Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bi Inclusion Isn’t Just a Letter


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

”Ah, my taste … includes both oysters and snails.”

— Dalton Trumbo, screenplay, Spartacus (1960)

The overall Queer community has done a good job paying lip service to the inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in its constituency alongside Lesbians and Gay men. It started in the early 1990’s with the unlovely term “LesBiGay” and grew thereafter into the even more indigestible acronym “LGBT” — which Queer humorist David Sedaris joked made us sound like a sandwich (“I’d like an LGBT on rye, please, hold the mayo”). I’ve heard Queer activists use the phrase “LGBT people” in political meetings, while non-LGBT people in the audience stared blankly at them because they didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. More recently, that set of initials has grown even further, to include “I” (intersexuals, formerly known as hermaphrodites, people who are born with sex organs of both genders), “Q” (“questioning,” usually used to refer to young people who haven’t decided what their sexual identity is and are still working it out), and another “Q” (for “Queer,” the remaining all-inclusive term which we at Zenger’s use despite its historical negative connotations).

What the Queer community hasn’t done as well is to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions made over the 57 years of continuous Queer activism in the U.S. about who we are and why we are who we are and love whom we love. The mainstream Queer community in particular has based virtually its entire case for equality and civil rights on the idea that sexual orientation is an “immutable characteristic,” fixed at conception, birth or shortly thereafter. It’s a superficially attractive notion because if, as it argues, we are “born” Gay or Lesbian, then we can’t help being who we are and therefore we shouldn’t be discriminated against over it or feel social pressure to “change” and live heterosexual lives. It also happens to be demonstrably wrong, and more than anything else it’s the increasing presence of Bisexual and Transgender people in the Queer movement — and the education we’re receiving from them on how they see their sexuality and live their lives — that are making the “born that way” myth increasingly unsustainable.

The concept that Gay and Lesbian people are “born that way” was part of the Queer movement from the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950, largely by people who’d participated in the civil-rights struggles of African-Americans as members of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and other Left-wing groups. When the original radical founders of Mattachine were purged in 1953, what was left of the Queer movement struggled for the next 16 years with a metaphor borrowed from the medical community. It bought into the idea that homosexuality was per se a mental illness, but said that it wasn’t our fault that we were sick, and therefore we shouldn’t be discriminated against because of it. Instead, we should be helped to live “normal” lives in spite of our “disease.”

That changed in the 1960’s, when the African-American civil rights movement exploded into the national consciousness and provided a model for other mass movements against social discrimination. Women, other people of color, people with disabilities and Queers all seized on the civil rights movement as a model. By 1969, even before the Stonewall Inn riot in New York, there were “Gay Liberation” groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles which rejected the “sickness” model of homosexuality and insisted that Queer folk were just as good, just as worthy and just as sane as everyone else. Even the specific political demands of the Queer movement that emerged, especially as its activists became more mainstream in the 1970’s and 1980’s, were largely borrowed from those of African-Americans and other people of color: anti-discrimination legislation, equal service in the military and an end to restrictions on who we can marry.

The problem was that relying on the metaphor of sexual orientation as an “immutable characteristic” similar to race or ethnic ancestry has locked us into a dependence on bad science and an ideology that denies the legitimacy of the lived experiences of Bisexual and Transgender people. We rush to hail each researcher who pops out of a lab with evidence, however flimsy or dubiously interpreted, that seems to support the “born that way” hypothesis — and our community’s adversaries, buying into the same stupid argument, think that if they can prove we’re not “born that way,” they have delegitimized our case for equality and proven that anti-Queer discrimination is O.K. We hail a person who, after 20 years of a heterosexual marriage and children, suddenly comes out as Gay or Lesbian as having finally connected with the “real” nature they had all along — yet if a person who has identified and lived as a Gay or Lesbian for 20 years suddenly falls in love with a partner of the opposite gender, we denounce him or her as a “traitor” and accuse them of living a lie.

It’s hard enough to fit Bisexual people into a “born that way” scenario about sexual orientation. It’s even more difficult to fit Transgender people into it. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more “immutable characteristic” a person could have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female — but the biggest lesson Transgender people have taught us is that sometimes the genetics of a person’s gender are irrelevant to their psyche and experience. Even if they don’t have their outside plumbing remodeled to fit their inside identity, plenty of Transgender people live in the gender identity they feel truly describes them — sometimes neither “male” nor “female,” but their personal combination of both — and display attractions to men, women or other Transgender people that mock the idea of an inborn or “immutable” sexual orientation or gender identity.

To maintain the illusion that we’re “born” Lesbian, Gay or straight, we need to deny the lived experience of Bisexual people — including most of the people on those lists we sometimes publish of so-called “Famous Lesbians and Gays in History,” almost all of whom were actually Bi. We end up criticizing not only the motives of radical-Right activists who run “conversion ministries” and offer “reparative therapy,” but the lives of the people who go through these programs and actually marry opposite-sex partners and have families with them. Ironically, we’re not only clinging to biological determinism when virtually every other civil-rights movement challenged it — Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women all had to attack the idea that they were biologically inferior as they established a case for being treated equally — but we’re doing so at a time when racial identity, the attribute we picked as our ruling metaphor, is being subdivided in so many directions that more and more mixed-race people are questioning whether any specific racial category describes their experience of their heritage.

Indeed, one of the civil-right’s movement’s greatest victories — the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional — created the conditions that have steadily broken down notions of race as an essential identity. Straight and Bi people of different colors took advantage of that ruling and brought forth children who aren’t really “white,” “Black,” “Latino” or “Asian,” but some combination thereof. Tiger Woods coined the term “Cablinasian” to express that he had African, European and Asian ancestors in his gene pool — and he didn’t consider any one of those identities more important than the others in shaping who he was or how he conceived of his origins. More recently, Barack Obama has emerged as a major contender for the U.S. presidency just 40 years after the fall of the laws specifically designed to make sure people like him couldn’t even exist. Interracial people face a dilemma long familiar to Bisexuals: how do you see yourself and how do you get other people to see you as you see yourself when you don’t fit neatly into binary categories like “Black/white” or “straight/Gay”?

The inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in the overall Queer (“LGBT”) movement forces us to rethink whether we’re really “born this way” and whether race is still the best metaphor for us to use in our struggle for liberation. I think it isn’t; just as we outgrew the disability model in the 1960’s, we’ve outgrown the racial model. Perhaps the best metaphor is religion. You can stay within the “faith of your fathers” or you can explore. You can sign on to an established religion or you can invent your own from bits and pieces of your own and others’ insights into the nature of God. You can choose not to believe in God at all, or to remain uncertain (“questioning”) as to whether there is anything beyond material, physical reality, and if there is, what it’s like.

The Queer movement of the 21st century will go beyond establishing “rights” and banning discrimination against groups of people arbitrarily defined by their sexuality. It will embrace the totality of human sexual experience and will celebrate the right of all people freely to choose their sexual expressions, subject only to a few basic social rules: no coercion, no exploitation of children, and respect for the bodies of ourselves and the others with whom we play. The concept of holism taught us that we are body, mind and spirit; the U.S. Constitution guaranteed us freedom of mind and spirit in 1791 when the First Amendment was adopted as part of the Bill of Rights, but it didn’t guarantee freedom of body until the Supreme Court issued the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003. The challenge Bisexual and Transgender people present to the Queer movement is not to set up two more boxes labeled “B” and “T” to go with the ones labeled “S,” “G” and “L,” but to tear up the boxes and work towards a world that accepts the right of people to choose their sexual identities, experiences and partners, without being judged either by a condemnatory religious tradition that regards only heterosexuality as acceptable or a sometimes equally hard-line Queer community which regards homo-to-hetero sexual fluidity as a form of treason or betrayal.


Continuing the Work of Bisexual Pioneer Dr. Fritz Klein


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

When Carlos Legazpi came to San Diego in the mid-1990’s, it was because the investment broker he worked for assigned him here — not to explore his growing awareness that he was Bisexual. It turned out, however, that San Diego was perhaps the best place he could have come to address his Bi identity, mainly because from 1982 to 2006 San Diego was the home of Dr. Fritz Klein, author of The Bisexual Option: A Guide to One Hundred Percent Intimacy and the man who, more than any other individual, could claim to have “invented” bisexuality.

Not literally, of course. Ever since the human species has existed, a small but statistically significant number of its members have been having sex with partners of their own gender, and many if not most of those have also had sex with opposite-gender partners. But it was Dr. Klein who started the modern-day movement not only for the rights of Bisexuals in the overall population but for their recognition alongside Lesbians and Gay men in the broader Queer movement.

Dr. Klein drew on the pioneering research of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, whose landmark studies on human sexuality in 1948 (men) and 1953 (women) included a zero-to-six scale to measure one’s sexual orientation, with zero being exclusively heterosexual, six being exclusively homosexual and the other numbers representing the continuum in between. Dr. Klein expanded this into the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid, through which you can score yourself on the continuum not only based on actual behavior but also on attractions, fantasies, lifestyle, emotional and social preferences and self-identification.

But Dr. Klein wasn’t just an academic who wrote books and started the Journal of Bisexuality, which he edited until his death. He was also a boots-on-the-ground organizer who founded the original Bisexual Forum in New York in 1974 and started another group with the same name in San Diego when he moved here. (It’s still going and meets the second Tuesday of every month, 7:30 p.m., at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, 3909 Centre Street in Hillcrest.) Dr. Klein organized conferences on bisexuality and worked tirelessly to make not only the broader community but specifically the Gay and Lesbian community aware of bisexuality, challenging the biphobic stereotypes held by many Lesbians and Gay men.

