Month: August 2014

America Seriously Needs to Reconcile with Its Past

No, this isn’t another hackneyed “don’t forget history” thing. In fact, historical events are currently being invoked as the country has an opportunity to analyze Ferguson, Missouri while it, apparently, calms down. However, the major event which underpins the crux of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting and the ensuing backlash is one which America has yet to properly address, and it is slavery.

There are other factors, of course. A gamut of economic, social, and political influences spanning from the 21st century to before America’s founding have come into play in various degrees. But… that goes without saying for just about any protest, and usually, most shootings.

Many of these various other influences should be addressed, and for at least some, attempts have been made to do so. Yet slavery, especially, is long overdue. It occupies a strange place in history where it was too traumatic and too far reaching to be resolved merely with time, and yet is such an encroachment on the feel-goody presumption of America’s moral superiority that it nonetheless fades, for all intents and purposes, from the public arena of conversation, like an unsightly wart.

Americans may insist that it is not white-washing, and that the nation has dealt with the whole issue. Generally they point to a smattering of glorified “milestones” and well-intentioned but highly contentious Band-Aids which, really, a society that had truly come to grips with its history would have already established.

I’m actually going to do something a bit unusual here. Remember the film, 12 Years a Slave? While it’s all but forgotten post-awards season, a week from now will be the anniversary of its first release, and it’s a perfect example of the refusal of American society to address its history in a sincere way. And while I believe the film was well-intentioned, it nonetheless exists as an outgrowth and representation of this problem, and as a single piece of art which many have seen, it is a more universal common point of reference than most other things I could use. If you want, you can simply call me lazy for it. It won’t hurt my feelings.

Obviously, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it, and if you haven’t, you should. Although I personally believe its Best Picture win was undeserved (Her was an infinitely more coherent and sincere), it is nonetheless a film which begs to be viewed at least once for its few affecting scenes and the overall intense, if brief, degree of significance it was accorded in pop culture upon its release. Short story is, although discussing a movie that came out a year ago based on a book almost two hundred years old: SPOILERS.

There is no endemic racism in the world of The North as presented in 12 Years a Slave. Northrup drifts easily between social circles, his blackness causing no issues for him since, as far as the movie portrays, he’s relatively successful, he’s educated, he’s skilled, and he’s not poor or a criminal, so he garners not only the immediate empathy of (mostly white) audiences but of his white peers.

God forbid he should be large or muscled-looking, or that he should be presented doing Northrup‘s other profession, farming, which involves a lot of physical labor and very little of the finery in dress or mannerisms found playing the violin at a dinner party. Northrup is not portrayed as a large black man aggressively reshaping the land, but in the least threatening way possible, as a refined musician. If the pleasant-to-neutral attentions of his white peers in the beginning of the film are due to a social understanding that as a performer with an instrument considered delicate, or even feminine, he is considered nonthreatening, that point is not made by the film itself.

No, according to the film, The North is simply just so enlightened that Northrup blends in and is accepted as effortlessly as if he were white. Even a slave owner treats him politely. It’s no surprise he was so trusting of the men offering to hire him; what would he be afraid of? He’s never shown experiencing fear or insecurity as a result of being faced with opposition to his blackness, even in an era where black people are being bought and traded as commodities not very far away.

Of course a distinction should be made here that the film alleges to strive for historical accuracy, and my concern is not to attack the veracity of that claim. I’m concerned with the way the film caters to modern stereotypes and indulgences, and how that has skewed the true message of its subject. The historical accuracy is secondary.

And yet this isn’t even accurate. Racism was rampant in The North. Even the white abolitionist had, in some ways, racist tendencies. So if The Enlightened North as presented is not historical, what is it?

Well… it’s an illusion. The Northern world of 12 Years a Slave is the same one we project onto American society today. A combination of selective memory and white guilt have propagated a narrative interpretation of unbridled and ceaseless progress on the front of racial equality, and for many white Americans, 12 Years’ illusion is indistinguishable from their perspective of the real world. There’s no real effort to confront the ugly reality of race relations which are still easily inflamed (as seen in Ferguson).

In this way the film caters to these white sensibilities. 12 Years provides us with a refuge in a racially tolerant fantasy land, to which our rationalization can withdraw. And here’s where the movie’s other most significant thematic failing lies: when Northrup finally returns to his home, the movie ends. He’s once more dressed in finery, he’s aged but otherwise indistinguishable from his former self, innocent of the realities of slavery, and as he joyfully reunites with his family, the message is not implicitly, “Here’s where we start,” the message is, “It’s finally over.”

