‘Black Panther’ Has an Important Lesson for All of Us About Identity

‘Black Panther’ Has an Important Lesson for All of Us About Identity

New York Times Feb 21, 2018


There’s a hard truth about identity that is laced throughout, though never quite stated in, the new film “Black Panther” as well as the bounty of smart commentary it’s elicited.
That hard truth is that identity, in basically all forms, is to some significant extent a fiction. Confronting this can be awkward, controversial and even painful but, in the long run, we believe, can make life better and the world’s problems more manageable.
That might sound like a rebuke to the film’s celebration of pan-African and African diaspora identities. But it’s quite the opposite. What makes the film powerful and important, we think, is its implicit acknowledgement that identity is made up by deconstructing old, colonially imposed identities so as to build a new, better set of identities.
“Africa—or, rather, ‘Africa’—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth,” Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker. The film’s fictitious African nation of Wakanda is, he says, “a redemptive counter-mythology” that is “no more or less imaginary than the Africa conjured by” colonists and their enablers.
All identities are, to some extent, invented. If one has been invented for you to justify your subjugation, displacement, murder or worse, why not invent a better one?
Racial identity is made up, forced into artificial but deeply consequential categories. That doesn’t mean it can’t feel real, or be a source of value or social place or harmful discrimination. It just means it’s artificial and therefore can be imposed or manipulated by outsiders — for instance, centuries of Westerners constructing a black identity that would justify slavery and colonialism.
We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about national identity and nationalism recently, and it’s clear that national identity can also feel like one of the most “real” things in many people’s lives, but it’s made up, too.
Often, national identity is engineered by governments to justify and exert their authority over territory within otherwise arbitrary borders. That identity is then dressed up in mythology and symbolism to make that territory’s unity feel eternal and inevitable.
Most European nations, for instance, began as mere collections of territory whose residents had little in common, including language or race. It’s only very recently that those countries have developed shared languages and cultures that make them feel like a unified whole — like a nation.
Consider this mind-blowing statistic from Eric Hobsbawm, a prominent scholar of nationalism: “The French language has been essential to the concept of ‘France,'” although in 1789” – the year of the French Revolution, the pinnacle of Frenchness — “50 percent of the French people did not speak it at all, and only 12 to 13 percent spoke it fairly well.”
Diaspora identities, such as Irish-American or Nigerian-British, are especially complicated because they incorporate both race and nationality, which they are meant to reconcile but in practice keep locked in tension with one another. Americans know this as the struggle of the hyphen.
“Black Panther” deals, Mr. Cobb writes, with the hyphen in “African-American,” a bit of punctuation fraught with so much history and “dissonance” it could be replaced, he argues, with an ellipses.
Part of the film’s triumph is in deconstructing what it means to be African or part of the African diaspora, building those identities back up into something — symbolized by the fictional, nevercolonized nation of Wakanda — that is just as real, but designed to empower rather than subjugate.
And, perhaps more important, it’s an identity constructed by the people who hold it rather than ill-wishing outsiders. Mr. Cobb calls this “a kind of democracy of the imagination” and a “reclamation” of Africa and how it is conceived.
But that reclamation is possible only by acknowledging that identities are constructed, which means going against lifelong educations telling us that our race and nationality are rooted in some deep and immovable truth. That an identity made in a superhero movie is as good as, and maybe better than, one articulated over generations of real-world abuses.
The right to define oneself, either as an individual or a community, is fundamental. Edward W. Said, the Palestinian-American theorist, called this the “permission to narrate” one’s own experience, which he argued had been denied to Palestinians.
“Black Panther” is an act of defiant self-narration, and therefore a kind of liberation from being defined by others. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are all, in some sense, trapped in identities that were made for us. Most were designed for subtler and less catastrophic ends than slavery and colonialism, if they were consciously designed at all, but all come with constraints and obligations we might not have chosen for ourselves.
“Black Panther” is a spectacular expression of liberation for a spectacular medium, but it’s a kind of breaking free that might have attraction for all of us.

King University Professor Collaborates with Knoxville’s Grace Academy for Tour of Israel and Palestine

King University Professor Collaborates with Knoxville’s Grace Academy for Tour of Israel and Palestine

King Philosophy and Religion and Grace Academy Israel-Palestine Tour
King Philosophy and Religion and Grace Academy Israel-Palestine Tour Don Michael Hudson, PhD


BRISTOL, Tenn., Feb. 16, 2017 –King University Chair of Philosophy and Religion Don Michael Hudson, Ph.D., and Brad Zockoll, Ph.D., upper school Bible teacher from Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, collaborated on an adventure of a lifetime for Grace’s high school students. Along with the two group leaders, seven students and three chaperones traveled to Israel and Palestine to experience the Holy Land firsthand Oct. 7-16, 2017.

