Sunday, December 26, 2010

What Next for Russia as Thousands of Right Wing Nationalists Come out in Strength?

I am not sure what to make of this but only with a few notable exceptions, the mainstream US media continues to ignore some disturbing signs that Russia is hurtling rightward.  Maybe it was all about not upsetting support for the new START treaty which the US Senate was about to ratify with Russia before they headed out for their Xmas vacation. Who knows.   I could find some reporting on the issue in the Washington Post and but for more in depth coverage I had to turn to the excellent reporting from the UK's  Financial Times(FT)  In brief, if you have not been following the story, --Russia has seen this fall the largest ethnic riots since the fall of the Soviet Union and they seemed to have reached a crescendo this last two weeks. According to the FT, " On December 11, about 6,000 protesters showed they were capable of "bringing their
fight to the government’s doorstep – rioting on Manezh Square, underneath the Kremlin’s spires, and openly defying the Russian leadership" The reason for the discontent? The perception that Russia is being overrun by a tide of illegal immigration. While the Russian leadership has sought to play down the rioting by attempting to link it to European wide discontent regarding immigration policies at a time of high unemployment, there are some differences between what is happening in Russia and the rest of the world that bear investigation. In particular the FT points out that "Russian a phenomenon created not without the Kremlin’s help..Mr Putin’s Kremlin has used nationalism as a force for political consolidation during his decade in power. His speeches and state news broadcasts have sewn distrust of foreigners and a belligerent form of patriotism, and he has cloaked himself in some of the symbols of imperial Russia. But Mr Putin’s 2000-08 presidency also saw the creation of pro-Kremlin youth movements such as Nashi, which have, in turn, recruited football hooligans to their ranks as part of what is known as “managed nationalism” in political circles."
       The violence seems vaguely reminiscent of the Russian pograms from which members of my family sought to escape two generations ago. This time instead of Jews being killed and maimed it is people of darker skin. As the Washington Post reports, "hundreds and sometimes thousands of furious young men have been gathering around Moscow and other cities, shouting nationalist slogans, making fascist salutes and beating up darker-skinned people who appear to be from the Caucasus or Central Asia. A man from Central Asia was stabbed to death in the southern part of Moscow by a group of about 15 young people Sunday night or Monday morning, police reported. "  Now having nurtured the tide of right wing thuggery the Putin government is faced with having to deal with the monster they created, leading one Russian expert to suggest that Russia is heading in the same direction politically as many of the Arab states where right wing protest like Islamic extremism is the only vent for frustration within a regime that tamps down every other kind of political expression. Who knows where this is leading but probably not some place good. Are we in for a repetition of the tragic turn European history took in the 20th century. We cannot rule out Russia taking some unexpected turns as economic uncertainty, fear and and irresponsible political leaders without a progressive vision for governing have few scruples about scapegoating ethnic minorities for political gain.  Meanwhile we also hear from Washington Post's  David Ignatius that Putin seeks to escape some of the pressures of events by building himself a billion dollar play house on the Black Sea. Ignatius tells us that while still under construction it has the amenities of a small city and built from "a combination of corruption, bribery and theft." Plutarch and Shakespeare would have a field day making clear how brutality and decadence can live together inside  one deeply flawed leader and allow the audience to understand how this can lead to tragic results. We all need to start paying more attention to all of this--because we have all seen this movie before and we cannot allow it to happen again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

To Be Believable You Need to Provide Solutions, Not Just Deliver More Bad News

I am concerned with a connection between too much bad news and our willingness to take that news on board and be able to process it intelligently.

According to Scientific American,'s excellent "60 Second Mind" podcast, a recent Gallup poll “found that 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming concerns are exaggerated. Back in 1997 31 percent of Americans thought the concerns were overrated.” The Scientific American asked the question--why the increase?

The magazine writers believe that it could have something to do with the framing of the issue. “ Researchers surveyed students, measuring their skepticism about global warming and their belief in the justness of the world. Participants were asked how much they agree with the following statements: “I believe that…people get what they deserve,” and “I am confident that justice always prevails...Then half the participants read news articles that ended with dire warnings about the consequences of global warming; the other half read more positive pieces focused on possible solutions to the problem. Those who received more positive messaging trusted the science. On the other hand those subjects who read the “doomsday” messaging were skeptical of global warming, and for those who think the world is generally a fair place had even stronger doubts about global warming after reading the negative messaging.”

The study (to be published in the January issue of Psychological Science) is intriguing in that it points to something I believe that occurs in US elections—it is not just that the more optimistic candidate wins, it is that the politician who talks about unpleasant issues such as the deficit, shared sacrifice, need for more taxes etc also loses. Our present inability to balance our budget—to go on believing in some kind of magical solution (nursed by the drill baby drill wing of the Republican/Tea party), has lead us to more pain down the road. How do we apply this educationally? I believe that when we have conversations about large issues that seem full of doom,  the media, teachers and for that matter politicians all need to be able to point to positive solutions and frame long term solutions as being within reach and worth short term sacrifice. Otherwise we breed what we clearly have too much of today, skepticism, cynicism and learned helplessness.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Taking a Global Perspective on Closing Down the School to Jail Expressway

Here is a staggering set of global statistics that the US media is not willing to discuss much. According to a 2008 Pew Report, "The United States incarcerates more people than any country in the world, including the far more populous nation of China. At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures. Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America also is the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry, outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the U.S, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750per 100,000. Between 1987 and 2007, the national prison population has nearly tripled!

The International comparisons that the media seem to prefer are comparisons of math and science achievement; these educational statistics are meant to goad politicians to keep the pressure on teachers, their unions on testing and accountability. It would seem that our media editors may believe is no point informing the public about such dreary items as the tragic costs involved for the individuals and  families who are imprisoned.  Perhaps they consider that we are simply addicted to building more and more prisons (costing in the famed words of Jesse Jackson, more to send a young person to State Penn than Penn State) that there is no sense in starting a public debate. Perhaps they also take the view that there does not seem to be a workable alternative to simply locking them up, so why even bother raising the issue? Or they cynically may believe nothing will change as long as "locking them up" polls so well so that our poll driven politicians dare never to bring up the subject, so why should we?

But perhaps if the media  started to examine some of the root causes of criminality that leads to offending and how other societies handle those root causes we could make progress in beginning to get a handle on the escalating problem.  A recent report  traces the problem of juvenile offending back to low levels of literacy.  There is a strong correlation between failure to read by the 3rd grade and the kind of behavioral patterns that lead to prison sentencing.  Lack of literacy seems to lead to acting out and anti-social behavior,  because as the report suggests these children "realize that they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it. ..The low levels of literacy contributes to even lower levels of academic achievement; 48 percent of juvenile prisoners function academically below grade level, according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention."

It is no accident that the countries that do a better job in incarcerating fewer people and achieving better literacy outcomes are the Scandinavian nations. This is largely because these countries have better family policies when it comes to pre and post natal care and home support for disadvantaged families. They also support a more child centered curriculum for much longer in the child's development, starting formal education at a later date than the US, and emphasizing the importance of play. While it is doubtful that states will do much any time soon to change a cruel system where the only people who win are the growing private prison construction and services. It is about time though that leaders stepped up and told the  US taxpayer, stuck with high recidivism rates and equally high bills, that there might be another way. All of this can begin  if the media can start educating the public as to how we need to take a more global perspective with regard to this age old issue.

