Repeating the same arguments–based on background, creed, social group, immediate circle—creates specific paths in our individual and collective brains. Case in point, the extraordinary avalanche of commentary and discussion following the Brexit referendum, with knee-jerk reactions and little original thought. Be it EU officials, governments in individual countries inside and outside the EU, talk-show guests, man/woman in the street, social media addicts, all respond exactly as expected. Except at the highest level of media or analysis, there are few intelligent or thoughtful reactions. Read more…
Peace Is the Opposite of War
Some years ago, around Christmas time, I was on a bus in Paris, passing a church near the Invalides. The only seasonal decoration was an illuminated sign above the entrance of the church saying Paix (Peace). A child behind me read out the letters, correctly pronounced the word, and asked the elderly lady she was with, probably her grandmother, what the word meant. “It’s when people don’t fight, they’re nice to each other, no one is hurt,” responded the grandmother. Perplexed, the child asked for more explanations. “Peace is the opposite of war,” was the answer. “Oh,” said the child, satisfied. Despite her age–five or six–this pampered little Parisian knew the meaning of “war,” but “peace” had to be defined. Too much TV, too many iterations of the word “war” in grown-up discussions around her? Whatever the reason, her ignorance of “peace,” a state we all aspire to and should all be blessed enough to live in was striking.
The state may hardly exist but a think tank tracks it nonetheless, the Institute for Economics and Peace, and even produces out an annual index. The 2016 report is just out (http://www.visionofhumanity.org/#/page/our-gpi-findings). See it and weep. But first, one remark. The home page of the IEP bears the following statement, “the world’s leading think tank dedicated to developing metrics to analyze peace and quantify its economic benefits.” So, much like the Parisian child who could only understand peace as opposed to war, we humans living today can understand the importance of the concept not per se but only through the impact it has on economics. I suppose expecting otherwise is not realistic.
So, what does the 2016 report tell us? In today’s world, ten countries, ten,—Botswana, Chile, Costa Rica, Japan, Mauritius, Panama, Qatar, Switzerland, Uruguay and Vietnam—out of the 196 existing nations, are completely free from conflict, whether internal or external to their borders.
Should we be sad that this is all humanity has achieved after thousands of years of existence and what we generally think of as progress—plodding, to be sure, often derailed, but still progress toward a less violent world than when we first appeared and started staking our territories and the millenia that followed? Should we be grateful that in this terrifying day and age—out-of-control ideologies parading as religious faith, terrorism, local conflicts, major deflagrations, violence toward the poor, the meek and disenfranchised–there are still ten islands of peace and stability?
In this report that made my heart sink as it would anyone’s, two points still stand out.
One. According to IEP’s founder Steve Killelea, “if we took the Middle East out of the index over the last decade – and last year – the world would have become more peaceful. It really highlights the impact the Middle East is having on the world.”
Two. The IEP noticed a clear trend where the more peaceful countries improved further while the less peaceful countries got even worse – producing what they called greater “peace inequality” across the world.
Food for thought, yes. Food for action? Maybe, but where to start?
I imagine that the GOP collectively woke up to the worse hangover of its life. And also that finally daring to open its eyes after hoping the bad dream is over, that party let out a yelp upon finding itself in bed with a repugnant mound of flab, pretension and nastiness topped by a god-awful blondish something that in all decency cannot be called hair. “We did what last night? Can you just leave now and we’ll pretend nothing happened? That we don’t even know you?”
Well, something has happened, has been happening for years. Like most reasonable Americans, which still means half the country and more, I dread the grotesque idea of a Trump presidency, yet can’t help but think of what we humans know but will never ever learn: We reap what we sow. Our actions have consequences. The Republican party—the party of Lincoln, for crying out loud, it bears repeating—lost its soul the day it became the party of NO. No to everything. Common good does not matter any longer, neither does any of that so last-century vocabulary, obsolete concepts such as the greater good, vision, public service, decency etc. Not that these words were ever sacred or always respected, but they were at least acknowledged, on occasion sincerely. A moral compass, even when not used well, still gives a sense of direction. Not that the Bush mafia, with ghoul-in-chief Cheney and all other assorted egregious liars, didn’t trample upon the very idea of moral compass by having the Republic tear apart countries which, though far from perfect, at least somewhat existed. Which they no longer do—ask the hundreds of thousands of migrants clinging to sinking rafts near the shores of Europe. That brutal administration was fodder to people worldwide who thought that America, for all its talk of democracy, diplomacy and respect was at heart the imperialist power that didn’t consider anything but its own interest. The tumble toward unimaginable lows had started. Or was that before, when Newt Gingrich, snubbed by President Clinton on Air Force One, unbelievably retaliated by orchestrating a government shutdown? Or was that when John McCain, racing for the White House, dredged Sarah Palin out of her primeval bog and put her on the Republican ticket? Read more…
As a French-American national originally from Iran, I realize the limits of what I can understand of any culture or civilization into which I was not born and of my misconceptions about issues that I cannot totally grasp. That doesn’t prevent me from observing the society around me and deeply feeling what, to my uneducated eyes, appears like injustice. Among these, race relations in the United States; after decades in this country and the importance to me of that particular issue, I believe I have a say in the matter.
