This was my 3-minute response to the Nation’s videographer Karen Rybold-Chin about my thoughts regarding the connection between the expansion of LGBT rights and the struggle for queer liberation.
This was my 3-minute response to the Nation’s videographer Karen Rybold-Chin about my thoughts regarding the connection between the expansion of LGBT rights and the struggle for queer liberation.
Video of my talk at Socialism 2013, June 29, 2013.
The crowd of 150 or more outside the Turkish consulate in midtown June 4 was not filled with seasoned activists. Mostly in their early twenties and studying in the New York area while working low-wage service jobs, if they can find any, these solidarity protesters appear to be like their Turkish peers back home who we’re watching on TV and YouTube. In fact, they are the brothers and sisters and friends of the Turks taking to the streets in dozens of cities.
Few of the students I talked to at the solidarity protest had considered themselves self-consciously political before the rebellion that started in Istanbul began to consume their every waking hour. They are mostly young, the children of Turkey’s middle class and they see themselves fighting for their futures and the direction of their country.
Fadime is a CUNY Grad student whose first words to me were, “We do not want US intervention. We want to be heard, we can take care of this ourselves.” It was a sentiment echoed by many concerned that the United States would try and manipulate this crisis for its own ends. They are right to be cautious about US intentions.
One of the few explicit demands of the crowd was for the US government to stop sending tear gas to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. According to RT News, Turkey has imported 62 tons of “tear gas and pepper spray—mainly from US and Brazil—over the past 12 years.”
Every protester had stories of family and friends suffering terribly from the beatings and gas.
Destine Özuygur says according to friends’ texts and tweets, “There are far more than two people dead so far. I know two people myself who are dead from wounds and the gas. Police are attacking universities and hospitals,” she said. “One friend died from a gas canister tossed into a metro tunnel, people were trapped down there. Police are taping over their ID numbers so they can act anonymously.”
June 4 was Destine’s birthday and she awoke to birthday messages from friends back in Turkey saying they wanted to send her early wishes because they aren’t certain they’ll be safe or even alive by evening. The extreme brutality of the Erdogan regime is driving an intensity and political focus many here—and there, it appears—had never felt before.
What’s striking is how adamant these young Turkish women and men are about the need for winning a secular and democratic society back home. One where Kurds, Jews, Armenians, gays, everyone feels welcome, safe and respected. Over and over again, they repeated their desires for universalism and their hostility to Erdogan’s power grab and religious sectarianism.
One student who preferred to be identified simply by her initials, MK, insisted, “I am here for the women who have lost their lives.” She talked about the lack of punishment and public condemnation of honor killings and domestic violence generally.
Another student who works part time in a restaurant, Cagri Sayin, looked at me intently. “We support gay people. We don’t think anyone should live in shame.”
These protesters do not adhere, at least not yet, to any particular ideological program. They do not yet see a party or platform that they support in significant numbers. But they are intent on being heard and respected and winning, at the very least, public acknowledgment of their grievances.
It is the start of something for them, but it’s not yet clear what. When I told them of a mass trade union march in NYC on June 12 at City Hall, they were excited at the prospect of linking their struggle with ordinary US workers.
When I suggested they leaflet at this weekend’s Left Forum where at least 2,500 are expected at Pace University, they diligently wrote down the details. They are just now joining the global rebellion against the status quo. They’re hopeful and outraged.
The flyer being distributed at the daily protests is addressed “to the members of the press, international human rights organizations and the people of the United States of America.” It calls for support for the rights of protesters back home to peacefully assemble, demands an independent investigation of the violence and prosecution of law enforcement officials responsible for “arbitrary and abusive use of force.”
It ends with one single, and far from radical, demand: “We demand that Erdogan should publicly apologize to the people of Turkey.”
It’s signed #OccupyGeziNYC
Here is the video of my talk at UC Berkeley, April 17, 2013, “Israel is an Apartheid State: The Case for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.”
Later that evening, I had the enormous joy of attending part of the unprecedented 10-hour debate/vote on Berkeley’s divestment from apartheid Israel. Nearly 1,000 students packed that hall, speaker after speaker gave eloquent 2-minute appeals for why the university should stop funding apartheid. The student senate voted to divest at 5:30am the next morning. It was a tremendous step forward for the BDS movement.
