Monday, June 30, 2014

Beyond terrorism.

Terrorism has obsessed us for more than a decade.  George W. Bush declared a “war” on it. His successor has tried to wean us off that concept, but it remains embedded in our psyche.   We Americans are drawn to the broad all-inclusive brush, headlines rather than detail.  Would that reality reflected such a simplistic view.  It doesn’t.  We humans, and what we do, are much more nuanced; our actions often inconsistent, even contradictory.  Lumping disparate groups under a single umbrella — in this case terrorists — is misleading and, as such, can be costly.  It leads to flawed policy and decision-making that may undermine us both at home and abroad.  

A case in point is that even now many of our fellow citizens probably view Muslims as followers of a single — read that unchristian — ideology or religion.  Looking at today’s raging conflict between Sunnis and Shiites especially in Iraq and Syria, it’s clear that nothing could be further from the truth.   Not only are their takes on Islam different, at the extreme they can be mortal enemies.  These are denominational sectarian conflicts over which of the two possesses the true faith.  Who knew?  Well obviously some people knew very well and all the others should have known.  It happens that those who followed Osama bin Laden were Muslims who also committed a series of terrorist attacks.  It is also true that Al Qaeda members represent an extreme of Islam, in this case Sunni Islam.  Does it follow that all Muslims are terrorists or even that those who follow an extreme form of Islam — the ultra-orthodox — are terrorists?  Of course not on both counts.   The rulers of Saudi Arabia follow Wahabism, a very extreme form of Sunni Islam and they are not deemed to be terrorists.

Who is a terrorist?   Someone who carries out acts calculated to terrify and thus intimidate is probably an adequate definition.  And we tend to associate terrorist acts, the kind that have gotten so much of our attention, as ones of unbridled violence, often targeting the innocent.  Whether or not the horrendous murder of three Israeli teens is an act of terrorism or criminality is yet to be determined, but the former would not be surprising.  While painful, especially in light of such news, let’s ask the broader question to which we probably should be devoting much more time than we do, if at all.  When do those who have engaged in terrorist acts — individuals or groups — become something else?  When have they reached a state beyond terrorism?   

Consider this.   Menachem Begin, who served as Prime Minister of Israel and signed the breakthrough peace treaty with Egypt, started out as a terrorist.  The  forerunner of what ultimately became Bibi Netanyahu’s rightest and governing (in coalition) Likud Party was Begin’s terrorist organization.  The widely labeled terrorist organization Sinn Fein is now a political party in Ireland.  And how would you characterize the popes and Catholic Church that condoned and committed clear acts of terror during the Crusades as its minions marched across Europe and into the Middle East reaping death and havoc on the way?

The Crusades are an interesting and timely example.  Sent out by religious leaders, their objective was to reclaim all of the lands through which they passed for Christianity.  Their infidel enemies were Muslims and the caliphate under which they lived.  Remember how George W. Bush was criticized for calling his “war on terrorism” a Crusade and thus raising the specter of a religious war?  The Crusades of the middle and late medieval periods were religious conflicts. Each side claimed ownership of the truth and of course acting in God’s name.  While the kind of brutality it has displayed may be different, Isis is bent on conquering lands to reestablish a Sunni caliphate in modern times.  They seek a theocracy to replace infidel, often secular, governance.  Were the followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini who overthrew the shah to establish a theocracy in Iran terrorists?   Again, Isis may be waging a ruthless fight, but others have done so as before them.  As they capture territory and declare statehood, a caliphate theocracy, they promise to collect the garbage, provide social services and pay workers wages.  That these will be funded by stolen, or confiscated if you take their view, money is not the issue.  They are simply following the heretofore-successful model of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Now don’t get me wrong, I abhor theocracies and am wary of anyone — following any religion or ideology — that claims to possess the truth.  If I encountered an Isis warrior on the street, he would likely not hesitate to take my life not because what I have done but for who I am.  The real question, and a painfully controversial one to be sure, is not about brutality.  That must be condemned and, yes, opposed by all of us.  Rather it is whether anyone who seeks political change through the use of violence is a terrorist?  Or to put it differently, at what point does a group that employed terrorist tactics to gain power become something else, albeit a something we don’t necessarily like?  Admittedly, these radicals aren’t seeking change at the ballot box, but neither did the founders of our great democracy.  They obviously didn’t employ terrorist tactics, but they felt forced to wage war against the ruling English for the right to self-rule.  Yes, we can say that we heartily dislike Isis’ radical Islamist ideology, their medieval worldview and certainly their bloody tactics, but their stated goal is ultimately not relatively different than that of many past revolutions.  Is it any less legitimate?

