Jewish privilege in Palestine solidarity

I just got off the phone with a dear old friend.  She thanked me for keeping her updated with what is happening in Gaza, and for sharing my views, because, as she rightly pointed out, the news in the U.S. is impossibly tangled. The pictures accompanying headlines about rocket fire into Israel have several times now been pictures of flattened Gazan homes (thank you, Diane Sawyer and Fox News).  

But this friend didn’t just thank me because I was able to sort out some of the facts.  She also thanked me because it was important to hear this from a Jew.  This is a smart, caring person, a lawyer, human rights activist, and religious Christian.  She has known me for years, known my views on this for years, and yet she still feels like she needs my permission to get involved.  

And thus, we get to Jewish privilege on the issue of Israel/Palestine.  The kneejerk cry of “Anti-Semitism!” is still so common a reflex that people shy away from making their unease with Israel known, or even learning more.  Information from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace becomes more trustworthy than that from “neutral” sources, and certainly more than that from Palestinian/Arab/Muslim sources.  Signs like the one my dad held this weekend, “Occupation: Not in My Name” alert passersby that a Jew has weighed in, criticized Israel, and therefore said passersby can now engage in conversation, take literature, think about the issue.   

This is deeply problematic.  It is problematic because it means we need permission from people within the oppressor group to criticize oppression.  It is problematic because it negates the voices of others, but especially and most importantly because it negates the voices of the victims themselves.  It deems the Palestinian narrative less trustworthy, in this weird belief that bias exists only on the side of the oppressed.  

And yet.  And yet.  As deeply uncomfortable as it makes me to write on my demo sign that “I am Jewish AND. . . ,” my friend reminded me that this is what gets those people who are disquieted by the news but not engaged to stop and read the rest of my sign.  It should not matter that I am Jewish; it should only matter that Gaza is constantly under siege and is now undergoing a massacre.  But if I refuse to use my privilege in this case, I may have lost a group of nice nervous people who really do feel they need my permission to get involved.  It’s not really their fault; Holocaust guilt runs deep, as it well should, and it is cleverly and constantly exploited by defenders of Israel.  

Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get invitations to radio programs, to churches, to civic organizations.  Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get pats on the back for being so courageous. It can be flattering, and we can let it go to our heads and forget that Palestinians are being ignored in their own struggle.  We must use our privilege in a constructive way, one that alerts concerned people to listen to Palestinian voices.  My mother once refused to speak on a panel unless the hosts invited Palestinian speakers, and then provided a list of local qualified speakers. Jews are the bouncers at this event: we get the crowd to listen up by shouting our Jewishness into the loud-speaker, then we hand the mike over to the Palestinians.  I would like this not to be the case, I would like us not to have to grant permission to criticize Israel, but even more I would like the Occupation and war crimes to stop.  If that means I have to write “I am Jewish AND . . .” on my sign next time, I guess I will.

Your home is about to be destroyed; you have no shelter

On this, the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death, I awoke to a message from a Palestinian friend.  His family, in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Northern Gaza Strip, has just received the phone call from Israel: their home is about to be destroyed, get out.

The family of Ali Rajab and Leila Khalil lives in the Hay Raid al Saliheen neighborhood of Jabaliya Refugee Camp.  They are refugees, from Israel-proper.  They are a family of paramedics. They have no connection to rockets, to fighting, or even to a political party.  

Basel’s family received 5 phone calls.  The first said to get out by July 15th, their home would be destroyed then.  The most recent one said they had 4 hours.  I said, Basel, they need to get out now.  Israel doesn’t give people the time it says it will.  Basel said, they can’t.  There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza.  Nowhere.  In 2008, people in his neighborhood taking shelter in a UN school were blown to smithereens.  Basel’s dad, Ali, nearly got blown up a few days ago when the Red Crescent Ambulance he was driving was narrowly missed by an Israeli missile.  

I really don’t know if his family plans to try to leave their house and risk assassination on the streets, where Israel is now firing missiles at groups of people, or to stay and risk death at home.  Again I asked Basel if they had anywhere they could go.  Again he told me that there is not a safe place in all of Gaza, and there is no way out.  

