Thursday, August 30, 2007

Allah go with them.

The last of the Korean captives have been released by the Taliban.  They had their five minutes of fame and soon will surface only in an occasional Google search.  I think the story deserves more attention, not for itself but as a metaphor for the situation in which we find ourselves.  That the Taliban can still make news six years (this October) after we upended their rule is in itself some kind of metaphor, but that’s only of secondary, albeit disturbing, importance.  It bespeaks the limits of military power.  Much more important is that it demonstrates our continuing failure to win hearts and minds, and perhaps if that is even an appropriate goal.

The twenty-three Koreans taken some weeks ago were not part of their country’s military contingent in Afghanistan (though reaffirmation of its promised departure played some role in their release), nor are they contractors or the usual NGO do-gooders.  They are Christian missionaries who came looking for converts to Christ.  What irked the Islamist Taliban was not that these Christians believe in proselytization (in which they themselves engage), but that they were attempting to bring their infidel religion into a Moslem country.  While one can hold absolutely no brief for these brutal fundamentalists who excuse their ongoing atrocities, as carrying out Allah’s will, there is a larger and more generalized message here of which we would do well to take note.

Osama bin Laden’s cause gained traction among Islamists and the rapt attention of the larger Muslim street when he opposed our permanent base in Saudi Arabia following the first Gulf War.  Whether opportunistically or not (his primary target may still be the House of Saud), he saw this as a violation of sacred ground, the land on which Mecca and Medina sit.  That hundreds of Western oil service executives and workers (his family’s clients) have occupied that same ground for many decades seems not to have bothered him, but let’s not quibble about consistency.  The real point here, and the metaphor, is found in a reaction to the West’s age old (long pre-dating George W. Bush) preoccupation with and policy of trying to impose itself and its ways on other cultures, whether in the Near East, Asia or Africa.  The British Empire was built on the notion of bringing civilization, and not inconsequentially Christ, to the unwashed masses.  The Korean missionaries themselves are a product of that kind of ideological “outreach”.  Seen in that context, what we are witnessing (and suffering through) today, is simply part of a continuum of cultural and political pushback.  The specifics of these conflicts notwithstanding, what’s going on in Afghanistan and Iraq isn’t that different from when the residents of the Indian subcontinent drove out the English in 1947.

So, the occupation of these countries is nothing new and the arrogance that accompanies it hardly unique.  Empires want to own or control everything and feel that imposing their language, culture, and religion will bring about some kind of symmetrical harmony and “rightness” to the world.  If only all those people would talk, think and worship like us, everything would be just dandy.  It isn’t a new idea and often has been expressed more as a utopian, even if naïve, wish than necessarily any attempt at actual subjugation.  Every Jewish worship service includes a prayer hoping for the day when “all people will recognize one God called by a single name”.   But in geopolitical (and perhaps equally religious) terms, it represents flawed thinking at best and perhaps mostly a narrow-minded “mine is the only truth” kind of conceit. 

What the Taliban, by their actions, “told” the Koreans (and all of us) is “don’t bring us your ways and beliefs, we don’t want them”.  Again, this is not to defend a group whose specific ways happen to be monstrous, perhaps mostly so to their fellow Moslems.  You may even think using the Taliban who, unlike the Iraqi’s, assumably did have a hand in 9/11 as an example inappropriate.  Perhaps so, but the most powerful examples can often be seen precisely in those places where we may find ourselves for justifiable reasons and yet are essentially executing against the wrong long term historic model.  We can read the abduction of Korean missionaries as just another example of Taliban brutality (which is also the case) or we can try the learn something from it (which of course we probably will not).  The Taliban and their fellow Islamists see nothing but Allah and their way; in that (if we are honest) they are exactly like us.  We’re so sure of our enlightened self evident rightness that that don’t even send in (many, if any) Arabic speakers when we invade their space with the expectation of instant conversion.   

