A September 11th, 2001 Exchange With Pops (RIP)

(WARNING: I was a real fucking blowhard back then, you know? I don’t offer this as any evidence of any literary ability, it’s just bombast–and sadness in some form, I guess. On my part that is–pops is wise as usual in his observations)

Dear Dad,

Unprovoked?

What a joke, no booming voice of righteousness can make it true. At a moment when the big apple’s skies rain bodies like broken angels and our blood rises and as a nation (yes, even my subversive ass) we weep, we would give all that we possess to believe that we didn’t bring this on ourselves as a nation and will, as a result, get justice and somehow heal. But these concepts are tattered and flawed by the same blades that we have held to the throats of continents, by the terror and decimation we have inflicted on hundreds of thousands at least as innocent as those who filled the vanquished towers.

Truly I have never before wished more fervently for the ability to be patriotic, indignant, inspired to stand and avenge the wound in my homeland. And for me, the sick agony that burns and roils now in my sternum is composed mainly of the fact that I am denied that rolling, strong, curative feeling. Certainly I will mourn the victims of New York, but no more than I will mourn the victims of whatever swath of land our leaders select for reprisal in all its horrible scope, nor more than I mourned the peoples that have been crushed and oppressed by our imperialist zeal since the inception of this empire.

Alright, that’s not entirely true. I don’t make any claims to the purity of my integrity; I found myself far more disturbed and saddened by today’s events than any single incident that I had knowledge of in any of the above cases. Despite myself, I guess that my heart lurches more toward perishing, suffering Americans than toward an equitable snippet of agony elsewhere on the globe. However, unlike many, I am not proud of that response and will endeavor as always to value all human life equally and condemn acts of malice against all people equally. I will not revel in my misplaced and twisted patriotism by valuing Americans¹ existence more than others.

The more profound and lasting crime against the people of the United States is the misdirection of our rage and wrath toward vague and arbitrary culprits or invented boogeymen. The true crime is the success that our political masters have had in dumbing us down and blinding us to their avaricious and bloody exploits which have, in a manifestation beyond belief, come home to roost and exacted the price from the deceived heart of America: the people.

This disjointed, short missive leaves volumes to be discussed and desired, to be sure. There are many hours left in the night and I will see most of them either from my scratchy, thrift-store couch, or from my sticky, humid front porch, where I will huddle with my vices and ponder further. And lest I sound like some soulless academic fuckwad, from where I will also pray, in my own way, and launch great volleys of love out into the hot gusts that race, often, northward from here.

More than ever my thoughts and prayers are with my loved ones tonight, scattered as they are all across this bulging, troubled land – and even beyond it. Maybe that’s all I should have said in this; it’s the only thing, reading over it, that really feels right.

Let us all speak to our respective deities or lack thereof, and ask that all the broken people that litter the streets of Manhattan today are collected by their respected angels and make a swift trip to a place that is no doubt sweeter than downtown or anywhere within this sphere.

In love and a strange solidarity

eli

Dear Eli,

Maybe there is still hope that what happens is an unanimous
worldwide coalition against terrorism that makes its existence
impossible. I would like to think that such a thing is possible if the so
called people of good will in the world can cooperate. But then I think: as
long as the US stays defiantly in denial of its own role as an international
terrorist, how can this happen?

This is really a nightmare for most of us, although I suppose for those in
power it is nothing more or less than the long awaited and much desired
opportunity to display our might and righteousness.

Fuckin’ yikes.

You and I (and I hope all people of good will) are wrestling with balancing
our personal reaction with our intellectual reaction.

Intellectual reaction is easy, and because it is “rational”, seems like it
should be the only reaction that matters. Intellectually the attack
yesterday can be understood in terms of retaliation for the innumerable evil
deeds perpetrated by the United States government on various governments and
people around the world in the last hundred or more years. One would hope
that this point of view will be acknowledged by our leaders and fellow
citizens, although this is unfortunately not likely to be done to any large
degree. Following this line of thought the next thing that can happen is a
feeling of frustration and even anger towards our fellows, which ends up
making us feel isolated–the last thing we need.

