April 9, 2006

living in hope

Part of the reason I'm grumpy today is that I have the overwhelming sense that the world is going to hell and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. The New Yorker article about Iran,1 the NYT Magazine article about abortion in El Salvador,2 the Duke lacrosse case all contribute to that feeling, but it started in a conversation with my dad.

My dad went to Harvard in the late 60s and early 70s, and so did his best childhood friend. He sums up his time there by saying that when he got there, you had to dress for dinner; when he left, there was co-ed skinny-dipping in the Adams House pool. It sounds flip, but it wasn't, really. It meant that Harvard had liberalized, that it was going to be a democratizing force, educating women and people of color and poor people and rich white men all together and helping make a new world.

It didn't, of course. My sister's going to graduate from there in two months, and she talks about it as a place full of social climbing, personal greed, and privileged ambitious people who feel they deserve their privilege.

My dad's kind of upset about this. I think it's because he had an image of Harvard that's idealized in a way I can imagine my image of Swarthmore becoming idealized. He remembers having amazing intellectual conversations. He also was part of at least one sit-in, which I found out about when I found the t-shirt with a red fist on it in his closet. The Harvard student body doesn't go in for that sort of thing anymore, as far as we can tell.

Anyway, all this got us talking about how, in that time, people believed in the power of sit-ins and activism and marches in a way that we don't. That I don't. I went to a lot of protests in college, but more because I couldn't think of anything useful to do than because I thought we would change anything by marching. All those strategies have been worked around and worked into the category of normal disruptions and don't constitute the kind of major challenge they used to be. It's what I think Foucault says in Discipline and Punish3 about challenges and repression getting sucked into the social order.

So I said to my dad that I couldn't think of anything to do that would actually address the problems I see in the world. Nothing that would actually do any good. I have no faith. He went into a speech about how, first, as humans we need some hope and we need to feel like we're doing something, or why not go be a ski patrolman?4 And second, the basic problem is campaign finance.

I don't know about the second. The first, though, is exactly the problem I'm having. My dad seemed to think that I was giving up hope and not doing anything; the problem is more that I feel that exact need and can't figure out how to direct it. When I was a high school activist - and a pretty effective one, considering - I felt like my choices, once I saw the injustice of the world, were to either accept that injustice (which meant defeat) or to fight it. Fighting was the only choice that had hope. These days, I'm having trouble mustering up enough hope to go on fighting.

On this day of all days5 I got an email from an old high school friend who just left his job as a union organizer, donated his car and all his savings to charity, and founded a religious activist center called the Burning Bush: Center for the Working Poor in L.A.6 I can't think of a more profound choice to live in hope than that.

1. By Seymour Hersh. Summary: Bush wants to go to war with Iran and change the government there. No one else thinks it's a good idea, politically or militarily.
2. It's illegal. Period. And the ban is enforced. Bitch, Ph.D. has the stunning quote: forensic vagina inspectors.
3. Which I haven't read, like most people who talk about Foucault. Also, did you know he used to be a big figure in the SF leather scene?
4. My dad was a ski patrolman, and he quit because he felt like he was just having fun and not doing something to make a difference. Oddly, that resembles my position now.
5. Before I get too cosmic about this, I should point out that it's the first day in a week that I've checked my email.
6. For those keeping track at home, this is the acquaintance who burnt all the teachers and the administration on all the activist clubs his senior year by advocating intensely for condom machines in the bathrooms, leaving us unable to find teacher sponsors for my last two years there. He also read Saul Alinsky in high school and was as dedicated (and mostly effective) an activist as I have ever met; so were his older brothers. The condom machine campaign was basically cover for a successful attempt to get a peer sex ed program in our high school. Finally, he's the one who thought I had no sense of humor because I didn't think his sexist jokes were funny. While my high school memories of him are slightly bitter, every time I've run into him since high school has been pretty awesome, and I've liked him a lot.

a better account of the emotions

The Hipster Monk once sent me a pretty awesome interview with Martha Nussbaum in which Nussbaum argues that one of the biggest problems with modern political theory is that it provides an inadequate (and basically non-existent) account of the emotions. This article on Alas, a Blog reminded me of it.

That's all I have to say right now. I'm kind of grumpy.

April 3, 2006


In the same year that I took that class on genocide - the same year in which the US went to war in Iraq - two eminent persons came to Swarthmore to argue publicly about whether we should support that war. They were Mark Danner, arguing against war, and Leon Wieseltier, arguing for it, and what I remember is being in the big main-stage hall, listening to them. Mark Danner is only about 6 years younger than Leon Wieseltier, and they are both younger than both of my parents, but somehow the impression I have in my head is of a grand old man arguing with a younger, well-spoken but less impressive Mark Danner. It's partly because Leon Wieseltier has this wild head of white hair, and partly because Mark Danner looks young and is short. Wieseltier is also one of the most articulate people I've ever heard - he's The New Republic's literary editor - and the combination of that and the general impression meant that even though I agreed with what Danner was saying, Wieseltier seemed far more persuasive that evening.