Success for us is defined by whether the formerly “misinformed” will readily adopt our idea of democracy.  Taking on our precious “institutions” and mode of life is only icing on the cake.  In that context, The Kabul City Center, a Western style three-story retail mall says it all most especially when it is held out as a measure of our great success.  Without begrudging affluent Afghanis (not to mention the many Westerners still in occupation) their shopping experience, one has to wonder how that constitutes progress when so many Afghans continue to languish in poverty and hunger?  Of course, that is very much our way.  Perhaps it’s not the same kind of metaphor as the capture of Korean missionaries, but it sure says something about homogenizing the world in our image.  Welcome to another market.  And if traditional Islamism returns to Kabul, what building do you think will be the first to come down?

What is most enlightening here, and probably most unnerving, is that people like the Taliban can be so terribly wrong and so terribly right at the same time.  We may never again engage peacefully with the former Afghan rulers (though history suggests the contrary), but in our disdain for them, we should not ignore the message implicit in their struggle to return.  Much of the havoc that engulfs us today is of our own making.  This doesn’t excuse suicide bombers and the like, but perhaps it’s time to take a longer view.  Obsessing about staying or not staying the course in Iraq is reminiscent of Nero playing when Rome burns.  We should be thinking about changing the larger course and trying, to paraphrase that great sage Donald Rumsfeld, dealing with the world we have not the world we mistakenly and arrogantly may want.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

God, Prayer and Politics

The Iowa Presidential debate last weekend highlighted the predictable, including experience (Obama has too little, Clinton has too much) and the other usual issue suspects.  The flow was interrupted, albeit briefly, when moderator George Stephanopoulos read an email question from Seth Ford of South Jordan, Utah.   "My question,” Jordan wrote, “is to understand each candidates' view of a personal God.  Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?  What followed were a series of the expected professions of deep faith and thankfully a dismissal of prayer’s power to avert tragedy by the two candidates who should know about such things, John Edwards and Joe Biden. 

You may wonder why the ABC producers plucked that email out of probably hundreds, but perhaps you shouldn’t.  After all, it was in Iowa eight years ago that Republican aspirants were asked, “What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?”  It was then that candidate George W. Bush gave his now famous and revealing answer, “Christ, because he changed my heart.”  While Bush refused to define the “why”, all but one of his opponents who included the professed theocrat Alan Keyes and avowed religious zealot Gary Bauer eagerly testified to their faith and religiosity.  The Iowa debate that year was prescient because the Administration that followed is perhaps the most overtly religious in the history of the Republic.  Prayer, religious study groups and faith-based initiatives (costing taxpayers many millions) have insinuated themselves into virtually every government department.  An astounding 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University’s low rated (and evangelically oriented) law school have been put on the public payroll including at the DOJ, most notably Monica Goodling.

Perhaps the influence of the Religious Right is not quite what it was in Bush’s good old days, but make no mistake religion continues to be a major factor.  Just as social conservatives consider opposition to Choice a litmus test for the High Court, Americans generally see a professed belief in God as an essential credential for high office, especially the Presidency.  Prayer apparently is part of that, this despite the fact that a substantial majority (at least 60% according to polls) of us do not attend worship services with any regularity.  While John McCain refused to discuss his beliefs during that 1999 debate, any candidate taking a pass today (perhaps including himself) might as well pack her or his bags and return home.  It is unlikely that Thomas Jefferson would pass muster in 2007.

