Thursday, July 12, 2007

reply to starfire: moral gated communities

Starfire, your comment (on "Screaming Bloody Murder") made me reflect on what I had written. I think some of what you object to -- though you did not say so -- was how I characterized my own opposition to Israeli occupation. I said, this opposition is no touchy-feely, New Age-y type of thing, no every life is sacred kind of thing, etc etc.

Why did I use those terms? In fact I do feel every life is sacred. In fact I do respect much of what the "New Age" movement (whatever it is) attempts to do.

Here is the reason, I think: I am tired of peace and human rights activists being shoved out off the mainstream by innuendo and cheap labels, particularly ones which "feminize" ideals like peace and justice as expressions of weakness, cowardice, lack of touch with reality.

My aim was correct, I think: to oppose this type of characterization. I see more and more that the goal of peace is far braver and more excruciating than the urge for war. And yet -- why did I perpetuate the coincidence of "the feminine" with "the weak and deluded"? In my frustration with the tactics of the Right, I simply took their innuendos and threw them, symbolically, in their face. And as they dripped off their faces (in my imagination), these innuendos retained their basic shape -- a derision of "the feminine" and a subtle valorization of "the masculine."

But your comment -- with its veiled critique -- made me pause. I had written the piece, "Screaming Bloody Murder," to critique Likudnik Zionists. But having it read by Starfire made me wonder if I was letting myself be pulled too much into their implicit logic of Male=force=strength=confrontation and Woman=weakness. So -- thanks for that, Starfire! It is important to have things read from different directions, because we position ourselves as writers in different ways depending on who we might think will be reading. Next time I write a polemic against the right, I should be braver to stand up for a totally alternative way of being and thinking. Sure, throwing back the innuendo that smeared one is useful, and needed, but it also needs to be transformed into something deeper.

As for your other points. Who are Islamist extremists? I am not sure they have a single identity. In every country they fight different political battles, many completely mundane: new sewers, new schools. I can understand you disliking extremist religious discourse, and I can agree with this -- including, of course, the extremist, exclusivist discourse of Buddhists, Christians, Jews, as well. But I think it is more important, not to fear a particular group (one which is only a group in our own nervous mind), but to analyze what has allowed such groups to spread. And, uniformly, the answer -- with differences by country of course -- is lack of democracy, repression, colonial occupation. If some who fight these conditions use the banner of Islam, why ought we to fear them? Can we not oppose both those unjust conditions we and they oppose and oppose those parts of their discourse we find objectionable? Can we not condemn both the radicals who took over Islamabad's Red Mosque and the brutal tactics that ended in their deaths?

All people deserve equal rights to life and health. As long as this principle is violated -- and it is, freely -- radical religious groups will proliferate. They need to be opposed, but what angers them must also be recognized as real and legitimate grievances.

For example: in India, the Hindutva movement is a radical Hindu movement which feeds on dispossession. I oppose their exclusivist attempt to turn India into a religiously exclusive state. But how can I not ignore that they are growing because normal politics has failed to address the brutal injustices of life in that country?

The term "extremist" and "radical" are too fuzzy. We ought to distinguish between nihilists like those who send truck bombs into markets -- "internationalist revolutionaries" -- and people who use religion to rally for human rights and better living conditions -- "nationalist radicals." The former are attempting to destroy existing states violently; the latter work within political frameworks for a particular community. Hezbollah is an example of the latter, and cannot be lumped in with Al-Qaeda. Hezbollah's leader is quite pragmatic. Sheikh Nasrallah opposed those within the party who wanted an Islamic State in Lebanon. He refused to ban women from going to the beach, from driving, and the like. He is radical, and he is nationalist (which means opposition to Israel), but he is not a nihilist and he is not a revolutionary bent on destroying the existing state or people of other religions. This distinction I describe is not my own: I think I got it from Mahmood Mamdani, anthropologist in New York, whose book "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim" is excellent.

