I am not cynical. I believe deeply in the ability of humans to make ethical decisions, to choose community over destruction, to protect rather than destroy life. Anybody who spends his days immersed in Indigenous thought has no cause to become a cynic.
I am skeptical, however, a condition I consider essential to cultivating a healthy intellect. Skepticism forces us to investigate claims before accepting them as truth, and it obliges us to distrust power, an important feature of compassion.
Whenever I have been forced (either by proud parents or contractual obligations) to attend a commencement speech, my skepticism was quickly stimulated. Commencement speeches are generally continuous platitudes, of which I am wholly intolerant.
There are exceptions, of course, but if you find yourself in a football stadium occupied by colorful mortarboards and a dais hosting important people dressed like pied pipers, you’re probably about to be bored and annoyed.
He spoke expansively of the importance of love, which can be read as a polite rebuke of cynicism. The speech wasn’t devoid of platitudes – it actually contained quite a few – but Legend acknowledged them and did something rare for platitudinous orators: he contextualized them with compelling material politics.
Legend also did something nearly unprecedented among celebrity commenters: he urged his audience to humanize Palestinians.
Love: a pretty radical notion
Here, in full context, is what Legend said:
[Love is] a pretty radical notion. It means your daughter or son, your neighbor’s daughter or son and the daughters and sons of people who live thousands of miles away, all deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It means we let go of fear and see each other’s humanity.
It means we don’t see Trayvon Martin as a walking stereotype, a weaponized human. We see him as a boy who deserves the chance to grow into a man, even if he makes boyish mistakes along the way. It means American lives don’t count more than Iraqi lives.
It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge, but as a future father, mother and lover. It means that the nearly 300 kidnapped girls in Nigeria aren’t just their problem. They’re “our” girls too. It’s actually quite a challenge to love humankind in this way.
Legend’s mention of Palestinians might not seem like a big deal, one line out of hundreds, ten seconds of twenty minutes. It is consequential, though. It requires courage for a high-earner to humanize Palestinians, especially in the rarefied domain of the Ivy League. In the United States, as elsewhere, a simple rule prevails: the more elite the community, the more languid the discourse.
Thus far, Legend has received no backlash, which is extraordinary. Even the most tepid overture to Palestinian humanity can result in Zionist histrionics. Legend included Palestinians in an uncomplicated appeal to universal justice. It sounded natural, reasonable, even unremarkable. In terms of the historical (and contemporaneous) volatility of Palestine in public discourse, Legend’s single sentence represented an important symbolic moment.
More than symbolism
We devalue Legend’s courage if we read the passage merely as symbolism. It entails sharp, even radical, criticism of Israel and the United States. Legend’s invocation of demography is no lukewarm appeal to Israeli altruism; it’s an all-out assault on the basic logic of Zionism.
By imploring us not to view Palestinians solely as a “demographic challenge,” he implicitly condemns both the language and practice of ethnic cleansing. He rejects the idea of a Palestinian kid as “a future security threat;” Israel murders children using precisely this rationale.
The previous line about Iraq is equally powerful. Saying American lives “don’t count more than Iraqi lives” may appear to be a truism, but in the framework of Legend’s overall message, it too is a radical critique of foreign policy.
US liberals who oppose the invasion of other countries often cite danger to American troops, terrorist blowback, Muslim radicalization, the national interest, forsaken democratic ideals, and other such claptrap.
Rarely do pundits oppose a policy based on the harm it might cause those on the receiving end.
By opposing imperialism on the grounds of Iraqi humanity, Legend condemns the conduct of war based on ethnonationalist narratives. This shift from the commonplaces of American political discourse is morally and philosophically crucial; it illuminates engagement with a long tradition of anti-war thought, some of it produced by the man he cites as an inspiration, Cornel West.
Legend may have worn out the word “love” in his speech, but he is clearly no lily-livered liberal.
Legend’s juxtaposition of Trayvon Martin with Palestinians is noteworthy. It situates Palestine in the framework of American racial politics, familiarizing Palestinian oppression to an American audience and evoking a tremendous history of Black internationalism.
The juxtaposition is especially noteworthy in light of the recent videotaped murder by Israeli soldiers of two unarmed Palestinian teenagers, Nadim Siam Nuwara and Muhammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu al-Thahir.
While the conditions of African Americans and Palestinians on the West Bank differ significantly, both communities suffer the horrors of police brutality, profiling, institutional violence, and the murder of young people by agents of the state who subsequently receive little or no punishment.
Legend, then, conceptualizes racism as a structural problem, not an individual failing. The problem spans the Atlantic and informs the violent habits of neoliberal surveillance.
The connection isn’t metaphorical. Israel has trained officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and New York Police Department, among many others, and has played a critical role in the militarization of American police departments (The NYPD recently opened a branch in Israel.)
Israel’s West Bank settlers also provide a terrific example of the dangers of an armed citizenry immersed in racist ideologies. Speaking of Trayvon and Palestinians in the same breath is hardly anachronistic; plenty of material supports the comparison.
Go ahead and mention Palestine
My main takeaway from Legend’s comment about Palestinians is that it supports those who suggest that unconditional Zionism is abating in mainstream American discourse.
Palestine has been integral to left politics for some time, but it’s heartening to see people in very public places integrating it into their condemnations of injustice. I’m still a bit surprised that Legend didn’t receive the Vanessa Redgrave treatment.
The fact that he has generated praise rather than acrimony tells me that Zionists will have to work much harder to consign Palestinians to perpetual dehumanization. If, as Legend suggests, love is a radical notion, then it’s yet another threat to Zionist supremacy. Israel’s apologists are unable to articulate a narrative untethered from the conventions of state power.
Legend made a simple request, one that happens to be Israel’s worst nightmare: that the world perceive, and treat, Palestinians as human.
I can only think of one word to describe this sentiment: love.