Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel Palestine

I spent the last two weeks in Israel/Palestine with Brother Li Wei. We were disappointed that our peace initiative did not resolve the situation there, but the trip was otherwise a great success.

                                    Jerusalem's Wall

                                  The Tower of David

Jerusalem is a city well worth visiting, even for the godless. It’s surrounded on all sides by an Ottoman-era wall, and internally it’s crisscrossed with narrow lanes and alleyways in which it is easy to get lost, which we occasionally did. At one point we stumbled upon the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which, according to those who know, stands on what used to be Calvary and the tomb from which Jesus arose.

                                          Old City Lane

As we struggled to find our way out of the city, we gradually realized that we were following the Stations of the Cross, but in reverse order. I’m hoping this won’t be interpreted by the celestial authorities as a devilish ritual, like the black masses that Satan supposedly oversaw in medieval times.

We hoped to visit the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock one day, but were told these sites were closed. Why? “There is a problem,” one heavily armed Israeli soldier told us. In fact, there are heavily armed soldiers regularly patrolling the streets of Jerusalem, but on this particular day the place was truly swarming with them, and with uniformed police. We learned later that this was due to the Palestinians marking of Nakba Day, the Day of Catastrophe, which is their term for the founding of Israel. There had, in fact, been some disturbances in different parts of the country, including in the Golan Heights where some Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers as they attempted to cross the Syrian border.

We did eventually get to see the Wailing Wall and the Dome of the Rock on a more relaxed day.

                                  Wailing Wall

                                Dome of the Rock

It seemed to us that Jerusalem and the nearby towns were more tense than other parts of the country. There were far more people dressed in garb that suggested serious religious devotion and the great majority of Palestinian women in Jerusalem covered their hair with a hijab.

                        Jerusalem: T-shirts for Tourists

                                     More T-shirts

One thing that surprised me was the way some of the young Palestinians managed to dress very flirtatiously despite their de rigueur head covering. One young lady we passed on the street wore skin-tight Levis along with her modest hijab. Another wore a rather tight, black, sheath-like dress adorned with a glittery silver belt that hung across her hip line in a way that seemed designed to draw attention. For some of these young women the head coverings appeared to be an ethnic marker indicating loyalty to the Palestinian cause rather than modesty per se.

Major sources of tension in the Jerusalem area are some of the aggressively placed Israeli settlements. Some of these are clearly established with the intention of making life more difficult for the Palestinians, and these pointedly aggressive settlements are generally occupied by Israelis with serious religious notions about God having given this land to them.

I never trust people who claim that God gave them some piece of land. In fact, I’m waiting for some group to get up and leave their homeland saying, “Well, we got a message from God, and he told us he gave this land to that other group, so off we go.” No. It’s always, God gave it to us! Is God just being mischievous when he tells one group that they should take over a piece of land while neglecting to tell the people already living there what he has in store?

Let’s face it: claiming that God, like some sort of divine real estate agent, has given you the right to occupy an already occupied territory is just a way to justify bullying the people living there. As a rule, I consider all self-serving policy goals that claim justification from God as products of either gross self-delusion or outright lying. That's why I see the ultra-orthodox settlements planted in the heart of Palestinian lands as particularly ugly.

Israel, of course, is a dream come true for Jews all over the world. And at the center of the dream is the Old City of Jerusalem. Many of us who are not Jewish find the story of Israel's creation inspirational in many ways. So here's a toast to the fulfillment of that dream - "Next year in Jerusalem."

But, the Palestinians...

The displacement of thousands of Palestinians in the creation of Israel has been an injustice and a tragedy. It doesn't have to be an unending tragedy, but the intentionally belligerent settlements virtually ensure that it will be. Expect more violence because of them.

Away from Jerusalem we did find attitudes much more relaxed. In Haifa, particularly, people seemed truly dedicated to a “live and let live” philosophy. Appropriately, this is where the all-inclusive Baha’i faith has established a beautiful garden on the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Looking down on the Baha'i Garden on Mount Carmel

                             A Part of the Garden

But some security was apparently felt to be necessary, for we encountered a group of very nice young Israeli soldiers on our way to the garden whose weaponry must have weighed about as much as they did. They were very helpful to us and happily posed for pictures.