In a recent interview Charlie Rose asked Harvard Law professor and Barack Obama mentor Laurence Tribe what is the most important message he has left with his students.  Perhaps, he replied, it is that “there are more sides to every issue.  Things are not advanced by planting your feet in the sand and sticking to a position.”  The bottom line: “put yourself in someone else’s mind.”  His words are directed at law students, future advocates, but we would do well to take his advice to heart — exactly the opposite of what seems to be afoot these days.  As I’ve written before, planting our feet in the sand has become endemic in today’s politics and culture.  It all too often pervades our approach to the wider world as well.  We see everything in terms of good guys and bad guys, black and white.  Once we’ve branded (often opportunistically) a country or group as one or the other, the characterization sticks.

We do so inconsistently and this can make for very strange bedfellows.  We stamp ultra-orthodox and bad on those with whom we are in conflict; in the current environment we seem to mindlessly brand them all as terrorists.  Isis falls in this camp but so does the Taliban, as if they were cut of identical cloth.  Conversely the equally religiously extreme Saudi monarchy (ask their women) is labeled good and legitimate.  We considered Mubarak a staunch ally even though he was a cruel dictator masquerading in a custom made Savile Row suit and we stay mostly silent when General Sisi takes power in a coup and condemns an untold number of opponents to death in mock courts.  The definition of our interests is, to be charitable, as flexible as Jell-O and at times totally inconsistent.

I said earlier that we tend to brand others good or bad and that the characterization sticks.  Let’s amend that.  It sticks until it doesn’t.  Think Germany.  Whatever all of the now labeled terrorist groups have done in the last decades, it pales in comparison to what evil was wrought by the National Socialists, with the support of their German citizenry.  Hitler was elected Chancellor.  The Nazis slaughtered millions, among them members of my extended family.  They claimed to be the Master Race and they invaded other lands not only to extend their territory but also to spread their sick truth.  Fast forward, and not that far, Germany is a BFOA and we of them.  The monster is the partner (even when we eavesdrop on Andrea Merkel’s phone conversations).  The point is that we are very capable of reassessing and, as Professor Tribe admonishes his students, not “planting our feet in the sand”.

In my view, religious absolutism, the domain of the ultra-orthodox whether Muslim, Christian or Jew, is poisonous.  It may not always express itself in violence, but holding the view that our way is the only legitimate way the potential for bad outcomes always exists.  The ultra orthodox Jewish settlers on the West Bank who believe firmly that all of the Holy Land is theirs by divine right could easily be moved to violence, even terrorism, if they saw their way of life really threatened.  A still complaint Israeli government keeps the lid on by avoiding the obviouis, but what happens when it finally (and inevitably if it wants to survive) accepts and implements a two-state solution is anyone’s guess.  History doesn’t make me optimistic in that regard.

We may not agree with them, we may not like them and we certainly can’t condone their acts of terror.  But we should try to put ourselves in their minds; we should contextualize their situation.  For one, what moves those we label terrorists with our broad brush are not always the same.  Isis claims to want a restoration of a caliphate, but they never have governed.  We may see the Taliban as enemies because they hosted bin Laden, but they did rule Afghanistan for a time, albeit in a theocratic manner.  We too are committed to our way and continually claim that we would make what President Kennedy called “any sacrifice” to protect it.  We pride ourselves on being an open society and in secular governance, even though not always perfectly. 

Those we call terrorists, often but not always accurately, engage heinous acts, but let’s not assume they do so without their own dreams and also frustrations.  We may think their ways are misguided and unforgivable, but we would do well to think of what’s going on in their heads.  It’s convenient to brand them all terrorists, but that broad brush inhibits us from moving beyond today and from differentiating between one branded terrorist from another, not to mention from adversaries who may simply be waging war.  We’ve painted a forest and have lost sight of the trees, existing and potential.  At some point that must end, we must get beyond terrorism.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Subversive television.

