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June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

I have mentioned Parts Unknown host and author Anthony Bourdain on this blog on a number of occasions. I posted reviews of his "Jerusalem" (Sep. 16, 2013) and "Iran" (Nov. 3, 2014) episodes, which were appreciative, but not uncritical.

My comments (May 31, 2014) on his acceptance video for the Voice of Courage and Conscience Media Award, however, were more positive. Bourdain was given the award from the Muslim Public Affairs Council for Parts Unknown's "Jerusalem" episode and in his statement offered important remarks about the situation in Palestine.

When critical of Bourdain, it was based on the observation that he could play it safe, politically. I felt on occasion he could have been less "New York Times" in how he approached topics where US foreign policy interests were concerned, especially with regard to episodes in the Middle East.

That said, Bourdain's work on Parts Unknown, and No Reservations (Travel Channel) before that, made enormous contributions to humanizing the people of the Middle East. His episodes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt on No Reservations are well worth watching. His trips to Beirut, for both shows, are also very good. Bourdain portrayed Arab culture and hospitality as it is, something I've had the good fortune to experience.

Not only did Bourdain humanize Middle Easterners across the region, he also humanized humans across the globe. Through hundreds of episodes, spanning multiple programs and almost 20 years, Bourdain introduced us to people, cultures, and food all over the world, and did so with humanity, honesty, humor, and inimitable style. And that world is now poorer for his absence. I am quite sorry he is gone.

May 15, 2018

US embassy ceremony in Jerusalem + blog repost

While symbolic in nature, the White House's relocation yesterday of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter as the nation's capital, will compound increasingly tense circumstances. In a sense, the decision rewards the rightwing government and policies of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It sends the message that "Everything is fine, keep up the good work."

The contrasting news photography from the day was a commentary in itself: images of the ceremonial unveiling of the US seal at the embassy set against images of Palestinian protesters being shot like stray dogs by Israeli snipers, over 50 reported dead.

As Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner voiced hollow words of peace at the ceremony, it brought to mind world renowned entertainers and artists availing themselves of the same rhetoric, attempting to justify performing for Israeli audiences. This also sends the message that everything is fine; that what is being done to the people in Gaza is a separate issue; that the healing power of music will bear wondrous gifts.

Though her long delay in taking a stand has been unfortunate, actress Natalie Portman's recent boycott of an award ceremony to be held in her honor in Israel is to be commended. Hopefully, more high-profile entertainers will follow Portman's dignified example (and avoid Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke's undignified example) in helping to signal that everything is not fine.

As must be mentioned, this is not a matter of choosing sides, something I have been clear about for over 15 years now. US support and diplomatic protection of Israel, as it conducts a military occupation of over 4.5 million Palestinians, is both bad for Palestine and bad for Israel. Several former senior-ranking members of Israel's security services—hardly individuals one would brand as "anti-Israeli"—have asserted as much.

Israel exists. It is a member of the UN. It possesses the same legitimacy as any other country. And it should be encouraged to progress. The White House just did the state of Israel a tremendous disservice. And pointing out that fact is precisely pro-Israeli.

. . .

Shortly after President Trump's announcement last December that he would move the US embassy in Israel, I wrote an essay entitled "Jerusalem," attempting to clarify the matter and provide what the news wasn't.

In light of yesterday's relocation ceremony, I have reposted that piece here.

May 11, 2018

Trump and Iran

Former president Jimmy Carter recently stated in a CNN interview, "When a president signs an agreement, it should be binding on all his successors, unless the situation changes dramatically, and it hasn't changed." Carter of course is right. The situation regarding Iran has not changed dramatically, or undramatically for that matter.

By all accounts, Iran has been in compliance with the terms established by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has watched Iran like a hawk and has reported no violations. As mentioned in the Washington Post (May 8, 2018), the IAEA's director general, Yukiya Amano, "told the agency’s 35-nation board of governors [in March] that Iran has complied so far with every request made by his inspectors."