Dr. Klein’s death on May 24, 2006 at age 73 was a blow from which the Bi community generally, and the Bi community in San Diego specifically, is still recovering. As one of the five current board members of the American Institute of Bisexuality, which Dr. Klein founded in 1998, Carlos Legazpi is instrumental in continuing his work. As a special feature for our last issue before San Diego’s 2007 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride events, Zenger’s interviewed Legazpi one Saturday afternoon at Café One Three, the restaurant at 4207 Park Boulevard he co-owns with his partner, Jason Dean. We talked about the Institute and about Legazpi’s own life as a Bisexual, and also what Bisexuals want out of the broader Queer (“LGBT”) community.

Zenger’s: I’d like you to start just by talking about yourself, your background, how you came out as Bisexual and how you got involved with the Institute.

Carlos Legazpi: I’m originally from Mexico. I came to the States in 1990, first to New York City, and for most of my life, I had not seen myself as anything other than heterosexual. I had always had relationships with women. I had a strong attraction to women, and it wasn’t until my mid-20’s that I started to explore this other side of my sexuality. After that, I fell in love with a woman. We were together for five years. My career took me to Texas and then brought me here to San Diego. After five years the relationship ended and I was, obviously, in a very bad space, questioning everything about myself, including my sexuality.

I talked to several people who said, “All you have to do is come out as Gay, and be happy,” but that didn’t really feel right. In the mid-1990’s, I did an Internet search on bisexuality, and Fritz [Klein]’s was the only entry. Coincidentally, he lived here in San Diego. I called him and met with him, and, on top of supporting me in whatever I was going through, he introduced me to the Bisexual Forum, which he founded in 1983. It felt right. It was great to see that I was not alone, that I wasn’t crazy, in denial, or any of those other judgments that I had been hearing. And ever since, Fritz and I, until his passing, were very close friends.

Zenger’s: That’s not quite the story that I’ve heard from a lot of my Bi friends that they went, first through a straight orientation, then to a Gay or Lesbian one, and then realized that neither fit what they were. But it’s close.

Legazpi: It’s close. I never went through the “Gay” phase.

Zenger’s: You mentioned you’re currently in a relationship with a man.

Legazpi: That’s correct. We’ve been together for three years, and one of the first things I did was come out to him as Bisexual. He was supportive of it, and it’s wonderful. No judgment there.

Zenger’s: Do you date other people?

Legazpi: Not currently, no. A lot of Gay people are monogamous, a lot of people are straight and monogamous. A Bisexual is no different. I retain the capacity to be attracted to people of either gender. I decide my behavior, like everybody else. It’s fun going to the beach, being Bisexual. It doubles your eye candy.

Zenger’s: One thing that’s come up often when I’ve attended meetings of the Bisexual Forum is the treatment of Bisexuals in the broader Queer community. Despite the tremendous effort made to put “B” and “T’ initials into the name of just about every Queer organization, I still hear a lot of complaints from Bisexuals about how they’re treated by Lesbian and Gay people. Have you experienced that yourself, and what would you say some of the prejudices are?

Legazpi: I think sometimes it’s residual pain from the coming-out process. Some people go through a so-called “Bisexual” phase on their journey to come out as Gay or Lesbian. In a way, the whole idea of people staying in what they would see as a “phase” is somewhat threatening. It’s easier to see the world as “us” against “them,” as two extremes opposite to each other. One of the purposes of the Institute is to educate the whole community, both the straight community and the Lesbian and Gay community, about bisexuality. Ultimately, the goal of the Institute is no different from that of any other LGBT organization. We’re all trying to create a safe environment for people to be themselves, whatever that may be.

There’s a project we are considering that is quite promising. Michael Bailey is a highly controversial researcher from the University of Chicago who a couple of years ago did some research on the arousal patterns of men. He concluded that the arousal patterns of Gay and Bisexual men were materially the same. That prompted the New York Times to publish its article, “Gay, Straight or Lying?” (July 5, 2005), which pretty much attacked the concept of bisexuality, and has been quoted a lot as “proof” that bisexuality does not exist.

Upon conversations with Michael Bailey, we found that the study was based on penile dilation, you know. They measure the diameter of the penis when they show images. He wanted to do the research with brain scans, to try to see the patterns of arousal in the brain. He did a preliminary study with only Gay and straight men, and saw that the areas of the brain that were stimulated by the preferred gender were the same in Gay and straight men. That means that with Gay men, those areas fired up with male pictures; and with straight men, that same area fired up with female pictures.

We wanted to see if we could do the same thing with Bisexuals, and as a test we sent one of our board members to do that same test. To his (Bailey’s) surprise, he saw that that area of the brain was equally stimulated by female and male images, which was something he was not expecting. If that project comes to fruition, I think that will come a long way to turn a researcher who has been quoted to deny bisexuality into one of the strongest voices proving that bisexuality actually exists. That’s great!

Zenger’s: What do you personally want people who are exclusively Gay or Lesbian to understand about Bisexuals and bisexuality?

Legazpi: First of all, that we are not confused, nor lying, nor in transition. That’s who we are, and our aspirations and desires are no different from yours. As Bisexuals, we want to have the same from the Gay and Lesbian community that we expect from the broader community.

Zenger’s: I understand also that there are some Bisexuals who don’t really like the idea of being called Bisexuals and don’t like the idea of a Bisexual movement, precisely because they think that even a Bi identity is too limiting. They say things like, “That takes away from what I’m interested in, which is simply the other person.”

Legazpi: That’s correct. If we were living in a world where everybody was accepted for who they are, then the need for a Bi movement would disappear. But so long as the issues that pertain to the people of this community exist, then there is indeed a need for a Bi movement. It’s not an imposition of an identity or anything like that, it’s just something that helps explain it to people, so they can understand it even if it’s not part of their own experience.

Zenger’s: What do you think is standing in the way of the greater acceptance of Bisexuals, both by straight people and by Lesbian and Gay people?

Legazpi: There are a couple of things. One is a head start. The Gay movement started significantly before the Bi movement, and in a way it paved the way for Lesbians, for Bisexuals, for Transgender people, to say, “Yes, we’re around, we’re supportive, but there are issues that are particular to our identity that need to be recognized.” Also, unfortunately, there’s a lot of fear. There’s a fair amount of ignorance that we’re trying to address through the Institute. So we’re not a threat. This is what we’re about. We’re no different, and there are actually many things we could do together.

Zenger’s: One thing that might be perceived as a threat by some Gays and Lesbians is that, while I was preparing for this interview, I read a quote from Dr. Klein which said that he believed that people’s sexual orientations could change over time. The Gay and Lesbian movements are very heavily invested in the idea that they can’t: that you’re either Gay, Lesbian or straight. That is what you are, and your history of a five-year relationship with a woman and then a three-year one with a man is simply a progression from straight to Gay. How do you answer that, particularly given the extent to which the Gay and Lesbian movements have staked so much of their claim for equality on the idea that this is an inbred characteristic?

Legazpi: First of all, what prevents it from being inbred that you like both? You can be genetically conditioned, if that’s the origin of your orientation, to like both. You’re just manifesting it in different ways as you go through life, and that explains that fluidity. Also, you have a fair amount of people that, as you described, have gone from a relationship with one gender to identifying as Gay, and suddenly they fell in love with someone of the opposite gender and thought maybe they’re not as Gay, maybe they’re not as rigid, as they’d thought before.

One of the issues where we could work together if people dropped that notion of absolute rigidity is conversion therapy. You have some individuals that claim they have successfully “converted” from Gay to straight, and people from the Gay and Lesbian movements say that they’re lying. Then you have some people that have tried to “convert” and it hasn’t worked, and Gay and Lesbian people use them to prove that conversion isn’t possible.

I would say that the people who claim to have “converted” probably were Bisexual to begin with. By denying that option, the Gay and Lesbian movement is doing itself a disfavor. People have to accept that sometimes people liked one gender and then the other. They didn’t convert; they were Bisexual to begin with. That would end that argument.

Zenger’s: I sometimes think we will know we’ve achieved equality when a man can marry a woman, divorce her, marry a man, divorce him, marry another woman, and no one will think this is strange.

Legazpi: That’s right. I agree. At that point, mission accomplished and no more need for an Institute. Maybe one day.

Zenger’s: I’m glad you brought up the question of conversion, because when someone who’s been living in a Gay relationship and lifestyle for a while, and then falls in love with an opposite-sex partner, there are a lot of Gays and Lesbians who will read that as betrayal. They will get very emotional and say, “Oh, that’s not possible,” whereas if you go from a straight partner to a Gay one, they’ll say that he or she is just coming to terms with who they “really” are.

Legazpi: That’s right. They have the idea that it doesn’t work the other way. The more that we are able to get people comfortable with different orientations, the more and more it will be a non-event, a non-issue. That’s what we all hope: that being Gay or Bisexual will be like being left-handed, you know. Oh, yeah. Big deal.

Zenger’s: One thing that strikes me as odd is we’ve got the Gay Pride celebrations coming up. This article will run in my last issue before Pride. And there does seem to be a contradiction there: on the one hand you’re saying this is something inborn, and on the other hand you’re saying it’s something you should be proud of. Isn’t the term “pride” usually associated with something you’ve achieved, rather than something you’re born with?

Legazpi: I think it means “pride” as the opposite of “shame.” Then it makes sense. I’m proud of my heritage, my ethnicity, and things like that. I think this is the same way. We successfully lobbied Pride here in San Diego to change its name to “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride,” to be inclusive. I think we will get one day to where it’s just “Pride,” be proud of who you are, whatever it may be. You can be whatever you are, and everything will be mainstream, because there’ll be nothing to rebel against. Everyone will be accepted for who and what they are. One day, you know. I’m an optimist.

Zenger’s: You mentioned your connection with Dr. Klein? What is the American Institute of Bisexuality?

Legazpi: Well, let me mention first of all Fritz’s involvement with the Bi community. In the 1970’s he researched bisexuality and published The Bisexual Option. The book expanded on the Kinsey scale. The Kinsey scale only measures behavior, and Fritz expanded it into a grid that encompasses, in addition to behavior, fantasy, self-identity, emotional attraction and physical attraction. When I saw the Klein grid for the first time, it was a “Eureka!” moment because it allowed me to understand myself better. It wasn’t as simple as either “Gay,” “Bisexual” or “straight.” It was more complicated than that.

