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Tuesday, 5 February 2008
Common sense

I'm now teaching Tom Paine in my writing courses. But I chose the title of this piece to reflect the views of another real mensch, who, as seen below, speaks truth to power while demonstrating what musicians can achieve in their "leisure time." (Credit: I actually found the piece on the website of scholar-activist Norman G. Finkelstein,


Passports to progress

Israelis and Palestinians alike should join me in taking dual citizenship - for we share one destiny

Daniel Barenboim
Wednesday January 30, 2008
The Guardian

I have often said that the destinies of the Israeli and Palestinian people are inextricably linked and that there is no military solution to the conflict. My recent acceptance of Palestinian nationality has given me the opportunity to demonstrate this more tangibly.

When my family moved to Israel from Argentina in the 1950s, one of my parents' intentions was to spare me the experience of growing up as part of a minority - a Jewish minority. They wanted to me to grow up as part of a majority - a Jewish majority. The tragedy of this is that my generation, despite having been educated in a society whose positive aspects and human values have greatly enriched my thinking, ignored the existence of a minority within Israel - a non-Jewish minority - which had been the majority in the whole of Palestine until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Part of the non-Jewish population remained in Israel, and other parts left out of fear or were forcefully displaced.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there was and still is an inability to admit the interdependence of their two voices. The creation of the state of Israel was the result of a Jewish-European idea which, if it is to extend its leitmotif into the future, must accept the Palestinian identity as an equally valid leitmotif. The demographic development is impossible to ignore; the Palestinians within Israel are a minority but a rapidly growing one, and their voice needs to be heard now more than ever. They now make up approximately 22% of the population of Israel. This is a larger percentage than was ever represented by a Jewish minority in any country in any period of history. The total number of Palestinians living within Israel and in the occupied territories (that is, greater Israel for the Israelis or greater Palestine for the Palestinians) is already larger than the Jewish population.

At present Israel is confronted with three problems: the nature of the modern democratic Jewish state - its very identity; the problem of Palestinian identity within Israel; and the problem of the creation of a Palestinian state outside of Israel. With Jordan and Egypt it was possible to attain what can best be described as an ice-cold peace without questioning Israel's existence as a Jewish state. The problem of the Palestinians within Israel is a much more challenging one to solve, theoretically and practically. For Israel it means, among other things, coming to terms with the fact that the land was not barren or empty, "a land without a people" - an idea that was propagated at the time of its creation. For the Palestinians, it means accepting the fact that Israel is a Jewish state and is here to stay.

Israelis must accept the integration of the Palestinian minority, even if it means changing certain aspects of the nature of Israel; they must also accept the justification for and necessity of the creation of a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. Not only is there no alternative, or magic wand, that will make the Palestinians disappear, but their integration is an indispensable condition - on moral, social, and political grounds - for the very survival of Israel.

The longer the occupation continues and Palestinian dissatisfaction remains unaddressed, the more difficult it is to find even elementary common ground. We have seen so often in the modern history of the Middle East that missed opportunities for reconciliation have had extremely negative results for both sides.

For my part, when the Palestinian passport was offered to me, I accepted it in the spirit of acknowledging the Palestinian destiny which I, as an Israeli, share. A true citizen of Israel must reach out to the Palestinian people with openness, and at the very least an attempt to understand what the creation of the state of Israel has meant to them.

May 15 1948 is the day of independence for the Jews, but the same day is al-Nakba, the catastrophe, for the Palestinians. A true citizen of Israel must ask himself what the Jews, known as an intelligent people of learning and culture, have done to share their cultural heritage with the Palestinians. A true citizen of Israel must also ask himself why the Palestinians have been condemned to live in slums and accept lower standards of education and medical care, rather than being provided by the occupying force with decent, dignified and liveable conditions - a right common to all human beings.

In any occupied territory, the occupiers are responsible for the quality of life of the occupied, and in the case of the Palestinians, the different Israeli governments over the past 40 years have failed miserably. The Palestinians, naturally, must continue to resist the occupation and all attempts to deny them basic individual needs and statehood. However, for their own sake, this resistance must not express itself through violence. Crossing the boundary from adamant resistance (including non-violent demonstrations and protests) to violence only results in more innocent victims, and does not serve the long-term interests of the Palestinian people.

At the same time, the citizens of Israel have just as much cause to be alert to the needs and rights of the Palestinian people (both within and outside Israel) as they have to their own. After all, in the sense that we share one land and one destiny, we should all have dual citizenship.

· Daniel Barenboim is a conductor and pianist, and co-author with Edward Said of Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society


Posted by jackbradiganspula at 14:13 EST
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Sunday, 27 January 2008
After Obama surge: don't forget Dennis
Topic: politics

Call them the establishment, the defenders of the status quo, the business community, whatever: in celebrating the withdrawal of Dennis Kucinich from the presidential race and denigrating his campaign of conscience, our betters are telling us to forget about fair trade and labor policies, true universal health care, peace and nonintervention, and much more.

The Big Boys are telling us to accept whatever they’re willing to concede. And so we’re supposed to swallow years more of troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, half-trillion-dollar annual Pentagon budgets, pennies for housing, unaffordable health care and inadequate insurance, and relentless attacks on unions and working people’s lives.

I hope Kucinich will win re-election to Congress. His Cleveland-area district is fortunate to have him; voters there should watch out for the business-friendly Dems who’d like to snatch the reins from him and put them back in “respectable” hands. Kucinich’s presence in Congress is important for all Americans, too, since his steadfast progressive voting record shows the way for others (like our own Louise Slaughter) to oppose war and corporate power.

The other day on the Diane Rehm show (NPR), commentator Juan Williams, who plays a liberal on the radio though he profits from an association with Fox, chuckled loudly when Rehm asked him about the effect of the Kucinich campaign. The laughter was typical of the lumpen pundit class: these people don’t recognize anything beyond economic brute force, in the form of political contributions, which they regard as the sine qua non of the “credible” candidate, and promises of revolving-door payoffs. Populist insurgencies? Don’t make these guys laugh.

But as bad as Williams was on NPR, a Rochester liberal beat him in this media race to the bottom. Mary Anna Towler, in a City Newspaper editorial endorsing Barack Obama, dismissed Kucinich as one who ran more on rhetoric than substance. Even more oddly, she charged his “anger is troubling.” (Vital context: She said much the same about John Edwards. In this case, too, it’s probably a pro-union stance that put her off. I know from hard experience that she and her associates and attorneys are fans of what in the trade is called “union prevention.” City Newspaper occasionally papers this over with sympathetic coverage of local workers’ issues. Don’t be fooled.)

Towler’s characterization comes out of nowhere. I’ve followed the Kucinich campaign pretty closely; I’ve seen him in debates, on news programs, and in video clips – and never once have I seen anything like anger. He’s consistently analytical and measured, with just the right level of intensity to show he really cares. But I know Towler has had a mindless grudge against Kucinich for years. She brushed his 2004 candidacy aside in a rush to endorse John Kerry for the New York primary. The pattern is clear: City Newspaper hunkers down in the undemocratic wing of the Democratic Party.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:36 EST
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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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