Archive for the ‘American Politics’ Category

22 September, 2011

A Voice for Palestine

I am over at the Huffington Post and Common Dreams today, writing about tomorrow’s request from the Palestinian Authority that the State of Palestine be recognized as a member of the United Nations. Here’s an excerpt:

It has been 36 years since the UN adopted General Assembly Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism. It has been 30 since UN Resolution 36/226 was passed declaring opposition to the Israeli policy of settlement in Palestine. It has been 18 years since three leaders, Presidents Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin and Chairman Arafat began discussions that could have led to the cessation of hostilities and a modicum of redress for the people of Palestine. It has been 16 years since President Rabin was assassinated by one of his own people. For the record, the PLO agreed to the conditions negotiated by President Clinton pending clarifications. With Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa mosque and his election, that agreement was called off by both sides. It was Sharon, after all, who was responsible for the massacre of more than 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut in 1982. An act which prompted his resignation as minister of Defense after an Israeli commission held him responsible. And it was Sharon who re-ignited the flames of hatred in Israel during a fragile moment when the prospect for peace had come into an albeit distant view.

Israel has a right to exist. Not because there is agreement that the foundation of that nation was right, but because time moves forward, not backwards. Unless we are thinking about returning all the national treasures plundered by the British Commonwealth from all the countries it colonized, unless we are talking about taking the influence of France out of the continent of Africa, unless we are discussing the return to pride of place for the Native Americans in the United States, unless we are at the table to discuss all these and more…….we cannot talk about an absence of the nation of Israel. What has been done, has been done. The task at hand is figuring out how close we can come to rectifying the injustices that have been perpetrated against the people of Palestine. How compensate them for the loss of land, homes, livelihood and children? For the very absence of what people in other countries call “childhood”? And how to accomplish all this while allowing Israelis the safe-conduct of their own lives.

Contrary to popular belief here in America, “the world” made no agreements with the Arab nations. Astonishing as it might seem, a collection of short-sighted officials from the United States, Britain and France, do not constitute the world. This moment is about Palestine and Israel. There are no “rebels” here. There are people who have been crushed by superior force and who must now figure out how to live beside and despite that force. This moment is about the inalienable right of the people of Palestine to self-determination, to freedom, and the re-establishment of normalcy to the lives of their children, within the context of reconstruction and reconciliation with a powerful, powerfully supported and certainly well-armed neighbor. This moment is also about laying the groundwork for allaying the fears of Israelis

22 August, 2011

Huffington Post/Clinton & Jayalalitha

I’m over at the Huffington Post today, writing about Clinton’s recent visit to India and her meeting with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu (and ardent supporter of the LTTE and separatism), J. Jayalalitha. You can read the full article here. Here’s an excerpt:

It is usually the case that America’s foreign policy spokespeople are misinformed to say the least. Here’s a little context as to why neither Clinton nor Blake (who is shown in Lies Agreed Upon meeting with a man who has lectured terrorist cadres on how to raise funds abroad for the procurement of weapons for the LTTE, an organization banned by the US government!), has a clear picture. It is called missing “the ground situation.’

At the Colombo International Airport in Sri Lanka, a Tamil woman about my late mother’s age asks me to watch her bag outside the ladies’ restroom. “We met before at the check-in counter,” she assures me, though I have already nodded. We look at each other for a few silent moments, acknowledging what was not possible for thirty years and what now is: to ask a stranger, particularly a stranger from the “opposite” ethnicity, to watch a bag, parcel or any other “unaccompanied’ item without fearing that it might contain a bomb.

In the streets of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, areas where the majority of the populace speaks, almost exclusively, only Tamil, I, who do not understand Tamil, am still able to recognize and communicate a sense of empathy with my fellow citizens. I ask for directions, food, medicine, they help me, both of us falling back on gestures rather than words, on smiles and, to signify further good-will, the stroking of a child’s face, their sons or my daughters.

On the beaches of Nilaveli, a place I had been prohibited from visiting since I was a little girl, I meet a Tamil man on an early morning walk. He tells me in faltering Sinhalese: “Now that the war is over we can speak. Before this you would have been afraid of me, I would have been afraid of you. We could not travel, there were checkpoints everywhere. Now I am free.”

31 May, 2011

Making a Country Belong to You

This is a piece from a speech I gave not too long ago. A person who was there wrote me a lovely note and asked me to post the text of this particular section and so, here goes:

Perhaps the constant for any immigrant is our disassociation with a specific place even as we strive to maintain the relevance and worth of two particular places within the unfolding of our lives. Both of these countries have become vital to me, both places are home. What I have become is A Defender. I am a defender of Sri Lanka to Americans. I do it every time I speak of my country, in my writing through articles and opinion pieces and petitions to PBS against irresponsible journalists, and by trekking to Washington DC and building relationships with congressional staffers and joining other South Asian groups , appearing at South Asian festivals and using those platforms to speak of Sri Lanka. I do it even when I rant about one thing or another nearly every morning listening to NPR, shouting about something “stupid” that Americans are up to as if somehow none of it could be traced back to me; the media spin surrounding Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Texas shooter, for example, and all the aspersions that were cast about his religious affiliations. It upsets me that Americans, make these judgments based on their own ethno-centric view of the world without any understanding of the depth and complexities of kinship as it is played out in other cultures. And when I say that, I know that I am standing firmly within the depth and complexity of my Sri Lankan culture, which is what enables me to have that perspective in America.

