September 14, 2001

"Tears" (a reflection); followed by comments on my trip to the World

Conference Against Racism

 

I don't cry.

There are times when I wish I did.

Sometimes, at the movies, I feel I'm supposed to cry. I tried to force

myself to cry during "Malcolm X," simply because the book had been so

influential in my life, and I felt I owed it to respond emotionally to the

film. Perhaps the closest I came in the past three years, ironically, was

during "Boys Don't Cry." The pain in Hilary Swank's character and the

revulsion I felt to some scenes hit a deep chord within me -- and I almost

cried. But I didn't.

I used to cry a lot as a kid, I seem to recall. Every time that I got beat

up -- and my skinny ass got whupped on many occasions -- I'm pretty sure I

bawled. But my adventures in pugilism ended in the 8th Grade, so I've not

had outpouring of a "good cry" for this physical reason in a couple decades.

I've cried a few times in recent years at the ending of relationships, or at

critical junctures in them. "Let it all out," we're told. That seems a

fallacy to me. I've found little relief at the end of my tears... just more

grief. Anyway, crying for one's own troubles is different than pouring out

your emotions on behalf of others. Why didn't I cry at the news of my

grandfather's death, at the funeral of my good friend, and other tragic

moments?

How are some people able to respond to the lives, deaths, and pains of

others so readily and emotively? Is it simply socialization? Is it

physical? Do some people actually care more than others?

 

I believe in God.

I believe in a Spirit, a Force, a Hand which brings beings to life... and in

some manner knows of their deaths. I am troubled by some developments in

genetic engineering, which I'm convinced is due to my faith in God. I claim

there are certain aspects of life, of "Creation," which we humans are "not

intended" to meddle. I've been to places on this earth -- Banff, Victoria

Falls, Abiquiu, Sagada, the view of Mount Crane from my grandparents' home

in the Adirondacks -- that I believe owe their natural beauty to a so-called

Higher Being.

Does God cry?

Yeah, it's cheezy. But as you know, so am I, most of the time (humor-wise,

anyway).

The past couple days, immediately after the bombings in the U.S., it rained

in Johannesburg. It poured. Lightning and thunder splattered that city

with powerful force. It had not rained in weeks in Jo'burg. I had just

gotten there from Durban a couple days earlier. I spoke to a friend in

Durban -- it had been raining the past couple days. The same news came from

Cape Town. I arrived in Paris, on a flight from Jo'burg. The streets were

wet -- it had rained on Thursday, and the skies were gray & foreboding on my

arrival. I'm watching CNN as I write this... it's raining in New York and

Washington DC, very bad news for all the rescue efforts there.

I don't know, but I think God is crying.

I wish I could.

 

 

Many of you on my email list know I've been in South Africa for the past

three weeks, primarily to attend the United Nations' World Conference

Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance

(hereafter known as the WCAR). I had hoped to send one or two reports from

Durban, but that hope was not realized. Lack of time and especially lack of

online access -- a grand total of 25 computers were available to the

thousands of NGOs (representatives from Non-Governmental Organizations)

attending the governmental conference, 10 on-site and 15 at an Internet cafe

a couple blocks away, which prevented my good intentions from coming to

fruition. So belatedly, please find below some brief thoughts, jotted down

this weekend.

 

FYI, for those who actually like my extensive, rambling journals, I AM

working on one of my trademark epic novellas for mass distribution soon.

Like the ones I sent last year during my travels, it will be looooong.

[I've written 20 pages thus far on just the first nine days of my trip, most

of which preceded the conference.] You can look forward to recollections

about a dinner with Desmond Tutu, a plane trip with Michael Lapsley, and my

trip to Khayelitsha township which included a gift of Soccer in the Streets

equipment. So I'm asking you to let me know in advance if you want a copy

of it. I don't want to burden everyone on this network with a massive email

(this is big, but that will be huge), unless you want it. I hope to send it

out next week, if you're interested. [If you write back to me, please

delete the text of this message.]

 

I just arrived back in the US. I was on the first Air France flight back to

San Francisco, a long story that is not worth giving at this time. Thank

you to my friends Eliza & Spencer Pickard, who hosted me for one night in

Paris and were prepared to do so for much longer, based on the expectation

that I would be stuck there for several days.

