Archive for the ‘News’ Category

2 November, 2010

Waiting for Super_____ ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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?
. . .
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
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
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.

25 March, 2010


feb09-071Okay, so I have to confess that I didn’t make up that title. I got that from CREDO a while back when the GOP was shouting about reforming Wall Street and it now graces the back of my vehicle. As is quoted on the CREDO website, Republicans like Bachmann and Beck are only the tip of a vast iceberg of ignorance. Like so:

Bachmann: “Not all cultures are equal. Not all values are equal.”
Beck: “This president has exposed himself, I think, as a guy…who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or white culture.”

Was that before or after his white mother and grandparents raised him Mr. Beck? And, Ms. Bachmann, we know all cultures aren’t created equal. Take a look at this one which beats the one we live in on the most pressing domestic issue of our time. Maybe you should visit but that would require a passport and a willingness to expand the mind; sadly, not likely.

Are Republicans simply people given to villainy? Are they individuals who have been completely stripped of any consideration for their fellow human beings? How is it possible that a human being, any human being anywhere, can actually say to themselves, I am doing fine, I see that you are not, but that’s cool with me. My posterior is padded, my ducks are in a row, and all I’m going to do for my country is grill vast slabs of meat on the 4th of July, fly those stars and stripes (or a lone star), and shout phrases like kick some butt, bring it on, and the N word and call it a life worth living?

I spent almost the entirety of Tuesday shuttling between hospitals and various doctors’ offices. I was sitting in the waiting room of the radiology unit at Lankenau Hospital when the TV above – not set to Fox, thank heavens – played the scene of the President signing the $938 billion health care reform bill into law. It is neither a case of the government taking over health care nor a giant overhaul destined to be entirely inclusive, but it is a significant move toward the egalitarian society (i.e. giving the same political, economic, social and civil rights to everybody as well as removing economic inequalities between citizens), that a democracy is supposed to guarantee. An elderly lady walked in and stated that she was very happy to see this day. Yet every other person in that hospital, suited, well appointed with their various and sundry needs – wheelchairs, walkers etc. – complained bitterly. “We are going to be paying for this,” spat a corpulent man tanned to a certain level of alien, “our taxes. And they won’t let the banks lend money to students anymore. Only the government.”

Here’s what that particular gripe is about: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, folded into the health care legislation as a means of passing two of the largest pieces of the democratic agenda, would cut out the middle man from federal student loan programs and give students the chance to borrow directly from the federal government instead of from banks. The bill, now law, would expand the Pell grand program for low-income students. Read more here to find out the details as well as the ways in which the benefit extends to kids in your individual congressional district and how much money it saves the government – er, that would be us, the taxpayers.

I wanted to say something, but I did not, choosing instead to watch the proceedings on TV and comforting myself by handing the old lady my business card – for what purpose, I do not know; just to express solidarity. What I should have said is this: “I’m so glad you brought up that bit about our taxes paying for all this. Because I was so much happier when our taxes were being used to murder over 100,000 Iraqis, while sending a civilization back to the stone ages, kill 4,384 American soldiers and maim 31,716 others (we have exact official figures for the American dead and wounded but the estimates are higher), in a war that continues to rise above $713,822,438,777 (please click the link to watch the numbers), used for scare-mongering tactics designed to depress the national psyche, protect the perpetrators of schemes to swindle ordinary Americans, such as Enron, sell off the matter of protecting against the inevitable excesses of war to private contractors, incarcerate people without charging them at Guantanamo, torture others in Abu Ghraib, and, by the way, not do anything for the people who suffered from Hurricane Katrina, not build the 9/11 memorials to the dead in NY, not make college accessible for more students, and certainly not help the sick get better or the healthy stay that way. Yeah, man. Wasn’t that the ride???” And you know I’m not mentioning half a hundred other things that defined one of the most depressing eras in recent American history.

