Category Archives: May You Live In Interesting Times

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.

Laughing at Ourselves

One of the great strengths of a democracy is the freedom of its citizens to laugh at themselves.

Humor helps us cope in tough times. American comedians have recently noted the boost given to their profession by the current political upheavals.

Dictators may feel threatened by humor directed at them, but satire and political cartoons have been around since at least the 1700’s in both Great Britain and America. Television and the internet have increased the possibilities for humor. Humor releases tension and sometimes causes us to notice absurdities we didn’t see before.

Even presidents understand the need for humor to lighten the mood. President Lyndon Johnson once said, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ‘President Can’t Swim.’”

Ronald Reagan is reported to have said, “I have left orders to be awakened at any time in case of national emergency—even if I’m in a Cabinet meeting.”

From George W. Bush: “These stories about my intellectual capacity really get under my skin. You know, for a while I even thought my staff believed it. There on my schedule first thing every morning it said, ‘Intelligence Briefing.’”

Barack Obama: “There are few things in life harder to find and more important to keep than love. Well, love and a birth certificate.”

The White House correspondents’ dinner, begun in 1920, became an occasion for ribbing between the President and the reporters who covered him for the press. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was the first president to attend. Since then, every president has attended at least one dinner during his time in office.

President Donald Trump refused to attend the first one of his tenure. Too bad he can’t recognize the value of humor, the cleansing humbleness of laughing at oneself.

They Don’t Want to Visit Us Anymore

The Week magazine, March 17, 2017, quoted The Guardian, a British newspaper, about the drop in British visitors to the United States: “Interest in travel to the U.S. has plummeted since President Trump’s inauguration. . . .”

According to the same article, the Global Business Travel Association “estimates the U.S. travel industry has lost $186 million in revenue so far because of Trump’s presidency.”

Citizens of the United Kingdom don’t require visas for temporary visits. If Britons are visiting the U.S. less frequently, think about those who must first go through the hassle of applying at a U.S. embassy or consulate for a visa to visit the country.

My work overseas for the U.S. State Department included processing visas for temporary visits. I dealt with endless lines of visa applicants. Perhaps my successors are less busy.

American tourism depends in part on global travelers paying money for hotels, meals, and recreational activities. Businesses depend on merchants from other countries buying our products. Universities depend on foreign students kicking in hefty fees to attend our schools. Without them, American students would pay even higher tuition costs.

Foreign citizens do not vote in our elections, but they can certainly vote, or refuse to vote, with their money.

Data Scrubbing Fears

Some librarians, civic groups, historians, and others have begun downloading federal websites for safekeeping, just in case the data on these sites disappears (The Seattle Times, March 12, 2017.)

They are alarmed by certain actions of the Trump administration regarding federal data. They include: removal of animal cruelty data from the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; suspension of a regulation protecting whistle blowers at the Department of Energy; more difficulty in accessing the log of visitors to the White House.

Do their fears echo George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty Four, in which all information is controlled by a Soviet style government?

Alex Howard is an official of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks transparency in government. He was quoted in the article as saying that downloading by private citizens is done “because of the antipathy this president has shown toward government statistics and scientific knowledge.”

Government watchers are awaiting Trump’s appointment to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. This little-known agency guides federal policy on various aspects of information policy.

Data watchers wonder if this appointment will change or limit our access to government findings and information.

How to Stage a Coup in a Democracy

First, if a majority of people did not vote for you, proclaim that the election was tainted. Add that millions of those who voted against you were not Americans but illegal immigrants. Against all evidence, continue to make this claim

Second, if some media reporting is critical of you, angrily denounce these critics as the opposition, or even that the free press is the enemy of the American people.

Third, if reports are leaked that a foreign power may have interfered in the election that put you in office, deflect attention from these reports. Loudly state, showing no evidence, that the past president ordered illegal wire taps. Order your administration to continue to push your accusation, throwing as much sand as possible into a clear investigation of possible foreign meddling.

Fourth, turn citizens’ healthy skepticism of government into hatred. Proclaim often that government is the enemy. Appoint amateurs into positions of leadership, declare a hiring freeze, and starve the government of funds, assuring lack of expertise when crises arise.

Coups do not necessarily require troops marching in the streets. Small groups can so manipulate emotions by sound byte slogans and angry rhetoric that the electorate begins to believe them. It they succeed, they will prove the old adage that a lie repeated often enough will be believed.

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.