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Tom Engelhardt, Putting War Back in Children’s Culture

8:44 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Teenagers in Space 
Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Rambo, Red Dawn, and How a Tale of American Triumphalism Was Returned to the Child’s World (Part 2) 
By Tom Engelhardt

[The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press.  Part 1, “The Secret History of G.I. Joe,” can be found by clicking here.]

1. “Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?”

The End of Victory Culture cover

An excerpt from Tom Engelhardt’s new book.

Now that Darth Vader’s breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it’s hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.

Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.

To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Beginning with “Episode IV” of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks — an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family — high-tech peasants on an obscure planet — suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke — and the audience — can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put “us” in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role “they” had monopolized for a decade — that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, “Hey! How come they got all the fun?” And to respond, “Let’s give them the burden of empire! Let’s bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!”

Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas’s white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the “life force” of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to “our” side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force “with you” meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy’s destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor’s Death Star.

Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy’s technology stripped him of his machinery — and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.

At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara’s “electronic battlefield” to the first “smart bombs,” Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering — whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter — not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying “imperial storm troopers,” encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

Not only would George Lucas put “war” back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe’s demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

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Chase Madar: Handcuffing Seven-Year-Olds Won’t Make Schools Safer

7:32 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Handcuffed

Schools are increasingly indistinguishable from prisons.

It was, in a sense, so expectable, so leave-no-child-behind.  I’m talking about the arming of American schools.  Think of it as the next step in the militarization of this country, which follows all-too-logically from developments since September 11, 2001.  In the wake of 9/11, police departments nationwide began to militarize in a big way, and the next thing you knew, the police were looking ever less like old-style neighborhood patrollers and ever more like mini-anti-terror armies.  The billy club, the simple sidearm? So Old School. So retro.

When it came to weaponry for the new, twenty-first-century version of the police, it was a matter of letting the good times roll: Tasers, flash grenades, pepper spray, incendiary tear gas, Kevlar helmets, assault rifles, bomb-detection robots, armored vehicles and tanks, special-ops-style SWAT teams, drone mini-submarines, drone aircraft, you name it.  Today, even school police are being armed with assault rifles.  And with it all goes a paramilitary fashion craze that anyone who observed the police in the Occupy moment is most familiar with.

In addition, the U.S. military is now offloading billions of dollars worth of its surplus equipment, some of it assumedly used in places like Iraq and Afghanistan against armed insurgents, on police forces even in small towns nationwide.  This includes M-16s, helmet-mounted infrared goggles, amphibious tanks, and helicopters. And now, the same up-armoring mentality is being brought to bear on a threat worse than terror: our children.  Think of it as the reductio ad absurdum of the new national security state.  First, they locked down the airports, then the capital, then the borders, and finally the schools. Now, we’re ready!

But the seldom-asked question is: ready for what?  After all, with a few rare exceptions (including unpredictable lone wolf attacks like the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; the disgruntled software engineer who flew his plane into a building containing an IRS office in Austin, Texas, killing himself and an IRS manager; Major Nidal Hassan’s murderous rampage at Fort Hood, Texas; and the Newtown slaughter), just about all “terror” threats in the U.S. have essentially been FBI sting operations involving crews of “terrorists” who were, by themselves, incapable of planning their way out of the proverbial paper bag.  Imagine for a moment how much better off we might be today if the money that has, for more than a decade, poured into the militarization of the police had been plowed into American education or infrastructure or just about anything else.  In that case, we might be prepared for something other than fighting phantoms and — as TomDispatch regular Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower, points out today — handcuffing seven-year-olds.  For the TV version of what’s happening in our schools at the moment, you would have to imagine “Homeland” populated by overarmed Muppets and Thomas the Tank (not the Tank Engine). Tom

The School Security America Doesn’t Need
After Newtown: Turning Schools Into Prisons
By Chase Madar

Outrage over the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre may or may not spur any meaningful gun control laws, but you can bet your Crayolas that it will lead to more seven-year-olds getting handcuffed and hauled away to local police precincts.

