Hot off the presses.

Here’s my latest, hot off the presses! (If you’re willing to count both today AND the last couple of weeks as “hot”).

  1. Obama’s Peace ‘Pause’ Spells Victory for Bibi (The Forward 4/27/14): “There’s a lot of talk about what Barack Obama and John Kerry should, or can, or might, or won’t do in support of the two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace that has been a stated American policy goal for many, many years, following the collapse of talks. On Friday morning, we learned that Obama has suggested a “pause” in negotiations, to give the parties a chance to consider their futures without an agreement. If history is any guide, though, we know exactly what the U.S. will do at this juncture: Nothing.”
  2. Israel Hires Psychic Uri Geller To Fight Rockets (The Forward 4/23/14): “Really, can you blame them? Faced with ongoing rocket fire on the citizens it’s meant to protect, Israel’s military has done the only truly reasonable thing it could do: It hired a spoon-bending mentalist named Uri Geller.”
  3. “Breakout” – What It Is, And What You Need To Know (Ploughshares Blog 4/23/14): “Whenever the topic of negotiations with Iran comes up, the word “breakout” isn’t far behind. But what is “breakout,” and why is it so important? Breakout time estimates are both a barometer of the time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon and an indication of diplomatic progress to prevent that possibility.”
  4. Annexation Was Always Naftali Bennett’s Plan A (The Forward 4/10/14): “On Wednesday, the multi-portfolioed Naftali Bennett – Israel’s Minister of the Economy, Minister of Religious Services, and Minister of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs – sent a letter to his Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In that letter, according to Israeli Army Radio, Bennett called for a cabinet meeting “to begin the process of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the areas of [the West Bank] that are under Israeli control.” This he called “Plan B,” saying Plan B is necessary because negotiations with the Palestinians have failed – because “the Palestinians have broken new records of extortion and rejectionism. Now. It must be acknowledged that this is some phenomenally well-honed and impressively brazen Orwellian doublespeak. Truly.”
  5. Cross-Border Conversations: Discussing #Irantalks in Israel (Ploughshares Blog 4/8/14): “Given regional tensions, much of the discourse surrounding Iran’s nuclear capacity centers not on the countries negotiating, but on the security needs of Israel. The vital and diverse discourse around this subject was on display last week at a Jerusalem conference on regional security and foreign policy hosted by Ploughshares Fund grantees The Center for American Progress and Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.”

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week.

I wrote a bunch of stuff this week. And some in the weeks prior! And I haven’t been updating this blog with any of that writing. Because, you know: Reasons.

Some of these reasons fall under the general heading of “I’m kind of lazy,” and others fall under the narrower heading of “a lot of Non-Writing Life Stuff has been going on” and… you know. Like that! But I’m here with some quick links, because I did kind of promise I would do this sort of thing. Sorry I’ve been rather inconsistent!

In backwards chronological order:

  1. It’s the Occupation, Stupid (The American Prospect, 3/25/14). “From the way my community (on either side of the ocean) yells about BDS, you’d think that BDS is the problem. You’d think that for the last 47 years, the BDS movement had been investing Israel’s resources—financial, military, and human—in morally disastrous policies that serve to dispossess the Palestinian people and undermine Israel’s own democracy…. The bald inequity of the occupation, whereby (aside from any other concern) millions of people’s lives are controlled by a foreign government over which they have no legal influence, is so enormous, so insurmountable, so entirely disproportionate to any other concern that BDS might raise—how can we possibly talk about anything else? And yet talk we do.”
  2. Netanyahu’s Fake Jerusalem Stalls Peace (The Forward, 3/24/14). “Har Homa – an illegal settlement built on Palestinian land in order to massively expand an historically-false version of Israel’s ‘eternal and undivided capital’ – has framed Netanyahu’s political career. The language employed by the Israeli government concerning Har Homa and the entire settlement project has served to obfuscate, disrupt, and steadily shift the terms of engagement, so that what was once non-existent is now treated as inescapable. Not to mention that no matter how the Palestinians have acknowledged and/or recognized Israel, it’s clearly never been good enough for Bibi.
  3. Peace and Palestinians behind Israel’s prison bars (Haaretz, 3/23/12). “Everything’s a crisis. Everything’s a battle royale. Everything’s a big, boiling pottage of names, numbers, and facts that only a few remember (like that 2005 transport deal). Lines are drawn (red, or in the sand), insults are flung, tripwires lie all around. And every single last one of these brouhahas, individually and collectively, serves as a terrible, horrible metaphor for the entire conflict – and the fact that after all that effort, we are still mired in conflict.”
  4. Book review: ‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD,’ by Simon Schama (Dallas Morning News, 3/23/14). “Here is the heartbreak, here is the horror, but here also are families moving up the social ladder, men choosing brides, women doing business, whole communities shaping and reshaping their relationship with their faith, even as they interact with, influence and are influenced by other communities among whom they live…. In conveying all this, Schama’s writing is at turns wry, sly and lavish, tumbling over itself much in the way that he describes the tens of thousands of documents and fragments of documents found in the Cairo Geniza, and yet often turning agonizingly spare in the face of the terrors that came — and they did come, over and over again.”
  5. Will the Crisis in Ukraine Damage Negotiations with Iran? (Ploughshares Blog, 3/19/14). “Much as it may be tempting to believe otherwise, Russia is a rational actor. Whatever its designs on Ukraine, Moscow also has very real interests involving Iran that President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to want to compromise.”
  6. If a Palestinian Did This, He’d Be Dead (The Forward, 3/14/14). “If you’re online and follow news out of Israel, you’ve probably already seen or at least heard of that wild-and-crazy video of a Hebron settler try to steal a Palestinian flag off a Palestinian roof. The guy gets caught on some barbed wire and then — even as his compatriots shout abuse (‘you son of a whore!’) at Shadi Sidr, the man who lives in the house, and even as Sidr tries to help free the settler from his predicament (while also attempting to reassure onlookers: ‘It’s okay, don’t worry!’) — the settler explains, with almost otherworldly calm, that in fact ‘This roof, this is my roof. This is all mine. The whole country is mine. The whole state is mine.’ Soon after, soldiers show up and threaten not the settler but the homeowner with arrest, demanding that he take down his flag. Crazy, right? Wild!”
  7. (follow-up to the aboveTrading a Palestinian Flag for a Kid’s Freedom? (The Forward, 3/18/14). “Rather than, say, arrest the settler for trespassing, though, soldiers responded to this absurd series of events by attempting to browbeat Shadi Sidr, the Palestinian in question, into handing over his flag. At various points, various soldiers insisted that flying the Palestinian flag was forbidden and that Sidr would be taken into custody if he didn’t take his down, but when he refused, at least one of them had the good sense to understand that continuing the farce in front of cameras was not a good idea. Later it transpired that the Israeli military in fact has no anti-flag regulation.
    And that, you would think, was that. Or, at any rate, you might think that was that if you had no experience with Israel and the occupation. Because of course that was not that. That was not even remotely that.”
  8. Iran Negotiations and the Broader Nuclear Agenda (Ploughshares Blog, 3/10/14). “The number of nuclear weapons in the world tops 17,000, yet none of them belong to Iran. While negotiators work for a verifiable deal that would prevent Iran from ever obtaining nuclear arms – it’s important to remember that the current negotiations also have the potential to strengthen international security, and move us forward on a path to a nuclear weapons-free tomorrow.”

Absolutely gorgeous flashmob tribute to Nelson Mandela by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Just watch.

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For the story behind this, and a translation of the lyrics, click here.

And not for nothing, but if you’d like to hear Mandela himself sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (“which he loved to use as an ice breaker when speaking to wide-eyed four and five year olds”), click here.

To watch his first television interview, in 1961, in which you can hear him begin to hint toward a need to shift away from nonviolence, click here.

And finally, to listen to NPR’s special program, “Nelson Mandela: An Audio History,” click here.

Big h/t and thanks to my internet friend from way back, @Cthulhucachoo.

Signs of an Iranian-US thaw.

[Note: I actually posted the following a couple of hours before the interview in question aired. I've since done a little editing to make the time-frame a bit less confusing].