It is important then to focus on our personal reaction: on the pain of
witnessing so much wanton loss, our fear at how the world has changed
forever, and on the anger at those responsible. It is not wrong to feel more
deeply affected by the sight of New Yorkers dying by the hundreds than
reading about atrocities in Nicaragua, seeing pictures from Bosnia, or
watching news from other places torn by terrorism and war. I think it is
natural to feel an affinity for those most like us. Yes, the intellect tells
us that that is wrong, that every human’s life is equally important, and
while that is indeed true we still can’t help but feel a kinship with our
kin–our tribe, if you will. It is an odd thing this tribal feeling,
because we are so unaccustomed to feeling connected to people we don’t
actually know. But that is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make, that
a positive thing that can come out of this is to acknowledge our connection
with others.

Concentrating on our personal reaction, on our emotions, keeps us committed
and connected to our hearts, and that’s where we need to be. We are not
comfortable or accustomed to thinking about this country as a huge family,
but it is, sociologically and otherwise. You and I, KC, your Mom,
David, our friends and other relatives are the core of that family and as
such we need to hold each other close both now when it is easy because we
have been reminded of the fragility of life, but in the future as often as
possible. To the extent we can do these things, this whole debacle will not
be utterly meaningless.

Love,
Dad

The Looming End: Castro and My Best Friend

The airwaves and e-world are awash, of course, in carnivorous speculation about what Fidel Castro is suffering from. The prurient guesses about his intestines and the conspiracy theories aren’t overly interesting; there is a surplus of talking heads to handle those angles. The burning question of what exactly post-Castro Cuba will look like, however, is a hot and valid topic. As I listen to the somber, proud Communist assurances that the “revolutionary project will continue” and the fanatical Miami crowing about “victory at last” and “death to the tyrant” I wonder, as I often have, just what that funny middle ground called truth will look like when the rhetorical dust settles and el Comandante is resting his ultimate rest.

According to his enemies, Castro is a cutthroat, a thug, a terrorist, a repressive tyrant that has ruled Cuba for so long only by way of brutality and threat. To his admirers he is a strong, just, heroic leader, and the only head of any nation to successfully defy the subversion, bombast, and sabotage that the U.S. government has meted out to its enemies since throughout the modern era. What’s not debatable is that Castro hails from an upper-middle class Cuban family and that his privilege and the accompanying education was the doorway through which he entered revolutionary, populist politics. Therefore, loathe him or venerate him, Castro is assuredly a complex figure and, by now, a stone-cast political and cultural icon.

It seems to me, though, that the important question isn’t what the pundits in Washington, the scorned hordes in Miami, or the ranks of armchair revolutionaries think of Mr. Castro. The important question is—or will become, once there is space to hear it asked—is what his people feel about him. Which way, ultimately, will his legacy swing, which image will be confirmed by those who have the experience and the right to confirm it?

When I traveled to Cuba several years ago, I went toting a youth full of leftist political ideology. It’s safe to say that I had placed Castro on a pedestal. My ire toward U.S. policy was so high octane at the time that even if I had been more aware of some of the not so shiny policies of the Cuban government, I probably would have swept them aside in my esteem for a man who could defy the world’s only superpower so eloquently and successfully for so long. By some stroke of luck or intuition, however, I did preserve the critical instinct to insist on experiencing the nation free of the government’s influence—in other words, I assiduously avoided the tourist track, which was not easy. But with highly functioning Spanish, lots of smiles, determination, and some ideological debates with functionaries, I managed to mainly stay in the streets and close to the Cubanos—who without exception embraced me not despite my nationality but because of it.

What I found was almost an even split: about half of the people that I managed to draw into discussion expressed opposition to the President that ranged from light dissatisfaction with social services to white-hot rage at their perceived “slavery.” The other half professed approval that ranged from a minimal confidence to deification. (It bears mentioning, however, that his most extreme critics were also the people who carried the notion that if you could get yourself to American shores there would be sports cars and blonde women waiting for you there.)

What I was displeased to discover was that the people who issued their critiques of the President often did so in whispers. But even those whispering were well fed, healthy, and adequately educated to converse expertly on many topics.