You read that right.  Americans may disagree deeply about how easy it should be for a mentally ill convicted felon to purchase an AR-15, but when it comes to putting more law enforcement officers inside our schools, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and liberal Democrats like Senator Barbara Boxer are as one.  And when police (or “school resource officers” as these sheriff’s deputies are often known) spend time in a school, they often deal with disorder like proper cops — by slapping cuffs on the little perps and dragging them to the precinct.

Just ask the three nine-year-old girls and an eight-year-old boy who got into a fight at their Baltimore elementary school — then got arrested by real police.  Or Salecia Johnson, age six, cuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum at her elementary school in Milledgeville, Georgia.  Or Wilson Reyes, a seven-year-old at a Bronx, New York, elementary school who last December 4th was cuffed, hauled away, and interrogated under suspicion of taking $5 from a classmate.  (Another kid later confessed.)

The last of these incidents made the cover of the New York Post, but the New York City Police Department still doesn’t understand what they did wrong — sure, the first-grader spent about 4 hours handcuffed in a detention room, but that’s “standard for juvenile arrest.”

Which is precisely the problem: standard juvenile misbehavior (a five-year-old pitching a fit, a 12-year-old doodling on a desk, a 13-year-old farting in class, a class clown running around the football field at halftime in a banana suit) is increasingly being treated like serious crime, resulting in handcuffs and arrest.  If you can’t understand why such “consistency” is crazy, please desist from reading the rest of this article.

It seems grotesque that the horrific slaughter of those 20 children in Newtown, Connecticut, will result in more children getting traumatized, but that’s exactly where we’re headed — with firm bipartisan support.

In his amazing post-Newtown speech last December, Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the NRA, called for armed guards in all schools — a demand widely hailed as jaw-droppingly nutty.  A few weeks later, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) proposed $50 million in federal grants to install more metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and National Guard troops in schools, but made her pitch in the caring cadences of a Marin County Democrat.  And when President Obama ordered more police in schools (point 18 in his 23-point Executive Order responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy), it was all over.

So here’s an American reality of 2013: we will soon have more police in our schools, and more seven-year-olds like Joseph Andersons of PS 153 in Maspeth, New York, getting arrested.  (He got handcuffed after a meltdown when his Easter egg dye-job didn’t come out right.)

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Andy Kroll: The Death of the Golden Dream of Higher Education

6:52 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Money blowing away

Photo: 401K 2012 / Flickr

These days, it seems like going to college increasingly means heading for the nearest pawn shop or loan shark to hock your valuables. Based on a recent spate of figures, it looks as if we’ll soon need to find a replacement term for the “public” in public higher education. After all, the cost of a public college education is rising at a startling clip. Tuitions at four-year universities have gone up by 15% between 2008 and 2010 (and are still on the upswing). Since 2001, in fact, tuition and fees have climbed at a 5.6% rate annually. In some states, it’s far worse. At six Georgia public universities, for instance, costs jumped by more than 40%. In Arizona, California, and Washington, it was 16% to 21% last year alone. Meanwhile, for the 2011-2012 school year, state funding of higher education nationwide plunged by 7.5%. At the moment, tuition increases at public colleges are almost double those at private ones.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, to discover that “public” education is increasingly becoming a very private nightmare. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that student debt is soaring, with a record 22.4 million American households — nearly one in five — carrying it. In 2010, the average debt burden of those households was $26,682 (“more than double the share two decades earlier”) and 10% of them owed more than $61,894. Though this debt burden falls on every sector of society, perhaps this won’t surprise you either that the poorest and youngest households are in the worst trouble. Student debt is eating up nearly a quarter of their household income. As the Pew study puts it, “[T]he relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.”

