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November 8, 2016

A brief comment on Election Day

We will continue to be told we're divided, and to a certain extent this is true. A division of sorts does exist, but it's artificial. When we enter into the political arena, we enter into a polarized environment that partitions people into ideological camps. The result is the abandonment of our true political wishes.

The presidential candidates for the two dominant political parties are an expression of this reality. However, owing to its severe movement to the right, a rift has formed in the Republican Party, and its future has never been more uncertain. Its candidate, reviled by many within the GOP, is a byproduct of the party's white working-class constituency being weary of the "establishment" failure to produce anticipated results: jobs and a stable economy.

But due to adherence to the party line, the preference (chosen from an underwhelming line-up of Republican primary candidates) is instead for a perceived renegade who speaks to their lower instincts, while bloviating a message not unknown to history: "I know what you're going through, everything (everything) is a mess, you know whose fault it is, and I alone am going to fix it."

At present, a large segment of the population seems to have trouble differentiating between bad and far worse. Voting for Trump simply because "I hate Hillary" indicates a preference for far worse over bad. When we consider the data clearly indicating what most Americans actually want from a president, Clinton comes closer to the mark. She is by no means ideal. She is, in fact, far from ideal. Clinton is a career politician who is attentive to which way the wind is blowing. She is operationally a Republican. She is Wall Street friendly. And her foreign policy will likely be violent; the Middle East will surely be in for more of the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Obama procedure.

As for her opponent, about his personality we know much and his politics little.

In this election I have two priorities, and they are, for me, of equal weight: (1) a third party that is left of the Democrats gaining ground, and (2) the GOP not entering the White House. The first one I can act on. Living in a solidly blue state, I have chosen to vote for Jill Stein (Green Party) in hopes that increased support for a third party will help influence the Democrats, just as popular support for Bernie Sanders influenced Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The second one I can only hope on. Yet, my hope is not abstract. Specifically, I hope that women, African-Americans, and Latinos get to the polls in large numbers, especially in swing states. Trump has insulted you for a year and a half. Of course, he has insulted and belittled many others (including his core supporters, but their devotion seems unwavering for the time being). But, looking at this practically, there are simply more of you. And in sufficient numbers, you can stop this from happening.

And should Clinton win, we can then go back to having a president who is simply bad. And from there, hopefully we will do a better job of reaching across the artificial divide, while advocating for better candidates.

July 16, 2016

It's not about sharia

As is routine, some of the commentary following the recent attack in Nice, France, has attempted to shift the discussion to religion. Despite being nonreligious and having no known sympathy or affiliation with an extreme Islamist group, the perpetrator's name was Mohamed and the victims were mostly white Europeans. Therefore, a certain mode of analysis is brought to bear, namely, we in the West are under siege by an alien Islamic enemy.

Former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich recently made remarks encouraging Americans to focus on sharia law, not a first for the former speaker. As he commented on Fox News: "Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported ... Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization."

Concerning his assertion that Western civilization is in a war with the Arab-Islamic world, I've treated this matter at some length in book form. But it should suffice to point out that from the Crusades to the present, the story has been Western interference in the Middle East, not the other way around. To pick one telling statistic: from the 1991 Gulf War to the present, the United States can claim responsibility for the death of approximately 1 million Iraqis, which includes both major operations and the devastating UN sanctions regime between them. And because of the US-led destabilization of Iraq, the byproduct of terrorist violence has become an epidemic in that country. According to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2014 alone, Iraq suffered 9,929 deaths due to terrorism attacks, "the highest ever recorded in a single country." And, of course, to this we can add the emergence of ISIS.

Gingrich's stated anxiety over sharia, on the other hand, suggests their faith is corrupt, and therefore Muslims are suspicious. Yet, as mentioned, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the truck driver in Nice, was by all accounts not a religious man. And so far, there is no ISIS or al-Qaida connection. Nevertheless, let us suppose for a moment that Bouhlel was a devout Muslim, a person for whom sharia played a central role in his day-to-day decision making. To top it off, an ISIS sympathizer. What then?

Even under these hypothetical circumstances, driving a truck into a crowd of people is not representative of Islam, nor of sharia law as observed by Muslims all over the world. Terrorism is against Islamic law and forbidden in the Quran (see Juan Cole's informative essay on the subject).

