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The abortion debates is the last place I would have looked for inspiration in methods of handling the major political and social problems of the world. Politically I've always thought of abortion -- the topic of abortion, that is -- as part of a fraud. A so-called democracy is limited to two political parties, both of which serve corporate monopolies, both of which invest primarily in war preparations, both of which cavalierly sacrifice the future habitability of the planet as well as the immediate survival of numerous species, both of which advance income inequality, both of which strip away our civil liberties -- and yet, the two of which are depicted as diametrically opposed, supposedly offering us a world of difference at the polling place. And how is this done? Easy, one of them is pro- and the other anti- abortion! I can't count how many people have listed everything they oppose about a presidential candidate and then begged me to vote for that same candidate in order to determine the abortion issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.
So, Aspen Baker's book, Pro-Voice: How to Keep Listening When the World Wants a Fight, comes as a pleasant surprise. To begin with, this book causes me to recognize another reason I've had a distaste for the abortion debate. I don't mean that there's not really any clearly desirable position to take on it; I already realized that. I mean that the abortion debate is exceptionally simplistic, dishonestly so. And the reason for this, brought out I think by Baker, is that people who have abortions do not talk about them. There is such a stigma attached to it, that the experience of having an abortion, including the decision making process gone through, including the days and years after the abortion, including the impact on other people involved, is basically unknown. And that vacuum is filled by slogans dedicated toward legislative ends.
One result of keeping abortion shameful and secret is isolation and suffering for those who have abortions. One goal of creating telephone talk-lines and websites and media coverage, as Baker's group Exhale has done, is to bring human friendship and compassion to people isolated by politics and treated as political tools by two opposing groups. Now, if you are fervently dedicated to the "pro-life" or "pro-choice" position, then the emotional state of women who have abortions may seem secondary, and how it's addressed may seem worth judging primarily in terms of how it advances or impedes another goal. But what if, without hurting your pro-choice or pro-life goal, a pro-voice approach began to create a little reconciliation between the two camps, and what if that began to create some new goals?
I began reading this book skeptically. I found myself asking why a book-length account of the value of telling specific stories didn't instead just tell a few of those stories. Eventually it did, at least in excerpt form. And what happened around those stories began to seem important as well. Exhale created greeting cards for people who'd had abortions, something now also done for queer and poor families and single moms. Creating understanding and acceptance of women who've had abortions, regardless of your view of abortion, is a valuable contribution to a discussion, a negotiation. Do you view abortion as murder? Well, murderers too should be treated as human beings, and some day we may advance our understanding that far as well.
Baker claims to have influenced the discourse so much that conservative groups have reduced their talk about "postabortive women" and "postabortion syndrome," choosing, Baker writes, to speak about "healing from grief and loss, rather than seeking forgiveness for a sin." And organizations have arisen to help women that include both pro-choice and pro-life staff people. In fact, Baker writes, most Americans are both pro-choice and pro-life. When Exhale advised an MTV program featuring three women's stories, the result was positive reviews both from serious feminists and from Fox News commentators. "It was not a cavalier decision she made," commented one Fox News host on one of the women featured by the MTV show, noting in effect that the woman's experience resembled reality more than common caricature.
What if we all read stories like these? What if the conversation became an open one? We should, I think, all have enough confidence in our political agendas to believe they would succeed in the light of day with full information. And in fact they might. The horrendously bad aspects of abortion could be made known in a real and credible way -- much more persuasive than pro-life myths. The overwhelming moral justifications for abortion in many cases, could be more widely understood.
And what if those who shout from one side or the other then began talking with each other?
And what if reading the stories of women struggling through difficulties resulted in some political awareness of the extent and nature of those difficulties and how they impact each other? Women lacking access to good education, jobs, income security, healthcare, and so on (part of only a small fraction of the stories, which really come in infinite variety -- though perhaps a larger fraction among the stories that never reach the internet) -- those are women in need of more than just common human decency. But common human decency sure is a good place to start.
Alice Walker explains this line, "Though war speaks every language it never knows what to say to frogs" in the opening of her beautiful book, Why War Is Never a Good Idea, illustrated by Stefano Vitale, thus:
War speaks every language she says, because every nation has war. But of course this isn't true. Many nations that make war on others do not have war at home, not in remotely the way the nations have it where wars are fought. Anyone in the United States knows that a global war aggressor suffers, but also knows that the wars are not here, and that the difference is one of night and day. Many nations also do not make war, nearby or far off. Some nations, Costa Rica, Iceland, and lots of little nations, have no military, no war plans, no investment in future wars, and no wars. And this is why it matters that War Is Never a Good Idea, because good ideas exist as available alternatives.
The frogs, Walker explains very accurately as being among the respresentatives in her book of the creatures who play no role in creating war, have no understanding of war, and suffer from war, directly from its violence, and indirectly from its impact on climate change and the natural environment.