So this shouldn’t shock you either: according to the Department of Education, school loan defaults have risen for the fifth straight year. “Public school borrowers defaulted at a rate of 8.3%, up from 5.9% just four years ago.” In other words, “public” higher education is on a path toward the grimmest sort of privatization.  Increasingly, if you don’t have the money, there’s a sign on the door of the local college classroom saying “no access,” which is another way of saying no access to a decent future. In the economic meltdown of 2007-2008, millions of homeowners went “underwater” thanks to subprime mortgages. Now, as TomDispatch associate editor and Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll makes clear, in the process of hollowing itself out and crippling its future, this country is hell-bent on producing subprime educations as well. Tom

Back to $chool
College Is the Past, Prison Is the Future
By Andy Kroll

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Tom Engelhardt: A Subprime Education in a Subprime World

6:41 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A graduate tightly holds onto his cap.

Photo: James Almond / Flickr.

Class of 2012, greetings! It’s a deceptively glorious day, even under this tent in the broiling heat of an August-style afternoon in mid-June on this northeastern campus.  Another local temperature record is being set: 98 degrees.  And yes, let’s admit it, the heat, the sun, the clearness of the azure blue sky stretching without a cloud to the horizon, the sense of summer descending with a passion, it’s not quite as reassuring as it might once have been, is it?  I suspect that few of you, readying yourselves to leave this campus, many mortgaged to your eyeballs (some for life no matter what you do), and heading into a country on edge, imagine personal clear skies to the horizon.

And while we’re admitting things, let’s admit something else about the heat today, as you bake under your graduation gowns: whether or not you have the figures at your fingertips, whether or not you know the details, who doesn’t sense that this planet is on edge, too?  I mean, here you are, the class of 2012, and like the classes of 2011, 2010, and so on, you are surely going to spend your first months out of college enduring one of history’s top ten heat years.

As so many Americans have noticed, this was a spring for the record books just about everywhere in the continental United States.  And keep in mind that at the moment we also seem to be making a beeline for a potentially record-setting summer, the months of your job hunt for a future, and maybe the hottest year in American history as well.

And records or no, this year is no anomaly.  Look at a temperature map of the United States, 1970-2011, and every state — every single state — is, on average, hotter now than it was four decades ago.  Imagine that.

And now, imagine this.  If climate change is the main culprit and the burning of fossil fuels is threatening to turn Hell, which you were once supposed to visit after death for your sins, into a pit stop on planet Earth, and if you want to do something about it, brace yourself.  What you’re up against is the power of the richest, most profitable corporations in history at a time when the sky’s the limit, not just for carbon dioxide, but for the infusion of private and corporate money into what we once called democratic (with a small “d”) politics.

In other words, the giant energy corporations that rake in tens of billions of dollars every quarter and whose lifeblood is the burning of fossil fuels are essentially capable of buying more or less anything they want in Washington.  That includes continuing massive subsidies — via “your” Congress (via your tax dollars) — of their unbelievably profitable operations.

And what exactly can you buy?  How many lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians can fit in your less than spacious pockets?  Okay, you don’t want your world, and that of your children, hotter than hades?  That’s understandable, but tell it to ExxonMobil.  It has money to burn and specializes in mobilizing some of those billions in profits to employ ranks of lawyers, hordes of well-organized lobbyists, klatches of politicians, and even its own armed mercenary warriors.  If the planet burns as well, so be it.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

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Michael Gould-Wartofsky: Class of 2012 Meet the Class of 1984

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

(image: Chris Gionet via flickr)

(image: Chris Gionet via flickr)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Graduating from high school soon? Looking for a job in a high-growth field? Like working outdoors and traveling to exotic locales? How does $103,269 a year strike you?

At myfuture.com, high-schoolers are encouraged “to explore all possibilities and gain insight into” possible futures through “unbiased, detailed information,” including data from the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Labor. “In addition to college admissions details, average salaries, and employment trends,” reads an explanation in that website’s fine print, “myfuture.com provides advice on everything from taking the SAT to interviewing for a first job to preparing for boot camp.” Did you catch that last part? Boot camp. Which brings us back to that $103,269 a year job.

