Archive for the ‘journalism watch’ Category

14 February, 2013

Dear Natalie Gyte: I Hope You Dance

Addendum: I had sent this on to the Huffington Post early on the 14th but it did not appear until today. So if you want to read the same piece over there, it is at this link.

I began to write this as a comment to a post by a dear friend and activist on Facebook, but decided to use this space instead. The link was to an article on Huffington Post, “Why I Won’t Support One Billion Rising,” by Natalie Gyte, who leads the Women’s Resource Center, an umbrella organization of womens charities.

In the article, Gyte argues quite persuasively, against Eve Ensler’s effort to raise awareness about violence against women on Valentine’s Day – today – via One Billion Rising, whose premise is that people gather in flash mobs and at organized events to dance. Dancing, in this reading, is a way to rise up above the desperation that keeps many women trapped in difficult situations. According to Gyte, Ensler’s effort undermines the work of ordinary activists because it does not address the patriarchal system that underlines much of the violence that is perpetrated against women, that it includes men, and is too sexy – though she doesn’t use that term – and, therefore, media worthy.

I disagree with almost everything in this piece. I believe firmly in the rights of girls and women to fulfill their ambitions, but I protest equally firmly the notion that the achievement of those ambitions should come at the cost of what women have valued for centuries: peace, safety, security, or the dismissal of what a majority of women embrace: a feminine aesthetic, a female essence, intangible but no less critical to what we bring to the discussion. Hence the post I wrote recently about women in the military.

Gyte berates the movement for including men. She condemns Stella Casey thus for stating that violence is not limited to gender, that it affects society as a whole: “Really Stella? Really?” Yes, really Natalie, really. Violence is a societal issue. And so long as we keep pretending that it isn’t, nothing is going to change. And to speak of violence perpetrated against women by a male hierarchy, as Gyte does, but claim that we must exclude men from the conversation is like arguing that the priesthood is fornicating with little choir boys but we can end the problem by just focussing on the little boys and leaving the priests out!

Gyte explains that two activists – one “beautiful and radiant” Congolese and one Iranian (presumably ugly and drab?) – question the idea that White middle class women (who are in effect the upper class in the global scheme), should tell them what to do. They are right, of course. But might we remember that in that regard, they should also question then the cultural hegemony of White women who do what Gyte does. Fact is, they probably do. Non-White women have questioned for decades the priviledge assumed by people like Gloria Steinem, the 1% of the feminist movement to which Gyte also belongs by virtue of her hue and class. And yet we have chosen to march beside, holding the wheat and letting the chaff blow away in the wind, as best we can, because we champion the better intention over the lesser negligence.

To skewer a fellow activist who has – by her own admission – done admirable work, for choosing to fight this particular battle on several fronts is to confirm the precise stereotype of women attacking other women. It makes me cringe for us all. And it reminds me of another fierce woman warrior, Audre Lorde, whose words have been the foundation of every bit of political work I have ever undertaken; the words that concluded my undergraduate thesis on the brutal and insidious political, cultural, and economic hegemony of the West (the very one that Gyte and the two activists above decry), are still the words that guide me now: “There is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

Finally, Gyte’s harrangue against the joy inherent in this effort reminds me of nothing more than the beautiful exchange between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Judas berates Mary Magdalene for buying myrrh for Jesus because that money could have raised “300 silver pieces or more” that “people who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than your feet and head.” The reply from Jesus is priceless. It reminds us of the fact that it is Judas who condescends to Mary (dismissed by him as a mere prostitute), and that it is he who betrays Jesus, never mind the poor and struggling, never mind the myrrh and silver.

There is something vital and affirming that is lost to us as a collective of men and women when we decide that any expression of joy undermines the sorrows that plague us. And so I come, as I have done before, to these lines from Jack Gilbert, in his poem “A Brief for the Defence,” from the collection, Refusing Heaven.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down.
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.”

Joy is allowed. Seriously. And dance is all-inclusive. It transcends gender and class, culture and color. It is the great unifier. The revolution begs you, if not on every other day then at least on this day, when you get the chance to sit it out or dance, to choose to dance.

