Friday, March 26, 2010

Palestine as portrayed by Joe Sacco

I was never much into graphic narratives or “comic books” as a kid. I’ll show my age by mentioning the ones that I DID read, so maybe its best that I hold something back. I always enjoyed “regular” books, you know, the ones with little to no pictures or illustrations. It seems that from a very young age, I put a certain stigma on the graphic narrative as being in the same category as cartoons (which I will tell you were before the days of the adult cartoons such as South Park). In other words, I didn’t take graphic narratives very seriously.

Well, years later I return to the graphic narrative and I am starting to regret the stereotypes that I’ve put on both graphic narrative readers and authors. The activist that awakened me to the power of the format is Joe Sacco, a brilliant journalist who has mastered the art of associating images in different configurations to convey tension, dialogue, intense situations and the unmistakable art of drilling an image into your memory. I’m sure that those of you who have read many more graphic narratives than I are familiar with all of this already.

The book that I read from Sacco was Palestine: The Special Edition, which included a total of nine individual narratives in one hardbound collection. If you’re a bit of a dork like me and you just like the feel of a book, then this will be aesthetically pleasing to you.

Sacco is to be commended for taking upon himself the immense task of documenting the effects of the first intifada (from 1987-1993) from on the ground. He spent time in both the West Bank and Gaza and delivered an incredibly honest and often humorous account of his culture shock and attempts to deal with the atrocities that the Palestinians face daily.

Sacco portrays himself (for better or worse) as human, and not always sure of what to say or even if he had the compassion and sacrifice within himself to help those in need. To me, this is exemplary of so many currents in the discourse surrounding the solidarity with the Palestinians. The Arab nations, the activists in the U.S. and around the world all talk good rhetoric, but are COMPLETELY unfamiliar with what happens daily to those suffering. Even worse, they don’t know how to deal with the minute by minute, hour by hour events when they arrive with the intention of contributing to the cause. Much of this is due to the idea of “benevolence”; It’s due to the underlying feeling of superiority that the more enlightened are helping the have-nots.

There was dissonance and impatience, as Sacco honestly illustrates that he was scared to death at times. He was often conflicted as to what to say to those who asked him “What difference will it make that you are here?” and “What can you do for us to get the message out to the West?” The Palestinians have been understandably cynical as to what effect dissent in respect to mainstream media will have upon the day to day conditions of their lives. Some of those exchanges became so intense that he was honest enough to state in the narrative that he just wanted to leave the conversation.

What stuck out to me from Sacco’s artistry was his masterful touch at making the images HUMAN. You can not escape that these are a suffering people and not just a conglomeration of human lives that are constantly portrayed as terrorists. They have fears, they live in poverty and misery, and they simply want to be recognized as equals.

At the end of the book, Sacco runs into two Israeli women, who he portrayed as typical Westerners, both in the United States and Israel. They had that sense of entitlement, the Zionist conviction that this land was there’s. However, Sacco also admitted that he had not allowed himself the opportunity to see the Israelis in any other light than soldiers and murderers. He did not immerse himself into dialogue with those Israelis who face their own form of dissonance as to justice when it comes to Palestine. His purpose was to document the untold stories of the Palestinians that we never hear about in the face of constant Zionist propaganda in the West. To that extent, he is brilliant in making the book feel as if you are in the middle of the action along with your friend Joe. It is a PERFECT book to introduce someone to the conflict. I can not wait to follow up this reading with Sacco’s newest book Footnotes in Gaza.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Monotheistic religion and The Tent of Abraham

Some would call me an atheist, others would call me an agnostic, and still others would refer to me as someone who is open spiritually. I usually find myself not limited by definitions, especially when dealing with religion. Literalists and fundamentalists might view me as blasphemous, as not deserving of contact or conversation when it comes to the idea of questioning the meaning and existence of what we refer to as “God”. I have experienced this with family members and especially friends who used to be accepting of me until I “fell out of favor with God”. I then found them turning to the apostle Paul’s command to not associate with those brethren who refuse to accept “our teachings”.

