On Atlanta's traffic issues and the dismal hope of a better future: In which I present a scathing criticism of the state and the metro counties

I know the Atlanta/Metro Area Transportation Referendum is old news; the vote was July 31, 2012, and it went down in a blaze of glory. Citizens again voted against solutions to our clogged traffic and lack of alternative transportation options. The plan was not perfect, and in fact still included for many surrounding metro counties, plans for more roadways as part of the new options. (Sorry, say what? What??? There was really nothing better you guys could dream up? It's 2012.) But it still makes me really sad for this city, and mad as a citizen who loves it, that we have doomed ourselves to upwards of fifty more years in the traffic quagmire, while our population is expected to increase by about 3 million more people by 2040. Sounds awesome, guys. Can't wait for the daily connector traffic with those extra people beside me, too! But I did feel some hope when I read my August 2012 issue of Atlanta Magazine, which was their inaugural "Big Ideas" issue, including what the editors dubbed their "Groundbreakers," the big things Atlantans and local planners and companies are doing to make this city amazing. I think this is a great city; it has imaginative people, a colorful and quite distinct history, a pretty awesome climate (all things considered), and it's arguably the hub of business and culture in the southeastern United States. That's a big deal; this is where companies set up shop if they want to have access to the burgeoning southern region, which has finally risen--for the most part--out of its difficult historical economic and social stagnation, which plagued the South from the inception of the United States until roughly the end of the Jim Crow era.

And yet we still had to screw up further potential by a fissure that has long cursed Georgia: the legislative relationship between the state (and often, the rural communities throughout the state) and the city of Atlanta. Harkening back to the days of the County Unit System (a topic for many blogs and many books, indeed), those outside the city--and the lawmakers who represent them--are often hesitant to spend time and money doing much that could improve its largest economic asset. That is exactly what has happened historically with the budding and dying and budding and dying of transportation options and alternatives in Atlanta since the 1960s, when cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco were also planning their subways and rapid transit systems. So, we all know where DC and SF stand today, right? And Atlanta, too.

Learning this particular comparison was a revelation, that all three of these transit systems were conceived and planned in the same era; I've used D.C.'s subways and they're wonderful. I can't vouch for San Francisco. But I certainly have an opinion about Atlanta's. And it turns out, the anemic rail lines we have today are a direct result of politics, and people disagreeing, and counties (counties who are part of the metro area, and have a responsibility to the city they depend on and the people who live in the counties) bailing on what once would have been a cohesive plan for a second viable commute option.

I'm looking at you, Cobb County. As my home for five years, I resent the choices your representatives and citizens made long ago, in a little mess that culminated in the Transit Compromise of 1971. It diminishes our entire reputation as a city; I want to believe this city can be even greater, but this is a bit of an important black mark on our future. I might sound a little bitter, but it's nothing compared to the scathing little article assessing the situation in Atlanta Magazine:

Like ghosts rising out of a Confederate cemetery, Atlanta's past lapses in judgement haunt the region today, leaving a smoky trail of suburban decay, declining home values, clogged highways, and a vastly diminished reputation.

At the heart of the rot eating at metro Atlanta is the Mother of All Mistakes: the failure to extend MARTA into the suburbs. It wasn't just a one-time blunder--it was the single worst mistake in a whole cluster bomb of missteps, errors, power plays, and just plain meanness that created the region's transportation infrastructure.

As we look at the future of Atlanta, there's no question that battling our notorious traffic and sprawl [!!!!!!!] is key to the metro area's potential vitality. What if there were a Back to the Future-type option, where we could take a mystical DeLorean (heck, we'd settle for a Buick), ride back in time, and fix something? What event would benefit most from the use of a hypothetical "undo" key?

The transit compromise of 1971.

I read this whole article and scribbled all over in the margins my own notes (as I do in practically every piece of literature I read, of any kind). Next to this whole intro, I wrote simply, "Ouch!" And then I felt excited. Yes, Atlanta Magazine, please harshly rip this apart. Represent those of us most disgruntled and angry and seeking options that do not exist because of the decisions made by voters and politicians decades ago, representing a far different Atlanta than exists today. Thank you, most seriously, for publishing this article.

The original plan for public transit, MARTA, was to include five metropolitan counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. After several failing votes, the final plan would be for only two of these counties, Fulton and DeKalb--the two the constitute the city of Atlanta. Already, really it was set up for anemic failure. The article explains the issues:

Before we get into the story of what happened in 1971, we need to back up a few years. In 1965 the Georgia General Assembly voted to create MARTA, the mass transit system for the City of Atlanta and the five core metro counties: Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett. Cobb voters rejected MARTA, while it got approval from the city and the four other counties. Although, as it turned out, the state never contributed any dedicated funds for MARTA’s operations, in 1966 Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment to permit the state to fund 10 percent of the total cost of a rapid rail system in Atlanta. Two years later, in 1968, voters in Atlanta and MARTA’s core counties rejected a plan to finance MARTA through property taxes. In 1971—when the issue was presented to voters again—Clayton and Gwinnett voters dropped their support, and MARTA ended up being backed by only DeKalb, Fulton, and the City of Atlanta.

The compromise in 1971, that we finally got state legislators to agree on, was that MARTA would never be able to spend more than 50 percent of its sales revenue on operating costs, meaning it could never improve infrastructure and expand without finding money elsewhere--namely, in raising the fares and going into a lot of debt. The Atlanta Magazine article goes into the background and explains it all phenomenally. Please read it. There is a lot of politics involved. Basically, this compromise came out of state legislators bullying the city leaders into this, threatening that this whole thing would be dead on arrival, never happen at all, if they did not agree to this condition.