Israel called the family on the landline.  If their intelligence has the phone number to the house, and the address, then surely it has the intelligence to know there is nothing in that house but civilians. Israeli public relations states that the “warning” calls and bombs (gentle, warning bombs, like a soft kiss in the morning) are an indication that it is humane, because it gives people time to evacuate.  But this would require somewhere safe to go, and unlike Israel, Gaza has no bomb shelters, and no safe places.  It also implies that somehow, a civilian home in which all the civilians should be given a chance to leave, is still a target; that doesn’t even make any sense.  Are the Khalils’ bedsheets or family photos threatening to Israel?

My mom suggested that Israel “warns” its victims because it is engaging in a new form of torture, psychological torture.  Like a cat torturing a mouse before dispatching of it, except in this case the mice are people.  Basel says Israel is doing all this to try to turn the majority Gaza population against Hamas, cause an uprising, but this might only work if the Gazans weren’t so busy trying not to be killed; also, it’s one hell of an evil way to provoke a civilian uprising.  I search for rational, if still evil, motivation in the action of nation-states, but I come up empty-handed.  I suppose that genocide lacks reason, except perhaps to whip the majority population up into a patriotic blind frenzy.  And I can no longer think of a word that better describes trapping a huge population, denying them essential supplies, and then engaging in massive bombing campaigns against them other than genocide.  (See the UN Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html)

Basel called me I think mostly because he needed to talk to someone.  I hope it was not because he thought I could do something, because I feel completely helpless.  A family — Leila, Ali, Ghassan, Mohammed, Ahmed, Hannan – has just been told that their countdown clock is on, and given no ways to stop it.  All we can do is tell people.  I’m telling you.  Please tell someone.  

I feel that I am watching helplessly as a military I fund commits genocide.  I have not forgiven the Americans, Germans, and other citizens of the world who watched this happen to my grandparents. I do not want to be among the helpless enablers this time.  

It’s the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death.  But as my mom, who I called this morning, said, Alex will still be dead in a week.  For now we focus on the people who have a chance to remain alive.  Please call the White House at 202-456-1111, the State Department at 202-647-4000 (ask for the comment line), your Senator at http://www.senate.gov/senators and Representative atwww.house.gov/representatives, and write your local media. Please tell people about the Khalils.  

Everything you have been told about Gaza is a racist lie

I have an app on my fancyphone called iGaza.  Every time I hear its alarm beep, I get scared.  Being a white person safely housed in non-ghetto America, I had the liberty of shutting my eyes a bit longer today to block out the latest update from the killing zone.  Gazans can’t roll over and go back to sleep; this morning the death toll reached over 100 from the past 4 days.

100 lives.  One hundred human beings extinguished.  Gone, nil, axed, snuffed, murdered.  My brother’s death shattered my world, my mom’s world, my dad’s world.  Imagine how many galaxies have just been destroyed.

And yet people have the audacity to say that this is necessary.  Some decent people, some people I love and worship with; politicians as well, but they’re not even worth discussing.  This morning Ma’an News had a story of a young mother who died moving her kids to a “safer” room in the house; she saved all but one.  I wonder if these defenders of Israeli aggression can look me in the eye and tell me this was necessary.  I know they’ll try, because they don’t believe a word of it.  Because their vision is clouded by a lifetime of lies, lies that don’t even really make sense unless you swallow the racist syrup that binds them.

I am and was raised Jewish, in a synagogue, attending a Jewish summer camp, so I’ve been exposed to these tales.  Let’s start to dismantle some of my favorite lies:

1.  “There is no such thing as ‘Palestinians.’ ”  Yesterday I spoke with a bright young Palestinian woman who has been told this by someone who seemed to think it was an appropriate thing to say.  (She’s actually not the first Palestinian-American I know who has encountered this.)  The fact that someone would tell someone there is no such thing as their ethnic group is astounding; it rings vaguely of the very few times I’ve been told there was no Holocaust (my grandparents are survivors).  Palestinians are people who are from areas that are within historic Palestine, be it the West Bank, Israel proper, or the Gaza Strip.  Not Jordan.  Not Lebanon.  Still want to fight because Palestine isn’t a “country?”  The entire Levant has been carved and re-carved for centuries, no current country borders have existed for very long, get over it.