Iran's compliance is unsurprising. There was no evidence prior to the nuclear agreement that Iran was moving in the direction of weaponizing its low-enrichment nuclear program. They therefore have nothing to hide, and much to potentially gain economically by cooperating.

However, the agreement between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) was never really about nuclear weapons or Iran posing an actual threat. As repeatedly expressed by members of the intelligence communities in both the United States and Israel, Iran is a rational actor. It always bears repeating that over the last hundred years, the number of countries invaded by Iran is zero. While it possesses adequate defense capabilities, Iran lacks the capacity for power projection. Iran's military budget is similar to that of Greece and smaller than that of Mexico.

Yet, for decades Iran has been painted as diabolical and devious. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran refused to operate as a US client, as it had under the Shah. In the realm of US foreign policy, this is a mortal sin. But the diplomacy between the Obama White House and Tehran—with presidents Obama and Hassan Ruhani conversing on the phone—signaled a shift. Behind all the talk of nuclear weapons was simply the possible thawing of relations.

The Obama administration apparently deemed it was time to slowly bring Tehran back into the fold. As a matter of course, this was all to the absolute horror of Israel and Saudi Arabia. If US-Iran relations reverted to the way things were before 1979, this would diminish Israeli and Saudi prestige. Hence, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's repeated and frenzied presentations and talk of Iran's "tentacles of terror."

The JCPOA was of course a good idea. Despite Iran not seeking a weapons program, transparency and prevention never hurt. No rational person wants to see Iran with nuclear weapons, in the same way that any rational person would prefer the United States and Israel and all nuclear states disarm and decommission their programs. It is worth noting that Iran advocates for the Middle East being a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Tehran is also a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel does not. Israel is not.

President Trump's withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, on the other hand, was of course a bad idea. This sentiment is naturally shared all over the world. Within the United States, only 29 percent of Americans support withdrawal from the agreement (Reuters/Ipsos). A recent poll by the Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) organization, which conducts surveys of international relations scholars, revealed that 94 percent of scholars would disapprove US withdrawal.

The knock-on effects of Trump's decision remain to be seen. US withdrawal could embolden hardliners in Iran. The country's moderate president—described by the New York Times as the "chief loser" in the current situation—is being projected as weak and a dupe of Washington. Though it is impossible to determine as yet how Tehran will respond, hardline elements there are already making the case for reinvigorating nuclear activities. "We will break the cement of Arak," said one member of Iran's parliament, referring to a nuclear facility near that town (NYT, May 9, 2018).

Though Trump has left open the possibility of negotiating a new agreement, British foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently revealed an international offer to augment the one that already exists. "Britain worked alongside France and Germany to find a way forward," Johnson recently said at the House of Commons, "that would have addressed the [American] president's concerns and allowed the US to stay in the JCPOA, but without reopening the terms of the agreement." Such efforts were not successful.

Much like Trump's approach to healthcare, he would rather destroy something rather than improve something. He would rather create instability and chaos, which have serious and real effects on people's lives, a non-priority for this president. What will unfold in the short to midterm is unknown and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, the White House's decision only adds to an already unstable region, possibly creating the conditions for nightmarish scenarios. Unfortunately, anything is possible. President Trump's specific calculations are unknown, but likely involve Israeli and Saudi interests.

When one filters out the noise of personality and the endless scandals, Trump's administration bears a distinct resemblance to that of George W. Bush. And the message Bush sent to the world after 9/11 was, if you wish to be left alone by the United States (or Israel), you'll need a nuclear weapon. That message has been broadcast once again.

March 12, 2018

Film: The Young Karl Marx

I recently watched and very much enjoyed director Raoul Peck's new film, The Young Karl Marx. (It's still in theaters, but is also available to rent on the major platforms.)

The movie spans a short segment of the young philosopher's life, roughly five years, concentrating on Marx's relationships with his wife, Jenny, and his close friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels. The narrative culminates with the authoring of the The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, just prior to Marx turning 30.