He started a support group for Bisexuals in New York, and when he moved to San Diego in 1982, shortly thereafter he started a Bisexual Forum here in San Diego. Over the years, there were several conferences organized, the North American Conferences on Bisexuality, one in 1993, one in 1998, and the latest one was in 2003. But after the one in 1998, Fritz saw the necessity of forming an institute that would support several aspects of bisexuality as it relates to the broader society: in research, community building, support to youth, different aspects. So he started the American Institute of Bisexuality in 1998 as a 501 ( c ) (3) [nonprofit] organization.

The American Institute of Bisexuality was affectionately known in the community as the Bisexual foundation. It’s something that’s still going on. A lot of people refer to it as the “Bisexual Foundation.” Its official name is the American Institute of Bisexuality. It started publishing the Journal of Bisexuality which, no pun intended, is a bi-monthly publication that publishes research and articles related to bisexuality. Fritz presided over the institute until his passing on May 24, 2006.

Zenger’s: What’s been happening to it since?

Legazpi: The Institute has a board, a five-member board, and he bequested a significant percentage of his estate to the Institute. The estate is not in liquid assets, so as the assets get liquidated, the Institute is becoming endowed.

Zenger’s: How many programs are continuing? I noticed that the Web site is down for “remodeling.”

Legazpi: Yes, that’s right. We wanted to continue the existing programs, so one of them was the Journal of Bisexuality. We extended our contract with Haworth Press, the publisher, so that keeps going. We hired an editor for the Journal. Fritz used to be the editor, and now we have an editor. We divided our jobs, so I’m not involved with that part. Regina Reiinhardt is the liaison on the journal side. We have another board member, Denise Penn, who’s the one who is working on revamping our Web site.

One of the things that we wanted to do was, first of all, address the confusion that existed between AIB and “Bisexual Foundation.” We decided to set up the Bisexual Foundation as a division of AIB. AIB will be focused primarily on academia. It’s going to be writing grants in support of projects that are consistent with the mission of the Institute. We will continue to publish the Journal. And Bisexual Foundation will focus more on the Bi community: supporting conference, supporting community-building, running the Web site.

What we are in the process of doing is moving away from the 1990’s-style Web site and making it more of a portal, in which you could go to bisexual.org and go either to the AIB side or the Bisexual Foundation side, depending on what your interests are. Bisexual Foundation is where you’re going to find the personals. Probably in a month or so we’ll be having it operate again.

Zenger’s: What exactly is your role at the Institute?

Legazpi: I’m one of five board members. I’m normally in charge of the financial side of the Institute.

Zenger’s: Does that mean raising the money, accounting for it, or both?

Legazpi: It will be both. Right now we’re mostly dealing with the estate, unwinding the estate. Once that is completed, we’ll probably start doing fundraising and developing our funding cycle for grants, and having a budget of whatever causes we want to support, saying, “Here is our cycle. Here is our process. Here are the logistics of it.”

Zenger’s: Aside from whatever you get from Dr. Klein’s estate, what are your sources of funding? Where does a Bisexual organization go for money?

Legazpi: Right now it’s been primarily private donations. Most Bi organizations in different cities are grass-roots, member-supported. That’s also how our conferences are organized. Individuals here and there pump in a little seed money, but it’s still tiny compared to Gay organizations. I think the point is that Fritz’s work continues and it doesn’t end. Through careful planning and commitments from like-minded people, we’re continuing his work.
You Kill Me: Gandhi as a Hit Man


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Mahatma Gandhi — or at least the actor who played him, Ben Kingsley — as a hit man for the Polish mob in Buffalo? What’s more, as an alcoholic hit man whose drinking is screwing up his job performance so badly that his employers, who are also his relatives, send him to San Francisco with instructions to go into A.A., work the program and sober up? That’s the central premise behind the new film You Kill Me, and believe it or not, it works. Shot mostly in Manitoba and Winnipeg, Canada — except for the San Francisco exteriors, which were filmed there -— You Kill Me is a pleasant black comedy that for the most part lives up to its promise.

Polish gang bosses Stef Czyprynski (Marcus Thomas) and Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall) are worried about an impending merger between Irish rival Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina, considerably less ragged and disheveled than he was in his one season on Law and Order) and some mobsters from mainland China, so they assign Frank Falenczyk (Kingsley) to assassinate him before he can meet with the Chinese and form an alliance. Only Frank falls into an alcoholic stupor while waiting in his car for O’Leary to arrive, and sleeps through the whole thing. It’s at this point that they decide to pack Frank off to S.F., on the theory that the farther away they get him from his old friends and acquaintances, the better his chances of recovery.

Frank’s bosses have already arranged with Dave (Bill Pullman), a vaguely Mob-connected real-estate agent in San Francisco, to be his minder while he’s there: to find him an apartment, get him a job — as a mortician, one of screenwriters’ Christopher Markus’ and Stephen McFeely’s odder little jokes (“Let’s see: he kills people — let’s have him deal with people who are already dead!”) and make sure he gets to the A.A. meetings and, even more important, stays there once he arrives. At A.A. Frank meets a sponsor, a Teddy-bearish Gay man named Tom (Luke Wilson); and at a funeral service he has a full-dress meet-cute with Laurel Pearson (Téa Leoni), the stepdaughter of his latest deceased client. They stumble into an affair — despite the handicap of Frank’s relapses, which always seem to come on the nights he and Laurel have dates — and Frank actually gets in touch with himself and starts feeling happy. What he doesn’t know, though we do, is that the Irish-Chinese gang alliance Frank was supposed to forestall by killing O’Leary has not only become a reality, it’s squeezing the Poles almost totally out of organized crime in Buffalo. What’s a poor, newly sobered-up, family-loyal hit man to do?

Hardly original — at times it seems like Prizzi’s Honor meets Analyze This, and at other times like a way for Sopranos fans still to get their “fix” now that The Sopranos is history — You Kill Me is nonetheless a charming movie if you can accept its premise. It’s a film more powerful in its parts than as a whole: assured that everything said at an A.A. meeting stays there, Frank openly tells his meeting not only that he’s a professional killer but his bosses made him join the program so he can be a better one — and everyone there looks at him with this quizzical expression, as if they can’t decide whether he’s telling the truth or putting them on. From the opening scene, in which Frank keeps throwing his gin bottle onto the snow-covered ground of Buffalo to use the snow as a natural ice chest, to the one in which Tom is trying to explain the A.A. concept of a “higher power” to Frank while they’re in the toll booth at the Golden Gate Bridge (Tom makes his living as a toll collector) and Frank suddenly sees the bridge tower looming over him and decides that is his higher power, to a lot of other similarly cheeky and irreverent scenes throughout the movie (including one nicely done relapse in which Frank collapses in the street while the soundtrack plays Rick Nelson’s old hit “Lonesome Town”), You Kill Me is the sort of movie that toys with audience expectations even though little of it is outright surprising.

The director is John Dahl, who got a blink-and-you-missed-it cult reputation in 1993-94 for Red Rock West and The Last Seduction, two movies that were hailed as a one-person renaissance of film noir. They weren’t, but Dahl remains a competent if quirky director, sympathetic to the cheeky irreverence of the Markus-McFeely script and able to handle the few, necessary and blessedly restrained action scenes. The acting is reasonably good; Kingsley is effective as a man almost terminally out of it — though why does he use the same scratchy, zoned-out voice after Frank sobers up as he did when he was still drinking? — and Leoni brings an effective combination of assertiveness and charm to her role. Luke Wilson is also especially good, though for all his teddy-bear lovability the character is still one of Hollywood’s more annoying clichés: the man we’re told is Gay (when he and Frank meet he sings the praises of “the program” and then boasts that the meetings are “a great place to meet guys!”) but never see in any romantic or sexual involvements with men. And Dennis Farina is just as convincing as a button-down crook as he was as a rumpled, Columbo-esque cop.

You Kill Me has a few missed opportunities, notably the deadly seriousness with which it presents A.A. One would have thought Markus and McFeely would have leaped at the chance to make fun of the sillier aspects of “the program,” but instead we see all of it — the greetings (“My name is Frank, and I’m an alcoholic”), the serenity prayer, the personal revelations, even the scholarly intentness with which Frank reads the A.A. manual in his cell-like apartment — played straight and almost reverentially. Perhaps that’s inevitable in an era in which “rehab” has become the secular equivalent of a Hollywood religion, a way for publicly shamed stars like Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan to confess their sins and ask for absolution from their audiences (and, even more importantly, from potential employers). But it seems a shame that an industry that in the 1950’s regularly ridiculed psychoanalysis even though most of the Hollywood “names” were on it can’t muster the same comic spirit towards 12-step programs today.

Still, You Kill Me is a fun movie, a pleasant time-filler that’s well acted, well staged and cleverly and amusingly written. What’s more, at a mere 92 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome like so many modern movies do, and though it’s about murder and organized crime it doesn’t splash a lot of blood across the screen either. (The “R” rating is “for language and some violence.”) It’s not destined for classic status but it’s worth seeing anyway.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Gracia Molina de Pick Speaks on Benito Juárez

Local Activist’s Grandfather Was Mexican Hero’s Biographer


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Gracia Molina de Pick, Ricardo Griswold del Castillo

The San Diego Humanist Association’s program for June 17 at the San Diego Public Library — a discussion of the career of Benito Juárez (1806-1872), the Mexican president often referred to as “Mexico’s Lincoln” because they were contemporaries and he also led his country’s legitimate government in a civil war — was livened up by one of the speakers, Gracia Molina de Pick. A veteran activist in her own right both in Mexico and the U.S., Molina de Pick was also the granddaughter of Andrés Molina Enríquez, who lived in Mexico in the early 20th century and wrote the first sympathetic biography of Juárez in Spanish, a book she has recently reissued. Throughout her talk, Molina de Pick made clear that her grandfather’s example — including his direct involvement in the 1910 Mexican revolution — has fired her own career as an activist, from working to get Mexican women the vote to her involvement in the Democratic Party and the Chicano rights movement since she moved to the U.S. in the 1950’s.

