Archive for November, 2010

30 November, 2010

Wee-Wee Leaks

In a world defined by a 24 hour news cycle, Julian Assange is getting a few extra days. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, a site dedicated to humiliating large governments, primarily the American government, who saw fit to herald the vast amounts of sewerage he wished to dump on the globe with this tweet: “The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.” That is probably overstating the case. Much of the details contained within the released documents are unclassified. In the course of their analysis of documents pertaining to Sri Lanka, the website Groundviews, demonstrates with a colorful graph the relatively tiny amount of documents actually labeled ‘secret’ for a selection of countries whose cities include Beijing, Moscow, Madrid, Amman, Jakarta, New Delhi, Tokyo, Paris, Baghdad, Colombo, New York, Tel Aviv and, in her own bar, the Secretary of State. Not surprisingly, the largest portion of those ‘secret’ documents belong to the office of Hillary Clinton and to the American embassy in Baghdad, followed by the embassies in Kuwait, Amman and Tel Aviv. Had there been a graph, say, for Cancun or Puerto Rico, now that would be mind-boggling.

Most of the references are, as Anne Applebaum describes in a piece on Slate titled ‘Watch Your Mouth: How WikiLeaks’ new release will increase secrecy and damage democratic governments,’ the bulk of the documents divulge the mildly offensive things people say to each other about each other behind each others backs. It is no vast American conspiracy to destroy the universe, it is simply human nature and, as Applebaum puts it, the true fall out seems to be “that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech.” She writes:

In fact, the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

Reading through the many cables linked via a superbly user-friendly guide on the UK Guardian website, what becomes clear is that there is a monumental pile of rubbish that no intelligent person could take seriously; comments such as “Iran is always stirring trouble” (Egypitian President, Hosni Mubarak) and “they cannot be trusted” (King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia) and “I cannot trust Ahmadinejad…he is young and aggressive” (Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed). Seriously? This is what Assange thinks is going to change the universe?

Perhaps some of what is revealed is shocking to people who have been living under a mossy rock for the last decade or so. Over at The Raw Story, John Byrne announces ‘Shocking Cable: US says Saudi donors are chief financiers of al Quaeda.’ To whom, exactly, is this breaking news?

In an overview of the Alexander Bolton article on what happened with the Bin Ladens who were in the US during 9/11, SourceWatch provides clear evidence – substantiated by the FAA – that the Saudi nationals were not merely transported, met with and secretly spirited out of the country, but that they were allowed to take to the air when airspace was closed for everybody else including all Americans.

And if anybody is interested in the nitty gritty of the exact financial alliances between American royalty of a certain intellectual flavor, the Bushes, and the Bin Ladens, check out Michael Moore’s Fahrenhite 911. What is surprising then is not that the Bin Ladens are funding the Bin Ladens, but that we are missing evidence of how American investments also fund the Bin Ladens. If we want to worry about the Saudis, the more interesting, albeit far less sexy lead would be to discuss how the Saudi Royals are pressuring the US to bomb Iran in an attempt to prevent that country’s – possible, not proven – nuclear weapons program, and the repeated statements from Israel that it is willing to unilaterally strike Iran.

Of all the documents that have been leaked, perhaps the only one which is of any imagination is the directive signed first by Condoleeza Rice and, subsequently, by Hillary Clinton, that authorizes the foreign service which is, currently, 11,500 members strong, and all of the nation’s defense agencies including the FBI, the CIA and the US Secret Service, to obtain sensitive and intimate information about leaders within their host-countries (in the case of the embassies), and, in the case of the other services, to spy on high ranking officials within the United Nations. That the American embassies have always fronted for the CIA is old hat to those of us who grew up in other countries. Perhaps it is news to Americans.

It is in this particular section, however, that the real question crops up: when does the end justify the means? For buried in the dozens of documents linked to this cable are instances where the “spying” or the directive to obtain information supports a purpose that is related to the management or easing of conflict or to preventive interventions. In the case of Sub Saharan West African countries, for instance, the request was for information about fighters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan where there were “indications that international terrorist groups are seeking to take advantage of political, ethnic, tribal or religious conflict.” In the case of Central Africa, officials were asked to gather information about military relations with a list of countries including Libya, North Korea and Iran, particularly with regard to the movement of uranium and the acquisitions of arms. To be forewarned, in this case, is to be forearmed and surely nobody begrudges the nation that is attempting to gathering what information it can, particularly when it is the nation most frequently invited/asked and subsequently and reliably berated for intervening.

