Wednesday, July 23, 2014

If you want to make the desert bloom, stop burning all the olive trees

"I have no words to describe what's going on in here. It's awful. Just know that your solidarity means the world to me. And it does make a difference. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers. Tell the world what is happening."

These are words from a friend of mine in Gaza. I think they're words that need to be heard.

I've had several people in the past two weeks or so ask me about what's going on in Gaza. The prevailing sentiment among most all of them is not only a desire to know more, but also a very clear frustration with all the apparent mixed messages there are out there about this conflict.

The frustration is an understandable one that I completely relate to. Especially when I first began to look into the conflict for myself, the disconnect between interpretations is disorienting.

Eventually, though, after you've ingested enough soundbytes from enough different voices, you can get a sense in the middle of a few objective facts:

1. Israel is a state that does not grant full rights to certain citizens on the basis of their ethnicity, and prevents even basic rights to non-citizens living in territory it governs.
2. Israel is a state whose idea of "proportionality" and "restraint" is, to use the most recent example, >600 dead Palestinians for >30 dead Israelis.

I never want to be in a position of "keeping score" in these matters, but the numbers do show an undeniable imbalance of power and lack of restraint. Allegations of "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing" are not buzzwords meant just to get attention, or exaggerations made out of baseless insidious hatred of a religious group. They are an accurate assessment of clear policies that have been in effect for decades and have only made things worse.

Those who point toward Hamas and its rockets as the reason why Palestinian civilians are being slaughtered must not have been paying attention to the thousands of Palestinians that Israel needed little excuse to slaughter long before Hamas and its rockets even existed. The fact is that the backbone of Israel's creation in 1948 was a clear agenda of ethnic cleansing. It was the belief put into practice that one group could only be safe in the land if the other was removed, or at least sufficiently removed so as to ensure a demographic supremacy. Until this injustice is addressed, there will never be an opportunity to move forward.

There was a time in Palestine, not even that long ago, when all its inhabitants coexisted. When Jews were safe to flourish and prosper while elsewhere they were being slaughtered by the millions. Today, Israel might just be the most dangerous place for a Jewish person to live in the whole world -- the direct and tragic result of the unsustainable policies of the Zionist movement.

There was also a time when the mention of places like South Africa, Northern Ireland or Brussels conjured up the same feelings of despair and unsolvable conflict we feel now over Israel and Palestine -- and today the mention of these places barely raises an eyebrow. These places and others not only provide hope, but also a helpful model of how this conflict might once and for all be resolved in a way that actually respects the rights of all involved.

We all have our differences, but certain things I really feel are universal. Children playing on a beach. People eating together at sunset. Watching out for your neighbors. Worrying about your family when they are in harm's way.

If you want to get beyond the propaganda, talk to the people. Listen to the stories you haven't heard before. I've noticed humans are so impervious to statistics and so immune to arguments. What we understand, and what I think are most important, are stories and faces.

After all, it's the people who need to live.

Friday, July 11, 2014

When the devil is in your room

I haven't blogged much in awhile. This has been an intentional choice, and not a byproduct of laziness or lack of time. I just got to a point where I felt like the blogging world had become so oversaturated with opinions that it stopped being about thoughtful engagement, and I didn't feel the need to add even more to the echo chamber.

But once in awhile I just have so many feelings about a particularly horrendous thing that I at least need to write for the sake of getting it out.

Here it is:

Rape culture.

Yep. I'm about to slap you with my opinions about rape culture. (Cue groans.)

Not like rape culture is anything new, but this morning I noticed a dear friend of mine, who is one of the kindest people I know and also a domestic violence survivor, being accused of hatred because of a comment she made about rape culture. The reason for this accusation was a response she had to a story about a repeat rapist who, after serving only 9 years of a 20-year rape sentence, went on to brutalize, rape and steal from a 77-year-old woman. The victim's daughter was quoted in the story as saying she hoped the unrepentant convict would himself be raped in prison.

A pleasant sentiment? Not hardly. But after what her mother endured at this man's hands, can you blame her? I certainly can't. And while I would never wish harm on a person unless it was mandatory for self-defense, if that guy gets what he has a 1 in 4 chance of getting, I personally wouldn't lose a bit of sleep over it.

This was essentially the viewpoint expressed by my friend. Within no time she was being admonished to abandon her "hateful" path -- interestingly, only by the men in the thread. These men felt that accepting what my friend called "cosmic karma" amounted to the same kind of hatred that leads to genocide.

I call total BS.

In a world where women are still unfairly assumed to be sex objects and have to deal with that assumption despite its falseness, I think men can similarly deal with potentially being unfairly considered violence objects for a little bit while we sort this out.

My friend Lena, a summer camp colleague, was strangled and raped by a fellow student while studying at Brown University. Instead of telling her to report him, Brown officials told her to seek justice through their own internal system -- which, after a months-long ordeal that forced her to temporarily drop out of school, ended up giving him merely a slap on the wrist through a single semester of suspension even though they found him guilty on all of the charges.

