my review: white meadows – a film by mohammad rasoulof

just saw iranian film “white meadows”. directed by mohammad rasoulof and edited by jafar panahi, the introduction itself was sensational as both men have been arrested by the iranian govt. the film is described as an allegorical poem rooted in persian literature and contemporary politics. the cinematography is stunning. the film was shot on the salt islands of lake urmia. scenes are bare, mostly devoid of color or texture, and stark in their black and white contrast. men and women dressed in black, moving quietly across still, panoramic shots reminded me of shirin neshat’s video work.

we go on a journey with rahmat, a professional tear collector, who travels from salt island to salt island, listening to people’s heartaches and collecting their tears. the visualization of the expression of grief and ritualistic human endeavors aimed at resolving it, living with it, are poetic indeed. in one village, people take turns whispering their sorrowful secrets into small glass jars and shutting them tight. after they have their tears gathered by rahmat into a small glass vial, all the jars weighed down by guilt, pain and remorse are attached to the body of a man small enough to climb down the well. he happens to be a dwarf who was recently married. he is asked to leave the jars at the bottom of the well and climb back up before sunrise. the man is apprehensive about being able to move that fast but he accepts his fate. when he is unable to resurface on time, the rope is cut condemning him to death, to the lamentation of his young wife. rahmat encounters many such stories.

altho i appreciate the symbolic import of each fable and i am not one to complain about abstraction, i was disappointed by many of the stereotypical images used by rasoulof. the stoning of a young lover, the ceremonial sacrifice of an underage virgin, the torture of dissenters – these are not ground-breaking allegories but mainstream platitudes that the west is already v cozy with. they don’t tell us anything new about iran, but reinforce the propagandist summation of iran as cruel, mysterious, incomprehensible. the reaction i heard most often in the theater, throughout the film, was “jeez” – an expression of shock and self-righteous dismay. any fox news report on iran can produce that reaction, any time of the day.

of course i am all for freedom of speech, especially artistic expression. rasoulof’s film is visually complex and humane. yet i fear the reaction of many magnanimous americans who might be tempted to think that we have something to teach other cultures. and another question: when do we get to see an allegorical film about american oppression and ritualistic sacrifice? symbols could include images of scalping and branding people, waterboarding and dark pools of thick sticky oil. any takers?

white meadows

Poetry – a film by Lee Chang-dong

saw a terrific korean film called “poetry.” it’s about women being much put-upon, it’s about how the finest, tenderest of human feelings cannot find expression in a world that doesn’t care, it’s about lives that become irreversibly intertwined, it’s about finding one’s voice.

this is a subtle film – it’s quiet and lyrical, yet full of violence – violence we don’t see but can read as subtext. what struck me most is how women r so socially imposed upon – it’s something we accept, irrespective of culture.

man with baby by larry clark, 1971

read a most excellent essay on photography by abigail solomon-godeau. it’s called “inside/out.” she starts with susan sontag’s critique of diane arbus’s photography as being voyeuristic and touristy because it does not produce sympathy or compassion for her subjects thru engagement – her view is always from the outside. martha rosler looks at this phenomenon in more political terms: “imperialism breeds an imperialistic sensibility in all phases of cultural life.” in other words, photography colonizes experiences associated with the other.

solomon-godeau tackles this binary of inside/outside by looking at photography produced by so-called insiders – larry clark and nan goldin. both claim to be immersed in the subcultures they photograph – goldin is emotionally invested in the cross-dressers and transvestites she photographs and clark identifies with his male adolescents subjects who embody his own teenage experience of growing up in tulsa. the private moments they r privy to, the closeness of the camera and the intense collaboration between photographer and subject r obvious in their work. however, does this insider position change the way their photographs r received or consumed by the viewer?

since all photography that deals with sexuality, will inevitably intersect with the viewer’s own sexuality, isn’t such work always located on the inside? by default? i would venture to say that this argument can be made for all photography, in fact for all art – viewers will always approach art from the point of view of their own experience. from cubism to minimalism, artists have relied on the viewer’s memory images to assimilate the various parts of an artwork and achieve some cognitive unity. the essay ends with the apt conclusion that “reality is always mediated thru representational systems” and therefore maybe the inside/outside rubric is problematic to start with.

man with baby by larry clark

met marc grossman, special envoy to “afpak” after holbrooke

april 14, 2011: heard marc grosssman (the new envoy to afpak, after holbrooke) speak in rochester yesterday and got a chance to talk to him.

