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Of Courage and Resistance | The Nation

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Of Courage and Resistance

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The following is the keynote address given at the Rothko Chapel in Houston on March 30 on the occasion of the presentation of the Oscar Romero Award to Ishai Menuchin, chairman of Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"), the Israeli soldiers' movement for selective refusal to serve in the occupied territories. --The Editors

This article © 2003 by Susan Sontag.

About the Author

Susan Sontag
Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag's most recent book, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Also by the Author


...AND APPLE PIE

Ravello, Italy

Katha Pollitt's heart-wrenching "Happy Mother's Day" was, of course, a treat ["Subject to Debate," May 28]. But the crystalline masses of her prose were sometimes flawed by odd cracks. She rightly mentions how the bogus drug wars waste federal money, not to mention the ever-more-frenzied war on terrorism, which spent, by her calculation, $50 million "executing Timothy McVeigh...not counting plane tix for celebrity death witness Gore Vidal." For the record, my "tix" are paid for by Vanity Fair, which in 1998 printed a piece by me on the shredding of the Bill of Rights, causing McVeigh to begin a three-year correspondence with me. We were due to meet recently; then the Attorney General decided that he was to be sequestered during the weird endgame now begun. McVeigh, who has a sense of humor, proposed I witness his departure instead. Since I am an opponent of the death penalty, I said yes. Read all about it, Nation readers, in Vanity Fair this fall. Meanwhile, you have your mom--Katha.

GORE VIDAL




THAT JERUSALEM PRIZE

New York City

Alexander Cockburn's first preposterous diatribe against my accepting the Jerusalem Prize was so full of fabrications that I hardly know where to begin. Now he wants to take credit for inspiring the attack on current Israeli government policies and military conduct I made in the speech I gave at the prize ceremony ["Beat the Devil," April 23, June 4]. Just three corrections: 1. It is a literary prize given not by the Israeli government but by the Jerusalem International Book Fair (among past winners: Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, Zbigniew Herbert, Milan Kundera, V.S. Naipaul, Octavio Paz, Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee). 2. According to the longtime director of the fair, my friend Nadine Gordimer has never won the prize, so could not have been in a position to decline it; according to him, she has never been a candidate. 3. I did not say, could never have said and obviously do not think that Mayor Olmert is "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person."

C'mon, Alex, you can fabricate a more plausible quote than that.

SUSAN SONTAG


Jerusalem

Alexander Cockburn was not the only one to pressure Susan Sontag. The Boston-based Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine sent a very strong letter to Sontag, following the letter publicized by the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace. Two other prominent Israeli intellectuals, Professor Alice Shalvi and the poet Ada Aharoni, added their voices.

GILA SVIRSKY
Coalition of Women for a Just Peace


COCKBURN REPLIES

Petrolia, Calif.

To address Sontag's three points: Nowhere did I write that the Jerusalem Prize was awarded by the Israeli government, though I correctly identified the judges who honored Sontag, among them Shimon Peres, Israel's current Foreign Minister. I also mentioned that the person handing her the prize was Ehud Olmert, Mayor of Jerusalem and a leading ethnic cleanser.

Sontag may in retrospect find it incredible that she could have spoken with such warmth about Mayor Olmert, but on May 15 the Jerusalem Post reported her thus. On receipt of Sontag's letter, my colleague Jonathan Shainin contacted the Post's reporter, Greer Fay Cashman, and she responded thus: "Yes, she did say it. It was a spontaneous response to complimentary remarks Olmert made about her at the Jerusalem International Conference Center." As befits an employee of this extremist publication, Cashman added a note of praise for Sontag as being "sufficiently open-minded to be able to publicly say what she said about Olmert."

So far as Nadine Gordimer is concerned, Sontag knows perfectly well that a number of years ago Gordimer was approached by the Jerusalem Prize committee and asked whether she would accept the award if offered. Precisely in the manner I described in my first column she said she would not, and so the offer was never formally made. It is scarcely surprising that Sontag's director friend should have difficulty in recalling this episode.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN




INSIDE OUTSIDE

Berkeley, Calif.