When Elliot Rodgers opened fire on women in California specifically because they were women, it sparked an encouragingly frank and open discussion about gender-based violence in the media that normally does not get treated with much enthusiasm. When #YesAllWomen was met by the counterhashtag #NotAllMen, you could almost hear the collective disappointment of feminists across the country as a good thing got derailed, yet again -- and fast.

Then today after a man is convicted for a second time of a vicious gender-based attack against an elderly woman, a totally human reaction by the daughter of the woman he brutalized suddenly inspires people to immediately jump to the defense of the humanity of the perp over any concern for the clear pain of the victim and her family. I lay my head in my hands. I am so over this.

There is a tendency I see that's prevalent in feminist and activist circles, in which nice people police the justified feelings of other nice people, believing this makes a positive difference by making the movement more palatable to people outside of it.

But you know what? We don't need watered-down feminists in this world.

We've put up with centuries of mistreatment. We still crawl through a sexual minefield on a daily basis. We watch people immediately jump to defend or make rationalizations for rapists first before they think to defend -- or even listen to -- the victim. We see women raped for fun, women raped for vengeance, women raped as an act of war, women raped as an act of boredom, women raped simply "because she was asking for it." (And men and transgender people and non-gender-conforming folks as well.) We take in all these things, and still we must be bigger, we must not get angry, or show our anger, or dare to suggest that the people who commit these crimes deserve what's coming to them. And yet in spite of how much we have turned the other cheek to, despite how gentle and "reasonable" we have been, we continue to be victimized at levels that are wayyyy too high.

So my question is, when are we allowed to just be mad already?

College me was an ardent pacifist. When it comes to talking about war, I still am, more or less. But I have learned something important in the few years since then. Pacifism is a privilege. It comes from a place of privilege. This means it is a privilege not everyone has.

So when will these otherwise nice people with their dicks and their morally superior opinions kindly sit down and let us just be angry?

'Nother tendency I see: these nice people who police other nice people tend to have very lofty ideas about justice. These people say things like "don't be angry or wish extrajudicial punishment on the perp" or, more concisely, "don't stoop to their level." "Don't be vengeful." "Let the justice system take care of them."

And don't get me wrong, I love me some justice. But justice as it plays out in this country is not always justice. The vast majority of "justice" as meted out in this country is revenge. We can split hairs all we want about what's gonna happen to this rapist in prison and how we feel about it. But are we even still pretending that prison actually rehabilitates prisoners? Even sticking this man in a sterile padded cell full of rainbows and teddy bears isn't going to go back in time and un-brutalize his victim. And clearly in this case, 9 years of prison didn't even make the guy remorseful, let alone rehabbed. And I'm not saying people who commit heinous crimes shouldn't be in prison. But let's please cut this holier-than-thou mentality about how one thing is vengeance and one thing is justice. In this country, 99% of the time, they are one and the same thing.

So if you're someone who gets defensive when you see an "angry feminist" ranting about something horrible that's recently happened, or you find her fury repulsive, or you fear her apparent vengeful tendencies, try this handy checklist:

1) Shut up
2) Listen
3) Try to understand where she or he is coming from.
4) If #3 is impossible, repeat steps 1 and 2.

We're gonna figure this out.... eventually. But in the meantime, don't you dare tell us we can't be mad.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Let's talk about "body image."

I grew up chubby. Not anywhere near obese. But enough that people made sure I knew. And I didn't need much help to know.

When I hit 14 I started to slim down. But I never stopped seeing myself as the chubby kid. If you were one too, you'll understand how that changes you.

And now I will admit something publicly that to this point I have only told a few close friends: I am an anorexic.

I would say "recovered anorexic," but through my own experience and reading about others, I really feel like a tendency toward disordered eating is something that sticks with you pretty much forever and can only be managed. I know at least that I never fully got rid of the compulsion. Currently I channel it into being a vegetarian. (When asked, I usually say it's because of environmental or animal welfare concerns -- and certainly that's part of it. But really it's because it's the best way I've found to keep myself eating healthily and enough while still putting parameters on myself that feel necessary to me.)

Looking back on my life, I have found that the times I was most compulsively unhealthy in my relationship with food were the times I felt the least empowered in other areas of my life. Make no mistake, this was never about food for me -- it was always about control. (This makes me a pretty textbook case, I've heard.) I am generally health-conscious in what I eat and I genuinely enjoy healthy food. But when I was in the throes of a disordered phase I did not eat healthy. I remember in high school I went for a stretch of time subsisting on pickles and popcorn. And then I might stop for awhile, and then something would happen and I'd start again. In my freshman year of college it was tomato soup and popcorn. Junior year of college it was V8 juice and carrot sticks, as well as one day a week of total fasting except for water (which I remember totally loving at the time). I can still rattle off exactly how many calories are in each of these items per serving, as easily as I remember my date of birth or SSN.