This is the background and way of thinking with which I approached the book The Tent of Abraham by The Christian Joan Chittister, the Muslim Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti and the Rabbi Arthur Waskow. The book centers around the Abrahamic tradition which is the common thread through these great monotheistic beliefs. Since I intend to make my life’s work peace and conflict resolution, especially as it relates to the situation in Palestine, it is important to understand the commonalities between these pious believers in God instead of focusing on the differences that tear the world apart.

Religion becomes a topic of environment (as I often state). Your place of birth, family history, etc… Through this way of growing up, we are taught to hate the other’s version of coming to a knowledge of God. Yet at the same time we are taught that God is too big for us to comprehend, and Her/His ways are unfathomable. If this is the case, what if God is simply the spiritual and extrasensory experiences we have in our day to day lives? What if God is the common factor that simply ties together the laws of nature and makes all of humanity equal and one? Most importantly, the world’s religions need to realize that there are different ways of coming to God or even of perceiving the spiritual.

I have great respect for the writings of the new atheists (Dawkins, Harris, Hutchens, etc…) as I am open to many different ways of thinking when it comes to religion. I especially appreciate their brilliant way of illustrating that when it comes to faith, all rationality is thrown out the window. When the contradictions of the various Holy Scriptures are pointed out to the religious, they dismiss the very questions as blasphemous. You can not argue religion. We all know this. It is precisely because of this dogmatism and fundamentalism that we are led to war. If God is bigger than we can imagine, how can God be confined to some pre-conceived notion and not be a changing and changed force?

What The Tent of Abraham attempts to do is look for the GOOD in religion. Even though I do not belong to any religion, I do believe there is much good to learn from it, yet humanity constantly gets in the way. It is only through education and open-mindedness that the wars between East and West (that are so often based on religion), can be averted. All religions preach helping the poor and taking care of those in your midst that are different than you. The pious woman or man is not to ignore someone simply because they are the “other”, because their beliefs don’t directly coincide. No, we are to work together for a common good. These brave members of the Abrahamic tradition have come together in this book to look for commonality. They are not afraid of questioning themselves for the errors of their religious traditions in treating the other as an equal. That is the kind of religious dialogue that I can respect. It is in the same spirit that I am drawn to Socialism as an ideology that supports equality vs. hate and ignorance of that other culture.

I am familiarizing myself with Judaism and Islam as I will be in the part of the world where the three religions collide. Having been raised Christian, I know that side of the story. This book helped me gain a better understanding of some of the other ways to God. Joan Chittister had one of my favorite quotes of the book when she stated of the Israeli/Palestinian situation that “Ironically, what binds these peoples together is exactly what is driving them apart. And yet, at the same time, it is precisely what drives them apart that may hold the key to bringing them together again.” May the respect among the peoples of Abraham be realized in our time. It will be my life’s work to do my small part in reconciliation and to counter the bias and hatred that is completely contradictory to the peace messages of these religions.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Immigration in the United States

It was during the Muslim workshop at the Beyond Borders conference that I articulated what I felt to be the major themes of any dialogue related to the reception of migrants. In fact, these themes not only relate to migration, but the way we view the other in general. You can name the issues as fear, xenophobia and a lack of empathy.

“The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: They are unique manifestations of the human spirit”-Wade Davis. Cornel West echoes this philosophy in his statement that it is wrong in a post-racial world to say that we should live as color blind citizens. NO. In fact, we should embrace those of other colors, countries, religions, cultures and traditions as being unique; as having their own equal manifestation of that wonderful human spirit; most importantly, as being our equal despite our differences.