Myfuture.com just happens to be run by the Department of Defense and that high-demand job is as a “Special Forces officer.” In 2006, the website notes, there were only 1,493 slots in that field; by 2010, 2,320. That it’s an American job-growth area shouldn’t surprise any of us. After all, in the last year, Special Forces officers starred in a box-office topping motion picture, gunned down pirates, carried out assassinations, and expanded their global war from 75 to 120 countries. No wonder it’s been boom times for special ops officers.

Myfuture.com is, however, far from the only Defense Department website making a play for a young audience. There’s BoostUp.org, with its “high school dropout prevention campaign,” sponsored by the Army. (Which makes sense because, as TomDispatch reported in 2005, the military has studied what makes college students drop out and how the armed services can capitalize on that urge.) At the other end of the educational spectrum, the Army sponsors eCYBERMISSION, “a free, web-based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics competition for students in grades six through nine where teams can compete for state, regional and national awards while working to solve problems in their community.” And then there’s TodaysMilitary.com.“Young people need support as they consider their life path,” reads its pitch. “This site aims to help them and their families understand service options and benefits so they can make informed choices.”

“Military service is not for everyone,” TodaysMilitary.com confides. “It requires self-discipline, intense physical work, and time away from family and friends while protecting America and its citizens at home and abroad. For some, these commitments impose too great a burden.” But here’s a surprise for those presumably too lazy, weak, or emotionally needy to do anything but go to college (what snobs!): they’ll find a complete line-up of government agencies and national security types waiting to teach them (or beat them) on the quad, as Michael Gould-Wartofsky explains in his latest report on the state of state repression on American college campuses.

It turns out myfuture.com may really be onto something. These days, given that you may have to brave batons, CS gas, and Tasers just to get to English 101 — and since officers in the Special Operations Forces need a degree anyway (what snobs!) — some military training might come in handy before you head for college. Nick Turse Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Jen Marlowe, The Freedom Reading List

8:22 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch

With Hosni Mubarak gone, let’s do a little Egyptian math on the Mubarak years. 

According to experts, the fortune amassed by Egypt’s former president and his two sons (both billionaires) could reach $70 billion.  That includes funds in secret offshore bank accounts and investments in residences and real-estate properties reaching from Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills to Wilton Place in central London and Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheik tourist resort.  Since Mubarak has been president for 30 years, he’s put that little fortune together at a record clip — something like $2 billion or more a year.  He and his family are now worth approximately four times the gross domestic product (GDP) of Paraguay, five times the GDP of embattled Afghanistan, and more than ten times the GDP of Laos.  He may be the richest man and they the richest family on Earth.  All this happened, by the way, in the years when millions of Egyptians — at least one in every 10 — lost their farms, while more than 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

And let’s just mention a few others in the cast of characters who let the good times roll and made a few bucks off the reign of the Mubarak family: steel magnate and ruling party insider Ahmed Ezz, for instance, managed to eke out a $3 billion fortune, while former Interior Minister Habib Ibrahim El-Adly scraped by with a near-rock-bottom $1.2 billion.  And they are just two of at least five much-loathed Mubarak cronies who reportedly crossed the billion-dollar mark in these years. 

As for a trio of Washington lobbyists — former Republican representative Bob Livingston, former Democratic representative Toby Moffett, and mover-and-shaker Tony Podesta — who bravely hired themselves out to the Mubarak regime, they made chump change: reportedly a mere $1 million a year for their efforts.  Who knows what Frank Wisner, the former ambassador sent to Cairo by the Obama administration to give Mubarak the boot, made working for Patton, Boggs, a company which proudly boasts of the litigation work it’s done for Mubarak and company?  Conflict of interest anyone?

Meanwhile, don’t forget the Egyptian military.  It didn’t do so badly in the Mubarak years either.  After all, according to one expert, it owns “virtually every industry in the country,” and it still managed to take in a handy $35 billion in “aid” from Washington since 1978.

