Let's Not Turn Inward
To believe our lives are inextricably linked with others is lovely. To live out that belief can be hard. It becomes difficult to set priorities when so much is under attack. People make decisions about this all the time. With money: pay rent or buy food? With energy: fight for clean water or fight for racial equality?
And in spite of knowing that these things overlap –that environmental racism means one cannot fight for clean water without also fighting for racial equality, or that poverty means facing both food precarity and housing insecurity simultaneously– we find ourselves making these choices nonetheless. There is simply not enough of ourselves to go around, and under inundation, even less.
This may be why my poor white friends turned to Trump (“it’s about time we were seen”), why my white liberal friends turned to something else (“the world is ending”), my black friends of all socio-economic statuses turned to protest (“we have been here before”), and my undocumented students turned to sleeping in my office while ICE raided the Beach Flats. All living together in the United States, my friends feel the impulse to turn, in one form or another, inward. To hide out. To hunker down with their closest of family and ride out this storm.
But what of my Palestinian friends, alert and attentive in Gaza and the West Bank, on election night, on the night Standing Rock camp dispersed, on the days when BLM marches were tear-gassed. So many subjects of US Empire do not share the same geographic boundaries, and are nonetheless intimately entwined with our lives “here.” While we may know, philosophically, that the wars waged abroad boomerang home, we are not always clear on the empirical evidence of how, exactly.
So we turn inward, putting our hunched backs to those outside of the borders. When there is a shooting in the US, my friends abroad contact me to see if I am okay. When there is police violence, they advise me on how to protect myself. An onion during tear gas. Singing in a prison cell. Getting close to armies when they open fire. Getting silent when the drones fly by the windows. We cannot abandon those with whom we have formed commitments, solidarity, and political ties. They do not abandon us.
Limiting the scope of our sight to geographic boundaries is a trick, a distraction. Our outcry over banning travelers from Muslim countries (a concern inward) should always also be an outcry to bombing Muslim countries in the first place (a concern outward). And our outcry over a border-wall (a concern inward) should always also be an outcry against NAFTA and other economic policies that produce poverty in Latin America (a concern outward). Our outcry over militarization of police in the US (a concern inward) should always also be an outcry against US investment in military equipment, training, and tactics worldwide (a concern outward).
Our opponents do not abandon their commitments to one another, across international borders. They do not live in a world of inward and outward. They live in a world of Up and Down. Up always shares internationally. Down (we) must also.
Up restocks each other’s arsenals when it bombs Gaza, and Up trains each other’s police in military tactics practiced on Palestinians. Up tests new bombs costing millions of dollars in the same month it divests from public education, reproductive services, and environmental regulation. Up accepts arms deals from each other. Up is everywhere, and Up doesn’t care whether it is bulldozing the protest camps in Palestine, or in Columbia. Up is multinational. Up is joint-stock. Up has lots of passports and diplomatic immunity. Up writes policies that free Up from Down over and over and over.
But Up has to make choices, too. There is more, but still only so much, to expend. Rent or Food? Single payer universal healthcare for all, or a 54 billion dollar increase to US military spending? Spend money on the physical and social well-being of people here (inward) or spend money on the physical and social harm of people there (outward)?
Down must fight to free all of these resources invested in Counter-terrorism, the War on Drugs, the international arms trade, and more, by insisting on the ties between Down here and Down there. The people of Gaza would eagerly support a campaign to invest in racial equality in the US, especially if it meant diverting resources from the next military assault on them. Down cannot protect its own air in the US while bombing Afghanistan. Releasing particles in the air will, certainly, lodge in the lungs of “our own,” too.
Staying turned outward, to each other, is not just about commitments and solidarity. It makes selfish sense. We all suffer from the same problem together. Up expends resources harming Down Outside, and Down Inside suffers from the resulting violence and neglect of that very same xenophobic, colonial, settler, racialized, misogynistic Up-ness. (Up-ness is sometimes called supremacy.)