Friday, December 10, 2010

China--A Fragile SuperPower

One of the many wikileaks refers to China as a "fragile superpower"--and no where was this nation's vulnerability better demonstrated than in regard to their heavy handed refusal to let Liu Xiabo to receive his well deserved Nobel Peace prize and their threatening behavior towards countries to prevent them from attending the ceremony. (According to the LA Times, 19 countries boycotted the Nobel ceremony bowing to Chinese pressure). PEN America Center ( a group I recently joined for its bold stands in favor of intellectual freedom around the globe) provides the background,

"Liu Xiaobo was arrested on December 8, 2008, on the eve of the release of Charter 08, a groundbreaking declaration he co-authored calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. The document has gained over 10,000 signatures from citizens across China. Liu was held nearly incommunicado at an undisclosed location outside Beijing for over six months before he was formally charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” He was tried in a closed court on December 23, 2009, and on December 25, was convicted of the charge, based on Charter 08 and six essays he authored, and sentenced to 11 years in prison—the longest sentence ever given on this particular charge. Liu’s appeal was rejected in February, and on May 24, 2010, was transferred to Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province, hundreds of miles from his home in Beijing. His wife, Liu Xia, is only permitted to visit him once a month."

Liu came to public attention after he staged a hunger strike in 1989 in Tiananmen Square (again according to PEN) "in support of the student demonstrators and led calls for a truly broad-based, sustainable democratic movement. He was instrumental in preventing even further bloodshed in the Square by supporting and advancing a call for non-violence on the part of the students. He spent nearly two years in prison for his role, and another three years of “reeducation through labor” in 1996 for publicly questioning the role of the single-party system and calling for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama of Tibet. In 2004, his phone lines and Internet connection were cut after the release of his essay criticizing the use of “subversion” charges used to silence journalists and activists, and he has been the target of regular police surveillance and harassment in the years since."

His words on the meaning of going to prison in China today resonate ‘For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country, prison is the very first threshold. Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near,’”  China has made Liu into even more famous by its heavy handed displays of force which as the Guardian reports has lead to "Scores – perhaps hundreds – of people have been placed under house arrest or surveillance, had communications cut off and been forced to leave the capital or prevented from travelling abroad. While such tactics are common before important events such as political meetings, it is rare for pressure to last so long and be applied so extensively. Amnesty International said it believed more than 250 people are affected" As Salil Shetty, secretary general of rights group Amnesty International stated China's behavior is quite odd, "The Chinese government should be celebrating this global recognition of a Chinese writer and activist," said . "Instead, the government's very public tantrum has generated even more critical attention inside and outside China -- and, ironically, emphasized the significance of Liu Xiaobo's message of respect for human rights,"

Those who rule China must realize this but seem determined to take actions designed to intimidate as if they  can't help themselves from following the Soviet Union's futile efforts to hold the lid on its own bankrupt system of totalitarian politics. The New York Times published a great extract from Liu's work, "Experiencing Death" to show the depth of the man's humanity that no society can ever completely crush and because of that, because their leaders know (like those in North Korea, Burma, Iran)  that they are on the losing side of the battle between freedom and oppression, they will always be the fragile whether they are superpowers or not;

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight

with the procession of martyrs

using just the one thin bone

to uphold a true conviction

And yet, the heavenly void

will not plate the sacrificed in gold

A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses

celebrate in the warm noon air

aflood with joy

Faraway place

I’ve exiled my life to

this place without sun

to flee the era of Christ’s birth

I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross

From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash

I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s

about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road

I’m biking home

I stop at a cigarette stand

A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle

some enormous brutes seize me

I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged

thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes

to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive

On Central Television News

my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”

though those nameless white bones of the dead

still stand in the forgetting

I lift up high up the self-invented lie

tell everyone how I’ve experienced death

so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor

Even if I know

death’s a mysterious unknown

being alive, there’s no way to experience death

and once dead

cannot experience death again

yet I’m still

hovering within death

a hovering in drowning

Countless nights behind iron-barred windows

and the graves beneath starlight

have exposed my nightmares

Besides a lie

I own nothing

 This poem was translated by Jeffrey Yang from the Chinese.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Meeting the Star of The Namesake -Kal Penn (Kalpen Suresh Modi)

One of my all time movie watching pleasures was The Namesake. For me the film ranks up there with some of the movies like Scent of a Woman and Shawshank Redemption--films which bring deeply imagined characters and their stories to life, so that we so identify with their struggles that we  begin to see the world differently through their eyes.  Based on a short story by accomplished Indian writer Jhumpa Lahiri, it  featured Kal Penn  had starred in a bizarely original comedy Harold and Kumar.  According to one source it was John Cho who played Harold who first suggested to Penn that he should read the story which later led to both of them discussing getting the rights to the movie. Mira Nair had already brought those rights and moreover had thought of casting a Bollywood leading man as the protoganist Gogol Ganguili. It was Nair's son Zohran who persuaded his mother to cast Penn in the central role since he loved Penn's work in Harold and Kumar.  Incidentally Kal Penn is his stage name, an Americanized version of his real name, Kalpen Suresh Modi  For a country of immigrants,  there have been few great  movies made about the immigrant experience, The Immigrant with Charlie Chaplin comes to mind emphasizing that the more common way of addressing immigrant experience is to turn it into a comedy like Green Card. The Namesake is a game changer in the way that it focuses with relentless honesty on the pain of separation from one's culture and the challenges facing both the generation that leaves the homeland and for the children who try to live in the new culture.

This is just a prologue to a small encounter with the great actor at this year's Kennedy Center honors, where we briefly got a chance to chat about the movie and how much I enjoyed it and how much my children liked his other comedic roles. We also chatted about his return to the Obama administration as an Associate Director in the Office of Public Engagement, (according to the Note he will be "conducting outreach to the American public and various organizations, he will be the point person for those in the Arts, Youth, and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities." )What I liked about Penn was his modesty and his interest in politics he stumped in his personal capacity for the President and Senator Boxer in the last election cycle and has personal capacity to promote the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the passage of the DREAM Act. He also met with artists, arts businesses and youth entrepreneurs in the Detroit area where the "Harold & Kumar" movie was shot. He also visited U.S. troops in Hawaii, South Korea and the Korean Demilitarized Zone on a USO tour in August. According to Wikipedia both of his parents are Gujarati immigrants from India.[8] He has stated that stories of his grandparents marching with Mahatma Gandhi for Indian independence were a significant influence on his interest in politics.

