Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas We Are Waiting For

by Sister Joan Chittister

The waiting time for Christmas is almost over. But so what? After all, there is nothing special about waiting. It's what we're waiting for that matters.

One of my favorite Christmas scripture readings takes place when John is in prison. It is a gospel that confronts us with the need to make a choice about what we are waiting for.

John is no small figure in scripture. He bellows to peasant and king alike across the land that the world cannot continue as it has been, that we have to learn to think differently, to live differently, to see life differently. And for those actions John paid the price. He is in prison in this scripture, for confronting King Herod.

John has unmasked the evil of the system, he has called both synagogue and empire to repent their abandonment of the Torah, their substitution of Roman law for Jewish law. John, in other words, is a strong and thunderous voice. He calls in no uncertain terms for repentance. He announces the coming of the Messiah who would -- like Moses -- free the Hebrew people again.

But in prison, John, weary from trying, disheartened by failure, surely depressed, maybe even struggling with his own faith, sends a messenger to ask Jesus what surely must be more than a rhetorical question: Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?

Are you the one for whom I have spent my life preparing? Are you the one I gave up everything to announce? Are you the one who shall free Israel -- or have I wasted my time? Has it all been for nothing? "Are you the one?" John pleads.

But if John's question is bad, Jesus' answer is even worse. Tell John, who has lived to banish the empire, that the blind see, the lame walk and the poor have the gospel preached to them....

Not a single mention of an army to rout the garrisons, no talk of thunderbolts and falling thrones, no designation of the leader who would overthrow the emperor. No great religious crusade, even. No new outburst of religious enthusiasm, no embellishment of the temple, or the sacrifices, or the processions. No great blinding political or religious action at all. What John was waiting for, what John expected -- the rise of Judaism to new glory -- did not come.

The answer was searingly, astoundingly, clear. John had spent his life doing church, but Jesus did not come to do church; Jesus came to do justice. The Messiah was not about either destroying or renewing the old order. The Messiah was about building a new one where, as Isaiah said, the desert would bloom, the wilderness would rejoice, sorrow and sighing would flee away and the good news of creation would be for everyone.

On Christmas the question becomes ours to answer.

For what have we waited? For what have we given our lives? For religious symbolism or for gospel enlightenment? For the restoration of the old order or for the creation of the new?

Think carefully about the answer because on it may well depend the authenticity of our own lives and the happiness of many who are even now crippled by unjust systems, blinded by their untruths and fooled into believing that, for them, God wants it that way.

Merry Christmas to you all. And may, where you are, the desert be brought to bloom.

Monday, May 03, 2010

What if the Tea Party Were Black?

by Time Wise

Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure - the ones who are driving the action - we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.

So let’s begin.

Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protesters — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.

Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington.

Imagine that a rap artist were to say, in reference to a white president: “He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” Because that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said recently about President Obama.

Imagine that a prominent mainstream black political commentator had long employed an overt bigot as Executive Director of his organization, and that this bigot regularly participated in black separatist conferences, and once assaulted a white person while calling them by a racial slur. When that prominent black commentator and his sister — who also works for the organization — defended the bigot as a good guy who was misunderstood and “going through a tough time in his life” would anyone accept their excuse-making? Would that commentator still have a place on a mainstream network? Because that’s what happened in the real world, when Pat Buchanan employed as Executive Director of his group, America’s Cause, a blatant racist who did all these things, or at least their white equivalents: attending white separatist conferences and attacking a black woman while calling her the n-word.

Imagine that a black radio host were to suggest that the only way to get promoted in the administration of a white president is by “hating black people,” or that a prominent white person had only endorsed a white presidential candidate as an act of racial bonding, or blamed a white president for a fight on a school bus in which a black kid was jumped by two white kids, or said that he wouldn’t want to kill all conservatives, but rather, would like to leave just enough—“living fossils” as he called them—“so we will never forget what these people stood for.” After all, these are things that Rush Limbaugh has said, about Barack Obama’s administration, Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama, a fight on a school bus in Belleville, Illinois in which two black kids beat up a white kid, and about liberals, generally.

Imagine that a black pastor, formerly a member of the U.S. military, were to declare, as part of his opposition to a white president’s policies, that he was ready to “suit up, get my gun, go to Washington, and do what they trained me to do.” This is, after all, what Pastor Stan Craig said recently at a Tea Party rally in Greenville, South Carolina.

Imagine a black radio talk show host gleefully predicting a revolution by people of color if the government continues to be dominated by the rich white men who have been “destroying” the country, or if said radio personality were to call Christians or Jews non-humans, or say that when it came to conservatives, the best solution would be to “hang ‘em high.” And what would happen to any congressional representative who praised that commentator for “speaking common sense” and likened his hate talk to “American values?” After all, those are among the things said by radio host and best-selling author Michael Savage, predicting white revolution in the face of multiculturalism, or said by Savage about Muslims and liberals, respectively. And it was Congressman Culbertson, from Texas, who praised Savage in that way, despite his hateful rhetoric.