his entire presentation had nothing to do with reality. he said that obama’s “surge” had worked, that afghanistan was doing much better now, that it was secure, that 85% of women will soon have access to healthcare. wtf. afghanistan is more insecure today than it was under the taliban. it is the 2nd poorest country in the world. more women try to commit suicide today than ever before. it’s a humanitarian catastrophe!

he kept talking about bringing peace to the region and resolving the “conflict” and being interested in afghans taking the lead, but never once did he mention the occupation!!! so that’s what i asked. the “conflict” is the occupation. until we leave there can never be a resolution – just like in vietnam. he talked about an economic surge and a diplomatic surge (after iraq, surge has become such a horrific word – he should work on his terminology) which would complement the military surge. yes, they wanted to draw down american troops and be out by 2014, altho some forces would stay behind to train etc. lol. as if we’re falling for that. they have no intentions of getting out – they r building elaborate “bases” protected by huge, steel-reinforced concrete walls in pakistani cities as we speak.

my husband asked him if he could provide one example, in human history, where terrorism was defeated thru military means. he asked why intelligence and police work and negotiation and integration, which have worked in other places at other times, couldn’t be used in afghanistan. but grossman insisted that he needed all three “surges” for the taliban r not just going to listen to us (he made a joke), they will have to be forced militarily. of course he didn’t mention the fact that the taliban control most of afghanistan – they r not a tiny fringe group that can be “forced” to do anything. another question: why r we even fighting the taliban? they have no links to intl terrorism.

someone asked about whether the u.s. can afford all of this financially. he replied that we only spend 1% of our budget on intl aid. he didn’t even mention the cost of the occupation. it’s not about economic aid, it’s about military spending – what percentage of the budget is that?

someone said who r we to set the world straight. he answered that our lives are at risk. we cannot repeat 1989 – when the u.s. abandoned afghanistan, after soviet military withdrawal. what he didn’t mention was that the present puppet govt is composed of the same drug traffickers and warlords who wreaked violence on afghanistan in 1989. the taliban were a response to that mayhem.

my husband asked him about kashmir. since the unrest in south asia is about pakistan and india, why isn’t he the envoy to afghanistan, pakistan and india? he said that had been holbrooke’s plan but india said no. that’s it? india said no? i guess that makes sense.

finally i asked him about drone attacks. i told him the number of civilian casualties last year and the year before – more than 900 people per year. he said that he was not allowed to comment on drone attacks. he said that if he could explain we would understand that the civilian casualties r not that serious. a continuation of the same policy of classifying every lie as secret information and refusing to comment or, god forbid, produce evidence.

personally, grossman seemed to lack depth. i don’t know if this was his “stupid talk” for the general public or if he actually believes all the lies that he was dishing out. he seemed shifty. he didn’t make any eye contact with me the whole time we were talking. it was impossible to get thru – his programming was just too thorough. his entire presentation was bland, generic, mendacious. it was an alternative reality presented to a media-managed audience (including a good number of educators). those r the kind of speeches they must have given to american audiences 45-50 years ago, to justify vietnam.

marc grossman

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol, 1962, silkscreen painting.

andy warhol’s marilyn diptych is not just a comment on the commercial peddling of image, the impersonal processes involved in mass production or the banality of modern day media culture, i think that it also explores the nature of public grief. if we look at this artwork in the context of the “death and disaster” series (repetitive prints of graphic automobile crashes) or the “tuna fish disaster” (images of tuna fish cans along with images of two american women killed by food poisoning from canned fish, arranged in a grid) or “sixteen jackies,” it seems to me that he was trying to walk the line between private and public disaster, private and public grief. a fatal car accident is much more real to us, much less consumable. yet warhol approaches this disturbing material with the same rules of ruthless media bombardment we expect for celebrity images and sound bites. the celebrity drama that we take for granted and consume daily, is terrifyingly real to those actually involved in it. can’t help but apply this idea to our present wars and occupations – perhaps repetition, meaningless bullet points and information overload have distracted us enough to take emotion and compassion out of the equation? at the end of the day, it’s just consumable news.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy Warhol

surrealism and freud

rené magritte, je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt (i don’t see the [woman] hidden in the forest), 1929. surrealism was intimately linked to freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. surrealists were inspired by freud’s delineation of the unconscious as a realm quite apart from the conscious, yet integral in informing conscious thought and behavior. the unconscious became a way for surrealists to explore the underside of modernity (the erotic, the bizarre, the incongruent) and woman became the organizing metaphor of their creative philosophy. woman was a sign for desire, for what is hidden, for the “other”. for surrealists, woman embodied psychic force and therefore she represented “the most beautiful protest” against the rational, functional, repressive order of modern society. in magritte’s painting/photomontage, woman is at the center of male dreams. she is surrounded by photographs of the surrealist group with their eyes closed. she is also plainly a sign for latent fantasies as she replaces the word femme (or woman) – she personifies that which is not manifest.