My next talk on BDS: May 14, 2013, at the University of Chicago. Contact me if you’d like me to come speak for your organization or at your school.
Israel, I’ll be blunt, NYC dykes are just not that into you.
I’ve been on a bit of a dating whirlwind these last months, which basically means I’ve had an inordinate number of rendezvous in cafés and wine bars with women I met in cyber or real space. Obviously, this is a self-selecting group of women who are generally progressive and, presumably, find me easy enough on the eyes to want to sit across a table from me and talk over a libation.
So yes, this is entirely anecdotal and unscientific. Nonetheless, having been active since I am a teen in Palestine solidarity organizing, I am accustomed to Palestine being at the very least contentious and at most a relationship third rail among the left-of-center women I’ve dated over the years. No longer.
Though I’m Jewish myself, until lately I hadn’t dated a Jewish woman since my socialist girlfriend in college in the mid-80s—who through some accident of history actually lives up the block from me now (with her husband and kids). Go figure.
Since like everyone else I’m rather busy, I’ve adopted a full disclosure policy when it comes to dating women whom I know ahead of time are Jewish. I let them know of my pro-Palestine sympathies making it clear that if this is an issue for them we shouldn’t bother meeting up since we’d despise each other.
Of the nearly two dozen Jewish women with whom I’ve corresponded for dates, only one took offense. Every single other Jewish dyke either said she found Israel’s actions racist and confusing and was curious to know more or said she totally agreed and found herself siding with Palestinians more and more. Of the non-Jewish women, the curiosity for them was why any queer would ever support the oppression of Palestinians.
This conforms very much to the shifting winds of social consciousness in the US around the question of Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine. Even the US-based Israel Project poll noted that in 2009, after the first massacre of Gaza and imposition of the siege, support for Israel among US voters plummeted from 69 to 49 percent. Their pollster Stanley Greenberg concluded, “The section of the American public where Israel is most rapidly losing support is among liberal Americans who align themselves with the Democratic Party.” Zogby and other polls since confirm this trajectory.
Next week, the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at CUNY is hosting a conference on Homonationalism and Pinkwashing that is largely the brainchild of Jewish lesbian novelist and Palestine solidarity activist Sarah Schulman. The conference has been sold out for months, not at all common for academic conferences, and certainly not ones exploring sexuality through the lens of imperialism, racism and internationalism, with several talks on the question of Israel/Palestine. It is a radical departure from the navel-gazing that too often consumes queer political discourse, in my opinion.
It seems that in addition to the easy accessibility of alternative news analysis on Israel/Palestine via the Internet, the efforts of the rising boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement are having a transformative impact, rendering Palestine solidarity mainstream. Disgust with Israel and US policies that are complicit in its crimes are on the rise and it’s beginning to reverberate throughout US society.
It’s even reached the dykes on OK Cupid.
Catch my talk Wednesday, April 3, at Pratt on sexual liberation :
Barack Obama with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Ari Zoldan)
THE HEAD of the U.S. empire paid a three-day visit to the praetorian guard of the Middle East oil lake that concluded March 22. President Obama’s trip to Israel aimed to shore up anxious vassals and reassert U.S. political and military hegemony in a region in the midst of revolutionary turmoil and economic instability.
On both fronts, he appears to have succeeded, for now.
News of President Obama’s much-heralded visit has focused on two events: his speech in Jerusalem and the phone call he choreographed between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As is usually the case with acts of diplomacy, Obama’s speech and telephone rapprochement were filled with unctuous platitudes to mask the crude reality.
His Jerusalem speech intertwined the Zionist fable of a national liberation movement for Jews that never was with the African American civil rights struggle, using rhetorical flourishes best described as Obamaesque. He said:
As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed–”I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that…we, as a people, will get to the promised land…” And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea–to be a free people in your homeland.
