Gaza, reading, and one world, many people

I’ve been trying to make sense of everything going on in Gaza, all while traveling and getting bits and pieces of the story.  This all the more difficult because in the last few months, I’ve seen a lot of media that reiterates the absolute horror of the Nazi German holocaust, and in the last week, picked up two books that Chiara had been reading: a little book about WWI and a book about Islam.  The book about WWI, despite the authors enjoyment of the play-by-play excitement of the war, made me feel like the whole thing was started as a pissing contest for power and territory – absolutely ridiculous.    I learned that the origins of the state of Israel are with this war and the partitioning of conquered lands by various European colonial powers and it made it very easy to feel like peace was doomed from the start. The book of essays on Islam made me realize that the faith and culture of Islam and the politics of the Middle East are so much more complicated, rich, and nuanced than what I had known through my education through the U.S. media.  Aside on the importance of teaching: I never learned about Islam, or the Middle East, for that matter, in school.  Even during the first Gulf War.  It is crazy for me, and likely a whole generation of people my age, to be so ignorant of something so pivitol in the world.

This article, Why Gaza Matters To Us, has been filtering through my social network, and I like this snippet at the end:

As people of color who have our own various histories of resisting the erasure of our cultures from this planet against the spread of military-corporate assimilation, we must stand with the Palestinians, speak out, and take action. The anger and mourning we feel should drive us to break the cycle of domination vs. extinction. Fear, including the righteous fears of Jewish people who want to exist, and the righteous fears of Palestinians that they will be relegated to life in a walled prison and never allowed to be home – these fears are not going to create a world in which peace is possible. We must approach the Israeli people as brothers and sisters who have gone astray in the wake of their own trauma, help them to clean the blood from their hands, and come home to the human family.

I have a harder time with the article included at the end, David Lloyd’s Gaza and the Ghetto.  I think that the thought experiment of imagining Nazi Germany in the place of Israel and Palestinians in the place of Polish Jews is an accurate analogy, but it continues to frame the current conflict in terms of the Holocaust, which is the problem with the analysis of too many attrocities whether they’re in Palestine, Rwanda, or elsewhere in the world.  State repression, genocide, and people losing their dignity and safety is unacceptable in it’s own right, anywhere, at any time.  Framing things, especially Israel vs. Palestine within the Holocaust traps everyone in a hopeless argument of who has had things worse.  This is a string of analysis that is easy to get caught in and to which many, many people can add their own legitimate weight, but that ultimately seems to trap everyone.  Watching children squabble, it seems like the same argument, though with much lower stakes.  Someone else always started it, making retaliation, even if it’s something that you wouldn’t want inflicted on you, justifiable.  As I child, I was often told, “life isn’t fair,” which was always unsatisfying, and lacking much empathy at that age, it as hard to see that life was not only unfair, but also mutually unfair.  I think the more truthful, and hopeful life lesson is that life isn’t just unless you make it that way and that retaliation, and rationalizing it, is not the same as justice.  I want to try to read One Country in the hopes that it offers some way out of the cycle of trying to define who is the most attrocious or victimized and instead figure out how to define the things that everyone wants, safety and dignity among them, concretely, and how to get there.  The question of how to achieve one country for two peoples isn’t just crucial to Palestine and Israel.  From what I’ve read so far of The Accidental American, to the recent U.S. presidential election (and prop 8), to Chiara comenting on the changing cultural landscape (even at street level) of Italy, to the crazy internal conflicts within arbitrarily drawn nations and conquered empires that were at the heart of the world wars (maybe most wars?), to my own personal experience, the idea that we can or should live in a world with segregated identities or interests is both impossible and undesireable.  I am absolutely convinced that conservatives who want to preserve a culturally and ideologically segregated world are less than wrong, they’re irrelevant.  Still, I think that radicals who imagine a world without these borders can’t hope for justice without acknowledging cultural and ideological boundries and the people ensnared in them.  The question for me becomes how to acknowledge people’s experience and the perception that it creates without succumbing to the morasse of ethical relitivism.