It is perhaps ironic that I am currently reading the memoir of Edward Said. I thought of Dr. Said as I was sitting in the various workshops and lectures listening to the reasons that people migrate. The primary reasons are economic or political exile. The United States currently only recognizes political exile. We preach in our national and Capitalistic philosophies that everyone is entitled to achieve success through the fruits of their own hard labor combined with ambition. However, in practice this rarely plays out. In fact, it is a lie from the ruling classes to keep the poor and working class in constant submission. Capitalism always amounts to a failed economic policy for the poor and working class, but is a brilliant system in that it allows for the illusion of freedom to be perpetuated by the upper 1%. We are taught from our youth that we too can become rich if we only work hard enough. It is soon discovered that being rich is an exclusive and limited club because the entrance requirements are steep and are controlled by an elite that wants to stay elite. Race, culture, family, intelligence, environment and endless other factors play into the decision making process of who has and who has nothing.

How does Capitalism relate to immigration? Well, since the United States does not allow economic exile, the poor looking for a better way of life are often forced to enter illegally. This is especially the case in those coming north to the United States from Mexico, Central and Latin America. It is here where the illusion of equality in the Capitalistic system breaks down. So often, and through so many people, we hear that if people want to live in this country, then they need to go through legal means. Migrants must learn our language, must obtain the proper paperwork (become documented) and must not reach into the pockets of the good American citizen. These migrants must not leech off of the public services of the U.S. when they don’t pay taxes or “contribute to society”. The truth, however, is that our economy could not survive without undocumented labor. It is not inaccurate at all to compare migrant labor to slave labor that throughout history has enabled empires to maintain their power. These workers are exploited from the moment they choose to enter our country. From the means of transportation (often on foot) through the wages they are able to obtain, the migrant is treated worse than an animal (and is often hunted like one).

Humanitarian aid is never a crime. U.S. law actually states this. CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) and others on the front line of defense of migrant rights are working pragmatically to improve the conditions of those attempting to cross our Southern border. Why does a religious organization engage in such “subversive” behavior? Because unlike the Minutemen and other racist vigilante groups claiming God and country, these Peacemakers actually focus on the “least of these” that makes the morality of Christ something worthy of study. CPT does this through the distribution of water, and when possible, medical services along the trails leading towards the Tucson area (perhaps the most heavily traveled entry route).

Think back to the reasons that people migrate. Economics are one of the two biggest factors. Since the U.S. does not make this reason legitimate and because we have predatory lawyers and “immigration representatives” the migrant often has no choice about entering illegally. These migrants enter for simple reasons. They want to eat and they want to provide for their families. The lawyers seek to charge them thousands of dollars just to walk them through the maze of paperwork. In addition, the migrants must pay thousands of additional dollars in government fees to acquire all the final paperwork. Time in the country, the travel of relatives, marriage and numerous other carefully designed forms of discrimination can negate the chance at citizenship all together.

The immigrants entering on foot through the Tucson route face many dangers including wild animals, weather, foot and leg injuries and border patrols and vigilantes of all types. The long walk usually takes 3-4 days. During this time if someone in the party is injured, whether they are old or young, they are left behind. The group does not have the physical strength or the supplies to help the injured party. CPT estimates that most of those left behind die. It is also estimated that for every body that is discovered, there are 10 that are not seen. This is because of the harsh desert conditions resulting from predators and weather that will cause the remains of a body to virtually disappear. In addition, if arrested these migrants face imprisonment, deportation and even torture at the hands of the border patrol. If there are family members, it is possible that they will be deported at different points along the border just to make their punishment that much more miserable.

It is time that we as a country examine our policies as related to immigration in a number of ways. First, we must look at why it is that so many south of our border want to enter in the first place. The short answer is that our very economic system is in large part responsible. It is through the exploitative nature of American Capitalism that other countries fall into poverty. Our way of life causes enormous suffering to the other. Riches only come at someone else’s expense. When will we take responsibility for our actions as a nation instead of simply trying to treat the symptoms of the problem by keeping people at arm’s length?

We must also look the very foundation of our immigration policies. A great start would be to add economic refugees to the list of qualified migrants. This would greatly reduce the red tape and fees required for entrance to our country. It needs to be realized just how important are the contributions of the migrant.