The day continued in much the same way. I used to think that doctors were the good guys, that they were merely caught in the vice between lawsuits and insurance companies and that, if only they were given the chance, they would gladly provide health care to the suffering masses. But I was wrong. Every doctor complained that they did not need “government takeover of health care.” Having done some research, it seems there are some physicians who do support the President’s reforms, but clearly none of the specialists I saw in my Philadelphia suburb belong to that group. I confess that this became a day during which I reverted to my “I’m not from here” safe corner from which vantage I could safely ridicule the level of ignorance apparent among even the most highly educated professionals in America. But that’s not the truth of it. This is not about knowing the facts, it is about class and race. After all, the janitor at St. Joseph’s University’s Maguire campus gym could speak eloquently and knowledgeably about the issue, about all the bits and pieces and fixers and amendments that most others seemed to miss. People who care, find out. People who don’t, don’t. You are either an orifice located 2/3 of the way down your body, or you are not.

I was heartened to read about and watch the clip posted by Catholics United on their effort to counter the negativity and asinine, disrespectful, derogatory, threatening, muck-slinging garbage spouting from the mouths of various so-called tea-partiers. (Listen, I’ve drunk tea all my life. The tea you drink probably comes from my country and you ain’t worth the dregs that are left after the pot has been brewed several times over. And yes, I know this has to do with Boston and so forth, but I couldn’t resist.) But what really lifted my spirits was listening to NPR’s program, Coming of Age that afternoon, as I sat in my driveway between hospital visits. The story was about Gladys Farmer and I’ll post a clip below:

“Gladys Flamer likes to drive her Cadillac in Coatesville, PA. Nothing unusual about that, except that she’s 103 years old and she uses her car to help people with no transportation. Flamer has had many jobs; from serving as a domestic for wealthy families, to becoming a nurse at age 59. She’s worked in a steel mill and owned a beauty shop. The centenarian retired from the work world when she reached 90, but has not stopped serving her community. She’s active on City Council, with her church and in her neighborhood.”

A friend of Gladys’ sang these lines as she talked, claiming it to be the song that best described her: “If I can help somebody, as I pass along / Then my living shall not be in vain.” That’s a woman among woman, a human being among human beings. That’s somebody who actually gives a damn. Which reminds me that, on the way to my third doctors’ visit of the day, I listened to an old interview with Margaret Moth, who died at the age of 59 of cancer. It was a re-run of an interview conducted when the documentary “Fearless: The Margaret Moth Story” was released, and while she was in hospice care in Minnesota. During the interview, host Robin Young says to Moth (who had suffered terrible injuries while covering the war in Sarajevo and faced all manner of life-threatening circumstances during her career), “you seem so accepting.” This is Margaret’s response (I paraphrase):

“Well I feel we all die. I just feel that it is irrelevant as to when you die, since you are going to die anyway. And I think it is more important how you live your life. I strive as much as I can, for each part of every day, every hour of every day that I am alive. I’ve never been afraid of dying. I’d just had the hope that I die with as much dignity as I have lived.”

Her friend, Stefano Kotsonis states that Margaret was one of those people who did not need an “awakening” on her deathbed. She was always awake.

Margaret Moth and Gladys Farmer, two remarkable people from opposite ends of the professional spectrum and yet united by that thing that separates the human being with compassion from the gluttonous barbarian dressed up in human skin. It doesn’t matter, in the end, whether we gather together on our various holy days and sing hymns that speak of faith and charity, of brothers and sisters, of god. What matters is how you conduct your life, and of what worth that living has been to the world. Going against extending health care coverage to not all but at the very least, 32 million more of your fellow citizens puts you in the negative column. I don’t expect the GOP – or others who aren’t affiliated with that party but still are against doing what is right – to be ashamed of themselves. I expect good, ordinary people who aren’t afraid – like Gladys, like Margaret, like the janitor at St. Joe’s – to “get up stand up” and see things through.

20 March, 2010

Healthcare in America as it is in Sri Lanka

starry-nightI was born in a country usually described by those subscribing to the dominant paradigm of development as being poor and developing. Year after year, beginning from first grade, in our classrooms both public and private (we have a national curriculum), we learned mathematics, reading and writing, but also world history. We studied world civilizations, cultures, economic foundations, imports, exports and religions. We learned of most things as facts, only questioning choices – within political systems, for instance – when we reached the senior classes. There was, however, one thing that it would never have occurred to a Sri Lankan student to ask: Do American have the same access to health care that we do here?

