‘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.

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.

CHANGING THE WORLD: Local, global tributes to honor Martin Luther’s radical movement

Tom Netherland
for the Bristol Herald Courier

Martin Luther changed the world and humanity.

To paraphrase the title of a William Manchester book on the Middle Ages, in a world lit only by fire, Luther provided a light by which the individual could see and think for themselves.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As ignited by religious and societal revolutionary theologian Martin Luther, the world as we know it would most certainly not be the same had Luther never stepped forth in opposition of the era’s Roman Catholic Church leadership.

 “We would live in bleak ignorance. Just bleak ignorance,” said Don Michael Hudson, associate professor and chair of the philosophy and religion department at King University in Bristol, Tennessee. “Along with bleak ignorance, there would be big oppression of the people (today). I feel that way very strongly.”

Born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Germany, Luther evolved into becoming a radical. He equated to Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma to Montgomery, Rosa Parks on the bus, George Washington on the front lines, the Allies encountering Hitler. But, one could make a sound argument that Luther surpassed them all as history’s most radical of radicals.

“Luther said, ‘Open your eyes, open your mind. Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself,’” Hudson said. “Some people take umbrage with it being called the Dark Ages. Well, it was. Europe was shrouded in darkness.”

Light shed upon Luther and his era comes via a smattering of yearlong acknowledgements locally, nationally and worldwide. For instance, a showing of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” will screen on Monday, Oct. 30, at Cinemark Tinseltown in Bristol, Virginia. Tickets must be purchased beforehand and online via the link listed below.

Two days earlier, Concordia Lutheran Church in Kingsport will host an event of relevant music. They will present Songs of the Reformation on Saturday, Oct. 28, which will highlight the singing of hymns written by Luther.

“Luther said that after God’s love, music is the greatest thing,” said Rev. Paul Becker, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church. “We want to help people see the beauty of the good news. Even stuff that’s 500 years old is fresh enough that it could have been written yesterday.”

Take Luther’s “Salvation Unto Us Has Come”:

“Salvation unto us has come

By God’s free grace and favor;

Good works cannot avert our doom,

They help and save us never.

Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,

Who did for all the world atone;

He is our one redeemer.”

Luther’s “good works cannot avert our doom” line directly contradicted the Catholic Church. However, “Luther was an ardent Catholic …,” wrote author William Manchester in “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Indeed, Luther was an academic as well as an Augustinian friar and then a Catholic priest. He translated the Bible into New High German, “a language he virtually created …,” Manchester wrote.

Luther served as a devout man of the cloth, a Catholic for whom God meant everything. Perhaps his most famous hymn bears that out in its title: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

“In his early years, Luther’s loyalty to the Vatican was total; when he first glimpsed the Eternal City in 1511,” Manchester wrote, “he fell to his knees crying, ‘Hail to thee, O Holy Rome!’”

Meanwhile, ocean waves of turmoil, long churning throughout Europe regarding the church’s controversial sale of indulgences, spread with the gradual passage of time. All was not calm either within Luther or ultimately the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church at large.

“To Luther, the selling of indulgences was a big scam,” Hudson said. “That really set him off. It was a racket.”

Corruption infected vast hallways within the fractured house of the Roman Catholic Church before, during and after Luther. Licentiousness, criminality and general boorishness spread like a communicable disease for which there seemed no cure. Such behavior reached clear to and indeed enveloped the papacy.

“At one point you had three popes on the throne at the same time,” Hudson said. “There was a system dealing with all of the illegitimate children of the pope and priests. They had no checks and balances. They used their own traditions for their own purposes, and if you disagreed, you were burned at the stake.”

Luther, as had Czech priest Jan Hus 100 years earlier, sought reform of the church. Hus directly challenged the church’s sale of indulgences. For his affront, Hus was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.

Voices such as Hus’ presented problems for the church. Widespread illiteracy and the lack of a printing press prevented the public from reading scripture for themselves. They depended on the clergy for their spiritual meals. Firebrands such as Hus gave them accurate readings of the Bible in concert with sharp rebukes of church leadership that did not.

“The Catholic Church used the Bible to squash the individual for their own purposes,” Hudson said. “To question the pope was not only to face the fear of fire in this life, but the fire of hell in the next life.”

One hundred and two years later, Luther penned “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

Better known as Luther’s “95 Theses,” the priest posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. That he posted them on the door of the church wasn’t so revolutionary; the church door equated to a community bulletin board.

Luther’s words, however, proved contemporarily and historically earthquaking.

“He wrote that one cannot achieve salvation through indulgences,” Becker said. “Faith in Christ as the savior is the only way.”

Luther simply penned the truth.

“That will always upset people,” Becker said.

Coupled with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, seeds of what became known as the Protestant Reformation grew exponentially in the aftermath of Luther’s “95 Theses.”

The Reformation led to far more than just a split in the Roman Catholic Church and the advent of Protestantism. For one, it stands as monumental within the entire history of the world.

“Oh man, I’d put it in the top three,” Hudson said. “It unleashed the modern world. It was the seeds of the Enlightenment. It changed our whole world. One of the reasons why our government has checks and balances is because of the Reformation.”

Luther and the subsequent Protestant Reformation rocked the world on its axis.

Ultimately, Luther neither critiqued God nor the Bible nor Catholicism. He repudiated its purveyors who bastardized the word of God.

“The Reformation was one of the major shifts, changes in human history,” Hudson said. “We’re still living full-blown in that shift.”