Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jan/131

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

30May/120

Out Loud for Human Rights in Lebanon

There is probably no question more debated in the course of Middle Eastern uprisings than that of the status of human rights. Anyone familiar with the region knows that the status of human rights in the Middle East is at best obscure. The question of why there was not a “revolution” in Lebanon is a very complex one, tied with the fate of Syria and with the turbulent Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war, and hence cannot be fully answered. In a vague sense it can be said of course that Lebanon is the freest Arab country and that as such it bears a distinctively different character.

While at face value, the statement is true, being “more free than” in the Middle East is simply understating a problem. Just to outline the basic issues, Lebanon’s record on human rights has been a matter of concern for international watchdogs on the following counts:

Security forces arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents and dissidents without charge, different groups (political, criminal, terrorist and often a combination of the three) intimidate civilians throughout the country in which the presence of the state is at best weak, freedom of speech and press is severely limited by the government, Palestinian refugees are systematically discriminated and homosexual intercourse is still considered a crime.

While these issues remain at the level of the state, in society a number of other issues are prominent: Abuse of domestic workers, racism (for example excluding people from color and maids from the beaches) violence against women and homophobia that even included recently a homophobic rant on a newspaper of the prestigious American University in Beirut. The list could go on forever.

The question of gay rights in Lebanon remains somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits explicitly homosexual intercourse since it “contradicts the laws of nature”, and makes it punishable with prison. On the other hand, Beirut – and Lebanon – remains against all odds a safe haven, for centuries, for many people in the Middle East fleeing persecution or looking for a more tolerant lifestyle.

That of course includes gays and lesbians and it is not uncommon to hear of gay parties held from time to time in Beirut’s celebrated clubs. At the same time, enforcement of the law is sporadic and like everything in Lebanon, it might happen and it might not; best is to read the horoscope in the morning and pray for good luck. A few NGO pro-LGBT have been created in the country since the inception of “Hurriyyat Khassa” (Private Liberties) in 2002.

In 2009 Lebanese LGBT-organization Helem launched a ground-breaking report about the legal status of homosexuals in the entire region, in which a Lebanese judge ruled against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals.

It is against the background of this turbulent scenario that Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud” (2011) came to life, putting together an unusual tale about friendship and love set in postwar Lebanon in which five friends and a girl set on a perilous journey in order to find their place in the world.

Though the plot of the film seems simple, underneath the surface lurks a challenge to the traditional morals and taboos of Lebanese society – homosexuality, the role of women, the troubled past of the war, delinquency, crime, honor – which for Lebanese cinema, on the other hand, marks a turning point.

This wouldn’t be so important in addressing the question of rights and freedoms in Lebanon were it not for a documentary, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, released together with the film  that documents in detail the ordeal through which the director, actors and crew had to go through in order to complete this film.

Shot in Zahlé, in mountainous heartland of Lebanon and what the director called “a city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”, it is widely reported in the documentary that from the very beginning the cast and crew were met with the same angry mobs, insults, and physical injuries that their film in itself so vehemently tried to overcome; a commercial film about family violence, gay lovers, and the boundaries of relationships between men and women.  A film  not about Lebanon fifteen or twenty years ago, but about Lebanon of here and today.

Daboul writes: “Although I grew up in the city in which “Out Loud” was filmed, even I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a movie in a nation plagued by violence, racism, sexism, corruption and a lack of respect for art and human rights.” The purpose of “Out Loud” of course wasn’t only to make a movie but a school of life, in which the maker, the actors and the audience could all have a peaceful chance to re-examine their own history and future.

Until very recently in lieu of a public space, in Lebanon, any conflict was solved by means of shooting, kidnapping and blackmailing by armed militias spread throughout the country and acting in the name of the nation.

The wounds have been very slow to heal as is no doubt visible from the contemporary political panorama. Recently, a conversation with an addiction counselor in Beirut revealed the alarming statistics of youth mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction across all social classes in Lebanon, to which I will devote a different article.