2.  “Hamas is a militant terrorist organization.”  Hamas is a political party.  It was democratically elected (which is more than we can say about our government) in 2005; the response was punishing sanctions from Israel and the U.S.  Hamas has a military wing that has killed people, innocent people (so do we).  Its sole purpose is not the destruction of Israel; in fact it has brokered and maintained ceasefires with Israel frequently, far more often than Israel has maintained the ceasefires.  Not everyone affiliated with Hamas has any connection to violence.  Making the comparison to our own set-up, a “Hamas-supporter” is kind of like a registered Democrat, a “Hamas” official could be an EPA employee.  Neither Democrats nor EPA employees are particularly threatening, nor are they legitimate military targets.

3. “Hamas (or Islamic Jihad, or whoever) operates from crowded civilian areas using human shields.”  Gaza IS a crowded civilian area; this is the doing of Israel, which does not let people in or out.  It has 1.8 million people in an area of about 140 square miles. There is no evidence that they are using pharmacies, marked tv cars, ambulances, hospitals, or residential homes to plan attacks on Israel, yet Israel targets all of those things. That anecdote you heard about the ambulance?  Put it in the bs file, along with the school books story.  As far as human shields go, this morning a young mother used herself as a human shield to save her children.  That’s the recent evidence we have on human shields.

4.  “Most humane army in the world” la di fricking da.  The only humane army in the world is Costa Rica’s.  “Precision weaponry and intelligence.”  Look, either Israel is deliberately targeting civilians or it has some really terrible intelligence and is using it with gross negligence.  Given the death tolls and the targets, you can’t have it both ways.  In either case, it’s committing war crimes.

The overall picture that we get of Gaza is a land teeming with terrorists who chose that perch because of its unique ability to launch mostly ineffective missiles into Israel, a neglected ghetto of Israel, I might add; they have no legitimate grievances, only an irrational and obsessive hatred of Israel.  The primary driving force of most Gazans, as of most human beings, is living a good life; this is no small feat for a refugee population whose resources and movement are under total control by an occupying power.  And yes, Israel still controls land, air, and sea, in spite of the “withdrawal.” Kind of like a prison is still a prison even though the prison guards stick to the hallways.

5.  “Unfortunate killings, necessary for defense.” There is no such thing as an unfortunate killing of a person.  It is unfortunate when you hit a deer with your car.  It is tragic at best and murderous pure evil at worst when a human being is killed.  Unless. . . it’s not a human being!  I loop back to this again and again and again.  I cannot fathom a way that someone can brush aside the deaths of all those children and young people unless they don’t think they’re real people.  Btw, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas claim and name when one of the dead is one of their fighters, and those are few and far between on the death toll; young men in their 20’s, obnoxious though they can sometimes be, are not all or even mostly combatants.  And no, Palestinians don’t rejoice when their children are killed; a more racist understanding of people would be hard for me to imagine. (You say that Palestinian martyrs are celebrated?  American military parents and widows, Veteran’s Day, 4th of July, right back at ya; doesn’t mean we don’t mourn our dead soldiers.)

And that “necessary for defense” bit?  Given that zero Israelis have been killed by the Gazan rockets this time, I’d say that the combo of Israel’s advanced missile defense shield, air sirens, bomb shelters, and the inefficacy of the Gazan rockets are doing a pretty good job of defense.  And Israel could just accept the ceasefire offered by the Hamas-P.A. government, but Netanyahu stated unequivocally yesterday that a ceasefire is off the table.

6.  “Rocks kill people.” You really think that a boy with a slingshot and a soldier with a gun are on equal footing?  Yeah?  I have some ocean front property in Arizona I’d like to sell you.