As for ordinary Egyptians who protested the devolving state of their country?  Estimates of the number of political prisoners in Egypt’s grim jails have varied over the years from 6,000 to 17,000.  Their well-being was overseen by former head of intelligence Omar Suleiman.  Since Egypt was a “torture destination of choice” for the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, Suleiman happily oversaw that program, too, as Mubarak’s torturer-in-chief.  Appointed vice president by his pal, Suleiman was the “democrat” the Obama administration seemed ready to back until recently to manage the “transition to democracy.” 

All in all, should we wonder that such a torturing kleptocracy on the Nile is now being shaken to its foundations and that another spirit, a spirit of democracy, freedom, and justice, is rising in the region?  Sometimes such a spirit can be caught in the story of a single ordinary, yet remarkable, life.  Jen Marlowe has done so in her just-published book The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker.  It’s a remarkable story about how even prison can prepare the way for another world and its message, as Marlowe’s latest TomDispatch post indicates, is particularly appropriate for this Middle Eastern moment.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

*****

From An Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square
One Palestinian’s Odyssey in a Middle East Ablaze

By Jen Marlowe

As pro-democracy demonstrations sweep across the Middle East, ousting dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, many in the West have expressed surprise that such a strong, sophisticated vision of a democratic future is being articulated by ordinary citizens and grassroots movements in the Arab world.

I have not been surprised. Sophisticated organizing for democratic reform and justice has a rich legacy in the region.  In fact, watching anti-Mubarak demonstrators taking to the streets en masse to demand true democracy, freedom from repression, and the right to be stakeholders in their own political and civil systems caused me to reflect on my friend Sami Al Jundi, a Palestinian from the Old City of Jerusalem who has spent the last two decades working for peace and a nonviolent end to Israeli occupation. He is, in many ways, a product of that legacy.

Sami’s political awakening came in 1980, when he was inducted into a highly organized, democratic community and, at the age of 18, began a program of serious study, reading hundreds of books including:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract
Makarenko’s Pedagogical Poem
The writings of Ho Chi Minh, Basil Liddell Hart, and Angela Davis
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Incoherence of the Philosophers by Imam Ghazali
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Arab Nationalism Between the Reality of Separation and the Aspiration for Unity by Munir Shafiq
The complete works of Dostoevsky. Twice.

These were not parts of syllabi for courses in political science and literature. Sami was not in a university. He was a Palestinian political prisoner in an Israeli jail, incarcerated for building a bomb with two friends intended to be used against Israeli security forces. The bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of Sami’s friends. He and his other friend were arrested by the Israeli secret service, tortured, interrogated, and finally sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively.

It was in prison that Sami received his higher education. The veteran prisoners in his jail had established a complex, intricate, community-based society with self-governance. This included a program of study for the new prisoners via a curriculum created and overseen by an education committee.

Previously, political prisoners had been forced to work in Israeli military factories, making netting for tanks and building crates to hold missiles. The prisoners revolted, burning down one of the factories, and then made a collective decision: their efforts and energy would go only towards their own people. They won access to books, paper, and pens through hunger strikes and other acts of resistance.

A Palestinian Odyssey

For the first three years of his confinement, Sami sat with five other new prisoners in a circle on the concrete floor of their cell for six hours a day, six days a week, being instructed in great detail by two older cellmates/teachers. One of them covered the background of Fatah (the secular Palestinian national liberation movement that Sami was a member of) and the other taught the history of rebellion and revolution in the modern world, from the Bolsheviks in Russia to Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrillas and the Vietnamese movement that defeated the French and Americans in a decades-long war. Their lessons were peppered with comparisons to and anecdotes from places as distant and disparate as Ireland and South Africa.