There is a documentary, Comandante (HBO Films, 2003) that the filmmaker Oliver Stone recorded a few years ago in Havana. In it, over the course of several days, he puts very tough questions to the Cuban leader. For his part, Castro answers without the slick slip-offs and evasions that we are accustomed to in politicians. At times, though, he does lapse into what seems to be earnest Marxist dogma, jabbing bizarrely long fingernails at his interrogator to make a point, liver-spotted brow rolling into severe furrows. At others moments he acknowledges mistakes and oversteps that his government has made with frank, direct stares across the desk and illustrative shrugs of his stiff-shouldered uniform.

At one point Stone is questioning the fate of a handful of refugees who attempted to hijack a boat to escape the island, killing the owner in the process. Castro responds by accompanying Stone to the (closed to the public) trial. As the accused swallow hard and try not to stutter in the presence of el Comandante, Castro laces his fingers and listens attentively. When Stone asks Castro what he thinks the fate of the men should be, Castro responds that it’s not his decision to make but that he hopes that they receive a very strong defense and are not put to death. But the judicial system is not his to manage. The disparity between his democratic claims and the totalitarian heft of his presence is never clearer.

At the end of the film, to prove out his claimed mandate, Castro wanders casually into a Havana street at sunset with Stone at his side. In seconds he is mobbed by well wishers who clamber for a brief grasp of his hand or a respectful pat of his shoulder, some weeping, all calling out their support and commitment in the sing song melodies of Cuban Spanish.

The viewer can never know, of course, whether or not that shot was theater. Nor can we know if all of those people descended from their dinners of beans and rice out of true joy or out of fear at what might happen if they didn’t. We can’t know if some were just caught up in the rush of bodies and moment. Perhaps we don’t see a larger number of citizens that hold back, cross their arms, scowl, or simply disappear inside their apartments. But we know that, for the President, the booming grin he wears is the confirmation of all he has argued.

We used to call my best friend the Fidel Castro of psychiatric patients. She suffered a depression so deep it physically immobilized her for days at a time. She often slept no more than five hours per week. The sight of a homeless man could break her into pieces, then into action, searching out blankets, food, water. She was tortured and haunted beyond my ability to report. What I can report is that not a single one of the top-shelf doctors or hundreds of psychiatric medications or thousands of hours of analysis, MRI’s or diet changes ever produced a real diagnosis or improvement. But I knew. She was merely without a filter. She looked at the horrors of the world everyday plainly and they eroded and poisoned her. She responded with everything she could—prayer, heroin, poetry, humanitarian work. But in the end she just hardened—she had to. She defended herself by closing as many doors as she could, which is the only logical response to an all-out assault.

Castro, since he marched victoriously into Havana in 1959, has been defending against an all-out assault by the world’s only superpower ninety miles west. We declared him an enemy, “the dagger at our loins,” from day one and we never paused in our zeal to sabotage, kill, or overthrow him. We’ve tried with bombs and bullets, exploding cigars, poison rum, livestock plagues, diplomatic bullying, economic blockades, and covert invasions. Nearly a dozen presidential administrations have vowed to be the end of him. Castro has responded in the only logical way—he closed doors, built walls, and made his own deals with those world players who could soothe the economic agony we’ve inflicted—even though some might not have been the most virtuous characters. He’s put his fist down when those who echoed us in his own citizenry became too raucous.

Ultimately, of course, the world at large will have its way in. My friend took her last breath in an alley at age 27. Castro will have his last sip of Caribbean air in the not-too-distant future. Whatever comes next, whatever it looks like, will ultimately prove to be a step toward Cuba’s opening to the dizzying, polarized, loudly debated world we’ve created.

I can’t say what’s for the best. But I must say that I’ve been impressed by the tenacity, the courage, and the fight.

Clarification: F*#k Hezbollah

I’m writing for the first time from the paradisiacal 75 degree breezes and unfettered blue of Seattle in August. The Blue Angels (Navy fighter jet stunt team) are ripping the sky, people are walking dogs willingly, and it’s almost like a real American city—albeit with fewer Old Glories a-flutter. I find myself feeling equal parts pleased and guilty about how easy and wonderful this month—and my life in general—is.

After a couple of heated exchanges with old friends—who have a tendency to pop up when you start a bombastic blog and when you come home after living abroad—it’s been both gently and brashly brought to my attention that I wasn’t quite clear enough with some of my comments on the nightmare in Lebanon (and the nightmare that Israel is perpetuating with almost equal ferocity in Gaza).