However, one can maintain anything while wielding a religious vocabulary. Tribal brutality in Afghanistan, such as burying waste-deep and stoning adulterers, is executed under the professed license of Islam and sharia. Likewise, a Christian carrying a sign proclaiming "God Hates Fags" can do so with easy self-assurance that he or she is doing the Lord's work. Jewish Israeli settlers have committed acts of utter viciousness against Palestinians in the West Bank, also with an air of divinely-inspired righteousness. Yet, and correctly, there is no follow-up anti-Halakha sentiment in the press, or suggestions to ban kosher delis.

Sharia is simply the code of Islamic law for living a Muslim life (see BBC's helpful primer). It is used as a set of guidelines and regulations addressing almost all aspects of life, from food to marriage to contracts, and so on. Its sources come from the Quran, the collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (the Hadith), and judgments issued by Islamic scholars, called fatwas. Sharia is an interpretive, faith-based practice encouraging and guiding followers toward a virtuous life as defined by Islam. And, no different from the rest of the world, adherence to the rules can at times be flexible. I couldn't help but take amused note of this recent headline in the Washington Post: "Despite Islamic fatwa, Pokemon Go is the rage of the Arab world."

Around 75 percent of Americans are Christians, citizens of a country that has made major contributions to the problems in the Middle East. It is at least conceivable that an anti-Christian or anti-American attitude would prevail in the Arab world. But this is not the case. As imaginable as it is that "they" would hate us, they don't. This should inspire us to concentrate on what violence like this is about, not what it isn't.

March 10, 2016

The nation is not divided. And still prefers Bernie Sanders


[This piece was originally published on CounterPunch, Mar. 10, 2016]


The reportage of the presidential primaries has been heavy on personalities and the latest numbers, and light on information useful to voters. Comparisons to a horse race are apt. Were the news to take a documentary approach instead, the campaigns would be revealed as they are: something existing contrary to the public's interests.

One need only consult the public opinion record to see the primaries (and their coverage) in the correct light. In other words, by looking at the polling data on the various issues—putting aside party ideology, the artificial liberal-conservative polarity, and the cult of personality—it becomes immediately clear how Americans would vote outside the highly charged blue-red contest.

American public opinion, on almost all major policy issues, exists as a solid majority, belying the persistent myth that the country is politically divided. The reality is that most Americans—generally by about two-thirds—stand united; they just don't agree with Capitol Hill.

Yet, within the partisan atmosphere, grievances and frustrations get channeled into the narrow confines of party and candidate rhetoric. The GOP, in particular, has managed to advance a so-called conservative agenda, by speciously appealing to religious devotion and white, blue-collar anger. The party can't rely on the limited votes of millionaires (its actual constituency) so votes must be secured elsewhere.

According to a recent CNN/ORC poll, 69 percent of Americans claim to be very or somewhat angry with regard to "the way things are going" in the country. Similarly, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicated about the same percentage agreeing with this statement: "I feel angry because our political system seems to only be working for the insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street or in Washington, rather than it working to help everyday people get ahead."

The GOP has championed (with Democratic cooperation) the very economic agenda that produced this anger in the first place, while managing to redirect their voters' aggravations toward distractions such as immigration. Lowering taxes for the wealthy, deregulating the financial sector, and aiding in the deindustrialization of the country are the causes of the downward economic trend of the last thirty years, and the reason for the above statistics.

The anger is real and justified and rational. So what do Americans want? A sampling of public opinion:

Support for raising the minimum wage: 70 percent. Support for free public college: 55 percent. Support for addressing "now" the rich-poor gap: 65 percent. Support for raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year: 68 percent. Support for Medicare-for-all universal healthcare: 58 percent. Support for the US-Iran diplomatic agreement: 55 percent. Support for the right to a legal abortion (including "certain circumstances"): 75 percent. Disagreement with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision allowing corporate money to flood the political process: 78 percent.

Despite a plurality of Americans describing themselves as "conservative," the majority of Americans are, in reality, situated at the liberal center—what is described in the political discourse as progressive or far-left or "socialist." As summarized in a 2011 academic paper by political scientists Christopher Ellis and James A. Stimson,

When asked about specific government programs and specific social goals, the American public generally wants the government to do more, spend more, and redistribute more. But at the same time, citizens are considerably more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than as liberals. The American public, in other words, generally wants more government-based solutions to social problems, but overwhelmingly identifies with the ideological label that rejects those solutions....

