Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I know it's sort of silly and presumptuous to "react" to all of this, especially because I only read Obama's speech and didn't watch it, or anything else, on TV. But I can't resist saying: I really liked Elizabeth Alexander's poem. And I thought Obama's speech was as good as can be expected. I was a little bit afraid of his exhortations to work and suffering; but if that can mean a little bit less infantilization of the public than before, good.

Here's the end of the poem. But reading the (unquoted) buildup to these last lines is important:

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

"That" light -- a particular kind of light, I think she is saying: the "widening pool" mentioned earlier. The light in which "doing harm" can be risked in the name of real hope; in which people are not afraid to demand -- and to give -- more than is "needed."

Noam Chomsky just wrote a good long summary piece on Gaza, which takes the positions you would expect -- but makes many points well; it's worth reading. One point he makes I found surprising:

After blaming Yassir Arafat for the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations, Clinton backtracked, and recognized that the US-Israeli proposals were too extremist to be acceptable to any Palestinian. In December 2000, he presented his "parameters," vague but more forthcoming. He then announced that both sides had accepted the parameters, while both expressed reservations. The two sides met in Taba Egypt in January 2001 and came very close to an agreement, and would have been able to do so in a few more days, they said in their final press conference. But the negotiations were cancelled prematurely by Ehud Barak. That week in Taba is the one break in over 30 years of US-Israeli rejectionism. There is no reason why that one break in the record cannot be resumed.

The preferred version, recently reiterated by Ethan Bronner, is that "Many abroad recall Mr. Barak as the prime minister who in 2000 went further than any Israeli leader in peace offers to the Palestinians, only to see the deal fail and explode in a violent Palestinian uprising that drove him from power." It's true that "many abroad" believe this deceitful fairy tale, thanks to what Bronner and too many of his colleagues call "journalism".

It is commonly claimed that a two-state solution is now unattainable because if the IDF tried to remove settlers, it would lead to a civil war. That may be true, but much more argument is needed. Without resorting to force to expel illegal settlers, the IDF could simply withdraw to whatever boundaries are established by negotiations. The settlers beyond those boundaries would have the choice of leaving their subsidized homes to return to Israel, or to remain under Palestinian authority. The same was true of the carefully staged "national trauma" in Gaza in 2005, so transparently fraudulent that it was ridiculed by Israeli commentators. It would have sufficed for Israel to announce that the IDF would withdraw, and the settlers who were subsidized to enjoy their life in Gaza would have quietly climbed into the lorries provided to them and travelled to their new subsidized residences in the West Bank. But that would not have produced tragic photos of agonized children and passionate calls of "never again."

It may be that talk of a necessary binational state reflects an unnecessary despair, which would play into the hands of the many who live and profit by the perpetuation of the deadly status quo. If it's true that Taba was really an exceptional moment, one which Barak realized had to be foreclosed, then perhaps there can be a return to that moment. Could this be in the cards? Is this what Obama, Clinton, and George Mitchell will try to do? It would be better than many other of the other courses that could -- probably will -- be taken.

Update: Yes, I do think that the most important issue facing Obama -- the hinge on which world history is turning -- is Israel and Palestine. No, this is not "fair" to Jews (or to Palestinians, for that matter) -- neither of whom should be saddled with such significance. But history isn't fair. Certainly the very idea of "Judaism" or "divine election" or "chosen people" annihilates human notions of "fariness." Jews were singled out for special concern a long time ago.

Update II: Good speech! Good job President Barack Obama! He indulged in the pomp and then, finally, at the right moment, delivered a swift kick in the pants. "The time has come to put aside childish things." "Our nation's greatness has to be earned." What next?...


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