Molina de Pick described her grandfather as a man with a mission: “restoring the figure of Juárez during the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz.” Ironically, Díaz had served as a general in Juárez’s army and had been instrumental in its military victories against both the Mexican conservatives who had fought Juárez’s liberal government in a civil war, and against the French, who had invaded Mexico in 1862 and attempted to install a puppet government under the rule of the Austrian Prince Maximilian. After the war was won, however, he became a political opponent of Juárez, and in 1876 — four years after Juárez’s death — he won his own civil war against Juárez’s successor, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada. Molina de Pick described how Díaz’s victory “eroded” the reformist ideals of Juárez — and the direct role her grandfather played in the revolution that finally brought Díaz down in 1910.

In addition to his Juárez biography — which Molina de Pick has reissued in Spanish and is seeking a translator to bring out a version in English — Andrés Molina Enríquez also published a two-volume book in 1909 called Los Grandes Problemas Nacionales. Historian Lesley Byrd Simpson called this book “a terrifying exposure of the whole hypocritical, stifling miasma of [Díaz’s] despotism.” But Molina’s book wasn’t just a muckraking exposé of the abuses of Díaz’s government; it also included valuable information on Mexican culture, including the first attempt to document the surviving indigenous languages from Mexico’s pre-Columbian past. Molina de Pick pointed out that Juárez himself was a full-blooded Zapotec from a small village in Oaxaca, and he grew up speaking the Zapotecs’ traditional language and didn’t learn Spanish until he went to school as a boy.

“Mexico suffered terribly from the time Juárez was born in 1806 to 1857,” when the liberal party of which Juárez was a member gained power, Molina de Pick said. When Juárez was born, Mexico was still “New Spain,” a Spanish colony, and its fight for independence lasted 11 years, from Miguel de Hidalgo’s revolution in 1810 to 1821. “Hidalgo proclaimed that Mexico abolished slavery in 1810, before the European ‘enlightened’ people decided that it was a crime against humanity,” she said (though actually Great Britain had abolished slavery in 1808). Unfortunately, Molina de Pick explained, instead of a unified government Mexico’s war of independence produced “wars between people, each of whom wanted to be the one ruler.” The worst moment of Mexican history came in 1848, when — largely due to infighting within the Mexican government that prevented it from offering a unified resistance — the U.S. conquered and annexed more than half of Mexico, which became the U.S. states of California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

As Molina de Pick pointed out, those ongoing civil wars included a major player: the Roman Catholic Church. Under Spanish law, the Catholic religion had been the only one allowed in Mexico, and the Catholic leaders — most of whom weren’t Mexicans — backed the conservative side in the civil wars to make sure it stayed that way. Juárez ran up against the power of the church early on; he was educated in its schools because that was the only way a poor indigenous Mexican boy could get an education, but he quit in disgust when he found that Mexicans, especially indigenous ones, would never be allowed to rise above the lowest levels in the church hierarchy. Juárez also decided that Mexico could only prosper as a nation if it ended class distinctions between those of Spanish and those of indigenous descent, and embraced its destiny as a mestizo — mixed-race — nation.

“Somewhere in his studies Juárez decided he wanted to help Mexico become a modern nation and build its loyalty and citizenry from the mestizos,” Molina de Pick explained. “He knew that the indigenous people could not go back to ruling the country outright, but by aiming at a political life step by step, he became an elected president. He realized that the people who had been bleeding the country dry were not the real Mexicans; the real Mexicans were the mestizos, and that’s also true of all Latin American countries with an important indigenous culture.”

Molina de Pick’s co-presenter, history professor Ricardo Griswold del Castillo, explained La Reforma, the anti-clerical reform movement Juárez joined and eventually led. “La Reforma was a time when Mexico and Juárez created ideals in the Constitution of 1857, including separation of church and state, secular education and developing a capitalist economy to take Mexico out of the Middle Ages. Juárez wasn’t alone; he was part of a movement to make Mexico a modern nation. There were factions in his group, and he tried to reach a consensus. But he was fighting a war, first a civil war with the church and its conservative political supporters, and then a war with the French. So it wasn’t possible to carry out the reforms during the war” — and, he added, after the war infighting between the members of Juárez’s party created further complications, especially over the direction of the economy.

Asked how Juárez became anti-clerical despite his church-sponsored education, Molina de Pick explained, “The indigenous people had been marginalized and got no help from the church. Every town had an indigenous name and a Catholic name, and the only time the church acknowledged the indigenous villages was once a year, when they sent a friar — the lowest person in the hierarchy — to each town with the blessings of the bishop and the archbishop. Juárez shared in the values of his indigenous community, which included consensus and helping the poor. The church made people pay to be priests or nuns, and always kept an alliance with Europe and the European populations in Mexico. No one in any of the higher echelons of the church were Mexicans.”

Juárez and his government fought the church, and the church fought back. One of the first laws passed under Mexico’s liberal government in the 1850’s was the Ley Juárez, which made church and military leaders accountable to the civil justice system instead of their own private courts. Another was the Ley Lerdo, which was intended to break up the church’s enormous landholdings — and which, like the recent privatization of state-owned property in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, had the unintended consequence of building up the holdings of exploitative private individuals and creating a class of economic oligarchs. Juárez’s constitution of 1857 also proclaimed the separation of church and state, set up a secular education system, and provided that the only marriages which would be considered valid would be those performed by the government. If you wanted a church ceremony, you could still have one, but it was the government registry, not the minister, that conferred mutual rights and responsibility upon a married couple. (Molina de Pick suggested that U.S. Queers should be demanding this reform here, so ministers could no longer claim that they would be forced to violate their religious beliefs by having to marry same-sex couples.)

The church fought back, not only in Mexico but in Europe as well. The reigning pope of Juárez’s time, Pius IX, not only formally excommunicated Juárez and every leader of his party from the church, he issued an extraordinary document which claimed the power to invalidate the Mexican constitution of 1857 because it granted separation of church and state and refused to ban all other religions. “For the purpose of more easily corrupting manners and propagating the detestable pest of indifferentism and tearing souls away from the Most Holy Religion, it allows the free exercise of all cults and admits the right of pronouncing in public every kind of thought and opinion,” the pope wrote. “We raise our Pontifical voice in apostolic liberty … to condemn, to reprove, and declare null and void the said decrees and everything else that the civil authority has done in scorn of ecclesiastical authority and this Holy See.” In response to the Italian independence movement led by Giuseppe Garibaldi — who sent a congratulatory telegram when Juárez’s army defeated the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862 (the origin of the Cinco de Mayo holiday) — Pius IX had also issued an encyclical declaring democracy itself to be un-Christian.

What’s more, Molina de Pick said, the conflicts between the church and the Mexican government in Juárez’s time have persisted to the present. While she didn’t make the obvious parallel between the betrayal of Juárez’s ideals under Díaz and the actions of Mexican presidents in the 1980’s and 1990’s of opening the country to foreign investment and economic servitude through the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), she did note that Mexico’s two most recent presidents, Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón, were elected from the National Action Party (PAN). This party started in the 1940’s as an outgrowth of the violent counter-revolution of the 1920’s and 1930’s, in which supporters of the Roman Catholic church, called Cristeros, took on the post-1910 government which had adopted and strengthened the anti-clerical laws of Juárez’s time.

“Mexico has gone backwards with the last two Presidents,” Molina de Pick said. One way in which they have done that is that, for the first time since the 1910 revolution, Mexico has accepted a diplomatic representative from the Vatican — something the U.S. also refused to do until the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan ordered that the U.S. accept a Vatican ambassador and thereby endorse the church’s claim to be a sovereign nation. “Under the new president, a new archbishop was sent to Mexico — a Spaniard — and the day before Congress was supposed to vote on a law legalizing abortion nationwide, the pope sent a message saying Mexico was going to the dogs, no Catholic legislator should vote for it, and anyone who did would be excommunicated.”

According to Molina de Pick, the latest attempt by a church hierarchy and a pope to interfere in Mexican politics backfired big-time. Usually, she explained, the remnants of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which formed in the wake of the 1910 revolution and ruled Mexico continuously until losing the presidency in 2000, vote in the Mexican legislature with the PAN against the more progressive Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Not this time, Molina de Pick said; “I think some of Juárez’s spirit got back to the PRI representatives, and they voted to decriminalize abortion throughout the country. In my opinion, that was a vote of protest against the influence of the archbishop and the pope.”
Show Business: Broadway Lives!


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 2003-04, the Broadway theatre played host to an unusually eclectic batch of new musicals, four of which are profiled in a fascinating new documentary by Dori Berinstein, Show Business: The Road to Broadway. (The publicity material spells the title ShowBusiness, in that horrible sort of nomenclature — one word but with a capital letter in the middle —that started with the naming of computer programs and has, alas, spread, but the title is properly two words on the film’s actual credits.) They were Avenue Q, an adult version of Sesame Street whose creators, songwriters Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx and book writer Jeff Whitty, promised “full puppet nudity”; Wicked, based on a novel by Gregory Maguire that purported to tell the story of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s point of view; Caroline, or Change, a reminiscence by Angels in America author Tony Kushner of his childhood as a white Jewish boy in Louisiana in 1963 and his relationship with his family’s Black maid; and Taboo, an autobiographical show by Boy George dealing with the rise and fall of his rock ’n’ roll career in the early 1980’s.

