Tuesday, December 15, 2009


President Obama has invoked the presence of evil, or evil people, in the world as justification for armed intervention in Afghanistan. David Brooks, in his NY Times column today, spoke of Obama's point of view in this respect as "Christian realism", in contrast to liberals who deny the presence of evil in the world, seeing people, naively, as fundamentally good.
I believe the flaw in this line of reasoning is in reifying the idea of evil. There has always been a contradiction in the Christian idea of evil. On one hand, there is the Judeo-Christian idea of people as having been created in the image of God. On the other, is the idea that there are people who are to be killed, such as the Amalekites in the Jewish Bible. In the Jewish Bible, God himself is inclined to kill people who sin, such as the people of Sodom and Gommorah, or the people of Nineveh whom Jonah tries to save from God's wrath. The idea of sin got reified in the Christian idea of Satan, the devil, and the sinners who follow him. Satan, the fallen angel, becomes the prototype of the person, made in the image of God, who defies God's will and thus deserves to die, to be killed. The idea of Satan seems to me an awkward attempt to explain how it is that people are, on one hand, made in the image of God, and on the other hand, capable of great evil. Either God him/herself includes both good and bad/evil, or there is some transformation undergone by certain people that alienates them from God, from themselves in their pristine form in the image of God.
In my view, people are seen as evil when their murderousness or sadism is taken out of context. At the moment, the Taliban in Pakistan are perpetrating suicide bombing, the killing of innocent civilians, indiscriminately, evidently in the effort to intimidate people into submitting to their control. The Taliban seem like the ultimately ruthless, brutal, violent bullies, stopping at nothing in their intimidation tactics.
The picture becomes more complicated when one remembers that the Taliban arose in response to the brutality and violence of the warlords of Afghanistan who ran roughshod, killing, plundering, and raping, after the Russians left Afghanistan. The warlords, of course, had been financed, trained and empowered by the United States as proxies for the US war on communism. The warlords seemed to be on the side of the angels as long as the Russians were devils; even Osama Bin Laden was on the side of the angels as long as the US was obsessed with the communist threat. If the brutality of the warlords gave rise to the brutality of the Taliban which then joined forces with the US-empowered Al Qaeda leadership to create the current manifestation of "evil", what are we to conclude except that violence gives rise to violence, while good and evil are defined in relation to whose violence seems opposed to our interest, and whose violence appears to advance our interest. Those interests, of course, get defined in questionable ways as well. For example, our interest currently gets defined in relation to control of oil which we want to burn at the cost of the future of the planet and the impoverished people living at sea level who will be displaced.
This why Obama's war in Afghanistan, and its rationale in terms of "evil" is so misguided. Evil shows up as part of a violent process, and we have now set in motion the next phase of that process in Afghanistan. The question "When will they ever learn" is more relevant than ever, with someone seemingly as thoughtful as President Obama holding the reins of power.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


The movie, "Precious" has gotten a range of reactions in the African-American community, from praise for the way it calls attention to some real and widespread problems associated with poverty and neglect, to condemnation for a one-sided, negative, portrayal of African-American life. This latter reaction seems to me to reflect shame about the severe dysfunction, abuse and neglect, portrayed in Precious' family.
The early psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi wrote about how when there is sexual abuse in a family, the victim will often feel the shame and guilt that the perpetrator disavows, in one way or another does not feel. The child-victim takes on, becomes the receptacle for, the perpetrators shame.
When and if African-Americans feel shame about a film like Precious, I suggest that they are taking on the disavowed shame and guilt of white people for the oppression of African-Americans, or collusion with such oppression, or failure to take action to stop such oppression, from slavery onwards. Why do we not hear about white people feeling shame and guilt for the conditions of life on view in the film?
As I mentioned in an earlier blog posting, negative reactions, like that of Jesse Jackson's, toward Barack Obama's call on black men to take responsibility for their children, speak to a similar shame that is taken on by black people, when whites might very well be thought to have at least as much cause for shame.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