On Wednesday night, NBC aired an interview that Ann Curry recorded earlier in the day with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who won elections in June in a surprising landslide.

Remember back when I said that the situation in Syria is closely entangled with its relationship with Iran, and the American relationship with both?

Before that interview aired, I felt a need to list some of the various indicators that I’ve noticed since just before the August 21 Syrian chemical weapons attack that suggest that President Obama and President Rouhani are both intent on moving our countries away from endless enmity, and toward rapprochement, starting with:

In fact, I’m culling all of the following from a search I did within my Twitter account, but reading a long list of tweets tends to get wearisome, so I’m turning instead to that other fine tool of the modern age: The bullet point.

All of the following reads to me, in sum and in parts, like the careful public face of a lot of fierce whispering in back rooms and corridors and with the help of people like the Swiss, who have long served as Iran-US intermediaries.

  • Within six days in late August, the CIA admitted its role in Iran’s 1953 coup (see above) and also in aiding Iraq in its use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; the latter admission came a few days after Syria’s use of chemical weapons outside Damascus. These are both huge, huge scars on the collective Iranian psyche, and are frequently used as short-hand for why Iranians cannot trust the US. The minute I heard about the first admission, I thought “backchannel talks” — and when I heard the about the second, I nearly danced in my chair. For more on why the first is significant, here’s Robin Wright; for more the importance of the latter, click here.
  • Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s new Foreign Minister, spent 30 years of his life in the US and helped negotiate the intelligence assistance Iran gave the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11 (yes, that really happened).
  • Iran’s parliament fast-tracked a debate on suing the US over its role in the 1953 coup (which is to say: The acknowledgement was acknowledged, but no one’s ready to say it’s no big).
  • State Department statement, August 28: “The United States respectfully asks the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to work cooperatively with us in our efforts to help US citizens Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini to return to their families after lengthy detentions.” (Which is to say: “It’s not like we don’t have genuine diplomatic issues pending with you, too. We respectfully ask that you attend to them.”)
  • Iran was intimately involved in the Russian-American negotiations surrounding Syria’s chemical arsenal.
  • A western diplomat told the press that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be dialing back the pressure on Iran in upcoming talks regarding its nuclear program.
  • “Rouhani seems to have chosen [the chemical weapons attack in] Syria as the first big internal debate of his new Administration.” – Time, September 9
  • Iranian state-run Press TV interviews Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; he says “Getting to yes is our motive for [nuclear] talks.”
  • In an interview held before the Russian-American-Syrian deal was hammered out, Obama told ABC that he and Rouhani have exchanged letters, adding: “Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult. I think this new president is not going to suddenly make it easy.” (Which is true, but also suggests that, just like Rouhani himself, Obama knows that even as he hints about a possible thaw in relations, neither he nor Rouhani will be served if he paints Iran’s President as a push-over).
  • Reuters: “New Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi pledged greater cooperation with the UN nuclear watchdog [the IAEA].”
  • Der Speigel: Rouhani says he is reported to be willing to decommission Iran’s nuclear installation at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, if the West lifts sanctions.
  • Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who, according to the Iranian Constitution, is exactly what his title suggests; thus he holds ultimate authority in the country — told a meeting of  the elite military force the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC): “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy. I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility’.” He also told the Guards that they must not get involved with politics, which, given the fact that they are in fact deeply involved with the politics of Iran; helped unseat the last reformist President; and were instrumental in the violent suppression of the 2009 post-election protests — is saying something. Note also that the IRGC are the country’s single greatest economic powerhouse as well, including in such areas as civilian infrastructure and engineering, and thus they are not lightly messed with.
  • Rouhani also told the IRGC that they shouldn’t be involved in politics, saying that this had also been the opinion of the republic’s founder, the Ayatollah Khomeini — and while you and I may have no fond memories of Kohmeini, he remains a powerful unifying figure for the Iranian people.
  • On Wednesday Iran unexpectedly released eleven prominent political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, on the eve of Rouhani’s visit to the US to attend the UN General Assembly. UPDATE: “In his annual message for Iranian New Year in 2011, President Obama specifically singled out Ms. Sotoudeh.
  • Also on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney revealed more details of the President’s letter to Rouhani: “In his letter the president indicated that the US is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes.”
  • In Curry’s preview of tonight’s interview with Rouhani, she reports that he told her: “From my point of view, the tone of [Obama's] letter was positive and constructive” and that “he has full authority to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program” — which is code for “I have the Supreme Leader behind me.” Oh, and he also says that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons.