Imagine a black political commentator suggesting that the only thing the guy who flew his plane into the Austin, Texas IRS building did wrong was not blowing up Fox News instead. This is, after all, what Anne Coulter said about Tim McVeigh, when she noted that his only mistake was not blowing up the New York Times.

Imagine that a popular black liberal website posted comments about the daughter of a white president, calling her “typical redneck trash,” or a “whore” whose mother entertains her by “making monkey sounds.” After all that’s comparable to what conservatives posted about Malia Obama on last year, when they referred to her as “ghetto trash.”

Imagine that black protesters at a large political rally were walking around with signs calling for the lynching of their congressional enemies. Because that’s what white conservatives did last year, in reference to Democratic party leaders in Congress.

In other words, imagine that even one-third of the anger and vitriol currently being hurled at President Obama, by folks who are almost exclusively white, were being aimed, instead, at a white president, by people of color. How many whites viewing the anger, the hatred, the contempt for that white president would then wax eloquent about free speech, and the glories of democracy? And how many would be calling for further crackdowns on thuggish behavior, and investigations into the radical agendas of those same people of color?

To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic. Which is why Rush Limbaugh could say, this past week, that the Tea Parties are the first time since the Civil War that ordinary, common Americans stood up for their rights: a statement that erases the normalcy and “American-ness” of blacks in the civil rights struggle, not to mention women in the fight for suffrage and equality, working people in the fight for better working conditions, and LGBT folks as they struggle to be treated as full and equal human beings.

And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis.

Game Over.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


by Richard Kim

Since a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti on Tuesday--killing tens of thousands of people--there's been a lot of well-intentioned chatter and twitter about how to help Haiti. Folks have been donating millions of dollars to Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti (by texting "YELE" to 501501) or to the Red Cross (by texting "HAITI" to 90999) or to Paul Farmer's extraordinary Partners in Health, among other organizations. I hope these donations continue to pour in, along with more money, food, water, medicine, equipment and doctors and nurses from nations around the world. The Obama administration has pledged at least $100 million in aid and has already sent thousands of soldiers and relief workers. That's a decent start.

But it's also time to stop having a conversation about charity and start having a conversation about justice--about recovery, responsibility and fairness. What the world should be pondering instead is: What is Haiti owed?

Haiti's vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor--by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.

Now, in its attempts to help Haiti, the IMF is pursuing the same kinds of policies that made Haiti a geography of precariousness even before the quake. To great fanfare, the IMF announced a new $100 million loan to Haiti on Thursday. In one crucial way, the loan is a good thing; Haiti is in dire straits and needs a massive cash infusion. But the new loan was made through the IMF's extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low. They say that the new loans would impose these same conditions. In other words, in the face of this latest tragedy, the IMF is still using crisis and debt as leverage to compel neoliberal reforms.

For Haiti, this is history repeated. As historians have documented, the impoverishment of Haiti began in the earliest decades of its independence, when Haiti's slaves and free gens de couleur rallied to liberate the country from the French in 1804. But by 1825, Haiti was living under a new kind of bondage--external debt. In order to keep the French and other Western powers from enforcing an embargo, it agreed to pay 150 million francs in reparations to French slave owners (yes, that's right, freed slaves were forced to compensate their former masters for their liberty). In order to do that, they borrowed millions from French banks and then from the US and Germany. As Alex von Tunzelmann pointed out, "by 1900, it [Haiti] was spending 80 percent of its national budget on repayments."

It took Haiti 122 years, but in 1947 the nation paid off about 60 percent, or 90 million francs, of this debt (it was able to negotiate a reduction in 1838). In 2003, then-President Aristide called on France to pay restitution for this sum--valued in 2003 dollars at over $21 billion. A few months later, he was ousted in a coup d'etat; he claims he left the country under armed pressure from the US.

Then of course there are the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank in the 1990s. In 1995, for example, the IMF forced Haiti to cut its rice tariff from 35 percent to 3 percent, leading to a massive increase in rice-dumping, the vast majority of which came from the United States. As a 2008 Jubilee USA report notes, although the country had once been a net exporter of rice, "by 2005, three out of every four plates of rice eaten in Haiti came from the US." During this period, USAID invested heavily in Haiti, but this "charity" came not in the form of grants to develop Haiti's agricultural infrastructure, but in direct food aid, furthering Haiti's dependence on foreign assistance while also funneling money back to US agribusiness.