12 years of slavery are presented as agonizing, painful, and full of suffering, but moving on is as easy as returning home. It’s as if slavery was not, in fact, an event which lead to the extended disenfranchisement of blacks from Jim Crowe to Stop and Frisk. It was horrible, but it was isolated, and all we need to do is hug our families and forget it ever happened.

The narrative espoused by 12 Years a Slave in this manner precisely reflects what most white Americans would like to believe, a narrative that they, in many cases, cling to.

But that narrative is not reality. I don’t have token milestones to point to, unfortunately, all I have are more statistics. Blacks are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. They are disproportionately shot and killed by police. They are disproportionately exposed to poverty and drugs. They are paid less. They enjoy less political representation and fewer educational opportunities. These are all things that society at large has the power to change, and yet it is reluctant even to address them.

I’m going to assume we all agree not to correlate blackness with inherent inferiority as a result of these statistics, and instead recognize them for what they really are: a mortifying reminder of the long-reaching effects of slavery.

When these statistics become proportionate, when the reality of a racially integrated society mirrors that of the illusion presented of Northern States in 12 Years a Slave, then we can say this chapter is closed. But that is not the reality, and it never will be for as long as we refuse to reconcile with these issues.


Who Watches the Watchmen?

That’s the third reference now, for those keeping track.

In an ideal world, the murder of Michael Brown by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, would be a tragic but isolated incident. However, in reality it is simply yet another case where a police or security officer, empowered by a sense of authority, took the life of a black man (or child) into his own hands and expected to get away with it.

If one has the stomach for it, one can find videos of not only killings by police, but innumerable beatings and harassment. Often times these videos are taken by hidden cameras, without police knowledge, as it is fairly a common (illegal) policy for police to insist that cameras may not be used to record them. Often in sensitive situations they use every tool available to them, including violence, to prevent themselves from being recorded.

But even with video evidence of police brutality, cases are often dismissed while basic reports of excessive force go completely uninvestigated. Ostensibly the job of a police officer is to protect and serve the population, yet when a police officer violates that very mandate, why is there little to no accountability?

When police departments should, more than anyone else, desire to crack down on bad eggs, more often abuse and misconduct is covered up; perpetrators are protected, their names withheld, they’re put on leave (often paid leave), even for horrible abuses of authority.

I would personally argue that these problems exist due to a culture where deference to authority figures empowers internal attitudes among law enforcement officers of near-omnipotence. From that pedestal, they define their brothers and sisters in the Law, fellow officers and their families, as those to which they owe their allegiance and sympathy, and cast the people of their jurisdiction as “others,” especially those they presume likely to commit crime, with or without evidence.

Not that my personal understanding matters. What is important is minimizing, and if possible, eliminating, unnecessary police violence. A possible answer here, perhaps unintuitively, is surveillance.

Our constitutionally monarchial friends across the pond have recently begun pushing for a measure which would mandate the use of “Body-Worn Cameras,” or “Body Cameras,” for certain police officers. They’ve not only been trialled there, but here as well, with some dramatic results (as seen in the report above). Although the sample size is small, body-worn cameras on police seem to have a predictable effect: they reduce accusations, and by extension, cases, of police brutality.

The benefits are actually broader than that, including better evidence for prosecutions and money saved from a reduced need for investigation and court fees (assuming the department in question catered to such considerations faithfully before). The above report enumerates the various pros sufficiently, as well as some of the cons. The ACLU has weighed in with their justified concerns as well, but overall it appears body-worn cameras could be an effective and permanent answer to the intolerable problem of police brutality.

However, it comes back to the matter of surveillance. Is it too much?

I say, cautiously, no. Some day, body-worn cameras may be used by all police, and until that point their use should be overtly advertised to ensure everyone affected is fully informed. However, the mere presence of police officers tends to affect people’s behavior anyway, and when an officer enters the scene they make clear that direct government representation has been extended to the location. As an individual with the authority to invoke probable cause and conduct an arrest, and someone likely to report their encounters to a government database, a police officer, body-cam or no, is already a form of human government surveillance. What the camera alters, or truly, improves, is the accuracy and authenticity of the surveillance police officers already provide.