This is all stuff you've probably heard or read before. But I share this experience to add this hopefully slightly newer angle into the mix:

Not every anorexic is thin to the point that people invite them on Oprah or put them in the hospital. In fact I imagine that there are many like me -- relatively functional and not losing so much weight that it causes real alarm. I'm 5'7" and typically wear a size 6 or 8. My junior year of college, which was probably my worst bout in that I was eating virtually no carbohydrates or protein on top of exercising like a crazy woman (the whole thing initiated by an especially horrendous breakup, ridiculous I know), I still only got down to around a size 2. I remember my classmates telling me how great I looked.

So when you're talking about eating disorders, be really careful about assuming who does and doesn't have one. It's probably a lot more of your friends than you even realize. I was a pro at talking about positive body image, even when my journal was full of entries painstakingly recording what had gone into each day's 200 allotted calories. (The most fucked-up part of this is that because most of what I knew about anorexia was from TV specials about girls who had panic attacks over communion wafers, in a twisted way, I thought what I was doing was okay in comparison.)


This is how I looked after maybe two months of subsisting on water, V8 and daily hours-long workouts. I almost look healthy...right?

This is the kind of "what the hell was I thinking" experience that today gives me compassion for myself, and for anyone who has ever looked in the mirror and thought things like my life would be fine if only I were thinner, or I'm disgusting, or any variant of these horrible thoughts.

This is also the kind of experience that, when people see images of especially thin women and say things like "go eat a cheeseburger" or "real women have curves," I really just want to punch them in the fucking face. I don't understand why this pendulum needs to keep swinging. The whole point is that health, just like illness, has no one specific "look," and frankly people should just know better by now.

I also share my history to say that the secret to preventing eating disorders is not to be found in "awareness campaigns" or on the backs of Dove body wash. I was a precocious kid raised by a badass journalist mom on feminism and organic granola crap and "all women are princesses" and all that good stuff. I was constantly reminded that every size is beautiful, inner beauty is what counts, etc. etc. etc. And in the end it still didn't keep me from genuinely believing that I would be better/prettier/more liked/more desirable if I only made myself smaller.

I won't pretend to know what the secret is. But I do know that in my worst days dealing with this condition, the bulk of the stuff I remembered were the everyday little ways people show -- not tell -- that overweight people don't matter to them the way thin people do. I remembered quitting dance in 6th grade because my classmate made fun of how I looked in my leotard. But I also remembered being out to dinner and feeling myself nearly ignored while the waiter invested all his enthusiasm in a thinner friend. I remember seeing my naturally thin older sister in her prom dress and thinking I'd never be half that beautiful unless I was thin too.

I've heard the term "microaggression" used in the context of racism, and I think it's an apt term to use for how people sometimes treat overweight individuals as well. So if I can say anything of value here (and I'm addressing this to myself as well), it's this: look at people. Make eye contact. With everyone. I think we have a tendency to avoid looking at people who are overweight because we don't want anyone to think we're gawking.

But it's a little bit like that Louie episode where "fat girl" Vanessa explains to Louie that the worst possible thing to say to a fat girl is "you're not fat." These well-meaning lies, and their subtler sibling the "I'm looking away because of course I'm not noticing you at all because you're not fat" eye dart, carry more hurt in them than any blatant insult. It is the fastest way to confirm to a person who (trust me) already knows or even just thinks they are fat that yes, it really is a shameful thing to be.

I guess like most modern-day ills, the solution basically comes down to "don't be a dick." And that includes to yourself.

Also, my boss just brought me a giant chocolate chip cookie. I ate the whole thing.

YUM.

Here's to Wednesday.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Tao of Wilde

I really feel bad for Oscar Wilde. I can't think of another literary giant who is so adored yet, in my opinion, so misunderstood.

I know a guy who is really into aesthetics. I remember one conversation we had when he was trying to convince me of the virtues of appearance vs. substance, where he dropped this gem: "People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." 

The problem with using this quote in this way is that it was completely out of its satirical context. If you're not a huge Wilde dork like me, the quote is uttered by Lord Henry in chapter 2 of The Picture of Dorian Gray. And if you don't know Lord Henry, well, suffice it to say he's incredibly charming and undeniably brilliant, but ultimately doesn't end up being too great an influence on Dorian. Wilde was parodying the sort of person who ultimately would drive Dorian Gray to completely ruin his life. So I don't think it's the kind of quote you'd want to slap on a picture of a sunset and spread all around Facebook. 

And this was not the only time I've heard a Wilde quote used in this way. So I feel bad for the guy. He left so many compelling words behind, and yet we seem not to know who he really is. I can't know any better really than anyone else who wasn't alive to know him (which is pretty much everyone now), but I think it's safe to wager he wasn't quite as superficial as he would have us think.