Penn's willingness to challenge himself with new roles as well as his ability to move in and out of Hollywood and not be trapped as a traditional movie actor speak volumes about his character and his abilities. May he continue to surprise and entertain us with his outstanding talent.
If you have not seen the movie The Namesake you must, here is the trailer:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wiki Leaks: Analyzing the World Wide Story for What We Can Learn About Our Media

Wiki Leaks leak of the US State Department secret cables allows us to gain a snapshot of the world as the US sees it in the post 9/11, post Bush era. It is also another one of those teachable moments to understand how different countries handle a world wide story involving many of the world’s major countries. We learn for example from The Washington Post,  that China and the Arab world “have suppressed virtually all mention of the documents, avoiding the public backlash that could result from such candid portrayals of their leaders' views.” The article suggests that the documents present an interesting question as to see whether new social media forces can overcome the authoritarian control. Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, writes in his Foreign Policy blog

"This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the Internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?".
It is interesting to sample the comments that have largely focused in the US on the damage to the country from such revealations. Dothat writing in the New York Times believes that,
“Systems will turn inward; information-sharing will decrease; further centralization, rather than any kind of devolution or transparency, will be the order of the day. And all the while, the useful work that’s done by “America’s intelligence agencies, military, and consular offices” — the prevention of wars, the anticipation of crises, the discreet management of difficult situations — will become that much more difficult to accomplish.”

The popular media were also concerned about the diplomatic fallout but more attention was paid to the  mysterious fugitive from justice, Julian Assange, and the Interpol search he has caused to be launched. The right wing and its media in arms was eager  to cast Assange as a terrorist while  the center and the left adopted a more reflective stance; for example the Economist opined,

“If secrecy is necessary for national security and effective diplomacy, it is also inevitable that the prerogative of secrecy will be used to hide the misdeeds of the permanent state and its privileged agents. I suspect that there is no scheme of government oversight that will not eventually come under the indirect control of the generals, spies, and foreign-service officers it is meant to oversee. Organisations such as WikiLeaks, which are philosophically opposed to state secrecy and which operate as much as is possible outside the global nation-state system, may be the best we can hope for in the way of promoting the climate of transparency and accountability necessary for authentically liberal democracy.”

The Guardian noted the misdeeds included in the leaks in startling and embarrassing detail. The paranoid style of American foreign policy sometimes seems to take an oddly lunatic turn,

“..It (the State Department) called for detailed biometric information "on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders" as well as intelligence on Ban's "management and decision-making style and his influence on the secretariat". A parallel intelligence directive sent to diplomats in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi said biometric data included DNA, fingerprints and iris scans.”

Revealed in the Guardian story are the concerns about the interconnected ways drug running and terrorism are connected--the State Department before it meets with any officials from many countries needs to assuire itself that they stay away from officials with connections to the widespread endemic around the globe  For example, "In a cable to the embassy in Sofia last June, five months before Clinton hosted Bulgaria's foreign minister in Washington, the first request was about government corruption and the links between organised crime groups and "government and foreign entities, drug and human trafficking, credit card fraud, and computer-related crimes, including child pornography".

“Washington also wanted to know about "corruption among senior officials, including off-budget financial flows in support of senior leaders … details about defence industry, including plans and efforts to co-operate with foreign nations and actors. Weapon system development programmes, firms and facilities. Types, production rates, and factory markings of major weapon systems".

Timothy Garton Ash, distinguished  British academic, writing in The Guardian also writes perhaps one of the most balanced assessments and sees nothing to get unduly worried about in the cables;
“..from what I have seen, the professional members of the US foreign service have very little to be ashamed of. Yes, there are echoes of skulduggery at the margins, especially in relation to the conduct of "the war on terror" in the Bush years. Specific questions must be asked and answered. For the most part, however, what we see here is diplomats doing their proper job: finding out what is happening in the places to which they are posted, working to advance their nation's interests and their government's policies.

Ash is responsible for the best intro to any piece I have seen “It is the historian's dream. It is the diplomat's nightmare” Ash picks up on a theme that many have noted the way America is obsessed with the post 9/11 threats to security,
“More broadly, what you see in this diplomatic traffic is how security and counter-terrorism concerns have pervaded every aspect of American foreign policy. But you also see how serious the threats are, and how little the west is in control of them. There is devastating stuff here about the Iranian nuclear programme and the extent not merely of Israeli but Arab fears of it ("cut off the head of the snake", a Saudi ambassador reports his king urging the Americans); the vulnerability of Pakistan's nuclear stockpile to rogue Islamists; anarchy and corruption on a massive scale in Afghanistan; al-Qaida in Yemen; and tales of the power of the Russian mafia gangs, that make John le Carré's latest novel look almost understated.”

Pacifica news Democracy Now has one of the issues that the press has not talked about and is happy to leave unaddressed—the way the cables reveal torture under the Bush administration. Pacifica news has been one of the few voices that suggest that the torture allegations are the most important items to come out of the leaked cables. Their Internet TV and News channel could be broadcasting from another planet for all the number of stories they cover about breaking news events versus the mainstream media. For example they have an interview with Juan Méndez, the new U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment..who "has called on the United States to investigate and prosecute torture committed under former President George W. Bush. He also said he hopes to visit Iraq and Guantánamo Bay to probe widespread torture allegations." They quote Méndez making a point that seems not to have occured to many in the mainstream media as to why we are so focused on Assange and the legal actions that may or may not be called for against him versus   the concern "about the documents that show that thousands of people first imprisoned by U.S. forces [were] transferred to the control of forces in Iraq and perhaps even in Afghanistan, where they knew they were going to be tortured."

Hopefully any media analysis of the WikiLeaks will ask the question why? Why is Pacifica one of the few media organizations willing to probe the story more deeply..?

Ash must have the last word when he notes that one thing will change following the leaks;

“US government must surely be ruing, and urgently reviewing, its weird decision to place a whole library of recent diplomatic correspondence on to a computer system so brilliantly secure that a 22-year-old could download it on to a Lady Gaga CD. Gaga, or what?”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Giving this Season Could Improve Your Happiness as Well as Help People in Need

As we enter the gift giving season it may be a good idea to visit sites like Oxfam America and UNICEF which allows you to send a new kind of gift card--with a photo of a donkey or a goat
on it that you have donated in the person's name to a village on the other side of the world. This seems a neat idea--give a sheep for $50 instead of buying a sheerling coat that if you were honest you don't really need. As the Oxfam America item description reads:

"Raising these fleecy critters allows women to create their own income. What's more, the sheep's wool is used to make local textiles. When you give this gift, you know it's helping others, so there's no need to count sheep—you're sure to sleep well!"
It is a clever idea that Oxfam America has hit on and it does make it tempting when you can also make the donation tax deductible.
UNICEF Winter Survival Pack
If sheep are not in your thoughts this year perhaps a "Winter Survival Pack" would be more to your liking, for $81 dollars  ($30 or so more than the sheep)  UNICEF will buy
" a girl or boy with the supplies they most need to survive the next 6 months:
Micronutrient powders that help a child on the brink of malnutrition get the vitamins and minerals that are most essential for them to grow up healthy. Immunizations from measles and polio that will save a child from two of the most common and painful diseases in the developing world. Water purification tablets to filter out dirt and bacteria from water so that children can drink without fear of getting sick. Your pack contains enough tablets to clean 50,000 liters of water!"