 

Now, as promised, to a review of the "WCAR": it was actually three

conferences, as you may know. There were two non-governmental events which

took place from August 26-31, and the governmental program was held from

August 31 - September 7. I missed the first conference altogether, a

two-day Youth Summit. Despite the accusation many of you would make that

I'm no longer a youth (M, Sarita, etc), so why would I even have thought to

attend that, I actually scrape into the "youth" definition used by many

Geneva-based world agencies -- they usually allow for folks up to 35. My

gray hair usually gives me away, but I was rolling with laughter when

someone a couple weeks ago wonderfully guessed my age as early 20s!

 

I did arrive in time for the main NGO conference, which began on the 28th.

As you may have heard, it was, to use a favorite South African word, a

"hectic" (often pronounced 'ectic) affair. Dozens of panels and workshops

were being offered at any given time, in addition to all the people who were

concentrating their efforts on drafting the huge NGO document that would be

presented to the U.N. governmental conference a few days later.

 

Unfortunately, the company that had been contracted to coordinate all the

logistics for the NGO conference failed to meet up to the job. I'm

fortunate that I was staying with the family of my friend Yolanda Sangweni

during the entire time I was in Durban. Most people, of course, stayed in

hotels, and I heard many bad stories. First off, many people did not learn

where they were staying until less than a week before arriving in South

Africa! Second, many people were actually moved from one accomodation to

another one, after their first few days. Some of the facilities were an

hour or more away, serviceable only by twice-daily bus rides (don't miss

it!). It was not a good scene.

 

More disturbingly, almost all preparatory information we were given

outlining the conference proceedings was incomplete and often wrong. When

the booklet actually gave information about a workshop, you'd go and it

wasn't there. Three people invited me to workshops, and none of them were

where they'd been told they'd be, so I missed them all. Similarly, you

stood in endless lines to get passes that would get you to another level of

security, etc. Believe it or not, I spent over eight (yes, 8) hours in line

one day waiting for a pass to the governmental conference -- missing a whole

day of the NGO proceedings in the process (I am describing this as my "INS

experience day"). The one good part about all of these hassles was that you

ended up REALLY getting to know people who were similarly inconvenienced,

and building some good relationships that would last through the conference

(and hopefully well beyond). Since there were so many intriguing people

from all around the world in Durban, this was a good thing. One other thing

-- when you DID actually get to a workshop, you usually knew that the people

there were really committed to it. I attended one workshop on

micro-enterprise development where the 15 of us sat outside on the curb in a

parking lot (literally), as it got dark, since the museum where it was

supposed to take place was closed! It was just crazy.

 

The lack of information, or perhaps mis-/dis-information (I spoke to several

people who opined that what was happening was in fact intentional -- that

there were people/forces who wanted us to get frustrated and angry at one

another), often led to a feeling that you were missing what was "really

happening." I missed the big marches in part because no one could give me

the right info about when & where they were taking place. The Media Tent

didn't know, for goodness sake! What can you do? With all of those

problems, in many ways you just had to accept that your experience was just

that -- your experience -- and that with so much going on you would

naturally have to miss a lot, so take what you could out of your own visit

and meetings.

 

In terms of the governmental conference, it was similarly hard to get a

grasp on what was going on, due to the intricately political process that is

by nature not designed to "welcome newcomers." It was only by the very end

of the week-long governmental event that I really understood the process --

the semi-hidden rooms where the official documents were being worked on, and

how you as an NGO representative could (try to) influence the process &

documents. I feel a bit saddened about that -- I could and perhaps should

have been better prepared to work in that context -- but (1) that was not

the main reason that I went to Durban, and (2) those of us Anglican church

folks had not been organized in a delegation (unlike some of our fellow

mainstream Christian denominational friends), which would have helped me &

also some of my US Episcopal colleagues.

 

There were, actually, a good number of Episcopal/Anglican church people from

different parts of the world there in Durban, and I spent some of my time

building relationships with them and other faith-based activists attending

the conference. My main priority for the trip was to recruit people to be

writers for the "A Global Witness" web site project that I coordinate for

"The Witness" magazine. I hope that in this context the trip was a success

-- over the coming months we will see whether the people who said they want

to write for us indeed do so. The first test will be within the month.

About 40 religious people have said they will write an article about Durban

for "A Global Witness," or will let us publish a piece they were planning to

write for another purpose. So, by mid-October my intention is to have a

collection of a couple dozen essays on the WCAR, from people all over the

world, many of whom were there.

 

[Currently, although we had suspended posting new content onour web site for

the period of my trip, the tragic events of this past week have spurred my

fine colleagues at The Witness to begin collecting & posting perspectives on

this series of events as we receive them. With the U.S. and some of its

allies speaking the language of war right now, The Witness is working to

help bring forward your voices on what we must do together as a human

community to achieve a lasting peace. Please visit us at

http://www.thewitness.org/agw/ and share your own thoughts.]

