Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

Yogurt and the American Dream

You may not have heard of Hamdi Ulukaya, but you may know about, or even consume, Chobani yogurt. The company is based in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, bought a defunct yogurt factory in Twin Falls and turned it into a successful business. He now employs about 2,000 people, according to an article in The Seattle Times (November 6, 2016).

His story reminds us of other migrants before him: refugees from the religious wars that devastated Europe in the 1600’s, the Jews, the Irish, the displaced persons of Europe following World War II, Indochinese from Asian conflicts, and now victims of Middle Eastern wars. The list is long of the different ethnic, religious, and other groups who have found refuge in the United States.

As the Chobani business grew, Ulukaya needed more workers. Close to Twin Falls is a refugee resettlement center. Ulukaya hired about 300 refugees for above minimum wage jobs at his factory.

Sounds like the ultimate rags-to-riches story of the American dream.

Unfortunately, Ulakaya has received death threats on social media from some who claim Ulakaya wishes to “drown the United States in Muslims.” According to the Times article, “the far-right website WND published a story, ‘American Yogurt Tycoon Vows to Choke U.S. With Muslims.’”

The mayor of Twin Falls and his wife have received death threats for supporting Ulukaya’s work, which benefits their region with the money spent by the employees, as well as the taxes they pay.

Past history of other refugees has included hatred of new immigrants, including Irish and Jews. Today, however, we contend with the rumor hate mill of social media, spewing out invectives with no verification required.

How do we discourage these unfair attacks? Something to think about as a new administration takes office in Washington.

The Canadian Century?

Perhaps the twenty-first century will be called Pax Canada as the twentieth was known as Pax Americana and the nineteenth as Pax Britannica.

In a section called “Liberty Moves North,” the British magazine The Economist (October 29, 2016) suggested Canada might be a replacement for the United States as a leader for hope and justice in the world.

Maybe Canada will take up what some consider the fallen American (U.S.) guardianship of a rules-based order. The United States was the great influencer in the last half of the twentieth century. The country gained economic power and a measure of wealth for many of its citizens as a result.

Bucking the populist trend toward protectionism, Canada has just signed a trade agreement with Europe.

If Canada grows in influence as the United States did in the twentieth, perhaps Canada will allow the United States the same kind of protection that the U.S. afforded Great Britain and Europe in the past century.

American Leadership Is Not a Given

Polarized Americans agree on one thing: Never again do they want a political campaign like the one they’ve just suffered.

The campaign has done more than traumatize American citizens. It has damaged the effectiveness of the United States’ ability to operate in the rest of the world.

In a quote in The New York Times, one Lebanese reporter, Hisham Melhem, illustrated the feeling: “. . . there were always pockets of people who had studied in the U.S. who still looked up to the United States . . . Now many of them have given up on the United States as a beacon of progress and enlightenment.”

One member of India’s ruling party asked, “These are the two best candidates they have to run the biggest economy and the oldest democracy in the world?”

Whether Americans seek military alliances to fight terrorism before it reaches the United States, customers to buy their products, or other underpinnings of American influence in the world, the United States requires the good will of others. Plenty of countries wait in the wings to take America’s place as a world leader.

Muslim Democracy

Of all the countries convulsed by the Arab Spring, beginning in 2010, only the small North African nation of Tunisia remains a serious contender for a democratic form of government.

One of the leaders of the democracy movement in Tunisia offered his thoughts on Muslims and democracy. (Rached Ghannouchi, “From Political Islam to Muslim Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2016.)

Ghannouchi helped found the Ehnnahda Pary as an Islamist party years ago when Tunisia was still ruled by a dictator. He suffered imprisonment and torture for his activities,

He believes past Tunisian dictatorships forced secularism on Tunisians. Since the people now are free to practice Islam if they wish, Ghannouchi writes, he no longer sees a need for his party to protect Islam as a core political activity.

