Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reflections on the Recent Winter Holidays

I'm no grinch! If other people enjoy the winter holidays – more power to them.  Especially kids.  That is the one redeeming part of the holiday season – kids love it.  I was really glad to see my niece and nephew and I hope they liked the gifts I got them.  So I'm no grinch – a creature who was so upset that others enjoyed the holidays, or so the story goes, that he attempted to ruin it for everyone.

Another redeeming quality of the holidays – they are an excuse to take time off work.  But besides time off and happy kids, the holidays suck.

If I were Christian or Jewish or had a faith-based reason to celebrate, then maybe that would help.  I'm not.  But plenty of people still enjoy the traditions without being particularly religious – even the religious traditions.  Maybe there are one or two traditions I enjoy – the lights certainly put a warm glow on an otherwise cold, grey time of year; though they certainly waste a lot of energy.  A mug of egg nog with a spot of adult beverage included is also soothing after a busy and stressful time of year at work; though egg nog is pretty high in calories and fat; and most sold is not organic.

Still, I'm willing to concede that the time off work, giddy children, lights and nog are redeeming  qualities.  Besides that, the holidays are miserable.

There is community and family.  Back in olden times holidays probably made more sense because people lived near each other – your family stuck around and you were likely to stay with your community longer.  Without digging up any data, I would posit that modern times have scattered our families and friends about the globe; also communities are much more fluid than in times past.  Just the fact that we are able to travel so easily now than, say, 100 years ago, is reason enough for that phenomenon – people are scattered in really distant places from those whom they know and/or are related.  But the annual celebrations continue as if we could all just wander to the town square or shout out of a glass-less window to our distant cousins, inviting them to come over and enjoy a hearty meal.

I am one of a few members of my family who lives far away from home base in South Texas.  So coming together for the holidays also means getting to the airport, taking off my shoes and belt, removing my laptop from my bag, waiting in line, sitting very close to people I don't know for hours while fighting gravity and risking my life.   I do this once before the family celebration and again after; all for a few hundred dollars.  Millions do the same – polluting the environment and crowding airports with miserable passengers.

Oh and (obviously) X-mas is so horrifically commercial – another crappy thing about the holidays.  To put this in perspective: Imagine that the "Where's the beef?" commercial, of 1980s Wendy's Hamburger fame, came on for a month every year, maybe two, year after year; perhaps July and August; every year.  Sure it was different every time – the old ladies changed slightly.  Maybe one year they are dressed up as rapping grannies, the next they're wearing skinny jeans.  Maybe on one station they're hocking burgers with square patties, but on another they're asking the Progressive insurance lady where the beef is.  "There is no beef here," she replies grimly.  "This is just a store for insurance – really boring – it might look like there is something more substantive we're selling – but really just various options to insure your motorized vehicle or vehicles."

So Christmas, with its overwhelming commercialism, is the same advertising campaign year after year.  The stuff Santa is selling us may be different, but the template is basically the same.  It might be exciting for kids – and I suppose that's why most adults give it a pass – but we'd all be smashing our television sets if we had to watch the same Madison Avenue characters every year for every ad on everything everywhere.

That is the worst aspect of the holidays – commercialism.  We were expected to believe, this year for example, that Old Navy sweaters are made by a festive "grandma bot," knitting such a high volume of material that the chain store can sell tons of sweaters at rock-bottom prices.  Don't ask about who actually makes those sweaters.  It's Christmas! Could it be sweatshop workers? ---blah blah blah -- IT'S CHRISTMAS!!!

But alas, I cannot wall myself off completely from a society that teaches us from such a young age that consumer culture is a major reason why we are here on planet earth and a primary way for us to acquire joy during our short lives.  Now that I think about it, maybe that is a reason why I shouldn't be so pleased about happy children this time of year – they're happy for the wrong reasons.  That's an aside that I'll put out of my mind for the time being.  Getting gifts is nice, and giving them ain't bad either.

Except that we are told that we must buy gifts at one of a number of major retail outlets; we must get the hottest gifts of the season; and we must wake at 4 AM to get the best deals (or spend the night outside the Best Buy or pepper spray competing customers or some combination).  There is another option; and I don't know which is worse.  We must buy local; buy organic; buy from small businesses; buy sustainable gifts.  The latter option – consumerism with a conscience – is probably better for our communities and the environment, but it's also somewhat elitist and sometimes downright obnoxious.