So if the impulse is to turn inward, to hunker down and protect your own water, your own neighborhood, your own healthcare, your own education, your own social structure, your own national borders, your own economy, your own enclave of suffering… you will have to turn outward, both for support and for self-implication.
Down is not exempt for being Down. Waking up and realizing that there are local battles to fight, even personal ones, does not mean falling asleep to the international ones. These clothes, this computer, the Sheetrock in my house, the gasoline in my car, this oxygen, this food, this water, even the lead that is poisoning me, came from across a national border, and so will my own survival.
Martin Luther King was clear on this: the Civil Rights Movement had everything to do with the Viet Nam War. No “domestic” campaign for equality will be won without attacking the international geopolitics that support, fuel, and survive upon ongoing inequality.
We cannot forget how international trade produced that nasty triangle of slavery that now makes it so difficult to be a free Black person in the United States today. (Black Lives Matter is a campaign that spoke directly to this by endorsing the boycott of corporations like G4S because they harm Palestinian prisoners and African American prisoners alike.)
We cannot forget how investment in a joint stock company and mass capitalist extraction has made it hard to exist as an indigenous person, let alone exercise sovereignty and protect multi-species life. (Standing Rock protesters called themselves water-keepers in part to recognize the universal value of water for Down and the universal decimation of life by Up.)
And we know what kinds of violence happens when white feminists, oblivious to intersectionality, turn inward. (Even Down has degrees of Up-ness, and the tendency to turn inward is one of those degrees.)
In acute, localized crises, Down cannot afford to just Turn In. Down must be Down and Out. Down and Out, we are unwilling to let the Trump Administration draw a border around our imaginations, or shape the limit of our solidarities.
To say, “I must prioritize the problems at home,” is to have enough Up-ness to imagine it is a choice to select the battles we fight, or to imagine that home is where we actually are. There is no place to call “at home,” no “here” to direct attention and urgency. The world is too complex for that kind of thinking. The world is too interlocking for us to work within an ideological framework of Inwardness.
I stand at the mass grave of hundreds of indigenous people and white settlers. They are all buried together at a mission, later exhumed in order to build a new church. The rage in me boils in so many ways, from so many angles. I stand on the sickened, hollowed ground, feeling the little bit of blood in me that is American Indian, and the little bit of blood in me that is Iraqi, and the little bit that is French, and they rage together. They echo in no particular location. On the one hand, this is my home, where I grew up. On the other hand, it does not belong to me. Nothing does. Where shall I fight settler colonialism? Can I really choose to struggle “at home”? Is there a border around my solidarities, my transgressions? And did a single political administration draw it for me somehow?
I am 30 years late to visit this gravesite. Caterpillar, specializing home-demolishing bulldozers, tear down houses in Palestine (the indigenous). In the Grapes of Wrath, they tore down the house of the Joads (the white poor). Caterpillar will demolish houses or dig graves for the dead (talk about Down!) anywhere. Up will harm anyone.
I feel with more urgency than ever, in the name of “home” of “here” of “inward” to fight for Palestine. Because, it is a not a prerequisite that “home” be my own in order for me to fight for it. Rather, my responsibility for the violence manufactured here (inward) requires me to be down and out for your home, wherever it is being destroyed.
Thank you to Lisa Rofel, who has pushed me to think about this, and to the brave scholars featured in the recently published We will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics.
When I write “we” or “our” I am talking about you (the reader) and me (the writer) at whatever nexus we overlap. For the purposes of this piece, the only assumptions I am making about you in order to speak to you about my “we” is that you are not a member of the Up-most. If you happen to be such a member, then: Wow you are reading Mondoweiss!
About the Author
Kali Rubaii is cofounder of the Islah Reparations Project. She works at UC Santa Cruz and Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA). A Phd candidate in Social Anthropology with a BA in International Relations, her dissertation focuses on the impact of occupation and counterinsurgency on rural communities in Iraq and Palestine.