To begin with, the title of this post. I have not set out to provoke but as a writer I like to give words the proper weight that they have lost in the midst of clamors. I use “Negro” as opposed to the horrendous n-word and to pc euphemisms such as “African-American,” “black,” “minority,” etc. “Negro” may be a broad word but it still defines a race. If I belonged to this race, I would question considering an insult the very word defining me, my skin color and my features. I don’t know many present-day uses of the word except in the title “The Journal of Negro Education” at Howard University. With a proud history since its inception in 1932 and contributors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Dorothy B. Porter or Thurgood Marshall, this publication has not changed its name to reflect today’s general wishy-washiness.
As for the word “citizen” in this title, I am borrowing it from poet Claudia Rankine’s recent collection of prose poems, (“Citizen: an American Lyric”) which I have read several times with fascination, rage and bafflement after seeing it reviewed in The New Yorker. After all I thought I knew, I still didn’t know.
Thus, I use “citizen” as a means to move beyond blacks seen as mainly descendants of slaves but as full-fledged citizens. Not people who are grudgingly given a spot near the table where they can be grateful for any crumbs thrown their way; not chattel that can be shot at with impunity by white police officers, left to rot in the waters of Lake Pontchartrain, spend a lifetime behind bars, face discrimination no matter what exalted position they reach (read what Claudia Rankine says of rulings of tennis umpires against Serena Williams); not parents such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and winner of the National Book Award for non-fiction telling of his anguish whenever his fifteen-year old leaves home as any encounter can turn ugly, brutal, or fatal; not the broken families where fatherless children face a life with no education and no future. All this with hardly any help from either government agencies or from blacks who have made it, against all odds or through accidents of birth or their own determination and perseverance, and don’t want to see that not everyone draws the lucky numbers.
So, can one hope that, as in Sam Cooke’s superb anthem “a change is gonna come”? Maybe. Over the last few months, the rumblings and grumblings related to the mass murder of blacks by police have reached a pitch. Rahm Emmanuel’s coverup in the police killing of Laquan McDonald did not help anyone. Chicken are coming home to roost and given video cameras on police cars and public scrutiny, it’s becoming more and more difficult for white police officers to kill blacks with impunity.
Another sign that we may be in for a tectonic shift is the justified recent brouhaha over the ridiculously small acceptance of black artists at the upcoming Academy Awards. Does one have to spell out that it’s only right for Will Smith or Spike Lee to refuse to participate in this ceremony where an Oscar is only awarded to blacks when it would be impossible not to do so (such as best actor to Chiwetel Ejiofor for “12 Years a Slave”)?
I don’t agree with the parity promised by the Academy for the year 2020—that does not even reflect the population percentage. Absolute parity is as condescending as the Canadian PM touting the equal number of men and women in his cabinet. Sure, one has to start somewhere but lip service instead of appreciation of actual competence is as insulting as non inclusion, one reason that makes me find affirmative action as abbhorent and hypocritical as distributing stars to every child in class.
Grudging token recognition is worse than no recognition at all. Negroes are actual people, not stand-ins for their slave ancestors. They are also citizens. It’s about time they are recognized–and recognize themselves–as such.