But then we get to the United Nations and to wording like this:

B. (S/NF) Reporting officers should include as much of the following information as possible when they have information relating to persons linked to : office and
STATE 00080163 002 OF 024

organizational titles; names, position titles and other information on business cards; numbers of telephones, cell phones, pagers and faxes; compendia of contact information, such as telephone directories (in compact disc or electronic format if available) and e-mail listings; internet and intranet “handles”, internet e-mail addresses, web site identification-URLs; credit card account numbers; frequent flyer account numbers; work schedules, and other relevant biographical information.

It is an order that violates the very foundation of the world body whose members join and serve in trust. Of course there are politics, of course there are back-room deals alongside, inevitably, back-stabbing. But the very preamble of the United Nations aspires, among other things,”to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours,” a neighborliness that is sorely lacking in a State Department policy that is based on such deep and unshakable suspicions.

And, set against the backdrop of a full-tilt effort that strives to gather personal information about America’s partners and the sole international body that remains to argue the case of the dispossessed of the world, we come to the State Department’s cables pertaining to Palestine. In that case, the directive sent to Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh apparently asked for the “exact travel plans and vehicles used by leading members of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, without explaining why.” A request that becomes even more sinister when one considers the number of occasions on which Israel has managed to target Palestinian leaders traveling within and outside the country, including, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, 50, a founder of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, who was murdered in Dubai earlier this year or Mohammed Namnam whose vehicle was bombed just this month.

Linking the position of the United States toward these two – the UN (and therefore its members) and Palestine – together is the directive on the Middle East Peace Process and the Road Map. It is too long to quote in full, but can be found here. The highlights, i.e. the matters that should take up headspace include:

1. The management and allocation of water rights (a method of control over the disenfranchised detailed in the young adult book, The Shephard’s Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter, which is now banned in parts of Canada in a move criticized eloquently by Marjorie Ingall in Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life).

2. The right of return (no longer the cornerstone of negotiations, it seems, a mere acknowledgement of invasion might suffice) and final-status.

3. The position of regional neighbors including Syria’s position vis-à-vis Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA)

4. Plans on the part of member states to pressure the US on the peace process

5. Plans of the PA to gain support within the Security Council, the General Assembly or the UNHRC or from Russia and EU countries, particularly France, Germany and the UK (for where else could Palestinians go?)

6. The matter of the Shab’a Farms (which Lebanon claims as part of its own territory and which Israel maintains belongs to Syria and therefore part of the Golan Heights which it intends to retain and which the UN declared was, indeed, Lebanese and should be returned to Lebanon, and, most interestingly,

7. The perception of ordinary Palestinians on a whole host of issues including American efforts to negotiate peace, Palestinian leaders and their efforts to negotiate water, transport and land issues, the importance of Palestinian institutions, the assistance of regional powers in setting up or blocking those institutions etc., all of which point to an effort to understand the Palestinian people in greater detail than any administration has done before

In the section (4) on Human Rights and War Crimes, there are directives to mind the alleged human rights violations within Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, but when it comes to the United States, the request is only in terms of obtaining information on perceptions of the US on the part of member states as it tries (nobly, one imagines), to reform “the Muslim World,” and avoid “Plans and intentions of member states or UN Special Rapporteurs to press for resolutions or investigations into US counterterrorism strategies and treatment of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo.”

These are troubling maneuvers, and much of what the United States Secretary of State has authorized is illegal. But it is not new. These documents aren’t photographs of Iraqi prisoners being sodomized and electrocuted. They are not the cry-making sight of Colin Powell pointing to flat roofed buildings and identifying the sites of weapons of mass destruction that would lead to over 100,000 dead American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and civilians. They are not the American drone strikes that killed more than 700 non-combatants in Pakistan.

In what constructive way do these documents lead us to (a) new knowledge (b) a better understanding to the conduct of foreign policy? or (c) the securing of – yes, you are free to guffaw – a lasting peace? Once there was a world that might have looked like the one described in Chapter 80 of the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist Utopia. It is measured thus in the translation by Ursula K. le Guin:

Let there be a little country without many people.
Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
and never use them.
Let them be mindful of death
and disinclined to long journeys.
They’d have ships and carriages,
but no place to go.
They’d have armor and weapons,
but no parades.
Instead of writing,
they might go back to using knotted cords.
They’d enjoy eating,
take pleasure in clothes,
be happy with their houses,
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close
the people could hear the cocks crowing
and dogs barking there,
but they’d get old and die
without ever having been there.