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6 October, 2012

One Evening in Lower Merion

Was the debate upsetting? Hell yeah and for a number of reasons, including the fact that my twitter account suddenly froze me out for having more than 1000 tweets – not possible! Mostly, it had to do with expectation. I expected the Prez to wipe the floor with the skanky scum-bucket that has risen to the top of the Republican ticket, this varmin who produces in me the same reaction I have when I walk into a public toilet (very very rare), at a rest-stop on the highway on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, open the door to a stall and see all that has been left behind by a humanoid fleeing the evidence of their diarrhoea.

Expectation. Kills our spirits everytime. Because expectation is based on ignoring a whole lot of information and signals we’d rather forget exist. Like the fact that a Black man (or woman) cannot get angry, a phenomenon both acknowledged and eviscerated by D. W. Mason in her article, “I’m Angry. I Can’t Get Angry.” C’est vrai. I can’t speak for the president, but I can speak for myself. I’ve been in those shoes. Like when the woman at the laundry refuses to return a pair of pants I’d asked to be hemmed and I repeat her words, “You aren’t going to give me back my own pants?” in sheer bafflement and she runs quaking to the back of the shop, grabs the pants and shoves them at me as though I had threatened extreme violence; arson, perhaps, or a laundry-house bloodbath. You don’t think these things happen unless you don’t happen to look like I do. And we all forget – particularly those of us with our educated affectations – that things have not changed a whole heck of a lot for any of us. Yes, not even if you are President.

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Last evening I took a walk in the neighborhood. Upperclass, most White, mostly wealthy Lower Merion Township. I was walking with a friend by a little park which sits by the Merion railway station. With us were four children. They were playing flashlight tag in deference to the lack of light – it was about 7.30pm. It didn’t take too long for not one but two police cars to pull up. Apparently, the people across the street complained about “noise.” My friend and I came running up as the first squad car stopped, to explain that these were our children, they were with us. To be fair, the police officer found it utterly ludicrous that people would have a problem with “children playing on a friday evening.” He described those who had called him as cranky people. But what struck me is that, for the entire time that he stood there, he made no eye-contact with me. None. When he asked for our names and addresses (asked her, for us both), and I volunteered to give mine since it was my neighborhood, he continued to look at her and say, irritably, “well, whose children are these?” “Ours,” she said, “both of us.” I gave him my name and address and telephone number, and he talked a while longer – along with his fellow officer who showed up in the second car – but there was no recognition that there were two women standing there. Two human beings. To this man there was one and she was white and visible and I was not and did not matter.

Perhaps things have changed for children growing up in a world where the very idea of a single ethnic strain in ones lineage is, quite possibly, fantasy. But there are a whole lot of adults for whom nothing has changed. And it is the adults who will be voting. Think it is “dumb” or “difficult” to believe that people will buy the lies coming out of that Republican white man’s mouth? Think again. It isn’t that hard when you don’t want to believe the Black man next to him deserves to exist. Right after the RNC convention there was a poster that did the rounds on Facebook. If someone can find it, please post it here. The text said something along these lines: “The Republican Party: An old white man talking to an imaginary Black man.” Sadly it’s not just the Republicans. And it is not just to an imaginary president. I have not asked my friend if she noticed what happened. For all the usual reasons. I’m pretty certain that our combined outrage at the curmudgeons who peered at us through their bay windows (along with their children!), is nothing compared to the anger and despair I felt at channeling Ralph Ellison.

I am an invisible man.
No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe;
nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.
I am a man of substance, flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.
When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

23 February, 2012

My 99 Problems v. Syria’s 1

syriaJust yesterday I posted on FB that I had “99 problems” and was trying to whittle them down to 98. I was feeling overwhelmed. I have two out of state meetings/conferences to go to, one of which involves a flight, sub-zero temperatures and 10,000 other people. I have mountains of readings to finish, all of which have to be done with the kind of obsessive attention that goes with my personality. I have papers to grade. I have a book to edit. A father to coerce, one who is digging in his heels and refusing to get on a plane and come here. I have several small battles to fight in the larger war against girls and women. I have the detritus of everyday living to sweep up – those dishes, dirty clothes, showers, exercises, medical check ups, and groceries that fill up the day. I have a ton of minding to do, too.