Something to think about this holiday season as we wander the malls with no idea of what we need to buy for the person who has it would seem everything when compared to the desperate people who reside on our planet! Research supports a more giving attitude--studies "reveal that personal spending had no link with a person's happiness, while spending on others and charity was significantly related to a boost in happiness."  According to one reference to a  study published in no less a journal than Science--"In a representative survey of 630 Americans..regardless of how much income each person made..those who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not."  In a separate study of 13 employees at a Boston-based firm, the researchers found that employees who devoted more of their profit-sharing bonus (which ranged from $3,000 to $8,000) to others reported greater overall happiness than those who spent the windfall on their own needs." Something to think about as you are out in the malls this year. How about a sheep and a gift card instead of that tie/gadget or other thing you have plenty of?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Reflecting on the Global Happiness Index Stimulated by a great TED lecture

TED talks occupy a distinctive place in the world of ideas between the best kind of well argued op ed article, and the lively and interesting lecture. At their best they engage their audiences as few of those latter two formats can when they reveal a lecturer who is both passionate about the ideas he or she presents and able to compress the key ideas into a lively 18 minutes. Rarely do the best of these presenters use video aids and seldom Power Point--they use instead old fashioned human powers of communication. In 18 minutes, you cannot afford to pad out your ideas or condescend, you must energize and sometimes inspire your audience with the power of your words. The format proves awfully good at busting through the heavy fog of the conventional wisdom.

The best at the game are deeply knowledgeable about their fields and use skillfully chosen examples that connect with their audience and many of the best are not traditional academics, they are simply engaged people who through dint of their passion have made their ideas count.

Take the one I heard the other day by Nick Marks, he is a UK statistician the founder of the Centre for Well-Being, an independent think tank at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), in London. Marks asks the simple question as to why we are so obsessed with measuring a country's success through measures of economic growth rather than measures of happiness. He has developed something called the Happy Planet Index which shows the relationship between national well being and the amounts of resource it takes to be happy. In the US we take a lot of the word's resources but seem no happier as we consuming 25% of the worlds oil for just 2% of the world's population. The surprise is to find the country that is at the top of the league tables for happines is of all places, Costa Rica which abolished its military in 1949 and has a very broad social safety net for its citizens. Living in a country that seems bent on increasing the gap between the ones with the "have more than enough" and those struggling on the margins in the US and in developing countries this maybe a good time, as Nick Kristoff urges us, to rethink the US model that is leading us inexorably towards a banana state republic. Do the super rich really want to live in a banana republic? Surrounded by high walls, security guards and armored vehicles? As Warren Buffett points out he pays less percentage wise in taxes than his secretarial assistants. Is that their idea of happiness? Why they keep pressuring their Republican benefactors for more tax cuts is beyond me does sheer greed now control them? Maybe this TED talk can inspire them to change their misguided ways--enjoy!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Russian Politics Takes Another Brutal Turn: Perhaps YouTube Will Now Improve the Chances that Global Outrage will be Heard

In what must surely be one of the most outrageous attempts to use Twitter to conceal  a guilty conscience, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev according to a report in the Washington Post "tweeted Saturday, shortly after the beating happened, that the criminals must be found. " I am referring of course to the savage beating of Oleg Kashin who made the "mistake" of  writing things on his blog that allegedly "upset the governor of Pskov and controversial youth movements." The Post reporter somewhat unhelpfully does not provide many details but other news sources like NPR are willing to name the reason that Kashin opposed the construction of a road that was clearly going to be lucrative to some interests.  The Post in a sharply worded editorial points out that "the highway near Moscow, for example, is being financed by a crony of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr. Medvedev's de facto superior. Mr. Kashin's reporting about the road was attacked on the Web site of a Kremlin-sponsored youth movement, which declared that "Journalist-traitors need to be punished!"

 NPR reports "Road construction is considered one of the most corrupt sectors in Russia, offering huge profits to the businesses and officials involved who may see the journalists and activists as a direct threat to their bank accounts." NPR is also reports that Kashin is the second journalist to be beaten up in two days, police were also investigating an  attack on Anatoly Adamchuk "by two men outside his weekly newspaper office early Monday. Adamchuk was hospitalized with a concussion, a colleague wrote on the website of the paper, Zhukovskiye Vesti." Admachuks' newspaper also had the nerve to publish critical reports on the highway project.

What is clear is that  a staggering 32 Russian journalists have been murdered since 1993 and more than 30 attacked this year and until this beating was caught on YouTube the public has seeemed to accept the horror. Part of the reason for the seeming equanimity seems to be indifference perhaps bred of years of civil rights and humanitarian abuses that were part and parcel of life in the old Soviet Union. Another factor is the low esteem in which journalists even those as brave as the ones who gave their life are held in Russia; as Andrei Richter, a journalism professor and director of the Institute of Media and Law states  "The public doesn't view them as watchdogs of government but as people selling stories." Richter goes onto comment that  "attacks against journalists are not even classified as major crimes.. Rather than attempted murder, the charge is hooliganism, which carries a much lighter sentence." Now some real outrage seems about to erupt. Let us hope. It is too late now for the 32 and more journalists who were murdered but only continued public pressure will prevent more brutalities. That pressure must continue to demand that the high placed criminals be brought to justice  Let us hope that the US administration which hungers after Russia's approval (so they can continue to support sanctions against Iran )will not continue to ignore such incidents.  In the meantime   (as we pray for Kashin's speedy recovery) we might reflect on the words of Martin Niemöller the German protestant priest who spoke up against Nazism:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Obama as Educator in Chief: Reflecting on the President's Mid Term Report:

An American President wears many hats--from cheerleader to commander in chief to substitute head of state, head of the Democratic party and also (by the way) leader of the free world. The list of roles is somewhat mind boggling and it is no wonder that the protean nature of the office leads to much glamorization by the world's media and a multitude of mostly bad Hollywood movies.  The role  President Obama seems to have played the most during his first two years in office was as chief legislative maverick with the roles of comforter in chief that FDR played so successfully and the role of pragmatic visionary that President Clinton played during his first term in office much in abeyance. Clearly the times called for some energy to be spent framing legislation and making the necessary deals whether it was to frame a credible stimulus bill while continuing to bail out the banks, developing a set of  sanctions that would hold up in the UN against Iran, working on energy legislation so he could support a progressive position on global warming at the Copenhagen global warming summit meeting, relaunching the Middle East peace talks, rescuing the Detroit auto industry, reconfiguring the strategy in Afghanistan and getting health care and financial reform passed, not to mention dealing with the BP oil leak crisis in the Gulf. There was no escaping the daily grind of figuring out where the proverbial votes, the incessant travel and the calls that needed to be taken from foreign leaders. He was more than busy and so not he had not much room for deeper reflections as to how this change was going down with Americans, many of whom were losing jobs and homes and a way of life they had learned to take for granted. During this period of intense work it is not surprising that Obama that had such a fine ear for the country's mood during his election campaign began to seem disconnected from the people who helped put him in office. It showed up first in his disappointingly vague and fragmented State of the Union speech and then later in more routine phone it in speeches and more obviously when he got off to a bad start as talked about the BP Oil spill and made few clear references to where he stood on key provisions in the health care bill. There were only routine statements that seemed to show his concern about the unemployed and his miserable lack of action concerning the hundreds of thousands of foreclosures while seeming to be content with only lukewarm measures against Wall Street's culture of excess. Perhaps we were asking too much--the task to govern a country that had fallen into such bad shape as the one that Obama found when he took office was too much for anyone--short perhaps of another FDR to successfully manage.

