WAR


My Rude Awakening on White Males, Brown Females and #BlackLivesMatter


LPA personal epiphany about race and gender, to my fellow white males:

No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

I’ll explain.

It started in 2012 when I met Leela at the iconic Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls. Leela (pictured right) is of Indian heritage but is ethnically ambiguous and is regularly mistaken for someone she is not.

Two things there is no confusion about: to the outside world, she is a woman and she is non-white.

Leela and I fell in love within days, moved in together within months and are happily married after three years. My rude awakening began almost immediately. First, the skewed glances when we held hands on the street. Not only are we a mixed couple but there is an age difference between us, so I chalked it off to curiosity. I assumed New York City was as tolerant a place as you’ll get in America and that we would barely merit a passing glance.

How wrong I was.

Shortly after we met, Leela moved into my apartment in Battery Park City, an oasis in the bustling heart of the world’s money machine, a stone’s throw from the towering headquarters of Goldman Sachs. It’s a neighborhood where privilege abounds, where dogs have walkers, kids have nannies, homes have cleaners, and buildings have attendants. It’s where supermarkets deliver at all hours, where main courses start at $30, where weekends involve loading the family SUV and driving being driven to the Hamptons.

I chose that neighborhood years before it became what it is today. A long-time Upper West Sider, I moved to lower Manhattan shortly after the September 11th attacks for a number of reasons, not least of which was a sense of solidarity with the victims, several of whom were friends. I stayed because I thought living near a river was the only way my young daughter could get a taste of nature while still growing up in a polluted, over-crowded metropolis. (I’ve since moved uptown, near the park, for the same reason.)

Back to the present and my induction into a world seen through a darker prism. A day after Leela moved in, she came home visibly upset. I asked what happened. Apparently, the doorman had blocked her from entering the building, refusing to believe that the keys she was carrying were legitimately hers. She had to convince him to check the approved tenants list before he allowed her to go to her own home.

The incidents piled up. Things that may seem small to someone who doesn’t endure these experiences, but that in aggregate soured her daily life. The cabs that wouldn’t stop when she tried to hail them but hit the brakes and backed up when they saw she was with me. The clerks asking her to verify her ID every time she presented a credit card. The smiles at me from neighbors and barely concealed scowls at her when I turned away. The usual catcalls and crude comments when she walked alone. It quickly became clear that although we shared the same day to day life, her existence was profoundly different from mine.

The event that brought it to a head was when she pressed ‘PH’ in the elevator and the other occupant, a white male, asked which penthouse apartment she was going to clean. The idea that she lived there didn’t occur to him. When I heard about it, my indignation was palpable. It was the indignation and disrespect she lived with every day and that was alien to me.

Over the years we’ve been together, like all couples, Leela and I have shared our deep secrets, formative events that have left lifelong scars. We each have our stories. But nothing we spoke about prepared me for the steady accumulation of little emotional cuts, the insults of everyday life that keep her guard up at all times. This was something entirely new to me.

A progressive activist since college, I’d convinced myself that I was sensitive to the plight of others, enlightened about the hardships that humans face, self-aware enough to know that my experience was not necessarily that of the people around me. As a Lebanese-American who grew up a child of war and witnessed and survived death and destruction, I told myself that I got it. I knew to respect the perspective of other individuals, no matter how different that perspective was from mine.

What I didn’t realize was that we are stuck in our own heads far more than we can appreciate and that empathy has limitations. As a white male, I can convince myself that I understand racism and sexism, but it’s far more intellectual than visceral. My point of view is distorted by the culture I exist in.

These numbers from the Washington Post provide context:

In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race. The average black person’s friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person’s network is only one percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.

Until I married Leela and saw the world through her eyes, I was partially blind, believing I saw the harsh truths but only seeing them through a white-tinted lens. Living life as a woman of color is an automatic double strike against you. Leela and I move through the same physical space but our mental space is altered by the people around us, by the insidious prejudice (pre-judgment) surrounding us and shaping our reality.

I say all this as #BlackLivesMatter draws stark lines of demarcation between those who get it and those who don’t. I know I’ll never fully feel what Leela feels, but I can still rage against racism, fight inequality and injustice. I can still take a stand and make a difference, but I must do it with humility and acknowledgment of my own biases.

I’ll conclude by re-posting something I wrote after the Charleston massacre:

I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.

Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.

The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice shot down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…

Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.

No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.

We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name.

Yes, #BlackLivesMatter. So much is contained in those three words, so much more than many of us understand, however well-meaning we are. As I said: No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

Praying While Black: The Charleston Massacre and Terrorism against Black Americans


Black lives matterOur individual perspective on race and justice is a product of our background, our upbringing, our experiences, our identity, our own moral code. I see America through the eyes of a Lebanese-American, married to a woman of color, raised in a war zone. I have spent the past two decades as a progressive activist and the past 15 in the thicket of American politics as a consultant and campaign adviser.

With each passing year on this planet, I find myself more disturbed by human violence and injustice, more distressed by the horrific things humans do to one another. I thought time would bring numbness, but the reverse is true.

I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.

Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.

The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice gunned down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…

Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.

No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.

One of the most troubling of all these incidents is described in chilling detail by Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I took some time this weekend to re-read Jennifer Gonnerman’s piece on the odyssey of Kalief Browder. I wanted to understand how, precisely, it happened that a boy was snatched off the streets of New York, repeatedly beaten, and subjected to the torture of solitary confinement, and yet no one was held accountable.

His parents were told to pay a certain sum, or he would not be released. When they did not pay, he was beaten and then banished to lonely cell. Browder’s captors then offered him a different way out—pay for your freedom in the political currency of a guilty plea. He refused. More beatings. More solitary. The sum was lowered. Browder still refused. He was subjected to the same routine. Browder defeated his captors. They tired, released him, and likely turned to perpetrate the same scheme on some other hapless soul.

Browder’s victory came at the cost of martyrdom, and in his name we should be strong enough to speak directly about what he endured. Kalief Browder was kidnapped in our name. Kalief Browder was held for ransom in our name. Kalief Browder was tortured in our name. Kalief Browder was killed in our name.

We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name. When an entire segment of the population lives in fear of random unjustified violence with little legal recourse, then they are being terrorized. Let’s call the injustice and violence against black Americans what it is: Terrorism.

Ten Global Travesties


A list that shouldn’t exist in the 21st century:

  1. Worldwide, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined.
  2. One in seven people on earth goes to bed hungry each night while 25 hedge fund managers made a combined $21 billion in a single year, enough to feed every hungry person on earth.
  3. Global military spending exceeds $1.7 trillion per year, 100 times more than annual cancer research spending.
  4. The Forbes 400 billionaires have as much wealth as the entire African-American population of the U.S., nearly 42 million people.
  5. 1.6 billion people face economic water shortage, while 2 to 4 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, polluting our water supply.
  6. Over a million people around the world lose their lives to violence every year, yet 40% of Americans live in a household with a gun, more than the percentage of young adults enrolled in college.
  7. It costs just 25 cents a day to provide a child with the vitamins and nutrients to grow up healthy, but every hour of every day, 300 children die from malnutrition.
  8. One of the leading causes of death for pregnant women is homicide — and one out of every three women will be a victim of violence in her lifetime.
  9. The world’s nations pumped nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels last year.
  10. Cigarettes – often the product of child labor – will kill up to a billion people in the 21st century, yet remain legal and are marketed to teenagers.

Why violence is worse than other existential threats


“No more hurting people” - Martin Richard, 8, killed in Boston Marathon attack.

Violence: “The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

The World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence and Health states that violence is “among the leading causes of death among people aged 15-44 years worldwide, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females.”

Millions of people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year. What is infinitely disturbing is the myriad forms this violence takes and how pervasive and borderless it is. Across the globe and across the centuries, humans have committed the most barbaric acts, limited only by their imaginations, and the march of civilization has done little to change the grim reality that on any given day, in every corner of our planet, gruesome and ungodly things are done to women, children and men.

Growing up in Beirut during the 70s and early 80s, I witnessed terrible acts of violence, car bombs at markets and artillery strikes on residential neighborhoods, bloody bodies and corpses in the street, the carnage of urban warfare. I saw the darker aspects of human nature, the willingness of people to brutalize one another. After four decades on this planet, I still cannot fathom how a man can rape a baby, how people can gas, hack, strangle, shoot, bomb, smother, burn, and torture their fellow humans. Rather than become dulled and inured, I am ever more appalled and horrified by violence.