The other is not the enemy. We are all equal as humans. Our immigration policies would go a long way towards improvement if we stepped back and realized that other cultures and traditions are just as rich as our own. In America that statement in and of itself is almost ludicrous as this country is comprised of an enormous mixture of migrants from centuries past. Love, empathy and compassion are the answer, not fear, ignorance, racism and xenophobia.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Green Zone

“It is not for you to decide what happens here”. That was the line that carried more weight than a thousand battle scenes in the new film “The Green Zone”. Freddy’s pronouncement to Damon’s character, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller comes at the climatic moment of an intriguing plot. In the wake of the Academy Best Picture “The Hurt Locker” (and its clear pro-military message), it will be for you to decide the propaganda level of this film. You will also find yourself giving serious consideration to the political meaning that is intended.

To me, there seems to be a “cleaning up” of our military’s image during the Obama era. We are attempting to put on a better face, needing to look as if we are truly benevolent (that word itself showing a bit of hubris) in our intentions for peace and “democracy”. I believe we are seeing this face lift naturally extending to cinema and literature. Without spoiling the film, I will go as far to say that we are made to believe that the various elements of our government have different agendas: Some good, some bad. If there is a way to save face as it relates to our military in Iraq, then conflicting factions in our military and intelligence communities would be it.

Undoubtedly there are individuals with character and conviction in our military and intelligence communities who thought they were doing a good thing by toppling tyranny. However, the question must be asked: What is the big picture when it comes to U.S. wars of aggression in the first place? As Freddy asked, what right do we have to determine the course of events of any country good or bad? Sure we need to have a military for self-defense, but when was the last time this military was used to stop an invasion on our shores? Miller had questions, he had doubts and he wanted to get to the bottom of the story. But Miller appears to have never questioned the morality of the war as long as the official story was held up to be true. This is my major problem with the political message of the film.

Just as Miller is about to (theoretically) suppress the inferno that is set to erupt in Iraq, Freddy steps in with force and utters the most important line of the film. How you view Freddy will be critical to your interpretation of this movie. Miller is a good guy. He really wants to save lives and stop violence. However Freddy doesn’t care. Freddy is on a mission. Freddy wants justice. Freddy wants his country back. Who is right? What is the extent of the character and integrity of Miller and Freddy? Miller seems to have his limits. Freddy is also human. But Freddy is strong in his convictions, and his heart tells him that “it is not for you to decide what happens here”.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Oscars, Military Propaganda and The Hurt Locker

War is a drug says Chris Hedges. It’s ironic that director Kathryn Bigelow chose a quote from an anti-fascist man such as Hedges to start what is in effect a two hour commercial for the U.S. military.

Yes, war IS a drug. War is a euphoric adrenaline-fueled testosterone rush. It is the ultimate male experience, AND, best of all, you get to have this high while protecting the “freedoms” of the American people. I say male, because nowhere in the film The Hurt Locker was the female soldier’s story told.

This being Oscar night, I thought I would get a glimpse at the Pentagon’s submission to the Best Picture category. It is more than apparent for whom the film is targeted. Think your average high school video game junkie who’s contemplating his next move. Will it be college or the military? The possibility of excitement, action and world travel kicking some Arab ass and then having your college bills covered? Should it be forgetting all that action and going directly to school with all the student loans and boring classroom activities that go along with them? The Pentagon makes a strong case for the former through various heroes including Staff Sgt. William James whose job it is to defuse bombs. He’s reckless, dangerous, willing to risk his life for his country and his comrades (along with the Iraqi innocents we are to assume), and is the perfect role model for the up and coming impressionable teenager who wants to look down the barrel of a gun at the evil Arab/Muslim looking to take over the world.