          Li Wei with Friendly Soldier Lasses

The Golan Heights was an interesting area, partly because of the leftover traces of the 1967 war in which Israel took that territory from the Syrians. But, like all of Israel and Palestine, it had much more than this to offer. There were Druze communities, where some of the men wore distinctive headgear, and an ancient fortress, named after Nimrod, that overlooked a trade route.

             Golan Heights: Remains of a Tank

In order to get to the Golan Heights, we drove across the West Bank getting lost a couple of times, once on the outskirts of Ramallah, and again near Nablus. In Ramallah, we encountered the notorious wall that cuts into the West Bank and which boasted reams of graffiti – some serious and political, some frivolous.

         The Security Wall North of Jerusalem

  Palestinian Guards at a Nablus Checkpoint

Every time we crossed from Israeli territory into Palestinian-controlled territory, or vice-versa, we had to go through a checkpoint. But almost everybody was uniformly pleasant, whether Israeli or Palestinian. An exception was one particularly steely-eyed female Israeli guard near the Jordan River who questioned us closely. Oh yeah, and there was the gruff guard who was reluctant to let us into the “Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum” in Haifa. When he checked my passport and noticed I had been to Morocco, he demanded to know why I went there. He ultimately let us in, though, maybe because I told him I had been in the U.S. Navy, which is not entirely untrue.

Over all, it was a very enlightening trip, but if we’re going to solve things there, Li Wei and I are probably going to have to make another visit some day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Us and Them and Justice

“U.S. Navy Seals Kill Osama bin Laden.”

That’s the headline, but what’s the story?

I can’t deny that I felt good about bin Laden being eliminated as a factor in the “Al Qaeda vs. World” contest. However, the circumstances of the killing forced so many questions to the surface that I also can’t deny that I harbor certain reservations.

In the starkest terms, it’s worth considering whether or not assassinations are a business with which we want to identify ourselves. This question becomes somewhat weightier given that bin Laden wasn’t holding a weapon when he was shot, and could, perhaps, have been captured rather than killed.

Still, I’m not going to direct accusations against men who are sent on a very dangerous mission in which their own deaths are distinct possibilities, and ask them why they couldn’t have been more formal and polite as the bullets were flying.

And finally, the kicker: Bin Laden was a ruthless killer, and one who was nauseatingly self-righteous about his justifications for mass murder. Some people have said this description also applies to President George W. Bush, but that discussion leads to complications that I’d rather leave aside, at least for now.

But I could have done without the celebratory dancing in the street that followed the announcement of the assassination.

The New York Times cited a couple of citizens with conflicted feelings that the celebrations brought out.

“Some Americans celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden loudly, with chanting and frat-party revelry in the streets. Others were appalled — not by the killing, but by the celebrations.

‘It was appropriate to go after Bin Laden, just to try to cut the head off that serpent, but I don’t think it’s decent to celebrate a killing like that,’ said George Horwitz, a retired meat cutter and Army veteran in Bynum, N.C.”

First of all, I was surprised that an Army veteran, a meat cutter and a southerner would think along these lines. Good on you, Mr. Bynum.

But obviously, lots of people were more single-minded in their reactions. Many of those celebrating on the street were young, which is understandable, given that oldsters do not spend a lot of late night time out on the streets. But another division I would anticipate is political.

My guess is that the more conservative an individual is, the more likely he or she would be to celebrate that death of bin Laden without reservation. And this is only a guess, since I have no data to work with here; but really, doesn’t it sound right?

There’s a reason for this, and it comes to us from CultureWorld’s Department of Oversimplification: Conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty over justice, liberals tend to do the opposite.

In other words, when “our guys” do something grossly unjust (e.g., My Lai, Abu Ghraib), conservatives often leap to their defense because they are “our guys.” Liberals are much more likely to want to see the perpetrators brought to justice because, even though they are “our guys,” what they did was a monstrous violation of justice.