But then Marie Colvin was killed and my attention was drawn to the last news report she filed for CNN. I read through and clicked on the video that was attached. It is an account of a Syrian baby during his last moments of life. He is wearing the kind of shirt that babies in Sri Lanka have been dressed in for as long as I can remember; a simple piece of cloth that even women who can’t sew – women like me – are able to cut and sew. The baby shirt has two arm holes, and a tie around the neck. The back is open in deference to the heat. Women in Sri Lanka sit and sew small hills of these shirts, usually embroidered on the front with flowers and paisley motifs. The baby in the video looks like any baby, and in the video he gasps for breath, his eyes already shut. Marie Colvin says, in the voiceover, that what was terrible about this scene was the silence in which the baby passes away. It is true. He does not cry, he does not flail, his chest heaves and heaves and heaves and then he is gone.

It made me think. A long-ago friend once told me she took to pediatrics because children, even those with terminal illnesses, never complained as much as adults did. They took their illness in stride, living until they no longer could. Here in my Philadelphia suburb we have the story of Alex, the little girl who in life launched Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the single most effective fundraiser for research into childhood cancer worldwide. I don’t know that this Syrian baby, whose passing was witnessed by his grandmother because she was already at the hospital helping other people, knew anything more than a month or so of peace, then nothing but mayhem around him and terror in the faces of his family, before arriving in this hospital at this time, with that particular spokeswoman to relate his story. But, perhaps, no matter what we all think of the politics between large and small nations, between Syrian, America, Russian and Chinese ambassadors, or of despots, tyrants, diplomats and apologist, nobody will turn away from the sight of this particular death. And, perhaps, this brief life lived in innocence, and the journalist who gave her all, will combine to be the face and the voice that brings peace to Syria.

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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

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.

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.

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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)

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.

27 May, 2010

Media & Truth

srilanka2010-035Earlier this year I gave a couple of speeches, one at the State Department and another to an assorted collection of expatriates and Sri Lankans courtesy of the American embassy in Sri Lanka. The speech was on immigration, emigration and writing. Part of what I spoke about involved a sort of meditation on what it required of a writer who wishes to write of or about a foreign country. It involved a reference to the sort of ‘parachute journalism’ practiced by many reporters these days – supported, avidly, by their readers back home – and which describes the practice of “dropping in” on a “situation” in another country, sometimes for a couple of days sometimes for a week or two, firm in the conviction that one has the competence to understand everything that it is necessary to understand before one presumes to write about conflicts or, indeed, disasters or other catastrophes, that affect a culture not ones own. I have written about all that before, here (All the News Fit to Print) and here (Foreign Media).

As it so happened, however, that week’s New Yorker(January 25th, 2010), which I took on the flight with me, carried several excellent articles that spoke to the birth and nourishment of this phenomenon in America. The first of those was Ken Auletta‘s column, Annals of Communication (‘Non-Stop News’), which uses the Obama administration as a way of discussing the matter or, to be more specific, the President’s ongoing effort to educate and retrain the press corps. The issue, laid bare by the President in an interview on CBS’ Meet the Press, is exemplified by his comments to two journalists:

To Bob Schieffer: “I do think part of what is different today is that the twenty-four hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.

And, to David Gregory: “What gets you on the news is controversy.”

Separately, the President is said to have used the occasion to chastise a press corps that has rushed to judgment, with “instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter (Cronkite) disdained. . . . ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens.” It is certainly laudable when the President sits through a two and a half hour long service, so he could deliver a sermon of sorts to the journalists who had gathered there to honor their fallen comrade, Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, the president argued, had earned his title as a trusted news person, through decades of “painstaking effort, a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle.”

Listening to the President’s press conference today, I was struck by the relentless search for a soundbite that seemed to be the driving force behind many of the questions from seasoned personnel from the NYT on down. Indeed, minutes after the conference ended, we have this live-blogging take from Kate Phillips from the NYT, “…it remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidency – a detached, calm, observational pitch – served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.”