rené magritte, je ne vois pas la [femme] cachée dans la forêt

the house of mirth

finished reading edith wharton’s “the house of mirth” in florida. as i had just read “the age of innocence,” i can’t help but compare the two books. i found “age” to be more polished in a sense – a perfectly proportioned work of art, meticulously observed, beautifully crafted. “the house of mirth” has more abandon to it and requires more emotional engagement. rather than having the luxury of observing a society constrained by arbitrary conventions, we are thrown headlong into the stuffy parlors of new york’s elite and we can’t help but live lily bart’s struggles as she tries to make her way around the serpentine maze of hypocritical upper class etiquette. lily’s gradual fall from grace is difficult to experience as it underlines the paltry set of choices available to women in societies where they are mostly meant to be ornamental. this frustration is further heightened by lily’s doomed relationship with lawrence seldon, the only man who makes her feel like a complete human being. the sense of suffocation that one feels throughout the book changes to much sadness as we reach the final denouement of lily’s tragic fate.

the house of mirth

ITALY: Its a Lot Worse Than Sex Parties

The demonstration by an estimated million women across Italy Sunday points to a continuing denial of fair opportunities for women at work. The protest demonstrations, in 280 cities in Italy and 28 cities abroad, were called to demand action against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi over the latest scandals. The turnout was some measure of the determination among women to take the political and public debate in Italy to the real problems of women. The protest followed weeks of intense debate over allegations that Berlusconi paid for sexual intercourse with a number of young women, including a 17- year-old undocumented girl from Morocco. In Italy the age of consent is 14, but prostitution below 18 is illegal. Full article.

i saw this excellent doc a while back called “videocracy” (a combination of video and democracy). it’s a terrific exploration of everything described in this article. berlusconi’s life and politics, his social stature and corporate media dominance have altered italian culture in a v sick way. no wonder millions of women have had enough. my review of the film here.

don’t minimize the egyptian revolution

pls don’t minimize the egyptian revolution. try to mobilize 20 million people to come out in the streets for 18 days and remove a cruel and powerful tyrant from office peacefully, then tell me about it.

i’m so tired of all the skepticism. of course, it’s not over yet – it’s just the beginning. egyptians are not prepared to go home and watch soap operas while suleiman assumes the role of mubarak II. i don’t think they would have come this far if that had been their MO.

this is a seminal moment in history. for egyptians and tunisians, for arabs, for the middle east, for client states, for people who are treated with contempt by their own rulers and elite, for people who have been told that they don’t count, for people who have come to believe that they are helpless and weak, for populations that have been labeled apathetic and not deserving of democracy, for all of us who yearn for justice and dignity and some voice in the unfolding of our own destiny. today is a great day for all of us. yes, the road ahead is always hard, but today we deserve to celebrate with and for the people of egypt. period.

don’t minimize the egyptian revolution

“blue nude, souvenir of biskra” by henri matisse – 1907

the fauves or wild beasts were known for their garishly colored paintings. their artwork was rooted in primitivism, which was apparent in the crude application of paint and the incorporation of unpainted or unprimed areas and also in the idea of an exotic, geographically far removed paradise (similar to gauguin’s quest for pleasure and plenitude embodied by distance and otherness). their artistic impetuosity, anarchism and focus on joie de vivre marched in lockstep with literary movements including nietzsche’s individualism and andre gide’s naturalism. on top of the existing categories of paysage historique and paysage champetre, the fauves invented a third category of paysage decoratif. this type of landscape was less representative of a certain location, it was more abstracted – more barbare, more naif.