What a sad state of affairs that a country professing freedom of thought and religious expression (assumably including non-participation) would categorically rule out an atheist President.  It is also inexplicable. There is no proof whatsoever that believers necessarily are more prudent, less likely to engage in war or are more honest than non-believers.  Perhaps some, even most, of us gain great insight and comfort from our religious beliefs and a moral compass to boot, but how and if these manifest themselves in our actions varies greatly.  The devout Jack Abramoff is a corrupt thief; the non-believer Bill Gates devotes billions to help eradicate disease in Africa.  Even so, a candidate voicing the slightest possible religious doubt – saying prayer doesn’t protect bridges is in itself highly risky – is impossible.  This when, according to the Barna research group, people disassociating themselves from any religious group constitute the fastest growing segment of the population.  They still represent a minority, 14.1% but that’s up and climbing from only 8% in the 1990s.  A 2002 Gallop/USA Today poll found that nearly half of us are disaffected from organized religion.  Considering those statistics, it stands to reason that a good number of doubters and non-believers currently occupy seats in Congress and elsewhere in government or are running for office.  Where are they?  The answer is, in the closet.  Just as Gays were once forced to hide there (and remain subject to “don’t ask, don’t tell” in more places than the military), atheists had better keep their heads down and their feelings to themselves.

Think about the implications of this charade.  Not only are we discouraging some of our best and brightest people from considering public service, we are inviting hypocrisy among many of those hold or aspire to office.  All of us have the right to know how candidates stand on issues of war and peace, on the welfare of the citizenry, on global warming and the rest.   Knowing their general political orientation and attitude toward governance will help us judge whether they merit our individual support and vote.  But how is their view of a “personal God” or the power of prayer relevant?  It’s not.  We do have standards for the Presidency – citizenship (no second career for Tony Blair), born in the USA (Arnold can’t run) and age (twenty-something’s, not yet), but I don’t remember belief or religious affiliation being on the list of requirements.  Given the role religion and the deeply religious have been playing in Washington in the last seven years and are playing around the world, perhaps it’s time to take religion off the political table altogether.  My advice to the hosts of the next debates, move emails like Mr. Ford’s into trash bin and go on to something that really reflects upon our common interest and will impact upon our future as a nation.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

TV Reality

Like millions of Americans, I became addicted to Dick Wolf’s original Law & Order, which represented something new in network television.  Unlike the usual addictions, mine to any TV series abate with the passing of seasons as plots begin to get, if not weird, then certainly more tenuous.  Then, too, there are all those diluting spin-offs, the obvious and excessive milking of what started as a good idea.  Very soon, I’m gone.  Cast changes can impact on how long this process takes, either extending my stay or precipitating an exit.  Superior storylines, compelling characters, a continuing sense of newness and emotional pull can, together or individually, make a huge difference.  Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues sustained for me because it was able to maintain most of them throughout, while his NYPD Blue fell apart precipitously with the silliness of Jimmy Smits’ comatose roof top dream sequences coupled with a growing sense of déjà vu that had already set in with each “new” episode.  It was that same “haven’t I seen this before” feeling which began to erode my interest in Law & Order, compounded by major cast and character changes. I, for one, was especially drawn to the compelling and quintessential New Yorker, Adam Schiff, the sharp and sometimes acerbic District Attorney.  Steven Hill, a founder of the Actors Studio who (true to that heritage) could speak volumes with a raised eyebrow brought enormous talent and depth to the role even in the many episodes where his were what amounted to cameo appearances.  When he left after the 1999 season, the gifted Diane Wiest, (playing Nora Lewin) stepped in, and did so admirably for two years, the kind of woman you’d expect the Big Apple to place in that office.  Enter Fred Thompson’s Arthur Branch.

A Tennessee accented conservative as New York City DA?  Give me a break, which is exactly what I took, sporadically at first and then permanently.  Now don’t get me wrong, Fred Thompson is a decent (albeit somewhat phlegmatic) actor.  I guess Dick Wolf thought his aging show needed a jolt and selecting a seemingly fish-out-of-water character seemed like a good idea.  To my surprise, and his vindication, Fred Thompson has sustained in the role.  Many of us first became aware of him during the Watergate hearings.  Howard Baker brought young Thompson in as the GOP counsel, assumedly to do legal damage control.  As the weeks went on though, he and his bosses became less defensive.  It was Thompson whose surprise (to us at least) question of Alexander Butterworth evoked the disclosure of the taping system that ultimately did Richard Nixon in.  His subsequent career has included more lawyering, lobbying, acting and eventually running successfully for Al Gore’s seat in the Senate.  He joined the Law & Order cast while still holding that office, albeit not having run for reelection.