A 2008 report from the Center for International Policy points out that in 2003, Haiti spent $57.4 million to service its debt, while total foreign assistance for education, health care and other services was a mere $39.21 million. In other words, under a system of putative benevolence, Haiti paid back more than it received. As Paul Farmer noted in our pages after hurricanes whipped the country in 2008, Haiti is "a veritable graveyard of development projects."

So what can activists do in addition to donating to a charity? One long-term objective is to get the IMF to forgive all $265 million of Haiti's debt (that's the $165 million outstanding, plus the $100 million issued this week). In the short term, Haiti's IMF loans could be restructured to come from the IMF's rapid credit facility, which doesn't impose conditions like keeping wages and inflation down.

Indeed, debt relief is essential to Haiti's future. It recently had about $1.2 billion in debt canceled, but it still owes about $891 million, all of which was lent to the country from 2004 onward. $429 million of that debt is held by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), to whom Haiti is scheduled to make $10 million in payments next year. Obviously, that's money better spent on saving Haitian lives and rebuilding the country in the months ahead; the cancellation of the entire sum would free up precious capital. The US controls about 30 percent of the bank's shares; Latin American and Caribbean countries hold just over 50 percent. Notably, the IDB's loans come from its fund for special operations (i.e. the IDB's donor nations and funds from loans that have been paid back), not from IDB's bonds. Hence, the total amount could be forgiven without impacting the IDB's triple-A credit rating.

Finally, although the Obama administration temporarily halted deportations to Haiti, it hasn't granted Haitians temporary protected status (TPS), which would save them from being deported back to the scene of a disaster for as long as 18 months, allow them to work in the US and, crucially, send money back to relatives in Haiti. In the past, TPS has been given to countries like Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998 after Hurrican Mitch, but it has never been extended to Haitians, even after the 2008 storms, presumably because immigrations officials fear a mass exodus from Haiti.

But decency, as well as fairness, should trump those fears now. As Sunita Patel, an attorney with CCR, told me, "We have granted TPS to El Salavador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Somalia and Sudan following natural disasters. To apply different rules here would fly in the face of the administration's efforts to build good will abroad."

(UPDATE: It has just been announced that the Obama administration has granted Temporary Protected Status to Haiti. This is a great relief to Haitians in the US and a victory for those who pressured the administration to do so.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Caged Tiger

by Dave Zirin

Tiger Woods's self-imposed exile from golf is the most stunning--and stunningly rapid--fall from grace in the history of sports. Woods's departure may last three months or it may last three years. But one thing is certain: unlike the twenty-four-hour sleaze that's dominated the airwaves since the initial revelations of Woods's infidelities, this is actual news.

The jury is out on whether Tiger's retreat makes him more sympathetic. But we should remember that Woods didn't choose to leave golf until his sponsors left him. He announced his departure on December 11. He hadn't been on a prime-time commercial since November 29, three days after his car accident, according to the Nielsen Company.
This is what we call chickens coming home to roost. The least attractive part of Woods's persona--including all recent peccadilloes--is his complete absence of conscience when it comes to peddling his billion-dollar brand. Tiger's partnerships with toxic waste dumper Chevron and financial criminals in Dubai deserve far more scrutiny from the sports press than they have received (none). Then there was the Philippines. As detailed in the documentary The Golf War, the Philippine government, in conjunction with the military and developers, attempted in the late 1990s to remove thousands of peasants from their land in order to build a golf course. Where was Woods? He was brought in by the government to play in an exhibition match and sell golf, all for an undisclosed fee.

Tiger, with his global ethnic appeal, has been the sport's avatar, traveling the global South seeking new acres to conquer. The sports media have for years defended his right to "not be political." But he has been political. It's the politics of using golf as a weapon to reap untold riches and all the other attendant privileges of fame. It's the politics of turning a blind eye to your corporate partners' malfeasance when there's a buck to be made. This is the real teachable moment of this whole circus: if you front for the worst of the worst, don't expect anyone to have your back.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

No Impact Man

From the website:

Colin Beavan decides to completely eliminate his personal impact on the environment for the next year.

It means eating vegetarian, buying only local food, and turning off the refrigerator. It also means no elevators, no television, no cars, busses, or airplanes, no toxic cleaning products, no electricity, no material consumption, and no garbage.

No problem – at least for Colin – but he and his family live in Manhattan. So when his espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping wife Michelle and their two-year-old daughter are dragged into the fray, the No Impact Project has an unforeseen impact of its own.

Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's film provides an intriguing inside look into the experiment that became a national fascination and media sensation, while examining the familial strains and strengthened bonds that result from Colin and Michelle’s struggle with their radical lifestyle change.

Watch the trailer.