Walker's personification of war as a being that knows and thinks and does things for its own purposes is also, strictly speaking, perfectly accurate, as well as powerfully provocative. Just as a "selfish gene" can be understood as aiming for the well-being of the gene rather than the organism, war does not benefit its participants, its victims, its observers, or for the most part its creators, supporters, cheerleaders, or tolerators. War does not generate happiness, prosperity, fulfillment, wisdom, beauty, or sustainability. War generates more war. In the absence of war it would be quite easy to persuade enough people to nip in the bud any notion of creating it. In the presence of war, the willful delusion that war is inevitable is quite pervasive.
"Though war is old, it has not become wise. It will not hesitate to destroy things that do not belong to it, things very much older than itself."
There is wisdom in that line. Not only have various nations set war aside for decades or centuries, and in some cases brought it back again, but most human cultures for most of human existence never knew war at all. It is newer than most every adaptation of human evolution, and we are unable to adapt to it, and should we do so it would destroy us.
"Here war is munching on a village. Its missiles taking chunks, big bites out of it. War's leftover gunk seeps like saliva into the ground. It is finding its way into the village well."
Stop drinking the water.
On October 29, 1948, the Israeli terrorist group Irgun ethnically cleansed the village of Safsaf in Palestine, lining some 70 men up, shooting them, dumping them in a ditch, and raping three girls. Among the survivors who fled to Lebanon were the grandparents of a young woman in Chicago who has a talent for telling stories in pictures and words. Safsaf was called Safsofa by the Romans and can be found as Safsufa on the iNakba app on your NSA-tracking device.
Baddawi is two things. It's the name of a refugee camp in Lebanon where this young woman's father grew up. The name comes from the word Bedouin, meaning nomad. "Al Beddaoui, Lebanon" locates it on Google-Earth. The residents have been there since 1948 or since they were born, and they are not nomads by choice. They live in a permament state of desiring to return home forever, even those who have never been home ever.
Justice for Palestine is where little sparks of opposition to war can be found among young people in the militarized United States of 2015, and where their art can be found as well.The second thing that Baddawi is, is a book that tells a story of childhood in Baddawi for Ahmad, the father of the author and artist Leila Abdelrazaq.
I've just read Baddawi and passed it along to my son. It's a book that tells a personal story that is also a cultural and historical record. This is the unique story of one boy, but in great measure the story of millions of Palestinian refugees. Ahmad's experiences growing up are often identical to my own or my son's, but often dramatically different. He plays the games and learns the lessons of children everywhere, but confronts the struggles of poverty, of war, and of discrimination -- of second-class citizenship in the land where Israel and its Western backers swept his unwanted ancestors.
Baddawi is the story of a rather remarkable boy, but a story that conveys a sense of what life was like and is like still for a great many boys and girls who live without nationality, not as a result of choosing world citizenship but by mandate of global powers who find their existence inconvenient. And yet the story is quite straightforwardly entertaining and good-spirited. One is disappointed when it ends rather abruptly, yet heartened to gain the impression that part two may be forthcoming.
I notice, incidentally, that there will be a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 2nd, on Israel's mistreatment of Palestinian Children, and that you can go here to ask your Misrepresentative and Senators to attend.
Full disclosure: I sometimes do work for this book's publisher, but that work does not include reviewing books.
David Segal is the Executive Director of Demand Progress. He discusses the current struggles to end mass surveillance by the U.S. government and to keep the internet free and open. Segal is a former Democratic Rhode Island State Representative, and served on the Providence City Council as a member of the Green Party. During his eight years as an elected official he oversaw the passage of legislation promoting economic justice, renewable energy and open space, banking reform, affordable housing, LGBT rights, criminal justice reform, and a variety of other progressive causes. He recently ran in the Democratic primary for Rhode Island’s first Congressional seat, supported by much of the netroots and organized labor. His opinion pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and other newspapers, and in a variety of online publications. He has a degree in mathematics from Columbia University. See:
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The number one error, engaged in by the majority of people, is failing to be an activist. The world's going to hell, countless situations can be easily improved, lives can be saved, and most people just sit there and do nothing. Others actively work to make matters worse. So, if you're working for peace and justice, you're among the tiny minority that's pretty much got the big stuff right. If constructive criticism drives you into despair, please stop reading this article right now and just continue what you're doing with your life. You have my gratitude.
If you're open to hearing some suggestions, for whatever they may be worth (and yes, of course, this list of errors will exclude those that I am myself guilty and unaware of), read on:
1. ELECTIONISM. We need elections but do not now have them in the United States, not at the federal level. Working for election reforms is one of the most important things anyone can do. But taking time off from activism to focus on elections is the biggest waste of resources we engage in. Election reform will come through creative nonviolent activism, education, organizing, media, disruption, resistance, and protest. It won't come through elections. Registering voters is not activism. Creating automatic registration, as just done in Oregon, is activism. Please stifle your compulsion to ask me who I'm voting for. You don't ask me if I want to win the lottery. (I do, but I will not buy a ticket or devote my life to staring at one.)
