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Wednesday, 23 January 2008
Support Arun Gandhi, a true man of peace - but don't withhold criticism of his words
Topic: antiwar

Readers probably have been following the flap about remarks made on a Washington Post blog (q.v.) by Arun Gandhi, head of the M.K. Gandhi Institute, now hosted by the University of Rochester. Amid widespread calls for Gandhi to resign because of his remarks, I've sent the following paragraph to the Institute:

"Despite my misgivings about some points A. Gandhi made on the WashPost blog, I offer him and the Institute my strong support in the current controversy. Gandhi is an authentic man of peace; he certainly is no bigot, and he certainly should not be condemned because of his criticism of Israeli government actions. The vilification of Gandhi reminds me of what has happened recently to Jimmy Carter, who also has been wrongly labeled an anti-Semite."

Also, below are excerpts from two recent messages I sent to friends and comrades; I tried to explain my misgivings about Gandhi’s statements while making it clear that I did not agree with those who attacked him so mercilessly. The excerpts, lacking their original context, may be a bit hard to follow, but I hope they communicate something helpful:

"We all need to respond… to the D&C's recent anti-Gandhi editorial. I'll be doing this myself. Otherwise, I will continue my work, mostly through writing and networking, on behalf of justice and peace. Meanwhile I'll try to brush off unfair commentary from any and all sources, just as I have many times in the past.

"I've read Gandhi’s posts [i.e. on the WashPost religion blog] carefully, including the follow-up post in which he seized (but, I think, botched) an opportunity to clarify what he admitted had been ill-conceived remarks, and I've concluded that he made some serious mistakes in his interpretation of history and the current situation.

"Item: It simply is not true that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of 'the warped mind of an individual who was able to influence his followers into doing something dreadful' - I mean, the statement is true only in the most excruciatingly narrow sense, since the Nazi genocide, like all genocides, was the result of complex social and historical factors, not something that emanated from a single pathological individual. (Of course, the Goldhagen thesis and the like, which would have us believe the genocide was committed by a universally and inherently evil German nation, is equally wrong-headed.)

"Gandhi also has erred by attributing various things to 'the Jews'; that is, he rhetorically treats an entire group, which of course is just as internally various and complex as any other group, as a monolith; this is reminiscent of the ancient anti-Semitic discourse which we all should condemn and avoid.

"Another point: Gandhi certainly is right in foreseeing that 'a culture of violence is eventually going to destroy humanity,' but what inspired him to charge that 'Israel and the Jews are the biggest players'? It would have been quite different if he'd criticized the Israeli government and its enablers for their destructive militarism, or objectively ranked Israel as a leading military power, but he didn't do any of that - he just made another rhetorical misstep that mischaracterizes Jews as supremely and uniquely violent.

"All this is so regrettable. [I fear that] because of Gandhi's ill-chosen words, both he and the Institute are likely to be discredited, and the cause of progressive peacemaking as regards Israel-Palestine is set back a long way.

"There also have been very local, though comparatively trivial effects: for example, the affair has given [local apologists for Israeli government policies] a chance to hurl the word "reprehensible" at another target. Thus [those who have] done a good deal of damage to the cause of peace locally get a shot in the arm while trashing a person who had a good shot at making a real contribution to the local scene…"

[Below is my follow-up post, written a couple of days after the above.]

"It seemed to me… there was an overwhelming silence on the topic - except for superficial news reports, as in the D&C. Then there were [further] negative comments from [critics including] Joel Seligman. (Isn’t it strange that a UR president would post a premature, preemptive comment in a case like this, which involves academic freedom, among other things?) And did you see the pathetic little note on the situation in the last City Newspaper? It’s amazing how small yet lopsided that note is; it speaks volumes about the decline of the local 'alternative' press.

"Meanwhile, there are things we can do. I’d love to see Gandhi go on Bob Smith’s show, as a couple of people have suggested. Though Smith sometimes drives me nuts… he’d at least give Gandhi plenty of time to answer questions and, probably, parry attacks from listeners. I think it’s important to continue public dialogue on the matter.