In order to ask such a question, Sri Lankans would have to be suffering the same deprivations that Americans suffer today. They would also have to take it as a given that health care is something that is not commonly provided to all but, rather, reserved for a few. In the absence of those realities, no Sri Lankan child could conceive of a society where people are routinely denied medical care, where children remain un-vaccinated, and where the elderly perish because they cannot afford to visit a doctor. They would have to imagine a milieu where parents must decide between food and medicines, between dead-end employment with health care v. fulfilling work without health insurance, and between taking care of a sick parent and going into debt, or setting those parents adrift and saving for their children’s future. Indeed, they would have to conjure up a way of living that was routinely, relentlessly, psychotically preoccupied with the dread scepter of sickness rather than the much more joyful activity of the conduct of life.

Sri Lankans cannot do that. While I have joined this American life where all of the above have become my reality, every single one of my countrymen in Sri Lanka continues to enjoy first-class medical treatment in hospitals which provide it to them entirely free. Should a Sri Lankan not wish to avail themselves of free medical care, they have the option to visit a multitude of private hospitals. The same caliber of physicians serves at both. After a free education, Sri Lankan doctors are required to serve in public hospitals. They are also free to engage in private practice so long as that fundamental requirement – giving back to the country what it has given to you – is met. The decision of a patient to go to one or the other depends upon the patient’s idiosyncrasies; I have wealthy friends who have preferred to give birth in a shared dorm in a public hospital rather than in a private room at a fee-charging medical facility, my father vacillates between one or the other.

Yes, it is not perfect. Last time I checked, they do not have the capacity in Sri Lanka to separate twins sharing hearts or lungs. They do not have the Childrens’ Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), they do not have Memorial Sloan-Kettering. What they do have are the kinds of services, including advanced care services, which are pertinent and ought to be accessible to 99.9% of human beings. And what they do have is a society where should a particularly specialized form of medical care unavailable in the country be required by one of its members, citizens will routinely donate the funds necessary to send that patient overseas. It’s a lot cheaper to chip in the equivalent of about $5 to help a fellow-citizen about once a year than to live as we live (and die), now, here in America.

We are here today on the brink of a vote on making health care substantially more compassionate than it is currently is in America. It is a day that dawns with one of the last independent hold-outs from the left, Dennis Kucinich, deciding to make possible what is possible rather than wait for what will forever be denied. It is a day that alters the fate of three close neighbors, all of whom are professionals with doctorates and halves of two-income families in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America, who are trying to make ends meet without health insurance. They aren’t poor people, they have jobs; nonetheless, they cannot afford health care in this country. What then of the millions of others struggling with neither wealth nor employment? Which reminds me of a few words spoken on January 20th, 2009, in Washington DC by a new President:

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.”

This will, hopefully, be the end of that darkest hour for Americans. It is an hour that has lasted for more than five decades. Surely it is time for the leaders of this country to recognize their obligation to their fellow citizens. Surely one of the wealthiest nations in the world can finally do for its people what one of its poorest has done throughout its history.

12 February, 2010

The Dutch, The British & The Galle International Literary Festival

I keep being pressed to write about the Galle International Literary Festival at which I was a guest. Some of the requests have been the result of simple interest in my impressions as both native and visitor, others have been somewhat hostile. 22356_286179927125_647787125_3900085_8356772_nI have never been an either with us or against us kind of person; frankly I think that embodying extremism of any sort dilutes and otherwise sullies creative work and I would be hard pressed to identify any writer whom I admire that is guilty of it. It has taken a while for me to reflect on the festival partly because I was in London right after the festival and have only just returned, and partly because my thoughts are complicated by a variety of conflicting sentiments which encompass both my respect for the work that is done to make it possible – and the individuals who do that work – the depth of talent among those attending both as guests and as audience and my sense that everything that we do is a work in progress and therefore could stand to be transformed so long as the transformation is advocated for in a way that leaves intact, whenever possible, the self-worth of the people responsible.