Three of those shows (all but Taboo) were nominated for Best Musical in the 2004 Tony Awards, and as Show Business makes clear, as little as the Tonys might mean to the rest of the country (the TV audience for them steadily drops every year), they mean a great deal to the New York theatre community not only in prestige but in cold, hard cash. A few Tonys can make the difference between a modest flop and a modest hit, or between a modest hit and a blockbuster. Berinstein had her cameras behind the scenes in the production of all four shows, ultimately shooting over 400 hours of film which she edited down to 102 minutes’ running time, and she was able to score video footage of her principals shot well before — notably a home video of Avenue Q co-creator Lopez belting out “That’s Entertainment!” at 13. While a documentary focusing on one production might have been even more illuminating — and would have given viewers one show to root for instead of whipsawing us between four — there’s something to be said for Berinstein’s approach. It gives us a tapestry of Broadway as a whole and offers four different creative teams with different approaches to revitalizing an art form which peaked in the 1930’s and 1940’s and has moved increasingly away from mass consciousness ever since.

What’s most interesting about Show Business is that it shows how little has really changed about both the creative and business sides of putting on a Broadway show. There are scenes here that could easily have fit into classic “backstage” musical films like 42nd Street (1933) and The Band Wagon (1953): the wearying rehearsal periods in which dance directors try to hone a motley bunch of chorus performers into a well-drilled ensemble; the temperamental stars on whom the shows depend; the uncertainties of the financing and the ever-present fear that a key backer will drop out; and, overall, the great question that looms over every show when the curtain goes up on opening night: “Will they like it?” On Broadway, “they” means not only the first-night audience but also the critics, whom Berinstein shows on screen and uses as a kind of Greek chorus. Critics are probably more important to live theatre in general and Broadway musicals in particular than they are to any other art form; while there’s a built-in audience ready to drop money to see the latest Spider-Man or Pirates of the Caribbean sequel no matter what the reviewers write about it, both the eight-figure investment needed to put on a Broadway musical and the three-figure price of a ticket to one give critics a lot of power because they are among the most powerful voices audience members look to for answers to the question, “Is it worth it?”

One powerful sequence showing just how heavy the hand of tradition is on even the most un-traditional Broadway musical displays the so-called “Gypsy Robe,” brought to each theatre just before opening by an Actors Equity representative and put on the chorus boy or girl with the longest list of previous credits. The recipient is then obliged to run around the backstage area and do a series of prescribed rituals reminiscent of the directions of a scavenger hunt. Berinstein intercuts between the backstages of her four shows to display the presentation of the “Gypsy Robe” and at least some of the antics its wearers perform. The heavy weight of tradition is also apparent in the reactions some of the shows get from the critics; when John Lahr is shown denouncing Wicked as “monumentally mediocre,” it’s hard not to think his view is being warped by his father having played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz.

Another aspect of Broadway that comes through loud and clear in Show Business is how Gay it is. Given the heavy-duty machismo that permeates rock and the outright, proud homophobia of rap, Broadway remains an oasis where Queer performers, musicians and writers can feel relatively safe. At least three major creative people behind Berinstein’s four shows are well-known Queers — Caroline, or Change’s author Tony Kushner and Taboo’s creator, Boy George, and producer, Rosie O’Donnell — and there are plenty of other men in the film who project the sissy stereotype as the way they’re simply the most comfortable being and acting. So drenched are the various backstage milieux in apparent homophilia that when we see Avenue Q co-creator Lopez awaiting the announcement of the Tony nominees at home with a female partner, that is shocking. (The omnipresence of Gay men on Broadway has an interesting historical root: Lee Shubert, who with his two brothers founded the Shubert Organization early in the 20th century and built most of Broadway’s important theatres, insisted on hiring only Gays for male roles and technical crews. The reason: he wanted to cruise the chorus girls and didn’t want to risk having younger, hunkier straight guys around giving him competition.)

But the most fascinating part of theatre explored in Show Business is its impermanence, its evanescence. Once a show closes, it’s gone, and if it closed too soon its investors’ money is gone with it. Rosie O’Donnell spent $10 million of her own money to mount Taboo — itself unusual in a show world where costs have zoomed up so high most modern musicals have up to 20 producers — and lost it all. If you make a flop movie, you still have a salable object and there’s always the chance that it will find a cult audience on DVD, TV or midnight showings and make back some of the money you spent on it. If you make a flop show, you might as well have piled your $10 million on a bunch of logs in Times Square and lit it as a bonfire. And the frustration extends to the audience as well — as Berinstein shows us when the cult that formed around Taboo (some people saw it 25 to 50 times) almost goes into mourning when the closing notice is posted. If you see Show Business and you like the bits of Avenue Q enough to want to see more, you’re in luck; it’s still running on Broadway and the Old Globe’s West Coast premiere production opens June 30 at the Spreckels Theatre downtown. But if you want to see more of Taboo, tough.

Show Business is also full of fascinating human-interest stories. Tonya Pinkins not only belts the big numbers from Caroline, or Change movingly, but her backstory includes a quick fall from grace from a Tony Award for Jelly’s Last Jam a decade earlier through a bitter divorce, loss of her children in a court battle with her ex, and a drop to the bottom that left her homeless before Caroline’s producers gave her a chance to come back. British actor Euan Morton, imported to play Boy George in Taboo after his success in the London run, is forced to return to England when his work visa is automatically cancelled when Taboo closes — but his uncanny impersonation of the early-1980’s Queer pop icon has put him in touch with his musical talents and moved him towards music as a career path. There are also sights like Wicked star Idina Menzel being sprayed with a fine green powder to turn her into the Wicked Witch (a far easier makeup job than the copper-based green greasepaint Margaret Hamilton had to wear in the 1939 film!), or the Avenue Q cast members bringing their hand puppets with them into the studio where they record the original-cast CD.

Show Business is a marvelous film, especially for those who share its makers’ obsession with theatre in general and the Broadway musical in particular. It’s not just an exploration of the grunt work that goes into any production and just how much effort it takes to mount one, though that’s a major part of it. It’s also a meditation on how chancy the theatre is as a business and how much the success or failure of an individual play depends not only on its own quality but on factors totally beyond the talents’ control, including the unusually severe New York winter of January-February 2004 that shook the fates of some of the more marginal shows. But most of all, it’s a valentine to a form of theatre that has given us some of the greatest songs ever written and, though less popular and more cultish than it used to be, still attracts major creative talents and occasionally delivers a masterpiece.

Show Business opens Friday, June 22 at the Landmark Theatres, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2103 for showtimes and other information.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Joe Volk Reports on His Visit to Iran

Religious Leaders Meet with Iran’s President, Other High-Level Officials


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Did you know that from February 18 to 25, 13 U.S. religious leaders from a wide variety of churches — ranging from traditional peace-oriented denominations like the Quakers and Mennonites, who sponsored the trip, to Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and members of the Church of the Nazarene — went to Iran and had high-level meetings with the country’s current and immediate past presidents? Probably not, if your main news source is the mainstream corporate media, who these days seem to mention Iranians only when they’re questioning the Holocaust, calling for the destruction of Israel, building centrifuges to enrich uranium, holding American and British citizens hostage, or being targeted by U.S. military maneuvers off their coast. But the trip did happen, and Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), spoke about his experiences in Iran to a San Diego audience at the Church of the Brethren June 13.

Volk opened the meeting by saying quite bluntly that the purpose of the trip was to start a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran to short-circuit the plans of the Bush administration and its neocoservative advisors to attack Iran before Bush leaves office. “We know the U.S. has a targeting plan for Iran, focused on 750 sites allegedly part of their nuclear infrastructure,” Volk said. “The idea is to destroy these targets with air and naval attacks without having to put troops on the ground. They’re also arguing that Iran is helping the insurgency in Iraq, and that Iran is in cahoots with al-Qaeda and the Taliban. A number of us in the religious community thought that this [talk of war with Iran] was very dangerous, and wanted to see if we could start a real dialogue.”

The idea for the trip came from the Mennonite Central Committee, Volk explained. Because they’ve already been involved in Iran for 17 years doing earthquake relief, he said, “They have had to develop important relationships with government and religious officials and people on the ground.” The Iranian government told them in January that they would be willing to admit a religious delegation in February, but they needed a list of the names and affiliations of who would be going immediately. This kept a lot of people who wanted to go from doing the trip, because they couldn’t either rearrange their schedules in time or get permission from their boards of directors. “In future trips, we’ll have greater representation,” Volk said.

According to Volk, the purpose of the trip was not only to visit Iran and meet with Iranians but “raise the tough issues,” so that later they could go to Congress and lobby against a U.S. attack on Iran. They also wanted to go to the mainstream media to encourage them to cover Iran more fairly. “If you go to Iran for six days, that doesn’t make you an expert,” Volk conceded, “but at least what we can tell you what the Iranians tell us.” One other hope they had when they planned the trip was to invite a “reciprocal delegation” of Iranians to visit the U.S. — but those hopes were dashed by officials at the State Department, who refused to guarantee that any Iranians seeking to come to the U.S. as part of an official delegation would be let into this country. (Ironically, after the U.S. delegation returned, State Department staffers asked them why they hadn’t set up a reciprocal trip.)

“We arrived in Tehran at 1:30 a.m. Monday [February 19] and had our first meeting with a representative of the foreign ministry at the airport,” Volk recalled. “The foreign ministry representative said they were very happy to have us there, but there was a problem: there were false rumors about us, including that we were evangelical Christians coming to convert Muslims to Christianity, or that we were posing as religious leaders but were really CIA agents coming to spy. We agreed to stay on the bus and inside our hotel until that calmed down. But two knuckleheads in our group” — and Volk brought the house down when he admitted he was one of them — “went for a walk through Tehran Monday morning to see who we could talk to.”

They were looking for Iranians who could speak English — of whom there are quite a few — and invariably the Iranians asked them if the U.S. was going to attack their country. Volk said they would turn the question around and ask the Iranians if they thought there would be a U.S.-Iran war. “They were resigned that the U.S. would attack — and that they would resist,” Volk said. “We said we were there to keep that from happening.”