 

Now back to Durban. I was not in Durban for the very end of the conference,

as I'd left for Johannesburg, but the last thing I heard on the way to the

bus station was that the governments had finally agreed to call slavery a

"crime against humanity," or words to that effect. It saddened me that it

had taken a full year for this to be agreed -- that only at the so-called

13th hour could this be acknowledged by the community of nations at the

governmental summit. If this type of language had been understood earlier,

many other agreements would have been possible. Indeed, during my last 24

hours at the WCAR I heard two different leaders of the event -- one was Mary

Robinson, the U.N. Hugh Commissioner for Human Rights and the head of the

entire conference, and the other was an NGO representative who was on the

often-controversial International Steering Committee -- both make statements

that "Durban should not be seen as an end, but a beginning." While I would

agree that the WCAR was indeed a mechanism to highlight these issues in a

way that will hopefully have long-term effects around the world, I thought

it was cheap for them to make those comments as a way to attempt to mollify

all of us who had such greater expectations for what would come out ofthe

event.

 

As someone who has become increasingly concerned about the conflict in

Palestine/ Israel, and who is now very supportive of creating a just peace

there (please see the September issue of The Witness, offered on our web

site at http://www.thewitness.org), I was initially very happy to see that

the issue was getting strong visibility. Ultimately, however, the harsh

Middle East debate created a fairly negative experience. At least in the

international media coverage, it shrouded many of the other important issues

that the world community needed to hear from Durban. Mary Robinson

articulated her last-minute refusal to recommend the NGO document in

relationship (an important issue, given her power) to its comments on

Zionism. And I saw the dialogue break down into a lot of slogans. I saw

people that were wearing the Palestinian kaffiyeh (sp? the trademark black &

white scarf) standing in line to get a t-shirt from a pro-Zionist group --

ah, the political power of free clothing. While it amused me, it also

saddened me that people had no analysis of what they were doing.

 

All of you know about the pullout of the U.S. and Israel (since several of

you have already asked me about it). I think that the most interesting

quote I heard about this was made the next day at a press conference held

out on the grass by a group of U.S. NGOs. A young 20-something

Asian-American, wearing a black Third World Within shirt, forcefully

declared, "This is not new; this does not surprise me at all. The U.S.

government has NEVER been here!" I heard that a couple days later Jesse

Jackson, one of the many high-profile U.S. activists who were in Durban,

used basically the same quote -- the U.S. not being there was just the

fulfilment of a long-term process of it avoiding this issue & conference --

and I said to myself, "I already heard that, from a youth!"

 

I'll admit that at the time, I really didn't think it was a bad thing. I

saw the U.S. departure as part of a continuum of isolationism this year,

since the Bush administration took office. From the Kyoto protocol on

climate change to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the treaty on land

mines to looking at peace in the Middle East, the U.S. government has made

it clear that it feels it knows best, and does not need the input of

international partners to come to foreign and social policy decisions. To

me, their leaving Durban was a clincher. [The events of the past few days

have caused me to struggle with this topic. Mostly, I feel more convinced

that the U.S. shunning the WCAR has helped lead to the tragic situation we

now face, based on our government's unilateral efforts at developing foreign

policy. Since it has cut-off so many opportunities at developing

relationships with other nations, it is no longer in dialogue with

policy-makers -- whether it agrees with them or not -- who can help outline

concerns and potential problems of all sorts.]

 

Speaking of Jesse, I have to admit to a personal struggle around "hearing

the message." Some of the high-profile speakers no longer get my respect,

and its hard to listen to them when you have these other issues. Jesse's

personal troubles over the past year -- as well as some of his political

machinations with the Establishment -- have sullied this person who twice

voted for him in Democratic primaries. Fidel Castro, the main speaker at

the NGO closing ceremony, continues to get my props for defying the U.S.

embargo, but otherwise I have little respect for his endless term in office

as well as his intolerance of opposition views. Thabo Mbeki, president of

South Africa and oft-figurehead of major WCAR events, has lost credibility

worldwide for his incomprehensible comments on HIV/AIDS, and at home for his

ANC government's recent massive purchase of military arms (with no viable

threats, and in the midst of deepening poverty and unemployment). Most of

all, I had a hard time supporting the Reparations movement when the African

figurehead for their cause was Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. My

visit to Zim last year and the many Zim friends I've made over the past 18

months (almost all of whom are black, and none of whom are large landowners

or commercial farmers) have shown me the deep disillusionment with his

regime & his ongoing efforts to stay in power. It was impossible for me

initially to listen to the call for reparations by African American

activists clad in Mugabe t-shirts, and based on my understanding of

corruption and political repression in his nation to not dismiss their

cause. However, in a discussion with Michael Lapsley about the power of

being with Desmond Tutu, he talked about our American need for "star power,"

and how we don't like to see/know the bad with the good. I'm going to have

to work on this.