Hal Espen, Outside's editor, makes two errors ["Letters," May 21]. He insists that during an interview with Jay Heinrichs, Ralph Nader said that, if forced to choose, he would vote for Bush. Espen then says the Nader campaign did not contact Outside to complain that the quotation was false. In fact, campaign staff did call Outside several times to object and spoke directly with Heinrichs. I was with Nader for roughly 200 days last year. During that time the which-would-you-choose-if-forced question was asked at least 100 times by ordinary folk and some of the nation's best political reporters. None received the "Bush" answer. Given that he got Nader's other remarks correct, Heinrichs either misunderstood Nader during their phone interview or simply manufactured the "Bush" answer.

TAREK MILLERON




STILL A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND

New York City

Ken Silverstein's April 23 "Diamonds of Death" is grossly misleading and contains several errors. The World Diamond Council, the Jewelers of America and others in the industry vigorously support effective, enforceable legislation to stop the traffic in conflict diamonds. Silverstein ignored statements by industry leaders making that point and ignored an obvious fact: All legitimate segments of the industry have every incentive--in both moral and business terms--to eliminate conflict diamonds.

It's true there's been disagreement on a handful of provisions in legislation that all concerned want Congress to approve. But industry representatives still search for common ground, even with some who publicly criticize us. Here are some examples of Silverstein's errors.

§ He says that on December 8, I announced that the World Diamond Council was "withdrawing support" from Congressman Tony Hall's bill, thereby killing a measure poised for passage in the final days of the session. Untrue. The WDC worked with Hall's office but did not agree to certain critical aspects of his draft. Further, it was a drastically different rider, originating in the Senate, that had been appended to the appropriations bill cited in the article.

§ Silverstein implies that the WDC then decided to draft its own legislation. Actually, that decision was made, and announced, much earlier. By December 8, drafting was well under way.

§ In an attempt to demonstrate a "hiring spree" of consultants allegedly assigned to oppose proper legislation, Silverstein mentions a "Shandwick Associates" and describes it as specializing in corporate grassroots campaigns. No such firm is associated with us, and no such campaign is being conducted.

§ Silverstein insinuates that the WDC retained the law firm Akin, Gump because its principals include "notable door openers." We went to this firm solely because Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, which they put to good use in drafting model legislation.

MATTHEW RUNCI
World Diamond Council


Boston

Ken Silverstein did prodigious research on lobbying by the diamond industry. But he erred when he wrote that "groups such as Global Witness, World Vision, Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International threatened to launch a consumer boycott until the industry changed its buying practices so as to insure that conflict diamonds are eliminated from international markets." None of the groups named nor any of the members of the 100-member Campaign to Eliminate Conflict Diamonds has ever advocated a boycott of diamonds. The CECD is the legitimate diamond industry's best friend. We are pushing for tough import controls that will eventually allow jewelers to promise their customers that the diamonds in their stores are clean. They certainly can't say that now.

HOLLY BURKHALTER
Physicians for Human Rights

NATHANIEL A. RAYMOND
Physicians for Human Rights


SILVERSTEIN REPLIES

Washington, D.C.

Matthew Runci suggests that his industry is strongly supportive of efforts to eliminate conflict diamonds and that I overlooked the "rather obvious fact" that it has "every incentive" to do so. Runci overlooks one rather obvious incentive for companies to deal in conflict diamonds, namely profit. That's why De Beers until a few years ago was buying up almost the entire supply of conflict diamonds from UNITA, the Angolan guerrilla group. Runci's suggestion that the industry has always been deeply troubled about conflict diamonds is equally misleading. Diamond firms began responding to the problem only after NGOs put the issue on the public's radar screen and horrific images of victims of Africa's diamond wars began appearing in the media. The problem became too embarrassing to ignore, and the industry began emitting anguished wails about how something really must be done.

Runci denies withdrawing support for Hall's measure on December 8, but multiple participants at the meeting that day assert that he did just that, to the outrage of NGO representatives on hand. The rider attached to the appropriations bill did originate in the Senate, but there was a clear understanding among the various parties that Hall's measure would be substituted for it.