So what to do about that?  We could create an alternative holiday – maybe sometime in February.  We could give gifts all year round – gifts we made from scratch - perhaps a homemade gift card offering one free back rub from your favorite friend and/or relative.  I don't want to remake the whole holiday though.  This is about trying to reckon with a holiday season I don't care for (except for those few things I like about it), which is fairly impossible to escape.

I have no solution.  Do you?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Davis: Another Reason Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

The Troy Davis case got my attention more than any case since Shaka Sankofa.  I went to jail in Austin over Shaka's case; and my heart broke because although I never met him personally, I felt that I knew him and I was sure he was innocent.  At any rate, he was a human being – an African American man the state of Texas wanted to kill; and he wasn't going down without a fight.  It was hard to concentrate on work today.  I was thinking about Shaka; and Troy's case got me thinking about why I oppose the death penalty and why, I think, I always have.

There is not enough due process in the universe to justify capital punishment.  That, to me, is the heart of why I oppose the death penalty in all cases and for all time.  Death is final and we will never be able to eliminate all doubt in our criminal justice system, indeed we've exonerated 138 people who were convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death, yet in most cases we don't have evidence, such as DNA evidence, that would clear death row inmates to the satisfaction of authorities.  We will also never be able to ensure fairness and equity - in other words, even if we're sure someone did what they are accused of doing, the application of the punishment is likely to be arbitrary, or worse, tainted by prejudice.  The death penalty is full of both problems - I have no doubt innocent people have been executed and it is obvious that people of color, especially if their victim is white, are more likely than others to be sentenced to death.  We simply should not be killing people when we know there is a chance we will kill an innocent person or when we know that some people will be killed and others spared based on their race, their economic status, or other factors that should not affect justice.

The other major reason why I oppose the death penalty is because the state should never dole out such harsh and final punishments when it presides over such an unjust society.  If we lived in a society that was prosperous and fair, then this would be a more difficult argument.  But we live in a society where the state cuts services to the poor, cuts education, cuts mental health services yet when people commit heinous acts hurting and maybe killing others, the state jumps in with mountains of resources to prosecute, jail and sometimes execute people – maybe the people who committed the heinous act, maybe not.  And it isn't as if we just live in an unjust world but our government is doing its best and striving to work against all that.  The powerful politicians who hold the fate of people on death row, a death row full of people who are always poor and often people of color, are the same politicians who kiss corporate, Wall Street ass to ensure they can get elected again.  They care neither for justice nor fairness – those who deny clemency one day and drink champagne with corporate donors the next.

One final reason I oppose the death penalty is because of how sick it is to take someone's life when that person is not a threat to anyone.  The state has someone in its control who is breathing and who has loved ones.  The state has someone in its control who gets sleepy and falls asleep and dreams about being outside the prison walls.  The state has someone completely in its control who talks to his family, her children, his wife, or her friend since elementary school about what life might be like if their sentence is ever overturned and maybe even their conviction.  The state takes that mom, brother, lover, father, friend; that person with hopes about the future and an understanding of fate, death and eternity; and the state moves them from a secure cell to a gurney, then injects them with poison until their heart stops.  It is sick that some people justify that but scream bloody murder when doctors help women with their reproductive health needs.  It takes a really perverse person who wants to deny women reproductive freedom and support a flawed system that kills living adults yet calls himself "pro-life."

We have a lot of work to do, and I hope Troy Davis has not died in vain.  I hope that in my lifetime we abolish the disgusting state murder system and maybe even hold some of the people responsible for that system accountable in a just, humane, but decisive way.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Death and Perspective On The War In Afghanistan

This past weekend the United States lost 30 troops in one incident in the war in Afghanistan. As much as I despise American imperialism and oppose our wars abroad, I still mourn for the loved ones of those who died. However, there is critical perspective we cannot forget: our war in Afghanistan is immoral, unnecessary and unpopular with the American people; the soldiers who died were engaged in warfare inside a country their government is occupying; and thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed as a result of our war.

As Americans we are far more likely to hear about fallen American soldiers than foreign victims of our wars abroad, especially after a tragedy of this magnitude. As we think about these deaths and sympathize with victims' families, we should also think about this (from The Independent):

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) has found that the rate of civilian casualties has reached a record high, with 1,462 killed in January to June this year.