7. “Palestinians teach their kids to hate.”  Having your house blown up, your sisters arrested, your brothers beaten, your orchards destroyed, your requests to travel denied, and your hospital generators regularly run out of fuel are really far more effective teachers of resentment and anger.  Even in the face of all those professors of hatred, though, as an American Jew I have been treated with nothing but kindness from Palestinians; that is love, that is humanity, and that is hope.

Anyhow, we don’t get to kill members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and we know they teach their kids to hate.

8.  “Israel has a right to defend itself.”  Palestinians don’t?  How can Israel have a right to defend itself when Palestinians, under constant attack from Israel (Gaza takes missiles and gunfire from Israel every single week of the year, whether we hear about it or not; West Bank residents are rounded up and roughed up regularly) do not?  This makes no sense, unless only certain types of people have the right to defend themselves.

There’s a simple racism test that I like to use in cases like this: reverse the parties (like Matthew McConaughey did in “A Time to Kill,” because, you know, the jurors don’t think little black girls don’t deserve to get gang-raped until we picture them as little white girls).  Would 100 dead Israelis not be mentioned until the 4th paragraph of a New York Times article (they did it again today!)?  If you think so, about that ocean front property . . .

 

 

Palestinians, the New York Times, and the art of picture cropping

Messaging is an art.  The accomplished spin artist uses no lies in her palette, but instead paints through placement, emphasis, and omission.  Thus it is with the New York Times in its coverage of Israel/Palestine.  I’m sure other news sources are just as bad, but the New York Times, with its vast readership and claim to first-rate journalism, singles itself out for my condemnation.

Yesterday’s headline piece on the latest assault on Gaza detailed every rocket fired from Gaza into Israel (mostly destroyed through the Raytheon-created Iron Dome).  Only at the bottom of the 4th paragraph did it mention the human victims: 29 Palestinians.  None listed by name, age, or explanation of where they were or why they were killed.  Their guilt is implied; they are Arab, Muslim, and in the wrong place (as the old joke goes, I didn’t hit him, his face got in the way of my fist).  And it’s important to note that those human beings weren’t “killed” in Israeli attacks, according to the Times; they simply “died.”   It’s unthinkable that the deaths of 29 Israelis would be after-thought 4th-paragraph mention.  It’s unthinkable that the death of a single Israeli person would be buried that far into the story; fortunately, so far that death toll stands at 0.

Today the death toll rose to over 80 Palestinians, but the New York Times coverage of this stays “even and balanced” by making sure to include both in the headline and the opening sentence that Gazans launched 100 missiles into Israel.  One would think that missile to missile ratio would make for a more accurate comparison, but that would only be if one carried the mistaken notion that the death of a Palestinian is equal a tragedy to the mostly-unfounded fear of an Israeli.  (“Can you imagine just going about you business and having to rush to a bomb shelter,?!,” asks the rhetoric.  No?  Then you probably also can’t imagine putting your kid to sleep and then having your entire house flattened because there are no air raid sirens and no bomb shelters.)  Also, that would make Israel look like an aggressor, because it launched far more missiles into Gaza (322 to about 80) last night.  And we can’t have that.

The accomplished spin artist (we might call her a propagandist) also understands that by selecting part of a picture, she can make it look like an entirely different animal.  A picture of a snake might, in fact, turn out to be the tail of an elephant when we remove the rest of the drop cloth.  So it is, again, with the New York Times coverage of Gaza.  The elephant in the room is the occupation.  The elephant is the open-air prison of Gaza, 1.8 million people (mostly refugees) in an area 1/10th the size of Rhode Island who cannot get in or out.  The elephant is the fact that every single week of the year, whether we hear about it or not, Israel is shooting guns or missiles into Gaza from the land, air, or sea space it controls; every single month it kills Palestinians.  The elephant is that those guns and missiles come from the United States, and they’ll keep coming so long as it is good for business.

