Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reflections in Gaza: The Contagion of Violence and Lawlessness

President Bush wasn't wrong to see the Middle-East as the place where a world hungering for the rule of law and enthralled with suffering and violence would decide its fate. Sadly his misguided Iraq adventure has done little to spread the rule of law while unleashing even more suffering and violence.

But Iraq was always going to be a violent transition to democracy (at best). Had George Bush, the decider, decided to spend vast sums of American treasure and put our national prestige on the line, he might have focused on the impoverished and largely ungoverned but tiny swath of land called the Gaza strip. As its name might imply, this territory has suffered from a kind of anti-sovereignty as nations seek to abandon it in any way they can (Israel tried to give it back to Egypt along with Sinai in 1982 and eventually abandoned it altogether in 2005, even without a separation agreement). After the terrorist organization Hamas seized power their last year, the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abas, abandoned it as well.

As thousands of Gazans streamed across the border to Egypt yesterday (read Steve Erlanger's reporting in the NYTimes), after Hamas had its men knock a large opening in the Israeli built fence along the border with Egypt, it was hard not to cheer for the shear humanity of people who needed cooking oil, gasoline, sheep, and yes even cigarettes, streaming across a hole torn into the fabric of sovereignty and in defiance of the utter paralysis of all the functioning governments in the area.

At the same time, the chaotic stream of people (and the ugly scenes of a day earlier when Egyptian border police had turned back a crowd of women seeking to push their way through a far smaller breach in the fence) the hole is a very sorry substitute for the promise of law and enforceable respect for human rights.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Socio-Legal Road Map?

As President Bush visits Israel and Palestine this week, promoting his administration's late blooming peace initiative for that region, one cannot help but sigh at the lost possibilities. Had the President turned from his route of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2002, to insist that the free world show how democracies can reconcile historically complex and ongoing tragedies like the 40 year old Palestinian refugee crisis,---he might be visiting Jerusalem to watch the swearing in of a sovereign Palestinian President. For a portion of the treasure poured into operation quagmire in Iraq, a new Palestinian economy might be sending shock waves of growth through moribund economies of Syria, Jordon, and Egypt; while giving Lebanon and Gaza reasons to compete for global financial attention rather than the sort that is lavished on the cruelest civil wars.

These dreams await another President, if they are ever to arrive. But while President Bush is there, and recognizing the weakness at the top of all three national leaderships (US, Israel, Palestine), he could recognize and reward the most promising grassroots developments supporting a peace process on both sides. Many of these, in the form of NGOs, cluster around the Israeli legal system.

Some of the most interesting, are using techniques of empirical socio-legal studies to probe the realities of the occupation. As UCSB socio-legal scholar, Lisa Hajjar showed in her landmark study of the military occupation courts, the operation of military occupation under a constitutional legal order creates powerful contradictions, producing important room for maneuver by those who would keep the pressure on the political establishments of both societies.

One Israeli human rights organization, Yesh Din, has just published a report that suggests due process in the occupation courts is being systematically diminished. Fascinatingly, the Israeli government's response is largely pitched in terms of a critique of the report's methodology!

Ironically, the Israeli Occupation Courts may the kind of institution that produces both repression and encouragement to the Palestinians. Socio-legal research, by holding sovereign authorities on both sides to real standards of transparency and public accountability, may help leverage that contradiction for peace.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Our Bodies, Our Laws

How does law grasp us as subjects, as bodies, as minds? Food critic and Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan provides us with a striking example in his brilliant new book on contemporary American food culture titled, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin Press). According to Pollan, the most pernicious trend in American food norms was the emergence of "nutritionism,"which is an ideology that encourages humans to understand their need for food as a pursuit of an optimal mix of underlying macro (fat, protein, carbs) and micro (vitamins) nutriments.

This is a startling and persuasive thesis that flips on its head most of our usual assumptions about the growth of scientific knowledge and its role in guiding our lifestyles. Pollan, a professor of journalism, turns out to be an able socio-legal scholar as well, excavating the history of food regulation from the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (which among other things required imitation foods like margarine to be clearly labeled as such) to the 1973 FDA regulations that ended this ban, and substituted the modern regime of food nutrition labeling (modeled above by the FDA's own "Label Man").

I have long been enthralled by these food labels as a powerful example of how law enables as well as constrains. Middle aged and prone toward middle spread, I have long relied on those bright little quadrangles to help me avoid consuming hundreds of calories of bottled beverages whose front labels screamed out hand-crafted healthiness! Surely this is an example of law creating a circuit of freedom in producing self-control and choice. But if Pollan is right, it also marks the submission to a deeper way of understanding and acting on one's body.