Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

You Don’t Have to Know Russian to Read Russian Propaganda; Try U.S. Social Media Sites

Reports are surfacing that Russian interests paid for numerous adds on Facebook before the 2016 U.S. election. These adds reportedly focused on divisive issues in an attempt to polarize the elections to Russia’s advantage.

Facebook says it has identified hundreds of fake accounts connected to Russian groups known for trolling on social media. Facebook says it is cooperating with U.S. investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

Social media sites have an obligation to weed out hidden political advertising masquerading as news. However, as the comic strip character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

We are the ones who stopped reading newspapers and began depending on social media for our news. Too many of us ignored actual news gathered by professionals.

As long as we prefer to find our “news” from tweets and Facebook, we risk electing officials just as unprofessional and ill prepared to govern.

Hurricanes and Earthquakes: What Do We Care About?

Our overly active hurricane season illustrates how unprepared most of us are for natural disasters.

In our seismically challenged Pacific Northwest, studies indicate insufficient preparation for a major earthquake.

An extensive drill found that the region would be unable to cope with the three million or so survivors who would need food, water, shelter, and medical aid ( The Seattle Times, October 23, 2016).

“Everything we depend on to live our 21st century lives is going to be significantly degraded or eradicated,” one official said. “The needs are going to be immediate, they are going to be urgent and they are going to be overwhelming.”

These warnings are similar to those sounded as major hurricanes approach.

Smartphones and Facebook helped rescuers find trapped families in Texas, but electrical power outages, lost computers, and damaged cellphones begin to limit digital use.

What do we depend on when these fail us?

We depend on basic networks so often neglected in our wired age. We depend on families, neighborhoods, and face to face friendships. And also on the kindness of strangers.

Battle of the Handshakes

In Western societies, the handshake became evidence of a binding contract to buy and sell. It could also signal a truce or peace agreement between warring parties. Informally, it was a way of welcoming a stranger.

Like many other practices, President Trump has upended this friendly gesture of respect. In shaking the hand of recently appointed Supreme Justice, Neil Gorsuch, Trump appeared to want to pull Gorsuch off his feet.

Handshakes between President Trump and the leaders of our allies have descended to wrestling grips. Some appear to cause actual physical pain to Trump’s handshake partner.

As leaders have wised up to Trump’s apparent understanding of handshakes as another form of warfare, they have developed strategies to deal with it.

French President Emmanuel Macron gripped Trump’s hand as hard as Trump gripped his. Trump appeared to slightly wince while Macron grinned. Macron later commented, “One must show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an amateur boxer, also came off well in the handshake match.

Since most leaders of our allies are younger than Trump, time would appear to be on their side.

What To Do When Neo-Nazis Come to Call

When far right protestors picked Charlottesville, Virginia, to hold a rally, Leah Wise, who lives there, wondered what her response would be. She finally chose to go to her church, St. Paul’s Memorial, the evening the rally took place. (“Dispatches from Charlottesville: What Happens When Neo-Nazis Are Outside Your Church Doors,” Christianity Today, September, 2017.)

That evening a standing room only crowd of all religions and colors came together. “We came because we were scared, or at least confused. We didn’t know where else to go. We came because we shared a call to social justice and we knew we needed each other,” Wise wrote.

While protestors gathered in the city, the church group sang “This Little Light of Mine,” clapping and stomping as though in some Appalachian revival service. Their reaction to the chaos outside their doors provided peaceful encouragement to those opposed to hatred and racism.

In other commentary, Danny Westneat (The Seattle Times, “Stop Feeding the Neo-Nazi Beast,” August 16, 2017), cautions against shouting matches with the protestors or attacking them.

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Fight fanaticism with fire? No, with modesty and moderation,” (as quoted in The Seattle Times, August 20, 2017).

“Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths—between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity,” Brooks wrote.

When the times are out of joint, dysfunctional groups take advantage of fear and uncertainty. It’s doubtful these groups will go away any time soon.

Moving society in the opposite direction—step by step, election by election, good work by good work—requires long term commitment. The missionary preacher Paul summed up this kind of activity in his letter to the Ephesians: “Be angry, but do not sin . . . ”

Life after Hate

“Oh, honey, you’re so much better than that.”

Such was the comment of a restaurant waitress, an elderly African-American woman, to a young man after she saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. Her concern pricked his conscience. Eventually he changed the focus of his life from hate to helping others.

This story is mentioned in “Confessions of a Former White Supremacist” (Sojourners, August 2017) by Jason Byassee. The article chronicles the journey of the former white supremacist, Tony McAleer.

McAleer is co-founder of “Life After Hate,” a group working to free those bound by the hate of extremism.

McAleer’s life illustrates why some fall into the extremist trap. His father neglected his son physically and emotionally. Growing up, McAleer often was bullied. Joining a hate group was a way to cope. It provided him with the identity he lacked. His anger “rotted into neo-Nazism.”

Eventually finding himself the single father of two children, McAleer realized that he was responsible for lives other than his own and began a slow process, through counseling, toward improving his life.

His therapist was Jewish, a member of a group McAleer had been taught to hate. Yet, he helped McAleer to love himself.