matisse was considered le fauve des fauves. his work was thought to be the closest to pure art. his originality added another dimension to fauvism. for example, his painting “bonheur de vivre” was not just a paysage decoratif, it also distorted scale and perspective. similarly, matisse’s “blue nude, souvenir of biskra” speaks the language of primitivism’s colonial pillaging and decontextualization, but at the same time it refuses to subscribe to the classic representation of the odalisque in western art. matisse’s nude is hardly a seductress. even though her body is obviously inspired by african statuettes, it is distorted and exaggerated, not eroticized. it is clear that matisse is more concerned with the tools of representation. his technique includes modeling, simplification of form, spatial ambiguity, and experimenting with contrapposto (an undulating s-curve pose).

taken to an extreme “decorative” can become a pejorative term, signifying superficiality and ornamentation associated with handicrafts. however, in the case of the fauves “decorative deformations” emphasized the surface of the painting and the inner meanings or “resonances” that distortions could elicit in order to reveal some basic truth. matisse was more concerned with surface and the smooth blending of diverse painterly elements, i.e. the arrangement of objects or figures, their proportions and passage. critics have characterized matisse’s “decorative” approach as being primarily about flattening, generalizing, and abstracting to achieve purity.

“blue nude, souvenir of biskra” by henri matisse - 1907

les demoiselles d’avignon by pablo picasso (1907)

read daniel-henry kahnweiler’s “the rise of cubism” in which he explains how cubism solved the conflict between representation and structure. representation is concerned with reproducing a three dimensional object on a two dimensional, flat surface and the correct use of color. structure stands for the comprehension of that object within the unity of the painting. he is quick to point out that representation of form, as envisaged by cubists, did not mean the use of light and shade (chiaroscuro) in order to give depth and dimension to objects and comprehension did not mean simply good composition.

picasso and braque, the two founders of cubism, abandoned fidelity to nature (as embodied by illusionist practices of painting) to create a new language of form. by using geometric schemes of form to build a painting forward, starting with a well-defined background, by using different sources of light and showing objects from different sides, and by using color as an end in itself, cubists were able to break the link between the painting and the outer world. this afforded them unprecedented artistic freedom. however, by introducing undistorted real objects into the painting, they were able to stimulate the spectator’s memory thus allowing her to fuse the various representations of an object into a coherent whole, in her mind. the goal of painting shifted from being analytical to synthetic. descriptive titles were used to further facilitate the spectator’s ability to assimilate and synthesize.

kahnweiler goes on to argue that cubism lessens the unconscious human effort needed to perceive three dimensional objects by merging flat optical images (seen in terms of horizontal and vertical lines as well as circles) with existing knowledge of the third dimension (cubes, spheres and cylinders). this is because cubists emulate the process of human vision – they use basic forms as the skeletal frame on which their paintings are constructed (much like retinal images) and provide details which trigger memory images and enable the human mind to mesh that information together into a lucid “seeing” of the painting.

on subject matter:

mechanization, the soullessness of mass production and the resultant social disconnectedness were all reflected in “modern” art. i posted seurat’s “grande jatte” a while back. that’s the seminal artwork in that respect. with cubism there was more focus on “painterly” dilemmas. cezanne changed painting forever when he began to concern himself with the inherent structure of the painting first and foremost. the goal of this “autonomous” approach was to produce revolutionary art which was completely apolitical.

in les demoiselles we r beginning to see picasso’s struggle with representation and unity. he was strongly influenced by african masks, by their ability to abstract. hence u see the “modelling” in the figures on the right. even the “passage” (way of linking foreground, middleground and background) is faceted. the perspective is totally off, of course, much like cezanne. similarly, the tools of the trade r in evidence – for example the cross-hatcheting. cubism developed a new complex language which broke the final bonds with “closed” form and faithful representation.

on picasso’s misogynism:

there r certainly some misogynist undertones to picasso’s work, especially his later work. it’s not just him. i was shocked to discover that gauguin’s tahitian mistresses were no more than 13-15 yrs old and that cezanne entertained rape fantasies. when i posted renoir’s painting “la loge” and compared it to may’s cassatt’s we had a v interesting discussion on how art as we know it might have been completely diff if women had been allowed to have more of a voice. i love what judy chicago says about this:

“I think that one of the questions I raised in Women and Art is that if we can’t use the historic language of art because so much of it is misogynous, what language are we supposed to use as women artists? If we can’t use the female body, for example, because there is such a thin line between representation and colonization, then what are we supposed to do?