Forget Allah, Buddha, Christ, etc. Two minor Greek mythological deities excavated by Freud in his theory of what makes us humans tick have been ruling the world forever. Eros, the god or drive for love and Thanatos, that of death. Of course, any number of cultures follows the established pattern of duality. Be it yin and yang or the light versus darkness of my Zoroastrian ancestors, these warring forces live inside all of us. Looking at the state of the world, one would have to wonder if, for several decades now, more than explaining humanity, they aren’t actually splitting it in two
Populations with a pea-sized brain (and I’m being generous here) in countries or communities prey to religious superstition and/or battleground to sectarian or other conflicts, tribalism, warlordism, illegal occupation, and/or crushed under brutal regimes—take your pick—have every reason to believe in Thanatos’s supremacy. That is what they see all around day in and day out. You can preach all you want about peace and love and the brotherhood of man, they would sooner drive a sharp dagger through your lying heart than listen to more pieties. Death is all there is and you are responsible for this, they will assert time and again, you caused this war and the one before that. You brought to power that tyrant. You stole our ressources, you victimized us, and now you insult our prophets. You deserve death, I will kill you and die myself rather than live to see another day.
There you go. Thanatos once more spreading his dark wings, grabbing his scythe. What can you do against imbeciles whose most powerful emotion is hatred, who will always destroy rather than build, who will hold the most asinine beliefs and defend them to the death?
Also powerful believers in Thanatos are the vicious regimes which we, to our shame, pretend are no better and no worse than any other, whose repulsive heads we invite at our tables, with whose governments we sign juicy contracts, whose terrible crimes we pretend not to see. Did our administration voice even a modest protest over the 47 executions in Saudi Arabia last Saturday? Is decapitation horrendous only when performed by ISIS? Is crucifixion bad when putting Christ to death but okay to get rid of pesky teenagers who send out one tweet too many? Yet, even that kingdom built on sand has executed only 150 people in 2015. Our real best buddy since the signing of the doomed-to-crumble nuclear agreement is Iran where nearly one thousand people have been executed during the year that just ended. (Hurray for Iran, they’re getting there, though still far from our own United States where this past year 33,000 of our citizens died through gun violence—thirty-three THOUSAND?—and where cops killed almost 1200 people, mostly from minorities and often unarmed. All this to much cheering from the half-wits who refuse gun control and police accountability.)
We can’t confront Thanatos, his hold is too strong on fanatics and deranged individuals (for whom we continue to voice excuses and understanding.) That shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing his cult as the big divide between civilized discourse and mayhem. Or from picking Eros.
My gorgeous Paris has once again been attacked. So far, the toll stands at 129 people dead, scores more between life and death in hospitals. The eight perpetrators too are dead (no great loss, that), some blowing themselves up, one shot by police. Huge police operations are underway, two more suspects were killed on Wednesday.
Once again, after September 11, 2001, after the massacre of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo last January, following terrorist attacks too numerous to list or even count in the West and throughout the world, we are left stunned and heartbroken. Then, right away, awash in pieties: Don’t paint everyone with the same brush, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t hate. Except that it is becoming more difficult every time to refuse to see the obvious: that Islam is a pretty awful religion and its followers benighted for the most part.
It wasn’t always the case. I’m not even talking about Islam historically. Over the centuries, superb art and thought have come out of the Islamic world. One might be allowed to think that these grandiose cultures—Persian, Syrian, Egyptian, etc.—flourished despite Islam as none ever grew out of the sands of Arabia where Mohammad was born. The only gift humanity received from that country is a violent religion based on a “holy” book of dubious origin (discussion of which is blasphemy and punishable by death) and forced by the sword upon countless people. Today, Saudi Arabia is still rotten to the core, home to a corrupt and repulsive highly conservative regime.
No, when I say Islam wasn’t always awful, I’m talking about the way it was before it became a political ideology when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran in 1979. When I was growing up in that country, people didn’t pay much mind to religion and Islam was, as the grandfather of the Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk used to put it, “for servants and for the poor.” I didn’t know anyone who paid more than lip service to religious belief. Indeed, Iran was not religious. Our feasts and holidays went back to ancient Persia, we celebrated the spring equinox, we jumped over fire as our Zoroastrian forefathers had (it speaks to the resilience of the Iranian spirit that not even the mullahs’ regime managed to ban these, though not for lack of trying). I don’t remember ever seeing a Koran or the inside of a mosque—except once or twice for a funeral.