When I first realized the snake was an elephant’s tail, it was because I saw the word “refugee” pitted against the word “bulldozer;” all of a sudden, something seemed fishy.  Like maybe my picture had been cropped at the edge.  The spin artists aren’t infallible; they usually forget to wipe up a fingerprint or two.  They are banking on the fact that most of us won’t put on our Sherlock hats and pull out our magnifying glasses, that the confusion they’ve sown is sufficient to keep us from delving in deeper.  We’ll prove them wrong.  We’ll remove the drop cloth and reveal the elephant.  We’ll name the dead as we fight to save their brothers.  We’ll call bullshit when we see it; only in this way can we save the world.

 

 

International humanitarian law and death in Gaza

This is a piece I wrote as the death toll increased during “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-2009.  Cast Lead was a 22-day assault in which at least 1,400 Palestinians were killed and many more wounded, primarily by U.S.-supplied or funded weaponry, including white phosphorus. As Israel begins yet another sustained and heightened military assault on Gaza (smaller military strikes on the territory are a regular occurrence), I thought this would be useful to recirculate.

 ———–

At least 23 Palestinians have been killed and over 100 wounded in Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip in the first night of “Operation Protective Edge.”  As Israel calls up thousands of army reservists for a potential ground assault, the deaths will likely increase even as their human cost is buried by misleading news and government reports.

 

News about Gaza can be confusing because it is hard to ascertain clear facts about a faraway place where reporters often are limited from entering or moving freely.  It is further complicated by the failure of media and various governments to apply international law correctly, and to instead accept definitions from the players themselves about the legitimacy of their military goals and actions.  Understanding what is happening in Gaza, and who is dying, is important because it happens with American aid, weapons, and complicity.  Understanding principles of international law is critical if we want a world that abides by rule of law.

 

Principle #1:  Israel cannot “defend itself” by any means.

There are laws of war, and they apply to all states.  Known collectively as international humanitarian law (IHL), they are made of a number of international conventions, including the universally-accepted Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, and widely-accepted principles known as “customary international law.” The main purpose of IHL is to minimize the effects of war.

IHL applies to Israel and to Hamas’s military wing or independent Palestinian militias.  I’m not focusing on the Gazan militias because, despite their sincere intentions to commit war crimes, the damage they have wrought pales in comparison to Israel’s violations.  In the past 11 years, rocket fire from Gaza has claimed 17 Israeli lives; in the past day, Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed 23 Palestinians.

 

Principle #2:  There is no legal meaning to the term “militant.” 

“Militant” is used as often to describe fighters as it is to describe vegans and feminists; it has no meaning in IHL.  There are only two types of people in IHL:  civilians and combatants.  A person’s status isn’t static:  a civilian who takes up arms becomes a combatant, much like an off-duty army reservist is a civilian.  For example, a woman who served in the Israeli army (as all Israelis are required to do) but is now escorting her children to school is a civilian.  Membership in a political party such as Hamas, or the holding of violent beliefs (as both extremist Palestinians and Israelis do) doesn’t make someone a combatant. 

In the first 5 days of the brutal 22-day Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, 3 of the 4 Israelis who had been killed were classed as “civilians” in media sources; this was a proper classification even though it is likely that all three have served in the Israeli army.  In contrast, the reports on the Palestinian dead during the same period described only the women and children killed (9 women and 37 children) as civilians, letting readers assume that the rest of the dead were somehow engaged in combat.  While an accurate count of the dead is frequently hard to obtain in Gaza due to the continued assaults (the Palestine Red Crescent Society (www.palestinercs.org) , Palestine Center for Human Rights-Gaza (www.pchrgaza.org),  and B’Tselem (www.btselem.org) normally endeavor to keep count), from the targets and timing of many of the airstrikes it appears that most of the people killed were not combatants. 

 

Principle #3: Attacking civilians is prohibited.

            Since “militant” lacks meaning, people are either civilians or combatants.  The most important principle of IHL is the prohibition on attacking civilians and civilian objects.  Only military objectives may be targeted. 

A military objective is “limited to those objects which . . . make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage” according to Geneva Convention Additional Protocol I 52(2).  Absent evidence that a standard civilian objective has been converted to military use, it must be presumed to be a civilian objective.

