Friday, November 18, 2016

Burning Country

Yassin-Kassab, Robin and Leila Al-Shami. Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press, 2016. Print.
[T]he revolution happens first, before the guns and the political calculations, before even the demonstrations, in individual hearts, in the form of new thoughts and newly unfettered words.
As our own national tragedy unfolds, it's easy to forget about the other disasters washing over the world. Yet the news continually reminds us that our struggles are connected. Just this week the Syrian "president" al-Assad referred to Donald Trump as a natural ally. Some sources look forward to better relations between the U.S. and Russia, especially as relates to the ongoing war in Syria. If you are interested in that war, in the expansion of ISIS, in the dangers of any alliance with Assad and Putin, or in the possibilities of revolution, you should read Burning Country.
This monumental work of journalism traces the Syrian Revolution's trajectory from peaceful protest though state sponsored slaughter to the rise of ISIS and the refugee crisis the world faces now. It indicts the Western world for studied ignorance and indifference to the Syrian people's suffering, for the the international rejection of those who dare demand democracy and freedom. But it also celebrates the resilience and creativity of people in an impossible situation, caught between imperfect revolutionary forces, a sadistic government, and merciless terrorists.
That the West largely accepted Assad's narrative--his supposed battle against terrorists and sectarian violence--should shame the pro-democracy forces for generations. This book details how Assad has manipulated terrorists into working with him against the revolutionary forces. Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami document also how the original revolutionary demands drew many sectors of society together to resist dictatorship. People of all religions, classes, educational levels, expressed their yearning for freedom in demonstrations which Assad's forces repressed with violence and torture. One early moment that sparked outrage involved fifteen schoolboys who were arrested and tortured after creating revolutionary graffiti. If you had any doubts about the regime's culpability, you should listen to these myriad voices from the ground attesting to its crimes, its brutal practices, its fundamental opposition to liberty.
Revolutions erupt when people cannot breathe.
As we face potentially the most repressive government in recent American memory, the example of Syria is well worth our attention. It seems unlikely that our protests and attempts to protect the most marginalized in our society will result in bloodshed--but that also seemed unlikely to the citizens of Syria, whose government proved much more willing to slaughter them than anyone anticipated. We have recently demonstrated that voting is not going to bring positive change (lots of problems with elections, with voter suppression, but also with the whole system of voting), and we are wise to hold our government under extreme suspicion. We must find other ways to breathe. In this book's more hopeful moments, we see Syrians claiming their creative powers to create poetry, slogans, music, street theater, and other artistic resistance. I hope to see a similar flourishing in the United States. Narratives matter. The narratives of power must be opposed at every turn.
A people who dared to demand freedom received annihilation.
This book is, indeed, a portrait of a burning country--certainly, there are literal flames destroying the place. But also the very notion of a country is at stake. Is the country a centralized, national government? Other nation-states want to recognize the increasingly illegitimate rule of Assad because it looks the most like their vision of government. Is the country a people? What about when a third of your population has left? What about when invading forces mingle with the local population? Is the country a set of ideals? What holds people together enough to continue imagining your community? The ties that remain in Syria are fragile. It turns out that the ties holding together the US are fragile too. I am no fan of nationalism, but the US does have some lovely national ideas about equality and justice that are currently threatened by those other national ideas about race and borders and "law and order."
I wish the Syrian people peace as soon as possible. I end with the authors' call for solidarity:
Creating workable alternatives would be a million times more useful for revolutionaries elsewhere than misinformed theoretical hectoring. And perhaps people here could learn from those cursed enough, or sufficiently blessed, to have experience the collapse of a system, those who have been thrown by necessity into the business of building something new. We hope this book has shown that there are Syrians inside and in exile who are more than worthy of support [...] We ask the reader, rather than applying the usual grand narratives, to attend to voices from the ground.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Easter Morning: An Ekphrastic Poem

The sun breaks bold on a mourning.
Three women wend their way
Wrapped in grief, mincing toward
the grave of love and mercy.
They study the ground.
Perhaps the sturdy mile marker
will prop the eldest as she totters
towards the sepulcher.

How rare for dramatic irony to proclaim comfort!
We know how soon their tears
will turn to smiles--we and the trees
Share assurance of coming joy!
For dawn declares the resurrection every day,
the elms assume a posture of praise
Their waving branches sprout hope of spring,
green sprigs that dream the frost is past,
the hoary reign of death can slouch off
and the women's drooping turn to dancing,
the weeping to waltzing
with the risen LORD!