The digital curtain came down last weekend on the thirteen-part documentary Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hosted by astrophysisit Neil deGrasse Tyson.  It was high production value subversive televison.  Why?  Because among the core messges put forward was that science counts, that evolution is central to our story and, of most immediate concern, that global warming is real and a product of human folly.  President Obama had somethng further to say about that and about the denyers in his recent and very forceful UC Irvine commencement address (worth watching).  Cosmos reminds us once again that our universe is so vast as to be beyond our full comprehension and that we are not at its center.  None of that is really subversive, unless of course you are among the many in America, including in the political class, who cling to myths and stories which they take literally and claim to be absolute immutable fact.  Perhaps not the earth is flat and the sun revolves around it, but bad enough.  These are the neibors who continue to deny what is before them in full sight. 

Full disclosure.  The Tysons are decades long and very dear friends.  I worked closely with Ty Tyson when he directed the anti-poverty program of which I was a founder back in the 1960s.  I first encountered Neil when he was but a boy and as an adult he wrote a very generous blurb for my book, Transcenders.  I am grateful for both the enduring family friendship and especially for his kindness.

For both Tyson and for Ann Druyan the current documentary is very much a labor of love.  It is a contemporary update, of Carl Sagan’s iconic PBS series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  Sagan was an inspiring hero in Tyson’s early days and continues to be so.  Druyan was his wife, a co-creator of the original series, and the writer/co-producer of this one.  Of course video technology has come a long way since 1980 and commercial TV affords bells and whistles that just aren’t in the reach of public broadcasting.  Cosmos makes the most of both.  At times, they get a little bit in the way, but ultimately serve to support the narrative.  Tyson’s has had his own PBS show, appears often before cameras and is at heart what he self defines as an educator.  The sum total of all that has produced perhaps our preeminent and compelling conveyor/translator of otherwise complicated cosmic science.  An unabashed science proselytizer, his ambition is to reach the widest possible audience.

Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night
The story Cosmos tells is subversive.  What’s remarkable is that it comes to us via the same outlet that brings Fox News. This should serve as a cautionary reminder that it isn’t always a good idea to filter our viewing or listening by considering the source (a habit mentioned in a recent post). That said, Cosmos did not sit well with many of those with whom we generally associate as either Fox presenters or viewers. To many among them and to a wide swath of fundamentalists the series has definitely been controversial, subversive.  A comprehensive review of the specifics can be found in Dan Arel’s Salon piece, 13 ways Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” sent the religious right off the deep end.  Again, worth a look.

In that regard, among the great and unresolved debates of our and earlier times is whether religion and science are compatible.  For some of religion’s adherents, especially of the orthodox and fundamentalist kind, the answer is pretty simple.  They are not.  A recent Gallup poll makes that quite clear and in fact suggests that the conflict between religion and science extends pretty far in this country.   Here are the introductory lines of Gallup’s report:

More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades. Half of Americans believe humans evolved, with the majority of these saying God guided the evolutionary process. However, the percentage who say God was not involved is rising.

Creationists’ making up 42% of the population isn’t a majority but in twenty-first century America it is a huge number.  Add to that those who believe in evolution but think God was involved in the process.  This duality is what I call a, “yes, but” approach to science, one that prevails even among many non-orthodox.  While many in the religious community embrace science, a large number of them do so conditionally.  For most scientists, and indeed for science itself, God is not part of the equation.

This is not to say that science denies that there is something far greater than ourselves, something that we still don’t understand.  It’s what my father, a religious leader who also believed in science, called “imponderables”.  That might imply unanswerable which the scientist and others, myself included, might be more apt to describe as still unanswered questions.  Any viewer of the Cosmos series is bound to take away a sense of vastness and wonder.  Neil Tyson, above all, seems overwhelmed by both — vastness and wonder.  I would think that both are driving forces in his pursuit of scientific knowledge.  Awe doesn’t require God.  There is a Hebrew injunction, “know before whom you stand”.   It refers of course to the divine, but no less does it stand as a reminder that we are but a spec in something far larger.  The wonder is that we are here, the way we are.  Evolution has produced something truly remarkable and that alone should make us humble.