To build a new language, that’s a big job. And you have to remember that feminist, oppositional art is only thirty years old. Certainly there were antecedents to it—one could mention a lot of earlier women. But still they worked more in the tradition of art. There wasn’t yet an openly female tradition for younger women to work in. So women are at the beginning of building a language, and not all women are conscious of it.”

and that reminds me of helene cixous’s “le rire de la meduse” – women must invent a new language, a language rooted in their own bodies: ecris-toi, il faut que ton corps se fasse entendre.

les demoiselles d’avignon by pablo picasso (1907)

joan holden’s play “nickel and dimed”

jan 24, 2011: just attended a reading of joan holden’s play “nickel and dimed” at geva theater. the play is based on barbara ehrenreich’s book in which she says provocatively: “when someone works for less pay than she can live on – when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently – then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. the working poor, as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. they neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. to be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.”

i found the play depressing – there is a hopelessness that comes from the constant, exhausting struggle for survival among america’s working poor. it’s difficult to witness. but i was more depressed by many in the audience who, in the post play discussion, expressed their disenchantment with unions. unions can be run competently or not, but the benefits of organizing workers in order to offer them some protection in a ruthless corporate work environment is a no-brainer. we need a strong movement for economic justice which can articulate all of this. the present situation is unacceptable, untenable.

“nickel and dimed” by barbara ehrenreich

my comments on hendrik hertzberg’s “what wikileaks tells us about iran”

this essay highlights many things for me: wikileaks cables r NOT the pentagon papers – they do not reveal anything new. hertzberg, much like fareed zakaria (an unflattering comparison by any standards), finds the leaks reassuring as they simply showcase the apparent honesty of american foreign policy and the eloquence of american diplomats.

the biggest revelation, according to both writers, is how iran has been proven to be a threat, not just to israel and by extension the u.s., but also to arab states in the region. this is what wikileaks has accomplished – a judith miller via the internet, with oh, so much more credibility.

i’m deeply disappointed by hertzberg’s use of corporate-media-speak. he insists on calling the iranian govt “mullahs” while failing to call the american govt “war criminals” – that would put things in perspective, no? the iranian govt might place religion on an altar but don’t we do the same with corporate profit? they imprison women for adultery because it’s against their religion and we torture people for resisting our military occupations because it’s against ours.

i’m also tired of ahmadinejad’s corny description as holocaust denier and potential eraser of israel. how come we don’t use similar labels for netanyahu or pretty much every israeli politician of import? here r some ideas: ethnic cleanser of palestine, bulldozer of homes, incarcerator of children, supporter of apartheid, blockador and decimator of civilians, etc. so preposterous to judge one politician (ahmadinejad) on rhetoric while refusing to judge another (netanyahu and others) on action.

it’s also incredible to me that someone of hertzberg’s intelligence would consider an imaginary iranian bomb to be a threat to israel because it would embolden its enemies and shatter its mystique of invincibility. can’t he see the obvious disadvantages of the lopsided distribution of power in the middle east, which is further distorted by israel’s unilateral possession of nuclear arms. how does that encourage balance or any investment in diplomacy? i’m not advocating nuclear bombs for everyone but a change in thinking – nuclear disarmament on every side, not just countries that fall outside our sphere of influence and consequently off of our most popular client state list.

most disheartening of all r hertzberg’s reasons for not going to war again, on muslim soil: in view of time investment and poor chances of bloodlessness (for americans, hertzberg is quick to elaborate). he doesn’t care to mention the illegality of the wars or the massive horror and mayhem visited on muslim civilians.

he ends with some wisdom about internal change being a better option in iran. but he reminds the u.s. and israel (he makes it a point to see them as interchangeable) to keep up their “steady vigilance, strategic patience, and stomach for twilight uncertainty” in order to defeat iran’s evil intentions. he is particularly excited by the “biting” sanctions against iran in this regard. an equally strong argument can be made for non-western or muslim countries (on whose soil we like to play our war games) to use their vigilance, patience and stomach for uncertainty vis a vis what the united states/israel have in store for them. if the present wars and occupations r any guide, it’s not anything good i’m afraid.

