Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

Suffering Uncluttered

This day, scenes of suffering will float across our computer screens: perhaps atrocities in Syria, or a kidnapping in Nigeria, or a terrorist attack somewhere in the world, or an earthquake in southeast Asia, or the homeless caught in freezing weather in one of our cities. We are bombarded with scenes of suffering, both in our home towns and in other hometowns all over the globe.

The Morse Code, leading to telegraphic communication, was invented in 1839. In the early 1860’s, Matthew Brady was able to take photographs of people and places in America’s Civil War.

The concerns of the average American until the first decades of the twentieth century were mostly local, those of his or her community or, for some, a missionary speaker in a local church.

Today, we are bombarded with multiple needs. How do we cope when human suffering meets us every hour?

Some of us become callused. The suffering bounces off with no more effect than a baseball score in the minor leagues. Others of us live in guilt, overwhelmed.

A better way is to choose a few areas of need and concentrate on them. We give either time or money or both to a few causes that we have investigated and that speak to us. We do not give to every need that lodges in our email or feel guilty when we can’t. Instead, we practice disciplined giving as a part of our lives.

In the same way, we set aside certain times of the day for news. We don’t click on news stories every time a teaser headline rolls across our screen as we leave our email or finish a check of the weather.

We’re finite individuals. Best to channel our sympathy and not become either frozen or unmoved.

No More Protected Space

In North America, we have for centuries lived in protected space because of the physical distance between us and the rest of the world. That protection began to break down with telegraphic communication and newer means of transport. After two world wars, air travel and television became part of our lives.

Today, mobile phones are as well-known in Africa as they are in Europe. The videos of an ISIS leader in the Middle East can be watched by a young woman in Idaho.

We can no longer seal off our societies from others, those we deemed in the past as strange and threatening. Today, they come to us, if not physically then electronically, but our ability to speak to each other has far outstripped our ability to speak wisely to each other.

Sometimes old values are strengthened by new insights. In the past, the new ideas of the Renaissance and the Reformation led to wars, but they needn’t have. The ideas ultimately strengthened older institutions when those institutions began to address their failings.

We grow or die, and new challenges can renew us if we use them to spur the changes we need.

Thoughts After Reading THE TERROR YEARS by Lawrence Wright

The Terror Years; From Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State by Lawrence Wright is a thought-provoking book. Its somber analyses ring true. Especially disturbing is his chapter on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Each side believes retaliation is justified. Carrying out what one believes is justified, however, sparks an endless cycle of killing and violence. Each year the conflict sucks more and more nations into its rapidly spinning whirlpool.

Only if you are elderly, do you have any memory of a time when Israelis and Palestinians were not in conflict. Each group—Israeli and Palestinian—has reasons for hating the other. Each side has reasons for wanting to murder and maim the other. Each could cite the saying: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

Consider, however, dialog from one version of the play Fiddler on the Roof:
FIRST MAN: We should defend ourselves. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
TEVYE: Very good. And that way, the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Much of terrorism today is the result of resentments long buried but never extinguished, only waiting to be uncovered. Perhaps the only solution is the teaching taught by one who lived in the Middle East over two-thousand years ago. Somebody must sacrifice righteous vengeance and begin a virtuous circle of forgiveness.

Post-truth Age?

“Post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year for 2016.

Post-truth means circumstances where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The growth of a post-truth environment is heightened by the speed with which digital media can ramp up emotions with misleading information.

More than a few conservative and liberal media sites stretch the truth or bury it. The Seattle Times columnist, Danny Westneat, wrote about his city’s Bipartisan Report, which Westneat named a “click bait” site for liberals.

In response, the site founder said he was only following the successful formula used by Fox News. “What Fox does is accurate to a point. It’s based on facts and reporting, but, at the same time it’s giving people only the parts they want to hear. .. it’s not lying, but it’s leaving out critical information.”

The choice is ours. Plenty of news outlets lean conservative or liberal (usually within their acknowledged opinion pieces) without reporting dodgy news stories. We have a choice between reputable news sites or entertainment that stokes our prejudices.

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.