Like every U.S. president since Truman, Obama depicts Israel as an expression of the democratic yearnings of an oppressed people, as opposed to being an imperial manipulation of historical crimes against the Jewish people to justify a colonial-settler state on Palestinian land. Israel is a nation that’s come to serve as an outpost for U.S. imperial interests in the region.
No doubt, Obama glimpsed the 25-foot-high, 450-mile-long apartheid wall that has been condemned as illegal in the International Court of Justice. He knows of the growing civil disobedience against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the broadening resistance to the indefinite detention of Palestinians such as Samer Issawi, now on hunger strike more than 245 days.
Even the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is getting greater coverage than ever in the U.S. media, making it almost impossible for Obama to remain unaware of the rising Palestinian civil rights movement that the New York Times’ Ben Ehrenreich suggests is a possible “third intifada.”
It’s quite likely Obama’s awareness of all these factors compelled him to reference Palestinian suffering and aspirations in his speech–if only to give a nod toward a crisis he has no intention of resolving. After all, if Obama were intent on actually doingsomething, then millions of American taxpayer dollars that help finance the expanding illegal Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank would dry up.
Weapons sales and high-tech deals between the U.S. and Israel would be placed on hold. Obama would demand an immediate end to Israel’s siege of Gaza, a blockade of goods enforced since 2009. Netanyahu’s new hard-right cabinet filled with open racists and opponents of any Palestinian state would have been challenged. Yet none of these actions were even considered.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
WHEN IT comes to Obama in Israel, as at home, it’s crucial to follow the money and the weapons, not the words.
Though in all truth, even the words betray a policy of continued full-throated support for Israel. When Obama insists “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state” as the starting point for negotiations, he is essentially demanding that Palestinians concede ongoing occupation by an ethnocracy and the implicit apartheid regime of laws that comes with it. As with past presidents, Obama calls for Palestinians to embrace their own dispossession as the entry point to “peace talks.”
The phone call Obama arranged between Netanyahu and Turkey’s Erdogan was an effort to confront the central geostrategic issues hanging over the entire visit. Containing Syria’s ongoing revolution and stanching Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons development were central to this diplomatic mission.
On the surface, the call was about Netanyahu apologizing to Erdogan for a raid by Israeli commandos on an unarmed Turkish humanitarian flotilla, the Mavi Marmara, that killed nine activists on board the ship in the middle of the night in the Mediterranean Sea in May 2010.
The three-way call established that Israel will pay reparations to the families of the dead and Turkey will cease legal actions against Israel for the cold-blooded murders of the nine.
As the Palestinian member of Israel’s Knesset, Hanin Zoabi, who was on the Mavi Marmara, countered: “The issue is not only Marmara; Marmara was the small crime. The big crime was the siege on Gaza.”
Whatever words were uttered about easing the years-long blockade of Gaza, little is likely to change on that front so long as Israel controls the flow of goods, resources and people in and out of Gaza. But the real point of the call was for Obama to formally reconcile two of his most important and comparatively stable allies in the region. Containing the two regional powers, Iran and Syria, is far more difficult without unity between Israel and Turkey.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
AND OBAMA needs a beefed-up guardian in the Middle East gateway to Asian expansion westward as part of his overarching mission to push back China, too.
It’s become clear to both the U.S. and Israeli administrations that their longtime ally in Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad, can no longer hang on to power in the face of a popular uprising, which began as a revolutionary upheaval and now appears to have become a civil war that’s killed at least 70,000.
Even before Obama landed in Tel Aviv, Israeli and U.S. warmongers were peddling unconfirmed reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria in order to pressure the Obama administration to approve direct U.S. military involvement there. Turkey, Israel and the U.S. had already been working behind the scenes to select a Syrian-born American, information technology executive Ghassan Hitto, to be the first “prime minister of an interim Syrian government” elected by the unrepresentative, Western-backed Syrian National Council.
As for Iran, Israel would prefer a direct hit against Tehran for its supposed development of nuclear weapons, but the U.S. imposition of deadly sanctions on that country will do for now. And diplomacy is quickly jettisoned when the U.S. and Israel collude in illegal targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, as they did in early January 2013.