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Murdering Principle

AKA Some Thoughts on Crime and Punishment after 4000 pages of Russian history

I am recently returned to the great northwest from a seminar on U.S.-Russian relations. This involved reading near-infinite amounts of Russian/Soviet history. But my inner Russophile is awakened, and I came home with a desire to gorge on the fabulous literary past of that great nation (or empire, or amorphous ethnic group, or linguistic community, or however else we want to define Russia). So I immediately downloaded my first, and still my favorite, Russian novel: Dostoyevski's Crime and Punishment. I read it for the first time when I was a freshman in high school, and I wanted to see how differently it felt after sixteen years and a much better grasp of its creative context.

Most of you know the basic concept of the book. Raskolnikov, a law school dropout living in desperate poverty in St. Petersburg, decides to rob and murder an elderly pawnbroker in order to keep his sister from marrying for money. After he does so, he feels tremendously guilty and wanders the streets a lot until he decides to confess. Along the way he helps the family of a drunkard and attracts the love of his prostitute daughter.

The novel holds up. It still reveals the inner workings of a tormented young intellectual; it still conveys the corrupting power of violence on the soul; it still reminds us that prostitutes are just trying to feed their families and have hearts of purest spun gold. But on rereading I saw the novel as in dialogue with the nascent anarchist/nihlist political movements of the time, especially on this question of principled murders.

Raskinolkov comes to us from 1866, a moment of great social unrest. Five years prior to this, Tsar Alexander II decreed the serfs emancipated, and this disrupted the countryside and the cities alike. Fifteen years after this, anarchist resistance will culminate in the assassination of Alexander on much the same logic as that of our protagonist. Why should some have so much when others have so little? Why should women marry loathesome men for economic security (and why should less fortunate women take to the streets and provide sex for economic survival), when there is plenty of money around? Why should a bright young law student have no hope or future when an elderly woman, already near the end of her life, has the means to provide that future for himself and his family? While, of course, murder is wrong, one can see Raskinolkov's reasoning.

At one point, our anti-hero raves to himself, "I didn't kill a human being, I killed a principle!" But he did kill a human being, and the principles of exploitation still reigned--humans extracting every morsel of "value" from other humans, scavenging off those who are less fortunate than themselves. I am reminded of David Gilbert's excellent memoir Love and Struggle (which I reviewed here), where he admits that he struggled for years to recognize the humanity of the security guards whose death resulted in his life sentence; thought they were guarding capital, it was still not right to deprive them of their lives. Their deaths did nothing to forward racial justice. The death of the pawnbroker did not set Raskinolkov's life to rights

Recently I visited the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. One exhibit there forcused on the two assasination attempts directed towards him. Sara Jane Moore, one of the perpetrators, actually wrote him a letter apologizing for her attempt on his life while maintaining the righteousness of an assault on his office, an attack on the principle of a presidency which somehow overturns all the best hopes of good people who accept the role (like Obama and Guantanamo and drones). I sympathize with that desperation, that hope in one violent deed to overcome massive injustice.

But to stop us from feeling too much sympathy, Dostoyevski brings in the character of Lizaveta, sister of the pawnbroker. Raskinolkov killed her also when she interrupted him in his crime. A simple and devout woman, she prays with the prostitute Sonia, and her murder forces the audience to acknowledge the injustice of collatoral damage.

In these days when presidential candidates hope for "2nd amendment rights" to stop opponents and take over elections; when our nation threatens to kill the families of terrorists; and when we know that any potential leader (yes, even Bernie) will authorize death without trial to terror suspects and those standing around them when the bombs fall--we do well to remember that principles are not people. Killing people is easier than killing principles, but it will not have the desired effect. Christ shows us that we must take the violence rather than deliver it to change to the world. This is not the easy way out, but it is the only hope for building kindness.

N.B. Napoleon shows up all over Crime and Punishment, as in: If Napoleon can kill thousands of people without consequence, why can't I? Dostoyevski seems to suggest that we not worry about Napoleon but about the damage violence will do to our souls. I disagree. We must not glorify those who kill, regardless of whether that killing is state-sponsored or not.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaser: Henry VI, part 1

Why should you read Henry VI, part 1?

  1. Joan of Arc is the villain. That's right, the famed gender-bending Frenchwoman makes a foray into Brit lit! The English change their mind about her madonna/whore status every other line or so.
  2. "Submission, dauphin? 'Tis a mere French word. We English warriors wot not what it means."
  3. If you like the Republican presidential debates, you'll love the treachery and foolishness of medieval leaders!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Shakespeare in Snow and Sunshine

Former regular readers may know that I have recently migrated north. Having returned to a state of appropriate distance from Canada (like North Dakota, my home and native land), I am loving the snow and the cozy indoor time for more reading! Thus I have embarked on a quest to read all of Shakespeare, and, dear readers, today I propose to bring you with me on that journey.