Then again, maybe he was trolling us on purpose.

I think what I find so eternally intriguing and inspiring about Wilde is that he shows evolution: a progression from unashamed materialist and unabashed lover of the superficial (even if his embrace of these things was a bit tongue-in-cheek), to a man broken enough by the world to begin to embody those truly transcendent virtues: compassion, humility, graciousness. Dazzling as his wit is, I am not a fan of Oscar because he was great with words, I'm a fan because of the largeheartedness he had and how it comes through in his writing -- alongside that generous helping of sass.

Perhaps it's because I am so inspired by his progression that it really bothers me when people get so hung up on Oscar 1.0 and parrot his earlier witticisms without a shred of irony (even though most of Wilde's truly sassy sayings were written with some irony, whenever he said them). Because really, guys, there are times when Wilde writes with such searingly beautiful heart that he might as well be Lao-tze. Example:

"...had I not a friend left in the world; were there not a single house open to me in pity; had I to accept the wallet and ragged cloak of sheer penury: as long as I am free from all resentment, hardness and scorn, I would be able to face the life with much more calm and confidence than I would were my body in purple and fine linen, and the soul within me sick with hate.

And I really shall have no difficulty. When you really want love you will find it waiting for you." (Excerpted from De Profundis.)

Right??

So next time you find yourself a nice Wilde quote, do everyone a favor and consider carefully how you use it. It's a shame to see a writer of such glasspane clarity and almost zen-like wisdom be reduced to trifley vagueness about "art" and stuff. For the more purely material content, try Jersey Shore transcripts performed in the style of Wilde -- you're welcome.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

FYI (if you're the mother of teenage boys)

Dear Mrs. Hall,

I have some information that might interest you. Last night, as I sometimes do, I sat at my desk and looked through the evening's news feed. Among friends' postings about Syria, marriage equality and silly cats, I noticed your article making more than one appearance, shared by some folks very near and dear to my heart. So I read it.

I've been a teenage girl, and wow, there are a lot of teenage girl selfies of me on my Facebook. Maybe a few of them were even taken in my pajamas (because I'm a slut like that, apparently. It's cool. My bedroom was still cute).


Maybe boys noticed other things when they saw my pictures. Like, that pajamas for me -- at least during my most selfie-prone era -- usually consisted of pants and a top, which can look curiously like regular clothes, but they're for sleeping in.

I get it -- I was in my room, so I was probably heading to bed, in my pajamas, and probably not wearing a bra, since they're uncomfortable and may even cause health problems. When I look at some of my old selfies, I can't help but notice the extra-arched back, the red carpet pose, the sultry pout (I said some, not all!) because hey, that's how America teaches girls to pose. All. The. Time.

So here's the bit that I think is important for you to realize. If you are friends with me on Facebook, then I guess you are welcome to scroll through my selfies with your husband and children at the table as a family activity, on par with playing Sorry! or watching Shrek. Maybe it's a little strange, but I did put that stuff out there, so I can't complain.

Please know that I genuinely like staying connected with you this way! I hope you also enjoy seeing things through my lens (which may or may not be unique and colorful). If we're friends, I'd like to think that means you think I have some winning qualities. But I don't think any "extremely unfortunate" (in your view) self-portraits cancel that out in any way.

That selfie you don't like -- maybe it doesn't reflect the entirety of my being. I would hope not. It's a single picture. But why did you cringe and wonder, "what I was trying to do? Who I was trying to reach? What I was trying to say?"

Maybe I was trying to remind myself I'm a cute human after a long day. Maybe I was trying to reach out to my friends to show them my new haircut. Maybe I was trying to say "hey Facebook world, check out my cute room!" These are only a few of any number of potential reasons. (Truth be told, though, most of my selfies were inspired by plain-and-simple boredom. I know that's underwhelming. Sorry.)

And now -- big bummer (I can tell you're really broken about this) -- you have to block my posts. Because you are apparently unable to reconcile that this person you otherwise enjoy following is also a female entity with certain attributes that female entities tend to have, and she is not hiding in a corner, and you care about your sons, therefore she cannot exist in their cyberworld. (For the sake of this response, I'm going to go with it and pretend that this line of reasoning makes sense.)

This is not to say you don't have a right as a parent to influence what your boys can and can't see. But here's the deal. All these teenage girls (quite literally, ALL of them, according to your title) you're enlightening? They're not your daughters. You, Mrs. Hall, have three teenage sons, and it is them you should be instructing. Not us.

I know everyone is getting kind of sick of a culture that bombards all of us -- men and women -- day and night with hyper-sexualized images. These are images that get stuck in our minds, condition our behavior, and maybe even trickle all the way down into a bedroom selfie or two.

