Monthly Archives: September 2011
How political efforts can backfire
The two things I tried to do politically this week backfired on me, but provided good learning opportunities.
On Monday, I put a big lawn sign up in front of my house that said, “No War/No Empire/No Occupation.” On Thursday, it was gone. I could just picture the cowardly, so-called “patriot” that took it, robbing me not only of the money I paid for it, but my right to express myself. Then my housemate suggested that maybe the person wanted to use the sign, front or back, for their own purposes, or was just making malicious mischief. Hmmm…The more I thought about it, the more I felt that something hadn’t been right about my sign, and that the universe had taken it away to point that out to me. I finally got it, but not until after I made my second mistake, also on Thursday (yesterday).
Two friends came over for tea and conversation. We’d met in October 2008 when I organized an anti-bailout demonstration (more about demonstrations later), and they came to it. We’ve been getting together ever since to discuss the need for big changes in our country and the world and how to contribute to that. We’re all in agreement that capitalism is at the root of most of the “evils” we’re fighting, but A. and I have had to agree to disagree about Israel and Palestine (more about that later, too). A., whom C. and I hadn’t seen for months, brought up the first question about politics: “Have you been listening to the Republican candidates’ debates?” I said, “No,” adding that I wasn’t interested in what they had to say. “I’m not even interested in what the Democrats have to say,” I concluded. It soon came out that I wasn’t planning to vote for Obama, something that A. had lots of negative comments about. Long story short: I wasn’t listening to or respecting what she had to say, and she was responding in kind. Or vice versa. The point is that that kind of adversarial “discussion” is a) completely non-productive, and b) unfriendly, in my opinion. I ended up feeling very unhappy about the whole thing.
This morning I realized that my two efforts at expressing thoughts about politics had failed because they were both non-welcoming — non-inclusive — and confrontational. That isn’t effective communication. People aren’t going to be able to hear what you have to say unless they feel welcomed into a conversation in which their views are listened to and respected. More than that, I think they need to feel respected, cared about, and included as a person, which implies other kinds of conversation and activities. Bottom line: everything good comes from relationship. A better sign would have read, “War? Empire? Occupation? Let’s come up with something better.” But, for now, I’m going to dispense with signs, slogan T-shirts, and bumperstickers altogether, and just try to talk with people. Real change takes time.
9-11 Ten Years On
9-11 Ten Years On
I didn’t have the same take on 9-11 as the majority of Americans seemed to at the time, and my thoughts and feelings about it now are still pretty much the same. I almost didn’t have a chance to register shock and horror at the attacks because of my reaction to everyone else’s shock and horror, not to mention the media commentary. With all due respect to those who died and their bereaved families, it seemed somewhat self-centered and overblown, not to mention hysterical. After all, other countries, now and in the past, have suffered the same or worse – sometimes, especially recently, at the hands of the United States. That was, in fact, part of the motivation for the attacks, it being no accident that the World Trade Center, home of the globalized finance that’s been more destructive than positive globally, and the Pentagon were the targets. Malcolm X’s statement about JFK’s assassination being “a case of chickens coming home to roost” was, honestly, the first thing that came to my mind. I hasten to add, as I always had to then: I’m talking about reasons and motivation, not justification. Violence directed toward innocent victims is never justified.
No one – even my close friends and family – wanted to hear thoughts like this at the time, and anyone else who expressed them publicly was accused of heartlessness and lack of patriotism. “We all have to stick together,” was a common remark. (More on patriotism in a later post.)
Almost worse than this was the way the event was being misinterpreted. “Because they hate us,” “pure evil,” etc. Even my normally sensible niece thought the attackers were evil incarnate, inhuman, the sort of reaction that’s contributed to horrible prejudice – still encouraged by many political and religious groups in this country – against Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, the Other. Fear or love? I’ve mentioned that important dichotomy in some of my introductory stuff, and will be coming back to it again and again. Love knows we’re all human, no matter what we do – we all have some spark of good or divinity in us. Which means that if we try – and we should try – we can empathize and find common ground.
All of these issues are still very much alive, making the tenth anniversary commemorations of 9-11 the same as every other year since 2001 – only more so.