And I defend America by being attentive to its good. I love the fact that if you go to a swim meet or a track meet or any meet at all, the loudest cheer is for the person who struggles to cross the finish line last, sometimes after all the other athletes have left the deck. Despite two incredible dispiriting presidential elections – elections to which my brother had come as part of a team of international election monitors for the first time in US history – after those elections, I could still believe that in that country I could put my faith in a candidate so far from even being considered viable and never doubt that it would be possible to bring him to the White House. I could not only teach my daughter the Pledge of Allegiance but ask that she consider it her duty to honor her country by caring for it through word and deed, by fixing what was wrong. I think it is ludicrous to sing the national anthem at every small sporting event, and yet I also see that the beauty of the tradition is that the anthem has no “right” way – it belongs to every voice, however badly or well they may sing it. I could watch a program on the building of the Hoover Dam and listen to those workers talk about how they hold their hands over their hearts when they stand before that dam and understand exactly why they feel the country belongs to them.

A country belongs to you not because you are born there or die there, it belongs to you because you care for it. In some way, great or small, and in keeping with your system of beliefs, you care for it when you are in it, you speak for it when it cannot speak for itself. If it is broken, you fix it. If it is good, you celebrate it.

21 January, 2011

When Noam Chomsky is Hoodwinked

Last year, around this time, I was getting ready to fly home to Sri Lanka to attend the Galle Literary Festival, an event I reflected on afterward in a post titled ‘The Dutch, The British and the Galle Literary Festival,’ a post meant to consider its many pluses as well as suggest some direction for the points at which the festival failed Sri Lankans, particularly those Sri Lankans who write in their mother tongues, Sinhala and Tamil.

My visit to Sri Lanka coincided with the Presidential elections, the first held in post-war Sri Lanka and if you truly want to know, this is what the country felt like to a Sri Lankan on the day of the elections. During that time I had the dubious honor of being approached by the group The Campaign for Peace & Justice – here is a quick description of that exchange.

Which brings me to the letter I received – it was addressed to all of us who are participating in the Galle Literary Festival – from the director of The Campaign for Peace & Justice, asking us to make all sorts of noise about the allegations he puts forth regarding abuses he has not substantiated. I’d like to say go fly a blooming kite. Instead I’ll say this: “In Sri Lanka the average voter turn out is 80%, education and health care is free, women are liberated and smart, and we have a President able to end a war and rebuild his country (while fending off ignorant individuals who want to keep enjoying their NGO junkets on our beautiful island and triviliazing our tragedies by turning our complexity into sound bites for your rabid 24/7 news media). I don’t need you to tell me what to say at a festival being held in my country. I don’t need your talking points. I don’t need your advice. I don’t need your cautionary tales of doom and gloom, mister. I’m too busy celebrating our good.” Outside in the streets I can hear firecrackers. Salut!

A few days ago I read Jon Lee Anderson’s article in the New Yorker, a piece that was so full of errors of omission and deliberate misinformation that I was compelled to write a note titled ‘Truth in Journalism: New Yorker, you lose’ over at Barks, Bugs, Leaves & Lizards Here’s an excerpt:

I just finished reading a piece of fiction that had been misfiled by the editors of the New Yorker under a category – feature? expose? – that is commonly associated with non-fiction. i.e. truthful reporting. The article, by Jon Lee Anderson, would appear to the relatively uninformed American – and boy aren’t there a lot of us – to be one that covers the thirty year war in Sri Lanka from start to finish. Oddly enough, it is largely erroneous, its one nod to any “good” achieved by Sri Lanka’s government is contained in a parenthesis, as if he just ran out of time to get all the information but felt what he had was enough to pass muster. But what the heck, how odd is it when I am yet to see a single article in the American press that actually covered the events in Sri Lanka without prejudice against her government and her entire people, both Sinhalese and Tamil?

The problem with foreign journalists is one I’ve talked about many times here (Foreign Media) and here (Media and Truth) and here (All the News Fit to Print), as well as America’s (and her journalists’s) myopia viz-a-viz Sri Lanka. None of this is new to Sri Lankans though I am sure that legions of readers of the New Yorker imagine that they now have a full grasp of the politics and history of Sri Lanka. They would be wrong.

Noam Chomsky belongs in that same category of the wrong, hard though it is to say it; the man is certainly affable and smart (as is his daughter who was one of my professors in college). He is right about many things, but he, like most American leftists are easily co-opted by anybody who can string the words “minorities” and “human rights” together in a passable sentence. American leftists, no matter their vilification of ignorant Russia-from-my-own-backyard sayers, consider events beyond their shores to require no context. What happens somewhere else comes to them in the same sound bites it does to every other American. In this case, Noam Chomsky has lent his name to yet another missive addressed to participants of the Galle literary festival, a letter sent to me by Vincent Brossei the tireless, spear heading an effort by the equally tireless and often wrong and supremely opinionated Reporters Sans Frontiers, a group roundly taken to task by Sri Lankan journalist – and my brother – Malinda Seneviratne. Here’s an excerpt, but the full article is well worth a read:

In Loshan’s case, after two days, RSF Asia has deemed him ‘innocent’. Are these people experts on counter-terrorist operations? Are they intelligence-personnel-without-borders masquerading as reporters-without-borders? Or else, does this cocksureness come from full knowledge about who the terrorists are? I mean, is it because they know who is a terrorist and who is not that they can pronounce so boldly that Loshan is innocent? I was curious. I sent a quick reply which resulted in the following email conversation with RSF Asia (the original email was sent by one Vincent Brossel, the subsequent ones came without an author….perhaps they should call themselves ‘Reports-Sans-Names’!) : a quick question: is the assumption that terrorists cannot be journalists and vice versa?

