The massive storm that ravaged Haiti, Cuba, and much of the east coast of the United States may be the ‘shock and awe’ of climate change’s permanent war against the U.S. (it attacked the rest of the world much earlier). Some argued that the storm’s ferocity was the great equalizer, that rich as well as poor were left without power, that luxury townhouses were swept aside along with seaside shacks. But that ignores the stark reality of the wealth-poverty divide in this country – laid newly bare by the storm.
Who will be able to rebuild? Whose lives will be permanently destroyed? In New York, probably the most unequal city in this country, the collapse of infrastructure under the relentless pounding of hurricane-force wind and rain was not an equal opportunity catastrophe. Without the subways, people of means could join the endless lines for crowded taxis – poor people walked. With banks and finance companies and the stock market closed, salaried employees continued to collect their paychecks – poor people who couldn’t get to low-wage hourly-paid jobs didn’t get paid. Do we really think that the rebuilding of the opulent high-rises of Manhattan’s Battery Park will take as long, and leave their residents as desperate, as the reconstruction – or even repair – of the Jacob Reiss Houses, the largest public housing project in Red Hook, Brooklyn?
This storm provides a broad test for the capacity and the legitimacy of government: Will its response provide for people’s most basic needs, or will it lay bare, as did Katrina, the racism, poverty, and disempowerment that still shapes so many lives in this country? On the immediate level, Sandy poses a challenge to the presidential election as well: whether the moment calls for mobilization of every facet of public and government capability, or whether people should be encouraged to rely on the largesse of the private sector and church-based charity. And in the longer term, the super-storm challenges all our movements to fight with renewed commitment to realize Rachel Carson’s vision of the human right to a safe environment.
In the meantime, for those of us in this country unaccustomed to the immediacy and implacability of war, the destruction of much of New Jersey and lower Manhattan, gives us a hint of what it might have been like in Iraq, almost ten years ago, when "shock and awe" attacks destroyed power generators, electrical plants, water treatment facilities – suddenly rendering the once-modern city of Baghdad, with its skyscrapers and highways, silent and dark. For those on the 20th floor of Manhattan apartment buildings, the struggle to find water, and a way to lug it upstairs without elevators, could not have been so different than that faced by Iraq's high-rise dwellers.
And then there are the Elections…
While I was in New York for the Russell Tribunal on Palestine (see below), I did an episode of Tavis Talks, Tavis Smiley’s TV show, focusing on the foreign policy issues shaping the debates and the election. Much of it was about the similarities between the two candidates, on the global war on terror, on Palestine-Israel, on Afghanistan. But we also talked about one of the few areas where there are significant differences – the threat of war against Iran. There, where the stakes are sky-high and both candidates use the language of threatened force, there is a significant difference in timing. A two-year or longer delay when the so-called "red line" is reached, could allow time to build a movement powerful enough to prevent a military strike at all.
We also got into an extensive discussion about the killing of Osama bin Laden. I told Tavis I did not think it was something to be proud of, that if we were indeed a nation of laws that deliberate assassination, even someone widely accepted as guilty of a horrific crime, rather than attempting an arrest of the unarmed subject, was a point of shame, not of pride. He asked what I would tell those whose response would be the accusation that I am “anti-American,” and I had a great chance to tell him. Watch it here.
In a similar vein, I had a discussion with Paul Jay of The Real News Network about the elections, and what they do and don't mean for U.S. democracy and for our efforts to change the world in far deeper, more structural ways. It was about where the candidates do and don’t differ, especially on foreign policy, and what it means to say that one’s vote aims to limit the power of the most dangerous forces. Especially when we recognize that U.S. elections, especially presidential elections, are not our turf, they're not our people, they’re not our choices – and so they can never be our main work.
A young writer, 21 years old, saw that interview, and wrote to me angrily disagreeing with my position. In my first piece as a guest blogger for The Nation, I quoted from our conversation. Among other things, he said "We young people understand that the political theater of electoral politics will not bring about the radical transformations required to avert environmental and economic catastrophe."
And of course he's absolutely right. Anyone who thinks that choosing a "better" leader for the U.S. empire will somehow bring about "radical transformations" has been watching too many campaign infomercials. Only powerful social movements can do that. We have to fight for democracy and we have to build our movements—choosing a presidential candidate doesn’t accomplish either one.