When my novel appeared in its Dutch translation, my publisher asked me to write a note to accompany its release which referred to our shared history. After ranting in the privacy of my home, I sat down and wrote a note that mentioned the fact that many Dutch public works as well as the tombstones of the old Dutch lighthouseverendahGovernors are preserved in Colombo and that the journey of one of the chief protagonists begins in Matara where the Dutch fort, Van Eck, still remains. I tempered my sense of outrage with the request that, at some level, was asking me to celebrate the colonization of Sri Lanka by the Dutch, with my understanding that my modern day publisher may (a) have been unaware of the extent of her country’s involvement in Sri Lanka and (b) was not, herself, responsible for the doings of her compatriots and (c) did not intend to cause me any distress but, rather, was trying to personalize the publication of a book that was being released alongside hundreds of others, and therefore give it a little more heft. That is the nuance that tempers the black and the white.

At a festival that offered such a range of skill, expertise and intellect, I was disappointed that I was unable to attend several of the conversations signingand panels that I would have liked to be at, when the writers featured were excellent and there was much to learn from them. Gillian Slovo, Rana Dasgupta, Amit Varma, Shyam Selvadurai, Michelle de Kretser, Ian Rankin and Sybil Wettasinghe were all people I wanted to spend more time listening to, as they spoke formally, but with whom I did manage to have interesting and fairly lengthy conversations off-scene. Unfortunately, there were many others – Wendy Cope, Iranganie Serasinghe, Artemis Cooper and Michael Frayn among them – whose insights and perspective I missed altogether. My inability to go to all the panels/conversations had little to do with the festival organizers shyammeexcept to the extent that I was also trying to participate in the fringe festival – which showcased, for the most part, the breadth of local talent writing and speaking in English – which then made everything a conscious choice that posed the following question: Am I here for myself? (in which case I must go to all the panels and lectures and conversations taking place on site), or am I here for my fellow Sri Lankans? (in which case I must support them in whatever way I could, but primarily by being attentive to the events that highlighted their work, many of which were off site)

To be a Sri Lankan writer published overseas by the kinds of publishers that I have been fortunate to have, is, to me, both blessing and responsibility. The accomplishment, as I see it, is not mine alone, 22556_303365777125_647787125_3948633_7913511_nit is also that of the country to which I owe my particular world view; that fertile soil, rich in culture and heritage and custom and religion, which grounds me and gives me the right to say, I am a Sri Lankan American writer. I see myself, then, as an outpost of sorts, a vessel that contains all that I have left behind in Sri Lanka, and, also, as a spokesperson for others of my kind. How, then, would it be possible for me to converse and befriend my fellow predominantly foreign-based writers and not give equal attention to the writers who, based as they are in Sri Lanka, do not have access to the publishing world in quite the same way that we do? How would they get critical attention for their work if those of us who are a little further down along the road not only leave no signposts, but forget that there are others making this same journey?

As I walked around going from one session to another, I was struck also by the fact that this desire to immerse myself in the literary talents and preoccupations of a host country, even when it is my own, is probably shared by the other writers who come to Sri Lanka, in the same way they do when they go to the Jaipur Literature Festival or to the Perth International Arts Festival or the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. For a writer anywhere, there are two things that are manna from heaven: the company of other writers and exposure to new worlds. panelI would hazard a guess that writers like Slovo and Dasgupta and Adebago would be just as interested in listening to and interacting with a multi-ethnic cross section of Sri Lankan writers as well as Sri Lankan culture (a need that the fringe festival addressed whenever possible with panels such as ‘The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka’ which featured writer and photographer Pradeep Jeganathan, journalist Malinda Seneviratne and former-soldier and writer, David Blacker, as well as the event titled ‘Stories at Sunset’ at the Closenberg Hotel which was organized by local author, Ashok Ferry, alongside the equally commendable offerings of the main festival such as the panels on art, photography and architecture and the drum and dance performances), as they would be in having meaningful conversations with each other. Indeed, such engagement is what gives a festival its particular character and distinguishes it from any other event at which these same writers may have occasion to gather together.