"Yes [as one of my correspondents reminded me by email], Gandhi did correct the point about the Jews and responsibility for Israel's crimes, and I should have given him credit for that in my previous message. But I’m concerned how readers, especially those who look for ammunition to use against critics of Israeli policy, may misuse even Gandhi’s correction: it’s all too easy to read the correction as maintaining the charge that Israel is the 'biggest player' in terms of state violence, even as it (properly) exonerates Jews as a group. Objectively, it’s not true that Israel is 'the biggest player' in this regard. True, Israel is a real global competitor regarding military power, mainly because of its armaments industry, air power, and nuclear arsenal. But in terms of committing mayhem, it’s not competitive with governments like those in parts of Africa and, of course, a certain large portion of North America. Here I’m not underestimating the horrors of what Israel has done and is doing to the Palestinians, Lebanese, et al. – I’m just trying objectively to quantify and compare.

"It’s important, I think, for moral spokespersons like Gandhi (and yes, I do see him in this role, regardless of my current critique) to be informed, informative, nuanced, and supremely clear in their public statements. Here’s something like what I wish he had said: 'The nations of the world, most of all the US, have created and maintained an "order" based on war, violence, and outlandish military production; and Israel has been a part of this system far out of proportion to its size. Moreover, some Jewish organizations and individuals have abetted this system; and these organizations and individuals have sometimes abused the memory of the Holocaust by using the latter as justification for crimes against innocent Palestinians, as seen today in the IDF’s ruthless attacks on the people of Gaza.'

"Gandhi’s heart was surely in the right place when he posted his apology (and indeed, when he wrote his original post). But I think the apology falls a little bit short of adequate – simply because Gandhi did not say enough, did not explain and illustrate, did not sound enough like a Shlaim or Zinn or Chomsky, or if that’s an unfair standard, did not sound even like a Jimmy Carter. Had he spoken like any of these -  that is, been analytical and factual rather than sententious - he might have thwarted the criticism. And there’s so much for someone like Gandhi to say, especially given the privilege of having a megaphone like a WashPost blog. He could talk about Combatants for Peace and other peace initiatives in Palestine/Israel, for example, or convey information from the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron, etc., etc. – all to show in detail the pacifist/nonviolent work going on in the Gandhian mode.

"I agree with Gandhi that 'when a people hold on to historic grievances too firmly it can lead to bitterness,' etc., and that 'it is also important not to forget the past, lest we fail to learn from it.' Indeed, these are truisms. But we need to speak with extreme sensitivity about the Jewish experience of the Holocaust (even as we point out that others, like the Roma, were also victims, and that the Holocaust, though it was 'historic in its proportions,' was not historically unique). The fact is, the Holocaust occurred such a short time ago in historical terms that the wounds are obviously still open; many victims are still alive and living right in our community; many others who escaped ended up losing family members, sometimes their entire family. And the fascist tendencies that led to this horror are unfortunately still alive among some holdouts in Europe and elsewhere. In my opinion, it’s too early to suggest in any way that Jews need to move on. They have a right to their bitterness, anger, etc. (So do the Palestinians and others who have been slaughtered, oppressed, victimized. And we need to hear more of their stories of suffering and survival, along with those of other survivors.) The point is this: We should be urging Jews and other Holocaust victims to channel their very real and understandable feelings into the creation of a just peace, starting with opposition to the anti-Palestinian policies and actions that the Israeli government pursues in their name. That, and only that, will make 'Never Again' a universal reality."

[Update: As I edit this post, the crisis in Gaza, which is approaching the level of a human catastrophe, has been alleviated a little bit by the breaching of Israeli-built barriers along the Gaza-Egypt border, and thousands of virtually-imprisoned Palestinians have crossed the border to acquire vital supplies. The situation remains critical, though.]


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:56 EST
Updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2008 23:22 EST
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Tuesday, 8 January 2008
Travel mode
Topic: urban issues

I’ve just returned from Cyclotopia, formerly known as Ecotopia or the Pacific Northwest, and I’m brimming with thoughts about urban transportation.

In cities like Seattle, which I explored for five days, and Portland, the locals take transportation seriously. I understand their high-ranking public officials actually utter words like “bus,” “rail,” and “bicycle,” and not just as token references.

Take Seattle. Though this major trade, commercial and aerospace hub is notorious for sprawl and traffic jams, it’s remarkably friendly to bikers and pedestrians. There are marked bike lanes aplenty, and locking posts in all the logical spots. (The posts are actually steel pipes bent into a squarish “C” with the end-points bolted to the pavement; the horizontal section sits conveniently at the level of a traditional bike’s top tube. This design, elegant in its simplicity and probably cheap as dirt, allows for locking two bikes, one on each side. I suppose it would be simple to use two locks per bike for added security – and the two-lock method is certainly preferred in urban settings.)