But he was wrong. He and Danner are both good people, people of conscience, people who, like me, wanted to see Saddam Hussein out of power but weren't sure they trusted Bush to do it. The difference was that Wieseltier looked at that problem and decided that, regardless of the means, regardless of the instrument, Saddam Hussein was a genocidal tyrant and removing him was the right thing to do; he argued that we were all bound to support the goal of getting rid of him, despite our fears about what would come after. Danner, like me, thought that war itself and what would come after might be so devastatingly bad for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world that we could not in conscience support Bush in going to war, not when we knew that his intentions and plans were so different from what would actually need to happen to create a tolerable postwar situation in Iraq.

If you ever wanted proof that intentions matter, this is it. What's happening in Iraq right now is a disaster, and it's because the people running this war had the wrong intentions. Their intentions shaped how they went about this war, and because of those intentions as much as anything - because of the way the war as been waged - Iraq is a chaotic, terrifying disaster, the US has negative international credibility, the US military is engaging in torture, and both the Middle East and the world as a whole are less stable.

April 1, 2006


The war in Iraq has entered a bloodier phase, with the killings of Iraqi civilians rising tremendously in daily sectarian violence while American casualties have steadily declined, spurring tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee from mixed Shiite-Sunni areas.

The first thing I thought of when I saw this article - even before I read it - was this class I took my senior spring. I had been planning to take a class about moral decision-making and political theory, but it was a lot like the amazing seminar I'd taken the semester before, and in the first week of classes, I heard about a directed reading1 on genocide. I went, and I felt this sense of responsibility, like even though it meant studying all of these incredibly horrific things, I couldn't possibly not take it. For the rest of the spring, I would periodically walk into the Hipster Monk's room and scream, because the things I was reading about were so horrific. The Political Schmientist is studying human rights violations in grad school right now, with some emphasis on sexual violence, and I think she's having a similar experience.

Folks, that's what's on its way to happening in Iraq. The NYT article I linked to doesn't have a lot of the explicit details of violence that are so difficult to read about, but the process it describes is familiar to me. Iraqis are starting to be scared - and apparently reasonably so - to be ethnic or religious minorities. They are leaving their homes to go to places where they will be members of the religious or ethnic majority, despite a long history of fairly peaceable coexistence and despite the major financial costs of doing so. Civilian casualties are increasing, not decreasing, and the focus of the violence is gradually shifting from Americans to Iraqis.2 These are warning signs of civil war, and especially of a civil war with the potential for genocide. The situation reminds me a great deal of the former Yugoslavia's disintegration: get rid of a violent dictatorship that overwhelms ethnic tension, then watch as the record of prior coexistence gets drowned in appeals to nationalism/sectarian ideology. Watch people dehumanize "the other side," then threaten them, then kill them, then try to wipe them off the face of the earth. It's not just civil war we're risking in Iraq, it's genocide. I don't know who's at greatest risk for a genocidal campaign, but the Sunni-Shiite violence right now has that potential.

I want to draw attention to one point in this article that hadn't really occurred to me: US training and arms for Iraqi police and military are fueling this conflict.
The migrations are partly caused by the fear of partisan Iraqi security forces, many of them trained by the Americans. The police and commando forces are infested with militia recruits, mostly from Shiite political parties, and are accused by Sunni Arabs of carrying out sectarian executions. One Sunni-run TV network warned viewers last week not to allow Iraqi policemen or soldiers into their homes unless the forces are accompanied by American troops.
It's not really surprising: part of the reason for the Taliban's success is that we armed and trained the people who became the Taliban when we thought we could use them against the USSR in Afghanistan; a major cause of brutal violence and human rights violations in Latin America is the training the US provides to 'friendly' Latin American military forces at the School of the Americas. Every time we arm and train combat forces, it ends up biting us in the ass. The US government has been talking a lot about "Iraqification" - turning over responsibility for security to Iraqis - but that, in and of itself, seems to be increasing the risk of a civil war and thus of genocide. What's surprising is that it didn't even occur to me until today to connect the training and weaponry we provide in Iraq with the results we've had in providing same things elsewhere. There's no reason to think Iraq will be better, which is pretty incredibly depressing to think about.

The worst, for me, is that I can think of absolutely nothing productive to do in response.

1. At my school, directed readings happened when a student wanted to study something and persuaded a professor to do it. We met slightly less than a normal class, and it was a one-off: it will probably never be offered again, especially since that professor's retiring. That meant it was a lot easier to get it to happen, because it didn't change the whole department's balance of course offerings.
2. The large majority (65%) of attacks are still against Americans and other foreign forces; in September, though, it was 82%.