Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Vaclav Havel's Legacy

If there was someone who you could name most deserved to win the Nobel Peace Prize and did not--it was former Czech premier Vaclav Havel. The tributes have been pouring in. Here was a man who stood up to the Soviet invaders and articulated why in clear terms why those who lived under totalitarian rule must find ways to resist. From his famous essay The Power of the Powerless,he pinpointed why everyone needs to resist what "above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the "human order," which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a new found inner relationship to other people and to the human community-these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go." These are words that can be applied to our times as well. The people who have driven our economy into the proverbial ditch and the government that stood by and allowed it to happen have contributed to the same kind of implosion of values that the totalitarian regimes were responsible for. Havel's remedy is the right one, " In other words, the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love...For the real question is whether the brighter future is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"

Thursday, November 3, 2011

New Realities Demand New Politics

As the planet hits the 7 billion mark and we, at least in the declining west, try to dig ourselves out of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s  it is time to map a different view of the 21st century. We know that the economic shocks we have just experienced are just a foretaste of more rough weather to come. You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool pessimist to recognize that one more shift in the interest rates which are already at historic lows will mean ballooning deficits and years more of austerity.  

There are no panglossian scenarios out there that serious economists believe will help dig us out of the hole we have created. As we look for great political leaders to inspire the national will to help lead us out of the morass it seems that not even the rhetorical skills of President Obama are equal to the job in a nation that seems more profoundly divided than ever before in its history.

What is the answer? We need a new politics--one that can rise to the challenge of the times. The good news is that this new politics is slowly emerging through the Occupy Movement. It has begun well--as a non violent protest about the unfairness of 1% of the population grabbing all the spoils at the expense of the 99% but where does it go is the question? We all have a duty to help figure this out and begin a national dialogue. They have started to suggest we need new ideas--there is now an open invitation to help develop the new ideas we need. We should be encouraged that ideas can come from anywhere and they can go viral in a matter of minutes. Oxfam for example, is leading a "massive movement of
of nonprofit organizations, green groups, trade unions, celebrities, religious leaders and politicians, all campaigning to push the financial sector to pay up and generate much-needed public funds. In Europe, this movement has gained political momentum, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel both calling for this tax. But thus far, the Obama administration has blocked any progress. President Obama’s administration says it’s not ready to support a financial transaction tax in the US. But that doesn’t mean that it has to stand in the way of progress across Europe."
Robin Hood Tax will come up for discussion next week in Cannes, France when leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies gather at the G20 Summit.
These are the kinds of activities that are now shaping the new politics. Our current system is
designed for short term compromise (national elections every two and four years) we are going to be floundering for a good deal longer, but it is time to ask ourselves whether the issues we face are more due to institutional failure than the usual culprit the media, money or hyperpartisanship, or a combination of all three. The simple matter is that institutions that served a purpose in the 20th century have to be rethought and in many cases redesigned for a new era. We are making some painful progress on some--the media most notably but not on others--most obviously our 19th century  educational system and not very functional participatory democracy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

So the news is that we are all alike! It is easy to mock the young--so earnest, so keen to make a difference, so terribly naive but I like photographer Adrian Fisk recent project to understand in more depth the lives of young Indian and Chinese people. Adrian "traveled 2,700 kilometers across China and India to discover that most young people are, in essence, exactly the same. Adrian  who is 41 and lives in London, "wanted to find out what these young people thought," "If I found out what was in these people's minds, I figured I would get an idea of where our world is headed at this pivotal time."
Fisk wanted his project to be a voice for these young people that the rest of the world knew little about.

Click here to see the photos >

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Visiting Occupy DC

It was a kind of dreary overcast morning when quite by accident I found the Occupy DC camp--just a stone's throw (or molotov cocktail) from the Ronald Reagan building and about a half mile from the Capitol. It seemed like a sleepy place. A few people were moving around getting things to eat and drink and trying to look like this was all very normal-- but the vast majority were asleep it seemed inside their bright cocoons--waiting butterfly like to arise into a new dawn. Dare I say that the tents seemed to be very internally occupied--one tent was moving visibly over to another one which prompted a tourist to wisecrack so this is how they multiply themselves-- her companion rejoined, "a puppy tent." It seemed like this was a serious group of folk, with peace as their mantra. Everything seemed well thought out--a media tent, a food and drink tent and it would seem a strong personal improvement and education arm to the proceedings as well --if a set of assignments still posted alongside one of the tents seems anything to judge by:

You have to like the White House Phone number posted at the bottom right corner of the message board--like in case of an emergency-- phone home. There were at most only about 50 tents but everything clean and orderly with no sense that they will be leaving anytime soon. Stay posted.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street Speaks With One Voice.

I recently came across the petition seems to be the first articulation of the mass anger that is driving the Occupy Wall Street Movement and is  likely to be ignored by the media. It is worth reading in full as  powerful statement that seeks to identify the corporate greed as the main enemy now "run" our government.   "They" is used multiple times indicating that the forces maybe faceless but they act in concert as some kind of anti-human force. It is a disturbing wake up call for our politicians to heed and should promote the dialogue that will probably be again missing from the mainstream media.  The latest reports as suggest the movement is spreading and becoming more self confident. It is self consciously a global movement as stated in the preamble;

"As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

In today's New York Times Joe Nocera notes that this economy is likely to stay the same for a while or get worse. It will not improve anytime soon as the well respected writers of the report Nocera refers to suggests. Sooner or later we will need the real debate we have been delaying for the last five years or longer about what kind of future we want--one full of empty promises, war and false bubbles or one about how we got to this place and the lessons learned to move us into the future.

Hopefully the Occupy Wall Street groups will play a major role in helping the media as well as our politicians to frame the right issues and involve less of the talking head pundits and more of the voices that are now out on the streets.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Great Confessions Series: US Leaders Woefully Ignorant of the World

The latest comment by General McChrystal should come as no surprise to most of us that as the Guardian reports the US had a

 'frighteningly simplistic' view of Afghanistan,

General who led Obama's 'surge' strategy says even now the military does not have the local knowledge to end the conflict--
    "The US and Nato are only "50% of the way" towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan, he told the Council on Foreign Relations..."We didn't know enough and we still don't know enough. Most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years." McChrystal led the Obama administration's "surge" strategy that started in 2009 and sent US troop levels in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. Widely acknowledged as a gifted military commander, he was forced to resign last year amid controversy over remarks he made to Rolling Stone magazine." No comment--thousands of lost lives later he tells us and guess who is not listening..the US media but out in the streets as the Washington Post reports--the growing protest movement that started in Wall Street is gathering momentum One wonders whether this is all made up by the Onion newspaper or is it for real? How can we have been so casual and so ignorant? How can our leaders continue to be so? The protest against ignorance gathers apace.  

Monday, September 26, 2011

Do we Really Need a Third Party To Turn this Ship Around? RFK's Example

I have been reading The Last Campaign: Robert F Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America by Thurston Clarke and it has proved a good antidote to the despair in US politics that has revisited us since the tea party got going and Obama seemed to lose his voice and his willingness to fight. With the Arab Spring in danger of winding down and losing its nerve, and the double dip recession long feared poised to overtake Europe and the US, these are trying times for progressives. This is particularly the case for those who feel that part of the despair comes from losing faith with the current occupant in the White House.

Clarke's book reminds you that what we lost in 1968 when RFK was assassinated, was not just the death of a charismatic politician but the end of the a good deal of faith that the system is fixable. Here was a politician prepared to take political risks. RFK presented in his last campaign a stark contrast to our present era of poll driven politicians. That is why Obama's credentials were so appealing to many of us who wanted to actually believe in the slogan hope and change--here was a politician at last who was not beholden to the corporate interests who had the capability to lead rather than follow public opinion. Accordingly, you have to be sympathetic to those calling for a third party--Matt Miller, Tom Friedman and an assorted number of left leaning moderate and highly intelligent pundits have joined the cause. The democrats seem no longer able to express the views of either the middle class or the working class. Instead they seem like their Republican colleagues way too anxious to appease the monied interests. Matt Miller for instance calls out Obama for his latest feeble gestures in the light of a deeper recession than anyone predicted:

"Our president calls himself “a warrior for the middle class” because he’s campaigning for a plan that might add 2 million new jobs next year at a time when 25 million Americans who want full-time work can’t find it."