We do not live in that world. We live in one removed, perhaps forever, from one where to live was enough. But in this world, still, we strive, right along with the United Nations, “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

Perhaps Assange is right in describing the impact of his hacking – for this is no investigative journalism – upon the world. This is perhaps the lowest to which any single human being has sunk with the intention of destroying the fragility of the bonds we all know rarely exist, but must believe are possible to build and keep if we are to co-exist. I suppose, though, in this day of digital pontifications, and tucked away in his Australian hidey-hole, such things are immaterial.

9 November, 2010

To NaNoWriMo or Not?

I’m over at the Huffington Post Books site today, talking about the matter of which of us can claim the right to write. You can read the whole piece, titled ‘Word After Word After Word,’ over there. Here’s an excerpt:

Somehow, people always seem to assume that a non-lucrative profession such as writing or painting or dancing or acting must mean that talent and determination have little or nothing to do with success. That no sacrifice has been made, only indulgence. I feel the same flare of annoyance that other artists do in such moments, and I often rant about it around the dining table. Why then do I always ask people – at book club gatherings, at readings, at festivals, at book signings, “do you write?”

I ask the question because most people do, or would like to write. I ask it because at some point or the other most people have weighed the stories that they carry and wondered how to tell them. A long time ago and not so long ago and around bedtime still, the tradition of story-telling is verbal. Parents and siblings make up stories. We make them up to disguise hurts, to impart advice, to cheer and to guide. How natural then to feel competence? How natural to feel that the stories that we tell each other are just as worthwhile as the stories we read on a printed page?

Feel free to read over there and post over here. I’d love to hear what people think about the topic.

2 November, 2010

Waiting for Super_____ ?

So I watched the movie, Waiting for Superman, on opening night here at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. And, yes, I’ve linked the film to the website that allows people to take action rather than the one that allows people to find showtimes because action is necessary and showtimes are easy to find, but in case you can’t, here’s the link to the movie itself: Waiting for Superman/movie. The documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, breaks down the state of education in the United States and leaves us with the heartbreaking facts:

1. We spend more to put a kid in jail for four years than it would cost to send that same kid to private school and still have money left to spare for college.
2. Staggering numbers of kids from public schools require remedial instruction before they can attend a four year college.
3. There is a difference between urban and suburban public schools, but even suburban public schools – with new arts centers and other facilities – are still often out performed by charter schools that operate with 80% of public funding but outside the reach of the teacher’s unions
4. Etc.
5. Etc.

You get the picture. Americans who once imagined they’d be “selling toothbrushes to China” now have China shipping toothbrushes here while Chinese students out-perform their American counterparts. As do students from India, Finland, Sri Lanka, and hundreds of other countries whose history and role in our collective human story barely make it into the American curriculum; American students are rarely offered a glimpse at the competition that awaits them when they get out of high school.

The movie deifies educators like President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, Geoffrey Canada and Chancellor of the DC Public Schools, Michelle Rhee whose reforms were brilliant but unappreciated and eventually cost her boss his job as well as Levin and Michael Feinberg, img_5521 who lead the KIPP centers. They deserve the accolades they have received – from this documentary as well as the students who benefited from their commitment to a sensible and results-oriented system of education. Canada, in particular, makes the oft-neglected argument that it is important not to simply take failing kids and attempt to “fix” them but, rather, ensure that they never fail in the first place. I can second that from personal experience. After four years of working to assist students between the ages of 16 and 24 who came out of the Job Corps Program in the United States, numbering into the thousands, I look back on just two students who made a significant change in their lives based on assistance provided to them. It is hard to say it, but for many kids from impoverished backgrounds, sixteen is already a lived-a-whole-life situation. “Sixteen” may be helped, but it is much harder than helping “six,” and “six” is harder to help than “three.”