The bike literature says Seattle has one of the most organized and largest biker populations in the country, and the infrastructure bears this out. Yet I was surprised at how relatively few bikers were on the streets. The weather was no obstacle. Seattle gets lots of slow, steady rain in the winter - Cyclotopian bikes are equipped with full fenders at a rate well above the national average - but the temperatures are moderate, even in January. And the trendy areas of town were packed with Gore-Tex’d and sumptuously fleeced yuppies, a naturally bike-inclined demographic. But still: I don’t think there were more bikers actually biking than you’d see in mid-winter in Rochester. Not even around the home store of REI Coop, the premier outfitter, which has surrounded itself with a quasi-wild microhabitat complete with MTB pseudo-trails - right next to thundering Interstate 5.

One reason might be the lay of the land. Seattle is mighty hilly. If your daily commute took you west from the Volunteer Park area, a delightful set of neighborhoods, to downtown and the waterfront, you’d start the day with a schuss. There are some great downhill runs, for sure. But as every experienced biker knows, what goes down must later grind upward. And for many Seattle downtown office workers, the trip home is a long pull - even adjusting for a possible boost from a tailwind off Puget Sound.

And this is where Rochester and other cities in our region have the upper hand. The terrain here is conducive to bike transportation. You may not be riding in a marked bike lane, and you may have to hunt for a signpost to lock up to, and you may have to slip-and-slide through slush in December and January and beyond (though, thanks to our fossil-fueled competitors, global warming may make slush a thing of the past, even deep in winter). But no matter where you go around these parts, you won’t need to power up a 10 percent grade for a half mile - and then after stopping for a red light, contemplate an immediate repeat performance.

Don’t get the wrong impression, however. I think the Pacific Northwest is great, and I plan to explore it by bike this coming year, possibly as the first leg of a cross-country trek. (I planned to do this last summer, but stuff happened, and I switched to a tour of Northern NY and New England.) But the truth is, the ideal place for biking is wherever you happen to be – you know, that old business about “being present” and “in the moment.”

Right now, I’m thinking about my commute to RIT tomorrow morning. It will be windy and a little cool (we hit 64F here today!), and the Lehigh Valley Trail will be open. Maybe I’ll see a red-tailed hawk along the way, as I did on Monday. It doesn’t get better than that.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:16 EST
Updated: Tuesday, 8 January 2008 23:49 EST
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Friday, 14 December 2007
Let it snow; let it be shoveled
Topic: urban issues

Here’s a challenge for all bicyclists.

Too often we’re figuratively tangled in our own spokes. We forget about the transportation matrix we depend on: the policies that determine motor traffic conditions, for example; or the state of mass transit. And we’ve got a special responsibility to grapple with issues that affect our transport cousins: pedestrians, in-line skaters, bus riders and rail passengers, wheelchair users, et al. So let me throw this at you:

With substantial snowfalls coming our way, many people will effectively be immobilized. We all know the reason. The sidewalks will not be shoveled, so pedestrians and people in wheelchairs (or those with other mobility challenges) will be forced to stay indoors or take their chances on the street.

As non-motorized folks we can appreciate the situation. We know everything is not okay just because the salt trucks and plows do the minimum so cars and trucks and Hummers can get where they’re going. We understand that basic rights – of free association and public participation – are at stake here. And that many people, sometimes including ourselves, are being denied these rights.

I was thinking about this as I waited for the bus this morning at the corner of Monroe and Meigs, ready to put my bike on the rack and take a leisurely, affordable ride out to Pittsford and the Nazareth campus. Well, the Monroe-Meigs eastbound stop is right in front of a Rent-A-Center, as good an example of predatory, parasitic capitalism as anything. And the RAC guys are living up to their seasonal tradition: they seem to have a hands-off policy regarding snow removal, and so their stretch of public sidewalk is often impassable – even though their customer base must be long on pedestrians.

But RAC is not alone. Up and down Monroe Avenue, and in most other commercial and residential areas, non-shoveling is the great leveler. Businesses large and small, prosperous and struggling, worthy and wretched, all – or many, at least – leave the sidewalk heaped with snow, which then turns to ice, which then turns to slop.

I’ve seen people go head over heels as they tried to negotiate these sidewalks. Now, I’m not one to pump the personal injury lawyers, but you’d think some enterprising client would at least try to take a shovelphobic merchant to the cleaners.