He is right. What Miller does not acknowledge is that just that pathetic effort will face a very uphill battle in Congress by Republicans intent on giving Obama zero legislative victories before the 2012 elections. Why Miller asks do we now have a politics where mutually assured destruction seems to be the aim with the casualities are us? Career politicians eager to spring board from a career in politics to somewhere else in the culture where non corporate viewpoints don't belong? Possibly. Miller offers "three reasons"

"First, both parties’ chief aim is to win elections, not solve problems. Second, both parties are prisoner to interest groups and ideological litmus tests that prevent them from blending the best of liberal and conservative thinking. Finally, neither party trusts us enough to lay out the facts and explain the steps we need to take to truly fix things."

All these are correct but the third one to me is the most salient. No one wants to tell the truth. Truth is such an over valued concept I can hear one of the pollsters saying those who are routinely trusted nowadays with "the messaging." Truth is dangerous--besides the politicians will argue--no one believes us anyway or trusts us to tell them-- so why even bother. Instead both parties spend millions of donated dollars on PR campaigns of the poll tested kind, to massage or in some cases hide the truth. If the message is too difficult, (usually difficulty means could not be translated into an easy to read bumper sticker) it gets dropped. This is hardly news to political observers with any degree of common sense but we have reached a stage in this country where the problems can no longer be so cleverly massaged by the media spin doctors or swept under the cliched carpet. They are serious and real and they have got that way precisely because the inability to even have a discussion about them. They are not that difficult--one percent of the population has become super rich at the expense of around 90 percent of Americans. The role politicians interested in truth telling have to play is to let people know that this is the economy that third world countries have--an elite untouchable upper class with an insignificant middle and the rest of us who beg for bread crumbs from the rich. Such societies are fundamentally unstable, prone to violence and even revolution and seriously tragic places. A third party--is unlikely to change this because the underestimate the staying power of interests that are interested in creating a banana republic have played the game too long to give up to defectors from the white liberal elites who think they are especially gifted communicators. This is not about honing a message--it is about who has raw power and who can use it. It is also about having a leaders who can lead. One of the great disappointments with regard to Obama is that he had the power from those of us who gave him money so we would precisely avoid the spot he seems to have placed himself in the sense that he "owes something" to special(monied) interests.  Instead of being busy forming third parties which takes a ridiculous amount of effort and time and has made more mischief for democratic progressives (think Nader) than it has helped. You need another hint--if Nader had not been on the ballot Gore would have been rightfully elected without a question and we would have avoided Iraq and the fiscal meltdown.  Our focus should be on asking Obama to live up to his promises of not playing politics as usual, not playing a different role in government than when he was outside its walls. For the model he should turn to RFK 's last campaign. Constantly people questioned RFK's  sincerity but Clarke's book shows that the passion for change was genuine and the evidence that he meant what he said was real. If you watch any of the footage from the campaign --including the above-- you can see there is a deep recognition that the world of 1968 needed to change from feeding a military industrial complex to one that served the poor and the marginalized. Reading Clarke's book you have a pretty good sense of the man's real desire for the country to change course and his willingness to take huge personal risks to make that happen. It was RFK's willingness to take risks that made the difference in 1968--his willingness to say things others seemed incapable of saying and his ability to empathize and analyze.

If RFK's memory means anything it should shame the mainstream media to stop playing into the sound bite culture that allows politicians to wiggle off the hook as they spout a phrase or two and do not receive follow up questions. More than anything RFK should re-inspire the play it safe democrats to stand up and lead rather than follow and that includes the pundits calling for a third party.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

World at a Tipping Point

While this extra hot summer appears to be adding to the problem it can feel some days as though we are all losing our senses. Maybe it is the heat-maybe it is living in Washington but the US seems right now to reflect the world's self destructive mood as its leaders failed to rise to the challenge of the time and focus on the right issues--job creation and not short term deficit reduction. Perhaps it takes an outsider like former PM Gordon Brown writing an op ed in the Washington Post to nail just how bad the latest US debt deal was:

"At the core of Washington’s debt decision last week were four “no-go” areas for policy: no more taxes, no more stimulus, no more public investment and no more cuts or increases in entitlement spending. Under these politically imposed constraints, growth from consumer spending and public investment is blocked off. With little chance of private-sector investment in a stagnant home market, America has locked itself into a low-growth cycle for years to come."

We did it to ourselves and now the only hope for the global recovery--that stands in the way of the double dip recession that the debt crazed Republicans seem to have welcomed with their threats of bringing about default if their demands were not met (is this is the only strategy they can come up with to defeat Obama in 2012 one wonders?)
Gordon Brown's solution is --"to export our way to growth"--which is exactly the strategy of every other country--in the world--including China, Germany, and the rest. We cannot all export without someone importing all the stuff we produce and that is why Brown hangs his hopes on the G-20 meeting later in the year coming out with some kind of grand bargain, but:

".. without a grand plan, the “export or die” strategies look like a zero-sum game..Is it possible to find a pathway to balanced, sustainable growth in a world that cannot sign a global trade agreement or a climate-change agreement (despite the fact that it would have stimulated billions of trade in renewables) and where the instincts of protectionism and nationalism are far more powerful forces than the imperative for global cooperation?"

We have to hope that the world that has been driven near to the brink by greedy bankers and their aiders and abetters among the political class will finally come to their senses. The media has to stop playing court to spin doctors and rise to the challenge of explaining to people the stakes since the politicians seem incapable of even telling simple truths that tax cuts will not do anything to create the new jobs we need in the quantity we need them and that taxing billionaires at a rate above the level that their secretaries pay is not some form of class war but a reasonable effort to create a fairer and more equal society. But as long as the media paints these ideas as extreme we will not make much progress. At some point we all need to focus on the real issues that long term unemployment and the sense of hopelessness among the youth is far worse than any short run deficit as it undermines social stability. You don't have to take a look at the London riots for examples just take a tour around any major or minor American city in the mid west's rust belt and you can see the devastation this kind of economy takes on people's lives and hopes. Let's hope that we come to our senses before it is too late.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In the Post Murdoch Era: Time to Uncover Some of the Real Scandals

Why cannot we get a press that is fair to the most vulnerable in the world instead of one that protects the interests of the most powerful? The answer is that we can and those that know where to look for good, well sourced news can find it--but it sometimes takes digging.

I want to start a campaign today to see if we can aggregate the best sources around the globe that do the kind of fearless reporting that seems to have gone out of vogue in the 24 hour news world we currently inhabit--that elevates pseudo crises and nonsensical celebrity gossip while missing the real story over and over --here is my start at a list.

Greg Palast--just an extract today with his usual biting critique
of the Republican hostage takers and the fate of the Obama presidency:

"It was quite upsetting to find our President blindfolded and tied to a chair at the GOP Tea Party headquarters, but I'm sure the $2.2 trillion ransom we paid to the hostage-takers is worth it.

Well, now that the Obama presidency is over, we can move on to more serious matters.

Look out your window. What you'll see is that, while the debt-ceiling hostage crisis played out on cable TV, the planet has been burning down."

How is that for an intro that will never appear on any front or back page anywhere in the western press.

Stuff that never makes it to the bloated and now corporate minded Huffington Post--for example---

Reid is already upset that Republican leaders have declared that they will not appoint anyone to the joint committee who backs any tax hike, a virtual replay of the spending cuts vs. new tax revenues fight that consumed Washington for the past several months.

"So what does that leave the committee to do?" Reid said. "Should Pelosi and I just not appoint and walk away?"