Hating those who hate—despising them—only feeds their own self-hatred, to see themselves as unlovable. Instead, loving them and calling them to love themselves can be one step toward abolishing the hatred that claims the hater as its first victim.

Dr. Strangelove Rides Again

Each anniversary of the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima (and later another on Nagasaki) in August, 1945, news media display images of the aftermath. The blasted landscapes, devoid of humans, have always sobered us. Other images of burn victims and sufferers from radiation sickness increase our horror.

This year, those images haunt us even more, as a small dictatorship revives the fear of nuclear annihilation. Ironically, North Korea lies not far from those unfortunate Japanese cities, the only ones to suffer from nuclear weapons.

It seems absurd. Those of us who remember fears of a nuclear holocaust during the Cold War may also remember the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a black comedy starring Peter Sellers, dealing with those fears.

We also remember the joy that erupted when the Cold War, we thought, ended. The United States and the Soviet Union signed a treaty and actually began dismantling some of their nuclear arsenals.

Whatever faults the two superpowers committed during the Cold War were redeemed by one fact: Though both had nuclear weapons, neither used them.

Was it the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)? Perhaps, but through it all, people of differing political persuasions and forms of government worked and hoped for the abolishment of this Dr. Strangelove kind of weapon.

Now, like a sudden resurrection of our Cold War nightmare, we fear the madness of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. Unfortunately, our current president appears to enjoy some of Kim’s tactics, the two trading insults like leaders of adolescent street gangs.

In the background, almost on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, the United Nations Security Council passed a bill calling for sanctions against North Korea. The fact that the fifteen members of the council voted unanimously for the measure indicates the seriousness of North Korea’s threat.

We can only hope for the success of this slow but less deadly way to rid the world of Kim’s weapons.

One Immigrant’s Confusing Experience

Luma Simms is a Christian Iraqi who settled in California with her refugee family in 1978. According to her story in Plough Quarterly (Winter, 2017), she has pleasant memories of her early years in Iraq with grandparents and family members.

Other memories are not so pleasant. The family suffered discrimination because they were different—they were Christians, a minority.

However, her first memories as a school child in California were not pleasant either. She could not speak English, and local foods, like peanut butter, were strange. As before, her school mates saw her as different and sometimes taunted her with names—“Luma Puma Montezuma.”

She learned to read English and devoured books like Charlotte’s Web. Then the Iranian hostage crisis caused her family to try to hide the fact that they were from the Middle East. “Just say you’re from Greece if anyone asks,” her parents told their children.

Of those times, Luma says, “The internal turmoil of those years has never left me. It has shaped me and informed how I view human identity and immigration.”

She contemplates the devastation in her birth country by two Iraqi wars, invasions led by her adopted country, the United States. She calls on the U.S. to aid in healing and rebuilding the country.

But the U.S. must not, Luma says, attempt to build another people and society, as in Iraq, in the image of itself. “Bringing freedom to a people starts with respecting them as a people in their own right.”

Luma ends her article by describing how she, a daughter of God, has synthesized the two worlds she knows. “I am a daughter whom he brought from the East. It was in the West that he recreated me . . . and gathered me into his kingdom, where all his people become one.”

In the News This Week: Liu Xiaobo Died; Donald Trump, Jr, Sought Scandal

Liu Xiaobo, Chinese human rights advocate, won the Nobel Prize for peace in 2010. The Chinese government refused to let him receive it, eventually sentencing him to prison.

Dying of cancer, he was not allowed by Chinese leaders to leave the country for treatment. Finally, they sent him, in his last few days, to a hospital in northeast China, where he died.

The United States has been, through much of its history, a lodestone for those living under oppressive governments, and who, like Liu, call for changes and suffer for their efforts.

While Liu was in the last stages of his illness, however, the United States was losing the world’s respect. The Trump government was increasingly seen as isolated and dysfunctional, more interested in strengthening relations with strongmen like Russian leader Putin than in serving as a beacon for democracy.

Emails of Donald Trump, Jr., surfaced, in which he said he would love to meet with representatives of Russian interests to obtain incriminating emails on Hilary Clinton. The offer appeared to be a ruse to discuss Russia’s desire for relief from economic sanctions against Russia. Some of the sanctions relate to holding accountable those responsible for the murder of a Russian lawyer involved in uncovering fraud by Russian officials.

The Economist (July 15, 2017) wrote: “It would be nice to think that political campaigns ought not to work with foreign governments who imprison and beat up their domestic political opponents. Nice, but probably unrealistic.”

Another comment elsewhere in the magazine offered a gleam of hope: “The scandal is becoming a clash between the worst aspects of American democracy and the best. The worst is its bilious myopic hyper-partisanship; the best the unrivalled ability of American institutions, including journalists whom Mr. Trump reviles, to hold the powerful to account. Legally and politically, the ending is unclear. Morally, the verdict is already in.”

Not Your Grandmother’s Cold War

“I Led Three Lives,” a TV show in the 1950’s, was based on the story of an actual person, Herbert Philbrick. He lived as an American businessman, a Communist spy, and an American counterspy for the FBI. In those old days of the Cold War, the different sides used espionage and radio broadcasts.

