than his own primal, albeit increasingly frail, strength, or any trust in an authority beyond himself. This refusal of faith or belief was his first line of defense, for himself, but also his Maginot Line against the depredations of a hostile world threatening, he imagined, to everyone he loved. Yet he sometimes revealed, in an awkward but touching moment, when he would knock on wood or lower his head in prayer, a surreptitious sense of the immense and otherworldly, and the possibility of faith in something he did not name. But I can say – with a tentative authority or agency of my own, inherited surely from him – that he did believe deeply in one thought, one unifying and, to my mind, profoundly redemptive idea. Amidst the shards of a broken world – one in which, like the Kabalistic image of a shattered divine vessel, divine authority was already absent but, in its most benevolent and unknowable form, always possible – my dad believed in something whose presence he could perceive as it bodied forth from behind the veil, or perhaps the mask, of authority. This something in which he did, despite everything, believe, was the power and potential of caring love. Not remote, as authority in the image I know it always seems to be, my father’s caring love was transcendent, brilliant, astonishing, truly oceanic in its comprehensiveness.

More than any other quality – and he had many, including humor, style, perceptiveness, wit, wackiness, wisdom, and the capacity for vulnerability – my dad’s tremendous ability to care for all those around him was his outstanding, shining quality. Those who knew him well – and they were relatively few, for my dad was not especially communally oriented – knew of his incredible capacity for caring. He went to extraordinary lengths to help those around him in need, treating each person as an individual worthy of succor and attention and love. His was an ethic of plenitude when it came to others: he rescued, he supported, he treated, he provided and cared for, and in a thousand other ways he extended great love to any person close to him who might ask. He often did so before being asked, when he felt that someone needed him but could not, or would not, ask.

A final gesture towards me: when the water heater blew out in my new home in Canada last week, he first teased that this was one of the stakes of home ownership, and then he telephoned back to say that it was a good omen for me, and he insisted on paying for the new water heater. A good omen. I know what he meant: I was coming into new authority as the owner of a house, and this was his opportunity, freely offered, to help me with my transition into a new stage of adulthood and responsibility. An omen: another sign of his private faith in the other meanings of the universe. Another opportunity to show care and love for me. In offering to buy the new water heater, he was, it is true, exercising his authority as father, and yet doing so in a way that undid authority as a structure of command and recreated our relationship, yet again, as one of loving care. He was at once exercising authority, and at the same time, he was making authority impossible, or revealing the impossible nature of sovereign authority. In this paradoxical way, he was conveying in words the love he felt for me, his pride in me, as his son, and his desire to continue to father and nurture me. He was also demonstrating his recognition that the greatest love he could give was the unraveling of any assumed legacy of authority or expertise or jurisdiction, in favor of an inheritance he could only imperfectly verbalize: his profound commitment to loving care.

It is impossible for me to express in words how much my dad’s presence will always be with me, and how much I shall always love him.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Mean Little Empire

NYRB: What does Olmert Want?

Amos Elon, the erudite Israeli journalist and historian whose most recent book is a compelling history of German Jewry, The Pity of It All, wrote this long essay for The New York Review of Books. In it he surveys the new political landscape of Israel since the most recent elections and the formation of the Kadima-led government of Ehud Olmert. Elon's article is a review of Gershom Gorenberg's recently published (and, according to Elon, excellent) history of the Israeli settlement movement, The Accidental Empire.

Gorenberg's book is infelicitously named, it turns out, given that the Israeli colonization of the West Bank and Gaza was anything but accidental. As Gorenberg's original research demonstrates, and as Elon outlines here based on the book and on his own experience as a journalist who was present at many of the important milestones of Israeli history, the Israeli settlement project was a foolhardy and reprehensible but entirely planned endeavor. (Elon oddly elides the fact that his own reading of Israeli history views the settlement project as planned, while Gorenberg sees it as "accidental"; perhaps the common point of these two interpretations is that neither Elon nor Gorenberg believes that there was a fully articulate master plan, although Elon regards planning at each stage to have been determining.) Responsibility for the growth of the settlements rests with Israeli political parties of the left and right. Elon's article serves as a reminder of the mendacious conduct that led to the rapid growth of the settlements — likely the foremost underlying cause of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians today. But he also explains in broad strokes why the settlements have succeeded thus far, and what Olmert's next moves may be, now that Israelis have demonstrated at the polls that they no longer support the hard right turn that initially brought Ariel Sharon to power.

Had Sharon suffered his stroke weeks earlier, before inaugurating Kadima, Benjamin Netanyahu would probably now be the Israeli prime minister. Olmert, whose wife Aliza is an avowed leftist and whose son refused on political grounds to serve in the Israeli military, is more of an unknown quantity. Yet it is evident that his "Convergence" plan represents not a watershed change in Israel's efforts to appropriate land in the Territories, but rather a pragmatic shift that Sharon had already initiated and that stands to insure permanence and guarantee an American imprimatur for Israeli colonization beyond the 1967 Green Line border. The "hitkansut" (or 'return to the fold') of which Olmert and other Israeli politicians regularly speak is a euphemism for a politically palatable hardening of the major settlement blocs and the shedding of outlying settlements that are costly to defend. Even this effort will be undertaken slowly and gingerly, and the price is estimated to be $22 billion, or ten times what the Gaza withdrawal required last year. So there is little chance that Israel, under no apparent pressure from the US Administration, will move swiftly or, even less likely, any more decisively to rein in its settlements and return to internationally recognized borders.

All of this comes at a tremendous cost, Elon points out, even to Israelis who are not suffering, as Palestinians are, from the economic and physical privations that result from Israel's adamant maintenance of its "mean little empire." The costs will be born, as usual, in measures of civilian blood — Israeli and Palestinian — as the ground for radical Palestinian militants is endlessly re-watered by continuing occupation, and Israeli military responses more than match those of the militants in ferocity. This is painfully evident this week, when a family of five as well as two other Palestinian civilians were killed, apparently by Israeli artillery shelling, while they picnicked on the Gaza beach. Palestinian suicide bombers, too, will not refrain from attacking under these circumstances, as one did in April, killing 12 civilians in Israel. Meanwhile, Israel refuses to meet with the Hamas government recently elected by Palestinians, and, as in the past even when the peace-seeking Mahmoud Abbas held more power, sees isolation of the Palestinians as the best weapon (and as a self-justifying reason to do whatever it wants). In this dire but all-too-familiar situation, a thin strand of hope may be found in the extent to which public figures in Israel and abroad, and their constituencies, take seriously the restrained yet deeply dismayed voices of writers such as Gorenberg and Elon. —LS

P.S.: a full text version of the article is available in the first comment on this post.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

In Memoriam: Dr. Amichai Kronfeld, 1947-2005

Special JPN Tribute by L.S. and S.A.M.

It is with great sadness that the editors of Jewish Peace News announce the passing of Dr. Amichai Kronfeld, 1947-2005, on September 1st, of cancer. Ami, who had been a contributor to JPN since its inception in 2000 and became a regular editor in early 2002, was both a friend to many of us in Jewish Voice for Peace and a long-time, tremendously knowledgeable, and deeply committed activist on behalf of a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ami was a teacher and model to all of us; with his clear thinking and sharp eye he never once strayed from the goal of our work: to use information and communication to build a thriving peace movement, and together to work to overturn the injustice and cruelty of occupation in Israel/Palestine. Among Ami’s great gifts was his ability to see straight through contradictions and hypocrisy and keep the focus on the urgency of the suffering and injustice at hand, while constantly challenging those around him—JPN readers included—to question any assumptions or beliefs that justify the occupation.

In tribute to Ami, we are presenting a collection of brief texts, including a reflection by Rela Mazali; personal reminiscences related by Zehavit Friedman, Diane Wolf, Noam Biale, and Sarah Levin; eulogies by Rachel Biale and Bluma Goldstein; excerpts from accounts of his final months by Chana Bloch; and a sampling of his own writings on Middle East peace and justice issues.