I went on to describe the differences that do and don't exist between the two candidates and parties, along with some ideas about what the consequences would be for a victory of each one, given that none of the third parties have a chance to win. And then I went on to say that this election isn't about choosing our hopes and dreams, but that
…it's about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the "lesser-evil" theory, fine. There's an old saying that when you're drowning, and the water is rising up over your mouth, that last half-inch before it reaches your nose is a half-inch of life and death. Especially if you're short—or in this case, especially if you’re poor.
This election, regardless of who wins, will not solve the problems of this country and the world. We have to build movements powerful enough to take on the challenges of climate change, war, poverty, inequality. But we should be clear, there are significant differences between the two parties and the two candidates; while neither are our allies, one will make our work of building movements even more difficult, will threaten even more of our shredded civil liberties, and will put even more people around the world at much greater risk.
You can read the rest of it here. About how the candidates are not equal, that there are some large domestic differences (on women's rights, the Supreme Court, LGBTQ issues, immigration, and other issues) and why even small differences matter when you're at the bottom of the economic/political hierarchy – like poor people here in the United States, or Iranians in their own country.
But I've been stunned to read the attacks on me for this position. Because at the end of the day, and as I have consistently maintained, our most important work happens the day after the election – whoever gets elected. So yes, elections matter a lot. But more important than the election is our work to build our movements before, during, and after the election. I talked with Omar Baddar about how social movements are really the only thing that change the world, and what it takes to build and strengthen them. The video is a bit of a primer on how people make movements and how those movements create new people at the same time.
One of the issues on which both candidates and both parties seem to agree is the U.S. war in Afghanistan – now eleven years on, and the longest U.S. war in history. It is a war for a goal no one can define, a war whose "victory" cannot be described, a war for rationales that change on a whim, with the seasons, depending on who is talking. It is, as I've quoted before, the essence of what Phil Ochs described as "a war we lost before the war began."
And yet the war continues. We have 68,000 U.S. troops occupying Afghanistan, another 40,000 NATO troops, almost 100,000 U.S.-paid contractors backing up the troops. And for what? We are told – and here Obama and Romney agree – the United States is winding down its combat role, though not planning an end to a continuing long-term presence of U.S. troops, training missions, special forces operations, and U.S. bases across Afghanistan for an indefinite period after 2014. Casualties among Afghan civilians continue to rise.
At some point in the last few months the number of U.S. military death toll passed 2,000. It is perhaps telling that no one in the mainstream media or official Washington circles could really confirm when that tragic marker was reached. The Washington Post and BusinessWeek reported it was reached in the first week of October, a few days earlier the New York Times actually said it had been reached last August, and CBS News reported it last June. I talked about the death toll – Afghan and U.S. – as well as the “insider” killings that are taking such a huge toll of U.S. troops, the cost of the war, and more, with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! a couple of weeks ago.
Palestine – Occupation & Apartheid Worsen, the U.S. Enables, the UN Fails, Civil Society Moves to the Center
It has been a point of faith in both parties that their candidate’s position on Israel is polar opposite of the other – the Romney camp maintains Obama threw Israel under a bus, Obama backers brag the Israeli president says Obama has done more for Israel than any other U.S. leader. In fact, there is little difference between the two on Palestine. Both have accepted the Israeli view that Iran, decimated by sanctions and without a nuclear weapon or a program to build one, somehow represents an "existential threat" to Israel, and thus for at least two years no one in Washington has even hinted at a demand that Israel stop building settlements, end the siege of Gaza, cease its "targeted" assassination of Palestinians, etc.
The Obama administration added an additional billion dollars this year, for Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system, on top of the already-allocated $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid. Romney brags that there would never be a question about his Israel policy because he would simply call his "old friend" (and former financial industry colleague) Bibi Netanyahu and ask what Bibi wants him to say and do.
Iran policy (in which Israel remains central) is probably the biggest area of difference between Obama and Romney. Threatening military force through a “red line” is illegal under any military law. But there is a huge difference between saying that a “red line” to prevent “nuclear weapons capability,” which Iran has arguably already reached, is far more dangerous than a “red line” against Iran having a nuclear weapon – especially when all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies agree Iran does not have, is not building, and has not even decided whether it wants a nuclear weapon.