If we calibrate the center of the political spectrum according to where most Americans stand on most issues, what we find is that Bernie Sanders resides squarely at the political center. And it merely follows that Hillary Clinton and certainly all the Republican candidates are positioned to the right of the population. Therefore, the bipartisan debate does not pertain to what Americans actually want from a candidate.

There's little question as to how America would vote in a rational setting.

What if on election day, Americans went to the polls and voted not for a preferred candidate, but for policy specifics? That is, what if we voted in blind elections? For instance, you enter the booth on November 8 and, instead of choosing a candidate, you fill out a questionnaire with regard to spending on X, spending on Y, how you feel about the minimum wage, income inequality, healthcare, the environment, and so on. Then, after voting, your ballot is compared to the different candidates and where they stand. The candidate awarded your vote is simply the one who best approximates your views. Under these circumstances, given the 2016 list of Democratic and Republican hopefuls, Bernie Sanders would win by a landslide.

This of course leaves to the side the likelihood of his success in getting laws passed through Congress. Likewise, it should be noted that Hillary Clinton's positions are commonly not so far from Sanders's, due in part to Sanders's successful campaign. (And given Clinton's track record of being the consummate politician, one can speculate as to how much she would walk her talk once in the White House.) The issue here isn't the mechanics of being president; the issue here is who the American people actually want as president. The body of data allows little room for debate.

The Republican party of Eisenhower and Nixon is no more, and has degenerated into disunity, ultra-nationalism, and destructive economics. Its future is unknown and unassured. The party's voting base is shrinking, the country is quickly becoming a majority of minorities (who are better at voting their interests), and the millennial voters coming up show similar inclinations. An unpleasant odor accompanies the death of many organisms, and the Republican field standing on the debate stage represents the smell of decomposition.

This leaves the Democratic party, where there seems to be a similar breach occurring. As is well known, within the GOP tensions exist between "establishment" Republicans and the far-right Tea Party-style politicians. Though perhaps to a lesser degree, a similar rift is forming among Democrats, one embodied by Clinton and Sanders. The Clinton-Sanders competition essentially amounts to a Republican and a Democrat vying for nomination. Eisenhower and Nixon, back from the dead, would likely guess Hillary Clinton to be a fellow Republican (along with Barack Obama). And Sanders, despite the rhetoric, is simply an FDR Democrat.

Put another way, within the Democratic party is where most Americans would prefer American politics to be situated.

January 13, 2016

SOTU: The Thousand Year Myth

Though from a reputable British news source, it is still difficult to imagine this article—and the sentiment of the tweets contained therein—running in any major Western news source, say, even ten years ago.

A signal of progress and an encouraging way to begin the new year.

November 16, 2015

A comment on the Paris attacks

The recent attacks in Paris are part of an ongoing narrative that has sadly claimed another list of innocent victims. The alleged inspiration for the terrorist rampage are France's current military operations against the Islamist group ISIS, having recently shifted from conducting airstrikes solely in Iraq to strikes in Syria.

In a brief statement, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, citing specifically the "war against Islam in France and their strikes against Muslims in the lands of the Caliphate with their jets" (Washington Post, Nov. 14). In the statement, the language of European "crusaders" is also invoked repeatedly, if unsurprisingly.

It is true, France in recent history has been far less involved in the Middle East than the Unites States and Great Britain. But from the extremist perspective, the West's guilt is generalized and calculated according to the long view of history. This bears a measure of similarity to when some in the West make assumptions about the Arab world's problems dating back "thousands of years." Both claims are less than constructive, though the former has the merit of being accurate.

In the realm of Islamist militancy, ISIS is unique in its ruthlessness and sadism. That said, it and the other jihadist groups like al-Qaida operating in the region are merely the most extreme expression of political Islam. Political Islam's various, and oftentimes non-violent, movements that developed over the mid-twentieth century were a response to Western intervention and sponsorship of repressive regimes in the Middle East. Over the latter half of the century, the response became increasingly violent.