As you will see in the accompanying tributes and commentaries, Ami surrounded himself with loving family and friends, poetry and music, and the pursuit of peace and justice throughout his life. Ami began to develop his critique of Israeli government and society and his political disobedience as a young man fighting in Israel’s wars of 1967, the war of attrition and 1973. Serving in the Sinai desert in 1967, Ami received an order handed down by his commander in the Sinai, Ariel Sharon, to execute captured Egyptian soldiers. Ami refused the order. He fought in the 1973 war despite deep misgivings about the war's causes: he was aware that Israel had rejected an Egyptian peace offer in 1971. He was equally troubled at being sent to fight against the PLO, a group he viewed, against the Israeli party-line of that time, as the legitimate representative of a displaced and oppressed people. It was not until the birth of a political dissent movement among Israelis in the 1970s, and in particular the founding of the Israeli anti-war /anti-occupation organization, Yesh Gvul (“there is a limit”) in the 1980s, that Ami felt fully empowered as a peace and justice advocate.

Ami met and married Chana, his beloved wife of 30 years, in Tel Aviv, and in the mid-1970s immigrated with her to Berkeley, California, where she became a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at UC Berkeley and he became a philosophy and computer science PhD. A researcher in Artificial Intelligence, he eventually returned to teaching college courses not only in philosophy and cognitive science but also on human rights and critical thinking. His goal as a teacher was to provide young people with tools for what he called “intellectual self-defense” against the state propaganda machine. Chana Kronfeld was Ami’s great collaborator in many of his endeavors and one of his great teachers, as he was hers. Their beloved daughter, Maya, was born in 1985. Ami, an avid musician (in Israel he’d performed with well-known artists such as Shimon Israeli and Chanan Yovel), had a special proclivity for jazz, and shared his love of music and ideas with his daughter. For a number of years they played together in a jazz quartet, the Lincoln Street Jazz Brigade, with Maya on piano or keyboard and Ami on drums. Maya has followed in her parents’ intellectual footsteps as well, recently declaring a double-major in philosophy (like her father) and comparative literature (like her mother) at UC-Berkeley, where she is an undergraduate.

In Berkeley, Ami was an important presence in the Mideast peace community. His life experiences gave him insight into the growing Israeli settlement project and the worsening conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Ami worked to promote and support organizations such as New Profile, an Israeli organization that challenged the militancy and patriarchal structures of that society, and Courage to Refuse, a movement of Israeli officers and soldiers who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories. He also became involved in the grass-roots peace and justice organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, and its sponsored news project, Jewish Peace News. During these years, Ami helped to educate American Jewish activists who sought a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among Ami’s particular contributions to Jewish Peace News was a series that he called the “Peace Index,” modeled on the provocative Harper's Index. Ami gathered and presented the bare and brutal statistics about victims of the violence during the Second Intifada in the Peace Index. He did this, he said, because he felt that, in addition to analytical commentary, it was important for readers of JPN to remain aware of the most basic information about the lives and deaths of those suffering under the Israeli occupation. Ami also contributed his own writing to JPN: an example is his commentary on the Courage to Refuse movement, appended below. Ami’s contributions were extremely well researched, and his voice was one of long experience, wisdom, and nuance.

During the final stages of Ami’s life, his friends gathered around Chana, Maya, and him to support this extraordinary family in their time of need. Chana Bloch, a longtime friend and co-translator with Chana Kronfeld of Hebrew poetry (together they published Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai’s last book of poetry, in English, and they will soon publish The Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch as well) wrote regular email reports about Ami’s condition. These reports, circulated among a large group of his friends, were not simply laments; they also sparkled with the richness of Ami’s interior life and his loving embrace of the world even as he was dying. The following are brief excerpts from some of the messages Chana Bloch sent to Ami’s circle in July and August:

7/12/05. [Ami] is walking with a cane because of numbness on his right side. He met with a physical therapist and acquired some coping skills that will help him be more steady on his feet. His mind is still sharp, as I can testify: two weeks ago he worked with Chana and me on some of our translations, drumming out for us subtle variations in rhythm and discovering a crucial literary allusion that both of us missed.

7/26/05. And here is a story to marvel at (I hope I’m telling this right): Two days ago Ami and Maya talked about the music they both love, and Ami beat out the rhythm of one of their jazz songs. “See?” he said. “I can trick the tumor.”

8/22/05. Yesterday brought the terrible news about the suicide of Dahlia Ravikovitch, the poet Ami has been helping us translate. We had asked her if we could dedicate The Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch to Ami's memory because his help has been so instrumental; in her last message to us Dahlia readily agreed, and Ami took pleasure in the thought. That was just a month ago, though it seems much longer.

8/25/05. Ami is having a lot of trouble sleeping, despite the morphine; the doctor called it “terminal phase restlessness.” Each day he is more paralyzed, more helpless. Technically he's “not in pain.” Just in agony. And yet: he managed to sit in the wheelchair to admire the garden, especially a six-foot high sunflower that has been growing wildly. “The garden is performing for him,” said Chana. The gardener planted some trees and shrubs that Ami had chosen, including an apricot tree, which reminded him of Israel.

As Ami lay dying, the politics of the Middle East and the urgent need for justice were still much on his mind. After Ami died, his aunt, Tikva Honig-Parnass, who came from Israel to help care for Ami in the last six weeks of his life, told Chana Bloch that “despite his great difficulty in speaking, he continued to be passionately engaged in political issues, talking about 1948, 1967, the disengagement, the Occupation, the situation of the Palestinians. He had an unswerving commitment to justice.” Chana Bloch continued: “Politics was as much at the core of his being as music and poetry.”

The many friends of the Kronfelds arranged to deliver meals for the family during the final weeks of Ami’s life, and they contributed to a fund to help pay for Ami’s home-care in the terminal phase of his illness. They visited Ami in the hospital and at home, whenever he was up to receiving visitors. Despite the deep sorrow it evoked and continues to evoke for so many of us, Ami's dying became the occasion for an extraordinary outpouring of love and support from the tightly knit community of his friends and family.

Ami Kronfeld will be missed by all of us in Jewish Voice for Peace and Jewish Peace News, and his loss is felt intensely by his loving and beloved friends and family. His family requests that donations in his memory be sent to Jewish Voice for Peace.

Amichai, your memory serves as a blessing upon us all, and your example gives us hope for the day when the world’s swords shall finally be beaten into ploughshares.

—S.A.M. and L.S., for Jewish Peace News

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Racial Perceptions Divide

Elisabeth Bumiller's article in the Times today (see comment #1 below for full text) effectively conveys the White House's fears that the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina will affect the Republican party's standing among African American voters. Bumiller cites the unsurprising yet nevertheless telling statistic that two-thirds of blacks polled viewed the race of the victims as an important factor in the lethargic federal response to the disaster, while 77% of whites felt otherwise. The very fact of these nearly reversed ratios—whatever the reality that lies behind them—suggests the extent to which the "color-line" of which Du Bois wrote continues to divide, or at least fracture, the nation. Most astonishing about this article is the comment Bumiller elicits from an anonymous African American supporter of the Bush administration, who counseled the President to "[g]rab some black people who look like they might be preachers" for a photo-op, to compensate for Bush's failure to meet with any blacks in New Orleans during his first tour of the stricken region. The President and his officials, needless to say, did just that.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lost Like Us

(At the request of my close friends Jeff and Susette, I wrote the following brief message to their as yet unborn daughter to be read during labor and delivery.)