Instead of a full review, suffice it to say that Peck did a fine job keeping to the history and biography. While still a movie, the effort at fidelity—to people, names, events, language used, etc.—is admirable; Peck did considerable homework. It is also a good piece of filmmaking: the acting and casting are both excellent, the story well told, and the set design nicely detailed.

Also, instead of provide a primer on Marx's thought (see note below), I wish to simply express my hopes that the film reaches a sizable audience. Karl Marx is on that list of writers who are severely misunderstood and fictionalized due to a lack of reading their work. This list would include Adam Smith, Friedrich Nietzsche, Noam Chomsky, and (I recently decided) Thomas Hobbes. However, on such a list, Marx is probably at the top, especially for Americans.

For those new to Marx, I might suggest starting with the movie, actually. As mentioned, yes, it's a movie, not a documentary. But the film does a nice job of humanizing the historical figure, affording him a much needed third dimension.

Some who are new might also be a bit standoffish. This is likely on account of what you have heard your father, uncle, or grandfather say about Marx and "communism" (sermonizing about such topics tends to be a male-dominated activity). Three of the more popular distortions:

1. Marx's thought was on display in the Soviet Union, and what more proof do you need that Marxism is terrible?

2. Marx wanted people to live like ants in a colony, and because people are not ants, "socialism would never work."

3. Marx once said "I am not a Marxist," and therefore didn't believe his own philosophy.

Point 1 is simply wrong and only requires consulting some basic history; the World Book encyclopedia would probably be adequate. Point 2 is my personal favorite (the "people aren't insects" bulletin) and is based on the assumption that Marx was laying out a utopian blueprint, which he wasn't; Marx's work constitutes a methodical and philosophical critique of capitalism. And point 3, while correct in a literal sense—those are his words—Marx's point was that he was not a "Marxist" as the label was being applied in France at the time.

Some reviewers and critics have maintained the film was too intellectual, while some felt it was insufficiently so. I feel Peck struck a nice balance, allowing space for history and concepts as well as a good bit of drama and fun. I've seen it twice now and will likely go in for thirds. A movie worth checking out.


For those looking to get acquainted with Marx:

The School of Life has a ten-minute crash course on Marx on YouTube. For a very short (93 pages) and clear introduction to Marx's life and philosophy, I would suggest David McLellan's book Karl Marx. For a fully developed biography and examination of his thought, I started last year, have returned to, and recommend Jonathan Sperber's relatively recent Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013), which includes a good amount of historical context.

February 24, 2018

Parkland: arming teachers

After the shooting in Charleston in 2015, I posted a link to this article, entitled "Your Brain in a Shootout: Guns, Fear and Flawed Instincts."

In the piece, which appeared in Time magazine in 2013, former police officer Jim Glennon shares his experience of being involved in an actual shootout. Glennon was a police-academy trainer, and discusses the effects the stress of a shootout can have on perception and the human mind. His conclusion was that even police lack sufficient training to function proficiently in such a situation, and therefore hopes for the English teacher are rather low.

With suggestions being made by President Trump and others to arm teachers in response to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, this article helps to cut through the cowboy-movie rhetoric that is now standard after a mass shooting.

The United States has a unique gun-violence problem (see statistics here and here). And the problem is being discussed by some, correctly, as a public-health crisis. Though gun violence is the result of multiple factors, gun-control legislation can—as the data bear out—help improve the situation. And any improvement greater than zero is worth pursuing.

My generation (I was born in 1972) and the Baby Boomers excel at criticizing millennials. The criticism is unfounded and requires considerable nerve given the track record of those two demographics. Instead, we should be listening very closely to this country's young people, especially if gun violence is an actual priority and not just an occasion to sound virile and protect the impulses of the increasingly vicious NRA.

February 7, 2018

Gaza photo

I recently happened upon this CNN article and gallery entitled, "Meet the photographers challenging stereotypes of the Middle East." It's worth a look.

Among the images, this particular photo by Palestinian photographer Wissam Nassar, of two kids in a bathtub in Gaza, made an impact.