US opposition to big government

Its interesting to me that some people in the US are so opposed to government interference in their lives, while subordinating themselves to corporate control of their lives. So whatever the problem is, its not that people want to be free of control by large or impersonal or insensitive external entities. Maybe its that corporations are more subtle: they convince you through advertising to part with your money voluntarily, rather than taking it coercively through taxes. Also, corporations redistribute your money to already affluent executives and stockholders (whom you may want to identify with) rather than to poor people (with whom you may want to disidentify). Maybe there's a need to subordinate ourselves to a powerful external entity, and corporations have done a brilliant job of channeling that need in their direction, to the point that they can lay you off, deny you benefits including health coverage, and generally mistreat you, and you'll take it. Meanwhile, your outrage gets channeled toward the government, even when its trying to protect you from corporate abuse.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Folly of Belligerence

History is full of examples of how two belligerent parties, by engaging in an escalating cycle of belligerence, keep playing into each others hands. Strategists on both sides hope to capitalize on the others' entrapment in belligerence and violence to provoke him to a violent response that will be self-defeating. A recent example is how Al Qaeda's attack on the US on 9/11/01 succeeded in provoking the US to attack Iraq, thus discrediting the US throughout the Muslim world, not to mention the rest of the world. The US did Al Qaeda's work for it. On the other hand, the Bush Administration seized on 9/11 as an opportunity to invade Iraq, which it wanted to do anyway. So Al Qaeda equally played into the neo-cons hands. It did the neo-cons work for it. So both sides have gotten their way. And where are we as a result of such a rampant fulfillment of strategic goals?
Similarly, Hamas provoked Israel to a violent reaction in Gaza, as a result of which Israel lost friends and credibility throughout the world, while ensuring the production of more terrorists with nothing to lose in Gaza. But when those terrorists strike, that will justify more actions designed to consolidate control over the West Bank and block the formation of a viable Palestinian state--just what the Israeli right wing wants. And where will that leave us?
Gandhi and other practitioners of non-violence like King, Mandela, Walesa, and others understood that to be provoked to violence plays into the hands of those who want to oppress you. The discipline of non-violence can break that cycle, saving the oppressor from himself, and you from the self you would become if you gave in to the cycle of violence.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reaction to Obama, part 2: someone has to sit at the back of the bus

The NY Times of August 25, on the front page, reports that Bob Collier, age 62, who had never been politically active before in his life, drove over an hour to attend a town hall meeting on health care and, to his wife's amazement, spoke up. He described how his wife had had breast cancer, received treatment, and was now in remission. He expressed anxiety that her care might be "rationed" is there were a recurrence and if health reform were enacted. He went on to say that health care reform may mean "the end of our country as we know it".
What a leap! I can certainly resonate with Mr. Collier's fear of any development that might threaten his or his wife's health or life. A chord has certainly been struck with him that any of us can resonate with. But what makes him think that health care reform makes it more, rather than less, likely that he or his wife would be unable to receive treatment? Why is he more afraid of rationed treatment under health reform as currently proposed, than he would be of his insurance company denying reimbursement? In fact, his insurance company denied coverage of his wife's radiation treatment. (the cost was written off by the medical provider). Mr. Collier acknowledges that some reform is needed, including a safety net, but he doesn't want the safety net to "catch too many people"!
This raises the question of the rationing of people to be caught in the safety net. Mr. Collier, a senior citizen, is concerned that elderly people will be at the end of the line. One wonders who he imagines would be at the front of the line, and how he would feel about the situation of those people who would be at the end of the line if elderly people weren't. He has reason to believe that there isn't enough affordable health care to go around, so someone is going to have to be at the end of the line. Are our religious leaders offering any input here about compassion and charity? Or is this just dog eat dog, musical chairs, and may the strongest and loudest voices win?
Mr. Collier goes on to explain his feeling that health reform may mean the end of the country as we know it. He refers to government involvement in the auto industry, the banking industry, worrying that government involvement will yield the "efficiency of the postal service" combined with the "compassion of the IRS".
I can resonate with that too, although I'm pretty impressed with what the postal service accomplishes day in and day out, if not with the courtesy of their employees. And I do see a difference between the mission of the IRS, and that of a health care service, (plus I haven't been impressed with the compassion of private sector insurance companies and hospitals), but point taken. So I guess we're talking about that good old American mistrust of government.
So what does Mr. Collier thinks would have happened to the privately run auto industry and banks without government "interference"? Why doesn't this point occur to him?
Might this have something to do with the government being led by a person "of color" at the moment, and with the fact that the people with whom he imagines himself competing for health care are likely to be poor people, and people of color.
Someone has to sit at the back of the bus.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The reaction to Obama's health care proposal