While some may see hope in Obama’s soothing words for Palestinians and others seeking justice in the region, such hopes in Obama are misplaced. The relationship between the U.S. and Israel must remain sacrosanct. They need each other desperately now, as even Muslim Brotherhood allies over the border in Egypt are facing broadening opposition from strikes and protests.
In a dangerous world with shifting alliances, military and economic competition and depression, the U.S. empire needs its loyal Israeli vassal more than ever.
In the early 1970s there was a spate of kidnappings that received such widespread attention that even my third-grade class played kidnapping at recess (when we took a break from playing Vietnam). Ah, the seventies.
The most famous, and bizarre, domestic kidnapping was that of Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress who was nabbed in 1974 by an urban guerrilla group with whom she was later videoed helping out in a bank robbery while wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Think of her as a béret-wearing Paris Hilton: vacuous, filthy rich and 19, but living in an era of vast social upheaval.
The fact that the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (immortalized by Orson Wells in Citizen Kane) bonded with and defended her Maoist captors came to be known as Stockholm Syndrome.
This capture-bonding phenomenon was named after the previous year’s kidnapping of several bank employees in that city.
Upon their release after six days in a vault, the bank hostages hugged their captors, defended them and refused government assistance. This “traumatic bonding” is defined by psychologists as “strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other.” It’s not exclusively applied to hostages and in some ways it’s not too dissimilar from the dynamic in many domestic abuse cases where the victim defends her abuser.
This diagnosis seems to fit the current political stance of a huge swath of US progressives who are smart, politically engaged, well-informed and yet defend and even embrace the Obama administration’s actions in the midst of its role in dismantling the last shreds of our social welfare state.
In a sense, they are captives of a worldview that admits no alternative to a mild tweaking of the status quo.
It is irrefutable that Obama and the Democrats are playing a disastrous role in retaining our regressive tax structure and solidifying the falsehood that “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be cut. Even the New York Times, which daily repeats this mythology, was compelled to describe the latest “fiscal cliff” deal this way:
Just a few years ago, the tax deal pushed through Congress on Tuesday would have been a Republican fiscal fantasy, a sweeping bill that locks in virtually all of the Bush-era tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president’s credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed equally and gently.
In an interview with Barbara Walters in early December, Obama openly discussed raising the Social Security eligibility age from 65 to 67, and he frequently references the “need for spending cuts” of nearly two trillion dollars. In a typical liberal defense of Obama, the Washington Post‘s Jamelle Bouie recently took on the Republicans’ attacks on Obama by insisting, quite truthfully, that “Obama has already agreed to big spending cuts.“
There are already excellent news analysis pieces, such as Lance Selfa’s “Holding all the cards…and they still folded“ about the New Year’s deal and the coming slash-and-burn attack on desperately needed social services, so I won’t bother repeating those arguments here.
But leftists do need to grasp what lies beneath our nation’s Stockholm Syndrome because otherwise we just become outraged at some of the very people, self-described liberals and progressives, who must be won over to breaking with the Dems if a broad and active left is to ever succeed in challenging the system.
In my experience, progressives are mostly not ignorant or indifferent to the plight of working class and poor people bearing the brunt of our Not-So-Great Depression. In fact, many are themselves spiraling downward and leading increasingly less financially secure lives. No, apathy and cluelessness are not sufficient explanations for the widespread defense of Obama and co. among contemporary progressives.
Naturally, there is the GOP itself, made up of the nastiest, most deranged piffleheads the American Empire has ever produced. They terrify all of us and embody late capitalism’s criminal incapacity for empathy. Nothing more need be said about them.
The weakness of the US left, only now becoming a bit more robust in the post-Occupy era, is a symptom not a cause.
At least one explanation comes back to me over and over again, as I spend a fair amount of both my personal life and speaking gigs among progressives who are not yet convinced that the system either can or must be dismantled. To most, the persistence of society based on class inequality appears as inevitable as morning follows night. And so the best progressives hope for, or at least believe is possible, are small changes.
This near-religious faith in the inevitability of inequality will be our doom.