The new constitution, he says, “enshrines democracy and protects political and religious freedoms.” Muslims now are free to worship as they please.

But how free are religious minorities to practice their religion?

Most Tunisians practice Sunni Islam, but Christians, Jews, and other faiths are represented in the population. Some operate schools for their youth.

When I lived in Tunisia in the early 2000’s, before the Arab Spring, I attended a mostly expatriate gathering of Christians. On my way to the church, I passed a Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue. Local Christians also gather in Tunisia, as do Bahais.

Tunisia’s constitution declares Islam to be the country’s religion. The Tunisian president must be Muslim. Yet, the constitution also stipulates that the country is a civil state. It guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices.

No doubt the average Tunisian accepts the concept of a state religion with some tolerance for other beliefs. The line between complete religious freedom and the pull of a majority religion is never easy for any nation.

For more information, the following link will take you to the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2015. Find your way to the report on Tunisia and other countries of interest to you.

Graveyard of Empires

What’s the best bad way to cope with the Middle East? The next U.S. president had better be prepared.

The Middle East is called “the graveyard of empires.” The small region where Africa, Asia, and Europe connect has bedeviled conquerors for millennia.

An instructor in one of my classes when I worked for the U.S. State Department told us about a cliff or large rock in the country of Lebanon. The rock is inscribed with graffiti of various conquering groups passing that way over centuries, each presence erased by the next. The list might include Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, French, and British.

One of the last of the conquerors, Britain, wanted a friendly Middle East because of the Suez Canal and the desire for safe passage to India, one of their dominions. Untold numbers of British soldiers died in various wars in the region until Britain retreated from most of its possessions.

For one thing, different ethnic and religious communities live side by side throughout the region. Choosing allies from one group makes enemies of other groups.

Example: many of the Kurds, U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State, are enemies of the Turks, our NATO ally.

Another example: Iraq used to be governed by a dictator, Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, even though the majority of Iraqis are Shia Muslim. Now, after our war against Saddam, the Shia are the dominant force in the Iraqi government and have problems with the Sunni, who lost power. Some of the Sunni supported the Islamic State, which the Iraqi government is fighting.

The United States became interested in the Middle East when oil became important to our economy and massive supplies were found there. Now we are learning why this area is called a graveyard.

Shaming Russia

“How can people go sit at a table with a regime that bombs hospitals and drops chlorine gas again and again and again and again and again and again, and acts with impunity? Are you supposed to sit there and have happy talk in Geneva under those circumstances when you’ve signed up to a ceasefire and you don’t adhere to it? What kind of credibility do you have with any of your people?”

–John Kerry, U.S. Secretary of State, at the United Nations during talks on Syria

The recent talks followed air strikes which killed workers attempting to bring relief supplies to besieged Syrian civilians, despite an agreed upon ceasefire. The United States has blamed Russia, either for the strikes or allowing their Syrian allies to carry them out.

John Kerry is a diplomat’s diplomat. He continually remains civil and courteous even to those who must frustrate him to the point of insanity. This time, however, he could not contain his anger.

Until now, he’s managed civil negotiations with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. He wants Lavrov and his country, in the interests of simple humanity, to reign in their protegé, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader. Assad has committed atrocities against his people surely surpassing Russia’s own Ivan the Terrible.

Russians support Assad because they wish to retain their airbase and Mediterranean port in Syria. What to do?

Considering what happened when U.S. troops invaded Iraq, few Americans wish to commit their troops to Syria. The United Nations is hamstrung from acting because of Russia’s veto in the Security Council.

One suggestion is for American planes to bomb Syria’s airfields, preventing planes from using them to bomb civilians. Such actions are an act of war against a country not directly harming us.

Perhaps the heroes are those who come back, yes, again and again to seek a solution. If the atrocities committed in that small country continue, they refuse to allow the world to forget. Let the shaming continue.