It is always easy to criticize an initiative that is taken by someone else. And it is easy enough to disparage the work of one or the other group of writers within a multi-language system such as ours. sunilaSlings and arrows are easy to unleash, it is the building blocks that take work and separates the slouch from the citizen and neither Sunila Galappatti nor Subha Wijesiriwardena is a slouch, clearly bringing a wealth of experience in theater and writing to their work and giving heart and soul over to managing every last detail of a large festival involving multiple personalities, some of them split! In that regard, I was disappointed by the way in which journalist Rajpal Abeynayake summarily dismissed the entire – albeit recent – canon of writing in English as being garbage. There is garbage. balconysceneWe all know it and we can all manage the delicate art of discussing garbage without throwing it around, in the interest of preserving human dignity. But there is also solidly accomplished writing and, more importantly, there is a serious attempt on the part of those writing in English to both reach their full potential as well as to translate into English those works from the Sinhala and Tamil canon that are translatable. (I admit I came late to this session – again, I was torn between listening to the panel on post-war literature I mentioned above and the one being facilitated by Sunila at a festival venue with Rajpal; both panelists had reached a point of testiness and there was a sort of restive fatigue apparent among the audience as well.)

The criticism that there is insufficient attention given to the work of the host country, the best of which is, probably, written in Sinhala and Tamil, is valid, but is is one that ought to be leveled with the understanding that any initiative is dynamic and changing; srilanka2010-1671the festival has evolved from the first in 2007 to what it is today and will, I am certain, continue to change. I comment on this aspect of the festival, therefore, in full knowledge that this year it has grown to include genres not part of the festival in previous years both in terms of its panels and conversations but also in terms of the off-site events and the cultural and childrens’ programming, and that such changes auger well for other, even more significant adjustments to be made to the makeup of the festival next year. It is true that, as feetDavid Blacker put it in a blog post he wrote last year, this is not a “Sri Lankan literature festival.” However, it is disingenuous to refer to a festival as being “international” if it quite deliberately excludes, for the most part, Sri Lankan writing in translation, particularly when the current trend among all of the publishing giants and anyone worth their salt in the field of international literature is toward translation, an effort to which the organization Words Without Borders has made a mighty contribution as have the various International PEN organizations in the UK, USA and elsewhere. This is the first paragraph of the mission statement for Words Without Borders and it is a far better description of why translation is important than I could manage:

Words without Borders translates, publishes, and promotes the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages. We seek to connect international writers to the general public, to students and educators, and to print and other media and to serve as a primary online location for a global literary conversation.

Literary achievement is never a zero-sum game and the respectful inclusion of each others work ought to be seen as a way of bolstering the foundation of our shared interest in the life of the word, rather than as a way of distracting or otherwise reducing the worth of a single person’s contribution. If it was possible to give Michael Meyler the opportunity to conduct an engaging and illuminating discussion about the well produced trilingual book, Keerthihan’s Kite, is it not possible, also, to present Sri Lankan work in translation using the same audio/visual devices? punchasloIt is entirely conceivable to me that the festival organizers could ask for the help of accomplished bi-lingual writers and translators like Malinda Seneviratne, Dr. Lakshmi de Silva, Thambiaiyah Thevathas and others like them, to handle that particular aspect of the GLF in future years or, at the very least, serve in some sort of advisory capacity to facilitate that conversation. If the festival is, as it has become, the international face of Sri Lanka with regard to its literature, then I do believe that it is obliged to represent the country’s breadth and depth of writing, in all its languages. And that is a responsibility that ought to be embraced as a privilege, not a hardship.

The issue of festival access has been raised often and, during the Q&A with Rajpal, I was aghast to hear a member of the audience (I was told later that this was Antony Beevor but since I never met the man I cannot confirm that), srilanka2010-170question the government of Sri Lanka for requesting that a festival which is largely private, pay taxes that are due to the country. The issue raised by the individual was that “there is no literary festival in the world that is expected to pay taxes.” Well, the truth is, as always, not quite so simple. Festivals that are free to the public are not taxed. Whenever an event, that involves as much private enterprise srilanka2010-1031as does this particular festival, excludes – because of its fee-charging design – a large portion of the resident population, it must necessarily be treated differently. One way to avoid this is to emulate our closest neighboring festival, Jaipur, and make it entirely free although I realize that this would involve a significant degree of fund-raising to take place prior to the festival. And since I dislike making a criticism without offering some solution, might I suggest that the festival offer the option of named patrons, as is done with regard to so many other ventures involving the arts (the Aukland Writers & Readers Festival operates along these lines) something I would imagine would be just as enticing if not more so, than purchasing tickets to private events? That would also make it possible to offer a choice of the ever-popular literary dining experiences to such individuals while reserving an equal number of seats to be awarded to festival goers by lottery.