Slowly over this two year period, the largely young and optimistic electorate that had voted him in sensed during this time a disconnect between the man they thought they had voted for--fearless champion of the ordinary guy who would "fight" for them, sensed a feeling of betrayal and refused to come out in these mid terms in the numbers they had two years before. Now he faces not just a base that feels alienated from what might be called the "2008 Obama project" but a fiercely partisan attack from a far right wing group, that wants to channel the anger that unemployment and broken dreams can cause into a campaign to stop any progressive agenda from seeing the light and  simply wishes to kill Obama's re-election chances in 2012. The tea-party largely middle aged and white has begun to read the US Constitution in mystical ways as a justification for a limited form of federal government that pays only for the defense and their medical and social security benefits and leaves the rest to market forces. The federal governments' historic role in addressing what markets and states have failed to do over the years, that is to address issues of inequality, to repair gaps in the educational system and regulate commerce among other things is viewed as bordering on unamerican and unconstitutional. We are at a sad impasse in terms of the debate when an individual like Sarah Palin, putative leader of the Tea Party movement, who is so fiercely proud of her anti-intellectualism,  can claim some political legitimacy and even be considered as a future presidential candidate.

The festering of large segments of the American right into a quasi religious group of zealots who want to turn their backs on the modern world, on all the pressing forces of globalization and burrow deep into a world of fantasy is not good news for a country that hopes to maintain leadership in the 21st century. Whether any of the scale and size of the backlash against perceived Obama's over-reaching could have been avoided if the President had managed to find his governing rather than his campaigning voice is open to speculation. But as all this slips into the past we need to focus on what Obama should do in the last two years of his Presidency. Among the many roles he could choose to play and fate and events will allow him to play he should consider the one of Educator in Chief. He needs to explain to the electorate both his own side and the majority of independents who during this last election season swayed towards the Republican side, what the choices are in plain and simple terms.  Obama needs to be the educator-in-chief leading a national discussion as serious as the Lincoln Douglas debates about slavery, concerning the US place in the modern world. Within that theme we can debate what is the right role for the US government  to play at home and abroad (given the close of the cold war and the rise of terrorism--it makes no sense that we fund so many aircraft carriers and jet fighters when the threat is mostly coming from failed and failing states like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) what is the right size of the federal government, a discussion about how large deficits can be in the middle of recession as well as  the dangers of making that recession worse by cutting the spending of the only entity that can spend during a recession, and what is the future of trade policy when so many areas in the middle west (many of which voted Republican in sheer frustration this recession) have been devastated. What do 21st century jobs look like, what does an energy policy look like that reduces green house gases, makes us less dependent on foreign oil and helps American exports, what kinds of investments in green energy and education do we need to make if we are to secure them? Many of the Tea-party candidates who will be going to Washington this January to be sworn into office will only have a dim idea of many of these issues, and need to be woken up so they don't end up during their time in Congress simply reciting demagogic talking points. Why does Obama need to lead this effort? For the simple reason that the media has no real staying power when it comes to following these issues or seriously educating anyone about them since they are now convinced that kind of programming is reserved for C-Span while they trade in sound bites by a partisan punditocracy. If the President were to lead a series of town hall debates where opponents of his policy could come forward and be heard and where there would be an agreement to have follow up on the areas where compromise is possible--the American public if not a more global audience would be riveted. The priority should be on making the core ideas related to our 21st century world as clear as glass to everyone and why he wants to take the country in the direction he does based on his analysis of that world. In this way those who seek to use these times to scare and confuse people are marginalized and we use all our modern technology not to keep "amusing ourselves to death" as Neil Postman once memorably put it, but to learn from our fellow human beings who after all share our planet.  The President's men would turn this role down I am reasonably sure, fearing he would be satirized as Professor in Chief and the anti-intellectual crowds will portray him as an ivy league elitist. The danger exists. The way to counter that danger is first for Obama to do what too many professors often fail to do, make the ideas concrete and clear and provide good examples, to be talking and discussing these ideas not just with academics but with managers, workers, technical experts and the like, secondly to be seen to be willing to use his energy and intellect to work with the opposition to forge compromise positions. If he finds he cannot afford to compromise he must then clearly explain why. What is the alternative? Does Obama or his advisers think for one second that by compromising with the Republican on their sacred cows such as tax cuts that he can find a way to get re-elected? He must also know they intend to block every piece of legislation however constructive and thoughtful it might be and use his failure to pass legislation as yet another reason to vote him out in 2012. The President cannot  truly draw out the venom of the attack by the right wing or its  overwhelming negativity out by failing to engage. He must assert the new role, own it and as he does make more of us understand that politics is not some other version of show business played as they say by ugly people, not a game but a serious effort to define who we are now as a people and into the future.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Google Tax Avoidance and Global Responsibility

So Google avoids US and UK taxes among a host of other countries that it shorted--what a shocker! The company that has the motto "do no evil" has managed to pay only a fraction of the tax it owes. In the US it comes to about $3.1 billion the company has avoided and in the UK the amount is estimated to be more than a £100m. This practice of shipping money off-shore is common among the multi-nationals that feel they owe their shareholders the responsibility of maximizing profits ahead of tax obligations to any individual countries. The effective tax rate Google paid was 2.4 percent rather than the average of 20-25 percent that was really due. If we all enjoyed that rate what fun life would be. As Tapped, American Prospects' blog states

"It did so not just by taking advantage of tax breaks available to corporations for research and development, depreciation and the like, but also by more dubious techniques known as the "Double Irish" and the "Dutch Sandwich" -- “the sandwich leaves no tax behind to taste." These tactics involve shuttling earnings through various foreign subsidiaries with no business purpose other than tax evasion.

The American Prospect asks whether this action was "evil" and answers as follows:

"If Google's definition of not being evil is 'doing more than the average corporation to support the public interest,' then sure it is. It's one thing to take advantage of legitimate tax law, but exploiting these loopholes for the sole purpose of paying less tax violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter. That would be fine if Google was content as a typical business, relentlessly pursuing profit with no thought to the public interest. They simply shouldn't pretend they're somehow better than the Exxons and Goldman Sachs of the world."

The issue is symbolic of the uneasy relationship that exists between powerful multinational corporations and sovereign governments. As governments lose power and global corporations gain it becomes difficult for any single governmental entity to control their excesses. As Steve Pearlstein notes in today's Washington Post only a few days before:

"President Obama made an offer that no one in the business community seems to have picked up on. The "anti-business" president said he supported the idea of reducing the corporate tax rate to a more globally competitive level - 25 percent is the number frequently mentioned - but only as part of a package that tightened rules on inter-company transfers and eliminated enough corporate tax breaks so that there was no overall reduction in revenues or increase in the federal deficit."