If you want to find out why the next election will be fought on ground that the plutocrats expect to win on (hint it is not jobs) read Firedog Lake

Pro-Romney Super PAC Gets $1 Million from a Dummy Company
By: Jon Walker Thursday August 4, 2011 12:00 pm

pocketed (photo: Psychonaught)

"This is a frig From MSNBC:

A mystery company that pumped $1 million into a political committee backing Mitt Romney has been dissolved just months after it was formed, leaving few clues as to who was behind one of the biggest contributions yet of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The existence of the million-dollar donation — as gleaned from campaign and corporate records obtained by NBC News — provides a vivid example of how secret campaign cash is being funneled in ever more circuitous ways into the political system.


The corporate records provide no information about the owner of the firm, its address or its type of business.

If you ever wonder why in our “democracy” Washington politicians seem so much more concerned about the desires of a few rich people instead of what regular people want you need look no farther. It takes money to run and win political office. Regular people can not afford to set up secret dummy corporations to funnel millions into efforts help politicians. On the other hand a single rich person can. This is exactly why politicians spend so much time trying to make a relatively few rich happy."

and if you want to find out what is going on in the world of green energy read Ethan Goffman a contributor to E Magazine for some great analysis of prospects for renewable energy :

"With the Wikileaked news that Saudi Arabia may have overstated oil reserves by as much as 40%, speculation about peak oil has been rampant. Peak oil is the principle that once half of oil reserves are gone (the peak), scarcity will increase and prices rise as the remaining reserves become more difficult to reach. The result is more like a slow bleed than a sudden catastrophe—and the resulting record-high pump prices are already being felt..."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Media Ignores Main DSK/IMF Scandal --DSK's Management of the IMF

International organizations are often stealth like in the way they tend to evade media scrutiny or seem subject to the kinds of accountability pressures that democratic organizations are often exposed to. In a way they behave more like large multinational too big to fail organizations of the kind that we heard a little too much from in our recent past --corporations like BP, Shell, Exxon, AIG, Goldman Sachs, we could go on of course. Among the NGOs that behave like this and clearly jump to the top of anyone's list is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Both behave fairly inscrutably--their decisions of whether to sentence a country to hard "austerity measures"--or to put subtle and not so subtle pressures on political leaders to change policies are seldom reported. How they do their work is judged not very sexy despite their power (even beyond that of nation states) to control the fate of millions of lives. News editors tend to judge these stories as too complex to report or not very newsworthy.

Now because of the head of the IMF's alleged assault on a hotel maid we know a bit more about the person at the head of that particular totem pole but generally not much more. Although The New York Times recently reported that the IMF is not a particularly worker friendly environment with a large amount of what might best be called "alpha male behaviors" accepted by workers who are only too grateful to have a position at one of the world's most prestigious organizations--I have not found anything about the IMF's often disgraceful, frequently inhumane treatments of so called third world countries until reading Greg Palast's as usual timely and original reporting.

As Palast notes on Wednesday the New York Times ran " FIVE - stories on Strauss-Kahn, Director-General of the International Monetary Fund. According to the Paper of Record, the charges against "DSK," as he's known in France, are in "contradiction" to his "charm" and "accomplishments" at the IMF."

What Palast notes is that the alleged rape of the African housekeeper by the head of the IMF was preceeded by an actual rape of a country's economy from which she is from, Guinea:

"In 2002, the International Monetary Fund cut off capital inflows to this West African nation. Without the blessing of the International Monetary Fund, Guinea, which has up to half the world's raw material for aluminum, plus oil, uranium, diamonds and gold, could not borrow a dime to develop these resources.

The IMF's cut-off was, in effect, a foreclosure, and the nation choked and starved while sitting on its astonishing mineral wealth. As in the sub-prime mortgage foreclosures we see today, the IMF moved quickly to seize Guinea's property.

But the IMF did not seize this nation's riches for itself. Rather, it forced Guinea to sell off its resources to foreign corporations at prices much like the sale of furniture on the lawn of a foreclosed house.

The French, Americans, Canadians, Swiss (and lately, the Chinese) came in with spoons out and napkins tucked in under their chins, swallowing the nation's bauxite, gold and more. In the meantime, the IMF ordered the end of trade barriers and thereby ruined local small holders.

As a result of the IMF attack, Guineans who could, fled for freedom and food. This week, then, marked the second time this poor African was molested by the IMF."

Since taking over the IMF in 2007, erstwhile "Socialist" Strauss-Kahn has tightened the screws in an attempt to maintain the free-market finance mania that ruined this planet in the first place.

The disappointment is not just that the media chose not to cover this when Guine's wealth was about to be sacked when the world could have influenced the events and not just that it takes a sex scandal to generate any news at all about the IMF but now that the world's attention is turned to the IMF there is still no accountability regarding that institutions' nefarious ways.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Word Clouds Can Help us "Read" Political Speeches Such as Obama's most recent Middle East Statement

The analysis is not in yet but these word maps can certainly help understand the deeper meanings and reflect on them.

Comments welcome..

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Selective Moral Outrage in the Middle East --Our Media's Double Standards

Hitler's atroticities were not believed by large segments in the west. Even the New York Times tucked away news that Jews were being gassed in their millions well inside the newspaper for fear they would be branded as a Jewish owned paper and lose their credibility as a reliably establishment organ. So with the Middle East. Robert Fisk the fearless Middle East reporter who writes for The Independent who never minds calling things as he sees them, writes that flagrant human rights abuses are taking place not just in Syria (the country like Libya that does not hesitate to fire on their own defenseless people) but also in the lands controlled by our old petro friends in the Gulf such as Bahrain and Saudia Arabia.

We are probably not aware of this because as Fisk writes the country is now being given a free pass in the human rights department.

Fisk for example notes that despite engaging in brutal tactics to quell dissent (with the help of their Saudi friends) without any real shock and disgust from the west. that
"On this tiny island, a Sunni monarchy, the al-Khalifas, rule a majority Shia population and have responded to democratic protests with death sentences, mass arrests, the imprisonment of doctors for letting patients die after protests and an "invitation" to Saudi forces to enter the country. They have also destroyed dozens of Shia mosques with all the thoroughness of a 9/11 pilot. But then, let's remember that most of the 9/11 killers were indeed Saudis."

Fisk comments on the near complete silence in the Western media concerning the systematic exercise of state sponsored brutality by Cameron-Clegg duo and of course Obama. All you really need to know why is contained in this one factoid as Fisk properly reminds us --Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet -- and let us not forget
the three letter word "oil" that to paraphrase Bob Dylan does not just talk and swear it kills.

Why? Why is the west so pleased to wear the mantle of fearless first amendment proud free press exposer of the great and powerful so pathetic at reporting fairly the news that does not favor western interests? To wake them up here is a a graphic detail that Fisk reveals to wake them and us up to the kinds of brutality that is going in that benighted oil state. The military police walking into hospitals and charging of Shia Muslim doctors for "letting their patients die." This is Orwellian perversion of the truth would be Monty Python like funny if were not the truth -if we did not understand first that the patients the doctors were accused of murdering had already been shot by the "security forces." Fisk was actually "in the hospital when these patients were brought in. The doctors' reaction was horror mixed with fear – they had simply never seen such close-range gunshot wounds before." As Fisk reports "If this was happening in Damascus, Homs or Hama or Aleppo, the voices of CamerClegg, and Obama and La Clinton would be ringing in our ears. But no. Silence." Fisk reports "Four men have been sentenced to death for killing two Bahraini policemen. It was a closed military court. Their "confessions" were aired on television, Soviet-style. No word from CamerClegg or Obama or La Clinton.