That thought washes over me whenever I read historical accounts of tumultuous upheavals. The ongoing ones in the Middle East are still too close and unresolved to afford the kind of perspective that allows many—though not all—to believe in the transformative potential of collective social action. Though a growing cadre of radicalized youth from Athens and Cairo to New York appears to have broken from capitalism’s dogma of social stagnation.
Spending Christmas break reading the fascinating biography of Karl and Jenny Marx, Love and Capital, forced me to think about this more deeply. Human society has existed for at least tens of thousands of years, class society for just a few thousand and capitalism itself less than 200 years.
In many ways, our society is unrecognizable from the one Marx was living in, yet like the trailer to a movie its basic features could be previewed through a mid-nineteenth century lens. And all throughout, every significant bit of progress from urban sanitation to basic human rights was established through mass risings.
What seemed normal in 1830, like emperors and kings, was rendered obsolete 40 years later. The same is true today.
I am as nauseated and frightened by the current state of our economy and politics as any progressive, but because progressives tend to defend a wing of the status quo they lack both hope and vision for a world free of racism, war and exploitation that socialists advocate.
There are whiffs of a shift from an acceptance of the current state of affairs in the Chicago teachers strike, the Wal-Mart and fast food workers’ stirrings and on a global level, Canada’s Maple Spring and the Indian rising against rape.
But to really break from capitalism’s ideology that tries to trap us in accepting and even defending our own immiseration, a knowledge of history and active participation in challenging the present seem fundamental.
Viewed this way, hope is not derived from froufrou idealism, it comes from a realistic assessment of human potential.
Sherry Wolf is a writer, public speaker and hopemonger. She’s available to speak on issues ranging from the new Middle East, sexuality and socialism and US politics today.
This article originally appeared in Socialist Worker, Nov. 20, 2012.
Residents of Gaza City carry the victims of the Israeli assault on Palestinians
OF THE 1.7 million people currently living under Israel’s terror in Gaza, 44 percent–or around 730,000 people–are under the age of 14. The 140-square-mile Gaza Strip, about the size of Philadelphia, is surrounded by the most heavily militarized border anywhere in the world on three sides, and by the Mediterranean Sea, patrolled by Israeli naval vessels, on the fourth.
By any objective measure, the Gaza Strip is an open-air prison.
So there was more than a whiff of 1984, George Orwell’s famous novel about Big Brother, when President Barack Obama declared: “[T]here is no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders. So we are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes.”
In other words: Nuclear-armed Israel, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, has the right to resist. But the inmates of the Gaza prison, apparently, do not. Obama’s argument flips justice on its head.
It is not simply the fact that Israel provoked the current war with the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, a leader of Hamas, which won elections to lead the Palestinian government–nor that Israeli leaders pulled the trigger on the brink of a negotiated ceasefire with Hamas. Nor is it Israel’s phony timeline of events in the weeks leading up to the current massacre, which conveniently eliminates “details” such as the November 8 killing of 13-year-old Ahmad Abu Daqqa while he was playing soccer.
Even if no ceasefire were on offer and even if Israel hadn’t made repeated violent incursions into Gaza, the right of Palestinians to resist the terror of the Israeli military machine must be defended on principle by anyone who stands with the oppressed.
As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-48 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters–as has been the case since the 1930s, in fact. Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.
Professor Khouri is right. People living under military occupation not only will resist, but they have every right to do so–and solidarity activists should defend that right unequivocally.
Some Westerners who are horrified by Israel’s assault on Gaza are nonetheless queasy about defending Hamas’ right to fire rockets into Israel. Yet whether solidarity activists agree with Hamas’ tactics or not is irrelevant–we are not the ones who must suffer under Israel’s bombs and occupation.
Asserting one’s horror at the occupier’s aggression, yet denying the occupied their right to use whatever means available to rebel isn’t solidarity–it’s pity.
Gazans living for years in a prison without access to sufficient food, medicine, infrastructure and any semblance of a decent life do not need our pity. They need our active support with their fight for self-determination.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
IN THE media, Hamas is depicted as an organization of crazed Islamists who oppose all modernity, aim to destroy Israel, and are misogynistic and homophobic to the core. In fact, since its founding in 1987 at the start of the first Intifada, Hamas has combined the aspirations of a national liberation movement with the tenets of modern Islamism. It does hold positions that are socially reactionary, as do orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian groups–though unlike evangelical Christians, Hamas is not anti-science.