But the other Israel question – Palestine – is probably the area where the difference between the two candidates is smallest. Despite the rhetoric, neither diverges from the failed “peace process” that is now 21 years old, and neither acknowledged any other possible U.S. position. In a recent television interview, I talked about the impact on the elections of Israel and U.S. middle east policy.
As a result of U.S. pressure, the United Nations, too, remains paralyzed, unable to summon the political will to challenge the U.S.-dominated "peace process" and replace it with new, UN-controlled diplomatic negotiations.
And with the UN unable to play the role its Charter mandates, civil society once again takes over. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine recently concluded its fourth and final set of hearings in New York. This session focused on the complicity of the United States and the United Nations in Israeli violations of international law, UN resolutions and human rights. As in earlier sessions (Barcelona focusing on the role of Europe, Cape Town on Israeli apartheid, and London on corporate responsibility), the judges are a group of eminent international intellectuals, activists, lawyers, and more, including South African anti-apartheid legend Ronnie Kasrils, public intellectual Angela Davis, poet Alice Walker, Native American activist Dennis Banks, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire, and Stephane Hessel, the beloved French intellectual, holocaust survivor and resistance hero who at 94 continues to play a major role in supporting Palestinian rights.
I was honored to participate, speaking in the closing session of the Tribunal. The jury’s final report, bringing together all the information from dozens of experts during the four international sessions, will be finished very soon. The Tribunal represents one more component of the complex of civil society actions and mobilizations aimed at supporting Palestinian human rights and equality when the powerful governments and indeed the political core of the United Nations itself remain unwilling and/or unable to do so.
Finally, another example of those standing up to the failures of the United States and the United Nations: The UN’s own Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Professor Richard Falk, presented his most recent report to the General Assembly in New York last week. His opening reminder to the assembled ambassadors that Israel continues to deny Falk access to the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, highlighted the decades of absolute control over the Palestinian population that Israeli occupation means.
But despite his lack of access, Falk’s report provided some of the most comprehensive analysis available* on the current conditions, with special emphasis on the role played by corporations, both Israeli and foreign-owned, in strengthening the occupation and the militarization of Israel that continues to have such a deleterious effect on Palestinian life. He discussed 13 corporations, including Caterpillar, Veolia, Hewlett-Packard, Motorola and more, and in a significant step forward, he called for the companies to face boycotts until they ended their violations of international human rights standards. His call reflected both decades old General Assembly resolutions (1982 and 1983, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the Sabra-Shatila massacre, then focusing on Israel’s attempted annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights) that called for international arms embargoes and business as well as cultural boycotts of Israel until it ends its violations of international law, as well as the 2005 call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) issued by Palestinian civil society.*The UN website was down following hurricane Sandy; it may be a few more days before it is accessible.
While refusing even to attend the General Assembly committee meeting at which the UN investigator presented his findings, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice called Falk's recommendation of a boycott "irresponsible and unacceptable" and called his continued role as UN Special Rapporteur "deeply regrettable." Her statement reflected a longstanding pattern of U.S. attacks on Falk’s work at the UN, a pattern encouraged by several small, otherwise insignificant non-governmental organizations whose programs appear limited to promoting Israeli interests and trying to undermine the United Nations. Without exception, however, the wide range of diplomats actually present at the General Assembly meeting welcomed Falk’s report with approval and appreciation, some with enthusiasm, only one (the EU representative) noting a small disagreement on one point. Despite their efforts, it is Israel and the U.S. who are isolated in the United Nations, not those defending human rights.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do!
Stay dry, stay safe, rebuild, GO VOTE – and keep working for justice.
PS – Giant superstorms haven't stopped all our movement's work, either. Our friends at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, despite losing power in their office, continued their work, saying, "Just because we've lost power doesn't make us powerless! We're fighting for justice remotely." Two days after Hurricane Sandy, CCR's legal director Baher Azmy won a major victory in their years-long effort to hold private military contractors accountable for torture and other war crimes at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A Virginia appeals court reinstated CCR's claims under the Alien Tort Statute, which had been dismissed earlier, and the discovery process starts now with a trial expected next spring or summer. The fight for accountability after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is only beginning. Congratulations to the CCR legal team and their brave clients.