 

There were certainly some good things to come out of the WCAR in Durban,

over and above a temporary boosting of the local economy (no small issue,

considering the devaluation of the South African Rand currency, as well as

the ongoing loss of jobs) -- particularly the coffers of local taxicab

companies. As I wrote previously, one joy was the invaluable networking

opportunity this unique type of event offered social justice & human rights

activists from around the world. THIS was humanity! You would look around

you and see people from virtually every nation, dozens of native languages

undergirding the discussions between people of all shades, heights, ages,

experiences, and perspectives, clad in vibrant, multicolored attire.

Another positive was the attention given to displaced, disempowered, and

underrepresented communities. This high-profile gathering gave almost

unknown populations the opportunity for media coverage and for eventual

recognition in U.N. documents, confirming their status as groups with

protected rights. Two groups who were more successful in getting visibility

were the Roma (known to some as Gypsies) of Europe and the Dalits of India

(known at one time to the world as the Untouchables). There were almost 200

people at the conferences representing the Dalit community, which may seem

like a lot, but given the fact that estimates range between 170-250 million

Dalits, a delegation of a couple hundred seemed entirely appropriate! Less

successful were indigenous advocates, particularly from the Americas, who

found much of the draft language in the document both offensive and

potentially harmful to their efforts and gaining rights. A lot of their

work focused on one specific piece of language: getting the U.N. to use the

term "indigenous peoples" (emphasis on the final "S"), which would lay the

groundwork for their claims for recognition as sovereign nations.

 

All in all, I think the WCAR was an extraordinary event that missed its

mark. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with it was its long name (but

who am I to decry something long?!): some would argue that any effort to

come to consensus on issues of "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia,

and related intolerance" was doomed from the start (that would be a problem

in a local community, let alone an international forum). More specifically,

for those of us keen to address racism in an global context as a

manifestation of white supremacy -- historically and current-day -- this

event was not a success. With all of the other "related" issues being

pushed to the fore, the initial word, "racism." was de-prioritized. While

on the one hand I agree it is essential to discuss the intersectionalities

of oppressions -- the ways in which racism is interconnected with sexism,

nationalism, militarism, homophobia, the criminal (in-)justice system, and

so forth -- it seemed we needed to find ways to focus. And the agenda was

so large as to prevent such focus.

 

There was one other piece that I'd hoped to see, but thought went missing.

There were two faith-based "Caucuses" which worked throughout the conference

to bring religious perspectives to the deliberations. One of them was

called the "Ecumenical Caucus," and it was basically a group of progressive

Christian activists, spearheaded by a small dynamic delegation from the

World Council of Churches. The second was called the "Spiritual and

Religious Caucus," I believe, and I had been told before the conference that

this interfaith collective was going to focus on spiritually contextualizing

the heated dialogue. Given these sensitive, often painful issues, their aim

was to help encourage a personally transforming experience. My sense was

that given the level of rancor in these debates, this was a valuable ideal,

but that they were ultimately unsuccessful in meeting that goal.

 

I hope these thoughts give you some additional insight to what you have

already read, heard, and seen. I will do my best to write each of you back

who write to me over the coming days, though I trust you will understand

this is my first real opportunity to be at a computer in a month. [Again,

if you respond to this note, PLEASE delete the text of this original email

from me.] Thanks especially to all the people who personally made my

experience in Durban an enriching one: Yolanda, Nomi, Ace, Connie, Eddie,

Grant, Sarah, Peter, Sonya, Jonathan, Julaine, Donna, Tim, Dimple, Sharda,

Rosa, Carol, Jayne, Angela, Lloyd, Laura, Jennifer, Anneta, Pauline,

Mariela, Lorena, Isaac, Lulama, Rubin, Kamala, Michael, Jacqueline, Lyn,

Sonia, Leah, Sammy, Loretta, Obadiah, and many more. I look forward to

keeping in contact with you all.

 

With love, respect, and in stalwart hope for enabling peace, Ethan

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