Unless we consider these other victims to be less than human, then we must sympathize for them as well. This point may be even more difficult to accept: since they are victims in a war that is not their choosing, their deaths are more tragic than the deaths of soldiers who have chosen to engage in war.  Yet many Americans rarely if ever think of civilian deaths in Afghanistan but feel overwhelmingly moved by American soldier deaths.

We do tend to sympathize more with those with whom we share more in common and that includes those who speak our language, live in our communities, and share many of our cultural norms. That's one explanation for the lack of concern over Afghan civilian deaths in this country. Naturally the families and friends of the soldiers who died have every right to feel distraught and angry even as they ignore the deaths of others; they're grieving, and any of us who have lost a loved one knows it can be intensely painful. The lesson here, however, in a conflict that is so lopsided, is that Afghans have the same emotions, feel the same pain. For every lost life, there are dozens of friends, family members, and loved ones who are affected. Multiply that by thousands, and it provides a critical context to our war in Afghanistan and the reaction of the Afghan people.

Remember these are civilians, not soldiers, not terrorists; and they are civilians in an impoverished country that is currently occupied by the most powerful nation and most powerful military on earth. Their deaths are not just tragic, but horribly unjust. Our war is not justified and it is not making Americans safer. The evidence suggests that our war in Afghanistan is more likely to inspire (or enrage) future terrorists–people who might otherwise never think of using violence against the U.S. or Americans had it not been for the fact that their family or friends were killed by U.S. bombs.

While most Americans want an immediate drawdown in Afghanistan, politicians and warmongers, like Leon Panetta, continue to justify continuing our war by claiming the objective is to ensure Afghanistan is not a safe haven for terrorists. Even if you buy that nonsense, how could it possibly be worth the deaths of thousands of Afghan civilians (or if you prefer thousands of American troops)? This war is not about making Americans safer, it is about making Lockheed-Martin more profitable. It is not about stopping terrorism, it is about terrorizing an entire population for American imperialism. Simply securing cabin doors in airplanes did more to keep Americans safe than our reckless and expensive war in Afghanistan, which in all likelihood is making Americans more of a target.

Regardless of our view on the justifications for war, we all have an obligation to understand the conflict in a way that humanizes all sides and includes the context of the Afghan experience; to do otherwise is to dehumanize the victims of war. With that in mind, we should grieve not just for the families of the fallen soldiers but also for the families of the Afghan civilians our military, with our tax dollars, killed. Once we do, our reaction to such a tragedy ought to be to demand an immediate end to an immoral and unnecessary war.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hate Visits The Castro

This evening I decided to head out to the LGBT Film Festival in the Castro–not to see any films but to join a protest against the Israeli Consulate's sponsorship of the Festival.  The action was organized by the group Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism.  Why?  Because the state of Israel has a vigorous PR campaign promoting itself as an island of gay tolerance in a sea of backwardness and hate.  It is designed to deflect attention from Israel's horrific human rights record against Palestinians and Arabs, and the gay film festival shouldn't let itself be used as a propaganda tool.

It started as I would have expected, with a small number of pro-Israel Zionists separated from a small number of pro-Palestinian/anti-apartheid activists.  There were Israeli flags and American flags on one side, streamers of black, red, green and white and placards on the other.  I joined the anti-apartheid side–a mostly queer group with all kinds of diversity: Jewish lesbians, African American men, white, brown, Arab, young and old.  The other side was overwhelmingly white and did not seem all that queer (but I didn't ask anyone about their sexual orientation).

As things got started, our side outnumbered the other side at least 3 to 1 and was getting a lot of encouragement from onlookers.  An older man with his partner said "good for you" and flashed the peace sign.  Passing cars honked their horn and gave us the thumbs up.  A few of our folks, with instruments in hand, started to play.  The drums pounded as some of us chanted: "Frameline members take a stand, pinkwashing is a scam!" (Frameline is the organization that runs the Festival).