After the six hours of group meetings, Sami and his fellow prisoners would sit on their mats, each with a book, reading in silence for the rest of the day. The books were assigned, but the education committee mixed the fare. A dense political volume like Mahdi Abd Al-Hadi’s The Palestinian Issue and the Political Projects for Resolution would be followed with a volume of poetry or a novel like Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered.

When Sami graduated from the mandatory courses, he was free to determine his own reading and composed a list of 70 titles. Taking advice from the older prisoners, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels topped his list.

Given the mainstream media’s emphasis on the role of inflammatory Islamic rhetoric in the Palestinian resistance movement, one might assume the prisoners’ reading list would have been replete with books focusing on anti-Israel indoctrination.  In reality, Sami underwent the intensive equivalent of a liberal arts education.

He emerged from his decade in prison well-versed in Greek and Roman classics, Russian literature, world history, philosophy, psychology, economics, and much more. He read The Odyssey and The Iliad three times each. He read the Torah, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. He read the letters that future Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote from prison to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, a future prime minister herself. Sami describes the prison library as “an ocean.” The texts mentioned above only skim the surface of his deep plunge into world literature.

This education system was just one element of the remarkable society that Palestinian prisoners built inside Israeli prisons. They held elections every six months for a prison-wide council and steering committee.  They divided themselves into committees chaired by the members of that steering committee, responsible for education, communication with the Israeli guards, security, and intra-prisoner affairs.

Sami served several times on the elections committee and the magazine committee.  When his cell got hold of a contraband radio, he and his cellmates became the news committee, surreptitiously listening to radio reports at night and stealthily disseminating the news in headline form to the other cells each morning.

There were daily book discussions in the cell, weekly political meetings between cells, and monthly gatherings of the entire 120-person section or corridor of cells to take up thorny topics of disagreement among members of the different Palestinian resistance movements jailed together. When the prisoners engaged in any joint action, such as a hunger strike, the decision would be made collectively after lengthy deliberation.

Israeli guards sometimes revoked the privileges of the prisoners as a form of punishment. The harshest punishment of all was the confiscation of pens, paper, and books. Books, according to Sami, were the prisoners’ souls.

The Impact of Prison

Prison did not further radicalize Sami in the ways one might expect, nor did it stoke a desire for revenge or for the further use of violence. Instead, locked away, he began to develop a worldview grounded in principles of nonviolence, democracy, and equal rights. Undoubtedly, he was influenced by a collection of speeches he came across by Martin Luther King Jr., as well as the teachings of Gandhi that he read. But much of the human being that Sami grew into emerged from the society the prisoners had painstakenly created, with its emphasis on reading, discussion, reflection, democracy, solidarity, and equality.

Sami speaks with nostalgia of the weekly “criticism” meetings that the older prisoners in his cell facilitated. He approached the first such meeting with trepidation.  No one, after all, likes to be scolded for doing something wrong.

He was taken off-guard when the prisoner-facilitators started the meeting by criticizing themselves. Then, turning to the younger prisoners, they began with positive feedback, noting, for example, who had participated actively in group discussions. The prisoners were also given the opportunity to critique each other, but only after each had criticized himself first.

Sitting in those meetings, Sami came to realize that much of the goal of this prison society was, as he puts it, to build the humanity of the young prisoners. Political books and discussion provided intellectual stimulation, literature engendered empathy and compassion, and carefully facilitated discussions fostered connection and solidarity.

Prison as a place of study is hardly unique to Palestinians. Though in the United States prison is notorious for intense violence, political prisoners worldwide have historically used their time of incarceration to educate themselves.  Malcolm X famously taught himself to read and write in prison. Long Kesh prison in Northern Ireland, where many Irish Republican Army volunteers were jailed, was regularly referred to as “the university of Long Kesh.”  While locked away on Robben Island for 27 years, Nelson Mandela received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London.