All that to say that if I didn’t pay much mind to Iran’s official religion, I wasn’t born anti-Islam. But I’m fast becoming so and not only because of extremists and raving lunatics. Muslims demand respect but this cuts both ways. I cannot accept that they would block traffic on Paris streets for public Friday prayer. There aren’t enough mosques? That’s just too bad. How about praying at home? How dare Muslims ask for an equal number of mosques and churches? (BTW, how about building a couple of churches in Jeddah or Karachi?) How dare they ask that all the French eat meat from animals slaughtered according to Muslim rites? How dare they consider eating pork or drinking alcohol as an attack on their faith? How dare they harass on the streets women whose attire they find immodest? On top of all that, how dare they take offense at people’s negative reactions and their growing resentment? Public perception is going to change when Muslim communities accept that even if societies in the West are secular, their culture is judeo-christian (I myself don’t believe in anything. Faith, religion, or even spirituality are all, to me, as Bill Maher puts it, “intellectually embarrassing anachronisms from the Bronze Age.”)
But the worse part of the war of civilizations we are living through, though pretending we’re not, is, as I said above, that in the last decades Islam has become an ideology with a world domination goal. Muslims are first Muslims, then citizens of the Western countries that have taken them in. I myself am not first agnostic, then French-American. My friends in Virginia are not first Presbyterian, then American. My neighbors in Paris are not first Catholic, then French. This is as should be. We belong to a community, to a country, to a flag, to a constitution and a set of laws. But since the horrendous Paris attacks, Muslims interviewed by media or expressing themselves on various sites can only talk about the fact that their faith will once again be viewed negatively. I didn’t hear a single one—except for renegade Muslims whose numbers gratifyingly grow by the day—express chagrin at the actual events, sorrow for the victims, condemnation of the perpetrators or worry about the future of Europe–or the world, for that matter. Not one expressed fear of further attacks against the country. The extremists rejoice while all the so-called moderates have to say is “this is not Islam.” It’s not? Only George W. Bush, not the brightest intellect, ever believed that Islam is a religion of peace.
Things will change only if the Muslim communities in the West reverse their stance. The day Muslim French or British or German or Italian or American citizens define themselves through belonging to the country that has taken them or their parents or their grandparents in, and then, only then, as belonging to this or that faith, is the day they will be fully accepted. Until then, a day probably long in coming, they will continue to be resented and feared. In the meantime, another threat looms larger and larger: that of European nationalist and extreme right parties attracting more followers. Then we can all relive the horrors of seventy years ago—this time aimed at immigrant minorities—courtesy of the Prophet.
I hardly remembered the word existed. Then, yesterday morning, I read in the Guardian that the UK had decided to cancel a £5.9m contract to provide a training program for prisons in Saudi Arabia and the sun came up: But of course, there’s the word I had forgotten existed: h-e-r-o. Kudos to British Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Michael Gove who, after much wrangling, persuaded PM Cameron and foreign secretary Hammond that the dismal human rights record of the Wahabite Kingdom, certainly one of the ugliest regimes on earth, didn’t make the oil-rich and ruthless country a worthy partner.
This is a first in the agitated, incomprehensible phase the world is going through–countries in the West shamelessly vying with each other to grab the most lucrative deals, accommodating dictators and oppressors of all stripes, making sure that the oil never stops flowing (and effing up the planet) and that multinationals can continue to press impoverished locals into the new and improved brand of slavery. Our would-be leaders can only helplessly go with the flow. Look at Obama, shrinking and greying by the day. (How could a President who came with such promise turn out to be so indecisive and ineffective?) Look at Hollande, the French President, cheering on wave after wave of businessmen flying into Iran, ready to sign the biggest contracts of their career (note to Michael Gove: please take on human rights violations in that country, second only to China in number of executions. Or should Iranians take solace in the thought that the goodwill following the nuclear agreement will only last until the Islamic Republic starts reneging on the accord, which of course it will?)
The reversal that just took place in Britain is simply unheard of. Western politicians in a spat because a young Saudi risks beheading and crucifixion? Because a 74-year old British pensioner is condemned to 360 lashes for driving with homemade hooch in his car? Somebody pinch me, please. I’ve always been big on dreams but this is too much, even for me. What next? The vile troika Putin-Erdogan-Netanyahu putting an end to their shenanigans? The ice cap on North and South Pole restored? A roof for everyone, food for all, banks becoming honest, politicians serving the public? OK, I’ll stop here before going overboard but thank you Michael Gove. I owe you. The world owes you.