The right wing is inflamed in the US, with a focus on Obama's health care proposal. The proposal is attacked as a violation of fundamental American values in the form of creeping socialism and government control of the lives, and deaths, of citizens. At the same time, Obama himself is portrayed as not truly "American", in concrete terms as not having been born in the US and thus an illegitimate President and Commander in Chief.
I believe these issues camouflage a deeper source of anxiety for right wing Americans, who tend to be of European lineage: the feeling that they are losing their country, that the European character of the country is being lost as the population moves inexorably toward an African-American and Latino majority. In this sense, the election of Obama symbolizes this historic shift in the US population, and makes clear that a shift in the locus of power is well under way. Once people defined as "other" having taken over, who knows what changes they will put in place? The security and predictability of life for many Euro-Americans seems to be profoundly threatened.
I think there may be a still deeper reason for this fear, even panic. This land, of course, was once inhabited by non-Europeans. It was taken from them by force of violence by people of European origin. There may be a subliminal guilt that leads to fear of retaliation, of redressing of the injury by those who were killed and disenfranchised.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Army wants to believe that "faulty" beliefs, rather than war itself, cause depression, anxiety, suicide and homicide among soldiers

Today's New York Times reports on the front page that the Army is instituting "classes" for all soldiers to help them identify false beliefs that are believed to cause anxiety, depression, suicide and homicide among soldiers. In my view, this is the extreme application of cognitive-behavioral thinking that reveals the basic fallacy in the approach.
To my mind, anxiety and depression, if not suicide, are very understandable reactions to the conditions of war. War, of course, creates conditions in which the line between justified killing and homicide can get very blurry. War generates unthinkable experiences: killing and the ever present risk of being killed, seeing one's fellows blown to bits. The senseless discontinuity between life in the war zone and back at home in the malls and on the freeways, while one's buddies are back in Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam or France killing and being killed. Telling people that their breakdowns are due to their faulty beliefs is mystification and pathologization that can only generate further confusion and despair, or a false and brittle adaptation to the official expectation.
In my view, what this application of cognitive-behavioral thinking exposes is its basic grandiosity: the belief that emotions, human responses to the conditions of life, are controllable through manipulation of thoughts. The Army wants to believe that war-generated anxiety, depression, suicidal and homicidal feelings are controllable by manipulation of thought in 90 minute classes. I wish those classes were devoted to validating the sense of confusion, horror and helplessness that these soldiers feel, making room for a sense of betrayal by those who sent them to war, without undermining the feeling others may have that they have served their country, if not all of humanity, by going to war.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On my return from Israel to the United States

My impression is that those Jews who want a Jewish state have concluded that Jews and Palestinians cannot live together. Thus, the separation wall, harassment and humiliation of Arabs on the West Bank and in Israel proper, killing and starvation in Gaza---all in an effort to create a space for Jews in which Jews will not be threatened by Arab resistance, violence, or population growth. There are laws in process that will make it illegal to portray Israel in negative ways, and that will make it impossible to join the Knesset if one is not willing to swear allegiance to Zionism.
I conclude that there are only two options going forward: two states, or a continuation of violent conflict. I suppose we could also have both.
My reaction to Zionist supremacism has been revulsion and shame as a Jew, but I have further concluded that as a citizen of the US, I have plenty to be ashamed about as well. I can't imagine where I could live where there wouldn't be plenty to be ashamed of and revolted by. The difference is that in Israel the ethnic cleansing is happening now, before our eyes, the blood is running in the streets. I returned to the US yesterday morning, came home in the subway. I saw no Native Americans. They are mostly dead or on reservations. I saw plenty of African-Americans, but one has to remember that their ancestors were brought here as slaves and forced to give up all things African---even their names and family members, often their lives. The end of slavery brought the kind of harassment and humiliation that Arabs are suffering now in Israel, as the price for a "one state solution" in the US. The ghettos and prisons bear witness to the continuation of this situation for many. Other Americans of African descent have bought into the capitalist dream and thus integrated themselves more or less, as some Arabs have within Israel (as long as they don't challenge Zionism).
I also remember that one state solutions haven't worked very well for Jews elsewhere: certainly not in Europe. Evidently one state solutions worked for a while in the Arab world, but not indefinitely. Post holocaust, I can understand the insistence on a place to try to feel safe. Elsa First said at the conference which I just attended: "Can we hold Warsaw and Gaza in mind together?"
The Bush administration set in motion the events that create an acute sense of danger in Israel now---leading to the ascendancy of the forces for ethnic cleansing. By simultaneously alienating Iran (by constructing an axis of evil) and empowering it (by empowering their Shiite allies in Iraq) the neo-cons set the stage for Ahmadinejad and his support for Hezbollah and Hamas (even bringing about Shiite-Sunni alliances against Israel and the US).
I believe Obama understands all this. It will be fascinating to observe how he proceeds in the effort to create two states in which Jews and Arabs, the ancient half siblings and potential allies (see Sari Nusseibeh's Once Upon a Country) can all feel safe enough.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On Populist Rage