“Dr. Hudson put together one of the most intensive, instructive, emotional and impactful trips I’ve ever taken,” said Zockoll. “It’s as if he had been leading a private classroom for us at each stop. It’s been an eye-opener at every new venue.”

“I have wanted to host a trip for high school students for years now. The problem was finding the right co-leader and working with a really good school,” said Hudson. “Once I found Dr. Zockoll (actually an old college buddy) and Grace Academy I knew we were in for a great trip. I particularly wanted to take young people who are interested in understanding their faith and Scriptures in much deeper ways.

“I want to take younger folks over to Israel and Palestine to challenge their American way of thinking and introduce them to a much better knowledge of the Christian Scriptures,” added Hudson. “Many modern Christians believe the Bible, but few actually know the Bible. I meet so many who will defend the Bible to the death, but they never read it. So let’s go see the places where the events occurred and the narratives were constructed. This vision is a revolution in their thinking.”

Upon arriving in the Holy Land, the group began their journey in Taybeh, which was first called Ephraim during the time of Jesus. The Palestinian village is located in the West Bank and is the only known Christian village left in Israel and Palestine.

The group packed in as many sites as possible in the short time they were in the Holy Land. Locations they visited included: the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, Jordan River, Masada, Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives, the Damascus Gate (one of the entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem), Bethlehem, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, Ein Gedi, Capernaum at the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Magdala, the Mount of Beatitudes, Haifa, Akko, Megiddo, Caesarea Matimah, and Jaffa.

“The Israel trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life,” said Junior Brooke Hilemon. “I have grown very much in my spiritual relationship with God. I’m so thankful for the opportunity, and I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything. If I could, I would go back in a heartbeat.”

For Linda Reedy, a teacher at Concord Christian School and trip chaperone, this was her second trip. “I learned so much more on this trip [than the first]. Not being hindered by a large tour group moving quickly through each site, we were able to spend quality time learning about the different places through Dr. Hudson. Magdala was one of my favorites—walking through a village Jesus and the disciples would have traveled through.”

Junior Christian Luttrell commented, “The trip to Israel was an experience I will never forget. I was amazed seeing Biblical places I have read about come to life as Dr. Hudson led us around and explained the different sites. Junior Stacy Koger added, “The Israel trip was beyond amazing. From Taybeh to Jerusalem, and everywhere in between. This trip was a journey that I feel benefits the spirit just as much as the mind.”

The King Philosophy and Religion Department’s next Israel/Palestine excursion led by Dr. Hudson will take place during Spring Break March 2-11. King University students will have an opportunity similar to that of Grace Christian Academy: to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.

If you are interested in King’s Department of Philosophy and Religion or the Israel/Palestine trip, contact Dr. Don Hudson at dmhudson@king.edu.

Israeli Democracy Is Backsliding, but to Where?

Israeli Democracy Is Backsliding, but to Where?

