Metta’s Opinion

“Saffron Revolution” Reaches Critical Stage in Burma

Monks march in protest in Yangon (Rangoon)

Burma and the Press

As of this writing (Thursday, September 27) a nonviolent movement is reaching its crisis in Burma. In 1988 over 3,000 students were killed — massacred would not be too strong a word — when they protested the military takeover of their country. Their courageous, charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, though she had faced down rifle squads in at least one critical confrontation (superbly dramatized in Beyond Rangoon, with Patricia Arquette), and won an overwhelming electoral victory to boot, was not able to prevail over the regime, which has kept her under house arrest and basically pillaged the country for these nineteen years.

Commentators are noting, correctly, several features of the uprising today: it is a massive, disciplined outpouring — the photographs of tens of thousands of red-robed monks and nuns filling avenues for as far as the eye can see are nothing short of inspiring. It relies on the immense prestige of religious orders in that predominantly Buddhist country. And — among other differences between now and 1988 — the world is watching.

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The Sad-Go-Round of Sexual Exploitation

The latest issue of the New Internationalista journal I read and recommend — featured an exposé of one of the most tragic and demoralizing — and growing — crimes of our world: trafficking women and girls for various kinds of exploitation. If ‘globalization from above’ describes the cancerous corporate system that is pushing aside nations and peoples, and ‘globalization from below’ describes the way civic society and indigenous peoples are connecting into networks to build a more human- and life-friendly planet, what shall we call this? The U.S. Government estimates that as many as 800,000 people are ‘trafficked’ across international borders each year, from 127 countries.

It made heartbreaking reading.

Two approaches were cited as attempts to contain, or possibly reverse this practice, the ‘supply-side’ legal means of apprehending traffickers and ‘demand-side’ methods like educating girls who are at risk or placing beer mats in British pubs that have enticing sex-worker ads on one side but, when you turn them over, the harsh truths about how the woman you visit may have been coerced and basically deprived of her humanity, raped and beaten if she tries to escape.

Neither is working very well. As nonviolence people we would place much more hope in the demand-side methods, which are further ‘up-stream’ toward the real source of the violence. The parallel to drug trafficing is patent: would you rather try to eradicate coca crops (and anything else in your path) in Colombia or give people something to live for so they don’t take to drugs in the first place? Likewise, rousing people’s lust and then showing them the unpleasant flip side doesn’t strike me as all that different from rousing people’s lust culture-wide, which we do by endlessly advertising sex by itself, or to sell everything from clothes to cars, and then demonizing people who express it in ways that are harmful.

I am being very controversial, I know. Let me give a little background on this particular form of exploitation before I go on. The trafficking of human beings, aka slavery, has a deep past. Émile Benveniste, a brilliant philologist who wrote a ground-breaking work on ‘the vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions,’ showed that the earliest words for buying and selling in the IE vocabulary (the Indo-European languages were the ancestors of most languages spoken from Iran to Ireland, and now the world) implied the buying and selling of human beings — slaves. There was a special word in ancient Greek, aikhmalotēs, ‘spear-captured,’ to denote the status of women or men captured in war. As we all know, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the awareness of the horror of treating a human being as a thing to be bought and sold reached high enough levels that the practice was made illegal, by stages, in Europe and America. This means that quite apart from the sexual aspect (and not all women being trafficed end up in brothels — some are forced into general slavery), the world is going backwards morally by thousands of years.

I’ve already suggested where we might find the answer. The upstream answer, the compassionate and sensible but also very difficult answer, is to stop exploiting sex. At one point when modern feminism was developing women put bright yellow stickers on ads that used allure to sell things, saying This Exploits Women. It does. I was sorry they stopped. But until they start again, or some comparable campaigns are dreamed up, let’s remember that we can all do something. Ever since a New York bus rolled up in front of my face with a larger-than-life frontal-nudity ad I vowed I would never buy anything more from the company that paid for it, which was Calvin Klein. Literally and metaphorically, ‘don’t buy it.’ Live simply, have lots of close relationships, and discover that happiness cannot be bought because it doesn’t come from outside us in the first place.

This is Gandhi’s svadeshi: local action. It builds a platform from which we can in time mount campaigns, get laws passed, and let women and girls have their freedom and their life. Of course, this form of dehumanization is only one of many. If we want to get really upstream we will have to stop poverty, and commercialism. Those will be subjects of articles to follow.