As fellow humans, police officers have faces and names. This puts them in a separate league from the faceless, nebulous agencies which spy on our emails and phone calls, generally without our awareness. They can not record anywhere, any time, at any range: they can only record more faithfully what they already see. Who holds them accountable? Essentially, the truth that they themselves personally record.

Obviously there are questions when it comes to the agency of officers to operate the cameras, and how to deal with unofficial police interactions (bathroom visits, personal phone calls, and the like), as well as encounters of a sensitive nature, like embarrassing but non-criminal encounters, domestic violence, and investigation of home interiors. However, these can be solved with reasonable and responsible policies and regulations, which the ACLU has also recommended.

Michael Brown’s death should not have happened, but it cannot be reversed. However, the justified response of anger to that death (and many others at the hands of police), if carefully honed to a precise and deliberate point, can help spearhead a campaign to search for meaningful solutions to this tragic problem and affect positive change.

Are worn body cameras one such solution? I say it’s certainly worth an earnest effort to find out.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Today, I’d like to weigh in on a matter that isn’t much discussed lately: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

(“Oh, really? How original!” All three of you might be saying.)

It took me an entire month to figure out how to approach this subject. It would be utterly redundant to belabor the complexity of the issues involved, especially when the emotions invested in this particular conflict are so intense. I acknowledge these feelings, and the degree to which they are often felt ensures that I’m unlikely to change anyone’s mind on this issue.

So, then, Hamas vs. the IDF. Who is in the right, and who is in the wrong? I see this most frequently posed question as fundamentally flawed.

I look at Hamas and I see a terrorist organization that literally wants to wipe out the Jews. I look at the IDF and I see one of (if not the most) advanced militaries in the world which relentlessly pounds a tiny speck of land full of civilians, willing to justify the killing of hundreds of children in one month over strategic goals that are themselves self-defeating.

The analogy of David and Goliath invoked not infrequently (with the central irony of a Palestinian David and Israeli Goliath) has some basis in reality. However, it would be much more accurate to have Li’l Hitler playing the part of David, hopping from beside one Palestinian bassinet to another throwing rocks at an Israeli Jaeger which then tries to smack Li’l Hitler with its fist, as if playing a perverse game of whack-a-mole. The more innocents get smacked, the more willing grieving Palestinian parents are to provide Li’l hitler with rocks, even if they don’t particularly like him.

It is said that in war no one wins, and everyone loses. Often that’s true; at the very least, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an exception. One can argue that the IDF can win militarily by destroying secret tunnels or killing what they deem to be a “sufficient” number of rocket launch sites. However, the conduct of their operations in Gaza are inseparable from the killing of innocent civilians. One can then argue Hamas needs only to survive in order to win, for Israeli operations, while destructive, only increase support for Hamas and other militant groups. This is, most likely, one of the major reasons Hamas has for firing rockets from civilian centers, drawing fire from the IDF to rally more anti-Israeli sentiment. Ultimately Israel will declare an end to the conflict on some sort of arbitrary basis, as they always do, and withdraw. Yet, the rockets will keep coming, if not now, then later; Hamas will certainly fight on.

However, every rocket fired into Israel risks prompting a response from the IDF. This leads to blockades and sanctions (necessitating secret tunnels in order to sustain survivability for those in the affected area), and what seems to be an almost seasonal offensive from Israel. Hamas’s stated intent to, among other things, gain Palestinian independence is seriously undermined by the measures taken by its far more powerful neighbors. A successful fighting force needs a powerful logistical supply chain and an infrastructure effective enough to supply healthy recruits and auxiliary aid. With each war in the Gaza strip, provoked or not, Gaza’s capability to provide for those basic necessities collapses even further.

So, to recap: provoked by rocket fire against Israel, the IDF attacks Palestine, causing civilian casualties that incite more people to join militant groups, which fire rockets at Israel.


There’s something missing from this recursive loop of an equation, however, and it is the side I ultimately choose to sympathize with. The Palestinian civilians in Gaza suffer disproportionately by a far more powerful aggressor for the actions of a few, with whom they have little to no affiliation or allegiance. I think it’s entirely fair to call the Palestinians victims in all of this.