New York Times, Feb 14, 2018

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Two notable things happened in Israel this week and, while only one made the front page, the stories, in tandem, reveal something important about the country and its future.
On Tuesday, the Israeli police recommended that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust. This is a big deal; it could topple his premiership.
It’s worth considering that alongside a less-discussed event from the day before, when Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s justice minister, advocated for a so-called nationality bill, which would officially enshrine Israel as a Jewish nation. Ms. Shaked, a right-wing nationalist known for provocations, said, to some controversy, “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority even at the price of violation of rights.”
Together, these two events tell us something meaningful about the health of Israeli democracy, whose future is subject to growing debate.
A disclaimer: there are two partially overlapping “fate of Israeli democracy” conversations. One is about whether Israel can call itself a democracy as long as it maintains its forcible occupation of the West Bank, whose Palestinian residents lack basic rights. The other conversation, the one gaining urgency in recent years, is whether democracy within Israel proper could recede, or is already doing so.
Now to this week’s news. You could draw seemingly contradictory conclusions about Israeli democracy from the two events.
On the one hand, the Israeli police are, at least so far, showing every sign of political independence on the Netanyahu case. Recommending charges against the prime minister is a big deal. Mr. Netanyahu has also not outwardly meddled in the case, suggesting he, his party and his supporters are all constrained by norms of police independence.
It’s hard to get excited about the absence of something, but the absence of political meddling in Israel’s police and justice systems, at least over this case, is an important sign of democratic health.
Contrast that with, oh, we don’t know, the United States of America, where the president is openly pressuring senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials to drop an investigation into the election that could implicate him personally.
This gets to something important. The political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steve Levitsky write in their new book, “How Democracies Die,” that, in order for a democracy to persist, its leaders must exercise what the authors call “forbearance.” This means that leaders restrain themselves from politicizing democratic institutions — say, law enforcement or the courts — even when it would be legal to do so.
If leaders stop practicing forbearance, the authors write, democracy can backslide. That may already be happening in the United States, they warn. But, in Israel, the Netanyahu case is at least one datapoint in favor of forbearance persisting. It’s also a datapoint in favor of institutional independence and rule of law, also essential democratic foundations.
Now consider Ms. Shaked’s speech in defense of the nationality law. Her comments, to be clear, are not particularly new for her. Still, it is striking to hear a senior government official say that some rights abuses are acceptable costs for preserving her country’s Jewish identity.
This hits at the contradiction at the heart of Israeli democracy. The country’s all-but-official identity is the oft-repeated phrase “Jewish and democratic.” But can a country enshrine democratic principles like equality under the law and one-person-one-vote if it also officially privileges one demographic group above all others?
Many countries face versions of this contradiction. France defines itself as democratic and French, an adjective that describes the French nationality as well the French ethnicity and French language. And France, like Israel, is struggling with what it means to balance national identity with a democratic duty to incorporate an increasingly diverse population. It’s not an easy task for any country.
What makes Israel different is its occupation of the West Bank and embargo on Gaza (many Gazans consider this a continuation of the Israeli occupation, which otherwise ended with a 2005 withdrawal). The country cannot fully separate its occupation of Palestinians outside its borders from its struggle over how or whether to democratically incorporate the Arab minority within its borders.
They are not the same issue, but they connect in so many ways that they cannot be addressed separately, either. And they feed into one another. When violence related to the conflict with the Palestinians spikes, so does Israeli skepticism toward pluralism and democracy.
Exposure to terrorism tends to increase support for extreme politics in a number of ways, according to a 2015 study led by Daphna Canetti-Nisim, a political psychologist at the University of Maryland.
For one, it increases hostility toward minorities. People who endure terrorism “feel threatened and vulnerable,” the study found. This “psychological distress” makes them more likely to retreat to familiar in-groups and view outsiders as threats. This in turn is associated with declining support for democratic norms.
This is how debates over the nationality law take on such high stakes that Ms. Shaked, though she argues Israel can be both Jewish and democracy, advocates policies that would privilege the former at the expense of the latter.
You see the effect in polls showing that Israelis increasingly believe they will have to choose between an Israeli or Jewish national identity. And you see it in Israeli institutions, which have been gradually re-engineered to service the occupation. The needs of maintaining that occupation are “seriously hampering, if not reversing” the “process of self-democratization of the state,” according to a 2012 study by the Israeli researchers Tamir Magal, Neta Oren, Daniel Bar-Tal, and Eran Halperin.
All of which helps to explain this chart:

This chart shows the status of Israeli democracy, as tracked by a multi-variable index known as V-Dem, which is increasingly the gold standard for measuring democracy. The higher the score, the better a country satisfies the conditions of a functioning, liberal, egalitarian democracy.
Israel’s score has, as you can see, been dipping significantly since the early 2000s, when a round of terrible violence known as the second intifada led many Israelis to take a harder line on the conflict. Its score peaked in the mid-1990s, when it was on par with present-day South Korea, Jamaica and Mauritius.
For context, its score is now about on par with that of many mid-performing African countries such as Namibia and Senegal. It scores well below Tunisia, the Middle East’s best-performing democracy, and only somewhat better than Poland and Hungary, two notorious democratic backsliders.
The question is whether or not Israel should be categorized with the Polands and Hungarys of the world, whose leaders tend to follow a specific, recognizable playbook in dismantling their democracies from within. Or is Israel a particular case owing to particular factors, namely its conflict with and occupation of the Palestinians?
Or is that a false distinction? After all, democracies tend to backslide when its populations feel embattled and endangered, leading them to embrace hard-line policies to manage the threat and to rally around charismatic leaders who promise safety.
We don’t feel like we yet have a good answer to these questions, or a firm sense of how Israeli democracy does or doesn’t fit within the world’s other backsliders. This week’s news is a reminder of that. But we’ll keep looking into it and will let you know what we find.