Over the years more people have taken a critical look at the 9-11 phenomenon, however. I was particularly interested in three editorials written in recent weeks on the subject, which I’ll quote for you almost in their entirety, with comments in brackets. (I know – this is long, but it’s well worth your time.) Before starting that though, I want to mention that – along with at least 50% of Americans, according to polls – I believe the Bush administration (in particular, the Vice President Cheney) purposely allowed the 9-11 attacks to occur so that the American public would go along with the invasion of Iraq, the so-called Patriot Act, etc. Which makes the whole commemoration thing even more ghoulish. (See Crossing the Rubicon by Michael Ruppert and The New Pearl Harbor by David Ray Griffin.) It also makes you wonder what it takes to get the American people to revolt. Anyway…
The first editorial is “Let’s Cancel 9/11” by Tom Engelhardt, which appeared 9-8-11 on TomDispatch.com. Engelhardt advises us to “bag…the tenth anniversary ceremonies for 9/11, and everything that goes with them: the solemn reading of the names of the dead, the tolling of bells, the honoring of first responders, the gathering of presidents, the dedication of the new memorial, the moments of silence. The works.
Let’s [s]hut down Ground Zero…Close the memorial built in the ‘footprints’ of the former towers before it can be unveiled this Sunday. Discontinue work on the underground National September 11th Museum due to open in 2012. Tear down the Freedom Tower (redubbed 1 World Trade Center after our ‘freedom’ wars went awry), 102 stories of the most expensive skyscraper ever constructed in the United States (estimated price tag: $3.3 billion.) Dismantle the other three office towers being built there as part of an $11 billion government-sponsored construction program…If we had wanted a memorial to 9/11, it would have been more appropriate to leave one of the giant shards of broken tower there untouched.
Ten years into the post-9/11 era, haven’t we had enough of ourselves? Isn’t it time to rip the band-aid off the wound? No more invocations of the attack to explain otherwise inexplicable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global war on terror. No more invocations of 9/11 to keep the Pentagon and the national security state flooded with money. No more invocations of 9/11 to justify every encroachment on liberty, every new step in the surveillance of Americans, every advance in pat-downs and wand-downs and strip downs that keeps fear high and the homeland security state afloat.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 were in every sense abusive, horrific acts. And the saddest thing is that the victims of those suicidal monstrosities have been misused here ever since under the guise of pious remembrance. This country has become dependent on the dead of 9/11 – who have no way of defending themselves against how they’ve been used – as an all-purpose explanation for our own goodness and the horrors we’ve visited on others, for the many towers-worth of dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere whose blood is on our hands. Isn’t it finally time to go cold turkey? To let go of the dead?
We can’t forget, but we could stop the anniversary remembrances. We could stop invoking 9/11 in every imaginable way so many years later. We could stop using it to make ourselves feel like a far better country than we are. We could, in short, leave the dead in peace and take a good, hard look at ourselves, the living, in the nearest mirror.
Within 24 hours of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the first newspaper had already labeled the site in New York as ‘Ground Zero.’ If anyone needed a sign that we were about to run off the rails, that should have been enough. Previously, the phrase “ground zero” had only one meaning: it was the spot where a nuclear explosion had occurred.
The facts of 9/11 are, in this sense, simple enough. It was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It wasn’t potentially civilization ending. It didn’t endanger the existence of our country, or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives.
A second unreality went with the first. Almost immediately, key Republicans like Senator John McCain, followed by George W. Bush, top figures in his administration, and soon after, in a drumbeat of agreement, the mainstream media declared that we were “at war.” This was, Bush would say only three days after the attacks, “the first war of the twenty-first century.” But it wasn’t. Despite the screaming headlines, Ground Zero wasn’t Pearl Harbor. Al-Qaeda wasn’t Japan, Nazi Germany, or the Soviet Union. It had no army, no finances to speak of, and possessed no state (though it had the minimalist protection of a hapless government in Afghanistan, one of the most backward, poverty-stricken lands on the planet).
And yet – another sign of where we were heading – anyone who suggested that this wasn’t war, that it was a criminal act and some sort of international police action was in order, was simply laughed (or derided or insulted) out of the room. And so the empire prepared to strike back (just as Osama bin Laden hoped it would) in an apocalyptic, planet-wide war for domination that masqueraded as a war for survival.