Preventing violence should be our highest priority. Tragically and deplorably, it is not. For every paroxysm of grief and shock over a mass killing, there is apathy in the face of events like this:

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. “We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Something like this should stop the world in its tracks, but it doesn’t:

Jessica Marie Lunsford was a nine-year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Homosassa, Florida in the early morning of February 24, 2005. … Couey entered Lunsford’s house through an unlocked door at about three o’clock in the morning, awakened Lunsford, told her “Don’t yell or nothing,” and told her to follow him out of the house. He admitted in a videotaped and recorded deposition to raping Lunsford in his bedroom. Lunsford was kept in Couey’s bed that evening, where he raped her again in the morning. Couey put her in his closet and ordered her to remain there, which she did as he reported for work at “Billy’s Truck Lot”. Three days after he abducted her, Couey tricked Jessica into getting into two garbage bags by saying he was going to ‘take her home’. He instead buried her alive as he decided he could do nothing else with the girl. According to the publicly released autopsy reports Lunsford had poked two fingers through the bags before suffocating to death.

Or this:

Turkish police have recovered the body of a 16-year-old girl they say was buried alive by relatives in an “honor” killing carried out as punishment for talking to boys. The girl, who has been identified only by the initials MM, was found in a sitting position with her hands tied, in a two-meter hole dug under a chicken pen outside her home in Kahta, in the south-eastern province of Adiyaman. … Media reports said the father had told relatives he was unhappy that his daughter – one of nine children – had male friends. The grandfather is said to have beaten her for having relations with the opposite sex. A postmortem examination revealed large amounts of soil in her lungs and stomach, indicating that she had been alive and conscious while being buried.

No fate seems more ghastly or any act more abhorrent than the kind of evil deeds described above. That these things occur every day, every hour, across the planet is horrific beyond words. That the world is largely apathetic about it is loathsome.

There is something qualitatively different, something worse about violence than other existential threats. It may be impossible to distinguish between the mortal terror of being trapped under a building in an earthquake and being trapped under a building after a car bomb, between the agony of death from cancer and being beaten to death. But there is a difference. We all die in some manner or another, but an act of human will, of intentionality, a choice by one person to harm another, is not the same as an act or accident of nature or a cruel vagary of fate. The immediacy, intentionality, and physicality of a violent act sets it apart, precisely because free will is involved, because it is a choice in the moment, because it is avoidable by virtue of being the will of a person.

Although the relative scale is disproportionate (vastly more people are at risk from hunger and disease) violence touches virtually everyone, directly or indirectly. Is there a single person reading this who hasn’t been affected by it in some way or who isn’t concerned about being harmed or having their loved ones harmed? In many ways, violence – the fear of it, the reality of it, its history, and its many representations/permutations in art, film, music, media and modern culture – defines our modern life.

I believe that the decision by an individual or group of individuals to destroy or inflict damage on others, to rob them of their freedom, to strip them of their dignity, to dehumanize them, is fundamentally worse than any other mortal threat we face. Violence is an affront to our souls, a stain on our humanity.

Should it be our top order of business to eradicate violence? Yes. Is it possible to do so? The report I referenced at the top of this piece is a good place to start.

Threats to justice everywhere


Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. – Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963

Those searing words are as apt today as they were a half century ago.

Look around:

  • In some parts of the world a girl is more likely to be raped than to learn how to read.
  • It costs just 25 cents a day to provide a child with the vitamins and nutrients to grow up healthy, but every hour 300 children die from malnutrition.
  • Global military spending exceeds $1.7 trillion per year, 100 times more than annual cancer research spending.
  • One in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, while black women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Worldwide, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are more likely to be maimed or killed by men than by malaria, cancer, war or traffic accidents combined.
  • The world’s nations pumped 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air every second from the burning of fossil fuels last year, poisoning our children and endangering life on our planet.
  • Over 40% of Americans live in a household with a gun, more than the percentage of young adults enrolled in college.
  • One in seven people on earth goes to bed hungry each night, while 1,426 billionaires have a net worth of $5.4 trillion, more than 100 times the amount necessary to eradicate global hunger.
  • Only about one third of countries around the world have laws in place to combat violence against women, and in most of these countries those laws are not enforced.
  • Our government regularly uses unmanned drones to fire missiles at ill-defined targets, killing babies in the process.
  • Every year, 60 million girls are sexually assaulted at or on their way to school.
  • Our government detains people indefinitely with no charges and no recourse then forces feeding tubes down their throat when they protest.
  • Every 2 minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted, but 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
  • 1.4 billion people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less, while the top 40 highest-earning hedge fund managers made a combined $13.2 billion in a single year.
  • Over a million people lose their lives to violence and millions more are injured and maimed every year.
  • Murder is a leading cause of death for pregnant women.
  • 85 of the richest people on the planet are as wealthy as the poorest 3.5 billion.
  • Our government assassinates its own citizens with no trial.
  • 1.6 billion people face economic water shortage, while 2 to 4 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, contaminating aquifers with methane, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

