Saturday, October 21, 2017

Friday, June 30, 2017

Dogged defender of science and human rights

My wife asked me yesterday if I wanted to go with her to a talk that evening at the museum where she works.  I think she said the topic was the flora and fauna of the Holy Land.  I can’t say the topic captivated me, but it sounded like a cheap date for a Thursday evening.  The museum cafĂ© has good sandwiches and cold micro-brews on tap.  So I said sure.

Now I’m curious what her ulterior thinking was.  The speaker, I now know, was Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, Director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History.  The museum, located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, is a shoestring operation – Dr. Qumsiyeh himself draws no salary -- so he is touring the U.S. raising money and making connections to support his work.

Qumsiyeh was in town yesterday in his capacity as a scientist.  At other times, he acts as a human rights activist and overall thorn in the side of the Israeli government.  I suspect my wife simply wanted to show up in support of this guy.  His name had provoked a lot of calls from local Jewish groups wanting the museum to cancel his appearance.  He also attracted the attention of U.S. Homeland Security when he entered the country.  He might allow himself to complain about these things on his blog, but the bastards couldn’t stop him.

His talk, to be honest, was a little dry.  He was not an ace presenter: mike held too far from his mouth, PowerPoint slides a little too crowded.  But his lack of pizzazz worked, by way of contrast, to enable the power of science, facts, reason, to cut through the scrim of political posturing.  For example: Access to drinking water is a looming crisis in the Middle East.  Israelis consume several times as much water per capita as Palestinians – and West Bank settlers consume more than other Israelis.  Qumsiyeh underscored the point with a simple bar chart.  Second example: Some parcels of West Bank land were set aside for their environmental value, only later to be filled chock-a-block with ugly concrete settlement flats.  Qumsiyeh had the before-and-after photos.

Though I didn’t know what I had signed up for in advance, it was inspiring just to learn about Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, to be reminded that people like him exist in the world.  The theme of the evening was the struggle for environmental justice.  That includes the struggle of oppressed people, young and old, merely to learn about and appreciate the natural world.  To assert that a nature museum should exist at all in the West Bank, is to assert something about basic human worth.




The Q&A may have been better than the scripted talk; the audience had thoughtful questions.  One question linked the injustice of the Likud government to that of the American GOP, and the long-run futility of the Haves being punitive toward the Have Nots, instead of looking for win-win policies.  In the end, we’re all in the same boat and are fools to think otherwise.  Pollution does not recognize borders or factions.  Fortunately, nature still exists, life is tenacious, even in a landscape blighted by war and military occupation.  

The Israeli government refuses to build adequate sewage facilities in Gaza.  So the people there dump raw waste into open sewers.  The waste then flows to the sea, and the prevailing currents send it to Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  “They are swimming in the shit of Gaza.”  That was the rhetorical high point of the evening.  

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Naming Things

Bookmarking Masha Gessen.

The big disconnect in this blog is that I have hardly written a word about Donald Trump, who has been dominating my consciousness, as well as the country's, for the last 18 months.

I look forward to the day sometime in the future when the country reaches some kind of consensus about what the Trump Ascendancy meant.  What's difficult right now is the heightened sense of anxiety and confusion, of cognitive dissonance, that so many of us feel.  It's been barely a month since Trump's inauguration, but it feels like years.

Even Trump supporters, I imagine, must be confused about the wave of resistance that has swelled SINCE the election. It certainly says something not-so-good about the American left-liberal side, that it appears we really got motivated only after the votes were cast.  We were complacent, and now we're full of recriminations and denial.

The Democratic Party is still groping for unity.  It's still divided along the roughly the battle lines that formed between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders during the primaries.  We just had a race for DNC Chair, something I don't think is worth much worry, given the tiny ideological distance between the two leading candidates.  But Bernie people became invested in Keith Ellison, and Hillary people gave some degree of behind-the-scenes institutional oomph to Tom Perez.  Perez won, and instantly anointed Ellison as his Vice Chair (it seems by advance agreement, whoever had lost would have joined sides in this way).  But many Bernie people feel slighted nonetheless.

Today I want to note something.  I hope that, eventually, it will be hard to remember this.  It's still unclear how much credit for Trump's election is due to the clandestine efforts of business and government forces in Russia.  Plainly, Vladimir Putin wanted Trump to be elected.  Whether Putin and his collaborators really pulled it off--I hope history will rule decisively on that question.
Right now this is a point of contention between "the Left" (Bernie people, The Nation magazine, Glenn Greenwald) and "liberals" (Hillary people, Lawyers Guns & Money).  To some on the Left, invoking Putin's name as an anti-Trump epithet is an act of red-baiting, reminiscent of Joe McCarthy. 