A myth has been circulating that the city sidewalk plows do the job, and no further attention is required. No way. The municipal code makes it clear that owners or first-floor tenants are responsible for removing ice and snow so sidewalks are not hazardous. But there’s no enforcement – not even an educational campaign, nor so much as a fleeting public service announcement. What gives?

This issue is a big one to disability-rights activists. Not long ago (last winter?) some activists took City Hall folks on a little reality tour of snowbound walks and bus stops. Nice photo-ops for the officials. But where’s the progress?

I’ve got this dream that bikers will become the vanguard on this issue. Groups like Critical Mass could swoop down on lazy merchants and institutions (including not-for-profits that should know better) and read them the mobility riot act. We could press for better bike-locking/storage facilities while we’re at it. Maybe we could bring our own shovels to clean the walks, and throw the stuff up on the offenders’ porches or whatever. A simple transfer of wealth. Surely no businessperson could object to that.

Another concern: I often see plowing contractors illegally pushing snow out from driveways and parking lots onto the public street. Any winter biker knows this can create a real hazard – dense snow and ice packed against the curb, to the point that the bicyclist’s travel lane is blocked. We should be addressing this problem, too.

I love snow, actually. I’m looking forward to a great x-c- skiing season. Might even get the snowshoes out soon. But I really hate it when human carelessness allows the snowfall to hurt the vulnerable.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 21:34 EST
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Tuesday, 4 December 2007
Ode to winter cycling, with caveats
Topic: urban issues

I’ve been having a grand old time with the snowy roadways and trails the last few days. Notice I said “snowy.” The slush is another matter; and the infamous, slip-and-slide “car snot” or brownish gunky pancake that coats the back streets, is another matter still. Notice I said “matter” twice. Both times I meant “crap.”

But back to the snow. Ah, what a pleasure to glide silently through a couple inches of powder on a trail glowing with reflected ambient light. The purity of it all. Well, of all but the embedded particulates and various toxics that come with every form of precipitation.

On Sunday afternoon I mounted my older set of Innova steel-studded 1.5” tires on the Kona. Just in time. Because on Monday I needed to commute out to the RIT campus for the first day of classes. Everything worked great – though for while I’ll have to use East River Road instead of the Lehigh Valley Trail (north section) and thus will exchange a great nature experience for a couple miles of looking over my shoulder. I keep dreaming that trail sponsors will start plowing the most popular lengths of trail to encourage year-round bike commuting. But that’s a long way off.

This morning I rode out Monroe Avenue to Pittsford and the Nazareth campus. Some people are amazed I take this route. Frankly, I do so only because it’s the quickest way from my house, and I have trouble mobilizing my body in time to do the longer, slower, but much more pleasant Canalway Trail. But Monroe isn’t too terrible for the “reverse commuter.” Very little motor traffic heads east from the city line early in the morning.

With some snow and slush at the fringes, Monroe Avenue doesn’t put its best face forward, no matter what time it is or which way the traffic is flowing. But don’t rule it out. Just be careful, especially at the I-590 juncture.

You can also go intermodal. The Monroe bus line (number 7) has frequent service from very early to pretty late, so you can toss your bike – I mean lovingly cradle it – on the carrying rack and climb aboard to comfort. Quite often I bike the whole way out to Nazareth from the Highland Park neighborhood then take the bus back to the city from the Pittsford four corners. Satisfying and cheap.

This afternoon, though, I saw some of the downside. It happened a minute after I’d got off the bus across from Monroe Square, near Union Street. As I was re-mounting my panniers, a young woman carrying a two- or three-year-old in her arms came up and asked me if the number 7 bus had just gone by. When I said it had, she seemed more distressed than impatient. She’d been struggling to navigate that Rochester early-winter special, the unshoveled commercial strip sidewalk. And carrying a little kid obviously added to the burden. I told her another bus had to be coming sometime soon, but she took up her precious cargo again and headed west on foot. She really could have waited – but there was no shelter at the bus stop, or anywhere close by, so walking into the wind made some kind of sense.

That’s the reality that those who warm up to things like Renaissance Square – a maxi-station gone astray - would rather not think about. They scheme to get their developers’ windfall built with (mostly) transportation money, while those who (literally or figuratively) miss the bus and pound the pavement get the cold shoulder.

Maybe we need a true intermodal task force, a real political coalition of mass-transit and human-powered-vehicle folks, to address the full range of problems. I’m going to think more about that after my next bike commute, i.e. early tomorrow morning. And there’s bound to some additional time for contemplation on Thursday or Friday, when I mount the new Nokian carbide-studded tires that I ordered through Freewheelers, my favorite “LBS.” The well-worn Innovas on my bike are approaching the end of their service life. The Nokians, with long-wearing studs and (reportedly) superior grip, will help ensure my personal service life as a winter cyclist won’t be unnaturally short.