Today, hacking and cyber warfare have overtaken the earlier methods.

Some worry that politics surrounding the testimony of former FBI director James Comey will blind Americans to Comey’s warnings about the serious Russian intrusion into our elections.

“The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle,” Comey said. “They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government.”

Whatever Donald Trump and his election team did or did not do, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates the interference of a hostile power in our election process. European democracies have also been attacked. These attempts should be taken seriously by all political parties.

It seems like an age since the end of the old Cold War in the early 1990’s. Today’s young people weren’t around, and the over thirty crowd have forgotten the euphoria in Europe and the United States when Eastern Europeans danced in the streets and reclaimed their countries from the Soviets.

Americans were going to have a peace dividend and beat their swords into plowshares. Russians were going to have free elections and a free press and join the rapidly escalating democratization of the world.

Instead we seem to have fallen, like Alice, through a rabbit hole into a crazy place of fake news, hacked political systems, and the rise of strong men with dictatorial powers, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte.

Our governments, national and local, are tasked with developing technical methods to neutralize cyber attacks. Citizens, however, have the duty of reading widely and responsibly. Fake news disappears without followers.


Are Free Elections All We Need for Democracy? What Is Illiberal Democracy?

On April 16, Turkish voters gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, greatly increased powers. Observers believe Erdogan, already attacking dissent and the free press, will act to further erode civil rights in his country, even becoming something of a modern day sultan.

Turkey is a democracy, a Muslim majority nation located where the Middle East meets Europe. It is a member of NATO and thus allied militarily with the United States and other western nations.

The election in Turkey is the latest in a series of democracies moving to limit civil liberties, including Russia and Hungary.

Two decades ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 1997). At the time, U.S. embassies in the Middle East, where I was serving, championed free elections as an answer to many of the problems there.

Zakaria sounded a warning about the consequences of free elections without other safeguards. “It has been difficult to recognize this problem,” Zakaria wrote, “because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Free elections alone, Zakaria pointed out, may produce dominance of one ethnic group, or the election of leaders from a single family corrupted by crime, or the suppression of free speech and religion.

Along with free elections, Zakaria said, we must include other measures such as a constitution granting protection to all, regardless of ethnic identity, religious preference, or other identifiers. A judiciary unconstrained by the need to be reelected every few years in partisan contests is also necessary.

Is the recent election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency a move toward illiberal democracy and the protection of favored groups? Or is it a correction, instead, toward a government that includes those left out of a changing economy and culture? Both?

Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan. Most other western democracies were more restrained. Russia, however, also congratulated the Turkish leader.

Third Horseman of the Apocalypse

In the Christian Old Testament, seeking food for self and animals is often a part of the stories. Herdsmen like Abraham moved to find better pastures for their flocks. A famine in Israel sent Jacob and his large family fleeing into Egypt. Lack of rain in the time of the prophets led Elijah to a miraculous encounter with a poor widow.

Obviously, areas with less predictable rain, as in much of the Middle East and parts of Africa, are more likely to suffer famine than countries in temperate climates. Sometimes, however, famine is not caused by weather but by conflict.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who follow each other in the book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament, are sometimes depicted as conquest, war, famine, and death. The third horseman, famine, is not the result of weather but of conquest and war. It is human caused.

This kind of famine is afflicting millions of people in the countries of South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. In Sudan, they flee power struggles, often over oil revenues or ethnic rivalries. In Nigeria, people flee terrorism. Somalia’s looming famine is partly a problem with lack of rain but is increased by struggles with the terrorist group, al-Shabab.

Yemen, a country in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, suffers fallout from rivalry between Saudi Arabia and its arch enemy Iran. The two countries are supporting rival factions that are tearing the country apart. Terrorist groups also have made inroads, as they often do in areas of conflict.

Some relief is possible if food shipments can be unloaded in one of the ports. According to reports, Saudi Arabia has so far been unwilling to allow shipments to the people they are fighting.

The United States has supported Saudi Arabia in this struggle. If we are truly a compassionate nation, we will exert as much pressure as possible on Saudi Arabia not to use starvation as a weapon of war. Else, we will be collaborators in the resulting deaths.

Syria: No One Wants to Own It

A previous post “The Graveyard of Empires” pointed to the number of empires throughout history that bogged down after entry into the Middle East. But the Middle East continues to thrust itself onto the world’s stage, like some black pestilence.

Today, it’s the horrendous deaths in Syria apparently caused by a gas attack on civilians. Most nations are condemning the attacks, and especially Bashar al Assad’s rule there, abetted by Russia.

Perhaps things will change, but as of now, no one appears to know what to do to prevent future attacks. No one wants to own the problem.

Recent interventions to “fix” international problems have often made them worse. Unlike World War II, a powerful alliance working together seems nonexistent. Militarily, an immediate fix might tumble Assad, but where’s the will for another Marshall Plan? That effort, after World War II, used billions in aid, not for war, but to build the economies and governments of post war Europe.

The saying is: “If you break it, you fix it.” And no one wants to risk the cost of fixing Syria.