Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

18. I, we, and the lure of Stability

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Two events this week — one in Israel, the other in Canada — and the thread that connects them:

1) In Israel, the Zionist pressure group Im Tirtzu, which specializes in witch-hunts against peace and human rights activists, demanded this week that the Attorney-General investigate members of the Israeli women’s organization MachsomWatch for entering the Palestinian village of Awarta last month in violation of a curfew imposed by the Israeli army.  The village was under siege by the army following the murder of five Israelis in the nearby settlement of Itamar.

2) In Canada’s May 2 federal election, 60% of eligible Canadians electors voted.  Of these, 40% voted for the northern branch of the Republicans, known here as Conservatives, granting them 167 seats in Parliament, enough for a majority.

Judging by previous performance by the Conservatives in minority government, where they demonstrated spectacular contempt for democratic process, it is widely assumed they will take the election results as granting them absolute power.  While costing the rest of us dearly, their rule over the next four to five years will be very beneficial for a small elite, for corporations, and for their international allies, especially the increasingly isolated Israel.  Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared Canada — by which he means the regime currently in power — Israel’s best friend.  Not the richest or most powerful friend, but certainly the nicest.

While I was writing Our Way to Fight: peace-work under siege in Israel-Palestine, I used the working title My Way to Fight, a phrase borrowed from a young Palestinian film-maker at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp.  Mustafa Staiti told me, “Some fight with a gun, others fight by their talent.  This is what I do.  It’s my way to fight.”  However, since neither Mustafa nor anyone else featured in the book fights alone, but always in cooperation with others, in the book title ‘my’ became ‘our.’

It’s a crucial distinction.

The Canadian election was a triumph of I over We.  Tyrants everywhere – including the managers of managed democracies – appeal directly and compellingly to the lonely I, self-absorbed, driven by received impulse, desperate for security in a turbulent world, and easily frightened by the unknown, especially by any form of Other.  This fear sours easily into resentment and rage, on which tyrants happily feed.

At the same time, paradoxically, something else happened in the election: while the Conservatives increased their popular vote by only 2%, the New Democratic Party increased its share by more than 12%, winning a record 102 seats.  For the first time in Canadian history, the NDP will lead the official opposition in Parliament.

Here is the paradox: the NDP is the only party left in Canada (though not nearly as left as I would like) which still represents, even if only vestigally, an enduring Canadian sense of We.  It’s rooted in the idea that we all do better through connection, cooperation, and compassion — sensible human capacities, all of them anathema to the northern Republicans.  It was this sensible cooperative impulse that generated Canada’s government-funded universal health care system, and other similar programs in which care and risk are broadly shared.  All such not-for-profit programs are targets for destruction by the Conservatives.

Given ample evidence on the tyrannical nature of this regime even in a minority situation, how did the Conservatives win a majority?  In their campaign they made only one promise to Canadian voters: Stability. Minority government is inherently unstable, they said, and unstable is bad, even dangerous.  Only with a majority in Parliament could they deliver Stability, which is good and safe.  The mainstream media spread this mantra faithfully, far and wide; on election day a sufficient minority ignored the evidence, and voted for Stability.

Stability, aka security, is a stunningly powerful lure — literally, it stuns. It’s the promise that Mussolini offered to Italians in the 1920s, Hitler to Germans in the 1930s, Bush to Americans in September 2001, Netanyahu (twice) to Israelis, Mubarak (for four decades) to Egyptians, and now Stephen Harper to Canadians.  Huge numbers of Egyptians chose freedom, but a sufficient minority of Canadians chose Stability.

Though always an illusion, this promise of Stability/security appeals most powerfully to the isolated, fearful I.  The contract is clear and simple: The tyrant offers protection from the unknown, from The Other, and all that is required in return is unquestioning compliance.  Implicit in this arrangement is the subtext that anyone who questions or defies the tyrant will be unprotected and — as circumstances require — marginalized, vilified, silenced, and/or eliminated.

Last year in Israel, Im Tirtzu released a report attacking several Israeli peace and human rights organizations, including MachsomWatch, claiming they had provided critical data and testimonies to a UN Human Rights Commission report on the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza. Named after its chair Richard Goldstone, the report concluded that during its assault, the Israeli armed forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.  (See The Goldstone Report.)

Im Tirtzu’s attack on MachsomWatch and other organizations is a vivid example of the lonely I on a mass level, self-absorbed, driven by received impulse, desperate for security in a turbulent world, and easily frightened by the unknown, especially by any form of Other.

By contrast, like other activists who share their stories in Our Way to Fight, the women of MachsomWatch insist on venturing beyond the fearful I, beyond the wall.  Their presence in Awarta was normal, it’s what they do.  Their chosen work is to see what Israelis are not supposed to see, to say what they are not supposed to say, and to connect with the Other, people that Israelis are either supposed to ignore or to regard as the enemy.

Daphne Banai’s first MachsomWatch shift is burned into her memory. At the height of the second intifada, she drove with another woman to Abu Dis, a Palestinian village in East Jerusalem where beatings of Palestinians had been reported at the Israeli military checkpoint.  The MachsomWatchers went to witness, and to report what they saw, so that Israelis and others could not so easily say, we didn’t know.

In Abu Dis the two women were terrified.  “Naturally we were surrounded by Palestinians,” Daphne recalls, “and every one of them I saw as a terrorist who was going to blow himself up or stab me.  Most people in Israel are driven by this kind of fear, we’re brainwashed with it.”

At the checkpoint, things were even worse than they had heard. “Thousands of people were trying to get through, elderly ones fainting in the heat, livestock dying, soldiers pushing and screaming.  There was a woman in labour, they wouldn’t let her ambulance through.  We called higher officers on the phone, and gradually people started to pass through.  But still they wouldn’t let the ambulance go.  We told the soldiers we wouldn’t leave until they let this woman pass.  Finally toward seven or eight they did.  As we walked to our taxi, the ambulance stopped farther down the road, its horn blaring.  The doctor got out, he shouted, Ladies, ladies, shukran, thank you!  We both burst out crying.  At that moment we knew this is what we wanted to do.”

These are the kind of people that Im Tirtzu wants to silence.  It will not be easy.  They are the vibrant We at work, caring, connecting, cooperating. Despite the overwhelming persuasive and punitive power of the tyrant, these women refuse his terms: to not know, to not care, to let fear govern their lives, to settle into the illusory refuge of Security-at-any-cost.

In Canada, the northern Republicans now fully control the persuasive and punitive machinery of state power.  But deeply embedded in their triumph are the seeds of their defeat: all of us I’s who insist on seeing ourselves as We.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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