But that’s only half of the remainder. The IDF, drawn from citizen soldiers, requires public support in order to commit to risky campaigns. Somehow, a war which has killed hundreds of civilians, including many children, and for the mere sake of vague objectives, has a 95% approval rating among Israeli Jews. To put that in perspective, American support for the Iraq war, a similarly muddy Faustian bargain, peaked at 72% in its first months and soon dropped very sharply. Polls show that a significant percentage of Israeli non-Arabs hold racial contempt against Arabs, even those who are citizens of Israel. Although government and media propaganda play a heavy hand in this, the daily threat of Palestinian rockets hitting Israelis, though substantially mitigated by Iron Dome, is very real. There’s also the matter of antisemitism, which is on the rise.

Modern Israel’s history is deeply rooted in the Holocaust. It is a fact that there was a point in history where one zealous group of people with national power determined unilaterally that Jews should all be destroyed. Modern Israel was founded by many survivors of that genocide. It is understandable that, in the interest of preventing another Holocaust, Jews in Israel would react quickly, and violently, to any antisemitism from its neighbors. By all means, a second Holocaust should be averted, if it is a threat.

However, if it is a threat today, it is remote. As stated earlier, Israel, though tiny, is an incredibly powerful country. It also continues to enjoy what has amounted to billions of dollars in aid from its allies. Sorry, ally. Israel is not a Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, it is a modern democracy, and very much representative of the Western world’s monopoly on what is currently defined as “first world” civilization. This forms a significant portion of Israel’s self-identified moral superiority over its neighbors. Most Israelis have access to books, to libraries, to the internet. They are every bit as capable of assimilating the concepts of basic human rights and opposing government policy as any other citizen of the West, and many do.

The fact that Israel, a country that drinks so liberally from the cup of Western ideals, clings to such an archaic form of militant nationalism, speaks to a deeper problem. Hamas commits Palestinians to a war with Israel without their consent; it victimizes its own people. So too does Israel’s government turn its own citizens into pawns, provoking attacks by Hamas to fuel anti-Palestinian sentiment that then charges national politics and ensures continued military aid. I would not go so far as to invoke the idea of a devious, long-term conspiracy on the part of Israeli politicians, but they certainly seem to know how to push the right buttons.

And so, finally, my conclusion: the populations of both Israel and Palestine are being held hostage by their own governments. One is subject to military reprisals due to provocations made by its own leaders precisely to cause civilian casualties, while the other is subject to radicalizing nationalistic pressure from a government that refuses to deviate from policies that provoke threatening attacks and prolong political and military tensions.

What can be done?

I don’t know. Smarter and more talented people than myself have tried and failed to come up with a solution to this tragic and constant problem.

However, the US sends aid to both sides of this conflict. We cannot justifiably tell other nations how to conduct their affairs, especially as a nation with such a dirty track record of its own. The provision of foreign aid, especially military aid, is undeniably a tacit attempt to influence, if not destabilize, another nation’s political climate with volatile capital.

Is it really the place of the United states to decide that either government in this case, when both are ultimately responsible for human rights abuses, deserve approval in the form of our money?

Two Days Ago, a Murderer Died in Georgia

It should be clarified, first, that I am not literally calling Theodore Van Kirk a murderer in the sense that he alone was responsible for the deaths of 140,000 people, most of them civilians. He was merely one in a crew of people, acting under the orders of a commander commissioned by the United States.

I also do not wish to imply that Theodore Van Kirk’s moral character is comparable to that of Joseph Wood.

Nonetheless, had Theodore Van Kirk decided, at the last minute, to disobey the orders given to him, the lives of 140,000 people would have been spared, if only temporarily.

My accusation does not lay at the feet of a dead veteran. It lays at the steps of the country which created him.

Why is killing two people in cold blood a capital crime, and killing thousands heroism?

Who is anyone to decide when one killing is justified and another is not?

Why is James Wood “bad” enough that we can judge him as so evil he must be destroyed, but the United States is “good” enough that it can murder civilians in the hundreds of thousands with impunity?

Individuals can be held accountable. Even some countries can be held accountable; at least, attempts are made to hold them accountable.

Yet, it is undeniable that some countries are more accountable than others. If you are large enough, prosperous enough, powerful enough, you are immune. Even if other countries, “enemy” and “ally” alike, publicly condemn such a country, they do nothing. There is no accountability; there is only tacit acceptance.

Why is that?