I don't doubt that Warren Connelly and Bruce Wilson have great expertise in international trade issues, but everyone in Washington--except Runci, apparently--knows that Akin, Gump is one of the best-connected firms in town.

The diamond industry did engage in a "hiring spree," as I documented, though I did err in stating that Shandwick Associates is part of the industry's campaign. The confusion arose because Powell Tate, one of the firms working for the industry, bought a PR company called Shandwick International in late 1999 and for a time used the Shandwick name. A Powell Tate staffer named Larry Barrett--who as a younger and more hopeful man wrote for The Nation--gave his business card to various members of the NGO coalition during this period, and several told me that Barrett worked for "Shandwick." The only firm with that name that I came across in a lobbyist database was Shandwick Associates, hence, the mistake. (Powell Tate, by the way, is a specialist in grassroots campaigns. One of its greatest accomplishments, achieved on behalf of the drug industry, was defeating a Clinton Administration initiative to control the costs of childhood vaccines.)

Runci, like many diamond industry officials or lobbyists I spoke with, says that his side is seeking common ground with its critics. Perhaps that's true, but spending huge amounts of money to draft a competing bill and push it through Congress doesn't seem like the best way of demonstrating good faith.

KEN SILVERSTEIN

Allow me to invoke not one but two, only two, who were heroes--among millions of heroes. Who were victims--among tens of millions of victims.

The first: Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, murdered in his vestments, while saying mass in the cathedral on March 24, 1980--twenty-three years ago--because he had become "a vocal advocate of a just peace, and had openly opposed the forces of violence and oppression." (I am quoting from the description of the Oscar Romero Award, being given today to Ishai Menuchin.)

The second: Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old college student from Olympia, Washington, murdered in the bright neon-orange jacket with Day-Glo striping that "human shields" wear to make themselves quite visible, and possibly safer, while trying to stop one of the almost daily house demolitions by Israeli forces in Rafah, a town in the southern Gaza Strip (where Gaza abuts the Egyptian border), on March 16, 2003. Standing in front of a Palestinian physician's house that had been targeted for demolition, Corrie, one of eight young American and British human-shield volunteers in Rafah, had been waving and shouting at the driver of an oncoming armored D-9 bulldozer through her megaphone, then dropped to her knees in the path of the supersized bulldozer...which did not slow down.

Two emblematic figures of sacrifice, killed by the forces of violence and oppression to which they were offering nonviolent, principled, dangerous opposition.

Let's start with risk. The risk of being punished. The risk of being isolated. The risk of being injured or killed. The risk of being scorned. We are all conscripts in one sense or another. For all of us, it is hard to break ranks; to incur the disapproval, the censure, the violence of an offended majority with a different idea of loyalty. We shelter under banner words like justice, peace and reconciliation that enroll us in new, if much smaller and relatively powerless, communities of the like-minded. That mobilize us for the demonstration, the protest and the public performance of acts of civil disobedience--not for the parade ground and the battlefield.

To fall out of step with one's tribe; to step beyond one's tribe into a world that is larger mentally but smaller numerically-- if alienation or dissidence is not your habitual or gratifying posture, this is a complex, difficult process. It is hard to defy the wisdom of the tribe, the wisdom that values the lives of members of the tribe above all others. It will always be unpopular-- it will always be deemed unpatriotic--to say that the lives of the members of the other tribe are as valuable as one's own. It is easier to give one's allegiance to those we know, to those we see, to those with whom we are embedded, to those with whom we share--as we may--a community of fear.

Let's not underestimate the force of what we oppose. Let's not underestimate the retaliation that may be visited on those who dare to dissent from the brutalities and repressions thought justified by the fears of the majority. We are flesh. We can be punctured by a bayonet, torn apart by a suicide bomber. We can be crushed by a bulldozer, gunned down in a cathedral. Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example--for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.

The perennial destiny of principles: While everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions--who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

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