In particular, when I wrote that “if I were from Beirut instead of Seattle, I’d be fighting for Hezbollah by now” has caused me trouble. I want to underline something savagely, in red highlighter: I said if I was FROM Beirut, not if I was IN Beirut. My old friend Gavin Wall called me on my lack of clarity when he commented that he hoped if I was in Beirut I’d be trying to help protect innocent people, not killing others. Of course, he’s right—at least I like to think so. But through the distinction “in Beirut” versus “from Beirut” flows a world of difference. I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s easy for all of us progressives to weep and shake our heads and fists at what Israel is doing as long as we do the same at what Hezbollah is doing—although the proportions are as out of wack as a bunker buster hitting a modest home. But for us to really imagine who we would be, what we would be doing, if we were concerned, progressive people AND brown and from Beirut….well, that’s not such a welcome consideration. I think that most of the people I love, if they were from Beirut would also—sadly and bitterly and rent deeply by conflict—be standing up to fight with the only force that’s doing so.

In other words, to condemn violence and war is easy; to stand up and fight back when there’s no other option is a damn sight harder.

And it’s easy to even-handedly castigate the ugly actions of the Israelis and the Hezbollah militants—to admit that Hezbollah would seem the only bastion of self-defense and that if we were Lebanese we’d be forced into their ranks too…that’s unpopular and not pretty but, I believe, is also true and therefore worth saying.

At the end of the day, however, I’d like to remind everyone that the Lebanese are a hell of a lot more like us than any other middle eastern nation—they speak French and English, listen to hip-hop, dye their hair and drink beer, for God’s sake. That’s why I’m so sure that many of our peers over there who are fighting with Hezbollah would get on fantastically with any one of us (reading these kinds of blogs).

But I’ve digressed wildly. My point: f*#k Hezbollah (trying half-heartedly to keep this PG-13).

They are war criminals.

They are baby killers.

They are murderous racists.

They are fundamentalist fanatics.

They are oppressors of women.

They are Puritanical hypocrites.

Just like the Israeli government.

I have no love for Hezbollah, but I do have respect for the people of Lebanon (and Gaza) who make the choice to fight back against the attempted brutal erasure of their families, their lives, and their homeland.

“And as a Jewish person who is also from a family that suffered lots and lost a lot in the Holocaust, and I was raised to be aware and not to follow any kind of racist leaders, I think that now it’s very important to be mentioned that these leaders…is so dangerous for us, and Jewish people from all around the world must wake up and understand that in order to support Israel, in order to make sure that Israel will continue to exist, we must stop these guys. We must stop them, because now they continue to lead soldiers.”

– Yonatan Shapira, ex-Israeli Blackhawk helicopter pilot, member of Combatants for Peace

Monday, July 24th

www.democracynow.org

http://elihastings.com/28/

Rich Man’s War by Steve Earle



All thanks due to Dave Smith for introducing me to the sharpest, truest, dopest current anti-war song (ok, it’s a bit old). The man has lived hard and speaks truth easily (both Dave and Steve).

Jimmy joined the army ‘cause he had no place to go
There ain’t nobody hirin’
‘round here since all the jobs went
down to Mexico
Reckoned that he’d learn himself a trade maybe see the world
Move to the city someday and marry a black haired girl
Somebody somewhere had another plan
Now he’s got a rifle in his hand
Rollin’ into Baghdad wonderin’ how he got this far
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

Bobby had an eagle and a flag tattooed on his arm
Red white and blue to the bone when he landed in Kandahar
Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl
A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world
Been a year now and he’s still there
Chasin’ ghosts in the thin dry air
Meanwhile back at home the finance company took his car
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

When will we ever learn
When will we ever see
We stand up and take our turn
And keep tellin’ ourselves we’re free

Ali was the second son of a second son
Grew up in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks when the tanks would come
Ain’t nothin’ else to do around here just a game children play
Somethin’ ‘bout livin’ in fear all your life makes you hard that way

He answered when he got the call
Wrapped himself in death and praised Allah
A fat man in a new Mercedes drove him to the door
Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war

