Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
30May/140

The True American

ArendtWeekendReading

Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.

Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.

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Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:

The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.

Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”

The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.

Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.

If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.

And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:

Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?

As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.

[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”

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Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:

It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.

Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.

[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,

that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.

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Ziv responds angrily and honestly:

“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”

Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”

Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read.  You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
22Jan/133

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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
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

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.