02 July 2020

Independence Day shorts

I've been waiting eagerly for news from my friend in Hebron, a medical student whose senior-year finals were scheduled for June. Today I heard that the last two exams are still on hold because of the pandemic-related shutdown of the West Bank. Palestine counts over 2500 active cases of COVID-19, half of them in Hebron. I wish him and his fellow students all the very best as they face the uncertainties of these times. Their country -- and the world -- needs them.

The uncertainties they face include the looming prospect of Israel's annexation of nearly the whole Jordan Valley. Yousef Munayyer suggests that the unpopularity of this move among American voters may be the factor (and not any push-back from within Israel) that is just now slowing down this annexation plan.

I've written recently about the effect of the pandemic on Friends schools in Richmond, Indiana, USA, and Monteverde, Costa Rica. What about Quaker education in Palestine? The Olive Press, the Ramallah Friends School's monthly newsletter, vividly describes some of those recent impacts. However, it doesn't go into financial details.

Even before the pandemic, Palestine's economy was in rough shape, which affects families' ability to pay tuition in "normal" times. I hope to hear more from the school and from Friends United Meeting about today's realities -- and particularly what the consequences might be for the school's ability to provide financial aid for lowest-income students.

Related: My thank-you to Ramallah Friends Meeting, written toward the end of my time with Christian Peacemakers in Hebron.

Yesterday was the final day of voting in Russia's national referendum on a series of amendments to the Russian constitution, and on a controversial provision that sets president Vladimir Putin's term count back to zero. This in effect nullifies the constitution's limit of two terms in the presidency, making Putin eligible to run for election again in 2024 and (if he wins) again in 2030 or later. (The word "consecutive" is being removed from the term limit.) The proposals were approved by a vote of 78% yes, 21% no.

Interestingly, the national campaign on behalf of the constitutional amendments was relatively quiet about the term nullification provision, although Putin himself toward the end of the campaign gave television network Rossiya 1 his rationale for resetting the counter: "I can tell you from my own experience that, in about two years, instead of the regular rhythm of work on many levels of government, you'd have eyes shifting around hunting for possible successors. It’s imperative to keep working, not looking for successors." I'm sure authoritarians around the world will be using this elegant argument for making themselves utterly irreplaceable. "Eyes shifting around" is certainly a novel way to describe normal politics!

In light of the approval of these amendments, is it now fair for us to apply the label "authoritarian" to Russia without being accused of russophobia? Russian political scientist Grigory Golosov gives his view of the situation.

Today Putin struck what might arguably be a conciliatory note in addressing the 21% of the population that didn't support the constitutional changes. Quoting gazeta.ru,
"We still have many unresolved issues. It's true. People often encounter injustice, callousness, indifference. Many people's lives are still very hard and challenging," Putin said.

The head of state noted that the authorities still have many shortcomings.

"It often seems to those of us in national leadership that we are doing everything possible, but, no, life indicates otherwise. Life shows that we often underperform," Putin stated.
The BBC summarizes the main amendments here. And here's a Russian-language summary.

What about the USA and our own era of underperformance, now that we're on the eve of our Independence Day weekend? I can't remember a time that the USA's customary exceptionalism was under such scrutiny, at least among white citizens, as it is right now.

(It's instructive to remember Michelle Obama's controversial comment in 2008 about being proud of the U.S. "for the first time" and Cindy McCain's snarky rejoinder.)

During the current swirl of emotions around patriotism, historical truth, and Confederate monuments, here are two documents that provide a bracing reality check. The first is Frederick Douglass's Independence Day address of 1852 to an audience in Rochester, New York. This passage stands out to me as a striking corrective to passive patriotism and hero-worship:
Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. It was fashionable, hundreds of years ago, for the children of Jacob to boast, we have "Abraham to our father," when they had long lost Abraham’s faith and spirit. That people contented themselves under the shadow of Abraham’s great name, while they repudiated the deeds which made his name great. Need I remind you that a similar thing is being done all over this country to-day? Need I tell you that the Jews are not the only people who built the tombs of the prophets, and garnished the sepulchres of the righteous? Washington could not die till he had broken the chains of his slaves. Yet his monument is built up by the price of human blood, and the traders in the bodies and souls of men, shout —"We have Washington to our father."—Alas! that it should be so; yet so it is.
The following passages cut very differently, but with a lethal precision. They define a core interest of the Confederacy, by which interest Frederick Douglass should still have been in chains, and for which those who once owned him were willing to betray their country:

Articles of the Confederate Constitution, by which "negro slavery" was intended to be preserved in perpetuity and through all future expansions:
Art I sect 9: (4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.

Art IV sect 2:(1) The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States; and shall have the right of transit and sojourn in any State of this Confederacy, with their slaves and other property; and the right of property in said slaves shall not be thereby impaired.

Art IV sect 3: (3) The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates [sic]; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

24-7 Prayer: George Floyd and the tipping point of a nation.

Catherine Rampell helps us prepare for a truth-based Fourth of July: she suggests the U.S. is falling behind its global peers. Are you starting to notice?

As you seek to be faithful in this time, do you find yourself out of step with your family, your friends, and your church? Maybe Ron Sider, editor of The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity, can help. Here's a list of his upcoming online seminars for general audiences and for pastors. (I plan to review this book in a later post.)

What are the geopolitical ramifications of SpaceX's Starlink space-based Internet delivery project?

Helen Ibe's guitar solo of "A Change Is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke).

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