Dear new one yet to appear in our world,

A phrase my grandfather, Lenny, and his daughter, my mama, used to repeat often: "If you ain't never been lost, you ain't never been far." Well, I suppose that being born is kinda like getting lost in the biggest and baddest way possible. I mean, that womb you've been in for these last nine months must be so very comforting, in its warm quiet undulating dark wetness. And who would want to leave that, right? Well, little one who has yet to appear, I can't say I blame you for feeling that way. I know I did. Let me just reassure you, though, with all the assurance that I can muster from thousands of miles and an unknown number of hours away, that there are some redeeming aspects to life on this side of the great divide. Getting to know what I mean means, probably, getting really confused and lost and all tangled up in the complications of the lives of the many people you'll meet hereabouts. It's worth it. I promise you. And if you later decide I'm wrong, the worst you can say is that I was a fool and you were simple enough to believe me. But I know something that you have yet to discover: that a lot of the people I've met since I broke out (or was expelled, I'm not sure which) have really come to have a terrific importance to me in my life. They've been lost with me, sure, but there was something about being lost with other people I've loved in my life, like your mama Susette and your daddy Jeff, and my own mama and daddy, too, that made the experience of feeling lost in the world so much more bearable. It's like we were a lot of bad cooks spoiling the soup, but we had some fun times doing it. We broke eggs and made omelettes and left the shells on the floor, and you'd think we would have been exhausted by the very effort. But we've actually enjoyed eating our own concoctions together, whenever we had a chance to do so. I can even say none of us would probably have preferred leaving those eggs unbroken, that soup uncooked or unspoilt, or even that womb unbreached. So here we are, waiting for you now, together, even if we're not all in the room at the very moment you emerge (I think your mama and daddy need the other cooks to step away from the range at the very moment when the souffle is being carefully lifted out!). We're all waiting for you, though, you can rest assured of that. We know it's going to be a big struggle for you, especially in those first days. How disorienting those first moments! And we know you'll get just as lost as the rest of us. And we think that's okay — even grand! We're waiting for you now, we're counting on you, and we know you're counting on us. And we'll be here for you when you emerge, and for as long as we can be afterwards. You are loved, you who are yet to emerge, and we think you'll get to know a little more about what that means over time, as you're experiencing your lostness, so very much like ours.

One last thing: in the Jewish tradition, newborn infants are said to possess all the learning of the Talmud, which they then forget as they grow up. It's a big loss, I know. But finding your way to your own wisdom, or lostness, is worth the effort.

Love, love, love from your "uncle" Lincoln.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Extraordinary times, ordinary politics

While both Democrats and Republicans may be guilty of sweeping their own failures under the carpet and, worse, of seeking political gain in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration has elevated this kind of politics-as-usual to dizzying new heights in its decision to "investigate itself" over the botched federal emergency response, and now, in reports that private contractors snagging the most lucrative New Orleans reconstruction contracts have close ties to the Administration (see also comment #1 on this post).

Maureen Dowd is in full form in her pithy screed (see comment #2) against Administration cronyism — in this case, the kind that gave us FEMA director Michael Brown. Now Time magazine is reporting that not only did Brown have no evident qualifications for his FEMA post; he also appears to have falsified his FindLaw profile (see comment #3) in claiming to have been an "Outstanding Political Science Professor" at Central State University in Oklahoma, when in fact he was only a student there (and possibly worked as an adjunct instructor). His claim to have been a member of the board of directors of the Oklahoma Christian Home, a nursing home, is also in dispute.

President Bush (framed by a presumably serendipitous TV news caption, left: "Bush: One of the Worst Disasters to Hit the U.S.") reacted to the withering criticism of FEMA's missteps by recalling Brown to Washington and effectively relieving him of his duties in the hurricane-stricken region, but not firing him. To take the latter course of action, needless to say, would mean admitting to the complete failure of federal preparedness for this emergency. Once again the nation faces a catastrophe on the Bush watch for which advance notice was available but unheeded. Whereas 9/11 was historically unprecedented, however, Hurricane Katrina was not only entirely predictable but actually expected by government disaster forecasters themselves. The Bush administration deserves to be held to a very different standard for its ineffectual preparation for, and inability to adequately cope with, this disaster.

The federal government's blunders in New Orleans, as Dowd suggests, resulted in days of chaos that recall the unchecked mayhem which followed the US incursion into Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Now that private interests coziest with the Administration, such as Halliburton, have secured major no-bid reconstruction contracts in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, one has the uncanny feeling that we Americans are condemned to endure a great deal more of the very corruption against which our leaders claim to protect us — and the rest of the world.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Blameless? Katrina, Race, and Representation

"Race has nothing to do with this disaster." That sentiment is now the official story, echoed in press briefings by high-ranking officials such as Condoleezza Rice and in numberless television talk show commentaries (see comment #1 on this post). How closely does this official line reflect the reality of what has happened since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast?

Not surprisingly, there is no smoking gun that proves that the lag time in federal response to the disaster has had anything to do with race. Yet the distressing images and lopsided demographics of those who endured the chaos of post-hurricane New Orleans suggest that the tell-tale signature of race inheres in the politics of emergency disaster relief as much as it does in other political spheres like electoral campaigns, voting, redistricting, social security, public education, criminal justice, and, above all, local and federal economic policies. In each of these spheres, "race" is a word that dare not speak its name in contemporary American political discourse, despite its continuing social salience and the undeniable evidence of race-specific economic effects that result from supposedly neutral public policy. The socioeconomic impact of race, in turn, is most clearly revealed to Americans at moments of social crisis, such as that precipitated by the fury of Hurricane Katrina.

When Michael Omi and Howard Winant wrote their seminal analysis of the politics of race in American society, Racial Formation in the United States (Routledge 1986, rev'd. 1994), their principal task was to offer an archaeology of the concept of race in the face of overwhelming evidence that racial discourse was being driven underground by the "color-blind" agenda of American neoconservative politics. Omi and Winant describe such amnestic neoconservative politics, and their meliorative (or leveling) neoliberal counterparts, as the most recent iteration of the kinds of "racial projects" that have marked American history since the nation's inception. They warn of the twin temptations of thinking of race as an essence ("fixed, concrete, and objective"), or as a mere illusion, "a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate" (1994:54). They argue that it is necessary, instead, "to understand race as an unstable and 'decentered' complex of social meanings constantly being transformed by political struggle" (55).

The only antidote to racism, Omi and Winant insist, is to "notice race" and thereby to "challenge the state, the institutions of civil society, and ourselves as individuals to combat the legacy of inequality and injustice inherited from the past" (159). The images flickering across TV screens since August 29th, when Katrina barreled ashore, were belatedly acknowledged by the corporate media as reflections of a deeper political history of the US and, in particular, of the American South. That history is shaped by racial projects that consist of shifting cultural representations and economic structures. It is as absurd to erase this history as it is to ignore the racial elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans still unfolding before our stunned eyes. While racism in its crudest and most essentialistic form may or may not have tainted the official response to the New Orleans debacle, the aftermath of the storm requires an analysis of race that would help to explain why an extraordinary number of those who were most severely affected are African-Americans; how official relief was meted out among the survivors in direst need; and how the American public at large has reacted to these devastating images and to the unpardonably slow rescue efforts.

A time-line of official responses to the disaster, which suggests the magnitude of federal ineptitude or disregard, can be found here (see also comment #2 below).

Among those who have focused on race as an element of the disaster most in need of explanation is Anya Kamenetz, a freelance author who grew up in New Orleans. She argues in a Village Voice editorial, "My Flood of Tears" (see also comment #3 below), that race has played such an enormous role in the unfolding of events because for New Orleans, more obviously than elsewhere, race is not just a central element of the city's history. It also warps the city's present conditions insofar as the spoils of a racist history are still vastly unevenly distributed.

In a similar vein, Dan Rabinowitz of Haaretz reminds his readers that "catastrophes don't just happen" (see comment #4 below). Rabinowitz sharply admonishes those who refuse to acknowledge the ideological roots of this disaster:

It is impossible to understand [the collapse of order in New Orleans] without relating to poverty and racism. Black people, most of them poor, constituted 68 percent of the population of New Orleans until Katrina arrived, and it was natural that the vast majority of the people without cars who were stuck in the city were black: a weak and weakened population, full of bitterness after generations in which they were abandoned to poverty, ignorance and crime. For these people, the police, the federal authorities, the supermarket chains and the department stores are the enemy. They looted food in order to survive, and took electrical appliances, clothing and shoes to return to themselves, on the backdrop of the disappearing city, something of what White America has always denied them. The social collapse of New Orleans is the shameful fruit of the ideology of "every man for himself," and of the budgetary and political policy — of each individual city and county — that derives from this.