The Call to Be Pro-Truthers

The Economist (September 10, 2016) noted that politicians have always lied, but current trends suggest that in today’s world, truth has been left behind entirely. We see it in political campaigns, not only in the United States but in other democracies, as in Britain during the vote to leave or stay in the European Union.

We see it also in misinformation deliberately fed into the internet, as Russia has been accused of doing in feeding falsehoods to the world through social media.

One reason for the influence of false information, suggested by The Economist, is “magical thinking.” In a time of terrorism, new diseases, and other threats not easily controlled, people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and fringe ideas. For some of us, they provide neat answers to complex questions. An unsubstantiated speculation “feels” right, whether or not it’s backed up with facts.

Another reason for the prevalence of falsehood is how we now choose to receive our news. Social media is helpful in putting more information at our fingertips, but little of it classifies as investigative reporting. It does have the ability to spread unsubstantiated rumor as the truth to millions in seconds.

What can be done? Checking a rumor with a reputable fact finding site is helpful. However, until we practice the hard discipline of reading more from reputable sources (online or in print), democracy will be threatened by demagogues and hucksters out for their own gain.

Sicily, Early 2000’s, Before the Trickle of Boat People Became a Wave

Before the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts, I wandered through a market place in Sicily, the Mediterranean island nestled off the coast of Italy. A few of the sellers appeared to be recent immigrants from sub Saharan Africa and stood out in that European culture.

Years before, I listened to a speaker in a U.S. State Department seminar. He warned of huge pressures building in African and Near Eastern communities. Europe, he said, would experience a wave of boat people surpassing all previous population movements.

The speaker was correct. In Sicily, I had witnessed the beginnings of those waves of immigrants. The subject of immigration has now roiled the electorate on both sides of the Atlantic.

The United States was built by immigrants, from the first settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth to today’s immigrant harvesters in our orchards and our knowledge workers at Microsoft and Intel. We have depended on immigrants and continue to do so.

With a culture of immigration, the United States has proved a better integrator of immigrants into society than has Europe. It has reaped the rewards of new entrepreneurs and vibrant communities.

Any nation must allow an honest discussion about effects of an overwhelming tide of newcomers. Yet, compassion for the vast majority who flee from awful brutality, who are themselves the targets of terrorism, compels us to develop humane policies.

We can work with all countries where desperate people seek refuge. Some nations like Jordan, one of our allies in the Middle East, cope with refugee numbers massively out of proportion to their small native populations.

Europe and the United States also must own the colonialism and the oil wars that contributed to the economic hardship and brutality that have sent so many men, women, and children fleeing.

If the Nation Goes to War, Everybody Goes to War

The draft for service in the United States military ended in 1973. Since then, the nation has relied on a volunteer force, despite fighting the longest war in U.S. history, the double Afghan/Iraq conflicts. U.S. military personnel were severely strained, leading to damaging multiple tours of duty for a tiny minority of Americans.

“By rescinding their prior acceptance of conscription, the American people effectively opted out of war . . .” Andrew J. Bacevich wrote in Foreign Affairs (“Ending Endless War,” September/October 2016). The shortcomings of this policy are, he said, “glaringly apparent.”

Less than half a percent of Americans serve combat tours, while the vast majority of Americans attend to shopping and lives as usual. They didn’t even push Congress to roll back the tax cuts of the early 2000’s, greatly reducing our ability to pay for the Afghan/Iraq conflicts.

Usually, when the nation fights a war, citizens at least share the burden by paying more taxes to support the efforts, but not in this case. Obviously, such irresponsibility greatly increases our national debt, leaving less money for everything from building roads to research into conquering new diseases like the Ebola and Zika viruses.

From now on, Bacevich said, we should use military force only as a last resort. The American people should be fully engaged in supporting it, not just a few uniformed personnel. Allies should do their part for their own security.

He recommends several steps to remedy the unequal sacrifice of those who serve. One is a requirement that American citizens pay for wars in which they send their soldiers to die. Another is a military reserve that mirrors American society in “race, gender, region, and, above all, class.”