I find this condescending in the extreme.  I've paid enough attention in my lifetime to have noticed that the Soviet Empire crumbled, and Russia pivoted from a socialist state to a right-wing authoritarian state.  There's a big difference between Putin and the oligarchs, and the old Soviet leaders and state structures.  It would be stupid not to notice the difference.  It would be highly disingenuous to pretend not to notice.  I strive to be neither stupid nor disingenuous.  PUTIN IS ON THE RIGHT.  Surely the Democratic Socialists of America and The Nation can agree to this.  Glenn Greenwald may be beyond hope.

We need brave and steady voices to help us cut through the chaos and tension of the moment. Indivisible, an organization founded by Democratic Hill staffers, is one; its mission is to give smart tactical advice to the anti-Trump resistance without blunting the urgency of that resistance.  Masha Gessen, Russian emigre journalist, is another.  Here she is talking about Trump and Putin, and about a conspiratorial view of world events versus a chaos-theory view that I incline toward.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Robeson

Bookmarking: The Raleigh N&O has an investigative piece today by Joseph Neff, about a 28-year-old death investigation.  Civil rights lawyer Julian Pierce was murdered in 1988, in the midst of an election campaign for a judgeship.  The chief suspect in his shooting conveniently turned up dead himself, in what was ruled, incredibly, a suicide.  Pierce, a Lumbee Indian, was promising to push for school desegregation and other legal reforms in the corruption-filled swamps of Robeson County, NC.  Pierce's opponent in the judicial race was Joe Freeman Britt, notorious as the World's Deadliest Prosecutor, seemingly able to get a capital conviction against a ham sandwich.  There are whispers of law enforcement and drug dealers being involved in Pierce's murder.  His daughter is pressing to get the case reopened, and is meeting a lot of resistance.

I've long been fascinated by Robeson County, a lawless place, racially divided almost into thirds among white, black, and Lumbee residents.  (It is the center of gravity for the Lumbee band, a caste of gypsies among gypsies, which has strived futilely for decades to get federal tribal recognition.) But more than that, my historical consciousness has been heightened by the dizzying reality of the Trump presidency.  It feels like the most awful political twist ever.  Of course, Americans of color will quickly set me straight about that.   In the South especially, it was hair-raising, the racist violence that small-town sheriffs and prosecutors could get away with.

So I'm fixing on these facts of our civic life, that seem horrific by my lights today, but were accepted as thoroughly "normalized" not so long ago.  A candidate for judge was shot dead!  In 1988, when I was of voting age and registered here!  I don't remember being aware of the case at the time.

Another example: A Facebook friend in Raleigh got his hands on a sales flyer for his neighborhood, which was developed in the 1950s.  A nice leafy neighborhood now, in a voting precinct that probably went for Hillary last fall.  The brochure has a bullet point reading, "RESTRICTED FOR YOUR PROTECTION."  It clearly refers to a No Blacks covenant in the real estate sales contracts.  There are lots of people still around for whom that is a living memory.  The realtor is still in business.

Today, for a political campaign in a rural corner of the state to end in an assassination -- that would beggar belief.  In 1988, however, it was plausible.  And what remains today is an unwillingness to confront the wrongdoing and its implications.  We blanch at actual violence or brute statutory discrimination such as our parents or grandparents engaged in.  But we generally refuse to confront the consequences of our recent history responsibly.  It's very uncomfortable for officials to publish the truth and administer justice, be it financial reparations to victims or criminal convictions against the culpable people who are now honored dead or respected elders, therefore "harmless".

Here's a great dramatic detail.  Julia Pierce, struggling to get her late father's case reopened, finally got a meeting last year with the State Bureau of Investigation.  Without warning her, they invited the retired SBI agent who'd originally handled the case to the meeting, and let him do most of the talking.  He came off as a tad defensive: 

“If your theory is true, I’m either incompetent or dishonest,” Bowman said on an audio recording of the meeting. “So which is it?”

Well, sir, you don't appear to be incompetent. 


Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Winter 1988, Pennsburg, PA



One morning last winter, I got in the car and turned on the windshield wipers when they were frozen tight to the glass.  Which glitched the little motor on one side, so now the wiper arms are cattywompus, moving out of sync.  After several minutes of wild waving, they get jammed together, then I have to pull over, step out in the rain and free them.