Reading across the lines

The book group I’m facilitating at the county jail met again this past week, interrupting an Uno game going on in the common area of the cell block.  I had just played a game of Uno that afternoon, sprawled out across a post-picnic blanket on a grassy patch just above the lake.  Kids splashed below in the warm water, teenage girls lounged allofly in inflatable furniture, and in the distance, people careened back and forth across the wake of motorboats.  This is one of the things that is the most difficult about going into the jail – things that are completely familiar to me, like the Uno game, in a context that is completely different to my everyday reality.  Actually going into the jail has made me realize the boundary between solidarity and being in the same boat.  I think everything that I’ve encountered about jails and prisons firmly establish where you stand.  You are a guard, you are incarcerated, you are incarcerated and in the “therepeutic” block, you are in solitary, you are in the general population, you are a family member or friend here for visiting hours, you are a volunteer.  The roles, the mobility associated with each, and the expectations of each group by the others seem hard and rigid, ruts torn deeper and deeper with all the inertia of the prison industrial complex.  I want to just think that I’m just down, but even going in with the interest of supporting incarcerated folks is mediated by the fact, told bluntly by the corrections officer who did the volunteer training, that my ability to go in is largely based on the realization that programming in the jail tends to placate the incarcerated population there.

The reading group happens in the block and has a variable number of participants.  This is affected by what people have going on at the moment and the fact that people are constantly coming in and out of the jail, coming from a DOC facility for court or returning to a DOC facility after court.  This week, only 4 folks sat down at the table, with only 1 of them having read the book to be discussed.  The book might have been part of the problem.  A few weeks ago we had decided to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a travel account of two middle-aged men who decide to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.  It was funny enough, and met the criteria that was established by those initially interested in the group, of having a subject that seemed to be far, far from the reality of incarceration and didn’t have the self-help twelve-steppy overtones that mark some of the other programming they participate in.  Still, a few folks expressed that they couldn’t get into the book.  My favorite response to the book that I heard was one word – “quitters”, as the protagonists seemed to spend as many nights sleeping in hotels and eating at diners as they did in the woods.  As I read through the book myself, I was a little worried that the book centered on this activity that represented an idleness and mobility; to spend weeks just hiking without worrying about jobs, families, or the things that a lot of the things that people in the jail talk to me about as concerns; that it would seem just insensitive.  Still, it’s unfair and just not true to make assumptions about people’s situations or their reactions in the context of their lives.

So what is my place here in the jail?  Reading, for all the reasons that anyone loves it, with the additional weight of it being an activity that can happen, relatively unhindered, even within the constraints of incarceration, seems to be an important part of people’s lives at the jail.  People talk about the books that they read, and pass them around.  I remember a conversation starting with “Remember that Marilyn Manson biography …”, the book having apparenly made its rounds through the block.  There’s no question that books are important to people in jail.  Having someone come in to facilitate a discussion group about books seems of more questionable value. For the men in the cell block where the programming happens, their days are filled with different groups, many of them focussed around rehabilitation, I think that one more structured activity that involves a group and a discussion just doesn’t seem that appealing.  Volunteering in the jail, there seems to be such an impasse between what corrections officials and non-profits think people who are incacerated need and what people who are incarcerated say they need.  I think that more than anything, people need to not be incarcerated, because dealing with all the other things in life become frustratingly cumbersome to impossible.  Beyond that I think the concerns of incarcerated people are the same as a lot of people that I know, obviously with varying degrees of severity: economic security, a safe, comfortable place to live, help sorting out relationships and family.  Those are such large, ambiguous things, but it’s the way I can most accurately express it.

I like going into the jail because it has made me have to reevaluate how I think about other people and about prison issues as “issues”.  But, even though I feel like I’m getting something out of my volunteer work, the exchange doesn’t exactly seem equal.  One of the men interested in the reading group said he would talk to others in the block to guage the actual interest and to get some input about what format would be best.  We talked about two things that would be an improvement – meeting once a month instead of biweekly and reading shorter works of fiction.  One thing that seems like something that I can really offer is just giving people access to books.  The Monroe County Public Library has a sweet jail library program, but the men I work with said that while they used to get to go to the library once every two weeks, they now can only go once every 4 or 5 weeks.