(This and other bike-related posts of mine are viewable at, as well. Check out this fine new site, created by activist Jason Crane as a means of popularizing all aspects of cycle culture.) 

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 22:13 EST
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Monday, 26 November 2007
Annapolis - the unspoken issue
Topic: politics

I’d just finished shopping at the Abundance Coop when I ran into an old friend who’s committed to Middle East peace. She made a small gesture and comment about hope. It took me a long moment to realize she was talking about the Annapolis meeting called by George Bush and fronted by Condoleezza Rice – she of the infamous position, uttered as people were dying by the hundreds during last year’s dirty little war between the IDF and Hizbullah forces in Lebanon and Israel, that it was too soon for a ceasefire. I told my friend the meeting was going to be a sideshow, a distraction – at best.

The US media have had almost nothing worth reading on Annapolis; once again, it’s as if their advance teams had signed loyalty oaths at the Naval Academy. But the Israeli press is another story – their editors don’t altogether silence the prophetic voice. For evidence of this, read on:


“Demands of a Thief”

By Gideon Levy

Ha’aretz, 26 November 2007

The public discourse in Israel has momentarily awoken from its slumber. "To give or not to give," that is the Shakespearean question - "to make concessions" or "not to make concessions." It is good that initial signs of life in the Israeli public have emerged. It was worth going to Annapolis if only for this reason - but this discourse is baseless and distorted. Israel is not being asked "to give" anything to the Palestinians; it is only being asked to return - to return their stolen land and restore their trampled self-respect, along with their fundamental human rights and humanity. This is the primary core issue, the only one worthy of the title, and no one talks about it anymore.

No one is talking about morality anymore. Justice is also an archaic concept, a taboo that has deliberately been erased from all negotiations. Two and a half million people - farmers, merchants, lawyers, drivers, daydreaming teenage girls, love-smitten men, old people, women, children and combatants using violent means for a just cause - have all been living under a brutal boot for 40 years. Meanwhile, in our cafes and living rooms the conversation is over giving or not giving.

Lawyers, philosophers, writers, lecturers, intellectuals and rabbis, who are looked upon for basic knowledge about moral precepts, participate in this distorted discourse. What will they tell their children - after the occupation finally becomes a nightmare of the past - about the period in which they wielded influence? What will they say about their role in this? Israeli students stand at checkpoints as part of their army reserve duty, brutally deciding the fate of people, and then some rush off to lectures on ethics at university, forgetting what they did the previous day and what is being done in their names every single day. Intellectuals publish petitions, "to make concessions" or "not to make concessions," diverting attention from the core issue. There are stormy debates about corruption - whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is corrupt and how the Supreme Court is being undermined. But there is no discussion of the ultimate question: Isn't the occupation the greatest and most terrible corruption to have taken root here, overshadowing everything else?

Security officials are terrified about what would happen if we removed a checkpoint or released prisoners, like the whites in South Africa who whipped up a frenzy of fear about the "great slaughter" that would ensue if blacks were granted their rights. But these are not legitimate questions: The incarceration must be ended and the myriad of political prisoners should be released unconditionally. Just as a thief cannot present demands - neither preconditions nor any other terms - to the owner of the property he has robbed, Israel cannot present demands to the other side as long as the situation remains as it is.

Security? We must defend ourselves by defensive means. Those who do not believe that the only security we will enjoy will come from ending the occupation and from peace can entrench themselves in the army, and behind walls and fences. But we have no right to do what we are doing: Just as no one would conceive of killing the residents of an entire neighborhood, to harass and incarcerate it because of a few criminals living there, there is no justification for abusing an entire people in the name of our security. The question of whether ending the occupation would threaten or strengthen Israel's security is irrelevant. There are not, and cannot be, any preconditions for restoring justice.

No one will discuss this at Annapolis. Even if the real core issues were raised, they would focus on secondary questions - borders, Jerusalem and even refugees. But that would be escaping the main issue. After 40 years, one might have expected that the real core issue would finally be raised for honest and bold discussion: Does Israel have the moral right to continue the occupation? The world should have asked this long ago. The Palestinians should have focused only on this. And above all, we, who bear the guilt, should have been terribly troubled by the answer to this question.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 16:01 EST
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