We are also told in the same piece that "Even when Bahraini students in Britain are deprived of their grants because they protested outside their London embassy, we are silent. CamerClegg, shame on you." Media even more shame for your selective attention span. Fisk blames this all not so much on the Bahrainis oddly he feels the need to protect them by saying (it has nothing to do with the Bahrainis or the al-Khalifas. (nothing?!).."It is all about our fear of Saudi Arabia. Which also means it is about oil. It is about our absolute refusal to remember that 9/11 was committed largely by Saudis. It is about our refusal to remember that Saudi Arabia supported the Taliban, that Bin Laden was a Saudi, that the most cruel version of Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, the land of head-choppers and hand-cutters. It is about a conversation I had with a Bahraini official – a good and decent and honest man – in which I asked him why the Bahraini prime minister could not be elected by a majority Shia population. "The Saudis would never permit it," he said. Yes, our other friends. The Saudis. Don't blame this all on Saudi Arabia though Robert--blame it on the Bahrainis and also on us --their enablers--blame it on the politicians who won't own up to the fact as they righteously swear and reaffirm their fight against their "war against terrorism" (we will let go the fact that you cannot have war against a tactic--you can however confront an ideology and prevent its virus like spread). Let the war against our own media's wilful blindness and our polticians equal wilful hypocrisy first and then we might well be able to start a war against some of the extremist ideologies with some better hope of winning.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Obama's Dilemma in the Middle East: Trapped by a History of Failure

The President can be criticized for playing an overly cautious hand with regard to the Middle East. Unlike the prior President he "does not shoot from the lip"--does not see the world in the John Wayne cowboy style of his predecessor. On the campaign trail he was anything but cautious calling for Afghanistan conflict as the right one and undermining his rival Hillary Clinton's decision to support the unpopular Iraq war begun, as we all now know,using falsified and misleading information. Obama seemed as if he knew what he was doing in the Middle East and could be trusted to steer the region towards peace, particularly when he gave his historic speech in Cairo. While stopping short of promoting democracy in Egypt he picked his words carefully to encourage those dedicated to change, living under the ossified dictatorial systems in that region to count on the US support, he spoke unequivocally that, "governments needed to "reflect the will of the people... Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere."

That was June 2009 and now, less than two years after that occasion we have seen uprisings first in Tunisia, and brutally put down in Iraq, and a second set taking place in Egypt Libya and now Syria. Reading Ryan Lizza's excellent piece in this week's New Yorker we see how difficult Obama found it to commit to backing the rebellions--most painfully in Iraq for fear of discrediting them as being perceived as US backed, but you have to wonder why the hesitation with regard to Egypt, Libya and Syria, where unarmed people were being slaughtered. Obama seems to want it both ways, as Lizza argues,

"Obama’s reluctance to articulate a grand synthesis has alienated both realists and idealists. “On issues like whether to intervene in Libya there’s really not a compromise and consensus,” Slaughter said. “You can’t be a little bit realist and a little bit democratic when deciding whether or not to stop a massacre.”
Where was the support he voiced in Cairo for human rights to be supported "everywhere."? During the time when we needed the staunch visionary Obama retreated back to his role as constitutional law professor, “When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,” he said in a recent interview with NBC News. This troubling equivocation can be partly explained by Obama's not well concealed view that we are in danger of "imperial over stretch" as the Pentagon budget remains the only area of the budget to receive year on year increases as we continue to fight two wars. There was also concern that is best expressed by the phrase better the devil you know that the one you don't which had some play inside the corridors of power until the prime time news screens ran with the horror of unarmed people being mowed down in the streets by their own "people" dressed up as soldiers. It further needs to be pointed out that there is also a world weary recognition that the US public has been led down this road before and as health and educational budgets for all levels of government tighten and force many families to choose between between food and rent--there is a recognition that enough may well be enough in the area of foreign adventures. Obama trapped by his own soaring rhetoric is now tasked with figuring out the new role the US must play (even with trillions of dollars in deficit) in the world. The problem is that the rhetorical flourishes he does so well all are on the side of the grand not the cautious mode he prefers for day to day governing. Republicans in constant state of denial about anything except the need to cut government spending and no tax increases (especially for the wealthy) have a blind spot for military spending and for the US former glory. They will have no hesitation in trying to pick apart what they perceive as Obama's lack of 'gung ho' patriotic war like spirit even as we seek to extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan on terms that might appear to the many who gave their lives for their country and the cause of peace, as "dignified."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Educators Need to Respond to a Changed World

I have been traveling in Turkey this past month and while there had a chance to think through the issues the world is suffering which might be characterized as "a highly stressful period" here are just a few items:

• Japanese Earthquake /Tsunami
• Nuclear Power Plant melt down
• Libyan uprising
• Ivory Coast uprising
• Syrian crackdown

Apart from the usual worries about higher inflation, oil prices and general instability of the US and most of the European economies teetering on a double dip recession—we have got to wonder whether this is going to be the pattern for a while—just a general increased turbulence. Continuing with the turbulence metaphor the question arises-- is this like flying through a stretch of 'bumpy air' or is this is going to a fairly permanent state for the rest of the 21st century world-- a constant shift from crisis to crisis? My short prediction is yes—we are entering a period of extended crisis.

Two main factors seem to be driving this new semi-permanent state —our relentless pursuit of cheap energy, even at the expense of our own safety and the expanding thirst for democratic freedoms particularly from young people trapped in states whose rulers made a devils' bargain to provide cheap oil to the west in exchange for a lifelong grip on power. The comfortable part of the west --that receives most of its information through the corporate media --have cocooned ourselves in our nice cars and homes with the belief that there are few consequences for this state of affairs—we are lulled by infotainment shows and share (bolstered by the high tech gadgets we are so tempted to buy) an exaggerated belief that our ever expanding technology prowess will eventually resolve all problems favorably. What we are failing to recognize are two other very destabilizing factors- —a dramatic rise in population particularly within the Muslim world, and a new generation coming to maturity who lack the fear that virtually paralyzed their parents equipped with new tools of 21st century literacy and organizing--cell phones and facebook accounts together with improved English speaking ability. In Turkey 50% of the population is under 28 and there are similar numbers in the rest of the Middle East. In Turkey also many of these young people have moved to large cities like Istanbul (now over with a population of 13 million, also making (according to Wikipedia "the largest metropolitan city in Europe) believe they are entitled to a better future than their parents' generation. In the west we are good at reporting the daily headlines not as good at recognizing the big picture and how it has changed.

What are we to do? First admit that our institutions, particularly governmental and international bodies, educational and media organizations were built for a different world and are almost as overwhelmed with change as those Tepco Nuclear engineers who assumed they could deal with the emergency even though they well knew they had built the plant on one of the most active fault lines in the world— (the so called "ring of fire"). There had been no planning for a tsunami (a predictable outcome of an earthquake on the sea bed). We can expect more of the same kind of news reports we are currently receiving from Japan about other major areas as stories from once far away places such as the Middle East, Asia because of our globally interconnected world cause reverberations throughout societies that previously saw themselves as insulated affluent enclaves. These new stories have no neat endings--that begin with uncertainty and and end there too--a case in point today--they are flushing radioactive water into the oceans and polluting the air with the same poisionous smoke. Result? We are not told. These are the new 21st century news stories--narratives that follow no predictable curve. In the case of the Japanese Nuclear plant meltdown it is as if we were captive in a cinema watching an awful end of the world Stephen King movie but guess we are not--this is real. Our willingness to close off part of our minds to the reality is perhaps more evident with regards to the Middle East --did we honestly believe that dictators could exist in the same age as Facebook, Twitter and cellphones?

As educators we have some special responsibilities here too--to point out where the prevailing assumptions no longer match current realities and to not provide our students with easy answers--how ever tempting--but with a series of questions that we all have to confront about the world we have so comfortably remained closed to for too long. More about this set of new 21st century challenges in subsequent blogs.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exploding Narratives -We Need to Learn the Lessons from the Latest Middle East Crisis

Many commentators have made several points concerning how limited our perspective on the Middle East has been prior to the recent uprisings. As far as some were concerned it was all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of Iran as a menace in the region. Of course there was more to the story but since journalists were not provided easy access in the countries that are exploding we now know differently-- the question that was not really on the table to answer was the brutal scale of the repression that existed in countries like Egypt as well as Libya along with many other so called "moderate regimes." What was also largely hidden from public view is the way western governments particularly those of the US and the UK and out of office leaders were all too willing to make deals with tyrants and brutal dictators to preserve these cruel regimes and more painfully for self gain. This was a massively under-reported story. Now the media feel free to spill the beans, or at least some of the more palatable ones. Some recent examples include:

o Philip Stephens writing in the Financial Times makes the point it was one thing for Tony Blair to want to encourage Col. Gaddafi to join the fold of nations that did not want to trade with terrorists etc etc., it was quite another for Blair to go cap in hand to represent UK arms companies in Libya to scoop up some lucrative deals.

o The case of the departing London School of Economics (LSE) Director who had to resign--having been caught out by his energetic efforts to take donations from anyone it would seem with a checkbook and a desire to wash their reputations clean is another example of this ethical grey zone behavior.