But the truth is that Hamas is the democratically elected leadership of Gaza–it won elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 in a vote that international observers judged to be fair and proper. Israel and its U.S. backers didn’t like the results of a democratic election–and so they imposed the crippling embargo on Gaza and continue to inflict collective punishment on its population for the “crime” of voting for the wrong party.
In these circumstances, Hamas’ military resistance to Israeli occupation is a source of tremendous pride. Hamas forces may not be able to match up to the murderous Israeli military, armed to the teeth with the most advanced weaponry by the U.S. military-industrial complex. But they remain a symbol of the determination of Palestinians not to surrender to oppression and violence.
Any meaningful defense of the right of Palestinians to self-determination must include the right to select their own leadership and the right to organize a response to the Israeli military’s slaughter.
At the height of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, antiwar activists in the U.S. expressed similar hesitations about the nature of the resistance in Iraq as well. A clear response to such doubts came from Arundhati Roy, the famous Indian author and activist. Her words are equally relevant now:
Like most resistance movements, [the Iraqis] combine a motley range of assorted factions. Former Baathists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery and criminality. But if we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.
Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allied governments to withdraw from Iraq.
Likewise, Palestinians living under the brutality of occupation–and now an all-out war in Gaza–have not asked for global ideological approval. Instead, they have asked that we do whatever is in our power to help end their misery and stop the bombings, years-long siege and occupation.
To heed their call for solidarity means defending Palestinians’ right to resist Israel’s terror.
Ordinary people can be extraordinary in a crisis.
During a mammoth storm, they can risk their own lives to pull others from harm’s way.
Within hours, they can load up cars and vans with those stranded by floods, whisk them away to makeshift shelters and return to pick up more.
And in just a couple of days, they can coordinate themselves into a network of thousands to work with community groups, houses of worship, schools and YMCAs to prepare and deliver food, water, clean clothes and emergency provisions to thousands without power and whose homes have been destroyed.
The mass volunteer effort in New York City in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is a marvel of human empathy and ingenuity. Participating in and witnessing it firsthand is a sure antidote to cynicism about our society’s potential for unity and collaboration. But it is not a sufficient means to orchestrate disaster relief for a city of millions.
If you watch national television, you get the notion that the state and federal governments are coordinating a colossal relief effort throughout the tristate area. But whatever efforts are being coordinated by FEMA in cahoots with the states, there is little to no evidence of them four days after the storm in the hardest-hit areas where poor and working class people live and work.
Kyle Brown, a North Brooklyn resident who worked as a volunteer on Friday, says he saw no signs of any government relief efforts in the Lower East Side’s housing projects along the flooded East River:
Problem is, we were out of everything (especially water) within minutes. It became clear really fast that what we could physically carry with us, while important, would barely make a dent in what was actually needed. Gary and I looked toward the skyline and saw high-rise buildings 10 times the size all around us. There’s just no way these ragtag operations can even touch the enormity of the situation.
The financial capital of the US Empire is limping through its greatest crisis in decades. And yet, in a borough like Manhattan where income inequality before the storm rivaled that of sub-Saharan Africa, almost all visible disaster relief efforts are being coordinated by community activists, teachers and students whose schools are closed, unemployed people and workers of every stripe.
Global warming has combined with decades of privatization and gutted public services to create the perfect neoliberal storm of do-it-yourself disaster relief.
Occupy Wall Street’s legacy of participatory democracy kicked in immediately with activists forming Occupy Sandy relief efforts coordinated through interoccupy.net with many thousands signing up to volunteer. Grassroots activists in Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (CAAV) have been coordinating impressive efforts among Chinatown’s immigrants and in the Lower East Side housing projects.
CAAV’s executive director Helena Wong sent out an urgent message to volunteers two days after the storm describing the situation in lower Manhattan where hundreds of thousands are without power for days and government efforts are nowhere to be found:
We had folks from the City-run evacuation center at Seward Park come to us asking for supplies. The 7th precinct had our sign on their front door and their front desk were directing people to us. At the same time other officers from the 7th precinct TRIED TO SHUT US DOWN.