Rabinowitz's biting commentary effectively sums up what I and others have found so shocking about the terrible events themselves and their representation in the corporate media. What is painfully evident to media watchers like myself and to many of the most incisive public editorialists is that the material history of the Katrina tragedy begins long before the end of August 2005. President Bush and his administration, as many have pointed out, began dismembering FEMA in his first term, despite earlier efforts by the Clinton administration to restore the agency to the fiscal health of its earlier years. The Bush administration's cuts to the FEMA budget were part of a relentless "starve the beast" policy of reducing vital government services for poor and working-class Americans while cutting taxes for the wealthiest citizens.

But the problems that turned this natural catastrophe into a societal tragedy go beyond these specific policies and this particular political moment. The responsibility for the grinding poverty of so many New Orleaneans cannot be laid at the feet of a single administration or even a specific political program. The roots of economic inequality in New Orleans, intertwined as they are with the legacy of racist American politics and policy, are planted much deeper in our national history than the major media is generally capable of acknowledging, let alone discussing in any depth. Television snippets and newspaper reports simply cannot adequately address this long, complex, and sordid national experience. And yet, a comprehensive analysis and redressing of this history should not be the task of academics and political activists solely. What is needed is a broad public discussion of race and class as fundamental American concerns in the 21st century — concerns that touch upon the many different layers of public policy, socioeconomic structure, resource distribution, and cultural production. In the absence of such a discussion, the nation will continue to be haunted by its past and unable to critically evaluate its present.

Image: a black man "looting;" white people "finding." (Click on the image above for a larger view.)

Post script: The Onion offers a humorous take on some of the concerns I've addressed here, including issues of race, in a spoof, "God Outdoes Terrorists Yet Again" (see comment #5 below).

News reports today indicate that Cuba has offered to send 1000 doctors to the hurricane stricken region, and that emergency aid has been offered by countries such as Bangladesh ($1m), Venezuela ($1m to the Red Cross), Djibouti ($50k), Azerbaijan ($500k) and Gabon ($500k). That's of course to return the favor of US foreign aid largesse, which in terms of percentage of GNP is the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world.

Lastly, I want to amend, or supplement, my audioblog posted in the wee hours of last Monday morning: the signs of Hurricane Katrina that I missed on re-entering the city of Mobile would have been more obvious had I been driving home during daylight hours. As my friend Becky pointed out, I would merely have had to look across the Bayway at the marina to see boats torn from their moorings and piled up on the shore, helter-skelter, like so much arboreal debris. Becky's boat, too, was badly and perhaps irreparably damaged. Other friends and colleagues of mine suffered even worse: at least one friend had her newly purchased house nearly destroyed by flooding. I am thankful that I, like most residents of the city of Mobile, suffered relatively minor damage compared with that of our unfortunate windward neighbors.


Monday, September 05, 2005

Return to Mobile

this is an audio post - click to play

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina: Race Against Class?

The Washington Post's Lynne Duke and Teresa Wiltz's essay, "A Nation's Castaways," addresses many of the most relevant issues of race and class that have marked the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe (the text of the article is also available as a comment on this post). An article from Truthout that also addresses some of these issues, by National Lawyers Guild director Marjorie Cohen, asks how Castro's Cuba was able to cope with a hurricane last year that destroyed some 20,000 homes without suffering even a single loss of life.

Duke and Wiltz gather comments from political figures as disparate as Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent and prominent Affirmative Action opponent, who predictably offer contrary views on the racial and class implications of this disaster. Guinier's comments are most cogent: she points out that impoverished African Americans are "the canary in the mine. Poor black people are the throwaway people. And we pathologize them in order to justify our disregard." Even Connerly admits that the images of looting seen on TV are likely to play into longstanding racial stereotypes: "I thought this is only going to fuel the perception," Connerly laments, that "there those people go again."

Russell Adams, a professor of African American studies at Howard University, claims that "The lesson we can take from this is that the society cannot blithely ignore extreme disparities in economic and social situations." But in order for this to happen, argues Noel Ignatiev, editor of the journal Race Traitor, Americans must surmount the racial divide revealed by the hurricane in favor of a new awareness of shared class interests. "Some [Americans] may be awakening to the notion there's no use clinging to an identity that's doing them no good," says Ignatiev. "If white folks start thinking of themselves as poor and dispossessed instead of privileged, it will change the way they act. We will see the beginnings of class conflict."

Whether or not recognizing shared class interests requires, as Ignatiev suggests, dropping racial affiliations, I share his hopes for the rise of a new class awareness. Ongoing racial prejudice and the demographic-political sequestration that resulted from it may be one of the most basic reasons why the US has never had a labor movement as broad or effective as those in other industrialized nations. The question is whether a single catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina can bring about a real political transformation in which people learn to work together for a more egalitarian society.


Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina, Race, and Class: Part II

A number of major media news articles and television reports have started to appear that directly address race and class issues as inextricable components of this disaster. Among these are David Gonzalez's excellent report in the New York Times, "From Margins of Society to Center of the Tragedy," Reuters' article on the comments of rapper Kanye West during a live NBC-sponsored benefit for the victims of the hurricane, Aaron Kiney's helpful "'Looting' or 'Finding,'" on Salon, which discusses the disparate captioning of photos of blacks and whites in post-hurricane New Orleans, Jack Shafer's comment on Slate about the reticence of the news media to mention race and class explicitly, and others that have since appeared elsewhere (reprinted versions of some of these articles are available as comments on this post).

Alan Wolfe, author of Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It, in an opinion piece also available on Salon (and reprinted as a comment on this blog entry), tries to sum up the contrasting political views of what has happened since New Orleans descended into chaos. He presents the competing attitudes of conservatives and liberals towards acts of "looting" as part of a broader "culture war" in the United States — a war that he ultimately deems trivial compared to the advancements (and, more pointedly, the fragility) of our civilization itself. Civilization's shocking tenuousness, he argues, is what becomes most clearly revealed by catastrophes such as that created by Hurricane Katrina.

Wolfe commits the blunder, to my mind, of focusing so much on his concern for civilizational durability that he problematically underplays the critical contextual issues we Americans, and especially our leaders, must face in the aftermath this debacle. His concluding comment is striking because it so fully shunts aside the deeply local and specific political contexts of this tragedy in favor of meta-discourse on the universal benefits of (presumably Western) civilization:

Some worry that the events unleashed in the aftermath of Katrina will inflame the American culture war. If only we could be so lucky. Our culture war is puny when compared with Hobbes' war of all against all. As we watch the tragedy of Katrina unfold, we are not talking about relatively insignificant matters such as who should marry whom. We are talking about civilization itself, why its invention has been humanity's greatest accomplishment and why we should do everything in our power to protect it. That we have so many people in our midst, including in the seats of power in Washington, who cannot understand what an improvement society is over nature is a tragedy fully as destructive as Katrina's. And when the totality of that tragedy is reckoned, it may cause more death and destruction than nature is capable of doing.

Where, in his conclusion, is there any room for an analysis of the effects of economic disparities that have so exacerbated this catastrophe? Must we not think about why it is that our society, despite its technological and political advances, is so extremely economically unequal and why it still remains divided by what W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 called "the problem of the color line"? Such issues are not merely, as Wolfe blithely argues, the "relatively insignificant matters such as who should marry whom" (although that kind of question may have much to do with the reasons that economic disparities in this country remain so ingrained). The problems of social and economic inequity exposed by Hurricane Katrina's deadly winds are what have transformed a natural catastrophe into a cultural tragedy — and also, perhaps, an opportunity for broad cultural self-reflection. In the end, Wolfe's views seem to shut down the kind of careful thinking that this national experience ought instead to provoke for all of us. The "culture war" that he trivializes is precisely the kind of political contestation that badly needs to take place as soon as the victims of Katrina are safe, dry, and well fed.


