Friday, July 18, 2008

What Palestinians and Hawaiians Have in Common

What Palestinians and Hawaiians Have in Common

My wife and I have spent the better part of our lives accommodating the two sets of dissimilar realities of our roots in Palestine and Hawaii, our birthplaces being nearly a pair of antipodes on the globe. Yet every once in a while I come across a reminder of how similar certain socio-political aspects of our two backgrounds are.

Spin-doctoring, as a journalistic art form and a political tool, came of age only in recent years with the advent of neo-conservative dominance in US politics. Neo-cons have used this tool masterfully in the promotion and justification of the war on Iraq. In the process they have also succeeded in demonizing Islam, Arabs, and Muslims in general, portraying them as the twenty first century enemies of humanity, rationality and God. The trend has been nurtured by the rising tide of born-again Christian Zionism and cynically manipulated by the pro-Israel lobby for its own gain. As a Palestinian citizen of Israel who is also familiar with the American scene, I couldn’t help but recognize these propaganda tactics as the very same ones that have been regularly practiced by my country against my minority community and against other Palestinians, especially those in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. The recipe is quite simple; it is comprised of two components: First you dehumanize the other; then you look in the mirror and ascribe all the negative attributes you see to that enemy. What remains is to keep hammering at it with all the media tools at your disposal till it sticks to the now clearly evil other as his innate nature. Especially if this other is handicapped by the lack of media access to your audience, then you have it made.

That, at least, was what I had assumed until I read David E. Stannard’s book Honor Killing depicting race relations in Hawaii in the early part of the twentieth century. It turns out to be a tale of full-fledged spin-doctoring before I thought the genre had been discovered. A mentally unstable young navy wife invents a story about being abducted, beaten and raped by a gang of Hawaiian young men. A jury fails to find in her favor and her high-society mother arrives from the mainland USA. The outraged mother takes matters in her own hands and murders one of the accused. The cause of the two white women is championed by the interlinked triumvirate of military commanders, business moguls and media bosses, all of whom happen to be white newcomers to Hawaii. The meeting of their sick mindsets and political interests prompts the three circles of influence to act in unison in actively pursuing the elevation of this local vendetta to the level of a national emergency that invites the interference of the US congress and the president himself. Lurking in the background, there is always the less than godly legacy and influence of Christian missionaries to Hawaii. The sick accuser, her drunken navy husband and her manipulative mother become national heroes defending white women’s honor against the savages. Sympathy and generous donations enable them to secure the services of the most prominent US criminal defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow. He fails to secure them and their two navy accomplices in the murder of the young Hawaiian man a verdict of innocence. Still he manages to obtain a commutation of their sentence from ten years of imprisonment with hard labor to one hour in the custody of the Honolulu sheriff. In the process Hawaii’s native and immigrant oriental population is vilified beyond redemption.

As I started reading this book it all seemed vaguely familiar. The more the author exposed the factual information with the benefit of some seven decades of hindsight the more I found its essence similar to the parallel narrative of what happened in Palestine, though without the intriguing plot surrounding a specific single event. Rather, it was the meeting of minds and interests of aggressive foreign forces and the circumstances that maximize the magical powers of spin doctoring that were similar in the two narratives.

In Hawaii, even before WW II, and long before president Eisenhower coined the term, the military-industrial complex was in full swing, its leaders clamoring for imposing a military dictatorial system to govern the Islands. The media, at the time mainly the print form and the nascent radio and wire services, acting as hand in glove, picks up the banner of the national interest and runs with it. The white population of Hawaii has to be protected from the transgressions of the unruly savage natives and the oriental rabble before these bring ruination upon the nation’s moral fiber and endanger America’s military superiority in the Pacific. Newscasters and editorial writers across the nation fall in line and follow the chorus of bigoted and racist agitation, turning fables into facts and creating new ones at will.

In Palestine too, there was and still is a meeting of military, business and media interests, to the detriment of the native population. And in Palestine too there is a strong negative role for religion, even a decisive one. A three thousand year old legend is revived by the master race, the Christian Zionists of Europe. It is brought to life as the absolute and holy truth. With that the natives are not only disenfranchised but also demonized as the aggressors against God’s chosen people. ["Talk about the 'promised land' and the 'chosen people' adds a religious dimension to racism which we did not have," declared a veteran South African human rights leader recently.] As the European self-soothing dream of ridding itself of Jews matures and is concretized with the Belfour declaration and a three decade-long colonial rule actively implementing it, the same dream starts to take hold across the oceans in the minds of evangelical Christians in American. This is no small matter: In America business is king and it has a massive vested interest in the Middle East; in America the media has been well honed as a mind-controlling tool serving and reinforcing business of which it is an integral part; and in America by now the military-industrial complex is an accepted fact of life and a central player in the ME which serves both as a laboratory for the testing of its ware and as a major consumer of its new products. And the circle is finally closed with the meeting of minds between the mighty American Christian right and the no-less-mighty Zionist pro-Israel lobby.

The two histories, of the Hawaiians and of the Palestinians, are quite dissimilar in their details. Yet the basic operative mode and motivation of the aggressors are highly similar despite the disparity in the level of sophistication of the tools used. The Hawaiians were a demoralized and conquered native minority imposed upon by the openly racist, crudely oppressive self-serving haoles (Hawaiian for foreigner or white). The Palestinians face a much more refined and infinitely more powerful circle of interests with the added advantage and veneer of self-righteous liberal intellectualism. Yet, step by step and feature by feature the tale of demonization, land theft, and adding blame to injury is the same. In both cases facts are turned on their heads and the victim is fully guilty in the eyes of the wider world. And in both cases the local truth is of no significance; it is the media that has the voice to sound off its falsity to an attentive world that is not only happy to swallow the lies whole but is willing to give of its sympathy, energy and financial means to further establish it as the final operative reality.

I should read about other indigenous peoples’ tales of dispossession: Native Americans, Native Canadians, Maoris, Aborigines and more. I bet you the story repeats itself.

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