Iran and the Bomb by Hendrik Hertzberg
The New Yorker, DECEMBER 13, 2010

WikiLeaks Shows the Skills of U.S. Diplomats By FAREED ZAKARIA
Time, Thursday, Dec. 02, 2010

my review: “the age of innocence” by edith wharton

edith wharton’s “the age of innocence” was a joy to read – the language is sumptuous, her focus relentless. she fleshes out her characters so that they stand out in sharp relief yet she never weighs down her writing with irrelevant fluff.

i love the clarity with which she explores newland archer’s innermost thoughts. we recognize the split b/w how he views the world or the people around him and how he mostly behaves in accordance with good social programming. that disconnect is made all the more dramatic by how the story is located in upper-crust new york society, at the end of the 19th century. everything had to be done just so, based on a litany of what often seemed like preposterous rules related to good form and good taste. in this complex milieu we are regaled with a private tour of archer’s mind.

wharton’s keen assessment and description of late 19th century new york society:

“in reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs…”

wharton is not shy about exposing the need for old new york to be more british than the british. it’s reminiscent of the kalaa sahib phenomenon in the indian subcontinent. such is the destiny of all colonies perhaps. it’s also fascinating to see how new york has changed, from a time when family scandals could be tolerated (albeit with much aggravation) but NOT “business irregularities,” to wall street having become the essence of financial chicanery.

wharton’s sensitive articulation of what goes on in the human mind:

“but when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product. untrained nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defenses of an instinctive guile. and he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

“since there had been no farther communication b/w them, and he had built w/i himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings. little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities… outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absent-minded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.”

“their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty; lapsing from that it became a mere battle of ugly appetites.”

finally, wharton’s mastery of language:

“archer hung a moment on a thin thread of memory, but it snapped and floated off with the disappearing face, apparently that of some foreign business man looking doubly foreign in such a setting.”

“archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed.”

the film:

the first time i saw martin scorsese’s “the age of innocence,” many years ago, i came away with the feeling that it lacked heart. i saw it again a couple of days ago, after reading the book, and it all made sense. scorsese’s film is a visually lush, impeccably choreographed tableau, complete with narration (by joanne woodward). like the book, the film highlights the precedence of form over substance, of artificial perfection over uneven reality, of meaningful looks over “unpleasant” words and actions. it’s apt.

John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892-93

John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892-93

israel and palestine after the flotilla – a lecture by norman finkelstein at le moyne college

dr norman finkelstein spoke at le moyne college, in syracuse, last thursday. it’s a miracle he got to do so in view of the pressure that was put on le moyne to cancel the event. when an outright cancellation could not be achieved, the idea was floated that a panel should be set up to “discuss” finkelstein’s arguments. both those attempts at sabotage were foiled by local activists, thankfully, and we got to hear the man.

what i like about norman finkelstein is how he builds his case – deliberately, factually, with scientific precision and logic, with specific references and quotes, he constructs an argument that is solid and seems self-evident by the time he’s finished.

finkelstein began his lecture with the election of hamas in gaza, in what were unanimously believed to be fair and open elections. however, since the “wrong” party won, the united states and israel tried to back up a coup, which failed, and then imposed a blockade.

all military activities were halted on june 19, 2008 when a cease-fire was brokered by egypt under which hamas was to stop rocket and mortar attacks and israel was to lift the blockade on gaza. hamas stopped the attacks but israel reneged on its obligation.

on nov 4th, american election day, israel attacked and killed 6 palestinians inside the gaza strip thus ending the cease-fire.

hostilities resumed and israel initiated operation cast lead on december 27, 2008. finkelstein is particular about how the world should describe what happened in the following 22 days – it wasn’t a “war” but a “massacre”. why? finkelstein asked the audience to google “breaking the silence” and to read the testimony of israeli soldiers. time after time the soldiers repeat that they didn’t see anyone – there was no enemy, there were no battles, there was no fighting. of the 3,000 air missions flown into gaza, each and every plane came back to base. no plane was damaged. some of the soldiers’ metaphors: it was like playing video games, it was like hunting season, it was like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass. the word “insane” comes up over and over again: israel used insane fire power – the ground shook, soldiers were asked to exit the houses they were operating from lest they collapse. insane fire power. white phosphorous, which had been used before in 1982 in lebanon, was also used in gaza. white phosphorous burns at a temperature of 1,500 degrees F.

how about some stats to back up the claim that it was a massacre? ratio of israeli to palestinian deaths: 1 to 100 including soldiers, 1 to 400 when looking at civilians only. what about israel’s claim of hamas using human shields? more than 300 reports have been written about what happened in gaza by various human rights organizations. no evidence of human shields was found by any of them. autopsy reports confirmed that palestinians were not killed because they got caught in cross fire. rather they were bombed while they slept in their beds or they were air-targeted while they were at home.