During Operation Cast Lead, Israel targeted numerous civilian objectives including homes, mosques, a fitness center, a university, a pharmacy, government buildings, and civilian police stations; already during Operation Defensive Edge, homes and a poultry farm have been among the targets. Despite Israel’s claims to the contrary, everything Hamas-related isn’t a legitimate target; while Hamas has a military wing, it is also responsible for all civic functions in the Gaza Strip.  (To illustrate: Hamas may attack an Israeli military base but can’t legitimately attack the Ministry of Education.)

           

Principle #4:  Even if the target is a military objective, Israel must weigh the expected civilian damage.

Parties shouldn’t launch “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated,” according to Additional Protocol I (52)(5)(B) (emphasis mine).

Israel maintains it doesn’t target civilians but incidentally kills them because of their proximity to military targets.  Gaza, with a population of 1.5 million in an area of 140 square miles, is one of the most densely populated places on the planet.  This poses special considerations for any military attack. 

As I write this, the loss of civilian life continues. The silence from the U.S. government has been deafening; we must demand that our country engage in a way that upholds IHL, or we risk encouraging further killing of civilians and breakdown of legal order.

 

People interested in learning more about IHL should visit the International Committee of the Red Cross’s helpful IHL explanation on their website (www.icrc.org), and B’Tselem’s website for information on IHL and Israel (www.btselem.org).

11 months

Lately, the tears have been unpredictable and unquenchable; I feel like a hemophiliac, terrified to break my thin skin because once it’s cut the liquid doesn’t stop flowing.  Four rough days in a row: another 13th, marking 11 months; a Friday, like every Friday since the Friday Alex died horrible; a 15th, month marker of Alex’s birthday; Father’s Day, another normally innocuous and commercialized holiday turned deadly by the marked absence of a necessary participant.  

11 months gone.  Next marker a year.  Things must’ve changed in those 11 months but it’s hard to say what.  I recently noticed that the taller, broader, big-haired void next to me of my brother is no longer the first thing people see about me, although they still see the shadow his void casts.  I have a new friend who I hung out with a record 3-4 times before mentioning that my brother was dead; I was both proud of myself and ashamed that I had acted like a normal person until then.  But even though I can now talk to people for several hours in a social setting without telling them of my void, I must still wear it.  Several times over the past few weeks people on the street have called out to me to cheer up, including, once, a homeless man on the sidewalk who told me, “Whatever’s troubling you, beautiful, it’s gonna be all right.  The man upstairs never takes a vacation.”  Apparently I look so piteous that someone literally on the ground feels the need to give me a hand up.  

The aforementioned friend, when I said how long Alex had been dead, said “Oh.  That’s not very long.”  I don’t know if it is long or not.  It’s probably been the longest 11 months of my life.  That Friday the 13th does have a surreal quality of place and sense memory that belong to another era, or another person’s story; I think I couldn’t cope with being in the same town and driving the same streets otherwise.  But, whether or not it’s the first thing I tell people, it also still feels like the most important fact of my existence.

In a month we will dedicate his grave in Jewish tradition.  I have been to the unmarked grave 3 times since he died, around Dia de los Muertos, around Valentine’s day, and on Mother’s Day.  This time it will be only Alex’s day.  I’m terrified for it to hit the year marker, I want to pull on the breaks and lean backwards hard.  Just like when the minutes slid into hours, and days, and weeks, and then a month, the transition into larger units seems to eclipse any chance I had for this to be reversible, for someone to pop out from behind a door and explain that the whole thing is a horrible joke, or for Marty McFly to appear with a souped-up Delorean offering to fly me back to 7am CDT on that Friday, where we will call an ambulance with enough time to make a difference and my brother will be put on a strict diet of relaxation and whatever miracle medicine can prevent healthy 29 year olds from dropping dead.  

But Back to the Future is less the movie of our childhood that I think of than Flight of the Navigator, beloved by Alex and hated by me.  Alex is now in orbit, forever 29, while the Earth spins on at a more rapid pace below him and we are forced to move with it, no matter how we try not to.  I can still hear his voice and anticipate his thoughts, and when I talk to others who knew him well I feel like we create him in our conversational spaces.  I hope that remains as the months become years, although I wish he could age and grow with us, even in my head.