The movie is replete with short-cuts that provide snappy visuals that describe the entire morass. There are catchy phrases like “drop-out factories,” (where students who appeared to have been doing relatively well get into middle school and then disappear), and “the lemon dance” or the “turkey trot,” (whereby principals keep trying to get rid of their worst-performing teachers by “throwing” them into other schools). Such gimmicks are necessary in order to simplify a debate for a culture that is used to sound-bites. Add the nuance and you lose the audience. But the nuance must remain a part of the larger debate.

Take the movie at face-value and our students will be better off with no unions. The ability to reward good teachers and oust the bad, the ability to link pay to work, the ability, in short, to tie everything that a teacher does on the job to the reason for their existence inside a school room: the student. It is a seductive proposition and one which I, looking ahead to college, can and do level at the legions of professors who appear to believe that the university exists to provide them with employment rather than to teach the students who are paying between $40,000 and $60,000 to sit in their classrooms. At what point did we all lose sight of this fact? Doctors exist because patients do. Car mechanics exist because we own cars that need fixing. Teachers (and professors), are no different. They exist because there are students who need them. They do not exist to have a guaranteed salary for life regardless of the quality and relevance of their teaching. Physicians lose their license when they fail, car mechanics close shop. Teachers, however, appear to go on forever and, often, at the cost of the lives and potential livelihoods of armies of students and, inevitably, the fate of a nation.

And yet. Are better teachers the antidote to all that ails the system of American education? Take Daisy (5th grader from LA), Anthony (5th grader from Washington, DC), Francisco (1st grader from the Bronx), Emily (8th grader from Silicon Valley) Bianca (a Kindergartener from Harlem), harpswellbabysitter3 and consider what unites them all? One of the educators who don’t make the profile list on the website of the documentary is the head of the SEED school to which Anthony applies. When he welcomes the children who come for a visit, he says (I am paraphrasing): “you are all here because someone in your life, a parents, a sibling, a neighbor, a grandmother, somebody cares about your education.” And isn’t that the truth of it? We sit in the theater and weep because out of 700 odd “care givers” spread across New York City, only 35 are going to get lucky. We weep for Francisco and Emily and Bianca and we feel all the pain of wanting the best for our children but not being able to obtain it. But do we weep for the 700,000 students who have no care-giver at all? What happens to them?

Frankly, it seems that nobody cares. Guggenheim has done what is necessary. He has given us a quick-look, a sneak-peak. The entire documentary is really a two hour long trailer for the actual movie which is what we “drive by” and “avoid looking at” every single day. And if he has only managed to rabble rouse and get us all talking, then he’s certainly done more than most. To blame him for not adding that nuance is to ask the question of ourselves: how much nuance can we really handle before we tune out?

Charter schools make the same distinctions private schools do when it comes to student selectivity, citing a “mis-match” of student-school in order to rid itself of under-performing students. They are not the solution. And nobody it seems has the solution. In a review, Andrew O’Hehir puts this problem in a nutshell:

“…building a broad social consensus around addressing climate change looks like child’s play compared to the poisonous realm of educational debate, where every question of fact is in dispute and where adults engage in ideological proxy wars, almost totally divorced from the question of how to educate children.” (emphasis mine)

And if you want a sample of that proxy war in a well-argued, heavily researched and cross-referenced attack against the movie itself, read Diane Ravitch who maligns Guggenheim (and all his supporters including Bill Gates and President Obama), for neglecting to mention the thousand little pieces that go into creating a good student (socio-economics, health, poor neighborhoods, etc.), and when you have done that, take a look at her bio. As an education “insider” her attack is no more objective than that of Guggenheim and, in her case, her celebration of public schools carries no solutions to how we might actually manage to help those students whom the system is gloriously failing.

So what exactly are we waiting for? Is there a superman or a superwoman or a supergroup? Or is there simply the glaring lack of one person to care per child? One person who cares enough to advocate for them, to vote, to petition, to get that public library card, to schlep the kid to school, to protect them when they return? And how do we expect that caring to exist in a culture where the national pass-time is watching get-rich-quick segments on TV? Where education itself is considered a dead-end street?

I live in a suburb where parents are probably the biggest problem that the teachers face. Their constant nit-picking and niggling and suggestions and advocacy for their little darlings are, probably, like a giant drilling machine in full swing next door while one is trying to write. And yet, it is those parents who balance the scale of education and hold it steady for students. For those children who don’t have such people in their lives, life is a dance between the side that expects them to meet arbitrary markers of academic achievement and the side that says forget it, it just does not matter.


The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.