RSF Asia: Of course it can be, but give us evidence…

Self: Give ‘us’ evidence? Who is this ‘us’?

RSF Asia: the people defending him and the others journalists detained. terrorism is a very serious charge, so we need to get strong and concrete evidence, not just rumor, gossip or allegations. thanks for your understanding

Self: i meant, who/what is RSF….and what kind of authority do you enjoy. yes, terrorism is a serious charge. it is a serious phenomenon as well. this is why, i believe, those whose responsibility it is to ensure the security of all citizens cannot spare any pains when it comes to investigation.

RSF Asia: RSF is a NGO working for more than 25 years for press freedom. You can challenge our authority but you will hardly find any mistake written or done. With thousands of members around the world and institutional backing in Europe.

Self: would you mind telling me who your principal sri lankan contacts are, the main sources of information?

RSF: many different journalists from different circles and communities, but for reasonable security reasons, I can’t give the names.

Self: ah….security is good for you, not for others? come on, you can’t be serious!

Since then, nothing. Dead silence. Should they re-name themselves ‘Reporters Without Words’, I wonder.

RSF takes umbrage at defence authorities that are given or give themselves blank checks, and rightly so. By the same token, however, they can’t give themselves blank checks either, one would think. There is something insidious about claims of universal caring, love and what not when it also comes with an absence of accountability and responsibility.

Now, the crusade is about Prageeth Ekneligoda. To the extent that the government and in particular the President is required to uphold law and order, there is grave cause for concern. At the same time not everyone who puts words together is a journalist. Ekneligoda’s writings are not the kind that any respectable journalist would be proud of. He was mischievous, bordering on slander, utterly without integrity and hardly impartial in any sense of the word. His disappearance bothers us all because he is a citizen and not because a bunch of ill-informed people who have a pretty dubious track record when it comes to reportage in and on Sri Lanka tag him as ‘journalist’. Many fellow-travelers have also freely travelled with terrorists and terrorism, engaged in fund-misappropriation, violated the fundamental norms of decency and have proven to have little or no scruples in the matter of reporting and making statements.

It is indeed strange that someone like Noam Chomsky asks, as Reporters Without Borders asks, in the name of expression-freedom that free expression be shunned for, when it – once again – asks participants at this festival to spout its untruths or half truths or political agendas, that is precisely what it he is and they are doing. Literature does not thrive only on account of guarantees of freedom but indeed in spite of the lack of such safeguards. As the sister of a journalist and an occasional freelancer myself, I am all for media freedom but would hardly stand with a bunch of ignorant, naive (at best) and ill-intentioned and malicious (in all probability) clowns to champion that cause. In my opinion it would do the cause a disservice. Odd, too, isn’t it that in this day of freedom of information, I can’t find Vincent Brossei’s bio – or any background on him – anywhere? So here is what I’d like to say to Vincent: grow a set and come out of hiding.

4 December, 2010

Black Skin White Skin

A few years ago, when I was working at an elite liberal arts college, I held a freelance job as a writer for the college magazine. Part of my duties included covering speakers who came to campus, one of whom was Cornel West. The piece I wrote, ‘Single Man March,’ was drawn from the six pages of notes that I took, notes that transcribed every word that was being uttered in the room, from the introduction of the speaker to the last response from Mr. West to a question from the audience. I don’t always work that way. I’ve had the kind of education that trained me to pick out the important details from the mass of superfluous fluff that usually punctuates our speech. The things that give me a solid opening for an article or those that highlight a point I wish to make, appear in the auditory version of highlighted text in a book, and I write it down.

Cornel West however is a different cup of tea. His eminence and his intellect combines with his fast paced speech to make it literally impossible to simply wait for “the important pieces.” Every word, every sentence carries something of note, something worth listening to, something worth capturing in an overview. I do not believe in disturbing everybody else at a gathering with the clacking of my keyboard and Cornel West does not allow his speeches to be taped. The task before me then was to simply write down everything. Pen the paper and my ears; these were my tools. In writing about Mr. West, I described him using the words of a faculty member who had called him, with a nod and a smile, during her introduction, “and, yes, the violent and eloquent public intellectual he is.” She seemed, in her remarks, to be carrying over something they had talked about prior to their arrival on stage; at the private dinner, maybe.

I used her words because, as I wrote this piece, I was asked to speak to her on account of the fact that she was, I suppose, the most prominent Black faculty member on campus. Since she had nothing to add to the story, and said so, I went back to my notes and used what she had said during her introduction of Mr. West. The day the magazine came out, this professor ripped into my editor claiming that she had never said such a thing. I, initially willing to discuss this matter with the professor, sent her an email which she replied by calling me a racist, who needed to “examine the racism in my own head,” and pointedly referencing her doctorate in her signature – I had made the additional mistake, apparently, of referring to her by her first name. She also emailed her message detailing her outrage to my editor and all the senior staff including the president of the college (via BCC, but of course).

It was the kind of attack that a member of the faculty would never make on someone of equal status – economic, professional or minority hue. I, with no steady job on campus, an outlier without a department or any kind of official position within the college, was easy fodder. Mercifully, my editor, a fellow writer and the author of many novels, stood by me. In the face of her abominable behavior, I told him I would not apologize, I stood by my words and could share my six pages of notes with him and that if this person had some notes of her own that she could show, or could tell us what it was that she had said, we could talk. The correction from the editor was a “she says” that referred to her statement that she did not say such a thing, but issued no apology, although the online version has expunged the word “violent,” from the text.