But if you're going to expect every girl to self-censor rather than teach your sons to be discerning in how they look at them, then you have an issue. The second you put the onus of dealing with this sexualized culture solely on teenage girls, while evidently doing little more than just drawing the blinds when it comes to teenage boys, then you, Mrs. Hall, with your earnest "FYI," are not lifting up young girls. In fact, you're pretty much in lockstep with the same hurtful reasoning that says rape victims wearing short skirts are "asking for it."

Again, I get it. It might just seem easier to block every young lady who doesn't pass your litmus test for modesty online. But modesty is a two-way street, Mrs. Hall, and unless you plan on following your sons around for the rest of their lives and pulling the wool over their eyes every time a woman walks by, you need to stop simply blocking and start talking to them. 

Tell your sons how, yeah, sometimes girls look sexy, and sometimes we even like to do it on purpose. Tell them that if it's on purpose, it could be for any number of reasons, and these reasons do not by default include their attention.

Tell your sons they are young men with self-control who can treat girls like humans regardless of how "modestly" they appear.

Tell your sons not to believe the lie that they are entirely enslaved to their hormones. Like animals. Mrs. Hall, do you really believe your sons are animals?

When Jesus said, "If your right eye causes you to stumble," he did not follow it with "tell that slut to take down her sexy photo or you'll have to unfriend her." He said, "gouge it out and throw it away." He said it is better to literally mutilate yourself than allow yourself to treat another person as less-than because of your own lack of self-control. Because in this world, you cannot always change how people perceive you. The only thing you can reliably change is how you choose to perceive others, and that includes being able to control yourself when it comes to images you find tempting. I hope your sons are learning to do this rather than to simply block every girl you deem too "sexy" for them to process.

I share a lot of things on Facebook. I think it's a great tool to keep in touch with friends, family, classmates, coworkers and maybe even a few random folks I just think post interesting things. I enjoy sharing articles I find insightful, quotes I find inspiring, bits of music or art that I like. The occasional selfie (which may or may not be deemed "sexy") might be one in every 100 posts or so.

Unfortunately, when we live in a world where women are objects first and people later, there is little I can do to prevent people from deciding I am trying to get attention or want to look sexy simply by existing. My God-given breasts, which may someday nurture my future children, might now and then look too visible (for your taste). My God-given lips, which sometimes smile, sometimes frown, and always try to speak truth, might now and then look too pouty (for your taste). My God-given eyes, which change color depending on the light and try always to see with true compassion informed by suffering, might now and then look too sultry (for your taste).

But according to your "zero tolerance policy," Mrs. Hall, a single "unacceptable" selfie (for your taste) would automatically discount anything else I've ever had to share or say. It breaks my heart that these God-given physical attributes would potentially cancel out every other quality I have, should I dare to arch my back too much or pout my lips too much, unless I spend my life trying to assuage the sexist expectations of people like you.

Mrs. Hall, it's not too late! If you think you've made an on-line mistake (we all do -- don't fret -- I've made some doozies), RUN to your accounts and take down the unfortunately-viral blog posts that make it too easy for me only to see you as a slut-shamer disguising her problematic views on girls as genuine concern for boys.

Will you trust me? There are girls out there waiting and hoping to be seen as women of character and not have to hide the fact that they are also sexual beings and should not be made ashamed of that. Some young women are fighting the daily uphill battle to be able to confidently be who they are, and not have to pick a side on some Madonna-whore dichotomy created in the minds of teenage boys' moms -- just like you.

We are real beauties, inside and out.

And we do not need your self-righteous "advice."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Operation Pillar of Cloud and the need for a fresh perspective

Anyone who's been watching the news lately knows that, once again, violence is ramping up in Israel-Palestine. Once again, innocent Palestinians and Israelis are being killed. And once again, ideologues of all stripes are burying their heels in the sand, convinced that their side is completely in the right, stubbornly insistent on "staying the course" no matter what the cost.

Especially here in the West, it's pretty common to hear that "this has been going on for centuries," that "Arabs and Jews just hate each other," that these two sides are just going to keep fighting no matter what. But I have a problem with the narrative that this is merely two "equal" sides battling each other. If that were truly the case, for example, Israel shouldn't act so surprised when Hamas fights back. Israel's stated aim in this recent attack on Gaza, as well as previous ones like Cast Lead and the ongoing siege in general, is to inhibit rocket fire from the Strip. The number of rockets fired in recent days has exploded, so either Israel is failing miserably in its stated goal, or it is trying to accomplish something else entirely.

It is true that Hamas has disgusting anti-Semitic language in their charter. But too often I see people equating all Gazans with that language in ways that are untrue and counter-productive. One of my good friends, for example, is a Palestinian Catholic from the West Bank. He has relatives in Gaza, also Catholics, who voted for Hamas. This was obviously not a vote of fundamentalist Islamist furor. Much like the Republican party here in the U.S. is often more extreme than your everyday conservative Joe, the average Gazan is not out to slaughter all Jews. These relatives of my friend, for example, voted for Hamas because they were building schools and health clinics when the moderate party was doing absolutely nothing to ease hardships for average Palestinians. It was a vote of desperation, not fundamentalism. Israel needs to understand that it cannot pen these people in and restrict their futures forever. Not only is it morally reprehensible, it has only made Israeli citizens less safe. It is not exactly difficult to predict that trapping people in an increasingly dire situation with fading hopes for improvement only breeds more violence. I hope and pray for peace, and that is why my heart breaks to see this dead-end spiral of violence continue.