Regardless of how Islamism unfolded over the last 85 years, the overall message and grievances have been more or less constant. Moreover, the same sentiments are shared in large part by the populations across the region. And these sentiments revolve around a concept cherished and held dear by Americans and Europeans: self-determination.

Now well into the twenty-first century, and in the context of two major US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan—reducing both to virtual non-countries—the mutation that is ISIS unfortunately emerged and appears to have moved into a global phase. According to French security services, their country is in for more. Europe as a whole is presumed to be a prime target in ISIS's expanded strategy.

The attacks in Paris were an act of unspeakable cruelty. Yet, it is a reflex for many Europeans and Americans—including the news outlets there—to express greater moral condemnation and solidarity over the murder of people like "us" than, say, people like "them." (Placards declaring "We are all Gazans" are much harder to come by.) However, even if we are principally concerned for our own well-being, it would be practical, in the short term, to at least encourage a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. ISIS is the product of political destabilization; the remedy is political stability.

Though there is likely a military component, the bulk of the solution lies in international support for diplomacy. The hold-up so far has been unwillingness, not inability, and popular pressure could move things forward. And if the suffering of the Syrian people isn't reason enough, maybe the suffering of others will add to the urgency. Furthermore, Americans viewing what happened in Paris with a private sense of relief that this is all happening "over there" are doing so in bad faith.

September 8, 2015

Europe's refugee non-crisis


For the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Syria, Iraq, and other conflict zones, the label "crisis" is appropriate. That is precisely what these refugees (not migrants, though a small number can be categorized thus) are experiencing as they leave their homes in search of safety and security.

However, as Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth points out, the news coverage and political discourse in Europe regarding the influx of those seeking asylum is a distortion. Admitting a few hundred thousand refugees is not a crisis and won't bring the EU to its knees. As Roth states:

This "wave of people" is more like a trickle when considered against the pool that must absorb it. The European Union's population is roughly 500 million. The latest estimate of the numbers of people using irregular means to enter Europe this year via the Mediterranean or the Balkans is approximately 340,000. In other words, the influx this year is only 0.068 percent of the EU's population. Considering the EU's wealth and advanced economy, it is hard to argue that Europe lacks the means to absorb these newcomers.

The numbers of refugees being accepted country to country vary dramatically. In 2015, Germany will likely take in a respectable 800,000. The UK, on the other hand, has resettled 216 Syrian refugees; according to a recent headline in the Washington Post, "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train."

As for the United States, it has been relatively generous with offering refugee aid (about $4 billion). Nevertheless, it has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees, a number so small it looks like a typo. According to the Wall Street Journal: "The State Department has received 17,000 referrals for Syrians from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees since 2011 and resettled about 9% of those who have applied...."

Given the role the United States (with British assistance) has played in (1) destabilizing Afghanistan and Iraq, (2) creating the circumstances in which ISIS was able to thrive, and (3) its exacerbation of and diplomatic negligence on the Syrian issue, this number is lamentable. There are 600,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million (and a GDP of $45 billion; think Panama), has taken in a million.

August 10, 2015

Tae Kwon Do in Zaatari

Zaatari is a refugee camp in Jordan, located in the country's desert far north. It is home to over 80,000 Syrian refugees, one of the many heartrending statistics produced by the ongoing four-year civil war. Basically a city, Zaatari is now among the largest in Jordan.

In sum, half of Syria's population has been displaced, either internally (7.6 million) or into surrounding countries (4 million). The death toll is nearing a quarter million.

I have covered the basic history elsewhere. For this post, I wish to focus on this photo essay that appeared in the Guardian. As someone who follows Middle Eastern affairs, I see countless unpleasant photos of children: in camps or dead in the street or looking into the camera while covered in dirt and blood. It never ends. These photos, however, also registered quite deeply. (I recorded a similar experience in a blog post earlier this year: "Meditation on a photograph," Jan. 2, 2015.)

In this case, the images in the Guardian piece are a bit of good news. They show perseverance under tragic, wretched circumstances. I found them moving, if somewhat emotionally hard to reflect on.

They're positive, yes. But the background is still part of the picture, literally and figuratively. And when US involvement in Syria is taken into account, as it should be—its diplomatic negligence, its aggravation of the conflict via arms provision, its contributions to the emergence of ISIS, and so on—this photography of kids doing martial arts in Zaatari gets harder to look at.

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