Where is the leadership of this City? Where is FEMA? We were told on Wall Street the lights are on in all the buildings, and Christmas lights are on in the streets. It was clear where the priority is when the community next door has not been prioritized. Today was another day where there was no information given out and City officials were nowhere to be seen.
In Brooklyn, where I live, City Councilmember Brad Lander sends out mass e-mail appeals to his constituents to volunteer to feed and supply flooded Red Hook and help out at the Park Slope Armory, which usually serves as a YMCA, but now shelters 600 elderly evacuees from a nursing home along Far Rockaway’s beachfront.
When I arrived at the armory, low-income climate refugees, many suffering dementia, were being tended to by dozens of teachers, unemployed people, an off-duty medical examiner and a couple of freelance writers like me. We did our best to get frail seniors warm clothes, call their loved ones on our cell phones, help feed them and escort them to the bathroom.
The volunteer efforts are heartening and terrifying at the same time. Because no matter how committed people are to helping one another, the power, access and know-how to commandeer vast material and human resources required for comprehensive disaster relief is currently in the hands of the state.
People must ask, why in such a wealthy city is urgent relief being left to individual initiatives days after the storm?
One look at cuts to public-sector jobs and services gives some indication.
The Wall Street Journal reported in July that New York State has shed public-sector workers at a far higher rate than other states since the recession began. More than 83,900 public-sector jobs have been lost in what even the Journal admits is a “significant contraction,” a decline of 5.9 percent since the peak in 2009, compared with a 3.4 percent decline nationally.
For example, the mass transit system that carries more than five million riders every day is largely disabled by the storm and flooding, yet more than 1,800 job cuts recently means there are fewer workers to repair this crucial service without which the city is crippled.
Wall Street’s greed is actually driving many of the service and job losses. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), a public company which runs the city’s subways and buses, entered into agreements with Wall Street’s biggest banks in hopes of protecting itself against financial instability. Instead, the very banks that engineered the global crisis and were later bailed out by taxpayers, have trapped the MTA “in a web of toxic swaps” that sucks up 16 percent of all revenue, which leads to cuts.
And once again, these are cuts, like the storm, that disproportionately affect the poor and working class. Ridership on the city’s mass transit system is, like the city itself, majority nonwhite and half live in households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.
The fact that it took a mammoth public outcry to stop Mayor Bloomberg, the city’s second-rchest resident, from going ahead with Sunday’s NYC Marathon—whose starting line was to be in devastated Staten Island where bodies are still being pulled from the water—gives some indication of where the city and state’s priorities currently lie. And how we are going to have to force them to confront this crisis.
If the people in power were interested in genuine relief and recovery, all resources and efforts would be turned in that direction. We don’t need Wall Street up and running after only two days down, with their brokers and hedge fund managers clogging city streets and demanding peripheral services.
We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to disaster relief that includes shutting down all nonessential services and gearing all efforts toward helping people and fixing the infrastructure of this crumbling region.
We have 9.5 percent unemployment in New York City. A mass infusion of federal money and political will could employ thousands who are out of work to help clean up, rebuild and get services back up and running.
Public health needs that were urgent before the storm could be attended to and facilities maintained if generators were airlifted to hospitals and laid off staff were rehired. One of the East River bridges could be dedicated solely for disaster relief to ferry goods and workers around the city, and on and on.
The human and structural damage from Hurricane Sandy is still being calculated. But one casualty is surely the notion that the major metropolitan center of the most powerful and advanced industrial nation in the world will take care of its people in the event of a disaster.
Intrepid volunteers with full backpacks and a few days off work is not a sustainable plan to deal with the scale of this crisis.
THE NEAR-silent absorption of 40 or so patrons at a Times Square bar during the second presidential debate was striking. It was a multiracial crowd, many of them workers just off their shift from the nearby Port Authority, most clearly affected by the tumultuous economy and desperate to hear something of substance that could positively affect their lives.