It amused me, over the years, that whenever I saw this professor in public she always seemed delighted to see me. On each occasion she addressed me warmly, though she never asked my name, quite as if we were old friends. On more than one occasion she paused to photograph me and a friend of mine, as we stood together at the annual ball. I assume she photographed us because we were both Black since neither my friend nor I were acquainted with her. It occurred to me that in her attack on me she never tried to learn who I might be, or what credentials I had to my name, or any history of integrity that might have given her pause. It was simply an easy attack to make, and she chose to make it on account, among other things, of my last name: Freeman, which, Morgan notwithstanding, is routinely assumed to be White, Jewish.

Yesterday, my second grader came home with a blotch on her name. While standing second in line behind a boy from her class, another boy pushed through and tried to take her place. She asked him “how did you get here? you need to go to the end of the line.” The boy went home and told his parents, who informed the school principal that she had said “I don’t like Black People.” It was a dirty way to wiggle out of the spot he was in because, of course, that is the ultimate trump card. Never mind that my daughter is, herself, of mixed race. Never mind that her mother is considered Black. All that mattered to this boy was, obviously, that she looks white (she is light skinned and has dark brown hair), and that made it okay to defame her character that way.

I won’t go into the conversation I had with the Principal, nor my opinion of parents who are raising a kid, a second grader, who knows how to play that game. I will, however, go into the school board meeting that was held not long ago in the Lower Merion School District, to elect a new member to the board due to the sudden retirement of one of the other members. There have been many difficulties for the school board in this district, much of them related to race, and the meeting was full of people, both in the audience and as administrators, who had come there carrying a lot of baggage from that past. I went with the express intention of speaking on behalf of one of the candidates who happens to be White. The candidate of the hour, however, was the wife of a pastor, who happened to be Black. As I listened to the proceedings, and to the interview of this particular candidate, I began to feel that she had something unique to bring to the table, a historical perspective and experience that could, perhaps, add something that was not already covered by one or more of the people currently serving on the board. And so though I got up and spoke, eloquently, I’m told, on behalf of my friend, I also acknowledged the merits of the other person’s candidacy, something I had come to understand in light of the information I had gathered during the proceedings.

What struck me, however, was the tone of many of those who stood up to speak on her behalf, and the room was almost entirely filled with her supporters, both Black and White. Far too many of them made derogatory remarks about the complexion of the current board, their very “Whiteness” somehow a problem that made them “lesser” and “incapable of understanding.” Doing the right thing, as one after the other got up to say, was to “take a look in the mirror.” In other words, there was something inherently wrong about all the White people, something about their “Whiteness” that prevented them from, I suppose, caring about their kids (who also attend these same schools), the schools themselves and neighborhood communities, the achievement gap, the budget, etc. etc. It made me wonder what would have happened if any one person, let alone dozens of them, had got up and said there was something wrong about the candidate who was Black who, because of her “Blackness” could not “understand” the issues pertinent to a district that is predominantly White? (The actual breakdown is below)

White 83.3%
Black 7.9%
Hispanic 1.8%
Asian/Pacific Islander 6.8%
American Indian/Alaska Native 0.3%

Is it ever okay for someone who is White or Other to say something derogatory about someone who is Black? Never. Then why are we all so comfortable with saying anything we like about people who are White? I count myself in that group, by the way. My rants, albeit private, often carry the term “White People” as a group that is engaging in some stupidity, incompetence, lack, in the same way that I feel perfectly justified ranting about “Americans” and all this in the presence of my husband who is both White and American, my three daughters who are also half-White and all American, not to mention my own joint-citizenship of this country.

I can claim that my prejudices are justifiable. My entire career as a journalist began when I had it up to my eyeballs with White women assuming that I was the hired help whenever I was with my light-skinned first born daughter. (Their children never made that mistake, it was always the adults; children notice interactions, they notice the mothering that is so distinct from the work of a nanny.) Just yesterday I sat in the office of a healthcare specialist at the nation’s top pediatric hospital, CHOP, and had the bizarre experience of having her turn to me – after I’d filled out all the paperwork, along with my oldest daughter, after we’d been there for about half an hour – and ask me with more than a little doubt if I was her mother. I will not write here what I could have said there. What I did say was, simply, “yes,” and then I mentally took a step back to evaluate the conversation. Perhaps, I thought charitably, she feels I looked too young to be the mother of this tall young girl, something I hear often. But that was because I was taking the time to be generous. And I was being generous because the specialist was referred to me by a man I do respect and have a great fondness for, my daughter’s coach at Lower Merion High School. In other words, I was taking the time to reflect on relationships.

My life in America and my political work has certainly given me enough reason to feel that it is entirely within the realm of reason and good behavior for me to trash both Americans and White people whenever the American government commits some fresh crime or vast swaths of Americans (of every race and ethnicity), under the Tea Party or some other banner utter some blasphemy (against immigrants, the President, the gay community, artists, women, the entire universe for heavens sake), or whenever another private slight comes in my direction from an inattentive/insensitive person. My White friends laugh along with me, poking fun at themselves for their “Whiteness” – their inability to eat flaming hot curries, for instance, or some other trait that is associated with their race. Perhaps in the correct context, where affection (for friends) or love (for ones spouse), is not in question, such speeches are allowable. Perhaps within the privacy of ones home it is innocuous to let fly at all the petty and large things we cannot control. And perhaps the depth of my obvious civic and other commitments to America, my nurturing and writing in support of its good, and my equally obvious happy co-existence with White people suffice to absolve me. But perhaps not. Because in the end, what we talk about around a dining table has a way of filtering out into the world in the minds and hearts of the children we raise.