(Which, by the way, is not to say that those who have paid the fees thus far ought to be condemned as being “air heads” (as referenced in Yasmine Gooneratne’s article on the festival), quite the contrary; I found most of the Colombo socialites to be well read and more than able to engage in knowledgeable discussions about literature and writing: Sri Lankans, after all, are a highly educated populace and the possession of wealth does not automatically exclude a person from that national character!)

The lasting impression of the festival for me is one of valiant effort – chiefly by its executors and volunteers – and one of learning to distinguish the writer – eminent or fledgling- who srilanka2010-188is willing to immerse themselves in place, moment and literary endeavor from the writer who is simply there to soak up the perquisites of a festival hosted in the near paradisaical setting of Galle, which is very tempting, given its history, location, Lighthouse Hotel, Sun House and everything in between. Mercifully, there were more of the former and, refreshingly, all of the writers from the subcontinent belonged fairly and squarely to that group. It was good to discover that noniseating kottu at an unsavory roadside stall with Amit Varma, downing pittu and katta sambol with Rana Dasgupta, walking to the kite-flying activity on the Galle Fort with Michelle de Kretser and stopping for tea and laveriya at Monis Bakery on the way to Galle with Shyam Selvadurai blended seamlessly with our conversations about our writerly lives, with signing books and holding microphones on stages which elevate us and our accomplishments, often only artificially and almost always only momentarily, from those of others. When human endeavor permits the human being their humanity, that is the true measure of success.


Note: The two photographs of me used in the first and fourth paragraphs were taken by Sharni Jayawardena

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!


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.

26 December, 2009

Tsunami: Five Years On

lisasinhalabanner5Five years ago today, I was still fast asleep when the 2004 tsunami swept over large parts of my island country, Sri Lanka. A friend called me from Washington DC, where she was working, to tell give me this cryptic message: “There was a tsunami in Thailand but don’t worry, your brother Arjuna is fine.” In a house where a TV existed but was rarely turned on, I had no idea what she was talking about. The first time I heard my oldest brother’s voice was when I listened to Lisa Mullins talking with him on The World. Somewhere in my archives I have the link to his interview and to the interview that preceded his, which is mine. It was an encapsulation of our two realities – mine, on the other side of the world, and his, having faced the tsunami. I’ll post the links when I fine them, but here is an excerpt of what he said:

When the first wave came in, we were happy that we were seeing something that was really strange, but it was a very mild wave. Then the sea receded back, and we didn’t know what that meant. It was like someone had pulled the plug on the ocean, and crags and outcroppings of rock inside the sea were visible for the first time in years. We just watched it, and I was taking photographs of it. Then came this massive wall of water…The night before, I had been dancing. It was Christmas. We danced into the wee hours of the morning. With everyone, everyone bonded. There were Finns, there were Dutchmen and Dutchwomen, there were Brits, there were Japanese – I actually won a dance competition. The next morning it was like it was a whole big family of 150 people…I was on top of the continental ridge on the Rocky Mountains when 9/11 happened. I saw only one thing. What I saw, was what I heard – silence. You know what that the silence was? The silence was that all the planes had dropped out of the sky – and in America, at any given moment, if you look up into the sky, there are at least 10 planes up there. There’s a drone, that nobody really notices, until the drone stops. My nation is silent right now.

Over the next year, thanks to a phone call from the then pastor at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Waterville I directed the Sahana Project, sahana-churchdisplaya tsunami-relief effort from the state of Maine. When I say I directed, it was mostly a matter of traveling around Maine speaking to people about my country and receiving in return, not only the donations that people sent in, but acquiring a clear understanding of how easy it was, in every situation, to find our common ground. Easy even when I was talking about Catholic convents teaching Buddhism to Buddhists to the Congregational Church in far Northern Maine, in Rangely. mtmerici-kidswebsitepixEasy when talking to the sixth graders who raised $2000 on their own by giving up their class trip and soliciting their donations. Easy when chatting with the high school students who gave up a dollar for the privilege of wearing a baseball hat to school. As easy when speaking to Maine fishermen who go out to sea in frigid waters unlike their Sri Lankan brethren, as it was to speak stars2to the hundreds of people who sent in books and toiletries for the kids of the village we had decided to rebuild on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka, and the ones who sent celebratory gifts, individually tagged, with personal letters, to the thirty-five families who were moving into their new homes a few days before the first anniversary of the tsunami.

