Tag Archives: Ann Gaylia O’Barr

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.

Deep State: What Is It, and Do We Have One?

A “conspiracy of powerful, unelected bureaucrats secretly pursing their own agenda” is one definition of a deep state, according to Jon D. Michaels in Foreign Affairs. ( “Trump and the Deep State,” September/October 2017).

This type of nation does exist, says Michaels. As examples, he includes Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey, “where shadowy elites in the military and government ministries have been known to countermand or simply defy democratic directives.”

The United States, Michaels points out, is operated much more transparently than the countries mentioned above.

That is why President Trump complains so much about the established news media. Freedom of the press is not some slogan spouted by politicians. It’s been ingrained in our national fabric since before the American Revolution.

When I applied for and eventually was accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service, I had to pass both written and oral exams. Nothing on the exams concerned my political persuasions or my voting record.

My class of Foreign Service officers included various ages and educational levels and previous occupational experience. The dedication, especially of the younger members, impressed me. None of us came in because of who we knew. None of us were political appointees.

The U.S. government is run by and large by mid-level bureaucrats, more of whom live outside Washington than in. These mid-level workers are not appointed by some presidential cabal or political party. They are hired over the years based on professional merit. They run the government and remain through various administrations.

Writes Michaels: “U.S. administrative fragmentation makes it hard for things to get done—but it also makes the notion of a coordinated, secret conspiracy by multiple state actors laughable.”

Landing of Another Black Swan

Hurricane Harvey developed in a short time to an unprecedented rain maker. These unexpected events, sometimes likened to rare black swans, have a way of changing our viewpoints.

As we see nursing home patients waist deep in water in their wheelchairs and families struggling to carry their children to safety, our perceptions change.

We do, in fact, need strong government agencies to rescue these people, to give care in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and to support them in the long term as they seek to rebuild their lives and businesses.

Ordinary citizens will show compassion. Charitable organizations will help, but we will need organized aid that only a strong central government can provide. We will need more money to rebuild, yes, in Texas, but ultimately to replace older infrastructure all over the country.

We all know how unpopular taxes are. Yet taxes are how these programs are paid for. Our tax system must be reformed in a way that does not weigh heaviest on the middle and working classes. Some taxes, like a sales tax, weigh on the poor as well.

Despite the present political dysfunction, our elected representatives still can come together for a tax system that is fair and asks from the rich what it already demands from the non-rich. Taxes on corporations may indeed be too high, but so are the tax breaks available to them and rarely to ordinary citizens.

At some point, for the United States to continue as a developed society, we will need more money to maintain and improve it—infrastructure, education, preventive health care, security, and hosts of other needs. Middle income citizens are already paying their fair share.

More black swans will land in the future, and we need to prepare for them.

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 . . . ”

Embassies Without Ambassadors: Who’s In Charge?

About a third of U.S. ambassadors are political appointees under any given president, Democratic or Republican. Massive campaign contributions often count in such appointments.

These appointments are normally to European countries or perhaps to Caribbean island nations. Political ambassadors are rarely appointed to what are known as danger or hardship posts, like Pakistan or Sierra Leone. Those are for the career diplomats.

Unlike most developed nations, we think nothing of sending a diplomatic neophyte to serve in the capitals of our important allies.

Nevertheless, even political appointments have been slow for our current presidential administration. Take Switzerland. The country has been without a U.S. ambassador for seven months, since the ambassador, a political ambassador, resigned, as is customary for political appointees when a new president takes office.

Who’s directing the embassy in Switzerland? As in all of these ambassador-less posts, the second in command oversees operations, almost always a career diplomat, a U.S. Foreign Service professional. In this case, Tara Feret Erath, serves as temporary overseer.

Ms. Erath has served at U.S. posts in Afghanistan, Belgium, Brazil, France, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She speaks German, French, and Portuguese.

One wonders why they don’t just appoint Ms. Erath to be the ambassador.

How The Hiring Freeze Affects Lives

The White House announced a government hiring freeze soon after the current administration took office in January.

Blanket orders often are not well thought out and can have unintended consequences. A recent article in The Foreign Service Journal (July/August, 2017) pinpointed one such consequence. Foreign Service officers, the Americans who staff U.S. embassies and consulates overseas, transfer frequently, moving with their families from one assignment to another.

As American citizens, spouses often fill critical positions at posts, as they move with husbands and wives. The hiring freeze means that they cannot be hired for jobs at their spouse’s new post. They cannot serve as office managers, back up visa officers as they interview foreigners, or help security officers with classified data.

Many of these spouses staff critical positions in U.S. embassies and consulates . The government saves money because they already are in the country and do not have to be moved there or paid housing allowances and other expenses to take the jobs.