False Redemption

Maureen Dowd's acerbity in her column today, "The United States of Shame," (also reprinted in a comment on this post) is a welcome relief from MSNBC's relentlessly saccharine reporting; I was watching today as the Bill Gates network played a soaringly redemptive theme song over images of derring-do rescues from rooftops and from — gasp! — the New Orleans Convention Center, where conditions are said to be deteriorating rapidly. Dowd wonders who could possibly not have anticipated a disaster like the one wrought this week by Hurricane Katrina, despite the President's and FEMA director Michael Brown's claims that the federal government was blindsided. Were they caught by surprise, she wonders, because they didn't read the government's own reports of the highly probable potential of such a disaster scenario? Dowd also suggests a further example of implicit racism in official responses to the catastrophe: hotel guests and employees of the Hyatt Hotel were bused out of town while those enduring infinitely worse conditions in the Convention Center were made to wait.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, Race and Class: Part I

I have been in Pensacola, Florida since late-Tuesday because my house in Mobile still is without electricity. I'm doing okay here, but I look forward to getting back home as soon as electricity is restored. The University is supposed to reopen on September 6th, but that may change, depending on conditions. Yesterday and today the gas stations here in Pensacola were mainly without gas, and I waited in a long line at the one station that (only briefly) had gas to offer. It's scary to see people begin to panic when basic commodities are in short supply; I can only imagine to what degree such a sense of panic must be magnified nearer to the epicenter, where essential necessities such as water, food, and sanitation are in severe shortage.

From my vantage — geographically and emotionally near the disaster, but safely buffered from its worst deprivations — much of the press coverage has not adequately dealt with the most difficult social issues that mark this still unfolding catastrophe. It is difficult to avoid concluding that one important cause of the slow response to the debacle has to do with the fact that most of the people who are caught up in it are poor and black. Here in Pensacola I keep hearing blame expressed towards the victims: "they should have heeded the call to evacuate." Even the FEMA chief said as much in a news conference today. So where, I must ask, were the busses he should have provided to take them away before Katrina hit? Where were the troops to supervise evacuation? Where were the emergency shelters and health services? People who ought to know better do not seem to understand or acknowledge the enormous differential in available resources — access to transportation, money, information, social services, etc. — that forms the background to this human catastrophe. Terms such as "looting" are tossed about in the press and on TV with no class or race analysis at all. In recent news reports, there is an emerging discussion of the political background to the calamity: the Bush administration's curtailment of federal funding for levee repair in order to pay for the war in Iraq, rampant commercial housing development on environmentally protective wetlands, financial evisceration of FEMA, and so on. But there's been little or no discussion of the economic background that makes New Orleans a kind of "Third World" nation unto itself, with fearsomely deteriorated housing projects, extraordinarily high crime and murder rates, and one of the worst public education systems in the country.

Major newspaper editors and TV producers have prepared very few reports about issues of race in this disaster, and those reports that have appeared so far seem to me deeply insufficient in their analysis of endemic class and race problems. I've been communicating with a national magazine reporter friend of mine since Tuesday night about the issues of race and class in this catastrophe; here's my email comment on this topic from earlier today:

CNN addressed the race question today on TV, but only to ask softball questions of Jesse Jackson, who to his discredit didn't exhibit even a modicum of the anger of one Louisiana black political leader, who said: "While the Administration has spoken of 'shock and awe' in the war on terror, the response to this disaster has been 'shockingly awful.'"

The Washington Post also ran a puff piece that doesn't ask any of the relevant questions, such as whether the Administration's response would have been faster if these were white people suffering the agonies of a slow motion disaster. Here's the link to the Post's piece.

Michael Moore also had this to say in a letter to President Bush circulated today:

No, Mr. Bush, you just stay the course. It's not your fault that 30 percent of New Orleans lives in poverty or that tens of thousands had no transportation to get out of town. C'mon, they're black! I mean, it's not like this happened to Kennebunkport. Can you imagine leaving white people on their roofs for five days? Don't make me laugh! Race has nothing — NOTHING — to do with this!

(See Michael Moore's full letter here.)

A member of the Congressional Black Caucus had to remind reporters today to stop referring to those displaced by the flooding with the blanket term "refugees" (recalling, of course, the waves of Haitian or Central American or Southeast Asian refugees who sought shelter in the US): these people are citizens, she said, deserving of the full protections guaranteed to all Americans.

The federal government promised on Wednesday that those receiving food stamps could get their full allotment at the beginning of September, rather than the usual piecemeal distribution throughout the month. How very generous. What these people need is relief money and access to services now — even the 50,000 or so exhausted and traumatized people whose images we've seen at the N.O. Superdome and at the Civic Center are just a few of the far larger number of those residents of the region displaced by the hurricane, many of whom live from monthly paycheck to paycheck. It will be months at the very least before these people can return home; their jobs may be gone for good. The mayor of New Orleans was actually caught off camera crying in frustration today at the slow pace of the federal response.

If there is a hopeful side to this tragedy, it is perhaps that Hurricane Katrina's damage and efforts to relieve those displaced by the storm may spark a wider national discussion about the ongoing and unaddressed issues of race and economic disparity in America. If that doesn't happen, I fear that there will be even further deterioration in the living conditions and economic predicament of those left destitute and homeless by Katrina — a situation in which our own government's years of neglect must be included as a crucial contributing factor. We must not let such a deterioration of conditions for those hardest hit by Katrina occur.

What happens next, when tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans require long-term recovery help, will be an important barometer of our society's ability to heal itself.


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Riding Out Katrina (Mobile on the Day After)

Many thanks to my friends and family for their expressions of concern about me in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I am well and my property was not damaged. The storm yesterday was dramatic, but not really scary for me here in downtown Mobile. Lots of wind and rain, sounds of explosions (from trees falling or transformers exploding), and a general sense of the raging power of brooding nature unleashed. By the end of the afternoon yesterday I was able to walk around outside in my neighborhood, being careful to avoid flying debris from branches and roofs and whatever else wasn't tied down.

Mobile was quite a scene post-Katrina today, although we in the city (as opposed to the outlying coastal areas of Alabama) saw nothing like the unbelievable devastation of Mississippi or Louisiana. The TV images of flooding and destruction, and the reports of many deaths, make it sound quite horrific around New Orleans and in the bayou/beach regions. New Orleans wasn't hit as hard as it could have been, but it sounds like the post-hurricane flooding has devastated the city for perhaps months to come. Apparently waters are still rising in downtown N.O. even this afternoon (Tuesday).

My battery-operated radio has been my main source of information over the last day and a half. I appreciate the colloquial and chatty quality of some reports from local stations, which remind me of the days after the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco in 1989. As after that disaster, people have been encouraged to call in to the radio stations to share their personal stories of enduring the storm, of needing help, of witnessing the incredible. Others call in offering rooms for the homeless. On the other hand, I've also had to turn off the radio in disgust at times when stations seemed to exploit stories of personal misery and hardship. There's a very thin line sometimes between crass commercial hype (with unctuous musical punctuation) and helpful information. Insurance companies run repetitive ads about how to get in touch with assessment agents. The reporters are in their element, apparently, with a real disaster to cover.

I drove around Mobile this morning. There were fallen trees, downed power lines and light poles and cell towers, and debris of all kinds everywhere; downtown Mobile had been flooded yesterday, but was drying out today. All of the traffic lights are out, electricity is down just about everywhere, stores are almost universally closed, and people are driving from service station to station looking for gas for their cars or electricity generators. Occasional robberies and looting have been reported. Some bridges and tunnels are closed around town, and the causeway that crosses the Mobile Bay is impassable (I-10 is open, however). A lot of dead birds — pelicans, mainly — litter the Interstate, victims of disorientation or shock, I suppose. Local people are out and about today, cleaning up the mess, assessing damages. I moved big branches from my driveway and yard yesterday while the wind was still blowing, and then I raked up smaller debris (just like after Hurricane Ivan). The scene looks a good deal worse than after Ivan last year, despite our having been much closer to the eye of the earlier storm. I think being on the eastern side of this storm made the wind and rain effects worse for us, even though we were more than a hundred miles from the eye of Katrina.