It is true that there are some who have deep-seated anti-Semitic feelings that inspire them to wish violence against the Jewish people. But there are also those who believe Judaism gives them the right to persecute and kill Palestinians, burn their olive trees, build walls and steal land. This is an ongoing problem that is one of the greatest roadblocks to achieving peace, and all the talk about a two-state solution has done nothing to stop it. The result is that Gaza is basically still ruled by Israel (despite the historic "disengagement"), and the West Bank is no longer viable as a state; the largest settlement blocks now split it into pieces, with settler-only roads essentially turning the West Bank into a labyrinth of checkpoints and areas entirely off-limits to Palestinians. You cannot create a state out of a piece of land that has almost no geographic continuity and that, with the settlements taken out (as Israel consistently refuses to consider shutting down all but the smallest of these settlements -- which is why peace talks are still at a standstill) amounts to less than 20% of historic Palestine.

The inevitable end result of all this is annexation. The two-state solution is pretty much dead. All that really remains to be seen is how the government will treat the current residents of the occupied territory once this finally becomes the reality. It could be continued apartheid, or it could be equal democratic representation. Zionist lingo demonizes the latter as equivalent to the destruction of Israel, as the current demographic reality shows that there simply are not enough Jewish people in Israel to ensure a majority without significant demographic engineering. But it doesn't take a genius to recognize that "demographic engineering" eventually amounts to ethnic cleansing. This is not exactly democratic behavior. And countries that have grappled with past ethno-religious conflicts have been able to find ways to ensure each group has the ability to be represented fairly in government, have their own institutions, develop their own schools and preserve their own culture in the context of bi-nationality. It seems a pipe dream now for Israel-Palestine, but it is possible.

It's a popular talking point that "Palestinians want to wipe Israel off the map." But likewise, there are elements of Israeli society that deeply desire to wipe the rest of Palestine off the map. In fact, many such elements already claim boldly that Palestinians never existed at all. "A land without a people for a people without a land" was not a statement made by people who genuinely had no clue that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Arabs alongside a sizable minority of Jews, were indeed living there; it was a statement made by people who genuinely just did not believe that most of these individuals counted as people. Palestinians allegedly teach their children blindly to hate Israelis (even though reputable studies of Palestinian textbooks have concluded that such allegations are not true). Yet many Israelis also teach their children that Palestinians' lives are unimportant, that they have no right to exist in Israel as equal citizens. In either case, I'm not sure what makes one more palatable than the other. Right-wing elements in Israeli society glorify militarism in ways I find equally disturbing to those of hardcore Palestinian nationalists like Hamas. I can't support either one.

Meanwhile, the majority of Palestinians are simply trying to live their daily lives in spite of having most all aspects of those lives controlled by a country whose core identity willfully excludes them. And likewise, most Israelis also simply want to be left alone and wonder why the violence continues. The current situation allows the worst elements of both sides to dictate life for the majority. Ultimately, neither side benefits. It is a dead end that desperately calls for a new approach.

No one is saying Jews don't have a right to live in the Holy Land. But I don't see how it's fair for one group to live there at the expense of the other. At the time of Israel's creation, Palestinians owned 92% of the land yet were only offered to keep less than half of it. Hindsight is 20/20, and many Palestinian leaders now admit that they wish this had been accepted. A common argument that Israel was formed through land purchase is a little disingenuous; with the blessing of the U.N., many parcels of land were indeed sold, but only because of legislation formed by the fledgling state of Israel that allowed land purchase if the current owners were deemed "absentee" -- and many of these owners were absent because they had fled the violence in a hurry only to be forcibly prohibited from returning. That's not exactly the same thing as an honest sale. Does that make it OK for anyone to hurl rockets at civilians? Absolutely not. But it does call for acknowledgment that many people still living today have a legitimate grievance against the Israeli government that should not just keep getting swept under the rug.

So if you see Palestinians expressing a desire to abandon the "peace process," do understand that it is not because they don't want peace. It is because every applauded "resolution" and "step forward" has ultimately only offered cover while facts on the ground made their situation worse. They no longer have any faith in the international community, because the international community has repeatedly violated their trust. The PA, for example, merely runs the occupation on behalf of Israel while its top politicians pad their pockets, safe in cozy Ramallah. Hamas claims to offer an alternative, and this is why they have been politically successful -- not because all Palestinians just hate Jews that much. I say this not to speak on their behalf, but simply to tell their concerns as I have heard them expressed to me: Palestinians want to be able to get to school, to move around, to get jobs, to be safe, to have access to places important to them, to travel, to escape from political no-man's land, to have a passport again, to be represented in their country and not marginalized. When these issues are addressed, extremist elements like Hamas will not have the fodder to incite people as they now do. They will not have scores of youth who are facing fewer opportunities and increasingly dire futures willing to do just about anything to resist their situation. Perhaps a belief in compromise is tantamount to "negotiating with terrorists." But I have a hard time seeing how anyone who genuinely wants innocent people on both sides of the green line to have peace can instead keep advocating for strategies that have only exacerbated the situation.