In the meantime, the populace was mustered through repetitive, nationwide 9/11 rites emphasizing that we Americans were the greatest victims, greatest survivors, and greatest dominators on planet Earth…
There is little on this planet of the living more important or more human than the burial and remembrance of the dead…And surely it’s our duty in this world of loss to remember the dead, those close to us and those more removed who mattered in our national or even planetary lives. Many of those who loved and were close to the victims of 9/11 are undoubtedly attached to the yearly ceremonies that surround their deceased wives, husbands, lovers, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. [Actually, many aren’t, because it prevents them from the at least partial forgetting essential to healing and moving on with life.] For the nightmare of 9/11, they deserve a memorial. But we don’t.
September 11th as a memorial and Ground Zero as a ‘consecrated’ place have turned out to be a blank check for the American war state, funding an endless trip to hell. They’ve helped lead us into fields of carnage that shame the victims of the attack.
It’s time to inter not the dead, but the worst urges in American life since 9/11 and the ceremonies which, for a decade, have supported them. Better to bury all of that at sea with bin Laden and then mourn the dead, each in our own way, in silence and, above all, in peace.”
In “Memory,” published by the Chronicle Review of Higher Education on 8-7-11, Lawrence Weschler expresses similar thoughts:
“Though I live in New York and was as horrified as anyone that first morning, almost from the start I began to feel myself peeling off from the general tenor of response, the grand consensus.
Of course, I felt horrible about the loss of life – 2,606 in the towers themselves; another 150 or so in the crashing planes – and for the families of the victims, especially the kids. But they were hardly the only people around who suffered grievous losses that year…
Get a grip, I found myself thinking, as the event grew ever more fetishized over the ensuing months – the gaping hole in the skyline acquiring an idol-like status, all political life (and prior common sense) seeming to get sucked into its yawning vortex. New York wasn’t the first city that’s ever faced a terrorist attack, I kept having to remind myself, nor the first city ever to have been bombed (hell, we ourselves, as Americans, had repeatedly bombed a good many of the rest of the world’s cities).
Maybe it was just that we’d imagined ourselves immune from the forces impinging on other people’s lives, immune from history (history previously being defined precisely as something we did to other people, not something they ever did to us); and now suddenly that old historical machinery was clanking away big time, the chains catching hold, and it didn’t feel at all good.
Nor can it be said that, historically speaking, we went on to acquit ourselves with much distinction. Londoners during the Blitz had to endure this sort of thing day after day, for weeks on end, but they didn’t crumple. Under Churchill’s leadership, it was as if the more the Nazis threw at them, the greater their focus, the more uncanny their calm: Far from buckling, they bucked up. They retained perspective.
When you’re under murderous assault is precisely not the time to turn your entire political culture inside out. That’s what the terrorists want you to do, that’s what they’re [literally] dying for you to do. You’re supposed to resist that temptation.
Instead, in thrall to the serpentine blandishments of fear, we spooked ourselves (or at any rate allowed our political class to spook us) into the grotesque disfigurations of the Patriot Act; the witch hunts aimed at Arabs and South Asian immigrants (many of them second- and third-generation American citizens); the botched invasion of Afghanistan; the calamitous Iraq fiasco; the preposterous fetishizations of Hallowed Ground and the Families and the Heroes; in sum, the hysterical deformation of virtually all of [already much deformed] American politics, which in turn allowed the egregiously incompetent President George W. Bush that second term with its Katrina debacle, burgeoning deficits, and the whole clueless build-up to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Not that everyone got it wrong, of course. The late Susan Sontag, for one, saw things clearly from Day One. Writing in the first issue of the New Yorker after the attacks, she concluded: ‘Politics, the politics of a democracy – which entails disagreement, which promotes candor – has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong,” we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.’
Those words got her roundly excoriated, even by the magazine’s editor. (After which, remember, the New Yorker, like so many others in the mainstream media, went on to endorse the Iraqi campaign at its outset.)
But I digress. You ask, How do I think 9/11 will be remembered 100 years from now? Forget 100, let’s say 50. I suspect people in 2061 will no more remember the World Trade Center disaster than we today do the General Slocum [ferry disaster in New York in 1904 in which over 1,000 lost their lives]. This is because such people as will still be around in 2061 will be too busy dealing with the rampaging effects of global warming. To the extent that they’ll be thinking about the first decade of the 21st century at all, they may be wondering what on earth the people back then could have been thinking as they let warning after warning go unheeded.