Later on Monday the group had its first official meeting, with Ayatollah Mohammad Emami Kashani. Under Iran’s dual system of government, in which religious leaders have veto power over the secular government’s actions as well as the candidates allowed to run for office, the supreme power rests with the cleric who heads the Governing Council. This position was filled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, until his death, when he was replaced by the current leader, Ali Khamenei. Kashani is a former member of the Governing Council and reportedly still a close advisor to Khamenei. According to Volk, Kashani told them that he would denounce the rumors against their group in his evening prayer services that night, and would urge other religious leaders to do the same. “The rumors were calmed, and our pictures were in the papers,” Volk said.

Their next official meeting, with a deputy foreign minister, was delayed from Tuesday to Wednesday, which gave the group members the chance to take a tour and meet with some Iranian schoolchildren. The tour included visits to the palaces of the Shah of Iran, who ruled with U.S. support from the CIA-sponsored coup against democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 until the Shah himself was overthrown by Khomeini’s movement in 1979. The idea behind the tour was to contrast the Shah’s lavish living spaces and lordly isolation from his people with the small room in which Khomeini lived, a bare, Spartan space opening out on an Islamic prayer center, which Volk jokingly said was “suitable for a Quaker.”

The conversations with Iranian schoolchildren came during the tour, on which their teacher was taking them while the Americans were also there. The Americans asked the teacher if any of his students spoke English, and he identified three of them who did. When one member of the delegation, Ron Flaming, asked an English-speaking child what he thought of the U.S., the teacher immediately interrupted and led the class in a chant of “Down with U.S.A.!” — pronouncing the initials phonetically as “oo-sa.” Nonetheless, the kids came up to the Americans later and told them how excited they were to be seeing people from “oo-sa” in the flesh — leading Volk to conclude that the anti-American chant was about as meaningful as a football cheer in a U.S. high school, and served a similar purpose of expressing “school spirit.”

On Wednesday the group got to meet with Dr. Said Jalili, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for the U.S. and Europe. One Iranian official noted this was the first meeting between Iranian diplomats and an official delegation from the U.S. — even a private one — since 1979, when the taking of 64 American diplomats hostage by a private organization of Iranian students (later validated by Khomeini when he endorsed it) led to the end of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. Jalili took the group aback when he told them, “We have been subjected to the worst types of pressure: eight years of imposed war [referring to the 1980-1988 conflict between Iran and Iraq, in which the U.S. openly helped Saddam Hussein’s regime while covertly selling arms to Iran as well], economic sanctions, and extensive psychological warfare launched by the media against our people.”

One member of the delegation replied, “I hear in your voice and in your passion, the pain of your people for the last 50 years. I would say to you today that we feel as a nation that we owe you an apology as a people for some of that pain.” Another reflected later, “The only way you bring about reconciliation as Christians is by repentance, you know, but how does a nation repent? The challenge for me just in thinking about it, how does a nation say they’re sorry and then turn and move in a different direction?”

The group got to go not only to Tehran but also to Qom, the holiest city in Iran and the center of Khomeini’s movement before it took power. “When we met with religious leaders, one thing that struck us is how interested they are in interfaith dialogue,” Volk said. “One graduate student told me he was writing a paper about an obscure historical religious sect of Christians called Quakers. He was surprised that there are Quakers still living, and even more surprised that some of them were there with him. They have an ongoing process of trying to reconcile the different Islamic schools of thought.”

Khatami: The Past President

The high points of the trip, according to Volk, occurred on the last two days: Saturday, February 24, when they met with former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami; and the next day, February 25, when they got a meeting with the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khatami, who served from 1997 until 2005, “is understood to be more moderate than Ahmadinejad, and has been to the U.S. several times,” Volk explained. Volk’s main interest in meeting Khatami was to ask him about a secret letter the Iranian government sent to the U.S. in May 2003 — even though he knew that if asked about the letter, Khatami would have to deny ever having sent it or even having known of its existence.

Sure enough, Khatami seemed to Volk to be following his explanation of what was in the letter and listening in a way that indicated he knew what Volk was saying, even though Volk was speaking English and the meeting was being held via a translator. Once Volk finished, Khatami said something in Farsi to the translator and the translator repeated that the former president had had no idea of the letter’s existence and certainly had not sent it — but as Volk continued to talk about the letter, he said, Khatami’s responses indicated that he knew not only what points were made in the letter but in what order they appeared.

According to Volk, the letter included an offer by Iran to allow “intrusive inspections” of its nuclear facilities to show they were only developing civilian nuclear reactors, not weapons. It also included an offer to work for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, to stop the attacks on Israel by Hamas militias and use Iran’s influence over the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah to get it to give up its arms and become only a political party and social-service organization. In exchange, Iran asked the U.S. and the international community in general to end economic sanctions against Iran, facilitate Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization and end U.S. support for the MKO, a group of expatriate Iranians who regularly stage terrorist attacks inside Iran.

“After the meeting,” Volk recalled, “Khatami’s aide came out and said, ‘I want to thank you for raising the letter. The President and I worked on it, as did Khamenei and many government officials.’ I asked what happened to it, and he said, ‘My understanding is that then-secretary of state Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, liked it enough to begin talks, but vice-president Dick Cheney and national security advisor [now secretary of state] Condoleeza Rice objected to it, and it stopped.’”

Volk said that when he got back to the U.S., he checked on that story and got confirmation from one of Powell’s top assistants, Lawrence Wilkerson. According to Wilkerson, Powell’s position was strong enough that he could defy Cheney and Rice on one international issue, but not two — and Powell decided that it was more important to defy them on North Korea and keep the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program going than to defy them on the Iranian letter and the prospects for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Indeed, according to Volk, the U.S. not only rejected the Iranian letter but rebuked the government of Switzerland for transmitting it.

Ahmadinejad: The Current President

According to Volk, Iran’s next attempt to mend fences with the U.S. came in September 2006, when he came to New York to address the General Assembly of the United Nations and “to test the waters for an official meeting. He met with 40 religious leaders and invited the Mennonites to come to Iran.” The U.S. religious leaders who came to Iran in February 2007 got 2 1/2 hours of face time with Ahmadinejad — “it could have gone on longer, but we had a plane to catch,” Volk said — and they came prepared to ask him tough questions about Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad’s public calls for the destruction of Israel, the conference of Holocaust deniers Iran sponsored last year, future bi-national relations and the role of religion in politics generally.

“It took a long time, because we were using translators and talking about hot-button issues over a cultural divide,” Volk recalled. “There were times when the meeting was pleasant, and times when it was difficult. Ahmadinejad is a hot-button demagogue who knows how to hit the buttons to energize his base. Whenever he denounces the U.S. or Israel’s, Iran’s popularity among the other Middle Eastern nations soars, and Ahmadinejad’s own domestic poll numbers go up.” Volk described Ahmadinejad’s saber-rattling as a strategy to take Iranians’ minds off the economic failure of his government — Iran’s unemployment rate is 40 percent, half of its population is 25 or under, and up to one-quarter of Iranians 18 and under are addicted to heroin — and boost his popularity.

Volk said Ahmadinejad told his group that Iran is “ready to talk to the U.S. directly on any topic at any time, if the U.S. will show goodwill.” Ahmadinejad didn’t specify what “show goodwill” meant, but the group took it to mean that the U.S. would have to give up its official policy of seeking regime change in Iran and accept the permanence of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. On the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad said that Islam forbids the making or use of weapons of mass destruction — which the delegation had already heard from Kashani and other religious leaders they’d talked to — and when the U.S. group pointed out that Christian theology also forbids WMD’s but that hasn’t stopped the U.S. and other majority-Christian nations from developing them, Ahmadinejad said, “Yes, that’s why we need intrusive inspections.”

According to Volk, the two points that most galled Ahmadinejad about the U.S. policy towards Iran are their insistence that Iran stop enriching uranium and make sweeping concessions before negotiations can even begin, and the continual accusations that Iran is supporting al-Qaeda and other anti-U.S. terrorists. “We negotiate first, then we give away our bargaining chips,” Ahmadinejad said. “We won’t do anything the U.S. tells us to just because the U.S. tells us to do it. The U.S. is a great world power and we are a great regional power.” Ahmadinejad also pointed out that Iran would be making itself a target if it actually developed a nuclear weapon, and that having nukes hadn’t saved the Soviet Union or the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“On terrorism, he and everybody else we talked to were very frustrated that this question even came up.” Volk said. “He kept reminding us, ‘Don’t you know who we are? We are Shi’a Muslims. We are the enemies of the Taliban, of the Wahabist Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and of al-Qaeda. We are not extremists. We are a responsible government.’ On Iraq, he said, ‘We are very happy the U.S. deposed our great enemy, Saddam Hussein. We only wish that we had been asked to help. In our view, a destabilized Iraq that moves towards being a failed state is a detriment to our national interest, and we want to stop it. The government the U.S. has installed in Iraq is led by our Shi’a brothers. We want them to succeed.”

Volk acknowledged that Ahmadinejad “didn’t say anything that would relieve Christians” about the Israel-Palestine issue or the Holocaust denial conference. “We said we were extremely insulted by the conference,” Volk recalled. “He said it was just a scientific inquiry, and we said, ‘No, it wasn’t. You didn’t represent all points of view. When you stand in front of a banner that says, “World Without Zionism,” that doesn’t help.’ He said there’d been Jews at the conference, and we said yes, but only Jews that took the side of the Holocaust deniers.” But Ahmadinejad did say one thing about Israel and Palestine that the members of the group agreed with, Volk reported. “He said, ‘I don’t think there’s any military solution to Israel/Palestine. It has to be a politically negotiated outcome.’”