And hey, it’s not just me who believes there’s real momentum toward a major diplomatic shift! CIA veteran and Georgetown University professor Paul Pillar wrote today that

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran, he and his appointees have piled up indication upon indication, in their words and their actions, that they strongly want a new and improved relationship with the West and that they will do what they can to bring one about by facilitating a mutually acceptable agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. 

Diplomacy is a messy, horribly frought business, and lord knows that the US and Iran have bungled many an effort to mend fences. Witness the fact that all that intel sharing in 2001 went absolutely nowhere — that indeed, within months, George W. Bush was referring to Iran as part of an “axis of evil.” Among other issues, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t appear particularly interested in any kind of thaw between Iran and the West, and as Pillar says, is providing copious rhetorical ammunition to any hardliners in the IRGC who would rather stay cozy with the Syrian regime and far away from the United States.

A lot could still go badly wrong, is what I’m saying.

But for the first time that I can ever remember, it feels like we have leaders on both sides who want it to go right.

Kissing vs. injustice.

That Vladimir Putin. He’s a piece of work. As you likely know, last month he signed into law new legislation that forbids “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors” — ie: the “gay propaganda law,” ie: the law which holds that Russians can be arrested for discussing LGBTQ rights and relationships within the hearing of children, ie: the reason some folks are talking about boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled for Sochi.

After winning the 4X400m relay with their team at the IAAF track championships in Moscow, Russian runners Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firov had a different idea — in the tradition of Jesse Owen, who showed up despite Hitler’s hate, they showed up with a kiss, “to protest their own country’s anti-gay propaganda laws.”

This isn’t the first protest of Russia’s laws that penalize anyone for talking about homosexuality in front of children, but it’s the most visible one done by Russian athletes. U.S. runner Nick Symmonds dedicated his silver medal in the 800m to his gay friends back home, and Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painted her nails in a rainbow in honor of LGBT pride.

…One of the reasons many LGBT sports leaders are against a boycott of the upcoming Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is because more can be accomplished by LGBT athletes and their allies standing atop the medal stand with pride.

I’m not gay, I’m not an athlete, I don’t even much watch the Olympics when they roll around, so there is a level at which none of what I might say matters. I do think that the officials involved and sponsoring corporations must do something to protest this gross abuse of civil rights, but I also think that people who spend their lives building to a single moment should not be forced to deny themselves that moment because of the assholery of a nation’s government. That on the contrary, as the President suggested at a recent press conference, the best response to Putin is for LGBTQ athletes to go, to win, and to get up on that podium and fly their flags. I don’t know what I would do were I one of those athletes.

But I’m grateful to the two women who defied their nation’s leaders with a kiss, and I hope that their act is just one of many to come. To defy injustice with love — that’s a world in which I want to live.

Libya and Yemen – actually different places.

And to top it off, they’re 2100 miles apart.
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(Please note: This is the third map I’ve posted, because they’re all wrong in some way. Here, Palestine should be listed next to Israel, but is completely ignored. Apparently it’s really hard to find up-to-date, non-exclusionary maps of MENA online).

This week the US lost an apparently highly skilled and much-loved diplomat to the vagaries of violent extremism and a weak central government, and, possibly, the failure of the Foreign Service to adequately protect its Ambassador in the face of terrible upheaval (including “a string of assassinations [in Benghazi] as well as attacks on international missions”).

The Libyan people responded to this horrific turn of events in a genuinely moving way, many spontaneously demonstrating in support of the United States and expressing their sorrow over Ambassador Chris Stevens’s murder. Signs read “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi or Islam” and “USA: We are sorry. We are sad.” and “Sorry people of America this is not the behavior of our Islam & Prophet.”  Words of condolence and statements of grief came pouring out, from the government to journalists to folks on Twitter and Facebook — these Libyans share our loss, and they wanted to make sure we know that they have no affection for those Libyans who attacked our consulate, ostensibly in reaction to an offensive film about the Prophet Muhammad (though signs are emerging that the attack may have been planned well in advance [UPDATE 9/16/12: US Ambassador to the UN says the attacks began spontaneously; the President of Libya disagrees).

