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?”