A bit of background: I started reading Shakespeare when I was eleven. My mom had her college copy of the Complete Works prominently displayed in our living room, and L.M. Montgomery's characters (Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, etc.) all discussed the Bard so much that I wanted to join in that conversation. I read Much Ado about Nothing first, then A Comedy of Errors. The former I have read many times since; the latter, not for these twenty years. I ended up taking four Shakespeare classes in college and one in graduate school, so while I am by no means a professional scholar in the subject, I have tackled the plays quite a bit with help from those scholars.

In any case, this summer it occurred to me that, should I die without completing the canon, I should deeply regret it. I lucked into a good part-time job for the year that leaves my mornings open for quiet contemplation, so I have begun filling in the gaps in my knowledge with diligent study. At this count, I have read twenty-five of the thirty-seven canonical works. So I am beginning with the plays I had never read, and plan to re-read all the plays I have read with new lenses.

For one cannot embark on such a project with just one's own edification in mind. As an English teacher, I try to put myself in the shoes of my students by tackling difficult and unfamiliar works, then seeing what strategies help me to make sense of the text. Also, I wish to forge a way of interacting with text, of prowling about in it and devouring morsels of wisdom and humor and sagacity while vehemently responding to these aged words. Ultimately I want to create an anarchist approach to text, one that prioritizes liberation and personal experience and the humanity of story-telling.

With this in mind, I will be writing a series of three posts on each of the plays:

  1. A "teaser," describing why you should read each play
  2. An analysis of what I found surprising or brilliant
  3. A description of Shakespeare the Anarchist (you knew that was coming, right?) as revealed in the text
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know that Shakespeare was not an anarchist in any practical sense of the word. He certainly prioritized order and authority. He generally was a fan of the monarchy and devoted much ink to its history. Politically, he could hardly be called even a small-d democrat or small-r republican. Fear of mob rule and chaos permeates his work. Yet his observations on the nature of power and his habit of humanizing even the lowest of characters lend his work to the Revolution, and I will be examining how these plays point to liberation even as they uphold the centralized power structure of their era.

This will function as a public journal of my readings. But should you be moved to read a play, I would be thrilled to host a guest blog post! I long for a world where we swap ideas about books freely and hilariously. And everyone needs more Shakespeare in her life.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Foundations of Anarchotheism: I Samuel 8, Part I

A friend who also professes Christian Anarchism (yes! I know another Christian Anarchist, IRL!!!!) asked me to reflect on 1st Samuel Chapter 8, a wonderful chapter outlining the basic moral argument against monarchy (and by extension all -archies). This chapter testifies to our current situation even as it plays a vital role in the structure of the Old Testament (sacred text for the win once again). I'd like to emphasize: in no way am I an expert on the historical circumstances of this text, nor do I have any understanding of the original Hebrew. But certainly this text is ancient and has spoken to centuries of communities, and it is in this sense that I affirm its importance. A more detailed historical background would interest me, but I discuss here its narrative and rhetorical truth even in the absence of such facts.

You might want to reread this chapter. It relates the powerful, tragic conclusion to the era of the Judges, a village-elders style of government where people brought their concerns to divinely appointed (and almost certainly locally admired) wise people who led through good decision-making. Samuel was a well-regarded judge, but the system broke down under his sons' corruption. Because of their failings, the people ask Samuel to appoint a king for them. Samuel consults God, who disapproves of the King plan; he explains to the people why they should not seek a monarchy. But they clamor for one regardless because they want to be like the other nations! And so God hands them over to the kings, whose misdeeds and exploitations frame the rest of the history of Israel.

In this post, I'll focus on the beginning of the chapter, on Samuel's corrupt sons, and the application to the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. It seems clear that demanding a king was a bad idea, but the demand does not materialize from thin air. Samuel was wise and just in the best tradition of the judges, but his gifts did not extend to fatherhood; his sons, Joel and Abiah, tainted faith in the judicial system by accepting bribes. That they were judges at all represents part of the move to monarchy. When bloodline instead of demonstrated merit determines authority, the distinction between judges and kings becomes very murky indeed. It's not hard to imagine the Israelites, disillusioned with inherited authority, demanding a change in their governance. Not only did the sons thwart justice in a few cases, but they also destroyed the appearance of impartiality and wisdom in the judicial system, directly leading to the demand for a king.

This reminds me of the state's justification of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The corruption and evil of one man helps destroy the legitimacy of the entire system. Samuel did wrong and participated in the destriction of judge-based rule by allowing his sons to continue judging despite their corruption. The State of Florida does wrong by retroactively establishing walking around while young, black, and hoodied as a capital crime. And the greatest wrong is not only this once instance of unpunished murder (although the one instance is heinous), but advertising the state sponsorship of murder. Murders will probably happen, even in the best society we could possibly create--and we must seek to eliminate them and come up with adequate deterrants and punishments. But instead of doing that, the state used the Stand Your Ground law to endorse murder as a good response to fear of unarmed teenagers. We must remember that George Zimmerman had the opportunity to state his case to a jury of somewhat-peers, which is good and right. But Trayvon Martin never had that opportunity because he was dead, and now the State of Florida has murdered him all over again, and may in the future murder other young black men who Cause Fear in armed citizenry. The Florida courts and the sons of Samuel alike devastated trust in the justice system to protect the vulnerable and to make wise decisions, weighting the scales towards the wealthy and the privileged.