My electricity is out; that's really the worst of the effects for me — not bad at all compared to nearby areas. Today it's sunny and in the 90s, so my house is sweltering without any air conditioning or fans. Nor do I have refrigeration, so I've been eating what can still be eaten and opening a lot of cans. The power company is saying that we'll be without electricity for days if not weeks, because given the scale of the devastation across the coastal area, repair crews are stretched extremely thin.

I decided to leave Mobile for a day or two. I'm writing this email from a Marriott Extended Stay Hotel lobby in Pensacola. But I'm not spending the night here; there don't seem to be any available hotel rooms in this area, so I may head further eastward this afternoon to look for a motel. I've also brought a tent with me, so I may camp out tonight (which would in any case be more comfortable than staying in my house). I imagine that the University will open up again on Wednesday or Thursday.

Thanks again for your many messages and thoughts. I'll let you know how things go when I can.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Illusion of "balance" in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In this scathing essay from Sunday's Haaretz (also posted as a comment to this blog entry), journalist Gideon Levy castigates the Zionist Israeli left for four years during which it has remained shockingly silent. The Israeli left failed, he opines, to oppose Israeli military brutality towards the Palestinians even when the evidence of large-scale misconduct was plainly obvious to the rest of the world (with the exception of most American leaders, apparently). What's worse, in tepid statements that have begun to emanate from the liberal Israeli left, the question of responsibility for the last four years of violence remains a tender topic. As checkpoints became the face of Israeli occupation, as olive trees were uprooted, homes bulldozed, an apartheid wall and Jewish-only roads built, overwhelming lethal force used in open confrontations and extra-judicial assassinations carried out routinely, Levy wonders how the Zionist left can hold up its head and meekly exclaim that it's time for both sides "to change consciousness and feelings."

The issue of seeking "balance" has long been the bogeyman of peace-making efforts. In my view, it is absolutely necessary to condemn violent and illegal actions carried out by both sides: neither the rampant deaths of civilians ("collatoral damage") in military actions nor in suicide bombings can be excused, much less justified. Both Palestinians and Israelis have a collective accounting -- in Hebrew, "heshbon nefesh" -- to do in the wake of such acts, and both parties have grave responsibilities to undertake in settling the conflict. At the same time, Levy points out a salient feature of this conflict that cannot be brushed aside, as much as Israeli and American leaders feel it convenient to do so: there has never been anything like a parity of power in this conflict. One side has always had tremendously superior force at its disposal, and has continued to oppress the other side in the most profound and egregious ways. Palestinians have not been living anything approaching "normal lives" during these last four years. They have been under intense, unremitting and devastating economic, psychological and military pressure. The depth of their suffering is unimaginable to most Israelis (who have continued to lead nearly normal lives), or to anyone else, for that matter. Many Palestinian children and adults will likely suffer post-traumatic disorders for years to come. As their land has been expropriated, their humiliations increased, their access to medical care, schools, and even basic necessities sharply constricted, and their lives made unbearable in thousands of ways large and small, the outside world, like the liberal Israeli left, has effectively thrown up its hands.

There has never been any "balance" in the way that this conflict has afflicted the two sides. There is no ''balance'' in responsibility for the misery: those with the most power always have the greatest ability to change the material reality. Nor is there any "balance" in what must be done to relieve the suffering and achieve a just resolution. The occupation must end. It is that simple. And it is this simple but obvious idea that all too often gets shunted aside while the next round of high-profile diplomacy receives the obsequious attentions of the press and politicians. To extend Levy's commentary: when we (Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Jews, and citizens of the world) all take our power and responsibilities seriously, we begin to glimpse the still-distant outlines of justice and peace. --Lincoln

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Sharon and the Future of Palestine

The New York Review of Books: Sharon and the Future of Palestine

In this essay published in the December 2nd issue of the New York Review of Books, Henry Siegman helpfully connects the dots of known information about the causes and consequences of more than four years of Intifada and Israeli military response and settlement activity. He also sets forth a realistic plan for resolving the conflict. His analysis is that Israel's current "disengagement" process under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, even if it takes place as planned, is not a cause for any optimism that the reigning powerbroker, Sharon, has changed his spots or that the Palestinians are likely to get a fair deal. "Sharon is not about to agree to the minimal conditions for a workable Palestinian state," Siegman contends. He cites a Peace Now Settlement Watch report that shows new construction taking place at 474 settlements, including 50 sites where construction goes beyond the boundaries of existing settlements, in violation of Sharon's promises to President Bush. Hundreds of acres of West Bank land have been newly appropriated by Israel this year.

The upshot is that the Gaza withdrawal is meant to offer Palestinians a virtual prison compound in which residents will be isolated from the outside and denied freedom of movement within. Thirty-seven percent of the Palestinian population lives in the tiny Gaza enclave (representing just 1.25% of the original territory of the pre-1948 Palestinian mandate), and the territorial formula that the Sharon government envisions for them almost guarantees chaos. But Sharon's senior advisor and chief of staff Dov Weissglas has been remarkably candid that the aim is not to further -- but to prevent -- any advancement of a peace process. The disengagement, according to Weissglas, "supplies the amount formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians."

Given increasingly successful efforts of Israel to subdivide the Palestinian territories into three discontiguous cantons, the salient question then is whether an apartheid state will be the final result. Siegman cites the prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea in answer to this question: "thirty-seven years after the occupation, in the eyes of a large part of the world Israel has become a pariah country. It's not yet the South Africa of apartheid, but definitely from the same family." As for the barrier Israel is building to separate itself from the Palestinians, retired general and former director of military intelligence Shlomo Gazit has remarked that the reason Israel lost its case for the wall at the International Court of Justice at The Hague is that what was once a "security fence" has been turned into a "political fence." Gazit recognizes that "[t]he argument in The Hague was not about the security needs of Israel, but about Israel's right to establish political Jewish settlements deep inside Judea and Samaria."

Siegman points out that Palestinian terror directed against Israeli civilians, as well as the failure of Arafat as an institution builder, have contributed to the failure of the political process. "But," he continues, "Palestinian failures do not begin to legitimize Sharon's policies, or those of the Bush administration, for that matter. Palestinians have the right to a state in the West Bank and Gaza not because they meet certain standards set by Sharon, the man who aspires to acquiring much of their land, or because Bush has a 'vision' of two states living side by side, but because of universally recognized principles of national self-determination."

Only international intervention, Siegman concludes, not mere facilitation, stands to end the bloody conflict. He recommends that an international conference be arranged with the participation of the UN, the EU, Russia, and hopefully the US. The conference should have as its goal the adoption of a set of internationally recognized principles for ending the conflict, with or without Israeli and Palestinian approval. Such principles are already widely acknowledged: return to the pre-1967 boundaries, as stipulated by the Road Map, with adjustments to be made on the basis of one-for-one swaps; return of Palestinian refugees to Palestinian territory only; East Jerusalem to become the capital of the new Palestinian state; and special provisions for the Haram as-Sharif/Temple Mount. While Siegman does not expect that the US would participate in such a conference, he believes that American leaders would have a hard time denying the legitimacy of clearly expressed international consensus on principles that derive directly from the Road Map. Nor does he imagine that Israel, or even the Palestinians, would agree to implement these principles. But, he says, the point is to influence the cost-analysis of both sides, whose economic and political relations with the international community would be affected by refusal to comply or by implementation of unilateral measures.