And Nick Cohen writing in The Guardian starts off provocatively by stating that "The Arab revolution is consigning skip-loads of articles, books and speeches about the Middle East to the dustbin of history. In a few months, readers will go through libraries or newspaper archives and wonder how so many who claimed expert knowledge could have turned their eyes from tyranny and its consequences. To a generation of politically active if not morally consistent campaigners, the Middle East has meant Israel and only Israel. In theory, they should have been able to stick by universal principles and support a just settlement for the Palestinians while opposing the dictators who kept Arabs subjugated.

The right has been no better than the liberal-left in its Jewish obsessions. The briefest reading of Conservative newspapers shows that at all times their first concern about political changes in the Middle East is how they affect Israel. For both sides, the lives of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Berbers and Kurds who were not involved in the conflict could be forgotten..:

• Gaddafi was so frightened of a coup that he kept the Libyan army small and ill-equipped and hired mercenaries and paramilitary "special forces" he could count on to slaughter the civilian population when required.

• Leila Ben Ali, the wife of the Tunisian president, was a preposterously extravagant figure, who all but begged foreign correspondents to write about her rapacious pursuit of wealth. Only when Tunisians rose up did journalists stir themselves to tell their readers how she had pushed the populace to revolt by combining the least appealing traits of Imelda Marcos and Marie-Antoinette."

We also learn from Dominic Kennedy writing in the Sunday Times that one powerful source for the boycott of Israel came from the influence peddling Libya was able to exert through their contacts with the LSE. If the allegations are proved it will another blow for the reputation of the LSE.

These stories can come out now and only just because Stephens (see above FT article) argues the all encompassing power of Britains' antiquated libel laws has to take much of the responsibility for the failure of the British media to go after those who would aide and abet brutally repress their own people.

"The media has been muzzled. To dig deep into the dealings of peripatetic billionaires and foreign despots is to invite instant legal challenge. The (libel) law demands journalists provide absolute proof of dubious dealings. That’s hard to find in the wild west of the former Soviet Union or the closed world of Middle Eastern autocrats. So, in spite of the occasional bouts of indignation, Britain shrugs its shoulders and gets on with the washing. Depressing really. Then again, it pays well."

The problem with Stephens' argument is that the US and the western press in general felt no real compunction to tell the truth either. Anne Applebaum reciting a similar sorry saga in Slate recounts a similar sorry saga of the rich and near rich like Prince Andrew, Blair and a whole host of the aspiring super lawyers and lobbyists on both sides of the Atlantic and makes an effort to draw out the lesson. Applebaum's piece is worth reading in its entiriety as it dares to name names and recounts in some graphic detail who dined and groveled at the knees of despiscable people like Gaddafi's son,

"If Western governments want to have any credibility at all in the post-revolutionary Arab world, they need to stop hiring people, even as "envoys," who are already in the pay of current or former Arab dictators. Blair should resign immediately from his role as an informal negotiator in the Middle East; Prince Andrew should be told to stay home. The Wisners of the world should be sent back into retirement. Finally, for good measure, the legions of former public officials now in the pay of Chinese, Russian, or Saudi businessmen should be kept far away from their previous places of employment, just in case. Come the revolution, you can be sure they will turn out to have embarrassing friends, too."

Plenty to ponder here about the relationship of powerful leaders, staggering personal wealth and the political and media elite. None of this items taken individually shocks but collectively it adds up to a disturbing picture. We have always had a set of hypocritical western leaders and their hacks who are all too ready to cash in their influence and sell out to the highest bidder. It is the lack of media interest in all this that is truly disturbing. Is it that the popular media has caved into cynicism? The disastrous nature of media monopolies and their role in framing news stories that support only certain narratives that are commonly pedaled, pundit supported and while not always inaccurate leave too much out so much in fact that we are left with half truths and a deeply distorted global picture. How do teachers correct for this?
Certainly by acknowledging the notion of how story framing works and how while it is convenient for editors to run with known frames and narratives -- they need to check-in with reality once in a while--because once in a while if you don't --well need I say more...This is not all bad--certainly for journalists..refreshing in fact--but maybe not so good for the rest of us and clearly not a good basis on which to frame long term foreign policy decisions. We could prepare better for all this if as Thomas Friedman so brilliantly said in a recent column. "we had not built our house at the bottom of a volcano!"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tiger Mothers and the Debate about Our Future

I have followed the Tiger Mother debate with some interest. Since reading the article in the Wall Street Journal I have been discussing the article with a wide range of people including family members. Yes Chua is correct regarding the key point that you cannot enjoy a discipline such as being a musician until you really master it--and it is too easy to give up because getting to that mastery level takes an enormous amount of work and yes American parents in particular maybe a little too quick to say OK--as they multi-task to cope with the increasingly frenetic pace of life.
But the key issue as one writer points out in her "Tiger Mothers and Superficial Scholars" blog is what kind of spark and inspiration you can provide the student to want to practice and come out of the end of the experience with something fresh and illuminating to express. If a student is forced to do something because love might be instantly withdrawn that as Pardoe persuasively argues in her blog is an unacceptable emotional abuse. What Chua asks us to believe is that kind of abuse produces musicians etc, and well it might develop a few who can survive that type of treatment--but what is more likely is that the majority who now will be even more subject to those kinds of regimes will have to pay the price of forever struggling to find their true voice (think why the "King's Speech" swept all those Oscars the other night--it was a universal story --in one way shape or form of human potential to express itself being damaged and thwarted) as they struggle constantly for approval and to conform to others expectations. The serious and often forgotten point about education is that it derives from the Latin word --"to lead out"--leading not forcing out--helping to structure experiences that nurture the desire to move out of confined spaces--and limited explanations. In this matter both cultures --(forgive the sweeping generalizations but you can't seem to play in this debate without the use of the those all encompassing constructs) may have something to learn. The American K-12 school culture seems caught now in a sort of "Tiger Mother Moment"--believing that only the knowledge that can be tested is worthwhile and focusing on that low level set of skills is the way we need to focus on a systemwide level. The Chinese as they look to the west for some of the ways that they can now begin to develop their own big global brand names (can you think of any one Chinese brand name that has any kind of global resonance?) want to do more to encourage the creativity and innovativeness of a Bill Gates and a Brin who made Microsoft and Google world wide names in the 80s and 90s respectively. These should not be idle speculations --the new knowledge economy --if we truly believe there is reality behind the rhetoric will come from thinkers who are not approval seekers and who have forged their own path--their own journey out--yes they mastered the basics, yes they were disciplined in their approach, but they had that spark to learn and grow at an astonshing rate on their terms in their way.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

OK, We have a "Middle Eastern Teachable Moment"--Now What?