Sex and Scapegoats

Those of us who believe in karma, in its Eastern or Western forms (“As ye sow, so shall ye reap”), must have seen more than hypocrisy in the recent airing of Senator Craig’s performance during the impeachment process against then-President Clinton. The Senator’s self-righteous call for the Democratic President’s removal from office for his “immorality” has come washing back to ruin his career.

Call it hypocrisy or karma, or both, there is an even more important issue underlying both these undignified episodes. How can a people who permit their country to cause the death by sanctions of hundreds of thousands of innocent children in Iraq, and then carry out the near-obliteration of their country for falsified reasons get exercised about the “morality” of a private incident, however unbefiting, that a mature society would not even drag into public notice? What is going on here?

What is going on is actually a fairly common, and very dangerous process, that manifests itself with greater or lesser intensity in virtually all societies (even some pre-human ones): scapegoating. This social reflex has not gotten nearly the attention it deserves; it is almost as though we don’t want to know about it because we hate it but feel we can’t do without it. It was the literary scholar René Girard who did an excellent job of exposing it to view in books like Violence and the Sacred (1972) and the handier and more recent Job: the Victim of his People (1986). Briefly put, Girard explains, societies have a nasty dynamic encoded in their culture which allows them to vent destructive tensions through “unanimous violence:” agreeing to blame a (usually innocent) party and join together in expelling that party from the community by one means or another, including death. The near-extermination of European Jewry during the Holocaust (ironically the word ‘scapegoat’ derives from an ancient Jewish ritual practice) is only the most horrific and obvious example in modern times. In a sense, virtually all violence contains an element of scapegoating for tensions within the self, but we can leave that for another discussion.

Now, ‘immorality’ is a conveniently vacuous term today. In the 1970s Redbook carried out a survey asking its readers to rank twenty major ‘sins.’ War was seventeenth on the list, far behind egregious behavior like wearing lipstick to church. So ‘morality’ has become vague as to content and yet still inflammatory in impact — and that makes it a perfect tool for scapegoating someone. Scapegoating depends on a charge that can be flung at anyone and against which, once it hits you, there is no defense.

Scapegoating processes lie dormant in most cultures, ready to emerge when tensions rise. There have been waves of scapegoating in the history of the United States — Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, vividly depicts one that swept through Colonial New England, while the McCarthy era is one that some of us, including the present author, experienced first hand. As these two examples show, the absurdity of the scapegoat charge only becomes clear after the spasm of unanimous violence has passed. A kind of dense ignorance protects the dynamic from exposure while it is going on, and given the inability of groups to learn from history, the denial is rarely dispelled until it’s too late. When politicians and others call some of the most egregious accusatory behavior of the Right ‘McCarthyism’ today, it is in a more or less conscious attempt to wake us up to what is happening to the country once again. And that is why the charge unfortunately doesn’t always help.

What might help is to understand what is causing the underlying tension in the first place. People are quick to accuse others when they themselves feel that they are doing something wrong. This is useful for us to bear in mind, for we progressives so despair of the raucous band that is leading our country, as Chalmers Johnson points out, away from democracy and backwards to empire, we are so baffled by their lack of reason, that we sometimes forget to credit them with sensitivity, with feelings similar to our own. And so there are two lessons we can draw from the scandal that has taken down Senator Craig. One is, not to take comfort from the fact that this time it happened to a war-supporter from the ‘wrong’ side of the aisle: the real loser here is reason, and therefore all of us. The second is, let us be always looking for ways to help our opponents out of their predicaments — emotionally and politically — rather than accusing or belittling them, which will make them only more entrenched. This scapegoating will go on as long as our horrible policies go on, and we will change those policies faster by creating alternatives to them and recognizing that on some level their supporters , like us, are looking for a way out. Remember the tremendous tribute the British historian Arnold Toynbee paid to Gandhi: “He made it impossible for us to go on ruling India; but he made it possible for us to leave without rancour and without humiliation.”

That is the ideal of nonviolent effectiveness.