In defense of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J

Brad Paisley, a pop country musician, is stirring up more press on progressive newsites and blogs than probably ever before with his and LL Cool J’s collaborative “Accidental Racist.”  As a country music fan and a student of critical race theory, I’m pretty disappointed in the reception the song is getting.

Here are the lyrics to the song: lyrics and you can listen here.  

It’s not a great song, musically.  And it is not a dissertation for a critical race theory phD.  But anyone who is judging it on those grounds completely and willfully fails to understand the climate in which this song is being introduced.  Country music has become so increasingly nativist that you could listen to an uninterrupted hour on your local station in which song after song would proclaim messages of pride for the singer’s small backwoods, the certainty that cities are inferior, that all you need to know is in your Bible, that anyone different is not wanted, that their kids aren’t like our kids, and that we will “stick a boot in your ass because it’s the American way.”  There is one Black artist in all of pop country-land (Hootie now without the Blowfish), and you can bet he does not sing about race.  Into this context comes popular singer Brad Paisley’s earlier songs like “American Saturday Night,” boldly subversive because he dared subtly state that we are a nation of immigrant influences, and even crazier his “Welcome to the Future,” which references the KKK and with awe welcomes our first Black president.  He now dares go further and start a conversation — that’s it, a starting conversation — to actually acknowledge race, racism, slavery, and racial conflict and tension, with the collaboration with respected if slightly out of date Black rapper LL Cool J. In explaining this song to Ellen DeGeneres, Paisley said “I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but there’s some racial tension,” a simple statement that our own first Black president has had to backtrack from, because acknowledging racism refutes the compromise with the right that we pretend to be a “post-racial” society.

It’s not just that people are criticizing this for not doing a great job at what it sets out to do.  It’s that the condemnation is so swift from those of us who should want these issues addressed that we are essentially chilling the conversation.  Anyone who thinks that Eric Church and Talib Kweli are now going to do a country duet about reparations lives on another planet.  Meanwhile, what’s drifting back to the (probably irate and certainly ruffled) white country base is the message that they shouldn’t even bother to try to approach the issues because we’ll just attack them, and that’s why they should just stick to what they know, which is cornbread and chicken, blonde-haired blue-eyed girls, church on Sundays.  No more trying to talk to those Black baristas, as Paisley’s song imagines; you don’t get it, so don’t try.

I get that people are interpreting LL Cool J’s line “If you forgive my gold chains I’ll forgive your iron chains” as creating a ridiculous equivalent, and if that’s what it’s meant to do I agree.  But this song doesn’t strike me as a “I’m black, you’re white, that’s history, let’s forget it, kumbaya” type of song, and I think anyone rushing to judgment on that should listen more carefully.  I hear Paisley acknowledging that he’s coming across as racist and that he’s uncomfortable with the racist legacy associated with the South.  Yankees tend to react with horror to the Confederate flag, and I’m no exception, but we also learned the victor’s version of the Civil War which, frankly, was not all about good intentioned Northerners trying to end the evils of slavery.  Southern revisionist historians do have some good points to make.  But I digress.  I also hear LL Cool J saying that his automatic reaction to the cowboy hat is fear, and I don’t then hear any indication that either singer believes that’s stupid and he should get over it.  This song is not pretending it’s all good and we should move on.  As Paisley sings, “We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells.”

The critics aren’t demanding, as some claim, that this “come from a place of honesty.”  They’re demanding that Brad Paisley not talk about race at all until he’s fully immersed in critical race theory, and maybe not even then.  And demanding silence from people beginning to learn and question and speak is not a good way to bring them along further.  We are telling Brad Paisley, “You don’t get it, so shut up.”  

So I’d ask everyone who is now skewering Brad Paisley and LL Cool J because their 5 minute pop song doesn’t fully and completely discuss the racist legacy of this country and how that affects us today, how is your condemnation moving the conversation forward?  (And also, I’d ask you to listen to a pop country station for a few hours.  Seriously.)