What was suprising to me, however, was the intricate community built by the Palestinian prisoners, with enormous care taken to nurture and educate the young. The path that Sami set out on, while in prison for constructing a bomb, led him to an unshakeable belief that Israelis and Palestinians can and must work together to build a common future of peace with justice. I had never considered the possibility that a decade in prison might not harden a prisoner against his jailers but provide him with the intellectual and emotional tools to become a passionate advocate for reconciliation.

Prison was instrumental in shaping Sami’s worldview and his growth as a courageous and critical thinker, thanks not just to his determination to study, but to the fact that older political prisoners viewed the development and education of a younger generation as their primary human and political task. Sami’s own proudest moment, he would later tell me, was when it was his turn to become a teacher.

From Israeli Prison to Tahrir Square: connecting the dots

As I watched the events in Tahrir Square unfold, leading to President Mubarak’s ouster, I experienced the same excitement and inspiration I first felt when Sami began describing his prison experience to me.  There are striking parallels between the two in terms of solidarity, human connection, and incredible organization.

For example, neighborhoods in Cairo organized their own volunteer guards to make sure their streets and homes remained safe; people set up ad-hoc clinics in Tahrir Square; demonstrators banded together to protect the Egyptian Museum and its priceless treasures from regime-friendly thugs and looters.  And according to a Democracy Now report by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, when a group of demonstrators associated with the Muslim Brotherhood began to chant “Allah Akbar!” the crowd drowned them out with the chant, “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian!”

But I watched with dismay the way the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) responded to the protests. It seems reasonable to expect that those who struggled for their own people’s freedom would be quick to support an Egyptian nonviolent struggle for democracy. Yet the PA banned and suppressed solidarity demonstrations in the West Bank — and such repression of political expression was no isolated incident. The once revolutionary Fatah movement has become the corrupt, authoritarian, and self-serving Palestinian leadership we see today.

There are complex reasons for this transformation, including the fact that, though some of Sami’s former cellmates now hold high positions within the PA, much of the current Palestinian leadership is drawn not from the revolutionary prison generation, but from PLO members who returned from exile in 1996 after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.  In addition, those accords created the Palestinian Authority as a quasi-government without a state.  The political goals of a national liberation movement and the political project of nation building were absorbed by an entity (the PA) that had functionally become a sub-contractor for the Israeli occupation.

Beyond the specifics, there is the issue of the nature of power itself.  Once a regime — any regime — is in power, its tendency is to do whatever it takes to cling onto, consolidate, and expand that power, even at the expense of the very ideals it came to power to uphold.

Whatever the mixture of reasons, if there is a parallel to be drawn between the incredible Palestinian political prisoner community of the 1980s and the inspirational people’s revolution emerging like a tidal wave in the Arab world today, there is also a warning to be offered.  Today’s Palestinian Authority provides a lesson for the people of Egypt. It is not enough to struggle for freedom and democracy against an authoritarian or dictatorial regime (or, in the Palestinian case, an occupying power). Once the revolutionaries obtain power, the struggle for those same core values becomes even more difficult and critical.

May Palestinians and Egyptians gain strength and solidarity from one another as they demand freedom as well as a meaningful political voice. May they learn from each other as they build enduring institutions of democracy and pluralism. May they continue to nurture hundreds of thousands of courageous, critical thinkers.

The people’s revolution is still unfolding in Egypt and all over the Arab world, including the occupied Palestinian territories.  Where it will lead is unknown.  If, however, it maintains (or, in the case of the Palestinians, rediscovers) its roots in ideals about a caring community that nurtures the humanity of its young, as in Tahrir Square and as in the Israeli jail where Sami Al Jundi went to “university,” then genuine social change in the Arab world is inevitable.

Jen Marlowe is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, author, playwright, human rights advocate, and founder of donkeysaddle projects. Her new book, The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, co-written with and about Palestinian peace activist Sami Al Jundi, has just been published by Nation Books. Her previous book was Darfur Diaries: Stories of Survival. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Marlowe discusses how prison became university for one Palestinian prisoner, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)

Copyright 2011 Jen Marlowe