Today, on the other hand, hundreds of Yemenis stormed the embassy in the capital city of Sana’a, in reaction to that very same offensive film.

You see, it turns out that Arabs and Muslims are as many and varied as any other set of humans.

Many Libyans hold the United States in affection and high regard, because America helped them gain their freedom from a terrible tyrant. We didn’t roll in and push people aside, we helped the people already there to do what they wanted to do. Their new government is weak and (as the recent turmoil clearly indicates) not entirely well established, but Libyans can look behind and look ahead and see the potential for better — and that’s thanks to us. That’s why Libya has the highest approval rating for the United States in the Middle East and North Africa outside of Israel.

On the other hand, as Jeremy Scahill reported for The Nation in February, this is what we’ve been doing in Yemen:

[In the spring of 2011], rather than fighting AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says [Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst]…. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

…Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.

But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen….

By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September [2011] drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen…. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in [the hotly contested province of Abyan]. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” [Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali] says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”

…Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians—at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama’s first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and {then-President] Saleh’s government. “I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor,” [opposition leader Mohammad] Qahtan charges. “The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money.”

…The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says [Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist]. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.

For the United States, the most serious question that lingers over Yemen after [President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is: Did US counterterrorism policy strengthen the very threat it sought to eliminate? “It was a major fiasco,” Iryani says of the past decade of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. “I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now.”

(Note: This is only a small portion of a truly excellent piece of reporting. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing – click here).

And just to be clear: President Saleh may have resigned last November, but his family and cronies still retain a firm grip on power — which is why Yemenis are still protesting.

So it turns out that Yemenis and Libyans are autonomous actors, human beings who respond to others in a manner that reflects their relationship with those people.

There are, of course, many, many differences between the two countries, not least Libya’s much higher level of education and much lower rate of poverty, and all the complex, domino results that such factors create in two societies that are already very different. The position of women, life expectancy, the function of tribal alliances — all of these play different roles in each country.

But one simple thing may still be said: Help a nation topple a tyrant and reclaim their own power? They’ll probably like you. Help a tyrant kill his own enemies and then allow his power base to stay in control? The people he ruled might not like you so much. To the tune of an 18% approval rating.

On HuffPost Live about Libya.

I was very happy to be given the chance to appear on HuffPost Live again, this time to talk about the situation in Libya and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens. To watch that, click here (and if you’re my family and only really interested in me, I start at about the six minute mark, with a reference to the statement made by Sens McCain, Lieberman and Graham).

A few quick notes on the murder of the US ambassador to Libya.

* In the wake of the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other members of the embassy staff in Benghazi, it’s really, really important to note that, in the words of scholar Daniel Serwer, “It is not most Libyans who attacked the consulate in Benghazi (or the embassy in Egypt) yesterday.  It is a self-selected few.”

* Daniel Serwer’s comments are supported by Gallup Polls statistics out of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA): Libya has the highest approval rating for the United States in MENA, one of the highest approval rates ever recorded in the region, outside of Israel. Fifty-four percent of Libyans surveyed approved of the leadership of the US, up from 30% in 2011.

* Muslims around the world are very vocally condemning the attack, from US Congressman Keith Ellison, to American interfaith leaders, to Turkish and Syrian journalists, to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (which represents 57 different nations), on and on. Please feel free to leave more examples in the comments — while it is certainly true that the people who perpetrated this act were Muslim, and some Muslims support them, the more important truth is that they are a minority.