Another show is playing alongside Dick Wolf’s fare, the Republican presidential campaign.  That one seems in disarray.  Its current cast includes “America’s Mayor” (God help the nation), a zillionaire former Massachusetts governor, and a sorry echo of the Straight Talk Express.  The Mayor is that fellow who claims to have spent as many hours at the trade center site (I hate the term “ground zero”) as those who spent endless shifts digging through the toxic rubble.  He apparently can’t distinguish between photo ops above the wreckage and real work down below.  The ex-Governor just came off a “win” in Iowa.  Let me get this straight.  It’s against the law to buy votes in American, but driving people to the event, feeding them and then paying their participation fee isn’t considered a purchase?  Oh my mistake, it’s only a straw poll.  Then there is the ex-POW.  I do feel for him.  He probably wakes up at night with the sweats thinking that we’re on our way to another defeat in yet another wrong-headed war – speak about déjà vu.  I’m sure he considers Bush an effectual draft dodger and an incompetent leader but can’t help being his most loyal cheerleader.  Enter Fred Thompson, a potential alternative to “none of the above”.  Film actors (at least Californians) do so well for the Republicans: perhaps a TV actor (whose done some movies) can come to the rescue.

It is true that Thompson’s resume includes that stint in the Senate, but most Americans apparently know him best (and perhaps only) for the “public office” he “held” on Law & Order.  Unlike his senate tenure, which was largely undistinguished, he did well on television.  He is thus the ultimate TV candidate.  That would appear to be a real plus in our electronic age, but I think Fred Thompson’s story and message may speak more about the GOP’s yesterday than its, and our, tomorrow.  Parties apparently on their way to nominating the “wrong” candidate always seem to be looking a white (literally) knight.  Adlai Stevenson, was promoted in a last ditch effort to stop JFK (a Catholic) and today we hear talk of Al Gore stepping in.  Why do they always look to losers for to save the day?  Stevenson, whose hole-in-the-sole campaign pin sits in my drawer, was twice defeated, and Gore…let’s not go to that painful spot.  A party in trouble has the same yearnings, and Thompson seems to fit the bill, thanks in large measure to his work on TV.

So who is Fred Thompson and what would he bring to the Presidency?  That’s what I wanted to know when I watched the retired DA interviewed this week, on TV of course.  With a wars raging or threatened around the globe, with a credit crisis threatening home ownership for many Americans, with health care in intensive care one expects a candidate to tell us how he might address the things that matter most.  Obviously, Thompson had his own priorities in mind – an amendment to block gay marriage and overturning Roe (bad law).  Did I hear right?  Exactly, “far right” which is the vacuum Fred Thompson wants to fill.  He’s speaking to the "abandoned" base.  Perhaps, while learning his lines for TV, he missed the last election or the many polls, which suggest that wedge issues are getting tired and beginning to smell like food kept in the fridge beyond their expiration date.  The country, it seems, wants to come together and, while they may not take the plunge, even Republicans are taking a serious look at a pro-choice candidate.  Hello, Fred Thompson, did you know that the architect of divisiveness is headed for a timeout with family in Texas?  And actors in the White House?  Michael Deaver has just checked out on us for good to join his beloved Ronny on the other side.  TV or not, your time isn’t coming, it’s already past.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Death in Newark

Some weeks ago I wrote of the Newark riots that exploded before my eyes some forty years ago.  It wasn’t a very optimistic posting.   “Corey Booker”, I wrote, “has promised to be a different kind of leader.  I have no way of knowing if he will be up to the challenge, much less whether the Newark that is, and has always been, will let him.  Most of what led up to the riot remains in place; a ghettoized city, a culture of corruption, inadequate jobs and the like.”  Now Booker, as a NY Times article suggested, faces his first real crisis.  Of course there is nothing new about kids dying in Newark, but Booker had set reducing crime as a primary objective of his administration.  I’m sure he was sincere and also was under no illusions about the magnitude of the job or how long it would take to turn things around.  But hopeful rhetoric heard by the very desperate isn’t given much slack, and Booker faces calls for his ouster.  They will probably abate.

