Arts and Culture 22 May 2014
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.
On 19 May, graduates at the University of Pennsylvania were treated to one of the exceptions. Singer John Legend, a Penn alum, delivered a moving, meaningful speech (see video above).
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.
- John Legend
- University of Pennsylvania
- Trayvon Martin
- Nadim Siam Nuwara
- Muhammad Mahmoud Odeh Abu al-Thahir
all of this, and yet you are
Permalink Kat replied on
all of this, and yet you are able to say "Israel murders children" and nothing happens, absolutely nothing at all, in fact everybody reads that phrase and keeps on reading not even noticing. Did YOU even notice what you said, Mr. Steven Salaita?
did this writer REALLY say that people should try to "humanize"
Permalink Mary replied on
i am trying SO hard to not by cynical, but did this writer REALLY say that people should try to "humanize" Palestinians?
"Legend also did something nearly unprecedented among celebrity commenters: he urged his audience to humanize Palestinians." and again
"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."
ok, is it just me, but is this as patronising as it sounds? Is the writer just a very poor writer and should have instead written "urges his audience to consider the humanity of Palestinians"
because in my dictionary, to HUMANIZE is to make something appeal to human beings (ie, that something is an inanimate object, nature, an entity like a company or an animal). You can NEVER humanize something that is human unless you begin from the perception that they have to be altered and changed.
Another option would have been saying that people should treat Palestinians like any other humans... or even to state that Palestinians should not be "dehumanized" because "dehumanization" is the denial of human attributes and qualities. To take away something they are.
YOU CANNOT MAKE SOMEONE SOMETHING THEY ALREADY ARE.
Permalink Jason Thompson replied on
What an incredibly trivial, nitpicking objection to the article. The word 'humanize' IS commonly used to describe the act of viewing demonized and disadvantaged groups or people as 'human'. Since from a typical bourgeois Western/US perspective, Palestinians are clearly, sadly, viewed as less than human. Thus, to 'humanize' them, however ordinary it should be, is a radical act within this anti-Palestinian context. DUH.
commenting about "humanizing" Palestinians
Permalink Najah replied on
I am agreeing with the writer who objects with the phrasing of "humanize the Palestinians." When I clicked on this article from Facebook, where someone apparently was excited that a famous person is supporting the Palestinians, my intention was to like it and share it as well. Yet, upon reading the bit about humanizing Palestinians, I am perplexed as much as unhappy about the phrasing. Sure, whether uneducated idiots think Palestinians are second class citizens or barbaric, or inhuman, or whatever, the people trying to educate or make the rest of us aware should not play into these stereotypes. Those stereotypes were born out of ignorance and are perpetuated by American and Israeli propaganda. Palestinians don't need someone to humanize them. They spilled plenty of blood, lost plenty of lives, land, and time for more than seven decades at the cruel hands of their oppressors. They need someone to help liberate them against Israel.
Permalink Stephen replied on
Out of the Merriam Webster dictionary, thefreedictionary, and reference.com, it says that to humanize means to change the perspective and not the object, that is the subject and not the target of the subject's perspective. The change in perspective, image, or focus is related to the civility and humaneness of the object. In this case, what was being referred to, according to these definitions, was that Palestinians should be viewed as humane and civil and not as cruel and barbaric. When I did look to read the definition that meant to change the object to humanity and civility, in one of its definitions, I immediately thought about how barbarism and violence beget acts of barbarism and violence. In order to humanize, one must cease dehumanization. Anyway, there are two definitions of humanization. The first is to change the civility of an object and the second is to change the perspective the subject has of the object to that of seeing humaneness, that is to give a human character to the object through the subject's image of the object.