Despite some bipartisan support there chances that this will occur are slim as Pearlstein notes reducing the rate down even by a few percentage points will  not win the support of companies as large as Google since their dodges are extremely lucrative;

"Right now, it's big global companies like Google that have the most to lose if rules are tightened and tax breaks eliminated, while smaller domestic firms would gain most from a reduction in the rate. Similarly, companies in the insurance, pharmaceutical and energy sectors probably benefit disproportionately from existing tax breaks that do little for profitable companies in retail, distribution, manufacturing and business services. If history is any guide, the odds are that certain losers will out-shout and out-lobby the potential winners.The conventional wisdom is that it will take presidential leadership to reform the tax code and balance the budget, but the reality is that it will require the support of the business community. Up to now, the refrain from the corporate sector has been almost exclusively, "What's good for business is good for America." Are there no leaders left in the boardroom who still believe it works the other way around?"

We badly need an informed debate about the role of global corporations which might lead to a code of ethical behavior that can be monitored carefully based on transparent information. The media at the moment show very little interest in this issue, this maybe due to the fact that so many of the large ones are owned by business conglomerates that are well versed in the tax dodges themselves.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chilean Miners--A Global Opportunity to Unite?

One amazing thing about the brave Chilean miners rescue drama was that if you turned on US TV last night and this morning you would see uninterrupted coverage of one miner after another emerging sunglassed  from their hellish underground location to be greeted by his overjoyed family. For the US to give up “regularly scheduled programming” for anything let alone a foreign mine disaster for such an extended period is highly unusual and worthy of some comment. When we taken into account that a 1,000 strong press corps is situated at the mine representing over 30 countries we seem to have approached a McLuhanesque global village moment. .The last time something like this happened was possibly the Moon landing. What made this event so important not just for a headline or two but for continuous TV coverage? The human story of course which transcends borders–there was no thought of rescue of anyone for 17 days before the famous note was found written in Spanish in red ink, it read simply: "The 33 of us are fine in the shelter."

But there was also another story to be told about the international cooperation that went into the rescue as the LA Times reports:

“Twenty private mining companies from around the world — usually rivals — coordinated efforts to penetrate the rock, loaning equipment and personnel; the state-run mining company fashioned a telephone system through a second probe hole. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent a team to Chile to share expertise about the psychological and physical toll of living in cramped quarters, and when the miners exercise — to be rescued, they must fit into a capsule called the Phoenix, whose diameter is less than two feet — they wear gear that is standard for astronauts and which monitors their heart, lung and other functions. When they are finally brought out into the light they will wear special sunglasses provided by Oakley, based in Orange County..”

We also learn that “long-time enemies Bolivia and Chile are cooperating to support Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, 23, and Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales is expected to greet the newly freed miners along with Chile's conservative President Sebastian Piñera..”

It is also reported that “work crews have raised the flags of Canada, the US, and Argentina, among others. Palestinian ambassador Mai Al Kaila visited the site, adding her flag to the collection.”

So let peace light and global cooperation spread ! Perhaps this incident will lead to globally recognized standards concerning mine maintenance and worker safety so that future incidents (most sadly the recent tragedy in  West Virginia) can be avoided.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

The UN Millenium Development Goals 10 Year Anniversary: Time for a Reassessment

There is plenty of comment at this time on the 10th anniversary of the UN Millenium Goals. There are this week lots of questions –were they too ambitious, too vague with too many countries willing to make rash promises of large amounts of cash for the developing world and not having much intention of delivering?

Does the entire process have to be re-thought so that it is more transparent and accountable? For example the Financial Times criticizes the Millenium Development Goals for being unrealistic

“Achieving universal primary education and halving the proportion of hungry people in 1990 was a daunting, if not impossible, task.”

Jeffrey Sachs avers that the system is “broken” and needs to be rethought.

“we must replace the fragmentation of bilateral programmes with a new strategy based on multi-donor pooled funding that has clear timelines, objectives and accountability.”

Bono a well known celebrity fighter for these goals (that he refers to as MDG) writing in the New York Times,  thinks the record is better than Sachs and others are prepared to make out,

“Tens of millions more kids are in school thanks to debt cancellation. Millions of lives have been saved through the battle against preventable disease, thanks especially to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Apart from fallout from the market meltdown, economic growth in Africa has been gathering pace — over 5 percent per year in the decade ending in 2009. Poverty declined by 1 percent a year from 1999 to 2005.”

Bono however, agrees with Sachs however that there is a greater need for transparency,

“Right now it’s near impossible to keep track. Walk (if you dare) into M.D.G. World and you will encounter a dizzying array of vague financing and policy commitments on critical issues, from maternal mortality to agricultural development. You come across a load of bureau-babble that too often is used to hide double counting, or mask double standards. This is the stuff that feeds the cynics.”

He recommends the creation of an independent unit “made up of people from governments, the private sector and civil society — to track pledges and progress, not just on aid but also on trade, governance, investment. It’s essential for the credibility of the United Nations, the M.D.G.’s, and all who work toward them.”

As the major western donors struggle with recession –a clear need is to help explain to the people why we need to care about these goals. Goals that did start out in 2000 as quite simple and obvious such as Goal 1 to eradicate poverty

Target 1:

Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than $1 a day of poverty had diminished in almost every region

Target 2:

Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people

Target 3:

Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger

Contrary to what Bono claims the data is not "impossible track"--the  UN data is pretty good in showing you the progress towards the goals through such items as interactive maps that show the passage of time regarding key indicators such as the number of people in the world who are living on $1 dollar a day in 2010 compared to 2000 when the MDG were first established:

But Obama is right the information is scattershot and not clearly presented so that a voter could see where his or her money went to what program and with what result. 
Another part of the  problem, perhaps a more important one,  seems to be the media’s difficulty in reporting on long term stories. The TV news is much happier with reporting dramatic incidents and accidents than offering stories that require the perspective of time. When the politicians announce a the famous summits whether it be at “Monterrey in 2002 (to reach 0.7 per cent of GNP in development aid), Gleneagles in 2005 (to double African aid by 2010), L’Aquila in 2009 (to direct $22bn over three years to raise productivity of smallholder farming) and Copenhagen in 2009 (to add $30bn over three years for climate change adaptation and mitigation)” it captures the TV headlines but does not register. Nor does the story of why what these seemingly vast sums mean in terms of real change on the ground—better nutrition, less disease and how these amounts we are spending which are bare fractions of our GDP compare to the extent of the problem. President Obama clearly had in mind the country’s mood, to steer towards less foreign entanglements and less intervention, when he made his remarks before the UN General Assembly the other day concerning the MDG , 'With our economies struggling, so many people out of work, and so many families barely getting by, why a summit on development?' " Obama told an audience of several hundred people in the U.N. General Assembly hall. "The answer is simple. In our global economy, progress in even the poorest countries can advance the prosperity and security of people far beyond their borders, including my fellow Americans."