I would argue that a lot of the political differences that separate left from right (for instance, on tax rates, social security, affirmative action, separation of church and state) can be interpreted in light of the differential emphasis given to these two basic values.

It’s interesting that America’s enemies today-- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs -- are fundamentally conservative. Yet it is American conservatives who are most likely to want to hit them with violent and aggressive blows. So, while conservatives celebrate actions like that which killed (their fellow conservative!) bin Laden, liberals are much more likely to say, “Yes, but…” and then raise issues relating to fair play and universal standards of justice.

I invite one and all to sort that contradiction out and make sense of it right here and now.

Oh yeah, and I am glad he’s gone.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

G.O.P. + A.R.

My all time favorite student told me that, back in 1981, the first thing she knew about me was that I didn’t like Ayn Rand. Apparently another student confided this to her in a restroom chat.

Well, my opinion of Ayn Rand has changed since then. In 1981 I vaguely disliked Rand because I considered her a misguided egotist who wrote shlocky books shaped by a ludicrously naive philosophy. Now, having read a mini-biography of her by Johann Hari in Slate, I must say I was wrong to think of her as merely wrongheaded. She was something of a psychopath and much more of a monster than I realized.

According to the Slate bio, Rand was scarred by her childhood experiences in the USSR when her family was reduced to poverty by the Bolsheviks’ seizure of their property. Of course, millions of prosperous families in Russia, China, Cuba and other such places have had their property seized by communists. Many people from these once prosperous families deeply resent communism for the injustice that they feel it has dealt them. But none evolved into the kind of nasty, egomaniacal nutcase that Ayn Rand became. She was special.

Ayn Rand’s philosophy, which she called “objectivism,” is wildly subjective. Rand claimed to base her views on reason, but they are actually based on a blinkered self-regard that declares, “Some people (like me, for instance) are superior and should not be hindered by restrictive laws designed for the good of community or society.” On the basis of this narcissistic philosophy, Rand created a cult that continues to influence conservatives to this day.

Ayn Rand’s objectivism, by the way, is not taken seriously by real philosophers, and there is a reason for this. It makes no sense.

In the Slate article, Hari refers to a 1927 crime by a young man named William Hickman, who raped, murdered and dismembered a 12-year-old girl, sending the pieces of her body to the police. “Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented ‘the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.’ She called him ‘a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,’ shimmering with ‘immense, explicit egotism.’”

That's Ayn Rand - glorifier of individualism and hero of conservatives. She too “shimmers with immense, explicit egotism.”

Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness (aka, Screw You)

Rand was a fanatic promoter of unregulated capitalism. She believed that in capitalist competition superior people rise to the top and inferiors are left behind. Rand’s objectivism, with its glorification of selfishness and competition explains how heroic supermen like Dan Quayle and George W. Bush got so far in life: They are simply made of better stuff than the rest of us.

Paul Ryan, the new darling of the GOP is a big Ayn Rand fan. At a D.C. gathering in 2006 Ryan said, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand” (from The New Republic).

The GOP loves Ayn Rand despite her nuttiness and her nasty streak. They love her because she helps them promote the cult of competition that they want to believe in, and, more importantly, they want us to believe in.

Paul Ryan, George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Eric Cantor, and other GOP leaders are children of privilege. Privilege is the beginning of the explanation for their prominence. But the particular serving of bullshit that they want us to accept is that even if they had been born Hispanic or Haitian, children of migrant workers, or slum-dwelling wretches, their superior qualities would have lifted them to prominence in America’s competitive arena. The good and worthy, they claim, naturally rise in society (like they did!); those left behind deserve what they get. Government, with its annoying democratic principles, need not interfere.

Ayn Rand would be proud to know that her muddled “objectivism,” for all its ludicrous irrationality, has helped this gaggle of right wingers find comfort in the foggy mists of their own self-delusion. For the rest of us, well, perhaps we can take some comfort from the fact that the latest film version of her Atlas Shrugged, has turned out to be as weird and unlikable as the writer herself.