Family members who had jobs lined up have suddenly had to change plans. Some must pay for unexpected housing back in Washington as the spouse waits there for the freeze to end. Others must do without the planned salary from the job while waiting at post.

One view from a long-term spouse: “. . . there is absolutely no indication that this administration has any interest in mission staffing, from either a practical or a morale perspective.”

Another says, “It is devastating for families and demoralizing for those blocked out of positions.”

Not to mention damage to U.S. diplomacy as supporting roles remain unfilled.

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.

Digital Servants: Candidates for Spiritual Discipline

Spiritual disciplines aren’t necessarily about giving up evil practices. They deal more with disciplining ourselves to control the neutral or even good things in our lives.

Food is not only enjoyable but necessary. So is our need for social interaction.

But just as we can overeat, we can overindulge in the time we spend with our digital devices.

We gain too much weight, not only from overeating, but also from eating the wrong kinds of food like refined sugar and trans fats.

We can spend time with the wrong kinds of digital input like pornography, but we can also waste time with gossipy items on celebrities.

In my case, I’m inclined to overdose on news items. In the hyper charged political climate we live in, I can spend hours following rabbit trails about our political leaders and their outrageous antics.

I try to limit the number of times I enter internet space. The early morning tends to be my most productive time for writing, so except for checking the weather, I ignore the internet, including emails. Than, after a few hours of writing, I break for exercise and checking the news on my iPad.

Unless I’m waiting for something urgent, I wait for afternoon to check emails, scanning for important items that may need a response, and deleting junk stuff. The more important reading I usually save until later in the day, when I feel I’ve accomplished more worthwhile tasks.

Obviously, if communication is a regular part of your job, or you are a parent of young children, or you work in certain kinds of employment, your routine will differ.

The point is to discipline ourselves to use our devices at proper times of our choosing. They are helpful servants but atrocious masters.

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.

Personal Tragedy Becomes National Tragedy: We Can’t Work Because We’re Addicted

“The Columbiana Boiler Company [in Youngstown, Ohio] forgoes roughly $200,000 worth of orders each quarter because workers can’t pass drug screenings.”

The New York Times, as reported in The Seattle Times, July 30, 2017

For several years, we’ve read about the opioid epidemic, the drug abuse that kills young people in unprecedented numbers, especially in states like Ohio and West Virginia. Drug users have so increased in number that large segments of the young adult population cannot qualify for good jobs.

Working class jobs, we read, are disappearing. Yet, available jobs are going unfilled, because “too many applicants—nearly half, in some cases—fail a drug test.”

The risk with drug abusers is the higher possibility of accidents related to their addiction. Accidents may result in fellow workers being killed and maimed. The company cannot hire them. It loses work to foreign companies because those countries have a better labor pool, apparently with less drug abuse.

States now rush to pass laws legalizing cannabis because pot has become a part of the culture. The reasons behind legalization are understandable. Law enforcement officers are stretched thin to fight opioid use, much less cannabis.

Yet cannabis also interferes with a worker’s ability to produce. Why did pot suddenly come on the scene? Why did Americans need a new pleasure drug?

Communal drinking has been around since grapes were first fermented. But today’s drinking has gone beyond a few beers around a television while watching a football game. It’s become more than enjoying a satisfying wine to enhance a meal.

Party goers now drink in order to get drunk. Unlike countries such as Great Britain, where the public takes more seriously the ban against driving under the influence, car-dependent Americans think nothing of driving away inebriated from the bar or the party, their judgement seriously impaired.

Why do we feel such a need for that which destroys us? It’s a question we should all be asking.

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.”

  Experts Propose; Politicians Decide

“Some of the smartest people on earth have a significant presence on the Internet. Some of the stupidest people, however, reside just one click away.” (Tom Nichols, “How America Lost Faith in Expertise,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2017.)

From taxation to terrorism, we often follow events haphazardly or don’t follow them at all, busy with other things. Yet if we don’t stay on top of the issues that affect our lives, we cede the outcomes to those who yell the loudest and receive the most attention.

It’s easy to do. We live in a complex world, difficult to grasp, not only for us but for our elected representatives as well.

How important, then, Nichols writes, “to choose representatives who can act wisely on our behalf,” representatives willing to listen to those with knowledge of a particular subject.

“Experts can only propose; elected leaders dispose. And politicians are very rarely experts on any of the innumerable subjects that come before them for a decision. . . . China policy and health care and climate change and immigration and taxation, all at the same time . . ..”

Forget those closed legislative sessions, shutting out both the public and those who spend their lives studying the issues that affect us.

As Senator John McCain recently pointed out, the most important consideration isn’t winning the next election but governing wisely for the people.