Many people in the US are evidently enraged to hear about huge bonuses paid to financial industry executives held responsible for the recent economic collapse. In some quarters, as in this last Sunday's New York Times' Week in Review Section, this rage is held to be a "distraction" from the work of rebuilding the world economy. Thomas Friedman, among others, believes that while this anger is understandable, the job at hand is to recapitalize banks and financial firms so they can once again begin lend money to businesses and get the wheels of capitalism moving again.
There is a way of looking at the populist anger as more than a distraction, a venting of frustration in vengeful rage at people held responsible for peoples' economic suffering. What if we saw this rage as the leading edge of discontent with the inequities that characterize unregulated capitalism. During the last two elections, liberals often wondered why working class Americans would vote for an administration that had a track record of favoring policies that increased inequity, making the rich richer. It seemed to me that working class Americans often tend to identify with the rich, regarding taxes and "big government" as the source of oppression, rather than a system that leaves the spoils to the winners. This is a moment when President Obama could educate people about systemic inequity, thus putting the bonuses in a larger perspective that would validate people's rage while taking the focus off individuals and onto a system that urgently requires reform and regulation to address the inequities that flourished under recent decades of Republican government.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On privilege

Discussions of "white privilege", it seems to me, often do not reflect on the nature of privilege. It is often taken for granted that "privilege" means economic and political privilege, power and money.
Obviously, it is true that there is value to having power and money. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that there are disadvantages to not having power and money, or to being systematically deprived of power and money. But I think it is often overlooked that there are other forms of privilege besides the economic and political, spiritual and emotional privilege, for example, and that these forms of privilege can be at variance with economic and political privilege. Indeed, I think that the unreflective equation of privilege with money and power may be one of the more subtle and insidious forms in which the values of colonialism and capitalism get internalized.
The word "power" itself needs to be unpacked. In the most basic sense (as in Spanish "poder") power means the ability to do things. In English, the word has gotten to imply a dominating sort of power, the ability to impose one's will on others, as if power were a zero sum game. When the context of power is domination and submission, violence and power become close cousins. But if we go back to the basic sense of being able to do things, perhaps we can imagine my power and your power not being in conflict, or even being mutually enabling. Power in a dominant-submissive context is the kind of power that corrupts, ultimately absolutely, and thus is at variance with spiritual privilege and the privilege of being emotionally connected with others.
Some of this was brought home to me recently when I realized that the people who contributed to the current economic collapse by over-reaching for profits from subprime mortgages, securities derivatives, etc. were people who already had unimaginable sums of money. This was not a case of a system being brought down by poor people stealing from the rich, or poor people killing the rich, but by rich people trying to get richer. Ultimately, they may make off like bandits (many already have) as essential bail outs go into their pockets. In which case, the downfall of the system will be only more prolonged.
But what kind of privilege is it when having money leads to the need for more of it (even when one already has more than one could possibly spend), ultimately at the cost of more deprivation and suffering for those who were already poor at home and abroad. I suggest that the pursuit of ever more money and power is in response to a sense of deprivation and loss that accompanies a rupture with our fellow human beings, with their experience and their suffering. But that gap cannot be filled with more money and power, to the contrary. In that sense, power and money in a zero sum context lead to a treadmill of running after illusory substitutes for the true privilege of love and caring.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Having watched Shoah, Sophie's Choice, The Counterfeiters