Siegman's argument is that European unity in enacting such a plan perhaps may be augured by the unexpectedly near-unanimous vote in The Hague against Israel's separation barrier. His analysis, and his plan, make sense.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

Hamas and the Evangelical Right

In this commentary (also reprinted in a comment on this post) from The Nation, Barbara Ehrenreich brilliantly likens the ascendancy of the American evangelical right to that of the Hamas movement. What she means is that the Christian right in the US, like Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has succeeded not by appealing to the faithful so much as by creating an alternative welfare system that serves as the safety net for those -- and there are more and more in the Territories as well as in the US -- who are on the edge of (or already facing) economic catastrophe. And, like Hamas, the evangelical right in America also advocates the destruction of the existing system of social welfare, which would further increase the movement's power. The struggle for equitable and sustainable Palestinian-Israeli coexistence, as well as the battles in the ongoing culture war in the US, will prove all the bloodier and more intractable if progressives on the left do not understand the marketing and economics lessons taught by the successes of these savvy and intensely focused religious movements.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

A New Progressive Populism

I agree with Arianna Huffington in her op-ed piece (also included as a comment on this post) about the need for an entirely new Democratic strategy. It's not that Kerry himself was necessarily a bad candidate -- although it was shameful that he didn't mention Palestinian rights and otherwise aped Bush's aggressive disregard for human rights in the "war on terror." The real problem, however, was that the Democratic Party as a whole, with the Kerry campaign and Terry McAuliffe spearheading it, chose the most timid approach to electoral politics because they were focussed excessively on undecided voters and reaching across the political divide as a first priority.

Amardeep Singh satirically envisions a counterstrategy to this failed Democratic campaign in calling for a "vast left-wing conspiracy". I wouldn't argue with him -- in fact, it's too bad that Nader didn't have this kind of a sense of humor.

All that said, however, I've seen a lot of 20-20 hindsight prognosticating on the Web. It's not entirely clear to me that there was a potentially winning strategy in this election for the Democrats. In this election we faced two political factors that I think the left has yet to come to terms with: the first is the "lingering halo" (as Paul Krugman puts it) of 9/11 that accounts for much of Bush's emotional appeal. It is the appeal of fear. In 2008, that may not be as much of a factor (depending, of course, on events in the next four years), and if it is, the Democrats need to do a much better job of explaining why Bush administration policies fail to keep Americans "safe."

Secondly, and more importantly, a large section of the country has turned rightwards, part of a long, slow pendular swing that's been going on for decades. If the left wants to win future elections and reverse that pendular motion, it is going to have to understand how the right has managed to appeal to so many (white) suburbanites, rural and religious folks. I can hardly describe to denizens of New England or California what it is like living out here in Alabama. The ideas and norms are so different from those of Blue States and the Democrats seem so out of touch. I was at the Democratic Party's election night event in Mobile -- it was a sparsely attended and subdued event even before it became clear that a Republican sweep was in the making. And in Alabama, that sweep was like a hurricane -- the state's supreme court is now composed, for the first time ever, of all Republican judges. Not a single Democrat. Bush won 63% of the vote here, much higher than predicted. And this in a state that still has more registered Democrats than Republicans due to its historical Democratic leanings.

I think that in addition to creating new alliances among progressive groups that have never before worked together, the left is going to have to learn about who comprises the right, what animates them, and how to speak to them. (I was even imagining writing a new political drama entitled "Their Town"). Religious groups, here as in Israel, are not monolithic. They are as complicated as any other demographic, and the left needs to learn how to communicate with them (Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, understood this very well, as Thomas Frank pointed out in a recent editorial. Some would argue that the left will never appeal to "evangelicals" more than the Republicans do, but I would counter that such religious blocs are actually heterodox and that we can't simply write them off.

Huffington makes a different point, and I strongly agree: the left needs to motivate its own base by putting forth bold ideas and vision. Grass roots groups (like Jewish Voice for Peace, for example) must take part in this. We need to mobilize a new kind of progressive populism that appeals to people's basic sense of justice and equality. Let's remember, though, that we progressives will remain a minority unless we understand our audience and can appeal to them with ideas that make so much "common sense" that they put our adversaries, the parochial and narrow-minded promoters of "divide and control" wedge issues, on the defensive. I believe we can succeed, and so can progressives as a whole, if we connect with those who are already sympathetic to us as well as those who are unconvinced but willing to listen.


Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Kerry's concession speech

I just watched John Kerry's concession speech on TV -- one of the very few events of this election that I saw on television. If you didn't see it, I recommend doing so. Tears welled up and dripped down my cheeks as I watched him. He didn't read from a teleprompter, so it seems, and yet he was tremendously eloquent and inspiring. He was above all gracious in defeat, calling on Americans to unite in the name of our democracy, reminding us that our efforts to change America's future have meaning, and thanking those who worked so hard for him. I mourned an opportunity lost. Behind Kerry's eloquence I heard what was for me the most compelling aspect of his person and candidacy: his compassion. If there was one feeling that he conveyed with conviction in each of the debates, it was this ability to empathize with the struggles and suffering of others. I have no idea what a Kerry presidency would have been like, but it is this quality in Kerry the man that gave me the most hope for us as a nation. As a Vietnam war protester and member of that part of his generation whose revolutionary activism never translated successfully into mainstream power (today is yet another confirmation of this idealism cast aside), what remains consistent and appealing about Kerry -- what seems never to have been lost as he transformed himself from an oppositional activist into a national politician -- is his compassion. Will Bush, the triumphant icon of "passionate conservatism," ever be able to live up to something like this empathic ideal? I can only hope so.


Sunday, September 12, 2004

Iraq: The Bungled Transition

Peter Galbraith, who is a former US ambassador to Croatia and who participated in the Clinton administration's successful effort to end the Bosnia conflict, writes in this very informative analysis, "Iraq: the Bungled Transition", that the Bush administration's cronyism, inconsistency, and lack of planning has turned the transition to Iraqi "self-rule" into a fiasco. Although this may be perfectly obvious to anyone who reads the newspaper (and we all know who proudly admits that he doesn't), if you don't know what the TAL (Transitional Authority Law) is or why it was important, you may not understand why the US reconstruction effort has been such an utter failure. Galbraith makes clear that the US has already effectively jettisoned the idea of women's rights, minority protections, and representative democracy in Iraq, and offers an unremittingly bleak outlook on Iraq's political future if the Bush administration stays the present course.

I found particularly worthy of gallows humor the following anecdote in Galbraith's article about the lack of relevant qualifications -- except, of course, for political patronage -- among the Bush administration's appointees in the reconstruction effort:

The privatizing of Iraq's economy was handled at first by Thomas Foley, a top Bush fund-raiser, and then by Michael Fleisher, brother of President Bush's first press secretary. After explaining that he had got the job in Iraq through his brother Ari, he told the Chicago Tribune—without any apparent sense of irony—that the Americans were going to teach the Iraqis a new way of doing business. "The only paradigm they know is cronyism."

I'll post the full Galbraith article as a comment on this post, in case the link goes dead. As for the Iraqis...let us wish them safety, and hope.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Disconnecting the dotted lines

The NY Times's article today on the Bush service records controversy (CBS Defends Its Report on Bush Military Record) doesn't put the story to rest, but the kicker at the end of the article -- that the signatures on the documents in question appear authentic -- strongly suggests the likelihood of forensic over-eagerness by bloggers with a partisan agenda. Then again, I'm sure the doubters will say that signatures can be forged (or simply reproduced by scanner), so I doubt the questions will disappear. What we need is an enterprising reporter (or blogger?) on the political beat to find other examples of documents that came from the same office and that have the same physical features. Meanwhile, Maureed Dowd's Op-Ed from two days ago, "Cheney Spits Toads" (reproduced in a comment on this post), offers a political archeology -- for me, much more compelling -- of a different sort. But I guess I'm just one of those liberal "paragraph people" (as opposed to the "spreadsheet people") whom David Brooks claims vote predictably along a pattern determined by our liberal arts college majors (in those years in my major, the now defunct Semiotics, "liberal" was a dirty word).

Friday, September 10, 2004

Bloggers drive controversy

Well, we bloggers are on the cutting edge, according to this CNET news story about blogs that have entered into the presidential race's political fray. This kind of amateur sleuthing, despite its dubious methods and conclusions, is afterall just a different kind of literary analysis....

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

A global strategy to reduce terror

Rami Khoury, editor of the Lebanon-based Daily Star newspaper, writes in this article of the need for a global strategy to reduce terror. His essay appears in the wake of the horrific attack on a Russian school in Beslan last week, and other appalling recent incidents of terror, such as the late-August bus bombing in Be'er Sheva, Israel, that left 16 Israeli civilians dead and as many as 100 wounded.