In short: I am more concerned at the roots of radicalism than at radicalism itself. Anger is the last right of the dispossessed, and if it is often misdirected -- well, the best we can do is oppose their excesses in the best ways we can, peacefully, while recognizing their core of real grievances. Finally: righteous anger has a powerful creative, and destructive, power. Like a fire, there is danger there, but also something sacred and true.

So -- while I decry the hooliganism of some members of Hamas in Gaza, I do not think that they are somehow worse than Fatah simply because they are "Islamist". On the contrary: while Fatah are thugs who had sold out to the US and Israel, Hamas is an independent thug. Which means they are fighting with the common people against the occupation. They are not fighting in the best way, I think. But their right to fight I cannot deny. Ultimately, if I were in that prison camp, would I be acting better than them? I doubt it. And I don't know if anyone can really make such a claim with confidence.

I hate the kind of gated community critique that is so common, the kind of horrified superiority taken by American commentators, tsk tsking at Hamas as though they were animals consumed by anger. As if we in that situation would not be consumed by anger! Anyone would be. To pretend otherwise is to live in an emotional and political gated community, pretending to float above reality. But we not living in Gaza are just privileged, and lucky: not better. Just farther away. This "gated community" superiority is just rancid, and nauseates me. Sure, Hamas is brutal. But try telling me if you were treated like animals with all your family you would not resort to brutality! Who can guarantee they are so angelic -- especially Americans who have never faced a day of injustice or humiliation in their entire lives -- that they would sit in that hell and politely ask the Israelis for their freedom! They dare to preach to the poor and oppressed how to be more genteel -- polite -- grateful for the scraps of pity thrown them by the UN.

Did the fighters for American independence use total civility and deference to King George? Absolutely not. They used anger, and violence. And they were far more privileged than modern day fighters for independence in the developing world.

You gated community commentators, blogging from your moral heights: tell me you could last one week as a resident of Gaza without being angry, without wanting to pick up a stone or a gun. How is it that people of such comfortable lives can presume to understand or advocate for the poor and oppressed? It beggars belief.

Imagine a dog which has been tortured all its life by a cruel master. This dog is full of rage and wish for vengeance, but most of the time all it can do is snap at the master, biting its ankles. Imagine a fat, comfortable dog, never beaten in its life, looking on and with an attitude of scorn and superiority, saying: such manners! What a brute! I would never be so angry! How very uncouth. . . These are the voices of the gated community moralists, privileged in their utter divorce from hardship, preaching to the people crowded together in the slums beneath their gates. Ask me why I, also privileged with a comfortable life, am also angry at this moral superiority, and that is another story. For another time.

1 comment:

Starfire said...

Thank you for getting back to my comment on your blog. I partly wrote on yours because the monologues we construct can easily become esoteric if we are not careful. I do however realise the context in which you are writing and the intended audience.

As Derrida says, the ancient Greeks referred to writing as a gift with mixed implications, a ‘Pharmakon’- something somewhere between a medicine and a poison- something like a ‘drug’. We seem to need it to communicate over the distances we have built between one another, over time and space, yet I fear it induces as much misunderstanding as understanding in the way we tend to use it, whether it be on the side of writing or reading. Like Socrates advised, it always needs to be balanced with the living appreciation of truth, with philosophy, with ultimate values.

Fortunately, your writing has enough a mix of creativity and articulation for the meaning to be clear to any fair-minded reader, even those who may not agree with the conclusions reached there. It brings clarity, not confusion. But we need to be careful, lest we mistakenly communicate something less than our highest intentions and become no more than just another opinion writer. I think we need to always remember our ultimate values, to balance our views with reference to them.

Right now, through the Internet, we have an incredible opportunity for people to share their views like never before; but like any technology, it all depends upon how we use it. Seeing our recent surge in technology being utilised as much for war as for medicine makes me realise that this world will be defined by what is written in our hearts, where the essential progress lies. Our cleverness must be ruled by our compassion.

As you say here, we have to understand why people in terrible situations behave the way they do. Though I have to say that for me peaceful change is the greatest glory, the true liberation.