Aftermath: Congress and the Media

As Volk had said at the outset, “Part of the point of the trip was to build support for the U.S. taking a diplomatic approach” to Iran instead of going to war. After they returned, he recalled, “We had 24 meetings on Capitol Hill in two days, and only one office, a Cuban-American, said, ‘Iranians only understand brute force.’ The others were supportive, and a number of members of Congress asked us if we could help get them into Iran. The view of most of the people we talked to was, ‘Let’s not do in Iran what we did in Iraq. Too dangerous.’”

Volk also had surprisingly good luck doing media interviews, even with talk-show hosts on normally Right-wing stations in places like Oklahoma and Nebraska. He recalled one host from Omaha who had him on a morning show. “I thought he was going to eat me for breakfast,” Volk recalled. Instead, the host made all his points for him — how Iran should be handled militarily and how insane it would be for the U.S. to attack Iran when our forces are already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan — before Volk even opened his mouth on the show.

Asked why all attempts so far in Congress to stop the administration from going to war with Iran have either been blocked in committee or voted down on the floor, Volk said it had to do with the imminence of the 2008 elections for both President and Congress. “The politicians are getting advice that if they oppose the war in Iraq, they have to do something else to show they’re tough, and Iran is the obvious target because Ahmadinejad has made himself the man you love to hate,” Volk said. “I’m a pacifist and I don’t believe in using war at all, but for people in Congress who do believe in war, they should at least know that you don’t do a war of choice.”

Portions of this article came from the March 23, 2007 episode of the PBS-TV series NOW, which sent a camera crew along with the delegation to Iran and shot 40 hours of film. A full transcript of this broadcast is available online at http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/312.html

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Arab-American Teach-in Explores U.S. Policy in Middle East

U.S. Media Systematically Mislead American People, Speakers Say


photo by GERARD RAMIREZ (L to R: Babak Rahimi, Michael Provence, Nasser Barghouti)

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Any resemblance between what the mainstream U.S. media say about American involvement in the Middle East and reality is, if not purely coincidental, at least far-fetched, said three speakers at a teach-in on Middle East issues May 31 at the Four Points Sheraton on Aero Drive. Sponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Alternate Focus public-access cable-TV program on Middle Eastern issues, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice and the San Diego chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild, the event showcased UCSD Iranian studies professor Babak Rahimi, UCSD history professor Michael Provence, and San Diego ADC president Nasser Barghouti, all of whom built their presentations around the contrast between what our media tell us about the Middle East and what’s really going on there.

“The ‘popular’ image of Iran and Iraq in the U.S. media deals with two countries that are ultimately ‘threatening’ to U.S. ‘interests’ — actually the U.S.’s military ventures,” Rahimi explained. “In Iran, we get images of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and how he will have the power to destroy the Middle East in general and Israel in particular once he gets nuclear weapons. The message is that the only way to stop him is to destroy the current Iranian government and overthrow it.” Rahimi quoted Richard Perle, well-known neoconservative and one of the intellectual architects of the U.S. war on Iraq, as saying the current Iranian regime is “irreformable.”

“In the case of Iraq, we get a different picture” in the U.S. media, Rahimi added. “There’s an immediate emotional sympathy because of the American military presence, and there’s a confusing picture being painted of Sunnis killing Shi’ites, Shi’ites killing Sunnis and everything nice and rosy in Kurdistan.” Rahimi pointed out that Kirkuk, the largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish region, has its own set of clashes between Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen, “and there’s a real ethnic tension that will possibly destabilize Kurdistan,” but we don’t get much inkling of that in the U.S. media.

“The U.S. media picture is partially true,” Rahimi conceded. “We are seeing radical transformations in both Iran and Iraq. We’re seeing the increasing radicalization of the hard-liners in Iran, while Iraq is fragmenting in ways that could destabilize the entire region.” According to Rahimi, Iran was actually moving in a more moderate direction between 1997, when reformist Muhammad Khatami won the presidency and “there was an explosion of Iranian civil society, women’s rights, movements, different organizations and print media,” and 2002, when the hard-liners regained control.

“The hard-liners decided that the reformers were not only a domestic threat to their power, but could be used by the U.S. as agents to take over,” Rahimi explained. “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards saw the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a major threat to Iran, and in 2002 they fought back by kicking the reform candidates off the ballot in the parliamentary elections. In 2005 they elected their own man as president.” Since then, Rahimi said, the elite Revolutionary Guards have increased their power so much that they now not only dominate the civilian government but are even challenging Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to Khomeini as Supreme Leader under Iran’s Islamist constitution, which gives him and the council of clerics he heads veto power over all candidates for office and all laws passed by Iran’s government.

“Iran and Iraq are historically linked,” Rahimi said. “They’re both majority Shi’a and there’s a religious identity and tradition by which Shi’a Islam has its roots in Iraq. Instead of the consolidation of one party in power in Iraq, we’re seeing the fragmentation of all the groups and parties that made their name in the 2005 election.” According to Rahimi, that election — the first of a series the U.S. sponsored in Iraq, which chose an assembly to write a new Iraqi constitution and which was dominated by Shi’ites and, to a lesser degree, by Kurds because most Sunnis chose not to participate — was set up so that people voted for parties, not individual candidates.

“That enabled the rise of sectarian politics,” he explained. “Many Shi’as voted for the United Iraqi Alliance” — which, despite its name, was almost exclusively a Shi’ite coalition — “and were able to win the January 2005 elections and being the most dominant political party. Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was able to create a unity government with Sunni and Kurd factions, but it’s highly fragmented and the parties are moving away from the unity government to find their own niches.” Meanwhile, he said, the Sunni community itself fragmented, and the Salafist sub-sect of Iraqi Sunnis formed a resistance that targeted, not Americans, but Shi’a Iraqis. “In 2006, after the Golden Shrine bombing, the Shi’a factions united against the anti-Shi’a Sunni groups,” Rahimi said.

The result has been an Iraqi central government that is not only fragmenting but is far out of touch with the needs of the Iraqi people. “The Iraqi government is based inside a bubble in Baghdad known as the Green Zone,” Rahimi said. “It isn’t green; it’s literally grey. The whole place is surrounded by guard troops from Eastern Europe, including Georgia. You go in and pass through two security checks, and then you see Iraqi ministers debating. Many of them don’t ever leave the National Assembly building. The only ones who do leave are the ones who are based in Baghdad, including Moqtada al-Sadr’s people. But that’s the extent of the Iraqi government: the extent to which each party’s militia has support among the Iraqi people. The parties without militias won’t leave the Green Zone at all.”

The debacles in Iraq and especially Iran largely stem from U.S. foreign policy mistakes, Rahimi said — including the true beginning of modern Iranian history: the overthrow of Muhammad Mossadegh’s democratically elected government in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 and the restoration of the Shah’s monarchy. This coup, which also had the backing of Great Britain, was justified on the ground that Mossadegh had nationalized Iran’s oil industry and was “supposedly flirting with the Soviet Union,” Rahimi explained. The overthrow of Iran’s fledgling democracy and the authoritarian methods by which the Shah kept power — including a CIA-trained domestic spying operation called SAVAK — “had their unintended consequences in the 1979 Iranian revolution,” in which the Shah was finally overthrown and Khomeini was able to set up his theocratic system.

“The politically correct position in the U.S. media is we can’t blame any of this on U.S. foreign policy,” Rahimi said. “I can’t stand the Iranian government, but I can see why they would want to radicalize and I can see why they would want nuclear weapons when there are U.S. troops in virtually every country on their borders, including Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S. government’s official position is that ‘regime change’ is the only policy we have towards Iran.” What’s more, Rahimi added, he thinks the U.S. wants the Iranian government to become more radical and more repressive — the better to justify either a general attack on Iran or, more likely, targeted bombing raids aimed at Iran’s fledgling nuclear industry.

“Will the U.S. attack Iran? I don’t think so,” Rahimi said. “Will the U.S. stay in Iraq? Bush’s administration just said they’d stay long-term like they have in South Korea. The U.S. has built the world’s largest embassy and some of its largest military bases in Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani, the most moderate Shi’a leader in Iraq, has said the U.S. can stay for a while but has to leave eventually — and if Sistani says that, you can imagine what al-Sadr would say. If the U.S. stays in Iraq it will see increasing threats from Iran and more Iranian influence over Iraq’s Shi’as. The solution is a radical shift in U.S. foreign policy.”

Precedents for Palestine

Nasser Barghouti, of Palestinian ancestry and most known locally for impassioned speeches at peace rallies stressing his support for the so-called “right of return” — the re-admission of Palestinian families thrown out of what is now Israel in 1948, which virtually every party in Israel fiercely opposes because it would likely cost the state its Jewish majority — began his speech talking about a country in another part of the world altogether. He cited U.S. and British media reports from the early 1990’s that predicted post-apartheid South Africa would erupt in civil war because the various Black tribes in the country would never be able to settle their differences peacefully and come together to govern.

“The Western media had hundreds of articles about impending civil war in South Africa,” Barghouti recalled. “Today South Africa has become a stable society. So don’t take the Western media coverage about Palestine too seriously, not because there aren’t bad things happening, but because the Western media sees things in terms of neo-colonialism.” According to Barghouti, Western media coverage of the conflicts in Palestine reflects a hidden racism — a belief that people of color can’t get together peacefully and form a workable state — and a fulfillment of the divide-and-conquer agenda Britain and France followed when they colonized the region after World War I, creating phony “states” whose borders heightened tribal conflicts and then using the resulting civil wars as excuses for new imperialism.