Mine will never be heard saying they don’t like Black People. That is an out-of-bounds that holds within these four walls as steadfastly as it holds outside them. And they will never be heard saying they don’t like White People (or Americans), because that would indicate a level of self-loathing that they are too joyous to carry within them. But somewhere in the midst of the goodwill that they embody, sits their mother who feels just as comfortable expressing strong and public support for White people as she does expressing equally strong dislike for certain groups of people or even specific individuals whose skin color is part of the discussion. So what, exactly, am I teaching them? Quite possibly the same thing that was taught to all those people – Black and White – who got up and felt comfortable looking directly into the faces of fellow hard-working, all-volunteer, much beleaguered elected officials and trashing them for the whiteness of their skin.

It is far too late for the professor, but not for us. I hope that as I sit here mulling over these issues, somewhere else in this neighborhood, there’s another mother re-evaluating her prejudices tonight. Perhaps it will be possible for both her son and my daughter to grow up in a world where nobody uses race as an easy out or an easy in, and where the humanity of a person – even a person whose politics they dislike – is never obscured in their eyes by the color of their skin.

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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 Salon.com 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.

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3 September, 2010

On War? Ask Komunyakaa & Youssef

I was listening to NPR’s morning edition in my car a couple of days ago when a segment on Iraq and Afghanistan came on. It began this way:

The U.S. has officially ended its combat mission in Iraq, while tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan are moving into place — and so are their top leaders.

Many of the U.S. military officers who fought in Iraq are now taking charge in Afghanistan, and they bring with them the lessons they learned from Iraq. But the lessons can be both useful and dangerous.

As I listened to the various “experts” (Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, whose many claims to fame include taking up the position that Israel was right to board the flotilla carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution whose own credits include describing homosexuality as “an alternative lifestyle” as he talks about the repealing of the DADT policy in the military) about the possibility of replicating what was done in Iraq – through “surges,” “awakenings” etc. etc. – in Afghanistan, it seemed improbable to me that nobody would mention the injustice of the original invasion of Iraq. It is almost as though American journalists and pundits alike have decided, unanimously, to parrot slogans about all that has been done to “fix” Iraq without mentioning who broke it in the first place.

Here’s a gem from Stephen Biddle, a defense analyst who has advised the U.S. Government, no less:

“The Awakening without the surge would have died under an al-Qaida counterattack,” he said. “The surge without the Awakening wouldn’t have been nearly large enough to suffocate an insurgency the size of Iraq’s. It was the two coming together that made the difference.”

Made the difference to what and to whom, exactly?

And here’s one from Michael O’Hanlon who apparently feels that Patraeus and his team “are better off having had to tackle something similar in Iraq.” Because, he says, “They’re not trying to over-learn the lessons of Iraq, but it has to be giving them a certain amount of confidence that this is at least potentially doable.”

Meanwhile, 1,875 people are joining the movement to subversively move Tony Blair’s memoirs to the crime section in bookstores.

In a recent article, Sri Lankan journalist Malinda Seneviratne discusses the decision by President Obama to return the Bust of Churchill that had been left behind in the Oval Office by his predecessor, and the value of such a gesture, undertaken to honor the President’s grandfather, Hussein Onyango, who was tortured by Churchill’s crew, when American-directed abominations continue unabated in Pakistan, Afghanistan and, yes, Iraq. If a dishonorable war is begun we can rest assured that it will end without honor. But if a dishonorable war is inherited by a man a good many of us believe is honorable, should we not expect that it would end both swiftly and with honor?

And, so, I’m compelled to ask, what lessons, exactly, and, better still, what similarities and what potential? Canadians – although there are many who share physical characteristics and language with Americans – are not Americans, and Mexicans – though they relinquish and reclaim the same borders – are not Americans. Afghans are not Iraqis. Sri Lanka is not Israel. Pakistan is not Burma. Bolivia is not Chile. Uganda is not Tanzania. You get the point.

The New York Times provides us with a kind of answer, though even her editors bury the discussion in the Middle East section as though the issue is not one of national importance, particularly in the aftermath of an address to the nation by the President on war and its seeming ebbs and escalations, in an article written by Anthony Shadid (you can find many other articles about Iraq written by Shahid at this link and they provide the perspective that is lacking from the discussion). The article is titled, ‘Restoring Names to War’s Unknown Casualties,’ and follows the journey of a single Iraqi family, lead by Hamid Jassem, to find the location where his brother who disappeared might be buried. He identifies his face as that of #5061 among all those others noted as majhoul or unknown, at the morgue in Baghdad where four screens run through photographs of corpses. Shadid writes:

“The horror of this war is its numbers, frozen in the portraits at the morgue: an infant’s eyes sealed shut and a woman’s hair combed in blood and ash. “Files tossed on the shelves,” a policeman called the dead, and that very anonymity lends itself to the war’s name here — al-ahdath, or the events.

On the charts that the American military provides, those numbers are seen as success, from nearly 4,000 dead in one month in 2006 to the few hundred today. The Interior Ministry offers its own toll of war — 72,124 since 2003, a number too precise to be true. At the morgue, more than 20,000 of the dead, which even sober estimates suggest total 100,000 or more, are still unidentified.

This number had a name, though.

No. 5061 was Muhammad Jassem Bouhan al-Izzawi, father, son and brother.

It is a truism that naming the nameless is what makes the faceless human. It provides the humanity that Amitava Kumar describes in his timely article in Vanity Fair, ‘The Ground Zero Mosque’s Missing Muslims.’ But how do Americans muster that degree of compassion for their Iraqi and Afghan counterparts when they not only remain nameless but the nation’s gatekeepers of the news refuses to acknowledge the injustice that brought us to this moment?