As events in Libya continue to explode and the Middle East as a region seems to beginning a phase of historical turmoil and change we may well reflect on how this all beginning to play out in the classroom. To answer the question as to how are teachers responding to all this we now have Education Week's most recent article "U.S. Teachers Find 'Teachable Moment' in Egyptian Protests"
to turn to. While Michelle Anderson's piece is timely enough, it only provides us with a glimpse of what might be happening in classrooms across the US -- not yet a full enough pictureto draw any major conclusions. One theme seems to be the effort by teachers to connect the American revolution with the events in Egypt. The article makes us also very aware that the teaching of Middle East history is pretty sporadic. Anderson's reporting is also limited by the narrow range of quite privileged teachers she interviewed-- just those few who managed to attend a recent Harvard Forum with many who had had the additional benefit of having been widely traveled in the region. What most teachers seem to be doing was "connecting the uprising to historical events, such as the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Boston Tea Party." These kinds of lessons as valuable as they are in connecting students to the current events are probably the kinds of lessons that are going on throughout the US--in one shape or form --related to of course grade level and subject--one would hope across thousands of classrooms in the US. What is clearly of more value is whether teachers are able to use the event to sustain an interest in the Middle East and help connect them to more issues. How to do that? There do not seem any clear pathways at the moment --but it would be a missed opportunity if we were not able to take the further everyone's clear fascination with seeing the revolutionary events unfold in such stark detail on their TV sets. That kind of thing does not happen as they say every day or every generation. Getting to those deeper issues related to sustainable pathways and understanding further how cultural and media issues affect our understanding is of course a more complicated challenge. On a more optimistic note the task, as Anderson is careful to note, is made easier by sites like Brown University's Choices Program with the goal to "make complex international issues understandable and meaningful to high school students." Interestingly their offerings are not defined by grade level or subject area--the approach is simple and clear--the heading is "Teaching with the News" and the site just provides a range of tools from a very simple graphic organizer that helps students just recall key points from the video and other materials supplied to more challenging assignments. What is interesting and could be a valuable research strategy is what teachers want to do with the more advanced materials supplied --there is one for example that provides a series of interesting photos from the demonstration. Just deconstructing one would be a valuable experience (take the one below for example from a collection organized as a PowerPoint slide show on the resource page referenced above):

I suggest you expand the size of the picture by clicking on it to get a better view.

It does not seem at first blush we need a lot of cultural information to interpret the picture or do we?

1. What is the the cultural meaning of a woman dressed in a hijab protesting the government--(as the wikipedia entry on hijab indicates, in the colonial struggles in the past the hijab was a symbol of resistance not as it is often interpreted today in non Arab countries an indication of female subjugation?) Is this woman telling us something by wearing a hijab ? If so what is that message?
2. From the way that the sign seems so spontaneous using the remnants of an old ripped cardboard box- written with haste--was it something she decided to do on the spur of the moment or was this a more planned type of communication?
3. To what extent is the fashionable western style purse that hangs from her shoulder a clue to her more affluent life style and aspirations?
4. What is the significance of those black gloves? The way the gloves appear stretched over her skin suggest that these gloves are made of latex does this offer any clues? Perhaps after all this is a deeply religious woman who wants to ensure that every part of her skin is covered? or is so unused to street life that she is afraid of being contaminated from touching this very ragged piece of cardboard?
5. Who are the signs for? For Western eyes clearly --but notice too how she stands apart from the crowd. By firmly holding her sign up she reinforces the idea that she is keen to be observed and is aware that she needs to provide a different message for both of the cardboard folds--as they appear at different angles as if she is posing for a particular aerial mounted camera.

Where can you go to get information to help with this activity --surely libraries and the internet can help--but a key source would be people--people from the country itself who can help us understand more completely how common it might be to have a woman in full hibja protest in public? What is the risk to her? How representative is she of all women in Egypt or just certain segments? Students must themselves become like journalists and try to ferret this information out. It is the type of research that lends itself to the Web 2.0 tools that I refer to in my book Global Education: Using Technology to Bring the World to Your Students. These types of explorations maybe as important as connecting US historical events because they engage learners and as they do sharpen their cultural, media and visual literacy.
It takes some effort to organize but not a huge amount and once you do it the first time you may never look back. Liberation (particularly from a way of doing business that no longer makes any sense) comes in many forms.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Advice to Young People Wanting to Make a Global Difference

Advice to young people is always a bit difficult. Who knows what worked for us will work for others? But it is a risk worth taking when so many media influences suggest paths that are clearly not based on reality. We can think of the rather sad way so many young and minority children growing up in the inner city aspire to be sports stars and don't understand the odds of them becoming the next Michael Jordan etc are only a bit higher than winning the lottery. But the lottery is what we play when we don't know what else to do to improve our lives. Better to listen instead to some wise and experienced voices and hear what they have to say and don't necessarily follow them but compare their arguments with others and decide what is best for you. Here is Jeffrey Sachs advice to the more privileged amongst us that seems to make sense to me especially at this time in US history:

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reflecting on the Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary

Among the institutions created during the heady days of the Kennedy administration, the Peace Corps still stands out as carrying the key signature tune of that idealistic and creative President, in a way that the Apollo moonshot never quite did. Although for rhetorical punch and iconic imagery the Peace Corps did not quite resonate with the American people in quite the same way as the moonshot, there are thousands of peace corps graduates who speak enthusiastically of their experiences and the program is still around today, while the moon remains a pretty empty place. In fact on March 1st this year the Peace Corps will celebrate its 50th anniversary and many more gallons of ink and tons of paper will be expended to figure out what this program means to us today. Here is my effort to make sense of it all at this half century mark based on an excellent New Yorker article, "Village Voice: The Peace Corps Brightest Hope", by Peter Hessler.

The Peace Corps mission was a whole lot more diffuse than the simply setting foot on lunar soil --the three goals encapsulated in the Peace Corps mission seem oddly antiquated even naive --a throw back to when American foreign policy motives were not as widely questioned as they are today:

" 1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans."

The awkward way the program sits as an underfunded throwback to a bygone era
is nowhere better captured than in Peter Hessler's account of a remarkable young man, Rajeev Goyal whose trajectory we follow from Peace Corps volunteer, to advocate to becoming a highly reflective global change agent, is wonderfully described in the way the best New Yorker essays allow. (You can be forgiven for overlooking this essay--I find my New Yorkers tend to pile up unread too frequently these days waiting for that right time to sit through all their often highly rewarding material. The right time rarely ever comes--but come it did this weekend.)

Rajeev is now only 31 but he seems to have lived a few lifetimes. Hessler describes him in an excellent phrase as having the "portable confidence of the second generation immigrant--no matter where he goes, he knows there are benefits to being an outsider." His family wanted him to study medicine but he volunteered instead for the Peace Corps and served in Eastern Nepal from 2001 to 2003. He was locally revered by the Nepalese villagers--because he figured out a way to bring water to a village two hours away from the nearest water source--requiring multiple trips across steep mountain paths carrying 16 litre jugs. Using amazing ingenuity in the way that he worked to design a new kind of water pump and single handedly raised the funds from family friends back in Long Island as well as a number of foundations. 535 people ended up volunteering for the project and amazed visiting engineers. When Rajeev went to lobby for Peace Corps after completing law school it had sat in the budgetary doldrums receiving just $342 million dollars in 2008 --the price of two F-22 fighter jets as Rajeev was quick to say. Hessler's story picks up speed when he describes the way Rajeev went to work in an effort to change this rather dismal funding picture. Hired by the National Peace Corps Association (not the Peace Corps itself which was not allowed to lobby for its own budget) Rajeev did not follow any typical lobbying protocol--he saw himself after all as a big time change and as with the Nepalese water project only"out of the box" thinking would do. He wanted always to go to the power source--to the people in charge--and approach them personally--all he needed was a way to connect. When he heard for example that Obama's half sister once "considered" joining the Peace Corps he found a way to fly to Hawaii and meet with her. He gathered letters not just from her--but from a wide range of famous Peace Corps alums in the media and in elective office. After memorizing the of Congressman and Senators he met them in Hill watering holes and found opportunities for friendly engagement.

Long story short-- Rajeev goes a bit too far in his highly personal lobbying. One of the people offended by Rajeev's personal button holing tactics was Senator Patrick Leahy who as custodian of the Senate appropriations committee was not happy with some of the tactics that included enlisting his father's hospice nurse and calls from Ben and Jerry of Vermont ice cream fame. So you could say that Rajeev went overboard on behalf of his cause-bringing up the question as to how far should you go in support of what you believe before it becomes counter productive? But the more important question raised by this article is whether there was a more fundamental reason why the Peace Corps was not able to attract more significant funding than Rajeev's flawed lobbying strategy?