President Obama is right of course to frame the debate that way if it means gaining the support of the US Congress during a time of national austerity –but the media has to be able to help shape the story and tell the positive stories about International AID such as the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria, which argues Sachs is a better model than the MDG offers because it “pools resources from many donor nations, with an independent review board approving national programmes according to scientific and management criteria rather than bilateral politics. Educators must do their part too to keep up and explain the story that too many of our leaders and our media have failed to illuminate.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Problem Based Global Teaching

Global education is often a matter of bringing topical issues into the classroom in an engaging way that helps students appreciate the complexity of the world they live in. One way to help students realize that they are not just bystanders concerning the key questions that will affect their futures and potentially the fate of the planet is through problem based learning. Students often enjoy serious role play and particularly when they deal with scenarios involving today's headlines.

Students today with their ready access to all kinds of media and information are eager to part of not just a national but a global conversation and because of the Web 2.0 revolution they are primed to do so. After all it is their their blogs, their use of Digg and Twitter feeds, their YouTube uploads that are driving much of what

the media is now interested in writing about and vice versa. Those readers in the main happened to be under 30 and for schools to ignore the power of this transformation in our literacy and news consuming habits seems to be folly. Yet as Pew and other surveys routinely point out the Internet particularly in its Web 2.o form still tends to be viewed skeptically by schools.

But where and how to get started? Global education lends itself in my view to problem based learning, and to innovative uses of technology.

After all the issues related to global learning are ever changing and we have yet to come up with perfect textbook answers to respond to them. Clearly both of the last two facts tend to make teachers more nervous and less comfortable with the idea of including global education. The prevailing culture suggests that teachers need to know the answers and to be in control of the information. What to do?

My advice is to go slow and convince yourself that the old ways of doing business –teacher leading a lecture discussion with students textbook on text following along -- while comfortable and manageable are not working to prepare students for the 21st century world they actually inhabit. Employees don’t discover problems scattered around in textbooks, and answer sheets are nowhere to be found in the modern office. Workers collaborate and communicate online and form project teams that have goals and missions as they seek out evidence for their arguments. Apart from this the evidence suggests that students are bored out of their minds in the traditional settings and many of them simply tune out—and quietly rebel by failing to read set materials and “going through the motions” when it comes to responding to questions.In too many schools the situation is reminiscent of the old Soviet Union teachers pretend to teach and the students pretend to learn.

How to wake students up and engage them is tough—you have to find the right ways into the issues, but if you read newspapers with great world coverage like the New York Times on a regular basis you are sure to find on a fairly regular basis stories that can excite passions and energize conversations and most importantly of all--spark research and the kind of authentic learning that stays with the student long after the test is completed. Take this one I found in the New York Times magazine the other day. It is entitled the Peanut Butter Solution. The article tells the story of how a French pediatrician discovered a cure for child malnutrition and in doing so revealed the fault lines between the interests of free market western capitalism and those of the developing world. So this story can be educational in the best sense if teachers can find the time to think through how to use it in a classroom as a way to help students understand not just the way global economics works, but also the deeper moral questions that often get ignored by the media related to the need to respond to the continuing tragedy of global childhood malnutrition kills  five million children a year and  a third of all deaths of children under five. So the question for students after reading this is what would you do about the situation. Before they are able to answer that question it is a good idea for them to understand other points of view that they might not have entertained prior to answering that question. They can best do this through participating in a simulation.

After reading the New York Times article students might review  an analogous set of facts involving patents in the case of HIV drugs that prior to the Clinton Foundation interventiuon    were unaffordable for most of the developing world where the problem of HIV was most severe. This article has a good summary of the issues.

What would be an ideal set of activities for a unit like this? Perhaps a simulation like this:
Divide up the class in teams representing:

i) The French company that holds the patent.

ii) A country in a developing world that wants to develop the same kind of company as Paul Farmer in Haiti has done

iii) A US Peanut coalition that wants to manufacture and sell a peanut based product to the developing world.

iv) An international team of experts that is developing recommendations for what UNICEF, and World Patent bodies should do in regard to this issue.

Have each present their reports on why their views should prevail and argue their cases based on evidence that they have found in researching the issues. Have the international team of experts hear the cases being made and then in turn present their own findings. If one group wants to appeal have them present their case to another group of independent experts sitting in quasi judicial manner and have them write their report either upholding the intial recommendations or reversing them.

Provide a rubric on what kinds of evidence and arguments will be most favorably considered. Complete the assignment by asking the students to write how personally they would resolve the issues and the arguments and evidence they considered to reach their conclusion.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Another Teachable Moment--The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy

How many teachers will use the recent NYC Ground Zero Mosque Controversy in their lessons I wonder? It is a difficult and sensitive issue to grasp particularly when the air has been made fairly radioactive by recent pronouncements from those right wingers who seek to use the issue to gain some personal partisan political advantage.

There are several entry points --among them the rights of religious minorities under the first amendment to practice their religion. I was reminded of George Washington's bold words in a letter to the Jews of Newport.

"The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens."

Washington was the President of a new national government in 1787 when he wrote these words that have become central to the country's view of itself as a tolerant home to all believers. It is important to remember that at this time the monarchies across the European continent were still denying Jews their citizenship and economic livlihoods among other indiginities. Each year, Newport’s Congregation, now known as the Touro Synagogue where I visited and first read and was stirred by these words, re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony.

Why not have these magnificent words re-read in every classroom, every year not just in the Touro synagogue--and hear them echo--"to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."?

Teachers could also compare the ways not just the Jews but Catholics had to struggle for their place in the country's polity. As Greevy and Appleby remind us "

"It took Catholics more than a full century to attain their current level of acceptance and influence, and they made their share of mistakes along the way, occasionally by trying too hard to prove their patriotic bona fides. (Exhibit A: Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name is now, paradoxically, a synonym for “un-American activities.”) But they earned their place, over the course of many decades, by serving (and dying for) their country, and building their own churches, schools and health care systems alongside public counterparts, which they also frequented and supported with their taxes."

The New York of Review writers also point out that,

"Like many American Muslims today, many American Catholics squirmed when their foreign-born religious leaders offered belligerent or tone-deaf pronouncements on the modern world. New York’s own Bishop John Hughes thundered in 1850 that the Church’s mission was to convert “the officers of the navy and the Marines, commander of the Army, the legislatures, the Senate, the Cabinet, the president and all.” The Syllabus of Errors, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1864 denied that the Church had any duty to reconcile itself with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

In terms of media literacy the controversy could also allow students to dig into the real facts of the case which include that the idea for a community center dates back to December 2009, when (according to wikipedia) the religious leader Feisel Abdul Rauf "announced plans to build Cordoba House, a 13-story community center, including a mosque that would accommodate 1,000–2,000 Muslims in prayer, two blocks from Ground Zero. He won non-binding support from the local Community Board. He also received both support and opposition from some 9/11 families, politicians, organizations, academics, and others. The building of the mosque and community center, as well as the initiative itself, was supported by some Muslim American leaders and organizations, including CAIR, and criticized by some Muslims such as Sufi mystic Suleiman Schwartz, who said that a building built by Rauf barely two blocks from ground zero, is inconsistent with Sufi philosophy of simplicity of faith and sensitivity towards others. Supporters for Cordoba House point out that two mosques in Lower Manhattan have firm roots, and one of them was founded in 1970, pre-dating the World Trade Center.."