At one moment during his search for his brother’s remains, we have this: “Let me be honest,” Hamid said, flashing rare anger at no one in particular. “Just to tell the truth. It would have been better if we had stayed under Saddam Hussein.” I wonder if that message has been heard within the walls of the Brookings Institute, the CFR, the Oval Office, the audio and visual press rooms littering America’s landscape. I wonder into what column that message would fall: lessons learned? similarities? potential?

I seek truth not in newspapers but in literature. And so I leave you with these two poems written in and of a time of war, a time, it seems, that is with us for life. They are written by one of America’s greatest poets and one of Iraq’s. The similarity of their first and last names is but an accident of fortune.

yusef-komunyakaa-1-sizedsyoussef1

Facing It
by Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears. I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

from America, America
by Saadi Youssef

I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
and John Silver’s parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln’s dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.

Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the stone age?
. . .
America:
let’s exchange gifts. Take your smuggled cigarettes
and give us potatoes.
Take James Bond’s golden pistol
and give us Marilyn Monroe’s giggle.
Take the heroin syringe under the tree
and give us vaccines.
Take your blueprints for model penitentiaries
and give us village homes.
Take the books of your missionaries
and give us paper for poems to defame you.
Take what you do not have
and give us what we have.
Take the stripes of your flag
and give us the stars.
Take the Afghani Mujahideen beard
and give us Walt Whitman’s beard filled with
butterflies.
Take Saddam Hussein
and give us Abraham Lincoln
or give us no one.

. . .
We are not hostages, America
and your soldiers are not God’s soldiers …
We are the poor ones, ours is the earth of the drowned gods,

the gods of bulls
the gods of fires
the gods of sorrows that intertwine clay and
blood in a song…
We are the poor, ours is the god of the poor
who emerges out of farmers’ ribs
hungry
and bright,
and raises heads up high…

America, we are the dead.
Let your soldiers come.
Whoever kills a man, let him resurrect him.
We are the drowned ones, dear lady.
We are the drowned.
Let the water come.

(translated from the Arabic by Khaled Mattawa)

4 July, 2010

Many Rights, Few Responsibilities

I became a citizen of the United States on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Sitting in a room at the University of Maine, I listened to a speech made by a senior administrator at the university that spoke not of the benefits of citizenship but of its responsibilities: to participate in civic engagement, to vote, to speak up against injustice. There was a note of despair to the address, in that way things sound when we speak of what we hope will happen while fully conscious of the horror of what is actually going to come to pass.

Why do you want to become a citizen?, I was asked, by a reporter from a local TV station as I strode over in my sari to cut a large chocolate cake decorated with an American flag – not because I had been appointed to do so but because everybody else seemed too terrified to disrupt the red white and blue! I want to demonstrate what it means to be a citizen, I replied, I want to give my daughters a model of citizenship where pride in ones country does not absolve one of working to mend its ills. I didn’t tell him that the biggest push to take this step came from my mother-in-law who was anxious about my political writings, an anxiety justified by the United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act and the specter of Guantanamo, but, perhaps, a little too exalted a possibility for a small-time journalist such as myself; despite the fact that the Iranian newspaper delivered to my door came pre-shredded at the USPS, something I laughed about in a somewhat juvenile fashion, using it to torment my mother, alongside my “jokes” about the CIA and how my father resembled Saddam Hussein.

All these years later, though, in a climate where fear has released its hold on the citizenry, I find that my answer to the reporter still stands. I have a deep allegiance to the country in which I was born, and the call and response of this country in which I now live comes to me as a responsibility. I want my daughters to feel the depth of loyalty to ones country, they to theirs, I to mine, but in order to make that possible, I have to let this country seep into my veins. In the face of overwhelming evidence of my love for Sri Lanka, something they see in all that I say and do, I must demonstrate my love for America in ever more meaningful ways.

And so I have discovered that love is a responsibility that has little to do with rights. I have listened, time and again, to Americans who can quote the most popular of the constitutional amendments – the 1st, the 2nd, the 4th, the 5th. Rarely, if ever, have I heard my fellow citizens speak up on behalf of the other amendments. The 14th, for instance, which calls for working toward the betterment of community through public, volunteer work that may improve the lives of all citizens. No, that’s not very popular. What is popular is the chest-thumping demand for freedom to conduct private lives unrelated to our public existence as human beings. The right to free speech, for instance, without consideration for the responsibility of civility, morality or sensitivity to the humaneness of others. Or the right to bear arms without the responsibility to consider that the resale of small arms first purchased in the United States is responsible for a large number of the 300,000 people, mostly civilians, killed worldwide every year.

That interpretation of rights as unrelated to responsibility does not speak to me of love for ones country or of patriotism. Unless we are the sole inhabitants of a country, we live among others in a social agreement where the rights we codify in laws are but a guide to the responsibility we have toward and for each other. They are, always, the last word on our interactions, our behaviors. They are there to be summoned when all conversation is spent, when all negotiation is done, in other words, when we are broken. They are not to be held aloft like a banner in a time of war, as an indication of threat and defiance in the face of advancing enemy troops. That is not their purpose.

I read the title story by Bala Cynwyd author Robin Black, in her new collection, If I Loved You I would Tell You This, (Random House, 2010), which describes perfectly the essential difference between right and responsibility. In the story, a woman (possibly) dying of cancer with a child (possibly) in a facility for the mentally disabled, reflects on the motives of her neighbor who cuts down a line of 16 year old trees between their houses in order to erect a six foot fence on the – newly surveyed – property line. A host of inconveniences occur for a family already under duress. Did he have the right? Absolutely. Did he have a responsibility? Yes. But the right trumped consideration. In such an exchange there are no winners.