To answer that question the reader needs to follow Rajeev's journey after he agrees it might be a good idea to give the lobbying a rest (after having raised the appropriation from $348 to a nice round $400 million, despite the Leahy missteps. Symptomatic of the deeper problem was the inability of a majority of Peace Corps volunteers to go to bat politically for the program. When Hessler talked to former Peace Corp volunteers they talk in terms of how much they got out of the experience--"I got so much more out of the experience than I gave" -is a typical sentiment. Congress reflecting a mood that overtook the political establishment soon after President Kennedy's assassination and President Johnson's Great Society program exhausted itself did not believe, to put it crudely, that babyboomers feeling better about themselves and their country was a good enough reason for expanding support. Congress wanted progress measured in standard development terms in the metrics of how many schools and hospitals the Peace Corps helped build, not that in 1966 the agency received 42,000 applications and 15,000 volunteers were working around the world. Construction projects were not the only place where the Peace Corps shined-- there were other parts of the budget (the State Departments' AID for example) that was dedicated to that sort of work. But how to describe what made the Peace Corps unique was harder than it first appeared even for Rajeev to pin down and might explain why Congress has had such a difficult time meeting the expectations of the Peace Corps community. As Hessler digs a bit deeper we recognize that maybe the reason can be found in Rajeev's willingness to see the negative side of what he accomplished in Nepal--for example the success of bringing water to the village brought in developers and the price of land started to rise --tenfold in a year--and locals were concerned that their village identity was going to disappear. Rajeev tells the author that he now believes that construction projects maybe "overvalued" and it is more important to spend time in a community as it moves forward not always support large projects and radical plans.

Hessler closes on an optimistic note however, with a scene where after a successful opening of an agricultural training building in Nepal for which he helped raise the funds, he declines in a meeting with a government minister to whole heartedly support for a full college college for the village saying we need to do "something different..something unusual." What Rajeev seems to be moving towards is interesting and seems a bit akin to the mood that made Avatar such a successful movie--it is a recognition concerning the necessarily highly complex nature of local culture and by extension local ecologies. In the 1960s when the Peace Corps was fashioned we barely knew how to talk about these things and 50 years later we are just on the verge of exploring and explaining what this will all mean to us, the Peace Corps and our world. Working in some kind of harmony with other cultures--rather than siding with an individual intent on suppressing expression seems to be one of the lessons we might take from our interactions with Egypt over the last 30 years. Several billion dollars later and many more F-22 jets purchased we might wonder what a more enterprising "different" and "unusual" approach might have looked like.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Making Learning Arabic More Difficult than It Should Be

Surely we can all agree that learning a major world language like Arabic should be something we want to encourage our children to do--but we might pause a bit when we mandate it as one school district has reportedly done recently to great national outcry.

Now the right wing conspiracy theorists that believe there is some kind of federal government inspired plot will be all over this story. It may well be the fault of an over hasty school district that thought they could apply for a grant where they failed to gain approval of the parents ahead of time and just decided to submit and see what happened. The feds might have checked too before the grant was announced to ensure that they did have the approval of the parents. Cultural change is not easy to deal with and if it comes too fast and without much warning as it seems to have done in this Texas school district the results can be less than ideal. Hopefully the situation can be salvaged with some calming talk and ways that the exposure to Arabic langauge is not threatning but empowering.
It is a story worth following.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Many More Teachable Moments from Egyptian Crisis Than Meet the Eye

We have seen this movie before--thousands march into the streets against a brutal or at least ruthless dictator and we stand by applauding while moderately and never obnoxiously patting ourselves on the back for our love of freedom and democracy that we celebrate and believe is a universal value and what happens? Many times the revolution is crushed and we go back (after an seemly silence and rebukes) to going back to the way things always were.  This pattern of events maybe the last of these episodes if we can encourage ourselves and our media to look more deeply at the pattern. The US as David Rieff points out in his excellent piece for the New Republic. Since 1975 as Rieff points out the US has given $23 billion in Aid to Egypt and still the country ranks..

"According to the U.N. Human Development Index, .. one hundred and first, between Mongolia and Uzbekistan. In the context of the Arab Middle East, it ranks tenth, below not just rich countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but behind Libya, Jordan, and Algeria as well. According to Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, over the past decade, Egypt has experienced rising income inequality while failing to address root poverty. Ordinary Egyptians, she writes, simply not feel they were “reaping the benefits of [their country’s economic] expansion.” Food prices are rising to levels not seen since the global food crisis of 2007-2008, a recent World Bank study showed that the higher educational system is doing a very poor job of producing qualified graduates, and, whatever their qualifications, unemployment among the young is well over 30 percent nationally. "

 "Washington seems never to have believed that any quid pro quo should have been demanded in return for the $28 billion USAID provided over the past 36 years. And yet, there is absolutely no reason why successive U.S. administrations should not have made this assistance conditional on, say, a serious attempt by the Egyptian government to curb corruption. It is not as if Mubarak would have then said, “That’s it, I’m breaking ties with Israel, lifting the Egyptian blockade of Gaza, and seeking a rapprochement with the Iranians.”

As Rieff goes onto argue things are worse in Pakistan--another major receipient of aid:

"According to a report issued this January by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, more than four million people remain homeless six months after last year’s floods. And, in those regions, Islamist charities are often the only providers of medical services, shelter, and food that is not prohibitively expensive for most internally displaced people. And yet, while the U.S. government would certainly like to see something done (rather as it would have “liked” to see less corruption and torture in Egypt), it has not put anywhere near the pressure on the Pakistani government to alleviate these people’s suffering that it has in pushing Islamabad to escalate its military operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border. "

When we send money for weapons and where we gain influence over those governments as a consequence we should not be pressured by the military so that they believe that these funds are there's
to keep. Nor should we take the Orwellian lies that our government then tells us about the ways those funds are supposed to be helping the economy more broadly. Rieff  refers in particular to the
'' the grotesque claim that “USAID has helped Egypt become a “success story in economic development.” More specifically, the site claims particular success in improving the quality of education, and, the administration of justice,” improved “access to justice for disadvantaged groups..”
The only response to that type of whitewash is quite simply "garbage."

However the final situation in Egypt turns out the teachable moments coming out of the crisis are many and need to be taken seriously after CNN and all the world's news crews depart the scene and we move onto the next crisis. Understanding this crisis in more detail might help in fact avoid the next one.

Egypt -Some hours ago: Pictures speak

Christians surrounding Muslims at Prayer

Monday, January 31, 2011

What Makes for a Middle Eastern Revolution? Answer--Highly Educated Young People with Cell Phones and Few Opportunities

Why did Egypt and before that Tunisia suddenly explode? One theory is that the proliferation of cell phones--as Salman Shaikh, Director, Brookings Doha Center reports in the blog:

"To glimpse the nature of what can emerge, we should understand the rapidly changing social structure of Arab societies. Those societies are more educated, urban and connected than ever before. Due to the phenomenal growth of secondary and university-level education, literacy rates among the region's youths have skyrocketed in the past 40 years. The percentage of people living in Arab cities has risen by 50% in the same period.

The number of mobile phone users and internet users has proliferated to hundreds of thousands since the technology was introduced to the region 10 or 15 years ago. No wonder, then, that the people have finally snapped at the lack of opportunity and representation and the high levels of corruption and control that characterize their lives."

As Shaikh adds:

"Most tellingly, more has united the protesting people than divided them. Notable has been the absence of a clear, emerging leader of the protests, particularly from Islamist party leadership.

All of these changes have been fueled ironically enough by other US made inventions --namely the internet, Twitter and Facebook--that Shakih notes "has sustained the spread of the Arab revolution."