* Because it seems to me to be very important to stress this, a couple verses from the Qur’an, on hatred and violence:

Goodness and evil are not equal. Repel evil with what is better. Then that person with whom there was hatred, may become your intimate friend! And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but people of the greatest good fortune. (Qur’an 41:34-35)

Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind. (Qur’an 5:32)

* As Secretary of State Clinton mentioned in her remarks this morning, “Libyans carried Chris’s body to the hospital and helped others to be rescued.” Surely they are no less Libyan than the people who did the killing. Update: Marc Lynch writes for Foreign Policy: “In short, the response from Libya  suggests a broad national rejection at both the governmental and societal level of the anti-American agitation.”

* Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham released a powerful statement about Amb. Stevens’ murder. It’s very that we on the left remember that there are people on the other side of the aisle — people with whom we may disagree more often than not — who have responded in a way in which all Americans can be proud:

Yesterday’s attack is a tragic and terrible reminder that – despite the hopes of the Arab Spring – the forces of violent extremism in the Middle East are far from defeated, and that the revolutions inspired by millions of people who dream of freedom and democracy can still be hijacked by small groups of violent extremists who are eager to kill to advance their evil ideology. 

Despite this horrific attack, we cannot give in to the temptation to believe that our support for the democratic aspirations of people in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere in the broader Middle East is naive or mistaken. We cannot resign ourselves to the false belief that the Arab Spring is doomed to be defined not by the desire for democracy and freedom that has inspired millions of people to peaceful action, but by the dark fanaticism of terrorists.

To follow this misguided path would not only be a victory for the extremists and their associates, but a betrayal of everything for which Chris Stevens and his colleagues stood and gave their lives…. (For the full statement, please click here).

* Finally, here’s the video that Amb. Stevens produced as he prepared to take on his position in Libya. It saddens me deeply that this man was stolen from America, and from the Libyan people he was so anxious to serve.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the foregoing is an excellent example of how helpful Twitter can be as news unfolds – h/t to @AdamSerwer, @NickKristof, @influxTR, @rezaaslan and others to whom I’ve linked throughout this post. 

People still suck/People can grow.

So. I’ve been rooting about in the bad news/good news department — you know, like you do — and have uncovered incontrovertible evidence that people still suck, alongside undeniable evidence that people can grow. I will leave you to determine, within the limitations of your own, personal opti/pessimeter, if we are best advised to draw hope or despair from the following. Perhaps a soupçon of both?

People still suck

It’s never a bad idea to be occasionally reminded that old-school antisemitism is still a thing. To wit:

Iran’s vice president used the lectern of an international antidrug conference [in Tehran] Tuesday to deliver a baldly anti-Semitic speech, blaming Judaism’s holy book, the Talmud, for teaching how to suck blood from people and for causing the spread of illegal drugs around the world.

Wheee!

According to Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Judaism’s central text, the Talmud (in which the Torah’s laws are expounded, explained, and commented upon) teaches those who follow it to “destroy everyone who opposes the Jews.” Furthermore, Rahimi says, “Zionists” run the international drug trade, adding

The Islamic Republic of Iran will pay for anybody who can research and find one single Zionist who is an addict. They do not exist. This is the proof of their involvement in drugs trade.

(Does one even bother to mention Israeli/Jewish drug addicts in this context? Or does one just move on?)

And, just to wrap it all up in a brightly delusional bow, Rahimi also talked about

gynecologists killing black babies on the orders of the Zionists and claimed that the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was started by the Jews, adding that mysteriously no Jews died in that uprising.

So, you know. That happened.

BUT ON THE OTHER HAND:

People can grow

The Pentagon for the first time celebrated gay pride in a modest but emotional ceremony Tuesday, less than a year after the US military lifted a ban on homosexuals serving openly in uniform.

In a packed hall, a top defense official said the repeal of the the prohibition has gone ahead without any major problems and a panel of gay service members spoke about how much had changed after years of having to hide their sexual orientation under the former “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

A year ago, Marine Captain Matthew Phelps said he was “in the closet,” taking pains to conceal his homosexuality.

“I was at a point in my career that if anyone had found out that I was gay… I could have lost my job,” he told the audience.

This month, the Marine officer was invited to a reception at the White House honoring gay pride.