As far as I know, being sufficiently enraged is reserved for us foot-soldiers, for activists at the front of a multitude of battles that need to be fought and won on the ground. Detached calm and observational pitch and, indeed, clarity of thought and perfection of diction – which continue to be refreshing in the post-Bush era – is what I expect from a President. But not for journalists, oh no. For them, for the newspapers they wish to sell, for the innumerable byte and pen-and-ink venues in which they wish to spew “the latest,” the “right here right now, don’t go away” version of what is important, rage and fury are what matter.

In that same article I mention above, Peter Baker is quoted as describing the difference between beat reporters from ten years ago and today thus:

“(He had) the luxury of writing for the next day’s newspaper. He had at least a few hours to call people, to access information, to provide context. Today, as much as you want to do that, by the time your deadline comes around you’ve already filed for the Web”—often more than once. In between times, you’ve filed for radio, and appeared on TV, and maybe done a podcast or a blog. “When do you have time to call experts? When do you have time to sort through data and information and do your own research? Even with a well-staffed news organization, we are hostages to the non-stop, never-ending file-it-now, get-on-the-Web, get-on-the-radio, get-on-TV media environment.”

Which is why I was particularly heartened by this interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Lorraine Adams (Harbor and The Room & The Chair), who states the importance of fiction in adding the nuance missing from the news, something I’ve written about before here (Global Civilians). It’s a short interview, and includes both Lorraine and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News), another journalist/author who has been critical of the press, and well worth a listen.

I have just finished reading Harbor, and am deep into Lorraine’s second book. As an immigrant who has experienced the underside of what it means to work illegally in the United States (I won’t say how or why), who has felt both cold and poverty in environments where wealth and privilege seem de rigueur and the lack thereof indicative of a deeper lack in oneself, who has known that the stories from “back home” were never the stories that would be told, who has understood, above all, that the news that is presented to Americans about left-behind countries are never, ever, comprehensive or truthful, Adams’ book, about a group of Algerian stowaways in Boston, was uplifting. Not because the themes contained therein were, but because in her fiction, Adams portrays the origins of perception and the vastness of the distances between us, as immigrants, as survivors, as Americans, as well as the acute intimacy of our inner lives, both proximate and divergent, with an empathy that unfolds what is true in a way that no amount of news coverage ever could.

If I want a soundbite, there are dozens of news blogs and news-aggregating websites and personal rants that I can access. But if I want to understand the human beings behind the story, if I want to truly understand a history, I go to fiction. Harbor was one of those books. Chimamande Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun was another. Long may writers of fiction, particularly those with the skill to uncover both fact as well as moment, gift us with the truth that really matters and could, perhaps, change the world.

26 January, 2010

The Morning After

It is now 2 a.m. on the 27th of January, 2010 in Sri Lanka and the election results are 68.32% for President Mahinda Rajapakse and 31.32% for Sarath Fonseka. Maybe it is no big deal to win against someone who did not take the trouble to register himself to vote in the elections in which he was asking the country to vote for him. But it is a big deal to win against a candidate backed by major Western and European powers, and by native nay-sayers who would rather have a candidate who couldn’t find himself a party and was subsequently backed by two who had been responsible for much brutality in Sri Lanka throughout the 1980s than support the President who brought them peace.

This is the first time I’ve been home for an election since I left for the United States, and it is absolutely thrilling to be here. Sri Lankans are deeply and ruvani-0052passionately engaged in the process and in campaigning and if you want a beautiful description of what a country means to someone who loves it, read ‘Reflections on my Country’ by my brother, Malinda Seneviratne. It doesn’t hurt to have a household divided between the two candidates, my father taking up the solitary stand on behalf of the Opposition. I accompanied my journalist brother, Malinda, on travels around the city and down the Southern Coast and observed a process that had none of the problems that were being threatened us by those supporting the opposition candidate. The term “blood bath” has been tossed about, but I’m hoping to avoid that as well. It is a clear victory, and there is no doubt as to why the President remains popular among the people even if some of the Colombo elite despise his status as an outsider. Here are a few of those reasons:

1. He put an end to a war that has blighted the country for 30 years, something none of the leaders of other parties including those contesting him in this election were able to do.
2. While conducting the war, he did not compromise the welfare of ordinary Sri Lankans, or sell any of the country’s assets.
3. While pushing on with both a war and the post-tsunami reconstruction, he engaged in massive development projects throughout the country, including in the North and East; highways, ports, telecommunications and web access were all part of this effort. ruvani-008
4. He has subsequently repatriated most of the Internally Displaced Persons, the North and East have vast areas that have been demined and are being inhabited by people native to the land and there’s a sense of breathing freely in the entire country.
5. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he put Sri Lankans in charge of Sri Lanka. As my sister in law put it, “In the past foreigners came in as consultants to us, now they consult us before they try to do anything in the country. He has given Sri Lankans the space to insist that the slogan “api wenuwen api” (i.e. us for ourselves), is the national standard.

Many foreign governments have attempted to push Sri Lanka in one direction or the other without the good sense to understand the context in which they were here or, worse, the damage they could cause to thousands of people including the loss of life. To have a President who is willing to stand firm against such pressure, including tremendous pressure from the United States, is simply fantastic.

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!

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13 January, 2010

America’s Dementia: King-Making in Sri Lanka

This was an article that I wrote which was was intended for a news source here in the U.S. I am re-posting it here with the necessary links.

On Sunday, the NYT put Sri Lanka at number one on its list of places to go in 2010:

“For a quarter century, Sri Lanka seems to have been plagued by misfortune, including a brutal civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. But the conflict finally ended last May, ushering in a more peaceful era for this teardrop-shaped island off India’s coast, rich in natural beauty and cultural splendors.” (NYT, January 10th, 2010).

It seems, however, that the Obama administration is not quite as delighted with the peaceful state of affairs in Sri Lanka.

On January 26th 2010, Sri Lankans go to the polls. They vote for the first time in thirty years without the looming threat of terrorism. The incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapakse, is tipped to win this one, albeit by a closer margin than many imagined possible given the extraordinary support he had in conducting the war against the LTTE militants both from the public and moderate Tamil politicians. That war ended on May 18th, 2009 and, unlike in most countries where such victories are followed by the consolidation of power, President Rajapakse devoted his time, among other things, to the internal matters of clearing landmines from previously rebel-held territory, repatriating the displaced Tamil population and inviting the Diaspora to return and participate in the rebuilding of the North. Despite the extraordinary powers held by an executive presidency, the kind of power that could lead to equally widespread abuses and has in other countries where a head of state has had such tools at their disposal (Robert Gabriel Karigamombe Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Than Shwe of Burma and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia– a country with which the U.S. continues to have close ties – come to mind), Sri Lanka’s president chose to put his presidency to the test in the space of six months, announcing the election in November of that same year. Meanwhile, nearly a decade after 9/11, America’s searchlights mark the skies each September as if searching for help from God while its memorial honoring the victims of terrorism remains unbuilt, the 9th Ward lurches from day to day with its dispirited inhabitants flung across several states looking to recourse from Brad Pitt and the Make it Right Foundation, and we shall not even begin to discuss Iraq because America’s efforts at compensating that nation for its assault on its soil is, actually, laughable.

During the last year and a half the United States, perhaps due to its own preoccupations with the distribution of power between the Man of the Century, Barack Obama and the equally redoubtable Hillary Clinton, played two games. On the one hand, its back-channel negotiators attempted to maintain that they were against terrorism (as Senator Clinton did during her elections), and would welcome an end to the vice in which the people of Sri Lanka and, thereby, those within the Diaspora on American soil, were being held by the LTTE. On the other hand, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made successive statements decrying President Rajapakse’s government and expressing “concern” based not on fact but on conjecture, and pushed international organizations to sanction his government. (Hillary Clinton’s ability to be undiplomatic is, par for the course, as demonstrated by her comments about Pakistan on the eve of her visit there). Meanwhile, not far from Sri Lanka, America launched a new and improved war in Afghanistan, assaulting it with indiscriminate aerial bombing and pressuring the government of Pakistan to crackdown on so-called Islamic militants in exactly the same way in which it was asking Sri Lanka not to crack down on its lunatic fringe. But perhaps that was just American tunnel vision.We cannot seem to look at more than one country at one time and, like the multitude of Americans who are routinely diagnosed with dissociative disorder, our leaders cannot seem to remember what they learn in one place and use it to address a problem faced in another.