Love for a country must surely carry with it love for its many parts. To claim love for this country and yet care not a whit for the public education of other people’s children, or the speed at which one drives down a residential road, or the weariness of the check-out clerk who bags your groceries, or the forced enlistment of young people too poor to have any other choice but to risk their lives at war, or the abandonment of people whose homes sink under rising waters, or the impatience with the elderly lady trying to drive her car at rush hour, or the daily work of the thousands of teachers and coaches who show up at our children’s schools and sporting events, is to exist in a vacuum where you possess but a surface clarity about the meaning of those two words: country, love.

On a recent Sunday, during a query about integrity at the Haverford Friends Meeting, a lady stood up to quote a few lines from Donne. It was taken from his essay, ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions,’ and although we are all familiar with it, it bears quoting again:

“…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

I grew up, as a Sri Lankan, understanding that what is given freely must still be earned. A free education must be earned by upholding respect for education and rigorous intellectual pursuits. Free healthcare must still be earned by the purchase and consumption and, if possible, the cultivation, of native vegetables, fruits and herbs. The freely given affections of parents and grandparents and extended family, must be earned by a willingness to tend to the elderly, consideration of the dying, with a transmitting of the same values to a younger generation.

The freedoms that Americans are so quick to mention are no different. They, too, ought to be earned. We ought to deserve them, somehow. That “somehow,” to me, does not come on the wings of a recitation of the pledge of allegiance but on the heels of attentiveness to the work that must be done, in any neighborhood, in any community, in any state, in any given moment. As I teach my daughters the American anthems that my mother strung on my vocal chords long before this American life came to pass, I favor less the desperate hope of the ‘Star Spangled Banner;’ it is that other anthem, the anthem of a beautiful country that I sing most often. And, perhaps, because words are the foundation of my life, they can hear in my voice the note of care that accompanies the celebration of a bountiful nation, to mend our flaws, to confirm our souls in self control, to refine our goals, to ennoble our successes, to ensure that selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free. But, perhaps, most of all, I hope that they hear in those words the reminder that we are asking, not demanding, the grace that might bring us the brotherhood we still lack, and that I commit, as I expect them to commit, to doing the work that makes beauty possible.

28 June, 2010

Rumpus Mini w/ Lorraine Adams

58324_adams_lorraineI’m over at The Rumpus today in a “mini” conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, Lorraine Adams. You can read the full text – it is short, by definition – here. Even more brief excerpt below:

Adams: No one ever asked me this. But you’ve hit on why I don’t write short stories. I think in novel length.

Freeman: Ha! Knowing what you do about your subjects – Algeria’s internal politics, the lives of Arab Muslims without papers in the US, the politics directed at Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, American military intelligence, “black ops,” and, of course, news coverage of all those things – do you ever feel “done” when you finish? Or is there always more of a conversation you wish to have?

Adams: I’ve been obsessed with these issues for ten years now as a novelist and critic. My next novel is set in present day Lahore Pakistan. It’s about a wedding. Yet it’s a wedding in the middle of danger. So I think the conversation about political violence and the American understanding or misunderstanding of the rest of the world’s conflicts is my subject.

I’ve blogged about Lorraine’s work before while talking about media and truth. If you have money to spend on one book right now, buy Harbor (Knopf, 2004), because I know that as soon as you finish it you will want to read everything else she has ever written. Including her blog. And her essays, like ‘Terror Fiction,’ in The New Republic.

18 June, 2010

On Being Poor

img_59801Poor. Poverty. Impoverishment. I’ve heard these words bandied about a lot recently. That last one in particular is a funny word. It sounds as though the state of being poor is a fact, that “impoverishment” is endemic to the place that is suffering from the condition. And yet, what impoverish actually means is “to take away” or “to make poor.”

It’s a word that is used often to describe countries from the old global “South,” countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka. It’s the kind of classification I disagreed with even as an undergraduate, producing a 384 page honors thesis titled ‘The Dominant Ideology in International Development,’ where I argued against the idea that there were “rich” countries and “poor” ones, rather than what was the case, a trans-national capitalist class that is alive and well in every country, as were the so-called poor. There were certainly imbalances, but they were internal to each country, between the rich and the poor of that country, and they were transnational between the rich in wealthier countries and the rich in poorer nations. I refused to use those old terms, “developed,” “developing,” and “underdeveloped,” choosing instead to define the terms to more appropriately reflect our biases, as “industrially advanced” for instance.

I was reminded of that thesis recently when, during a local gathering, I met a woman who described herself as someone who worked “in poor countries.” I struggled to respond. The first thing that came to mind was whether it was really necessary to turn a friendly almost-summer afternoon into a bull fight. Can I change this person’s mind?, I asked myself. Is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be better to just shut up? (I often find myself in these situations, just for the record). But then I remembered Sara Stowell. vermont2010-2531Sara and I became friends during my first class on international politics at Bates College, a class taught by Professor Jim Richter. Sara was die-hard leftist from Vermont who had worked in El Salvador, was majoring in Rhetoric, spoke Spanish fluently and, also, helped me stage a fund-raising luncheon so I could raise enough money to go home at the end of graduation. We don’t see each other very much, in fact we recently got together after nearly seven years, at her parents’ farm in Ludlow, but Sara is often on my mind. What would Sara do/say, I often ask myself. I asked myself that question as I stood before this recent stranger that afternoon, paper plate and the ubiquitous potato salad in one hand, ear half tuned to so many babbling conversations. Well, Sara always chooses the words or action that would help change the world, however remote the possibility of that happening. I sometimes emulate her.

