The passionate minority and the silenced majority

What kind of truths do statistics tell? What version of reality is our media mediating? What kind of democracy do we settle for when the will of the majority is sidelined by the fanaticism of the few?

Rachel Corrie, a minority of one, in the last hours of her life (March 16, 2003)

Just days after the second anniversary of the shocking death of a young American woman, the result of a murderous act underwritten by US taxpayers, millions of Americans were glued to their television screens as Congress debated and postured until 1:00 AM about the life and death of another American woman.

Thanks to wall-to-wall print and electronic media coverage, few US citizens are ignorant of the second woman’s name and heartbreaking story. But it’s a safe bet that not even a fraction of those who recognize Terri Schiavo’s name and vacant face would know who Rachel Corrie is, what she stood for, or how she was mowed down by a US-supplied armored D9 Caterpillar bulldozer in Gaza while she and others from the International Solidarity Movement bravely confronted the Israeli army. Unarmed with anything but a megaphone and her convictions, Rachel was crushed like an insect with all the impunity and inhumanity that her killers could muster. Rachel Corrie’s story - shocking, stirring, incredible - is equally heartbreaking.

Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack and medical complications in 1990 that cut off oxygen to her brain, leaving her in a “persistent vegetative state.” According to certified medical experts, her brain is irreparably damaged and she will never recover. Although Mrs. Schiavo had expressed to her husband long ago a desire never to be kept alive if she were to fall seriously and irreversibly ill, her husband’s attempt to honor her wishes and let her die with dignity has been thwarted by the politics of morality, or, as the religious right of the Republican Party calls it, “the culture of life.”

This is the same Republican Party whose members have refused to listen to the bereaved parents of Rachel Corrie, the same Republican Party whose president is waging a lethal and misguided war in Iraq that has brought senseless deaths to over 1500 US servicemen and women, while even refusing to count the number of Iraqi civilian dead.

The “culture of life,” it seems, is reserved for middle class Christian white people residing in states that have significant electoral weight. In other words, for “real Americans,” as envisioned by the Bush administration.

Along with the various legal and medical experts who have appeared on television to discuss the Schiavo case, a savvy media expert, interviewed on CNN last Sunday night, noted that well over half of the US public, when polled on the issue of the right to die, supported euthanasia. Only 24% opposed granting the right to die under any circumstances.

The expert then made an astute observation about why Congress and President Bush were keeping everyone up so late on a Sunday night ignoring the will of the people and toying with the separation of powers between our three branches of government and the US Constitution: although those espousing a “culture of life” approach were not quite one-fourth of the US public, they were an “extremely passionate minority,” one that would spare no effort to be heard and to have a real impact, regardless of what the majority thought or felt. These marketers of moralism, who do not mind stooping to the level of showing videos of a brain dead woman over and over again on television to score political points, are enemies of democracy.

Yet somehow, they have positioned themselves as the arbiters of all that is Good, True and Right in the United States and the world. They fancy themselves American patriots, noble democratizers of heathen lands, and true followers of the Gospel. And, as one senator’s invocation of “Palm Sunday” indicated, this passionate minority does not fancy the separation of church and state. Nor do they fancy scientific facts or evidence, whether provided to refute their claims about Schiavo’s chances of being rehabilitated, or to inform the teaching of life sciences in American schools.

Anyone who has bothered to educate themselves, or tried to educate others, about America’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is already familiar with this passionate minority. While they press for a “culture of life” at home — a PR triumph of schmaltz over fact if ever there were one — the passionate minority is keen to view all events in the Middle East, no matter how bloody or illegal, as rooted in scripture or fore-ordained by prophecy.

There’s no place for the Geneva Conventions in the Holy Land, no meeting place for the culture of life and the rule of law. Only God’s word matters, and for the passionate minority, God’s word is whatever the Israeli government says or does.

As a commentator on Middle East political affairs, I have received numerous emails and on-air phone calls from true believers reprimanding me for daring to question or critique Israel, since, as the Bible tells us, this is the chosen people of the Almighty, and even if Israelis kill civilians daily, it’s all part of God’s greater design. The ingathering of the Jews after World War II is a Sign. A Portent. The end time is coming, and Israel must be allowed to fulfill Holy Scripture.

So mere secular critics like me should read the Good Book, pray for guidance and enlightenment, and then shut up. All is unfolding according to God’s mysterious plan. Killing children, demolishing houses, uprooting olive trees, caging whole towns into small areas with massive walls — not to worry: God is moving, acting and speaking through the Israeli army. It’s sacrilege to question or condemn this, or to impugn the motives of Ariel Sharon, a holy warrior and heir to the mantle of King David and King Solomon.

Thankfully, Christian Evangelical Zionists are still a minority in the US, but they are more than simply passionate: they are tenacious, committed, unprincipled, and fanatical. And they are now in power: Bush and leading members of the House and Senate are counted among their number. The less passionate majority somehow put them there in the last elections.