Making films in Lebanon is an arduous process that not only does not receive support from the state but is also subject to an enormous censorship bureaucracy that wants to make sure that the content of the films do not run counter to the religious and political sensibilities of the state. In the absence of strong state powers, the regulations are often malleable and rather look after the sensibilities of political blocs and religious leaders rather than state security, if any such exists.

The whole idea of censorship of ideas is intimately intertwined with the reality of freedom and rights and with the severe limitations – both physical and intellectual – placed upon the public space.

In the Middle East, censorship of a gay relationship is an established practice in order to protect public morality; however what we hear on the news daily that goes from theft to murder to kidnap to abuse to rape to racism, does not require much censorship and is usually consumed by the very same public.

If there is one thing here that one can learn from Hannah Arendt about freedom of speech is that as Roger Berkowitz writes in “Hannah Arendt and Human Rights”:

The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”

Berkowitz adds:

Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act –to be effectual and meaningful in a public world – that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.

While these ideas might seem oversimplified and rather vague in a region “thirsty” for politics, they establish a number of crucial distinctions that must be taken into account in any discussion about human rights. Namely:

1)      The failure of human rights is a fundamental fact of the modern age

2)      There is a distinction between civil rights and human rights, the latter being what people resort to when the former have failed them

3)      It is the fact that we appear in public and speak our minds to our fellowmen that ensures that we live our lives in a plurality of opinions and perspectives and the ultimate indicator of a life being lived with dignity.

Even if we have a “right” to a house, to an education and to a citizenship (that is, belonging to a community) if we do not have the right to speak and act in public and express ourselves (as homosexual, woman, dissident and what not) we are not being permitted to become fully human. Regardless of the stability of political institutions, provision of basic needs and security, there is no such a thing as a human world – a human community – in the absence of the possibility of appearing in the world as what we truly are.

 “Out Loud” – both the film and the documentary – are a testimony of the degree to which the many elements composing the multi-layered landscape of Lebanese society are at a tremendous risk of worldlessness by being subject to an authority that relies on violence in lieu of power. Power and violence couldn’t be any more opposite.

Hannah Arendt writes in her journals:

Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a terrible force, but it is there precisely that its eminently human character lies. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If power is seized, power itself is destroyed and only violence is left.

It is always the case in dark times that peoples – and also the intellectuals among them – put their entire faith in politics to solve the conflicts that emerge in the absence of plurality and of the right to have rights, but nothing could be more mistaken. Politics cannot save, cannot redeem, cannot change the world. Just like the human community, it is something entirely contingent, fragile and temporary.

That is why no decisions made on the level of government and policies are a replacement for the spontaneity of human action and appearance. It is here that the immense worth of “Out Loud” lies; in enabling a generation that is no longer afraid of hell – for whatever reason – to have a conversation, and it is there where the rehabilitation of the public space is at stake and not in building empty parks to museumficate a troubled past, as has been often the case in Beirut. In an open conversation, people will continue contesting the legacy and appropriating the memory not as a distant past, but as their own.

The case of Lebanon remains precarious: Lebanon’s clergy has recently united in a call for more censorship; and today it was revealed that the security services summon people for interrogation over what they have posted on their Facebook accounts; HRW condemned the performance of homosexuality tests on detainees in Lebanon, even though this sparked a debate and a discussion on the topic ensued at the seminar “Test of Shame” held at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Lebanese Medical Society held a discussion in which they concluded those tests are of no scientific value.

In a country like Lebanon, plagued by decades of war and violence, as Samer Daboul has said in his film, people are more than often engaged at survival and just at that – surviving from one war to another, from one ruler to another, from one abuse to another, and as such, the responses of society to the challenges of the times are of an entirely secondary order. But what he has done in his films is what we, those who still have a little faith in Lebanon, should have as a principle: “It’s time to live. Not to survive”.

-Arie Amaya-Akkermans