Cheers in response to Obama’s final dig at Romney’s contemptuous comments about 47 percent of Americans gave way to bar chatter afterward. Most of these working people are disgusted with the inanities of the election season and the tepid political stance of the president–for whom everyone there had apparently voted.
And they were resigned to vote for him again, despite all of Obama’s shortcomings. A version of this scene was no doubt repeated in bars and living rooms across the country.
Acquiescence to the hollowness of U.S. elections and the corporate hucksterism that pervades every campaign season are among the many aspects of American democracy spoofed and dissected in Danny Katch’s searingly witty new eBook America’s Got Democracy! The Making of the World’s Longest-Running Reality Show.
From Cocoa Puffs to melting ice caps, America’s Got Democracy! gets to the heart of how and why our political establishment creates economic, social and environmental crapification–and Katch does it with a flair that even the most disaffected café barista with a PhD will love.
Katch’s plainspoken analysis of the two-party system wrapped in humorous anecdotes and metaphors avoids any whiff of a screed against those who might question or disagree with his socialist viewpoint. His political patience with progressives who see no other option than the two-party system, at least for now, is marked by a self-effacing humility that seems to be an effective tool at reaching the unconvinced.
At his New York City eBook launch on October 21, Katch’s hilarious stand-up routine won the admiration of even Obama button-wearing liberals. This is a crucial aspect of his writing that many on the left can learn from. Frustration with others who “don’t get it” can often lead to impatient verbal attacks on the majority of left-leaning liberals and radicals who don’t have hope that an alternative to the Democrats is on offer.
Katch grasps that attacking leftists who vote for the Democrats is a dead end. Instead, he respects his audience of radicals and liberals alike, and identifies with people’s horror at the right wing and confusion with the unraveling state of the nation. Katch writes:
Instead, by the fall of 2011, America appeared to the world like a mad king, less the inbred kind than a figure from the end of a Shakespearean tragedy: arrogant yet bewildered at what has gone wrong, still covered in the blood of Falluja and Kandahar, instinctively firing off drones to new lands, even as the economic realm lay in ruins…
Shakespeare might have attributed these disasters to divine retribution. Michele Bachmann said the same thing, which proves that the difference between a genius and an idiot is about four hundred years.
- – - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
KATCH’S CASUAL approach shouldn’t be dismissed as politically lightweight. His point is to engage readers in an understanding of not just this election cycle, but the guts of the system–how it functions, what its inner contradictions are, and how imbeciles and titans have come to dominate our world.
America’s Got Democracy! pulls in readers with political explanations tied to real-world experiences, especially those of adults who are, like Katch, parents of young children:
The state and business complement each other because they are different. Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” In other words, the state is the grown-up to the corporation’s child. The state pushes the shopping cart while the corporation sits in the front, grabbing whatever it wants, leaving it up to the state to clean up its spills and occasionally put a tasty but unhealthy item back on the shelf.
As any exposé about how U.S. democracy actually functions must, America’s Got Democracy! takes apart institutionalized racism. It counterposes structural discrimination to the common-sense notion that racism results from “some dumb yokels who learned it from dumb yokel parents.”
Instead, Katch argues, “From the moment the Declaration of Independence declared all men to be equal, racism has been the fingers crossed behind the national back. (Obviously, sexism didn’t even need to be hidden.)”
From there, he goes on to unveil the way exalted institutions like the Supreme Court and Congress have collaborated with big business to build racial discrimination into the fabric of U.S. society. And the book is chock-full of anecdotes and analyses of the limitations of radical protest movements that remain tethered to the Democratic Party.
Thankfully, this eBook wasn’t written in a vacuum, but reflects the hopes and vacillations of upheavals from Egypt to Occupy Wall Street. As an active participant in the Occupy movement, Katch is well-placed to surmise that “[m]ost of us grew up with the assumption that capitalism and democracy are partners, but now we’re finding that they’re rivals.”
The momentous social and economic convulsions of our era stand in stark contrast to the Lilliputian sights of the political class. At times, it is enough to make a radical weep and fall into despair.
Thanks to Katch, we can take hope and get some laughs from a slim volume that sweeps aside the electoral madness and invites us to remember that democracy isn’t something that can happen without our participation.