I’ve also sporadically tutoring math in the jail, and had been working with someone who just passed his GED exams.  Working in this capacity seems like I can offer people something of myself that seems more useful, but it’s still hard.  The person who just passed his GED said that one of the reasons he wanted to get his GED was so he could go into the armed forces when he was released.  I don’t want to see anyone join the armed forces, but I’m afraid that, facing the realities of the current economy, and the additional challenges that someone with a criminal record faces getting a job, the options are limited.  It’s so frustrating that I, and the things I believe in, can’t offer an alternative.  This makes me feel like I’m not in a position to do what people really need.  I can give people books, or some tricks to solving math problems, but I can’t give people jobs or build houses.  It makes me feel like I’m not doing the right thing. Everyone, and I mean everyone everyone and not just incarceration people, need inspiration and tools, to be sure, but it seems really narrow sighted to think that they’re enough.

Review of Nothing But The Truth by Avi

Amy and I have started an ad-hoc young adult literature book club.  The first book that we read was Nothing But the Truth by Avi.  I thought it would be cool to conclude our discussion by posting a book review to Amazon but my notebook ran out of power before we could, so here’s my thoughts now.

I didn’t read Nothing But the Truth when I was young, but upon finishing it, I remembered that my brother, an avid reader, and a particular lover of books by Avi, had really liked it when he was young.  He was especially drawn to the tragic irony of the books conclusion.  I read other reviews of the book on Amazon and was struck by how the praise or criticism of the book seemed to be broken along lines of age, with older readers liking the book, and many of the 1-star reviews coming from younger readers.  One of the principal events in the book is the conflict of Phillip, the young protagonist and his English teacher and foil, Miss Narwin, over the book Call of the Wild, which Narwin regards as a classic of literature and Phillip regards dismissively.  It’s funny to think that the same difference of perspective might happen over this book.

Reading the book as an adult, I really enjoyed it.  Though  the events in the book snowball quickly out of the control, and the documentary style of the book, as the story is told through a series of memos, journal entries, personal letters, newspaper articles, and transcriptions of conversations, seems to quicken the pace and show only certain faces of the characters, the story is not without nuance and the bluntness of some of the perspectives accurately capture the dangerously singular vision of American politics and the personal political chasms of family and age.

Many other reviews that I read seemed to see the book as offering a very moral conclusion, warning of the destructive consequences of untruthfullness, but I found the story to instead complicate the idea of truth.  Truth is a relative concept and one that is heavily wrought by individual’s challenges and investments.  I found the inability of the characters to transcend these things to be tragic and sadly real.  Most poignent was the relationship between Narwin and Phillip, where neither acted out of particular malice, but both were absolutely unable to understand each other’s perspectives or interpret the signals that each so desperately put forth.  This was such a strange perspective, and I think it was one I was never exposed to as a youth.  I think I always saw adults as allies or adversaries but never as complex people who were both deeply comitted, empassioned, and concerned but also ultimately impotent.  Also sad was the communication between Phillip’s parents and between them and Phillip and the portrayal of parental concern and its interception by adult anxieties and responsibilities.  Finally, I found the depiction of school district politics and conservative talk radio very, very real and the imagery that the words evoked was of neighborly chats on the streets of my hometown, my mother’s frustrated stories of her navigation of school administrators, and the rantings of local shock jocks.

I want to think that this a very good book for youth to read, that the criticism of media, and, more importantly, the complication of how we perceive the words and actions of others, would be transformative.  Still, in thinking about this book, I begin to realize how much my finding of these things in this book comes from the experience and vision that has seperated me from the age of the book’s young protagonist.  Finding the truth about yourself, let alone in the world, is a constant and daunting task.  I hope that education can help equip young people to see the truth in their investments, beliefs, and ultimate actions, for their own well-being; to see others as both good and flawed, as that is so essential to an empathetic humanity; and to distill some more fundamental truth from the ever-volitile flow of “truths” in media and poltics.  Still, as this book argues, it is the challenge of educators to perform such alchemy in a venue so loaded by these forces.  Perhaps this book can be a device towards such ends.

captivity narratives

Chiara is just finishing taking a class about captivity narratives and I’ve been reading a few things at the periphery of that.  It’s created this reality tunnel about stories about captivity and stories that expose the basic human dynamics that cause people to value different groups of people differently.