And when the existing structures are exposed for their injustice, it is natural and understandable for the people to cry out for a change. We see a reasonable demand from the people of Israel, from the judicially underpriviliged populations of the United States, calling out for oversight and reform. The unfortunate thing in both cases is that the proposed solution does not address the problem. The kings had more authority, and as a result were still worse than the limited corruption of Samuel's sons. Trying to convict George Zimmerman on a civil rights charge on the federal level does nothing to return Trayvon's life, and also does nothing to change the situation of hate and fear that allowed the state to pass Stand your Ground laws and then declare Zimmerman not-guilty. Maybe it is human nature to try to get the higher-ups to clean up corruption and bring about peace and justice. But a federal court cannot establish a land of justice and peace; a king generally did not bring about the Kingdom of God for the people of God.

Tomorrow I will explore more of the tragic establishment of the Kingdoms of Israel. For today, I leave with this thought. Injustice exposed destroys the communal faith in any system designed to relieve injustice. The people who allow that injustice to continue are also guilty, and they should not be surprised when the community cries out for a change.

N.B. I do not argue that George Zimmerman should or should not face federal civil rights charges--only that those charges do little to nothing to address the underlying systemic failures.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Garden 2013

The beautiful summer 2013 garden line has arrived! See the magnificent detailing on the celery, observe the inventive silhouette of the burgeoning oregano plant! And we love that pop of color on the wild strawberries, so unexpected and restrained!

We have been watching a lot of old Project Runway seasons at our house, so forgive me if a bit of that vocabulary seeps into my garden descriptions. In any case, gardening continues to consume a lot of my time and produce abundances of food and joy for me this summer. I actually did get spring plants in this year. We enjoyed a lot of delicious spinach, and I learned to cook with radishes a little bit. My beets are still in progress, as are celery and fennel. All of these are experimental crops this year; I don't really know how to grow them, so I don't expect to reap an abundant harvest, just get an idea of their life cycle.

I did reap an abundant harvest of salad greens, though. The volunteer lettuce keeps coming back--this spring was its fifth reseeding; descendants of plants put in two springs ago keep coming up every spring and fall, and they are delicious. Onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers are the star billing for this summer. It's a gazpacho themed garden: now I grow everything necessary for refreshing gazpacho, come mid-July!

On Sunday, I was out weeding near my basil plants; one of the tiny weedlings I pulled smelled suspiciously amazing. On closer inspection, I realized that the dead cinnamon basil plant tossed on top of a bed over the winter had seeded the area with adorable, aromatic, delicious offspring. Another garden miracle! Also, a half-dozen volunteer tomato plants populate one corner of the garden. I'll need to replant them or possibly donate some. But the miracles of nature really never cease to amaze me; the sacred yearnings of life to continue overpower winter, unfortunate mis-weeding, lawn mowers, bugs, and other pests.

A man for whom I feel great un-admiration (what is the opposite of "admire?" is it "disdain?" is it "despise"?) once defined a weed as "anything you didn't plant where it is." I think about that every time my beautiful volunteer plants present themselves to help feed me and J., to bring extra beauty to our garden, to exude vitality. Now, I struggle with weeding; who am I to determine which plants are worthwhile and which are not, which deserve sun and rain and reproduction and which must be uprooted? But nature is so fertile, and any agricultural attempt must involve some unnatural selection. Still, the side effects of not weeding can be tasty and beautiful at times.

Which brings me to my most exciting garden announcement: We have a MULBERRY TREE growing in our back yard now!!!!!! J. and I have maintained (or, well, not mowed down) about 20 square feet of "native grass preserve" by our compost pile, just to see what might grow there. Anyway, one tree I kept telling J. he should cut down before it got too big, and he ignored I got out of the car and noticed BEAUTIFUL PURPLE BERRIES on the tree everywhere! I can make mulberry jam from my very own magical berry producer! Berries! In my yard! And nature provided them for me from munificence and plenty!

Mom had a mulberry tree on her family farm, and she took us out one day when I was little. I remember thinking it was the most magical thing on the planet, just to pull things off of trees and eat them, plump fresh berries all warmed up in the sun are almost syrupy in their sweetness.

Anyway, I'm going to start canning jam this afternoon. Summer is amazing. Gardening is amazing, a daily revelation of the plenteous and liberated vision God has for the world. Ta-ta for now.