Given the dissatisfaction among the rank and file of America’s military (think Major Nidal Malik), and the security breaches on its airlines (think Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab), one would imagine that America’s foreign policy makers might consider the lack of prudence evident in deciding to back a ruthless former General, a military man with no experience at political leadership, to run what is, for now, a relatively stable landing-ground for American diplomats and personnel – both by air and by sea – in the supremely important neighborhood of America’s new war. America has had difficulties with President Rajapakse, there is no disputing that. Its difficulties arose not only because it presumed to dictate the conduct of internal affairs in Sri Lanka, but by its blocking of a much-needed loan from the IMF and by its determined effort to scuttle the end of the war even as the LTTE remains proscribed in the United States and even as its ties to the ongoing piracy on the high seas around the Horn of Africa – which has affected American industry – and its history of training suicide bombers in other regions of conflict with which the U.S. professes to be concerned were being established by America’s own intelligence personnel. But most of all, their relationship with President Rajapakse was strained by America’s obstinate refusal to engage with him as an equal and because they began to exert pressure on him by turning his top General against him.

American has had and continues to have some difficulty in understanding the vital role of cultural knowledge when it comes to dealing with countries whose beliefs run counter to its own. The failures in Iraq (after the original sin of invading it), can be traced back to that shortcoming and the continuing failures in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran and in Palestine all leave a clear and uncluttered trail that demonstrate the fact that American policy makers choose to shoot now and ask questions later. A policy which leaves nothing resolved and many people dead; a policy which, sadly, overshadows the considerable good intentions of many within the State Department who take up their positions with great faith in the power of diplomacy. The response of South Asian leaders as well as those who lead predominantly Islamic countries has always been to close ranks behind family when threatened. President Rajapakse’s response to American pressure has taken that familiar route – he looked to China, Pakistan and Japan, countries with which Sri Lanka has deep and long ties and, at home, to his closest advisers, including his family. The only people reeling with surprise and feeling betrayed are the Americans.

To work with the leader that the Sri Lankan people chose to take them out of the dark ages of terrorism into the freedom of peace, no matter the points of disagreement, would have been the way to go. Instead, America now finds itself anointing a military man with no experience in statesmanship, with a track record of brutality against the Tamil people and who, unable to stand on his own abilities has cobbled together a motley collection of dissatisfied political groups including the UNP and the JVP (which were, together, responsible for the murder of thousands of youth, most of them students, and whose combined shenanigans closed down the universities of Sri Lanka for the large part of two years). But it ain’t no entrance if you cannot make one on your own and you can’t lead – much less unite – a country when you are nothing more than the puppet of several warring factions who have merely come together for the purpose of ousting the one man who managed what none of these groups could: end the war and make it possible for Tamil people to once again speak their language freely in the streets of Colombo. It also finds itself in the surely untenable position of saying that it is alright with America to have people with American permanent residency vie to become head of state in a different one although here in America one cannot stand for election without first renouncing such fealty to any other places of domicile.

But perhaps a stable Sri Lanka is not in America’s best interests. Its former president was clearly comfortable with not merely making lists of bad countries and checking them twice, but actively attempting to shove the “good” ones over to the dark side. And our new President, deep though my support runs, has proved that he is not that different from the last with regard to his foreign policy. Either that or we are living with two presidents: the one who runs the country, and the other, Hillary Clinton, who is ruining the world. On January 26th, Sri Lankans may yet prove that she does not. If and when they do, the only hope lies in those top tier American policy makers who have had the opportunity to live and work in Sri Lanka and therefore understand, perhaps, a little more about what it takes to build a partnership with the leader of a nation whose literacy rates, equality of pay between the genders as well as the inclusion of women in positions of political office, thriving media, highly educated trilingual third estate and all round civic participation places it, in all these respects, above the United States.

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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