Hunger Strike for a Nuclear-Free UC

Embarking on a fast is a powerful act of self-sacrifice that can focus and center the spirit in times of distress. In situations of conflict, it can also help to rehumanize a committed actor to even the most insensitive opponent. In both of these senses, Mahatma Gandhi called fasting “the truest prayer”.
A group of students and activists at Berkeley, united in their desire for a peaceful future, are undertaking just such a prayer to protest and bring to light the University of California’s alarming involvement in the US government’s nuclear weapons program.
The following is an open letter from one of the fast participants explaining what they are doing and what you can do to help. (more…)

Declaring Peace

The new year began with a grim milestone, as the official toll of American servicemen andIndian Island, Washington - 37 arrested, September 2006 women killed in Iraq approached the number of Americans (and others) killed on 9/11 in 2001. This death toll, along with the passing of President Gerald Ford, reminded me of the Mayaguez incident that occurred during Ford’s presidency in May of 1975. Forty-one U. S. Marines and other military personnel died in the rescue of 39 merchant seaman whose ship, the Mayaguez, had been taken captive by the Khmer Rouge. Rumors had it that back-channel negotiations had already been underway when the attempted military rescue was launched, and that the Khmer Rouge had no interest in holding the Mayaguez or its crew.

This is how violence “works.”

But there is an alternative.

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MLK on Breaking the Silence

On this Anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, his living words in opposition to the war in Vietnam continue to hold sobering import for the American public today in facing the U.S. occupation of Iraq and our current foreign policy. The Information Clearing House republishes Dr. King’s powerful speech from April 4, 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination. Click here to read his speech, “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence,” delivered at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City.

King Preached Nonviolence, Too

On Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2006, Andrew Fiala wrote a beautiful testament to the power of King’s spiritual core: nonviolence.

It is remarkable that the United States has a holiday celebrating an advocate of nonviolence such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. To critics, the real American spirit is on display during our military holidays: Veterans Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. The alternative voice of nonviolence is rarely heard in a culture that celebrates war….

It may be that we only remember King as an advocate of racial equality. But we would do well to remember that racial oppression and violence are two sides of the same coin. King was as vocal an opponent of war as he was of racism.

 

Israel/Palestine/Lebanon: Combatants for Peace

As the Lebanese and Israeli people suffer from the horrors of war, what can we say about this catastrophe? How do we make sense of it?

We call it what it is: the insanity of violent conflict.

Yonatan Shapira is a former elite Israeli helicopter pilot, now a refusnik (combat refuser) who recently co-founded Combatants for Peace. He had this to say last week on Democracy Now!:

…We finally understood that we are just part of this circle of mutual violence, circle of revenge. And once you understand that you are part of this circle, you understand that there is [not] much difference between the terror that you are suffering from and the terror that you are involved in. And it’s a very, very hard thing for one to understand and to go through. It involved personal crisis sometimes….

…I have friends [who] are now sitting in shelters and all this kind of stuff. I know the suffering also of my people. But we believe that it’s our obligation now to shout this and to call [to] the world: “If you care about my country, if you care about the Israeli people, as well [as] the Palestinian and the Lebanese who are now suffering, you must put massive pressure on the Israeli government, and putting pressure on the Israeli government means putting pressure on your government.”

Yonatan Shapira of Combatants for Peace

Shapira’s organization, Combatants for Peace, is comprised of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants who have agreed to lay down weapons and work together, nonviolently, “to terminate the occupation and stop all forms of violence” and establish “a Palestinian State alongside the State of Israel…in peace and security.”

One of Shapira’s partners is Bassam Aramim, a Palestinian former Fatah fighter. He had this to say in another Democracy Now! interview:

We have the main principles of our group, our courageous and moral group, first of all to put an end for Israeli military occupation to the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; to be free from settlers and soldiers and walls and checkpoints; to replacement of killing and bloodshed by peace and reconciliation between the two peoples; to implementation of the two-state solution, living side by side in full cooperation and peace.

And we have an important message in this group. We want to say to the Israelis and to the Palestinians and to all the world that we have a partner. We are partners. And the Israeli government must stop saying that there are no partners, there are nobody to speak or to negotiate with [on] the Palestinian side.

According to Shapira:

…We were all part of the violent struggle of our people, Israelis, as well [as] Palestinians. And we decided a year and a half ago that we have to meet together and find a nonviolent way to struggle against occupation and against the circle of mutual violence, and we found out that these guys have a lot in common with us.

I personally believe that a just peace that recognizes the rights and humanity of everyone in the region is not only possible, it’s a moral imperative.

Resources:

  • Enemy soldiers gather – to strive for peace (Amelia Thoma, Christian Science Monitor, April 6, 2006): Shunned by their respective governments, former Israeli and Palestinian fighters have been meeting in secret, seeking common ground.
  • No to Confiscation, Yes to Community (Michael Nagler, Tal Palter-Palman, Matthew Taylor, PeacePower, Winter 2006): Current Palestinian nonviolent resistance to land confiscation, especially Bil’in.