A couple of years ago, a University of Maryland poll showed that a significant majority of Americans were more in line with the Palestinian than the Israeli approach to ending a conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives over the last 55 years. You would never know it by looking at the pronouncements of the US Congress or the White House, though, not to mention mainstream media coverage and prevailing public discourses.

So how does a passionate minority influence — indeed, silence — the less passionate majority? The minority possess a secret wisdom of miracles, signs and portents: they really know how to work the media. They are masters at appealing to the strongest human emotions: fear, greed, hate, revenge, and the need to belong, the desire to be safe and right and certain. The less passionate majority, i.e., most Americans, use reason, rationality, statistical proof, and public dialogue to present arguments and shape policy and legislation.

Alas, they are no match for the high priests of the passionate minority, such as Karl Rove, who sit back, watch and wait, and then divine one or two vulnerabilities in rational arguments supporting a more humane and realistic view of domestic or foreign conundrums. Then it’s holy-roller showtime! The avenging spirit, the hellfire and fury of absolute certainty, moral triumphalism, and invocations of purity and retribution drown out rational arguments.

Using bolts of rhetorical lightning fashioned from innuendo, key (often religious) symbols, images of ideal family life, dangerous enemies, and lurking evil, they quickly tap into primeval emotions and demolish reasonable arguments faster than an armored bulldozer.

The criminal attacks of 9-11 and the ensuing “war on terror” have been a boon, (or, to exploit theological imagery, media manna from heaven), for the passionate minority. There is no need for debate, information, deliberation, or critical analysis. You are with us or against us. Arabs and Islam are un-American (and obviously un-Christian), thus evil. If you voted for John Kerry, you are, ipso facto, in favor of killing babies and allowing evil homosexuals to destroy the bedrock values and institutions of American society.

Vice President Cheney even stated last summer that if Americans were to vote for John Kerry, the US would be at greater risk of another massive attack by Al-Qaa`ida. Other than Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” I do not recall any mainstream journalists forcefully challenged Cheney in a manner one would expect from a society that takes democracy seriously.

So given the “culture of life” approach, if you are sympathetic to Terry Schiavo’s husband, you are a killer. Similarly, if you are worried about Palestinian human and legal rights, you are either evil (i.e.,anti-Semitic), crazy, or hopelelssly naive. But don’t worry: the passionate minority, ever smug and certain of their righteousness, will pray for your deliverance from the dangers of rational thought and the grievous sin of empathy for people who are not just like you.

There is another passionate minority, though: the minority of one. Examples of such inspiring individuals include Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day, and Mahatma Gandhi, who affirmed that “even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.” Polling numbers, schmaltzy speeches, and media spin don’t change that.

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers’ Movement, said “The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?” An assembly of such minorities of one could add up to a powerful and transformative majority indeed. And such minorities of one, such passionate individuals, are more common than many might think. You may be one yourself, without yet knowing it.

A 50-ton Caterpillar D9T bulldozer, the type that crushed Rachel Corrie. This and similar Caterpillar models, sold to the Israeli government and used to demolish Palestinian homes, are the target of increasing protests.

In facing an enormous bulldozer and standing her ground to protect a family’s home, Rachel Corrie exhibited a more profound and eloquent defense of the culture of life and the rule of law than the passionate minority of poll-conscious politicians currently grabbing media attention on Capitol Hill. Perhaps if as many Americans knew Rachel’s name, face, and story as know Terri Schiavo’s painful history, the passionate minority might be less successful in hijacking public debate and government policies about the Middle East.

In just one month of traveling in the Gaza Strip, Rachel had formulated a passionate and incisive analysis of the political and moral shortcomings of US policies, as she noted in this letter to her mother, Cindy Corrie, just two and a half weeks before her murder:

You can always hear the tanks and bulldozers passing by, but all of these people are genuinely cheerful with each other, and with me. When I am with Palestinian friends I tend to be somewhat less horrified than when I am trying to act in a role of human rights observer, documenter, or direct-action resister. They are a good example of how to be in it for the long haul. I know that the situation gets to them - and may ultimately get them - on all kinds of levels, but I am nevertheless amazed at their strength in being able to defend such a large degree of their humanity - laughter, generosity, family-time - against the incredible horror occurring in their lives and against the constant presence of death. I felt much better after this morning. I spent a lot of time writing about the disappointment of discovering, somewhat first-hand, the degree of evil of which we are still capable. I should at least mention that I am also discovering a degree of strength and of basic ability for humans to remain human in the direst of circumstances - which I also haven’t seen before. I think the word is dignity.

So how is it that more Americans know about the plight of a brain dead woman who can no longer speak for herself than they do about this lively, brave, and eloquent young woman who tried to speak for the voiceless men, women and children that US policies have consigned to a culture of death and daily violations of human rights?

Statistics won’t answer this questions. But active engagement in seeking information, appraising views from all sides, debating policies and their repercussions, and being a real citizen will. As the passionate minority in Washington chips away at the US Constitution and international humanitarian law, the majority cannot afford to remain silent or devoid of passion for truth and justice for all.

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    Laurie King-Irani is a co-founder of Electronic Intifada.