after the 22 day-long gaza massacre, the blockade was not lifted. it became more insidious. gaza’s infrastructure had been completely destroyed (including its schools and hospitals, its only flour mill and its cement mixing plants) and there was no way to repair it.

we then come to the gaza aid flotilla which was the 8th or 9th attempt to break the blockade. finkelstein refuses to believe that israel’s motive was anything but violence.

why did israel not disable the ship’s propeller or engine? why didn’t they block the flotilla with their ships? if they didn’t expect any resistance, why did they launch a commando raid at 4 am? why did they use a unit that’s trained to kill? why didn’t they bring journalists along to document everything?

finkelstein believes that the answer is two-fold:

1) israel wanted to restore its deterrence capacity. what does that mean? they wanted to re-instill “fear” in the arab world after their defeat in lebanon.
2) israel wanted to cut turkey down to size. let’s not forget that 60% of the passengers on the mavi marmara were turkish. 95% were muslim.

one of finkelstein’s most ominous predictions is that israel will launch a highly spectacular attack against lebanon in the next 12-18 months, in order to make up for a string of failures (israel’s defeat in lebanon in 2006, the invasion of gaza which was seen as cowardice rather than a show of strength, and the assassination of a hamas leader in dubai which created innumerable diplomatic embarrassments). such an attack would be in line with israel’s fear of a new encirclement (hamas, hezbollah, syria and iran). israel is likely to initiate such an attack. syria and iran are likely to join the fray for they know that if lebanon is destroyed, they will be next. finally, the united states will be pulled into such a war in order to support its ally in the middle east. a terrifying scenario.

finkelstein emphasized the historic achievement of the gaza aid flotilla. that the words “the israeli siege of gaza is unsustainable” have now become common currency, is on account of the heroism of activists. he urged the movement for palestinian rights not to be distracted by “side shows” such as the peace process – which has allowed the gradual annexation of the west bank (42% of it is now occupied). the peace process is just a facade for an annexation process.

during Q&A, finkelstein was obviously confronted with the “one-sidedness” of his arguments. his answer was simple:

1) don’t blame the messenger for the message. there are over 300 human rights reports on the gaza massacre. finkelstein has read up to 10,000 pages of them. they r all consistent. he just quoted from them.
2) look at some stats: 100 to 1 dead, 6,000 to 1 homes destroyed – yes, that is one sided.

the metaphor of a child burning ants with a magnifying glass was critiqued. also, it was observed that maybe the “magnifying glass” was being used to look for gilad shalit. finkelstein’s answer:

1) ur beef is with the israeli soldier who used this expression. he was in the field and this was his metaphor. u should argue with him.
2) the ratio of prisoners held by each side: one gilad shalit to 8,000 palestinians. finkelstein challenged the audience to come up with the name of just one palestinian prisoner. silence. he also questioned the motive of bombing flour mills, cement plants and hospitals all the while looking for shalit. it doesn’t compute.

the only thing i didn’t agree with was finkelstein’s stance on BDS. he said that it was appropriate to boycott products made in the settlements (in the occupied territories) but a broad boycott of everything israeli didn’t make sense. his view is that israel is as legitimate a state as any other and therefore such a broad boycott would be discriminatory. i found this to be a weak argument. south africa, india, pakistan, cuba, iraq and iran are all legitimate states just like any other, yet they have all faced sanctions at different times. thus, sanctions do not imply state illegitimacy. in the case of south africa, BDS was proven to be an effective tool against apartheid. i refuse to believe that israel is “unique” in this regard. what worked for south africa, should work for israel. countries that view themselves as first world democracies don’t like to be treated like pariahs. BDS is a powerful, non-violent, international citizens’ movement that bypasses complicit governments and demands change. it gives one hope.

finkelstein finished on an optimistic note. he said that the pace of change is always glacial. it doesn’t happen overnight. it takes place through the slow accretion of knowledge. he talked about facebook. he said he had heard wonderful things about it and activists should use all the media now available to them to organize and educate. he said that activism didn’t have to involve self-sacrifice. to be part of something bigger than oneself is not a sacrifice. it’s a thrill.

well, the fact that 400 people turned up to listen to finkelstein on a rainy thursday evening was a small sign that things might be changing.

norman finkelstein