In other words the controversy is a lot more interesting than it might first appear and certainly highly teachable.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Globalization: A Very Short Introduction

The term "Globalization" is freighted down with multiple meanings. It is one of those words that are so large, abstract and all encompassing--very much like the word "education" or "culture" that can mean multiple things dependent on the context that the writer or speaker may or may not be fully aware of. One of the real benefits of Manfred Steger's Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford) is he introduces us to some of the most significant multiple meanings for the term and shows how and why the term is unavoidably a "contested one." Steger prefers to refer to the term as a "social condition" that is "characterized by a the existence of global, economic, political, cultural and environmental interconnections and flows that make many of the currently existing borders and boundaries irrelevant."

The term is interpreted by academics differently depending on their discipline and political disposition--some believe economics are at the core of the globalization, others believe political, cultural and ideological aspects, while others connect the term to environmental processes. He suggests that they are all guilty of the mistake of believing that globalization can be reduced to "a single domain that corresponds to their core expertise." Rather than going down the road of academic narcissism it is wiser to respect the varied and uneven ways globalization manifests itself--so that while various aspects of globalization have been present throughout history--it is "important to note the occurence of dramatic technological and social leaps that have pushed the intensity and global reach of these processes to new levels."

The short book is jammed full of good examples of how the uneven globalization forces work their magic in important ways today. Educators especially should pay close attention to a number of critical points Steger makes with respect to the ways globalization explodes our traditional view that nation states and home grown politicians and companies control our fates. A deeper understanding of globalization will reveal how more of the world's future is now subject to the interaction of global institutions and globalizing forces that are so powerful they cause sometimes massive political reactions. Reading this book can help educators see the sometimes yawning gaps in the picture of the world we portray to students. Some of the blank spaces include:

i) The diminished power of the state as a result of global corporations controlling as they do so much of the world's investment capital, technology and access to international markets are far more powerful than most states. Wal-Mart for example with sales of $166 billion surpasses the GDP of Poland, South Africa, Israel, Ireland and many other countries ad does Exxon, Shell, IBM and Siemens.

ii) The increasing power of international institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization which are largely invisible from the eye of the media and hardly feature in most curriculums are largely responsible for controlling the power balance between rich and poor countries which largely runs on a north south basis.

iii) The increasingly important work of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) sometimes referred to as the "global civil society" like Amnesty International and Greenpeace that account for millions of active citizens throughout the world interceding in local as well as global political events.

iv) The ongoing clash between what Benjamin Barber has referred to as McWorld vs Jihad that has helped spawn Islamic terrorism as some extreme fundamentalist Muslims reject Western values carried so widely through the modern US dominated media outlets which they see as threatening the purity of their beliefs.

I found Steger most impressive on his critique of the ideological dimension of globalization--the assumption taken up by writers like Tom Friedman and politicians like Bill Clinton that globalization is an inevitable force that will benefit mankind and only needs free markets to enable this force to fully flourish around the world. Steger takes apart these naive view and criticizes globally controlled media outlets such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times etc. for mindlessly subscribing to this ideological view. Steger acknowledges that what he refers to as "the globalists"--have the benefit of a "strong discourse" that is "notoriously difficult to resist and repel" --it is far from a water tight one and it would pay to actually look at the facts. It is not the case for example (as the globalists like to argue) that globalization has narrowed the gap between the richest and poorest countries. Using UN data he shows that while the income ratio between the richest and poorest countries in 1973 before the rapid onset of globalization was about 44:1 --in the remaining quarter century it had risen to 74:1.

Reading Steger's book can remind us that globalization is a force that can go in many directions and that it is dangerous if the term gets captured by one ideological group such as the globalists. His own view is expressed in the introduction:

"I believe we should take comfort in the fact that the world is becoming a more interdependent place that enhances people's chances to recognize and acknowledge their common humanity. I welcome the progressive transformation of social structures that goes by the name of globalization, provided that the the global flow of ideas and commodities and the rapid development of technology go hand in hand with greater forms of freedom and equality for all people, as well as the more effective protection of our global environment."

Good words and ones I can fully subscribe to. It is now up to educators to make this more open and more challenging view of globalization come alive in the classroom.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tony Judt 1948-2001: Global intellectual

Tony Judt was one of a vanishing breed of public intellectuals who thought and wrote about hard subject such as the fate of democracy,why we should oppose ideological fantasies of the 20th century and the prospects of peace in our late stage of capitalistic excesses.

His best known book, Post War: Europe since 1945, carefully showed the formation of a new Europe from the rubble of 1945 and intertwinned in the masterful narrative was the way many post war intellectuals have been trapped rather than liberated by some of the same ideologies that led to the last disastrous European war.

Judt died last week after a long and painful bout with Lou Gehrigs disease. He fought his tragic fate with enormous dignity and bravery, managing to use a specially adapted voice translator for his severely compromised lungs.  Some fine obituaries have been penned this week. The one in The Guardian finely appreciates the contributions he made to modern European history and his effort to reframe the so called two state solution in the Middle East. His passing leaves a huge gap in our intellectual life. Let us hope that other brave independent minds can use his example and try to find a way of talking about the global issues that matter so they reach beyond just a narrow academic audience.


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Universities Go Global

Until fairly recently universities thought they were doing a good job in terms of presenting themselves as a global institutions if they had an active student exchange program. Many university leaders now are realizing that they have to do more as they recognize we are in a new globally connected era. While many mission statements may have been revised to include the term "global" and many high level statements about the intent of many universities to become a truly global institution have been issued, the follow through has often been quite disappointing. A recent report by the American Council on Education, Mapping Internationalization on US Campuses: 2008 edition found that:

" * Many institutions do not see internationalization as integral to their identity or strategy. Less than 40 percent of institutions made specific reference to international or global education in their mission statements, although that's up from 28 percent in 2001.
* The percentage of colleges and universities that require a course with an international or global focus as part of the general education curriculum dipped from 41 percent in 2001 to 37 percent in 2006. Fewer than one in five had a foreign-language requirement for all undergraduates.
* The majority of institutions do not have a full-time person to oversee or coordinate internationalization.
* Despite reports showing growth in study abroad participation, the ACE survey found that 27 percent of institutions reported that no students graduating in 2005 studied abroad.
* Ten percent of responding institutions offered degree programs abroad for non-U.S. students. Forty percent of these programs were established in China and another 16 percent in India."

Although some progress has been made since many colleges and universities now require students take at least one course on a global topic.

I recently visited Tanith Fowler Corsi who is the Vice President for Global Education for Catholic University housed in Washington DC and if anyone can help really overcome the many obstacles thrown in the way of highly territorially minded departments, she looks like the one to do it. Her global perspective started at a young age--born in Monaco of US parents she attended French schools and is comfortably trilingual, she has run global education center at George Mason University and is widely traveled. Her task is to help implement the university's commitment to internationalizing more of the curriculum, linking professors together and develop worthwhile sustainable international projects that produce real value to its more than 6.000 students students. The task is formidable since the tools to change any institution as large and complex as a modern university come down really to persuasion and leadership by example. Clearly we are just starting out down this global road in both K-12 as well as higher education. It is an exciting journey and we will see how both schools and colleges fair as they attempt to redefine themselves and their mission for the new century.