My goal was to have some contact with the experience of the holocaust, since my family was not in Europe during the Nazi era, although going back a couple of generations, my ancestors undoubtedly had experience of pogroms in Russian and Eastern Europe. I worried that it was too easy for me to attribute the cycle of violence in the Middle East to a vicious circle, to which Israelis contribute at least as much as Palestinians. I worried that I was dismissively psychologizing Israeli actions, attributing Israeli violence against Palestinians to “post traumatic” reactions in the wake of the holocaust, perhaps missing aspects of the experience of those with roots in the holocaust that might make them more, rather than less, attuned to current realities. I did not expect to stop feeling critical of Israeli government violence, but I hoped to earn my opposition with a respectful recognition of the experiences people have had that form a backdrop to violence. I felt that I accorded that kind of recognition to Palestinian experiences leading to Palestinian violence against Israelis, while somehow failing to accord that recognition to Jewish and Israeli experiences. I had thought that this imbalance reflected my sense of shame as a Jew about Israeli government violence against innocent people, and about what seemed to me to be disproportionate violence considering the nature of the provocation in some cases---shame that I did not feel, as a non-Palestinian, about Palestinian actions. I also seemed to be expecting more of Jews than of Palestinians, perhaps in a way that is denigrating of Palestinians. I had always of thought of the Jewish people as especially committed to ethical action, to sympathy with the oppressed, I thought that an understandable commitment to “never again” be helplessly victimized had led to a rigid and misguided equation of violence with power. I did not expect to change these understandings in a fundamental way, and I will not give up being horrified by violence and its justification, but I did want to take seriously the possibility that I had defensively avoided an awareness of Jewish suffering that might make me more understanding of how Israelis, and many of my fellow American Jews, see the world. My strategy seemed to be to take equal account of experiences of victimization suffered by those who perpetrate violence on both sides. The choice of this strategy now seems perhaps revealing in itself:
Perpetrator-victim-perpetrator-victim-------victim?- Perpetrator?- Victim?-----victim! -Perpetrator! -Victim!
Each moment in the cycle seems sufficient unto itself, yet each seems inexorably (but for Gandhi, who really struggled with this problem) to lead into the other. (Gandhi’s struggle seems the prerogative of the “powerless”).
Trying to get out of being trapped by each term of the cycle, in terms of a cycle, is an effort to escape the confine of each term as sufficient unto itself, yet ultimately the cycle itself seems confining.
So what would it be like not to be confined by this cycle, at least in thought?
So here is one reaction to watching these three movies: some people who lived through the holocaust, having witnessed an unthinkable human capacity (unfeelingly to destroy feeling beings) sometimes can’t stop seeing that side of humanity somewhere, out there. While those of us who have not suffered this fate can’t stop hoping that side of humanity can be avoided, if not mastered.
I’ll stop, for the moment.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Israel and Gaza

In this posting, I will restrict myself to raising some questions growing out of Israel's attacks on Gaza, without attempting to answer them. This is not because I don't have strong feelings on the subject, but because I have so many, and mixed, feelings, and because conversations on this topic so rapidly degenerate into heated impasses. Of course, my own views will be manifest in the way I pose questions, but the format may nonetheless promote thoughtfulness, in myself and others, better than a point-counterpoint format. I also believe that there is value in disentangling some of these questions from each other, because I believe they get conflated in many discussions/arguments. In future postings I will set forth some of my views more explicitly.
1. Does Israel have a right to exist? Subsidiary questions: in what form and at what cost? Does Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state, even if Jews were to be outnumbered by non-Jews? What does Israel have a right to do to ensure that Jews are the majority within its boundaries? What, if any, are the limits to Israel's right to use violence to address immediate or long term threats to its existence?
2. Do the Jewish people have a right to exist? Is the existence of a Jewish state the best or only way to ensure the survival of the Jewish people?
3. Do the Palestinian people exist? Do they have a right to exist? Is a Palestinian state the best or only way to ensure the survival of the Palestinian people?
4. How does one reconcile the commandment not to murder, with war? Is there an exception for self-defense? Who decides what is self-defense, and what is unjustifiable murder? Can these always be distinguished? What if they can't be?
5. How does one value a Jewish life in relation to the value of a Palestinian life, and vice versa? 6. Is it ever justified to respond to the murder of a single person, or a small group of people, by killing a large number of people? Is it ever justifiable to kill innocent people as "collateral damage"?
7. Do Jews in the diaspora have the right to criticize, or second guess, the Israeli government?
8. Is it desirable to make public space to think about such questions? Does thinking about such questions disable the capacity to take action as needed?