There is plenty of room in the Holy Land for all its citizens. I hope one day we can see this happen. One person, one vote. No permits, no demolitions, no Area C, no Jewish-only roads. Settlements and refugee camps can both just become towns, part of the fabric of the land, instead of hotbeds of controversy. Resources should be distributed fairly, so that no one has to have their water turned off so settlements can have swimming pools. Refugees who still hold keys and deeds to existing properties in Israel should have the ability to return, or at least to receive some kind of restitution. Jews from other Middle Eastern countries who were forced to emigrate to Israel in past decades should likewise be able to return if they desire (a few have already done so in Tunisia, actually). Palestinians whose former homes have since been destroyed should still have the option to move to Israel, buy property, and become productive members of society. They should not be excluded because they are not Jewish. And Israelis or Jews or anyone who wants to live in Nablus or Bethlehem or see the seashore in Gaza should have the option to do so fairly and without excluding or causing hardship on their neighbors. That is a true democracy.

I realize this may sound ridiculously idealistic. But I just can't accept a situation that offers no hope of any sort of equitable solution. Previous ethnic and/or religious conflicts like Ireland, S. Africa, Brussels, etc., were also once thought to be intractable, yet history teaches us that reconciliation is possible. Bombing the shit out of Gaza, on top of the continuing occupation, only makes Israel less safe -- not to mention the high civilian casualties make it simply an unacceptable policy. I view every life lost, whether Palestinian or Israeli, as a tragedy. This is why I think it's time to be honest that Israel-Palestine desperately needs a new approach.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"Please, don't help us": On humanitarian aid

Imagine a neighbor was going through his garage and decided that you, his needy non-golf-playing neighbor, could use his old golf clubs. Unsolicited by you, he leaves them on your doorstep. Maybe he really did it to be nice, and that's great. But you still now have to deal with the stuff he didn't want that you also cannot really use. It seems silly, yet it's essentially the premise behind a lot of aid groups -- and because I believe that people really do deep down want to help, I think it's important that we have the conversation on how to do aid better, difficult as it might be.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there's an interesting tension between giving freely from one place and encouraging economic prosperity in another. Disaster relief is one thing. An earthquake or a flood strikes, of course people need to get food, water, healthcare, etc. from somewhere, and there are plenty of programs that facilitate this. But programs that move around "SWEDOW" (aid jargon for "stuff we don't want") are expensive, inefficient, and sometimes do no more than make the donors at home feel like they did something. It takes a lot of time and money to move that stuff around. "Yoga Mats for Haiti" is perhaps the most aptly lampooned example of this. The money it took to collect, ship and distribute those mats could have been much better spent buying crops from Haitian farmers in order to get people fed. Instead, the influx of foreign food and donations outsold those farmers who otherwise would have been able to salvage enough crops to make a living. It put them out of business and took that money out of an economy that needs to conserve and re-circulate every penny it can. So as someone who genuinely wants to help, I would have a hard time supporting an initiative like that, because while it might get people fed for a day or a week, it has actually made things worse for them in the weeks, months and years down the road.


Yoga mats? Really?


Thankfully, there are many other ways to give freely as well as mindfully. Perhaps the most critical, but also arguably the least warm and fuzzy for the donor, is giving money. There are many organizations that are already a part of communities that need help, that have the local connections to get things done, and a more complete understanding of what is really needed -- after all, those communities would know what would benefit them better than we would. It would be better for them to receive money which they can spend locally and allocate more wisely than mountains of other people's unwanted stuff.

My biggest concern is that people who seem to mean all the good in the world settle for championing initiatives that are, at the very best, only a superficial fix to complex problems. I don't blame people for wanting to help, I applaud it! But we seem to have this idea that doing "something" is always better than doing "nothing" -- and that is just not true. Sometimes doing "something" just makes things worse, and no one wants that. All the good intentions in the world are only as good as what we do with them, and we will never be perfect at it, but if we genuinely want to help heal the world, we need to be constantly vigilant about what our well meaning projects actually accomplish.

I have learned the hard way that this kind of constructive critical approach makes some people extremely uncomfortable. People really are kind, and really want to help, but tell them that their favorite organization is actually making things worse, and it touches a lot of raw nerves.