FALLING ROOM

So here’s a snapshot of my book, the synopsis, and the quote I like the most from my dear mentor and bad-ass poetess, Sarah Messer. The book is already available; just follow the link. And please, please pass the word on. That’s all I’ll say here–there’s a blog connected to the press for more long-windedness.

www.unp.unl.edu/bookinfo/5080.html

Coming of age poor in spirit in the America of plenty is an old story that is yet endlessly new, beginning afresh every time a confused teenager tries to make sense of his privileged place in the world. Eli Hastings got a head start on this when his idealistic, permissive parents divorced, and he sought answers by sneaking out at night to play chicken with freight trains, write graffiti, and get high with friends. This youthful rebellion included an arrest and weekend in jail for drug possession and later jail for an act of civil disobedience during the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Hastings recounts how a privileged, white, fiercely leftist American male tries to make sense of himself in relation to the contrary people and situations he finds in books and his travels to Cuba and Central America.

Falling Room is the tale of how one man matures through the sometimes violent blessing of social change and finds himself–and a sense of purpose–through the loss of innocence and naiveté. Reflecting on the firsthand experience of hip-hop and substance abuse, of the fracturing of family, the loss of his father, and of the imperialism of the United States, Hastings’s story offers a new and moving look at how families, nations, and individuals survive and heal.

“[Falling Room] is a book about the origin of protest—about finding, challenging, understanding, and ultimately forgiving the father and the fatherland. It’s full of tremendous talent, beauty, and energy.”—Sarah Messer, author of Bandit Letters and Red House

Condoleeza Rice and the Pit Bull

Amid the “restrained” Israeli destruction of Beirut and “collateral” massacre, while the Israeli “Defense” Forces mass on the border, while Hezbollah still fires missiles with ease into Haifa, the United States, as I assumed it would, is sitting on its hands while its violent, spoiled child stomps mud holes in the map. Recently Condoleeza Rice announced that Israel would be given a week before the U.S. would start being heavy-handed with recommendations that Israel slow down the carnage—Israel would have a week to “de-fang” Hezbollah.

“De-fang” Hezbollah? I’ve studied International Relations; I actually graduated with an honors degree in it. I have had the immense fortune to travel much of the world and to meet and befriend people from all over it. My eyes are raw from reading political journals, news articles, and blogs. And yet there are moments such as these when our leaders succeed in battering me with the baffle stick. I cannot understand how anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about the conflict in the Middle East could earnestly believe that this Israeli crime will result in the destruction or disarmament of Hezbollah—an organization that was founded, after all, to oppose Israeli aggression against Lebanon. It’s akin to the idea that turning Iraq into an internecine meat grinder with “elections” will make us safer from terrorists. Any policymaker who cannot see that these brutal bombings and this coming invasion are going to swell the ranks of Hezbollah should be severely chastised and sent back to Yale. But, apparently, the leadership of both the American and Israeli governments is that out of touch.

Or not? Maybe the alternative is too unpleasant to consider. If the Israelis know that their actions are not going to decimate Hezbollah, than we’re left with the question: why are they doing this? I have theories, of course, as does any student of world politics. There’s water, there’s land, and there is the simple, addictive joy of being the bully.

Israel has about as much chance of de-fanging Hezbollah in this manner as Condoleeza Rice has of de-fanging a pit bull. But who knows? Maybe I underestimate. So, I say, let’s see Condi take on an angry dog—I’d spring for pay per view for that. If she succeeds—instead of merely pissing the dog off more and getting mauled—I’ll still my hand, cancel my blog, and go back to my novel.

Ditto if the Israeli imperialists achieve the objective they’re presenting for their bloody endeavor.

Israel Restraining Herself



Beautiful Dispatch From Beirut

This comes from a diary entry sent by visual artist Zena el-Khalil to the website Electronic Intifada

www.electronicintifada.net

She is maintaining a blog at:

www.beirutupdate.blogspot.com

I found it incredibly moving and a straight shot of humanity and dignity from the ugly zone of slaughter that the Israelis have turned Beirut into. Because of people with courage and vision like Ms. el-Khalil, there is hope and dignity still in Beirut.

Today I drove through downtown on my way to visit my
parents. I was driving alone and was a bit nervous.
First time in a car alone since this whole thing
started … But I had to see my parents.