Barghouti called this process “the white man’s burden,” using Rudyard Kipling’s famous phrase, and defined it as “the belief that whites are doing this for humanity and progress, and ignoring that they made it that way in the first place.” He ridiculed Democratic Senator and Presidential candidate Joseph Biden’s insistence that the only way to end the war in Iraq is to partition the country into separate Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish nations, and then returned to his main subject, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. While acknowledging differences between South Africa and Palestine, he stressed their similarities,

“Israel, a colonial power, has devastated Gaza and the West Bank,” Barghouti said. “It destroyed the infrastructure of Gaza and seeded it with police agents and even drugs. Israel has completely closed Gaza, like a pressure cooker. They have prevented any economy from existing by keeping anyone and anything from coming in or out. Israel has even blocked supplies of flour and water from Gaza for weeks at a time. Then, as part of their policy of so-called ‘targeted assassinations’ of Palestinian leaders, they have bombed whole city blocks without any concern for how many civilians they kill.” According to Barghouti, no people on earth could survive the pressure the Israelis have put on the Palestinians without either dying out as a people or fighting back — but, when the Palestinians fight back, he said, “Western media analysts say the Palestinians are savages and Israel did everything they could to help them.”

Barghouti listed four “crucial facts” about the situation of the Palestinians. “First,” he said, “there is a military occupation — and there has been for four decades, the longest in recent history anywhere in the world. Israel has built Jewish-only settlements and Jewish-only roads throughout Palestine, and enforced them with machine guns. Most of the settlers are there for economic reasons” — real estate prices in pre-1967 Israel have soared so high many working-class and lower middle-class Israelis see living on the West Bank as their only alternative — “but some are religious fanatics determined to annex the land to Israel. The Israeli occupation has systematically violated every part of the Geneva conventions.”

According to Barghouti, the second “crucial fact” about Israel and Palestine is “a failed political process. The 1993 Oslo Accords created a ‘Palestinian Authority,’ but without real sovereignty. The military occupation continued, and as part of the so-called “Palestinian Authority’ the Palestinian militias took over some of the oppressive roles from the Israelis. This is factionalism.”

Barghouti’s third “crucial fact” was the “poverty and desperation” imposed on the Palestinian people by Israel’s occupation, and in particular by the economic restrictions imposed on the Palestinians: they’re forbidden to hold jobs in Israel itself, forbidden to travel freely within occupied Palestine, walled off by barriers and huge “access roads” reserved for Jews only, and frequently their houses and farms are demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Because of this treatment, Barghouti said, “Palestinian living standards plummeted between 1993 and 2003 while Israeli settlements doubled. Israelis live at the living standards of Italians or Spaniards, while Palestinians are poorer than Bangladeshis.”

The fourth “crucial fact” Barghouti cited was the corruption within the Palestinian Authority itself — which he described as the inevitable result of being given authority and money without the responsibility of real sovereignty. “The Palestinian Authority started acting like a ruling class,” he said, “with villas, expensive cars and mass corruption. It’s happened in every decolonized country.” Barghouti added that because of his great charisma and reputation as Palestine’s founder and liberator, Yasir Arafat was able to get away with this — but when Arafat died in 2006 Palestinian voters, angry with the corruption of Arafat’s Fatah movement, replaced it with the more radical but also more honest Hamas party.

This only made the Palestinians’ situation even worse, Barghouti explained — because Fatah refused to accept the election results, and neither did Israel, the U.S. or Europe. The result was “crippling sanctions” that made the Palestinians’ already desperate economic situation even worse. Not only was the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority not allowed to collect any taxes to support the government — instead, Israel simply impounded the tax money Palestinians were paying — but the U.S. and Europe immediately ended all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. What’s more, Israel also resumed assassinations of Palestinian leaders and started a targeted campaign of arresting most of the Hamas leaders in the Palestinian government.

“The end result,” Barghouti explained, “is a chaotic situation in which the armed militias created by the 1993 Oslo agreements have refused to disband. These militias contain paid provocateurs who deliberately start violent incidents, and we have to wonder who pays them. Though Hamas is not as well armed as Fatah, they do have weapons, possibly from Iran, and it’s become a complete disaster.” Barghouti described the Palestinians’ situation over the last year and a half as “a roller-coaster,” in which hopes that a unity government will be formed are dashed by someone from one faction killing someone from another on the street and thereby disrupting the negotiations.

At least part of the problem, Barghouti said, is the fervency of the support the current U.S. government has given Israel. According to Barghouti, when Saudi Arabia hosted meetings between Hamas and Fatah for negotiations that actually produced a potential Palestinian unity government, “there was a bit of a break in the Western alliance. Norway said they would resume aid and other European countries announced they would consider following suit.” Then the boom was lowered: Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, announced that Israel was rejecting the Saudi-brokered unity government — and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice showed up in Israel and “said the same words Olmert did” in denouncing the unity government and snapping the Western alliance back into line to keep the Palestinians broke and starving.

“I think that break in the sanctions upset Israel,” Barghouti said. “Within a few days, violence erupted and today it’s warfare in the streets again. Tens of people are killed every day. Israel has resumed bombardment and has been bombing for two weeks straight and raiding West Bank cities. It’s a miracle that so far the fighting between Hamas and Fatah has been contained in Gaza.” Once again, Barghouti faulted the Western media for reporting the Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence without acknowledging the root causes: “occupation, sanctions, and poverty.”

For Barghouti, the only solution to the Palestinians’ problems is an end to the Israeli occupation. “Let them breathe, and they will solve their own problems, just as South Africa, India and China did,” he said. “Can the Palestinian government deliver the Palestinian people? Unlikely, because the Mecca accords have flaws and the Palestinian ‘government’ is only an entity with no control over their sovereignty, resources or militias. Without lifting the occupation at least back to the 1967 borders, there’s no chance of a peaceful solution — and Israel will never lift the occupation unless they’re forced to do so. … This means boycotts against Israel and pressure against the U.S. to stop supporting the occupation.”

History Lesson on Lebanon and Syria

As befit a history professor, Michael Provence began his part of the program with a quick history lesson. He pointed to the map of the Middle East included in the flyer advertising the teach-in, and explained its origins: it was the map prepared by Britain and France in 1916 in a secret conference on how to divide the properties of the failing Ottoman Empire, which they were fighting against in World War I. Anticipating that the Ottoman Empire would collapse after the war, which it did (though its home base was reorganized into the modern state of Turkey), the colonial powers planned to grab as much as possible of the Middle East for themselves — and, as Provence pointed out, the lines they drew on their secret map in 1916, with zero input from the people who actually lived in the region, are almost identical to the modern boundaries.

“Every border in the Middle East was decided by the European powers against the wishes of the people in the region, and now the Americans think that they can reshape it even better without regard to the history,” Provence said. “The people responded, then and now, with resistance — political, intellectual and military. The response to occupation, partition and foreign forces is predictable. … Every war and conflict in the region traces back to the colonial settlement of 1920 [when the secret 1916 map was implemented], and even four-year-olds in the region know the basic facts.”

The trouble began, Provence said, when France set up so-called “Greater Lebanon” in 1920 under a League of Nations mandate, directly ruling Lebanon and Syria while Britain took control of Iraq (where they set up a puppet king), Jordan and what is now Israel and Palestine. Even the rhetoric the French and British used during the period when they directly ruled most of the Middle East has an awfully familiar sound; as Provence noted, “in the 1920’s and 1930’s they called their local opponents ‘terrorists,’ ‘bandits’ and even ‘Bolsheviks,’ and ignored the fact that all the people in those countries wanted them to leave.”

According to Provence, France’s rule over Lebanon and their playing different Lebanese racial, religious and ethnic communities against each other sowed the seeds for civil war in 1958 and again in 1975-80. In 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon and stayed there until 2000, and when the U.S. invaded Iraq Left-wing Israeli journalists said the Iraq invasion would play out the same way. In 1982 the Israelis said they went into Lebanon to destroy the ‘terrorists’ and create a client state. In 1990 President George H. W. Bush allowed Syria to invade Lebanon in return for Syrian support in the first Gulf War against Iraq. The Syrians overstayed their welcome in Lebanon for a very long time.”

According to Provence, Syria opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 but soft-pedaled their opposition so as “not to antagonize Bush.” Instead, the Iraq invasion gave the Syrian dictatorship the same opportunity as it did the Iranian regime: “to crack down on liberal movements at home.” He said that initially the U.S. didn’t target Iran and Syria until the Iraqi invasion turned into the current debacle; then the Bush administration started blaming Iran and Syria for supporting the Iraqi “insurgents” and making it difficult for the U.S. to keep control over newly conquered and occupied Iraq.

The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 gave Bush “a lever … to pressure Syria,” Provence said. “In February 2006 Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora visited Bush on a state visit, and we’re pretty sure he asked Bush, ‘Please stop Israeli provocations on the southern border and Israeli overflights, and allow us to make the case to Hezbollah to be incorporated into the Lebanese government and military.’” Instead, in July Israel launched a war against Lebanon that lasted for 34 days — and what’s more, unlike in previous Arab-Israeli conflicts, instead of using its influence over Israel to broker a cease-fire the U.S. actually encouraged Israel’s attacks.

“The U.S. told Israel, ‘Make it longer. Keep bombing,’” Provence said. “Previously the U.S. and the Soviet Union would call for a cease-fire in Arab-Israeli conflicts. This time, the cease-fire was repeatedly torpedoed by the U.S. government. Not even Kissinger or Reagan ever did this. The U.S. government seems in thrall to Israel’s loony Right.” Like Barghouti, Provence pointed out that virtually the entire U.S. mainstream media reports conflicts involving Israel almost exclusively from Israel’s perspective; not even Israel’s own media are as relentlessly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian as ours.

“The situation across the region is tremendously depressing, but the capacity for another U.S.-led war is curtailed by domestic opposition and logistical problems,” Provence said. “Olmert’s and Sinoria’s governments are hanging by threads. Hezbollah is not interested in provoking Israel at this time, but Olmert or Israel’s next prime minister could well do something violent to re-establish Israeli authority in the region. The Syrians aren’t interested in making war against Israel, but certain people in this country are saying that to create a ‘buzz’ for intervention the way they did about Iraq. Still, I believe the people of the region will prevail in the long run.”