We truly share a “single garment of destiny” and if we accept one of the injustices above, we are enabling all of them.

Patton Oswalt and the Boston Marathon bombing


Patton Oswalt’s beautiful and heartfelt Facebook post understandably struck a chord with a nation stunned by the carnage in Boston:

This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness. But the vast majority stands against that darkness … So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

It is an admirable sentiment and very moving, but tragically wrong. Considering it was endorsed by hundreds of thousands of people, I wanted to offer a contrary perspective.

First, the “prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence” are not paid by the majority of us but by innocent people neglected by the rest of the world. While we go about our lives, fretting over our iPhones and apps, sports teams and celebrities, there’s Aisha and far too many like her:

13-year old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was stoned to death in Somalia by insurgents because she was raped. Reports indicate that was raped by three men while traveling by foot to visit her grandmother in conflict capital, Mogadishu. When she went to the authorities to report the crime, they accused her of adultery and sentenced her to death. Aisha was forced into a hole in a stadium of 1,000 onlookers as 50 men buried her up to the neck and cast stones at her until she died. LINK

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Fearing death and facing death


On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, tributes and remembrances abound, as they should. We learn by remembering.

As a resident of lower Manhattan, I am surrounded by the spirit(s) of those who gave their lives on that defining day. Like all New Yorkers, the awful sights, sounds and smells of that day are seared into my mind. I flew back to New York from London on September 10th, 2001, casually admiring the majestic towers on the drive into Manhattan. The fact that those twin icons would vanish 24 hours later was unthinkable.

On that crisp and beautiful morning, I was scheduled to meet a colleague at 7 World Trade Center, when a family member called and told me to turn on the television. I did. And everything changed, forever.

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The silence of the left: Obama, Bush and extrajudicial killing


Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has spent the duration of Obama’s presidency asking a fundamental question of the left: Why are George W. Bush’s transgressions, which elicited fury from Democrats and liberals, acceptable when President Obama adopts – and embraces – them? In a recent post, Glenn decries the intellectual dishonesty he sees reflected in a Washington Post poll:

During the Bush years, Guantanamo was the core symbol of right-wing radicalism and what was back then referred to as the “assault on American values and the shredding of our Constitution”: so much so then when Barack Obama ran for President, he featured these issues not as a secondary but as a central plank in his campaign. But now that there is a Democrat in office presiding over Guantanamo and these other polices — rather than a big, bad, scary Republican — all of that has changed, as a new Washington Post/ABC News poll demonstrates.

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GOP radicals and the end of American exceptionalism


Last November, Karen Tumulty wrote an interesting article titled American exceptionalism: an old idea and a new political battle:

[T]he idea that the United States is inherently superior to the world’s other nations has become the battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars. Lately, it seems to be on the lips of just about every Republican who is giving any thought to running for president in 2012.

The proposition of American exceptionalism, which goes at least as far back as the writing of French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, asserts that this country has a unique character. It is also rooted in religious belief. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “God has granted America a special role in human history.

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The Mask – a chilling look at the abuse of Afghan girls and women


The greatest travesty of our time is the wholesale abuse and oppression of girls and women. It happens across our planet, in every culture, religion, social and economic class. And it remains mostly unspoken. Afghanistan’s new  TV show, “Niqab” (“The Mask”) brings to light some of the horrors endured by Afghan women:

Her identity safely concealed behind the mask, Saraya said she was forcibly married off to a known rapist, a man with an existing criminal record when she was 15 years old. He was 58. “When my youngest was just four years old, my husband brought women to the house and raped them. “My child asked me: ‘who are these women?’ I could not say anything to my child — my husband would just beat me.”