I recollect all this today because of all that was right about the Sahana Project. It had a fiscal agent, the UU Church, and it had a volunteer board comprised of individuals who had a history of commitment to community causes, juliabluhn-2including Mark B. Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby. It had someone “from there,” i.e. myself, who could talk not only about the need at hand but about the country and culture, and make it a real place for the donors. It had a small state where people were willing to trust in someone’s word, to believe that if I said I was going to use this money to rebuild a village, that is what would happen. It had a local organization in place, namely the Green Movement of Sri Lanka, willing to channel all of the funds collected toward rebuilding and none of it for administrative or operating costs. It had someone we trusted, my brother, to liaise between the Greens and us.

thornton2It was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life to watch civic organizations, community groups, private and public schools from Mt. Desert Island to Waterville to Kennebunkport, colleges like Bates and Colby, businesses like the Flatbread Company in Portland, churches and individuals who often did not have much in common with each other, come together to place their bit of the puzzle in the frame. Was ever a village rebuilt with such love? thomas9I don’t know. What I do know is that those thirty five homes contain the music of the zils and hip-scarves of belly-dance troupes, the laughter of Maine-born kids and the compassion of adults from age 18 to 90 who may never see what they made possible.

Visiting Sri Lanka for the opening ceremony in 2005, I wrote back thus:

(We) drove down the path that is being re-constructed by another group, with assistance from USAID, to the site of the old village. The road is bordered on both sides by the sanctuary, so there were a lot of wild birds to be seen, though the peacocks weren’t in sigh perhaps because it was late in the day. The drive to the ocean was also lined on the last stretch with the devastation that is still very much in evidence. Rasika (the matriarch of the village), named the people who had lived in each of the homes, and the ones who had died. The homes were either shells, entirely gouged out – literally plucked by the roots – or just foundations. There were roofs hanging like cloth from the sides of frail structures. It was unlike anything I could have imagined – even with the photographs. The village was between the estuary and the ocean, with parts of the marshy sanctuary in between. The villagers therefore were really hammered from both sides. The ocean rushing up the estuary as well as the ocean coming straight at them. I picture it being something like a volcanic eruption of water, with the villagers trapped in the middle. Seeing all this, I cannot fathom how the young woman who was two days away from delivery her baby, managed to escape with her young, three year old son. In fact, I think that if not for the trees in the sanctuary, we would have had no villagers to help at all.


Just a few months ago, I had a note from the UU Church that there was, still, a further $10,000 left in the account that had been set up. Although the village was now rebuilt (the picture here shows the village at the time of the opening ceremonies; there are now thriving home gardens there),img_3363 and many other projects completed with the aid of USAID (which built a road leading from the new village beside the bird sanctuary to the old within it, by the sea), and the Norwegian Development Fund as well as other groups, there was still some left over, and it was sent to the Greens to use for one of the community development projects at Kalametiya. It was easy enough for us to get the money to them; my brother now works for the Greens, having given up his job in the for-profit sector.

0000-166-2Sri Lanka has gone through many changes. In 2004, the current President, Mahinda Rajapakse was not in power, but, as the Minister from Hambantota, and passionately committed to the protection of the country’s resources, it was he that blocked the efforts of multi-national hotel corporations from securing the pristine coastal area next to the sanctuary and, instead, handed it to the Greens. A year later he was President and the country embraced a new effort to address a thirty-year engagement with terrorism. Back then, in the aftermath of the tsunami, there was a time of goodwill toward each other that helped us all disregard the effect of terrorism. Jeff Greenwald wrote an essay, A Full Moon Over Sri Lanka, for which speaks of that time and of the ways in which Sri Lankans cope with tragedy.

Today, five years on, there are still parts of the country which need to be rebuilt. There are parts of the country which also need to be de-mined and resettled and reunited. Success in all of these endeavors will not come because of speeches, declarations and focus-groups, even among the erudite and professional diaspora communities. img_3459It will come because of individual human beings doing what is right, because of compassion, trust and the ability to recognize the vastness of our common ground.

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.