The Israeli flags and ridiculous signs saying things like "Queers for Palestine is like turkeys for Thanksgiving" (because, you know, there are no gay people in Palestine getting killed by the IDF, they've all been murdered by terrorists and savages, or some such bigotry) were to be expected.  But the most disgusting tactic used by the ultra-Zionists (I can only assume people who would hatch up such a stunt must have the "ultra" attached to their description) was a person dressed in a full hijab burqa with a sign that read "Pinkwash This" and who kept trying to stand in front of the anti-apartheid group.  It was undoubtedly hate speech.  Imagine someone mocking the pro-Israel side in a kippah or mocking a group of anti-segregation activists while wearing black face.  It was a perfect example of what the staunchest defenders of Israel are resorting to–trying to sell ignorance and hatred in a neighborhood that has a history of fighting for human rights and human dignity.  The liberal Zionist agenda is clearly in crisis when Islamaphobia like this is used in a futile attempt to win over gay folks in the Castro, who know hate when they see it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

American Empire and the Killing of Osama bin Laden

I’m not sure the killing of Osama bin Laden was a good thing.  I find the acts he’s said to have masterminded to be horrific.  I also recognize that in some cases killing is necessary and even produces positive results, such as the necessary killing of someone to protect the lives of others.  So I neither have sympathy for the guy nor am I a pacifist.  But my gut reaction on the evening I learned bin Laden had been killed was disgust at the celebrations and concern for what his killing might actually mean for the future of my nation’s “War on Terrror.”

What bothered me most about the celebrations was the inappropriate, and mostly childish, acting out.  The images I saw, particularly outside the White House, of an overwhelmingly young, white crowd waving American flags around as if they were at a pep rally; and the fact that the corporate media and most politicians saw these celebrations as appropriate and even moving, made me fear more for the future than a living bin Laden ever did.  They demonstrated a boost to American nationalism - at least that’s the way it appeared that evening and in the days following - the kind of sentiment that fuels the killing of millions around the world by American imperialism.

And the high-fives were bipartisan.  Some Democrats have been trying to recover their manhood ever since Michael Dukakis rode that tank back in 1988, and this supposed victory by a Democratic president certainly helped.  The chest thumping from these liberals (usually men, usually white - see Chris Mathews or Ed Schultz from liberal network MSNBC), with their inferiority complexes, was intense after the targeted killing of bin Laden.  

What will the opposition do?  The chance that Republicans will cede that ground to the Democrats, cut defense spending and focus on domestic issues, is slim to none.  It is far more likely they will find a way to outdo their corporate-funded counterparts.  Boots on the ground in Libya?  Maybe take on North Korea?  Definitely no draw down in our current escapades though.

No doubt some would relish that, but I’m not as concerned with those folks.  They are a lost cause, at least for now.

There is another group of people, some political allies, who argue that celebration is wrong, but the world is a better place without bin Laden.  Maybe.  We would absolutely have been better off had we never trained and funded him and his Mujahideen decades ago, chasing other demons in the region; but had bin Laden just rotted away in hiding while Arab revolutions made him more and more irrelevant, I would not have cared; and maybe that would have been better.  Better because of the real possibility that this killing will embolden American imperialism and fuel an expansion of the “War on Terror.”

It didn’t take long after bin Laden was shot and dumped in the ocean for both Republicans and Democrats to start the saber rattling about Pakistan - a nuclear power mind you.  It didn’t take long for right-wingers to call the killing a vindication of water boarding.  It didn’t take long for the FBI to announce it was stepping up its counter-terrorism efforts in case a “lone wolf” decided to seek revenge or strike out of frustration.

Then there is the problem of how he was killed.  There is good reason to question whether the action was legal and whether there was ever an intent to capture Bin Laden as opposed to merely execute him on the spot.  For those good people who were uneasy about the celebrations but who nonetheless think bin Laden’s killing was positive, the precedent of his killing (as we continue to cobble together facts and clarify the initial story told by official sources) should be cause of serious concern.  Why wouldn’t the U.S. use his killing as a perfectly good justification for other targeted executions?  Why not go after Ahmadinejad in Iran or Hugo Chavez in Venezuela?

If there was solid evidence that bin Laden’s death would lead to less war or less terrorism, maybe even a little less human suffering, I might be more hopeful.  But since when has a victory by a brutal empire ever led to a pulling back or a humble reexamination of foreign policy?  The only time that ever happened in the United States was following a powerful anti-war movement and a military defeat in Southeast Asia.  But the hawks regrouped and American Empire is back out on multiple battlefields.  I just don’t think a perceived victory in their War of Terror is going to make them reconsider their plans.