I made this post to aggregate a few things:

  • Last week’s This American Life, The Competition, had a story about a Tulsa factory owner who imported workers from India and had them living and working in terrible conditions.
  • Yesterday’s NYT had an article on slavery on Long Island and the abuse of foreign domestic workers throughout the US.
  • The book Women’s Indian Captivity Narratives has a narrative by Sarah Wakefield entitled Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees that has an uncharacteristically critical perspective (and uncharacteristically outspoken for a woman writer at the time) on white’s perceptions of Native Americans.

media check for the week of 2007-08-19

I decided to go to the IU library to check out the book The Suburbanization of New York: Is the World’s Greatest City Becoming Just Another Town? (ISBN-13: 978-1-56898-678-4) and found a wealth of other interesting books in the HN80.N5 section on the 7th floor. I also checked out There Goes The Neighborhood (ISBN-10: 0-394-57936-4), a book about the politics of race and class in Chicago neighborhoods, and passed on Praciticing Community (ISBN-10: 0-292-73118-3), a book about similar dynamics, but in Cincinatti, though it also looked good.

I heard an interesting recording of a Michael Parenti talk on Alternative Radio on WFHB on Monday, 2007-08-20 that was kind of all over the place, but mostly about how identity politics are exploited to divide people who are marginalized by race, gender, or sexual orientation. He also suggested that the division of power in this country often finds people with very different ethnic, gender, sexual, or other cultural identities on the same side of that power divide.

I read this article by Dave Zirin, author of What’s My Name Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the U.S., Welcome to the Terrordome, and other books about sports and politics. Zirin writes about the difficulties in sending copies of his books to a Texas death row inmate because

“It contains material that a reasonable person would construe as written solely for the purpose of communicating information designed to achieve the breakdown of prisons through offender disruption such as strikes or riots.”

The offending content, according to the TXDOC, included quotations such as this from baseball great Jackie Robinson:

“I felt tortured and I tried to just play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. … For one wild and rage-crazed moment I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s “noble experiment.” … To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of [expletive] and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”

I use for managing my bookmarks. Often, I want to access my bookmarks through my browser instead of having to visit the site. The Bookmarks Firefox add-on lets me do just that.

Roy F. Baumeister’s talk, Is There Anything Good About Men? is really interesting. It talks about the different ways that culture have used men and women to achieve its ends. It also talks about how a fundamental difference between men and women is that men favor wider, shallower relationships and women prefer closer, more intimate relationships and how this has driven the different cultural realms that are inhabited disproportionally by men and women. At the base of this, claims Baumeister, is the evolutionary reality that far more women reproduce than men. The wider, shallower, relationships or more risk-taking activities favored by men, in general, facilitates the differentiation that will allow some men to reproduce.

On a somewhat related note, this is a program that my friend is working with. The program is trying to organize
Men of Strength (MOST) Clubs in DC and other communities. A friend who works with the Middleway House, a Bloomington shelter for women and children affected by rape and family violence says that young men who stay in the shelter really lack a community of other males to critically examine their ideas of identity and masculinity and to model ideas of gender or relationships that differ from the violence that they’ve experienced. These clubs seem like a rare example of something that might begin to provide this support/education. The clubs are described as:

Men of Strength (MOST) Club has provided young men in Washington, DC and California high schools and colleges with a safe and supportive haven to connect with male peers while exploring masculinity and male strength.

Exposing young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood, the MOST Club challenges members to define their own definition of masculinity and to translate their learning into community leadership, progressive action, and social change.


  • Provide young men with a safe, supportive space in which to connect with male peers through exploring notions of masculinity and male strength.
  • Promote an understanding of ways that traditional masculinity contributes to sexual assault and other forms of men’s violence, perpetuates gender inequity, and compromises the health of men and women.
  • Expose young men to healthier, nonviolent models/visions of manhood.
  • Build young men’s capacity to become peer leaders and allies with women in promoting gender equality and preventing men’s violence.

I have Debian Etch with KDE installed as my workstation at work, and I had a hard time figuring out how to make Iceweasel (Debian’s all-free software version of Firefox) the default browser instead of Konqueror.  Turns out it was as easy as

$ update-alternatives –config x-www-browser