2. OBAMANISM. As bad as taking a break from activism every election cycle, is thinking and acting like a voter and a campaigner rather than an activist every day of every year, cheerleading for a team of corrupt officials rather than for policies, reforms, and actions that you support. "The nationalist," said Orwell, "not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them." Nationalism is a huge problem, and its language, which has peace activists using the word "we" in saying "We are bombing Afghanistan," may contribute to identification with crimes. But the problem of managing not to even hear about them applies to partisanship as well. If a Republican were picking men, women, and children to murder on Tuesdays, you'd see protests.
3. TOKENISM. "Black people are dumb." "Muslims are violent." These are understood to be ignorant hate speech. But "Women make better presidents" is not frowned on quite so much, despite its exactly equal idiocy. The problem is not the demographic characteristics of the president. The problem is having a single individual with the powers of a god, in debt to sociopathic billionaires, in a system dominated by militarism and corruption. We won't change it with a female or gay or Latina corporatist warmonger.
4. STRATEGISM. Winning a first and a second and a third step down a path to peace or justice is not best achieved through the means that many activists think of as "strategic." If you tell someone that they should halt one war so that the military can be better prepared for other wars, you weaken your argument against the one war, and you provide an argument for future wars. If you oppose the weapons that don't work, you give legitimacy to the far worse weapons that do work. If you object to a gimmick that boosts weapons spending over a mandated limit by transferring funds from a war budget, you shouldn't do so in a way that suggests either budget is acceptable at all, or in a way that suggests war spending is preferable to non-war-spending or budget trickery. Pre-compromising doesn't get you a compromise result; it gets you incoherence and lack of believability. A young woman pointing out to Jeb Bush that his brother (and Hillary and a few hundred others) created ISIS does a lot more to move people against war than do the strategies coming out of DC peace groups. War is counterproductive on its own terms, immoral, illegal, and catastrophic. Its funding should be eliminated. Our job is to demand that. A small reduction is a first step toward our goal.
5. IMPOTENTISM. The most pervasive and powerful propaganda is that of powerlessness. Telling yourself and each other that you are powerless is no different than Judith Miller repeating CIA lies about WMDs. It's exactly as ridiculous and exactly as damaging. We are not powerless. We quite easily have an impact frequently and could quite easily have a much bigger one. Expecting fairness won't help. We have to work uphill, but it's perfectly doable. Being impatient won't help. We have to keep working however long it takes and however few help out. Self-flagellation won't help. The money is against you and money is powerful. It's not your fault you haven't saved the world, but it might be thanks to you that your grandchildren save it.
6. PAROCHIALISM. We have to form uncomfortably large coalitions, and we really don't want to. I'm not advocating what I critiqued above as strategism. Don't sell your soul. Don't promote destructive ideologies for short-term gain. But don't be scared of guilt-by-association. Be willing to stand with people on an issue whose views and actions you deeply oppose on other issues.
7. LOCALISM. It's far more satisfying to find peace in your heart or sustainability in your backyard than to take on the military industrial complex. But if the earth dies, so will you. There are local and hyper-local angles that contribute to the greater cause. Cities and states can change nations. But individual action alone is not enough. Even small group action aimed too near is not enough. If everybody with solar panels on their roofs had put half the money into a movement to create public solar arrays, we'd have them.
8. FREUDISM. In a popular, simplistic notion of nonviolent communication, one never persuades anyone through rational argument. This is a claim, by the way, that comes out of an ideology supposedly dedicated to respecting people and their "needs." Apparently among those needs is not the need for a good reason to believe something. It would of course be equally simplistic to assert that all one ever needs are facts, or to ignore the age-old wisdom that it is hard to get someone to believe something they are paid not to. But when I tell people that college is free in other countries, their jaws drop, and it's not 30 seconds before they're saying it should be that way in the U.S. When I talk to non-self-selected groups about ending war, the majority say at the end that they have been moved toward believing that war can and should be ended. Facts are not enough, but they are one of the main things the corporate media deprives us of, and one of the key components of activism. They do nothing to help us see another's point of view if we're unwilling to look. They do nothing to alleviate high levels of fear. But it would be a mistake for us to become inversions of Edward Bernays working to manipulate people in a kinder, gentler manner.
9. FETISHISM. Here's a little secret. The people who speak the viewpoints that serve big money are not smarter, wittier, pithier, or better at framing a topic. They're on the air because they speak the viewpoints that serve big money. They may be more eloquent than you. They may be less so. But trying to think and sound like them in general is a quite risky proposition and completely unnecessary. There is nothing we need more than better media and better use of existing media by its readers, listeners, and viewers. There is no smarter place to invest as activists. But what we lack is not spokespeople. What we lack is microphones.
10. PINKERISM. "But haven't you heard? War is going away on its own? I heard it from someone who read a review of a book by Steven Pinker." War is not going to go away on its own. It is not even going away with our help. But it could go away if we really get our act together.