The 10 years just passing, as we all must realize if we are being honest with ourselves, constituted the hinge decade, the decade when something substantial had to be done if the world were going to avoid the exponential catastrophe into which we have now embarked. (You can’t go on sagely noting, year after year, that we have only 10 years left within which to confront the crisis, without at some point those 10 years having run out.) Perhaps we could have done both: honored the victims of 9/11 while at the same time tending to the far greater devastation bearing down on us. The point is that we [didn’t], and in almost every conceivable way, the result has been an utterly squandered decade.”
In “Epitaph for Another September 11th,” published by The Nation magazine on 8-30-11, Ariel Dorfman reminds us of a Tuesday, September 11th not 10, but 38 years ago: the day General Augusto Pinochet, with tacit U.S. support, overthrew the democratically elected Chilean government of Salvador Allende, ushering in 17 years of a brutal dictatorship characterized by the torture and the murder (“disappearing”) of 1,198 “leftists.” Dorfman writes that Chile and the United States offer “contrasting models of how to react to a collective trauma.
Every nation that has been subjected to great harm is faced with a fundamental series of questions that probe its deepest values. How to pursue justice for the dead and reparation for the living? Can the balance of a broken world be restored by giving in to the understandable thirst for revenge against our enemies? Are we not in danger of becoming like them, in danger of turning into their perverse shadow [if we allow ourselves to be] governed by our rage?
If 9/11 can be understood as a test, it seems to me that the United States failed it. The fear generated by a small band of terrorists led to a series of devastating actions that far exceeded the damage occasioned by the original [event]. Two unnecessary, [continuing] wars, a colossal waste of resources that could have been used to save our environment and educate our children, hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated, millions displaced, a disgraceful erosion of civil rights in America, and the use of torture and rendition abroad… And, last but not least, the bolstering of an already bloated national security state that thrives on a culture of mendacity, spying and trepidation.
Chile also could have responded to violence with more violence. If ever there was a justification for taking up arms against a tyrannical overlord, our struggle met every criterion. And yet the Chilean people and the leaders of the resistance – with a few sad exceptions – decided to oust General Pinochet through active nonviolence, taking over the country that had been stolen from us inch by inch, organization by organization, until we bested him in a plebiscite that he should have won but could not. The result hasn’t been perfect. The dictatorship continues to contaminate Chilean society several decades after it lost power. But all in all, as an example of how to create a lasting peace out of loss and untold suffering, Chile has shown a determination to make sure that there will never again be another September 11th of death and destruction.
What’s magical about that decision to fight malevolence through peaceful means is that Chileans were echoing unawares another September 11th, back in 1906 in Johannesburg, when Mohandas Gandhi persuaded several thousand of his fellow Indians in the Empire Theatre to vow nonviolent resistance to an unjust and discriminatory pre-apartheid ordinance. That strategy of satyagraha [soul or truth force] would, in time, lead to India’s independence and to many other attempts at achieving peace and justice around the world, including America’s civil rights movement.
One hundred and five years after the Mahatma’s memorable call to imagine a way out of the trap of rage, 38 years after those planes woke me in the morning to tell me that I would never again be able to escape terror, ten years after the New York of my childhood dreams was decimated by fire, I would hope that the right epitaph for all those September 11ths would be the everlasting words of Gandhi: ‘Violence will prevail over violence, only when someone can prove to me that darkness can be dispelled by darkness.'”
You may also be interested in reading “The War of Terror Decade” by Anthony Arnove, author of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal and coauthor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People’s History of the United States, published on 9-11-11 at www.socialistworker.org, a great alternative news site. In “9-11 Blind,” published widely on the Internet on 9-7-11, Tom Hayden gives the damning facts and figures. I find his political analysis and prescriptions to be incredibly naïve, however. He’s still fantasizing Obama to be anti-war at heart, “forced” to do the things he does – which amount to continuing and even intensifying the Bush program. Hayden also still believes in the American electoral system in general and the Democratic Party in particular, two entities that have proven time and time again not to be useful in trying make this a country (and world) that works for all. Always change a losing game.
Thanks for reading this far.