Barack Obama, who had worked there among the poor as a community organizer, devoted a speech in Chicago to the problem of violence in our cities.  Bob Herbert has written numerous thoughtful columns to the subject.  To me, what happened in Newark and what is happening across the country shows not so much that government hasn’t done enough (which certainly is the case) but more so the limits of what can be accomplished by a single mayor or any government official.  On the most elemental level, virtually all office holders find themselves conflicted if not compromised.  Of course mayors lack sufficient resources but more importantly office holders in general are simply torn in many directions from special interests to perceived or real constituent priorities.  It is paralyzing.   Nothing demonstrates that better than the case of Carl Levin.  As the seasoned Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, no one better understands how high energy consumption threatens our national security.  Nonetheless Levin, bowing to his Michigan constituency, led the charge against raising CAFE standards.  One would expect more from this distinguished Senator, but such is the real world of politics and governance.

In looking at our deteriorating international situation, we like to cite desperate conditions on the Arab Street, to the poverty, lack of self-esteem and general sense of hopelessness.  But we need look no further than our own cities to see the very same thing.  Perhaps poverty in urban and rural America doesn’t match that found in places like Africa, but in relative terms it isn’t that different.  As the poor watch the gentrification of their neighborhoods in New York where even the middleclass is being priced out of the market, make no mistake, deep-seated resentment is steadily building.  Your kids and mine may be employed and are doing more or less as well as they would like, but they and we live in a bubble.  Corey Booker’s problem is no longer simply generational decline and urban decay in a single troubled city, it is symptomatic of a larger society where the “classes” are moving further apart every day.  It isn’t populist rhetoric to ask how we can justify that one human being works twenty hours a day at two jobs at back breaking labor and is unable to pay his or her basic expenses and another can make a few telephone calls and take home millions.

Newark isn’t getting better not because Corey Booker isn’t doing his job, but because things out there in the real world are getting worse.  Those CAFE standards that Carl Levin doesn’t want to reduce are making it hard for the average worker to afford getting to that low paying job or the rural farmer to run his tractor.  When Mitt Romney implies that his five sons working for his campaign have the moral equivalency to the sacrifices being made by other sons and daughters fighting in Iraq, many of them there because it was the best paying job they could get, one has to wonder not so much about the man and his candidacy but about all of us.  Our idea of sacrifice is not being able to eat an ice cream Sunday because it may elevate our cholesterol or widen our waistline.  Children are dying in playgrounds in neighborhoods that we avoid in conditions and problems from which we have averted our eyes.  We can’t lay that on a mayor, senator or even on George W. Bush, but must look to ourselves, to the priorities we have set, the conditions to which we have acquiesced and to the responsibilities we have neglected.

I hate the term Homeland Security which bespeaks an insular attitude, a flag in the lapel kind of thinkng.  But if we are really serious about our internal security, not to mention the peace of the world, we had better start looking more closely at the growing chasm between those who have too much and those who don’t have enough to subsist.  The former may be erecting McMansions but their domain, as a percentage of the population, is shrinking.  At the same time, the tent of underclass is growing larger every day entered increasingly by those who in a past generation considered themselves reasonably well off.  We complain about not producing enough scientists, but ordinary folks can’t even afford the tuition it will take to make their kids marketable in the information age.  Carl Levin can’t vote for reduced CAFE standards because he knows second and third generation auto workers in Michigan can’t afford seeing Ford or General Motors going under.  You may think it a stretch to say so, but in a very profound way, that’s a big piece of why four black kids were gunned down in Newark, New Jersey.  Would that we only understood they were our kids.