Cosmos is subversive.  One of the great mysteries of our time, a moment of such science powered discovery and technological advancement, is how many humans remain stuck in a darker past.  It isn’t that they adhere to a belief in God, but that they close their minds to what science is all about.  Science focuses on questions, views virtually every bit of learning with a grain of skepticism — “facts” always open to proof and modification, even total abandonment.  Proving that some long held truth is wrong isn’t discouraging; it’s rewarding, a move toward light. 

I can understand that people in the still undeveloped parts of the world cling to myth.  It boggles the mind that in a country known for the world’s best universities, a place so empowered from scientific innovation, that there are still office holders who not only resist science but diss it as a “liberal conspiracy”.   It boggles the mind and, in my view, is what’s truly subversive, dangerous.   It was this kind of backward thinking that Obama mocked in his Irvine speech.  Yes, he mocked it, which tells you how very frustrated he is and we ought to be.  Their excuse, he pointed out, is the claim that they are not scientists.  Come again?  Do they not believe the physician who tells them they or a loved one has cancer because they are not doctors?   Does it prevent them from speaking with absolute certainty on the issues about which as non-scientists they admit to know little or nothing.   Oh I get it; they’re not scientists but they play one on TV or on the stump.  They do deserve mocking.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Fox Network have given us a gift of knowledge in thirteen understandable, but not dumbed down, segments.  Millions viewed Cosmos, the kind of audience usually reserved for often-mindless entertainment.  The series elevated our conversation at a time when so much broadcast time, and not only at Fox, is devoted to fudging facts and dividing us.  Cosmos surely was subversive television.  Bravo.  Would that we had more of it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Robust caution.

In a Mother Jones article last September, authors Tim Murphy and Tasneem Raja listed all the wars John McCain would have gotten us into or for which he advocated the use of force in recent years.  Barack Obama, who defeated presidential candidate McCain in the 2008, got us into none. Earlier this month, the president delivered a major foreign policy speech at the West Point graduation.  The contrast between his views and those of consistent hawks like McCain could not be greater.  I think Obama’s overriding approach was best summed up with these lines:
military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance.  Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. 

Not every problem is a nail can be seen as a rebuke to his presidential predecessor, but perhaps more so to the hawks like McCain, including some members of his own party.  In fact, much of America’s foreign policy over the years — until recently largely bi-partisan — has been driven by the assumption that our hammer should be held out to strike at any and all nails, real or imagined.  To be sure, other presidents have paid lip service to restraint, but far too often we have relied on the hammer, which has not always been used wisely.

During the time of his stewardship, Obama’s foreign policy might be best describe as one of robust caution.  If Bill Clinton’s motto was “it’s the economy stupid” Obama’s has been driven by the principle, “don’t do stupid stuff”.  It’s no accident that he quoted Dwight Eisenhower, another Pointer, to the assembled graduates. “War”, the fabled general said, “is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly.”  While often reiterating that we leave all options on the table, Obama clearly does not want to take the country to war under his watch.  Members on the Hill may bluster about intervention in everything from Syria to Ukraine, but the American public has no stomach for it.  Not only do they in fact, agree with him, they have scant interest in foreign affairs and that’s nothing new.

I always am somewhat amused when reading or hearing the results of polls on foreign affairs, and specifically on the president’s approval rating in that regard — they are currently very low.  Let’s be honest, most Americans even those who consider themselves “informed” (myself included) would be hard pressed to quickly name the Prime Minister of Canada and President of Mexico, our immediate neighbors.  Stephen Harper and Enrique Peña Nieto (I looked it up).  We won't embarrass ourselves by extending that pop quiz to further off lands.  While Ukraine is headline news today, I’d venture that many Americans have (beyond its bordering Russia) only a vague idea of where it lies on the world map.  What we do know is that it’s far away and that the vast majority of us, whether we “approve” of the president’s foreign policy or not, really don’t want our military to step on its soil carrying that hammer.

Obama’s approach to the world is often characterized as uncertain or confusing — mixed messages.  That may hold true in some instances, at least as others, including allies, see it relative to previous and far more aggressive administrations.  Whether American interests have been well served or if previous policies have yielded success is a matter of debate.  It’s hard to say that a “liberated” Iraq that now largely aligns itself with Iran and that is plagued by Sunni-Shiite civil war turned out so well.   Bibi Netanyahu, a major cheerleader before and during George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, finds his country with another doorstep supporter of its “existential” adversary, something that certainly can’t be in Israel’s interest.  What Obama and, make no mistake about it, we all face abroad are situations often situated on shifting sands, sometimes quicksand.  What pertains in the evening is nullified by the next morning, or perhaps it never was really what it seemed.  Today’s world is a moving target.