I turned to the lady and I said, “what countries?”
“Indonesia, Malawi,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said, giving her something of a chance, “You mean you work with poor communities in those countries?”
“Oh no, these are poor countries. Just poor countries,” she said.
Without the possibility of grace anymore, I said, “Well, that would depend on what your definition of poor might be, right? People call Sri Lanka a poor country, but when I think about its wealth of history, culture, social programs, civic life, education, healthcare, natural beauty, I am hard pressed to call it poor.”

(In case you’ve never seen Sri Lanka before, here’s a sweet video on youtube. )

Needless to say, we didn’t talk much after that. It depressed me, somewhat, that such a person, one who falls fairly into the category of a liberal democrat in the United States, who travels overseas and works with local populations, could still harbor such skewed perceptions of the world. There are days on which I believe I live in a country full of deprivation, the sort of lack which I associate with poverty. The poverty of the mind, for instance, which finds American students, at the end of high school, averaging at the bottom of the ranking among their peers worldwide, as indicated by this report by Dr. Forgione, U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics, which is only comparing the US to other industrialized countries in the West, Europe and Asia, but not the so-called Third World, where the results would be even worse for the US.

In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were “average” in elementary school, “we appear to be “near the bottom” at the high school level. People have a tendency to think this picture is bleak but it doesn’t apply to their own school. Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.

If we set the test scores aside and concentrate on the simple matter of education, we are clearly languishing in a state of poverty. We live in a society that values a quick buck via a reality show over a commitment to learning, where most people, given the choice, would spend their money on a new gizmo over buying a book. We live in a country where in the neighborhoods on this side of City Line Avenue, we can have nationally ranked schools of excellence, where the trophies gleam behind glass bookcases, and on the other side of City Line Avenue are neighborhoods where sending ones children to those schools comes from necessity not choice, and the only glass to be found is often on the streets outside.

I am struck by the spiritual poverty of a country where people choose to protect their own individual interest over the chance to protect a community. Where attention to physical wellbeing is reserved for the rich while the poor must simply make do or die, something I’ve written about before.

I am struck by the poverty of a country where an elderly person must languish in a home away from family and what is familiar, where visits are few and irritations many. How poverty-stricken it is to be abandoned in such a manner, where the first consideration is neither care nor gratitude but convenience?

What poverty there is in a country where the citizenry barely understands the platforms of parties for which they vote, if they vote at all. What a hideous lack there is in people who have such little interest or understanding of the globe of which our country is but one very small part. What poverty exists in classrooms where even the history of this country is taught with such a lack of complexity and depth, where the memorization of a date and a name is sufficient. How poor is a child who is graded with an A for mediocre work and rides off into the sunset to become completely disillusioned and depressed when he or she comes face to face with a world of peers who have been held to higher standards?

How utterly lacking is a nation where the people want their President to express rage and fury rather than reason, integrity and resolve. How intellectually impoverished this country is when those who are most highly educated – like this individual was – lacks the intelligence to understand that my presence at that gathering did not suddenly make me someone who thinks just like her, but rather, an individual with a personal history that might influence how I look at our common world.

I posted a link on Facebook a few days ago, about the discovery, by the United States, of rich deposits of minerals in Afghanistan. The sarcasm of the accompanying comment had to do with how wonderful it was that the U.S. military, which was ostensibly fighting a war in Afghanistan, had the time, inclination and resources to discover “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium.” Did they find them while they were, you know, digging a hole to hunker down in for the night? Did they come across these mines while looking for water? Did a local tribal elder show them the way in exchange for a bag of MREs?

The response to the post came from two sources. One, the immigrant voice, which articulated with a trace of bitterness that perhaps the search for minerals preceded the war, and the other, the American liberal, which celebrated the fact that instead of growing cocaine the impoverished country of Afghanistan could finally make an honest living. So there was that word again, impoverish.

Odd how in this case the word was correct. Afghanistan is a country that has been impoverished by a variety of groups, some their own, but others residing in White Houses (in America) and Parliament Buildings (in Moscow). America’s link to the cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan and its export out of the country have been widely documented. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia:

“It was alleged by the Soviets on multiple occasions that American CIA agents were helping smuggle opium out of Afghanistan, either into the West, in order to raise money for the Afghan resistance or into the Soviet Union in order to weaken it through drug addiction. According to Alfred McCoy, the CIA supported various Afghan drug lords, for instance Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and others such as Haji Ayub Afridi. In 2010, Russia accused United States of supporting the opium production in Afghanistan. Presently with resurgence of high out put production of opium and heroin in post-Taliban Afghanistan, there is an ongoing heroin addiction epidemic in Russia which is claiming 30,000 lives each year, mostly among young people. There were two and half million heroin addicts in Russia by 2009.”

It seemed so bizarre to me that anybody could imagine that any country in the world, however impoverished – in the past and now on an ongoing basis – by countries such as America, would be glad that the American military had invaded its territory, killed so many thousands of civilians – there appears to be a particular fondness for attacking wedding parties – and then announced that they had found an exploitable natural resource.

Somehow I doubt that the United States intends to leave those mines alone or that they intend an equal exchange of technological expertise for the sharing of wealth that belongs solely to Afghanistan. Somehow I feel that there is further impoverishment on the cards for Afghanistan. And, while that happens, the United States will continue on its own downward spiral of poverty. We are, after all, safely addicted to our own vices and myopia.

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.


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