Monday, June 16, 2008

Overlooking the Elephants in the Room

West Michigan became the scene of an imported brand of Middle Eastern conflict over politics and religion recently when Nonie Darwish, a member of the nonpartisan Young America’s Foundation (YAF) speakers bureau, presented her view of the world at a lecture organized by the College Republicans in my town.

The YAF speakers bureau includes such colorful personalities as Patrick Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Michelle Malkin, Rick Santorum, John Ashcroft, Ward Connerly and Ted Nugent.

After September 11, Darwish, 59, an Egyptian-born author, activist and translator, decided to speak out against her own Islamic culture because she felt it perpetuated hate against the Jews in the Middle East.

“I learned that hate, vengeance and retaliation are important values to protect Islam and Arab honor,” said Darwish, recalling her education as a young girl. “Self-criticism or questioning Arab teachings and leadership was forbidden and could only bring shame, dishonor and violence open those who dared try. Peace was never an option and never mentioned as a virtue.”

In her speech, Darwish also railed against Arabs and radical Islam for causing Israeli-Palestinian tensions and pointed to verses in the Quran that invite Muslim violence against non-Muslims.

Darwish came to the United States 15 years ago. She is the daughter of Lt. Col. Mustafa Hafaz, an assassinated Egyptian guerrilla leader of the fedyadeen, a terrorist group that regularly raided Israel.

In addition to the 30 students who attended the lecture, Darwish drew another 15 - 20 peace activists from the local community who were there to protest her message. At first they were silent but as Darwish continued her 45-minute diatribe, they reacted to her with audible snickers and gasps of disgust.

The Q&A was even more surreal. Darwish ignored the students who were seated in the front half of the assembly room and instead turned her attention to the protesters in the back. She first called on two Pakistani Muslim men who argued with her over the details of Muslim life and religion. Then she called on two peace activists.

The students in the room remained largely silent and puzzled by what was transpiring before their eyes until Darwish finally called on one student who asked something on the order of Rodney King’s plea: “Can’t we all just get along?”

The organizers of the event were noticeably flummoxed by the response of the audience and struggled to know what to do. However, they had admirably adopted a free speech platform and maintained it, especially when two unarmed security guards suddenly appeared to calm down a couple vociferous peace activists who came very short of being thrown out.

After her speech, a small crowd surrounded Darwish to ask more questions, point more fingers and poke more holes in her arguments. The guards, at the prompting of the student organizers, eventually escorted Darwish out.

The evening’s program had become one filled with fiery affect lacking in intellectual content and ending up quite a distance away from the intended forum for “enlightened thinking” the organizers attempted to provide.

An English major might characterize the scene as a post-modern drama complete with many obscure levels of context, irony, paradox and identity politics.

It was sad to see the peace activists forget their mission of nonviolence and react rudely to Darwish. They could have been more effective by simply maintaining a silent demonstration in protest to her message.

Equally troubling is the College Republicans’ reliance on the YAF, which purports to furnish the aspiring conservatives with political savvy and organizational strategy. What it seems to do instead is to divide the world up into liberals and conservatives and to foment antagonism against liberals.

For example, according to the YAF website, the “nonpartisan” group provides conferences, internships and resources to promote the conservative agenda on college campuses and strategies for countering “leftist tactics against your speaker.”

The YAF suggests ways students may “maximize funding from the university and private supporters” who would presumably be against them and their politics. It also has a program that teaches students how to fight “anti-military bias and misinformation” by leftists who “continue to belittle our armed forces and to prevent as many students as possible from participating in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and from speaking with military recruiters.”

The YAF sponsors the “9/11: Never Forget Project,” which it began in 2003 after it discovered that “most college campuses were either completely ignoring the anniversary of the terrorist attacks or scheduling a politically-correct activity instead.”

Ronald Reagan is the group’s standard bearer and his creed is “the centerpiece of the student programs.” The YAF proudly touts its role in the preservation of the president’s Western White House, Rancho del Cielo, as a “living monument to Reagan’s lasting accomplishments.”

Actually, what the student audience’s nonplussed reaction to the event perhaps makes clear as we ramble along in this first decade of the twenty-first century is that arguing about religion and politics has become pointless, especially when we refuse to deal with the “elephants in the room” like $4 per gallon oil, two wars we won’t end and can’t win, global warming, food shortages and price hikes, unprecedented species extinction, sub-prime mortgage failures, crumbling infrastructure, violent weather patterns and destructive earthquakes.

It’s time for all Americans to turn the page on the old politics and to start working on the new challenges we face in our world.

This article appeared in Common on June 10, 2008.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving From the Margins to the Mainstream

Movements for change begin mysteriously at the margins but if they take hold, they can have a big impact on society.

“Things happen. You have to count on it,” said Tom Hayden at a recent lecture sponsored by the Southwest Branch of the ACLU of Michigan.

The veteran activist first witnessed the process of social change while a student at the University of Michigan in 1960. As editor of the Michigan Daily he was covering John F. Kennedy’s visit to campus and discovered that a small group of students got to the presidential candidate about 11 p.m. and handed him a plan for an international peace program.

That group included local activist David MacLeod, who Hayden recognized at the lecture.