I came across a red light and stopped. The streets were
empty, and I caught myself wondering why I stopped and
didn’t just go through. Streets were totally empty – no
other cars, no traffic police. Then I remembered my
latest policy that is helping to keep me sane; that
even under attack, we should not lose our manners. That
even under attack, there are still some regulations we
should abide by. Somehow, by not crossing the red
light, I was able to maintain some dignity.

Then I looked into my rearview mirror and saw other
cars approaching. I closed my eyes and in a fit of
prayer wished that they would stop too. That somehow,
if they didn’t cross the light, it would indicate that
somehow we are all thinking the same. I know most of
you have heard about Lebanese drivers … They never
stop at red lights! Ladies and gentlemen, today, they
stopped.

I opened my eyes and then burst into tears. All the
cars had stopped. Everyone was behaving. It was a ray
of hope today. It’s the little things that make you
happy. I turned and smiled and nodded my head to the
other drivers. Maybe they thought this bleached blond
was flirting with them.

I don’t want to write about all the miserable moments I
had today. They were too many. And how can I find the
words to really express my despair?

The Israeli and American Enemy Factories

There is no measure for the diversity of ignorance that has prescribed the American war in Iraq and the Israeli attack on Lebanon and Gaza. Surely these decisions rested upon numerous rotten and faulty tenets, many of which have been eloquently explicated across the media spectrum. The piece of shiny ignorant irony that catches my eye these last couple of days, though, everywhere I turn in the media, is somewhat more specific.

Maybe I’m a simple guy. But watching a short video clip on CNN (of all places) drove home a notion that had been free floating around in my consciousness. As reporter Nic Robertson literally runs through alleys of a besieged Beirut with a Hizbollah “operative,” making certain that the viewers know that any moment they may be killed, the clarity and simplicity of an ordinary Lebanese’s vision is demonstrated. The “operative’s” English, while laudable, was not quite enough for him to articulate nuance. But maybe it was so simple that it didn’t rise to the level of nuance. The man tours Robertson through ravaged apartment blocks, the cadavers of smashed cars peeking out of craters, bedrooms’ contents dangling like entrails from arching steel and rebar.

The phrases that the “operative” repeats over and over have to do with “innocent civilians,” “terrorism,” and “dignity.” “We will not surrender,” he tells the understandably skittish Robertson three times in quick succession, “we will stand with dignity and courage against terrorism.”

Hmmm….

Someone should perhaps tell him that he’s got it all wrong—that’s what Israel is doing!

Maybe it was my mood, or the caffeine infusion I’d just had. Or maybe it was the young man my age riding through the background on a bicycle. But it walloped me then: if I were from Beirut instead of Seattle, I would be fighting alongside Hizbollah now, without a doubt. And if I made my home in Baghdad instead of Barcelona, I would be picking up a rifle or a blade to fight U.S. soldiers at the first possibility.

For me the implications of this are colossal, and identify a huge obfuscation the media uses to “explain” these conflicts: these people aren’t fighting us because of radical ideology or cultural differences. They’re not fighting us because they’ve been brainwashed by evildoers or because they think they will ultimately get ahead materially. At least not most of them. They are fighting because they don’t have any other choice—or any other dignified choice.

In the name of stopping war on Israel and America, we are destroying the only alternative to war—the ability to live a reasonably normal life.

I guess I’m only expressing the implosion, complete and final, of the notion that “force” (that sterilized catch-all) can ever, by any stretch of the imagination, bring security—despite complex military strategy, analysis, and mumbo jumbo. I heard a report from Beirut yesterday in which the journalist was explaining how literally thousands of young men who never wanted anything to do with Hizbollah—or Islamic fundamentalism—are literally roaming the ruins of Beirut to find where to sign up. It’s incontestable now that Iraq boasts more fighters—“terrorists,” or “freedom fighters” or “nationalists” or “insurgents” or “militants” or whatever you call them—that wish to slaughter Americans than ever before in the history of that nation (and it reflects the Muslim world).

Moderate, progressive people are being radicalized by our brutality at a speed that must dazzle and delight the mullahs and ayatollahs.

If this is true, where is there any substance left clinging to the bombed out frame of the case(s) for war(s)?