I've been there too -- I actually participated in TOMS A Day Without Shoes several years ago, long before I learned to my horror how counterproductive those kinds of aid programs can be. Though more or less unconsciously, I had bought into the false premise that all us rich kids need to do to "fix things" is just buy the right shoes and cool t-shirts, or swoop into any far-flung place and start a program to "save" it. The world's problems seemed no more than a puzzle that could be solved by "awareness," hip and intrepid social entrepreneurs, and the steady purchase of free-trade coffee. I was oblivious to the ways that other people's suffering is basically turned into products that I bought without many questions asked. I was unaware of all the incredible things that so many people are quietly and patiently accomplishing in their own countries, in more sustainable and locally beneficial ways. My own goal for myself now is simply to stand behind local people in their own initiatives, help to spread their stories, basically to be a bridge between their work and folks around the world who want to help it succeed. Because the last thing we need is another program -- there are plenty of worthy ones that need support. And it's not about me. I'm just a pair of hands.

Aid groups have done something really fantastic in recent years: they've gotten really good at raising awareness on issues. They do an excellent job of encouraging people who want to help and enforcing the idea that every person can make a difference. Every person can "get involved." And that is true, but I think one of the biggest trade-offs is that the latest generation of humanitarians and activists have a tendency to throw all their weight behind shock campaigns and quick fixes, without due diligence in understanding the global power dynamics and economic realities that create so much need and suffering in the first place; I know I am a long way off from understanding them myself. And when aid organizations stress simple -- or downright simplistic -- means of involvement without pushing for the diligence that comes from nuanced understanding of complex humanitarian issues, quantity of involvement starts to take precedence over its actual quality.

The result is that organizations set up to work on worthy causes can take on a life of their own in a way that is counterproductive. Kony 2012 is a perfect example. An extremely worthy cause is marketed in a way designed to get people to care. That is a good thing. However, the "plan" advocated in the video -- military intervention by the U.S. government -- is definitely not a good thing. And worse, this marketing is done in a way that basically says "support our organization and how we think we should deal with the situation, or you obviously don't care about Ugandan kids." Meanwhile countless Ugandan and other African voices critiquing the video for being outdated and overly simplistic are more or less ignored, condescended to, rendered "voiceless" and "helpless." The campaign and the organization become detached from the very people it claims to support. Millions of actual Ugandans have not even seen this video, yet it's supposed to be about them, for them even, and would affect them most directly. That, to me, is unacceptable.

And even worse, without diligence and understanding, without thinking about the big picture or simply listening to what people actually need and want, well-meaning individuals can become pawns for industry, politicians and the like who exploit people's humanitarian concerns to expand their economic empires and consolidate more power. Aid that's supposed to fill bellies and build schools instead goes to pad the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats the world over. Governments pat themselves on the back for providing a few million in aid to the people of a foreign country with one hand, while the other closes a far bigger arms deal with their oppressive leaders. It's clear that this top-down approach is ineffective at best and downright detrimental at worst.

People's response to that criticism, I've found, is often something along the lines of "I give up then, I guess I can't do anything." This makes me incredibly sad because it is also not true. We (myself entirely included) need to learn how to separate worthy causes from worthy plans and programs. A good aid campaign is designed to render itself obsolete. Programs that essentially put band-aids on important causes, on the other hand, can be merely fronts for the continuation of the real root causes of that situation. That's not cynicism, it's just common sense. Throw enough money and stuff at a population without addressing structural problems, and you essentially make and keep them subservient. I don't think that's quite what most people intend when they set out to "make a difference."

So we shouldn't be asking ourselves "how can we get them stuff?", we should be asking them why they can't afford what they need in the first place, and working with them to address it. That's why I am such a fan of micro-finance, for example, because it allows people who wish to donate to "put their money where their mouth is" in a way that directly stimulates local economies in the places receiving aid, yet still feels a little more personal than just writing a check. I understand that people want to feel good by doing good -- I just don't think that should be our litmus test for what's a good project to get behind. It's not about us. It's about creating a fairer world for everyone to prosper in.

Being more responsible consumers here at home is a key part of correcting the imbalances of privilege and power that perpetuate and exacerbate need and suffering in the first place. Affluent society's expectations for what constitutes a reasonable standard of living are completely unsustainable. This is a huge part of what necessitates the wholesale pillage of other continents' resources that make those other economies so problematic in the first place. (I don't excuse myself from this by any means, because I live here too and am part of the same grid.) Cultivating an understanding that there are plenty of resources in this world to go around, and that we owe it to our human brothers and sisters to make sure everyone has access to them, is one of the most important things we could possibly do. Consuming less in one continent obviously means more for another. Governments cannot, and should not, enforce that -- the onus is on us as individuals to live as ethically and mindfully as possible, and to put our weight behind structural solutions to the issues we care about, instead of quick fixes.

Spiritual solutions to economic problems. I know it's a lot of talk that's much easier said than done. But I'm having trouble figuring out a better way to do it. :)