Murder is the ultimate affront to freedom. A blind, deaf, and mute paraplegic still has a chance at pursuing a full life. Victims of torture, false imprisonment, slavery, and abuse have turned their struggles into triumphs. Although inspiring success stories in that vein are hardly the norm, the fact remains they are a possibility at all because the people affected are still alive. A person who is dead has lost their freedom. They cannot think, they cannot hope, they cannot strive to accomplish anything. They existed once, they exhibited their potential, and until the moment of their death that potential remained theirs to seize.

Once dead, that possibility no longer exists. That is why murder is so horrifying.

Americans obsess over freedom. Anymore, it’s a sound-byte, a mere keyword, trite and cliche, something so pervasive in the language and culture of everything from political rhetoric to entertainment that the word itself is now taken for granted. And yet while we cherish freedom at home, where one death is worth an article in the local paper, how have we come to a point where a hundred people in another country can die and Americans can frown for a moment, then go back to their daily lives, feeling nothing?

I believe it’s the same reason we enshrine and immortalize war heroes, fetishize violence, and crank out video games every year where the primary objective is to kill.

Despite the conscious insistence on equality, before the law, before humanity, before any god, human beings do not fundamentally believe in equality. There is one axis along which all are judged: sympathetic, and “other.”

The English are “sympathetic” to us. When an English soldier dies in our war on Afghanistan we may see it on the news, we may stir and groan in sympathy and commend them for their sacrifice. The compassion is felt on a deep, primal level, even if it is fleeting.

Yet when a Syrian rebel dies it’s a non-event. In many ways a Syrian rebel (presuming they are not affiliated with an Islamist extremist group and indeed combat Bashar Al-Assad’s abusive regime) has more in common with an American than any native British soldier, who still to some extent serves a monarch. America’s existence and identity is founded on its resistance to oppression by a despot; a Syrian rebel fights for similar reasons. And yet, they are cast as an “other.” They can die in droves, and if the news week is slow they might get a segment on CNN, but it would be unusual if any individual is eulogized.

The easy answer is that Syrians aren’t “white,” and “we” are, but that’s not strictly true. “Otherness” is cast along far more obscure lines. It’s why perfectly blonde-haired, blue-eyed specimens of the “Aryan Race” can be mowed down in the thousands in the latest WWII first-person shooter, simply because they happen to have a Swastika on their arm.

Someone cast as an “other” is not merely someone who looks different. An “other” is someone we choose not to understand.

This choice is not strictly personal. It’s a calculated result, produced by a political mechanism that tells us who is sympathetic and who is not. The “Yella Colored Fellas marched our Marines to death at Bataan and attacked our boys Pearl Harbor,” they’re “monsters,” they’re “evil.” “Japs,” they were also called, “Nips,” “Nippers.”

To call them Japanese would be to acknowledge the sovereignty of their government and regard them, at least in part, as a parallel nation of people. And “people,” “human beings:” calling them those, that’s out of the question.

You do not rally a country to war by reassuring them they will be killing the elderly, or mothers and children. You rally a country to war by defining a group as “other.”

“Others” are not perceived as human. They often take on nicknames, like “Gook,” or “Hadji,” to reduce them to being less-than-human. If they happen to look different all the better, but they could just as well be a “Commie,” or a “Red.”

Or a “Jew.”

You will find monuments to the way that America has chosen to define otherness all over the world. They are in the death tolls in Japan, in Korea, in Vietnam. There are “others” from Europe to Africa to South America. They are even found at home.

Even the same group of people can go from being “sympathetic” to “others” within a matter of years. The definition is arbitrary.

These “others” have nothing in common, except that a nation has defined them as killable, as people against whom violence is justified and even encouraged. This is not new. It’s been part of every government’s political arsenal since the beginning of civilization.

What’s new is that we believe ourselves to be immune from it. We predicate our choices and our actions, justify our killings, on the idea that our morality is superior; we acknowledge equality, freedom, and democracy, and that is precisely what gives us the authority to say who deserves to be spared, and who is an acceptable loss.

Again, I have to ask, from where does that authority derive? Should any individual, or group of individuals, or government, have that power?

I say no. To murder 140,000 people for any reason is wrong, just as wrong as it is to murder 2 unsuspecting people. If you compromise on that point, if you accept any justification for such deaths, you are committing your allegiance to an authority completely distinct from the value of human life.

If your values do not include human life, it seriously begs the question of what your values are, and who determines them.