Khoury writes that terror must be understood, paradoxically, as obeying market forces. Where there is a demand for terror, there will be those whose interests lie in supplying it. To combat such trends, he argues, we need to study the specific conditions of alienation and dehumanization that have bred active local terror markets in certain places and under certain pressures. Khoury contends that Arab societies must come to terms with the fact that in recent years the most stunning acts of terror (although not the greastest quantity -- that dubious distinction probably goes to South America) have arisen from within due to "root causes [that] are almost totally local and indigenous."

At the same time, Khoury points out that the militaristic responses of powerful nations such as the U.S.A., Russia and Israel have by and large contributed to fomenting more terror, rather than quelling it. This is because these powerful nations tend to respond to terror as a straightforward military threat, rather than understanding that its roots are in social, economic, and political problems that must be addressed first and foremost in these arenas.

Khoury's analysis makes sense, but it is, as he acknowledges, a point of view that is difficult to absorb -- not least, it may be said, because his concept of a global strategy to reduce terror requires patient and consistent efforts to build democracy, increase human rights and political freedoms, and to redress economic inequities. Such efforts are not easily sustained by those whose power offers the opportunity for furious -- if ultimately ineffectual -- reaction. --Lincoln

Letter to the Editor: On obesity and schools

Published on September 25th

Editor, Mobile Register

To the Editor:

Your editorial today, "Schools Can Help Fight Fat," mentions that more than one in four students in Alabama is believed to be overweight -- an appalling number. You urge the Alabama Board of Education to address the role of schools in helping to reduce obesity among students. While the Board of Education studies the matter, school principals and local school boards themselves should take the initiative to deal with some of the most obvious culprits in the obesity epidemic.

One such contributing cause can be seen in a casual stroll through the grounds of Mobile's highly rated Murphy High School. Shockingly, soda machines -- rather than drinking fountains or art works -- nestle in every corner of the school's extensive common areas. These machines, replete with child-friendly ads for their hyper-sweet and nutritionally empty wares, are grim reminders of the many ways in which corporate commerce has invaded our public spaces and institutions.

Students in school should not be subjected to a daily barrage of enticements to buy products that we know are harmful to their health. It may be painful for public schools to wean themselves off the profits that soda and junk food machines generate (why else would there be so many of these machines at a school like Murphy?), but plumping up budgets at the expense of student waistlines seems downright malicious. As for the rest of us, our duty is to make sure that sufficient funding is available so that public schools like Murphy don't need to turn to corporate sales of junk food to provide a decent education for Alabama's youth.

Lincoln ...
Mobile, Alabama

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Krugman and Brooks: Eye to eye for once?

Krugman: "The Rambo Coalition" and Brooks: "The Vietnam Passion"

Two NY Times Op-Ed columnists who are usually at odds presented cases today against Bush and Kerry that are remarkably consonant with each other. Krugman, whose columns I read avidly, calls Bush's attempts to smear Kerry indicative of a "Rambo" mentality that projects a vision of the world at once simplistic and ultimately blindered and destructive. Brooks, whose columns I often cannot stomach, writes of the disappearance of Kerry the outspoken moralist and his replacement by Kerry the diplomatic double-speaker. Both of these criticisms, it seems to me, are valid. And yet, I'd still take Kerry over Bush, because I've seen what the Bush White House has done at home and abroad in four years, and I'm much less fearful of what a Kerry administration might do by obsequious and overly cautious omission. In short, give me a politically weak president any day over an ideologue.

ei: The writing on the wall

ei: The writing on the wall

Mitchell Plitnick, who is one of two co-directors of Jewish Voice for Peace, published this article about Israel's separation wall on the Electronic Intifada's Web site. His analysis of the Hague Court's ruling on the wall, including the lone American dissenter's reasoning, is informative, as is his general approach to understanding the problem of the wall as an ethical one. It is not, as he explains, legitimate to claim that the wall represents an actual threat to Israelis, as some peace activists claim; in fact, the wall has indeed reduced the number of Israeli civilian casualties by blocking access to would-be Palestinian suicide bombers. The real problem for Israel, he contends, is that the wall is increasing the nation's pariah status as an occupier, encouraging illegal settlement policies, and fomenting anti-Arab xenophobia and oppression that is rotting the ethical basis of Israeli society. For the Palestinians, of course, the wall is making life extremely difficult for individual civilians and next to impossible for the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

Monday, August 23, 2004

My letter to

To: Editor,

August 23, 2004

Dear Mr. Cornelder,

I am writing in response to an August 12th letter by Diana Appelbaum of the Boston Israel Action Center published on Presbyweb's letters page. In her letter, Ms. Appelbaum calls upon the Presbyterian Church USA to distance itself from the San Francisco Bay Area organization Jewish Voice for Peace. Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) recently supported the Presbyterian Church’s decision to consider divesting from companies whose business in Israel harms innocent people, whether Israeli or Palestinian (see JVP’s letter of support). One such company mentioned by the Presbyterian Church is the Caterpillar Corporation, which sells the armored bulldozers that have been used by Israeli forces to demolish thousands of Palestinian civilians’ homes since the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions’ protection of occupied populations.

In her letter to Presbyweb, Ms. Appelbaum invents an egregious analogy in which she compares Jewish Voice for Peace’s status in the Jewish community to that of a hypothetical pro-eugenics organization within the Presbyterian community. It would be hard to imagine a more offensive charge to hurl at Jews, whatever their political persuasion, whose collective (and often family) history includes victimization by the eugenics policies that accompanied the Nazi genocide. Tellingly, Ms. Appelbaum's thuggish rhetorical tactics are supported by no information about Jewish Voice for Peace or its political positions other than her mention that the San Francisco Jewish Federation did not allow the group to have a booth at a recent pro-Israel rally.

A little bit of history: since the end of the Oslo negotiations in 2000, and the election of the hawkish Ariel Sharon as prime minister of Israel, Jews have had to decide whether they support or oppose the current Israeli administration’s hard line tactics in the Occupied Territories and its internationally condemned expansion of Jewish settlements there. Not surprisingly, this ethical and political quandary has led to increasing polarization within the American Jewish community, and a circling of the wagons by those who support Israel no matter how it behaves. Fortunately, there are many Jews within Israel and in the U.S. who recognize that the best way to support peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is to work to abolish the injustices that extended occupation has wrought. Yet such a recognition has not always sat easily -- and less so since the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians erupted in earnest -- with some established Jewish organizations that confuse legitimate support for Israel with unheeding support for all of its government’s policies.

As an example of this hardening of positions, Jewish Voice for Peace regularly was permitted to have a booth at pro-Israel events sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the late 1990s. Since the outbreak of the current conflict, however, Jewish Voice for Peace has often clashed with the Federation and its political arm, the Jewish Community Relations Council, when these institutions have promulgated policies that appear narrowly one-sided in their approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of its opposition to such policies, Jewish Voice for Peace has increasingly been excluded from Federation activities, even as the Federation has, by direction of some of its largest Jewish donors, cut checks to Jewish Voice for Peace.

All of this suggests that the Presbyterian Church is in fact correct to build alliances with a group such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which has refused to join some of the most established American Jewish organizations in granting the Sharon government a green light to pursue unjust policies. Jewish Voice for Peace speaks for and with the many American Jews who understand that any resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be equitable in order to endure the test of time. Despite Ms. Appelbaum’s outrageous and politically self-serving claim that Jewish Voice for Peace “work[s] actively for the destruction of the Jewish state,” one visit to our Web site or a review of our activities since the group’s founding in 1996 should be enough to convince an unbiased observer that we mean what we say: we stand for the rights of Israelis and Palestinians to live together peacefully and democratically.

The Presbyterian Church USA has demonstrated its ability to dispassionately analyze the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to take actions that support a just and peaceful resolution. Such fair-mindedness has undoubtedly not been well received by some. Jewish Voice for Peace knows very well what it means to take a just and equitable stance that angers established interests, and to stick to it in the face of baseless (and sometimes base) attacks.


Lincoln S..., Founding Member, A Jewish Voice for Peace