Of course the idea here is for us to feel compassion for the troops, to get to know them, to feel like we are a part of Bravo Company and to ultimately participate in the cliché and “support the troops”. Now, I am not a callous individual. I DO feel compassion for the members of their team that were killed, but I ALSO feel just as much compassion for the Iraqis that were killed by Bravo Company. These Iraqis were fighting an occupying force. So outside of the compassion for the dead, I feel no support for the troops. If you are pulling the trigger of a gun, dropping bombs or shelling buildings, it is YOUR responsibility to know WHY you are doing so. 1.5 million Iraqis have paid with their lives for our soldiers failing to take a stand and being willing to go to jail over taking someone’s life for oil and imperialism. Following orders is no excuse. Even stating the case that this particular unit was disarming bombs does not alter my opinion. Those bombs wouldn’t have been placed had the U.S. not been there in the first place. There is NO reason other than imperialism for us to be in Iraq, as this is in no way shape or form a war of “self-defense”. If our shores had been invaded by Saddam, then we might have a reason to fight. Ironically, we would then be the evil Iraqis that these “brave” American soldiers are shooting in The Hurt Locker.

The film was morally bankrupt in the sense that there was no questioning of whether or not we should be in Iraq. You heard the soldiers mention that they hated this place and wanted to leave, but it is obvious that that was because of the violence experienced, not because they had any particular moral qualms about fighting the war in the first place.

In my mind, that completed the bias and propaganda of the Pentagon influence on this film. A brave Hollywood director would have incorporated some MORAL aspects of war and allowed there to be some dissonance with certain characters as to whether or not what they were participating in was just. It was obvious that director Kathryn Bigelow had an agenda, which was most likely dictated to here directly from right to left (coast that is). If you want to see a great deal of action and some undoubtedly accurate battle scenes, then this is your film. If you want a deeper examination of war in all its moral implications, you could do much better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Writings of Edward Said

Writing a review on a collection of literature from such a distinguished man as Edward Said is daunting to say the least. First and foremost because the man himself was an extraordinary literary critic in his own right. He was that and much more. Said exemplifies my idea of the ultimate intellectual. He possessed a gifted knowledge of many different fields, and was able to constantly astound with his perceptive mind, unique ways of viewing a particular topic, and from being on the outside as it were.

Said always viewed himself as an exile, and rightfully so. He was never really at home anywhere, mostly because his homes shifted from Egypt to Palestine, Lebanon and ultimately America. These moves were out of necessity and not choice. Said’s views of the exile were what shaped his political views, and were in the end able to contribute positively to his keen interest in the literature of different cultures from around the world, including his newly adopted home country of the United States.

The Edward Said Reader is a collection of works masterfully put together by Moustafa Bayoumi and Andrew Rubin that showcases Said’s amazing cultural awareness, and how he ties his various interests into a collective whole, with each subject complimenting the other. His view on music incorporated the political as did his literary criticism. The view of the Orient, the other, the unfamiliar culture exemplified and shone a light on the xenophobia inherent in the differences between East and West. The grasp of the crisis in Palestine is told beautifully by someone perfectly fit to do so. With Said’s exile and his idea of traveling theory, he is able to tell the story from the perspective of someone who was displaced more than once in his life. That role is something to which most of his Palestinian admirers could relate.

I particularly enjoyed Said’s analysis of the intellectual that was constantly under the surface of the writings in this collection. I am nowhere near the level of the man, but I can relate to his ideas of the intellectual being a bit of an exile no matter where they are located. The idea of the exile being an outsider to society, marginalized and often discriminated against struck a chord with me. Through my own life of being a Vegas club kid to my political radicalization, I can feel the loneliness, abandonment and displacement in these later years that can come with free-thinking and not being a part of the prevailing view. Said made it quite clear that being an exile was more than just a geographical condition.

When it comes to the situation in Palestine, Said’s analysis has set the tone for every critic of Zionist policy to come along since his writings. Said, like Chomsky after him, was not only critical of the Zionists, but of what he saw as corruption in leaders such as Arafat and others. I was so glad that the idea of Traveling Theory was included in this reader as it is a brilliant way to compliment Said’s view of the Palestinian situation, and how as the years go on, the complexities of the conflict only multiply. These complexities will and are requiring constant re-examination of different ways of dealing with the crisis.

I don’t think one can consider themselves fully read on Western literature, music theory, Orientalism and the Palestinian crisis without considering the works of Said. This book is a perfect introduction to the works of the man, and a worthy tribute to such an outstanding and brave voice in cultural criticism.