Consider the “Arab Spring”.  In retrospect what we all naively considered a spring quickly turned into a bleak winter.  Whatever spring existed was at best fleeting and most probably an illusion from the start.  For sure these uprisings reflected frustration and unrest, especially within the educated mostly youthful class.  But, beyond not representing more than a numerical minority in their countries, they may never have represented majority opinion.  People living under autocracy, or for that matter under democracy, grow to accept and function within that system.  When the system is threatened, their “way” is disrupted.  Just look at Russia and Putin’s popularity or that of newly elected Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  And his Egypt is a critical case in point.  While heralded as the big breakthrough in the Arab Spring, it’s success, which turned out to be short-lived, hardened the response of the military autocrats.  By the time the protests reached Syria, its ruler stood ready to forcibly suppress them, and brutally so.  Be assured the same will be true if anyone decides to threaten the Saudi royals.

Obama is willing to admit to the world’s complexities and to restrain us from doing something that will turn out to be stupid.  That infuriates the political opposition and equally important the so-called gurus of the foreign policy establishment.  These are people who pride themselves on really knowing and understanding everything global.  Among them are some print/digital columnists and broadcast luminaries but also a significant number of temporary “private citizens” who are between gigs at State, Defense or in somebody’s West Wing.  These are hardly independent voices.  That doesn’t mean they are uninformed or necessarily wrong in their assessments — they are often right — but many of them have deep-seated vested interests.  Consider how many of these experts including (as Frank Rich points out in a current NY Magazine piece) some in the liberal establishment cheered on the Iraq war.  In some cases, they criticize Obama because they feel compelled to defend their own — sometimes wrongheaded — recommended or administered policies.  Some, for example Henry Kissinger the super guru or them all, excel at the art of hedging, denial or rewriting their own words just as the Soviets used to retell “history”.  The most important thing is that they would have us believe that they are never “wrong”, perhaps just misunderstood.

We all know that Obama drew a horrendous economic hand in assuming the presidency.  We have yet to fully overcome the Great Recession, even if numerically we have recovered the lost jobs — recovered in quantity but not quality, nor adjusted for population growth.  If that was a bad hand, I’d describe what he inherited or what we face in the world as a proverbial “can of worms”.  Except in our own minds, or that of many among the talking heads and gurus, we have scant control over those worms.  Since what some, including Obama, see as our number one challenge coming from non-traditional foes rather than nation states, whatever sway we might have had in the past is virtually gone.   We can, for example, impose sanctions on Iran and Russia when they engage in what we see as bad behavior, but can’t do the same with Al Qaeda or the Taliban.  The complexities that this produces can be seen in the fact that, while it would be perfectly okay to negotiate with say North Korea on a prisoner swap, the recent freeing of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl caused an uproar — much of it disingenuous.

Ironically most everyone agrees that the world and the nature of conflicts have changed post 9/11.  There is even some consensus about the need to do things differently as we confront an era beyond traditional nation states.  When someone, like the president, seeks a new path that’s a whole other matter entirely.  Eisenhower characterized war as a “stupid folly”, this from the man who was Supreme Commander on D-Day whose seventieth anniversary we are commemorating this month.  Sometime war is necessary, but it is nonetheless often futile.  We humans can’t sustain continuous war and indeed only really prosper in times of peace and global interaction.   We defeated the Nazi’s, an absolute necessity, militarily and morally. We may have done even more to defeat the country’s hateful mindset, by funding Germany’s rebuilding at the war’s end.  The fight was necessary, the enemy evil and relentless, but long-term citizenry hearts and minds matter most.  It was something not understood in the aftermath of World War I, with the most disastrous results.

Obama says there is no military solution in Syria and clearly believes there is none between Israel and Iran.  He believes in negotiation and, yes, in robust caution.  Is he right?  We may have to await history for the answer.  But I for one feel safer knowing that his hammer is not always at the ever ready.