So we have a demand for a more pluralistic and open society that the old top down leaders used to one way broadcast technology (TV and radio) are finding increasingly harder to resist. The medium is in this case very much the message. Where it ends no one knows but other repressive regimes may now be seeing some writing not on their real and their Facebook walls.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Take a look at Google's NGrams and See if you Can Use it In Your Classroom

Ngrams are a wonderful new invention by Google. I would encourage you to play with
this way to use Google's formidable bank of digitalized books from the 1800 to the present. In the above ngram you can see how the word "global" comes into vogue during the post war period and after a long term decline in use, love justice and empathy are all on a very slight upswing. What to make of these trends is anyone's guess but it could provide a fascinating challenge for students to find out how these words' changing fortunes reflect our changing times. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Empathy at the Core of Our Work as Global Educators?

The development of empathy I would like to think is at the core of our work as global educators. As best selling author and polymath Jeremy Rifkin makes clear it is part of what makes us human and has led us to develop the kind of civilization we now inhabit. The big question he asks in this very entertaining animated lecture (a nice change of pace by the way from the TED lecture which should be renamed Talk, Emote and Dumbfound) is can we move beyond our ties to family, then community and to country to embrace and empathize with the world community. The answer we give to that one could determine whether we can survive as a species or not. Take a look and decide:

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Military Industrial Complex--Fifty Years On

It is 50 years since President Eisenhower gave his great farewell speech in which he warned of a military industrial complex. The import of the warning in the nationally televised speech that aired on January 17th 1961 was largely ignored, particularly the theme that as Andrew Bacevich points out in this month’s Atlantic magazine was woven into the text that spending on arms was akin to “misappropriation of scarce resources” a kind of theft. “Every gun that is made, every warship that is launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold are not clothed.” Any nation that spends to purchase arms is “spending more than mere money.. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” Eisenhower made the first effort any President has done before or since to quantify the cost for ordinary people “The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities..We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people.”

But the US continued to ignore the warnings. In the 1950s with economic prosperity booming the politicians and the public saw no need to trade off between guns and butter. We seemed to have sleepwalked our way into what Bacevich terms as the “national security state”
That state has such power over us so that despite the need for harsh choices, we are no closer to taking any kind of close look at $700 billion (doubling in the past decade)defense budget and no closer examining the underlying assumptions that dictate that we still need a huge defense build up after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of asymmetrical war fare. In addition we exceed $80 billion in intelligence spending. Our military outlays are almost the same as all other nations combined. We continue with “threat inflation” as some have termed it to order new bombers and new battleships despite the chronic needs of America’s poorest citizens, the deteriorating infrastructure and the palpable needs to grow a 21st century green economy. Eisenhower wanted the people, the citizens to exercise common sense oversight over the expanding military budget—“Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” We know that military spending does not very much for the economy—investments in schools and hospitals would yield far more in jobs than missile production but 50 years later our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq costing one trillion (at least) with the final cost coming closer to three trillion while the military industrial complex expands we are at a cross roads. Can we develop a debate about the size of the military and cultivate a sense of what our global and American citizenship demands?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Plutocrats Need to Decide the Future they Want for Themselves and the World in the 21st century

The lead article in this month's Atlantic by Chrystia Freeland of the Financial Times "The Rise of the New Ruling Class: How the Global Elite is Leaving You Behind" does not offer much in the way of new information about our increasingly isolated and entitled plutocratic class. We have known for a while that the economic meltdown was in part caused by a group of very well educated would be masters of the universe who newly equipped with turbo charged technology tools with money and access to the world's most powerful politicians, journalists and academics. That is why the global meltdown took everyone so much by surprise --I mean everyone! You knew that right? And why the deal that was arranged between the White House, the Congress, the Fed and Wall Street that bailed out the wrong doers was so quickly worked out away from the media spotlight.

What is new and interesting are the details--the quotes from the entitled that reconfirm that they feel victimized by having to pay a few percentage points more for their already grandiose lifestyles and their belief that it was the greed and ignorance of those who got locked into sub-prime mortgages and credit card debt that caused the meltdown. What is disturbing is that some of those most out of touch have working class origins--for example Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is the son of a Brooklyn post office worker and Tony Hayward the disgraced Shell CEO has also blue collar roots. They all share along with their Russian plutocratic cousins a barely concealed sense of entitlement to not just modest rewards for a job well done but gargantuan ones. One of Freeland's informants comments about the change since the 1980s and 90s when “where there were men in their 30s and 40s making $2 and $3 million a year, and that was disgusting. But then you had the Internet age, and then globalization, and you had people in their 30s, through hedge funds and Goldman Sachs partner jobs, who were making $20, $30, $40 million a year. And there were a lot of them doing it. I think people making $5 million to $10 million definitely don’t think they are making enough money.” The executives featured in the article know the streets of Davos and Aspen where the rich and the famous gather with the rest of the global elite for their annual conferences better than their own neighborhoods. Many of them are as one CEO describes himself-"global nomads open to many perspectives." One of the perspectives is that the US is overpriced and that US businesses if they are going to be successful must "internationalize aggressively"--meaning they have to locate their businesses closer to their customers and that relatively high priced US workers must either take a pay cut
or demonstrate their superior value. One of the CEOs believe that if the price of three or four people in India or China to be lifted out of poverty is for a member of the US middle class to drop their living standards (read unemployed) then the price can be justified. It would be nice to believe they were saying these things because they genuinely wanted to help relieve poverty in Asia but it is doubtful. The real intention seems to be to want to bring the price of labor down everywhere so that profits can be more easily extracted. This maybe what Lloyd Blankfein was referring in his arrogant way to "doing God's work" when he tried to placate public outrage about his role and the role of brokerages like Goldman Sachs during the recent financial meltdown. If they truly believe that the world is better off with their version of global capitalism it would be great to subject these ideas to public debate, but as is so often the case these issues are never properly discussed except among their elite politician friends for whom they raise tremendous amounts of money for. Could we at least expect the media to ask the hard questions of our policymakers now that the public is beginning to discover the unfairness issue. Perhaps they could begin with the simple proposition that if we are to become in the US ten times more productive to successfully compete overseas and justify our more than subsistence level compensation--can the plutocrats give a little more back in taxes to create the kind educational and training opportunities for those most vulnerable to unemployment?

The problem in all this is even in a supercharged competitive global environment the oligarchs who bebenefited so richly from globalization seem blissfully unaware of the need to engage around these political and moral issues. Instead they seem to want more and more rewards for their efforts. It would not be so bad if the Wall Street world they inhabit bore any real relationship to the rest of the economy but like the Tulip crazes of a time ago the derivative markets in particular more closely resemble the casino hall as numerous other commentators have pointed out than they do a stock market. As Freeland remarks, "This plutocratic fantasy is, of course, just that: no matter how smart and innovative and industrious the super-elite may be, they can’t exist without the wider community. Even setting aside the financial bailouts recently supplied by the governments of the world, the rich need the rest of us as workers, clients, and consumers." Politicians and the media have sometimes indulged these fantasies and pretended otherwise glamorizing their outsized life styles and party-going in return for favors large and small. Freeland well the consequences of a world where the media and political elite mingle with plutocrats in meetings like Davos and a score of prestigious think tank events. How these gatherings tend to reinforce each others sense of huge privilege and entitlement. No wonder so many of them are prone to foot in the mouth "let them eat cake" type statements that will eventually in this new age of austerity force a political backlash that will begin a new round of protectionism. As Freeland points out that while "plutocrats’ opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda—that, for instance, middle-class Americans could conclude that the world economy isn’t working for them and decide that protectionism or truly punitive taxation is preferable to incremental measures such as the eventual repeal of the upper-bracket Bush tax cuts." It will be interesting to watch as the next decade unfolds how far this new global class are prepared to push the extremes. Do they really want to live lives ensconced within high security skyscrapers with their own helipads overlooking the slums where their fellow men and women eke out their daily living--is this what they regard as success in the 21st century? In case you don't believe this type of behavior is possible --take a closer look at the photograph at the top of this blog--it is the 27 storey "home" that Indian Billionaire Mukesh Ambani, that according to one report is "believed to be the most expensive home in the world" ….Located in Mumbai it overlooks the sprawling slums, and as well as a Cinema, Swimming Pools it has you guessed it a helicopter pad...maybe for a quick escape?