Perhaps my selection is a bit cliche; photography of kids tends to be popular and an easy appeal to the emotions. Yet, I feel this image is worth the risk of seeming trite (see also my Jan. 12, 2015, blog post).

For one, it's simply a good photograph (composition, palette, timing). For another, it journalistically displays well the devastation that Gaza has suffered, especially over the last decade. Thirdly, the kids laughing in the tub against the backdrop of this devastation serve as a humiliation of longstanding US-Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

Though tempted to include an update on Gaza and its current situation, I think I will leave that for another post. This photograph deserves its own space.

Wissam Nassar, ©2017

December 19, 2017

Inequality, taxes, GOP agenda

This post is something of a roundup of material I've been meaning to share. The items, three in all, address the interrelated issues of worsening income inequality and the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill, specifically, tax legislation and healthcare.

The three are:

1. Noted economist Thomas Piketty and others have launched the World Inequality Report, and this article in the Guardian is their introduction to some of the issues addressed in the WIR. Sober, rational analysis by people who know what they are talking about.

2. Good piece on Trumpism and Republicanism, also in the Guardian, by economist Nouriel Roubini. Go deep; in it Roubini links to, for instance, a worthwhile article by Fareed Zakaria (who does decent work when the subject isn't foreign policy), which in turn links to some interesting pieces and studies. (Some will recall Roubini's name from the 2010 documentary Inside Job. If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend doing so; it superbly examines the causes of the 2008 financial crisis—and provides context for the one we are possibly headed toward.)

3. A clear, informed interview with political scientist Jeffrey Winters concentrating on the Paradise Papers, inequality, and the GOP tax plan. The discussion aired on Jerome McDonnell's Worldview (WBEZ) in November. Worth a couple listens.

The current drift of the Republican Party's agenda—neither secret nor concealed—is to reward the top at the expense of everyone else. The assertion made by party leaders, in an attempt to justify and sell their agenda (tax cuts, deregulation, privatization), is that the "conservative" approach will raise the tide and therefore all boats.

Specifically, it is maintained the GOP's tax plan, with its enormous reductions, will stimulate growth and pay for itself. The Congressional Budget Office disagrees. So does the Tax Policy Center. Also,

In a recent University of Chicago survey of 38 prominent economists across the ideological spectrum, only one said the proposed tax cuts would yield substantial economic growth. Unanimously, the economists said the tax cuts would add to the long-term federal debt burden, now estimated at more than $20 trillion. (NYT, Dec. 3)

In the same Times article, economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz suggests there's only two possibilities concerning the mindset of those pedaling trickle-down economics: it's either a religion or cynicism.

The lack of popularity of the GOP tax plan is also noteworthy, sitting at around 30 percent (five points lower than the president himself). The only major piece of legislation less popular in the last 25 years has been the Republican initiative to repeal Obamacare: 23 percent. (See Michael Tomasky's recent op-ed in the Times, looking at political scientist Chris Warshaw's analyses.)

The Republican Party is doing highly unpopular things, while working alongside a highly unpopular president. From a distance, one wouldn't guess the United States to be a democracy. Yet, we ponder with skepticism, for example, as to whether the people of the Middle East are "ready" for such a responsibility.

This of course is not to suggest that the Democratic Party is the country's knight in shining armor. The Democrats have played a damaging and shameful role with regard to the economy and inequality; operationally, they are now the Republican Party. The GOP, on the other hand, as pointed out by a number of commentators, has degenerated into a cult.

So, when presented with two options, one bad and one (far) worse, the logical choice is the bad. Because less bad is better. And getting to the polls helps get this done. Alabama recently showed the country how it works.

Part of why the Republican Party is making frantic haste to do all it can for the billionaire/donor class, I suspect, is because party managers and their financial backers have seen the future. And the future is minorities and millennials voting their interests. Indignant white men who take issue with "liberals" giving "everything away" to "[insert disparaging label]" are precisely a dying breed. As a result, the GOP inhabits a sinking island, with mortifying irony.

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