If we all share the sacrifice of military action, we might use it more wisely.

America’s Gift to Exiles

The country of Turkey, a NATO ally, has issued an extradition order to the United States for Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish national living in Pennsylvania.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, recently put down a coup attempt by Turkish military officers to overthrow him. Europe and the United States condemned the coup, an attempt against a democratically elected leader.

In 1999, Gulen broke with Erdogan in an apparent power struggle and took refuge in the United States. Many Turks, including Erdogan, believe the coup was masterminded by Gulen. They want him brought back to Turkey for trial.

Some have deplored the harshness with which Erdogan is dealing with suspects in the coup plot, suggesting Erdogan is using the coup as a means to consolidate power, even become a dictator. They also wonder if Gulen could receive a fair trail in Turkey, if he is indeed guilty of the charges. Is Erdogan merely using his current popularity for putting down the coup as a way to get rid of an old antagonist?

The United States says it is considering the extradition request and has asked for absolute proof that Gulen is indeed guilty. He says he had nothing to do with the coup.

This is not the first time dissidents have sought refuge in the United States. More recently, Yu Jie, a Chinese dissident, settled with his wife and son in Washington, D.C. to continue his writing. Yu Jie, a Christian, writing in First Things (August/September, 2016), cites Christianity’s growth in China and predicts that “Christianity is China’s future.” This is probably not the future desired by current Chinese leaders.

Gullen’s fate is still to be decided as of this writing. Has he been guilty of aid to a coup against a democracy? Or is he one of a long line of persecuted dissidents the country has taken in, from religious nonconformists to political exiles?

City Street Lights and Brexit

Our small town plans to replace the city’s street lamps with bulbs that last longer and use less electricity. One type of light is being considered, but residents in some cities with these lights have criticized the emission from the bulbs as “too harsh.” Thus, one such light was installed on a corner for residents to examine its effects and decide if they want them all over town.

Since we’re little more than six square blocks, most residents can easily walk over after dark and check it out. They are then invited to email the mayor with their observations. A yes or no decision suits this kind of situation.

Not so with Brexit, the vote by the British to leave the European Union. The European Union was formed over several decades following World War II. The goal was the formation of a closer union to avoid more war and brutality between the nations of Europe, especially between Germany and France. Anybody who has read The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr understands the tragedies of those wars.

Few deny that the European Union has made mistakes, including, some say, the creation of a single currency before adequate institutions were built to manage it. Others cite mistakes in handling the mass migration into Europe from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Nevertheless, critics of the Brexit referendum complain about a complex question being put to a yes or no vote. Such a contest pushes citizens into warring camps, leading to sensational claims and unfounded accusations. It may have contributed to the death of a member of the British parliament, perhaps by a mentally deranged man, too easily angered.

Issues like immigration or job growth differ from decisions about street lights. The answer normally is not a simple solution, but perhaps a compromise between several ideas. Labeling and name calling those with whom you disagree is best avoided. The dream of one right answer is a delusion.

It’s Okay to Disagree

Fifty-one diplomats within the U.S. State Department recently signed a document dissenting from the current U.S. policy on Syria. They wish a more activist policy against Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s leader. They believe the U.S. should do more to stop Assad’s brutal treatment of his civilian population by barrel bombs and other atrocities.

The dissent channel of the State Department allows any diplomat to disagree with a current U.S. foreign policy. Retaliation to the dissenter’s career is forbidden.

The dissent channel was established in the 1970’s during the Vietnamese conflict to allow challenges to official policy. The idea is that dissent is not a weakness in a democracy but a strength: all views should be aired. No one person has all knowledge or wisdom. We benefit when different opinions can be expressed, whether we agree or disagree with the dissenter.

In the midst of all our self-criticism, we can be proud that underlings are encouraged to speak their views and not suffer retaliation.