At the time Kennedy didn’t know fully what he was signing on to and his advisers were stunned by his spontaneous policymaking. The program turned out to be the Peace Corps.

“It was unexplainable how David got the [plan] into JFK’s hands,” said Hayden who pointed out that “chaotic processes” often accompany movements for change.

A year later Hayden would co-found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which promoted the 18-year-old right to vote. This idea had first surfaced during World War II but it was the Vietnam War that brought home the point that the nation that felt its young were responsible enough to fight a war should be responsible enough to vote.

“We were relatively marginal but that didn’t matter because we found a cause,” said Hayden. “It was driven into me at the time that all things are possible.”

Although the idea for the Peace Corps literally happened overnight, change usually takes at least a decade, said Hayden, and not all movements achieve their goals. Women’s suffrage took 100 years; ending slavery took 500 years.

The Electoral College seems to be an obvious issue for change, especially since the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the electoral vote. However, there seems to be no political will to eliminate it.

“The Electoral College was one of the dynamic compromises of the Constitution,” said Hayden, adding that the “imperfect document” also follows the movement for change model.

Prior to the Revolution of 1776 the Continental Congress grappled with whether or not to declare its independence from England, a prospect too radical for most colonists. However, taxation without representation eventually tipped a majority of the public toward separation.

In 1787 the framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated independence as a key theme for the new republic but they could not end slavery or extend suffrage beyond white, male property owners. Such radical ideas would have split the movement for nationhood.

“Each generation claims the promise, ideals and aspirations of the founders and they become a movement,” said Hayden. “This is how social change works and it’s an important concept for professors to discuss and teach.”

Hayden wasn’t sure what America’s next great social movement would be but he predicted that it will come out of the “Obama generation.”

Obama came from the margins, too, Hayden noted. No one saw him coming anymore than they did Kennedy. And like Kennedy, Obama may end up articulating a new vision for the country based on the next generation’s desire for change.

“They have a self-confidence that their moment has come,” said Hayden of today’s young. They don’t want to settle for the way things are or for the way they were achieved in the 60s.”

Hayden’s own 34-year-old son has had to convince his father of this break from the past.

“You have to go to Obama’s rallies to see this or you’ll miss it, too,” said Hayden. “There is an unexpected social movement that has not occurred since 1968.”

Hayden’s eight-year-old son, who is African-American, is also swept up in the “turbulence” of change. Interestingly, he isn’t moved by race in this presidential election as much as he is by the environment. He aspires to be a marine biologist to do something about it.

The former state legislator and sociologist by profession illustrated that social change occurs once activists achieve 25 to 30 percent support from mainstream public opinion. When they reach 40 percent, the idea becomes a “norm.” Politicians then pass a law to institute the change, although it is far more compromised from its radical origins.

Nevertheless, the existing order co-opts the movement for change, said Hayden, because grassroots activists usually disperse once they achieve their goal, much like the Iraq War peace movement has.

The existing order also seeks to erase the memory of the movement or to claim it as its own through commemorations on postage stamps or the naming of parks, buildings, boulevards and holidays.

“This was the same government that jailed radical reformers [like Martin Luther King, Jr.,]” said Hayden.

The activist, writer and politician is a leading voice for withdrawal from Iraq and last year published Ending the War in Iraq. He spoke about that prospect somberly.

“Ending the Vietnam War took 12 years of my life,” said Hayden. “So far, the Iraq War has been going on for five years — 15 if you count Gulf War I.”

Hayden said that even with a Democratic win, the plan is to leave tens of thousands of troop advisers in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Study Group also advocated withdrawing all but 20,000 troops in order to stabilize the country.

“If we can’t win with 150,000 troops, how can 30,000 finish the job?” he asked.

Hayden also pointed out that this war has been designed with the Vietnam War in mind. For example, there is no draft and the number of dead soldiers is minimal in comparison. There is also a great effort to subdue the protests, which accounts for the media’s sketchy coverage of the peace movement.

“Fighting tolerant warmakers is harder than fighting those who beat you up,” said Hayden, who was thrashed and jailed during the 60s protests. The Internet generates much more information to a broader audience but it creates much less face-to-face interaction and fervor.

Hayden urged peace activists to help end the war in Iraq with the following suggestions:

* Spend time with those who disagree with you and make alliances.
* Work with anti-war people in the armed forces and let them know their rights.
* Show up at community colleges and conduct debates on military recruitment.
* Consult to find out and report how the cost of war is diverting funds from your community.
* Make alliances with those hurt by war’s budget (i.e., senior citizens, veterans who need medical care, educators).

Hayden also said that any movement for change can happen by focusing on one’s own experience. Working for energy efficiency on college campuses is a good example of what students can do.

“Start with things that are achievable and reach out to the undecided population,” he advised. “Look for friends on the faculty but focus on your student friends.”

Because activism often competes with students’ time for study and a job, Hayden recommended that students combine their activist interests with service learning opportunities, work-study projects and research papers.

Hayden’s Web site provides information about his other causes, which include erasing sweatshops, saving the environment and reforming politics through greater citizen participation.

This article appeared in Common Dreams on June 2, 2008.