President Obama delivered taped remarks at the event — the very same President who on June 1 issued a Pride Month proclamation which he opened by citing the heroes of Stonewall, and ended thusly:

As long as the promise of equality for all remains unfulfilled, all Americans are affected. If we can work together to advance the principles upon which our Nation was founded, every American will benefit. During LGBT Pride Month, I call upon the LGBT community, the Congress, and the American people to work together to promote equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

So. That happened too.

And, I’m glad to report that the New York Times also reported that not everyone in Tehran was thrilled with the vice president’s remarks:

One Shiite Muslim cleric, a judge, said that he was appalled by the speech. The judge, who also requested anonymity because of his sensitive position, said the world must ignore Mr. Rahimi and he hoped that Mr. Rahimi and Mr. Ahmadinejad would disappear after the presidential elections in 2013. “We all need to be patient for some more months.”

I’mma let the needle on my opti/pessimeter lean a smidge to the “opti” side today.

Karma.

I don’t believe in it.

I don’t believe in karma in either the strict Hindu or Buddhist religious sense of the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct during the successive phases of the person’s existence, regarded as determining the person’s destiny (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000), or in the loosely-held American culture sense of karma-as-payback/reward. Neither do I believe in monotheistic notions of heaven and hell as places of reward/punishment (it bears noting that Judaism doesn’t traditionally share this essentially Hellenistic understanding of life after death — ideas about the afterlife and the extent to which people are rewarded or punished are a bit up for grabs and open to interpretation).

I’m not particularly clear on what I do believe — it could be that (as John Lennon said) death is just getting out of one car and into another; it could be that (as the pastor conducting the funeral for Canadian politician Jack Layton put it) we are not physical beings with souls, but rather souls who briefly put on physical form; it could be we just die and are done. I honestly have no idea, though I’m kind of hoping for some kind of carrying-on.

But regardless of All That We Cannot Know, I am pretty clear that the other stuff, the ideas of payback-and-damnation and/or crowns-of-heavenly-glory-and-really-good-parking-spaces, are simply powerfully human ideas that we’ve constructed because it’s just too painful to consider the possibility that those who hurt us will get away with it.

Indeed, I’ll take it a step further:

I often say that people who live ugly lives have to live with themselves and that’s punishment enough — but the truth is that even that’s not always true. If you’re Paul Ryan, for instance, or an Israeli settler, but are kind and loving within your own circles, true to your convictions and, I don’t know, make really good cake, any suffering you undergo as a direct result of the ugliness to which you’ve dedicated your life likely doesn’t read as punishment to you. It likely reads as That Which You Are Willing to Nobly Shoulder in the Name of the Cause. Just as I think of myself and my advocacy for social justice and against Israeli settlements.

There’s simply not a lot of recourse in our lived reality. Beyond the obvious questions of legal codes and courts of law — you know: sending folks to the hoosgow when they deserve it — I honestly think that all we can do is stop worrying about whether or not others get their comeuppance and focus entirely on our own lives.

Does this bring me joy? is a good place to start, but there is a lot that I do that brings me no joy at all and yet it must be done. Into this latter category falls a broad variety of things, from thinking about finances, to consistently doing the laundry, to continuing to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which, it should be noted, is kind of my job). Moreover, there is a whole lot of life, and there are a whole lot of lives, in which “joy” is at best a distant hope. Mostly there’s a lot of getting through our days and seeking a little bit of pleasure.

But there are moments when we get to choose – this way, or that way? Smile at the lady in our path, or keep our head down? Do the thing that we know needs doing, or let it slide until it’s past being doable? Take action on that thing that breaks our heart, or back away?

I don’t believe there’s any extra-curricular reward for choosing A, in any of those cases, nor do I believe there to be any punishment for Thing B. It’s true that when we treat people well, we are often treated well in return – but not always, and not exclusively. If we’re being nice in order to gain niceness, we’re going to be disappointed a lot.

But the only life I have is this one, right here. In this head, in this skin. It matters to me that I lay my head down at night, or at the end, believing myself to have tried my best. And in the end, that’s all I have control over. Even if I take revenge on someone who I believe deserves it — what do I know about how they see that revenge? And what does that tell me about me?

So, yeah: heaven, hell, karma-in-both-senses — not so much.

But I can aspire to being able to look myself in the eye.

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