As an aside, this agreement doesn't even make clear sense to me. I mean, I don't see how this limit benefits anyone at all; it looks to only have been a mechanism with which to threaten, bully, and corner Atlanta leaders and lawmakers, a way to say, we'll do what we want and you, Atlanta, you'll have no say in this matter. Stop trying to be the big man on campus in this state. The problem is, Atlanta is the big man, and its potential--economic and social and otherwise--is probably permanently stunted as a result of the state's behavior towards it.

Am I being too harsh? Oh, I'm not done yet.

We had a couple of problems back in the 1960s and '70s. First, we loved the automobile, we were in the middle of a long-term love affair with our guzzling mobiles. Also, white people flocking to the suburbs really, really wanted to remain, steadfastly, separate from the city. That was precisely why they were leaving. Give me my oasis of picket fences, far away from that old wooden ship, diversity. I mean, yuck, right? But as the city has grown and become more diverse, and race relations have improved many degrees from the era of desegregation, the suburbs are also enclaves of multicultural communities. And now, none of us have any other way of getting from the suburbs to the city besides our cars. As the article succinctly and sardonically points out:

"This is the irony: The majority of whites in Atlanta wanted to be isolated when they thought about public transportation," says historian Kevin Kruse (who wrote this great book on white flight and Atlanta). "As a result, they have been in their cars on [interstates] 75 and 85. They got what they wanted. They are safe in their own space. Their just not moving anywhere."


The 1960 Census counted approximately 300,000 white residents in Atlanta. From 1960 to 1980, around 160,000 whites left the city--Atlanta's white population was cut in half over two decades, says Kruse [a Princeton professor]. Kruse notes that skeptics suggested Atlanta's slogan should have been "The City Too Busy Moving To Hate." [Atlanta touted itself for much of the 20th century as the City Too Busy To Hate.] "Racial concerns trumped everything else," Kruse says. "The more you think about it, Atlanta's transportation system was designed as much to keep people apart as to bring people together."

In the early 1970s, Morehouse College professor Abraham David observed, "The real problem is that whites have created a transportation problem for themselves by moving farther away from the central city rather than living in an integrated neighborhood."

Also, we could not help ourselves from building enormous highways, bingeing on federal grants to help us build them

The alluring of roaring around Atlanta in cool cars took over and never let go. Once MARTA was up and running, who would ride a bus or subway when they could drive a sleek, powerful car and ill it with cheap gas? Only the people who couldn't afford the car. MARTA became an isolated castaway, used primarily by poor and working class blacks.


David Goldberg, a former transportation reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, says the road-building binge that lead to the gigantic highways that course through metro Atlanta--some of the widest in the world--diminished MARTA's potential. "It's not a single mistake but a bunch of decisions that add up to one mistake -- the failure to capitalize on the incredible success we had in winning funding for MARTA by undermining it with the incredible success we had in getting funding for the interstate highways," says Goldberg, now communications director for the Washington-based Transportation for America. "We were too damn successful--it was an embarrassment of success. Like a lot of of nouveau riche, we blew it before we knew what to do with it."


The vast highway system sucked up billions of federal dollars while the state refused to put a penny into MARTA--until the past fifteen years, during which it helped buy some buses. "The sick joke of it all is that we built the place to be auto-oriented and designed it about as bad as we could to function for auto use," Goldberg says. "The highway network we did build was designed in a way almost guaranteed to produce congestion--the land use around all that development put the nail in the coffin." He refers to neighborhoods full of cul-de-sacs that force cars onto crowded arterial roads lined with commercial activity, which eventually funnel down to one highway through the heart of Atlanta.

I feel strongly that what we delivered to ourselves on July 31 was at least fifty more years of the troubles that have plagued us for the last fifty. This time it might not  be race that's guiding our decision; this time maybe it was economic recession, I don't know. But I agree, once again, with the assessment of Christopher B. Leinberger, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and a source for this same article:

The July 31 vote is "an Olympic moment" [here meaning, one of those seminal, deciding moments, like when we were awarded the honor of hosting the Olympics 1996 Games]. "If the vote fails, you have to accept the fact that Atlanta will continue to decline as a metro area."

Harsh, and probably true. I really, really hope not. I am invested in this city, and I love it. And I hate to see its future decided by the disagreements of the counties that compose its metro area. But I can't understand how this is not of the utmost importance in the state senate--this is, after all, the future of the biggest economic center in our state, and one of the biggest and most important in the southeast region. This is a big deal. I am inclined to blame the same idiotic political issues that have plagued the city folk versus the rural folk for a century in Georgia. Let's not have them define a second century, please.

Reality check: This week, in America

This week I was assigned a reference request for a naturalization that took place in Miami in the 1980s. This is a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill request, where a person writes or calls the National Archives at Atlanta to request the Petition for Naturalization of a person, for whatever reason they need it. I've had people call looking for records for genealogy purposes, so they are seeking the papers of their parents or grandparents. I've had people request these records from courts or other government agencies during the hiring or legal processes in which citizenship must be proven. Other times the individual has lost their own documentation and are left with two options: they can request a new copy of their final certificate of naturalization from USCIS for a cool $350, or they can have us try to track down their Petition, which is the document completed that leads to the final certificate, that oftentimes proves citizenship and holds up in court of law just as well as the certificate--but we charge $22.50 for a certified copy. You can imagine people are pretty anxious to come to us first, to see if we might have this petition.

The request I had this week was a Miami case, which is one of our most-requested cities, and it has an excellent index to aid our search. I located Mrs. Rodriguez's petition and called her to get the form of payment.

Her story makes my heart hurt. She immigrated to this country, from Cuba, as a child, and has been here more than fifty years now. She was involved as a citizen on the ground here in the U.S. in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, she told me. She has three younger sisters, and even though they are all in their fifties now, she has always felt like the example, that it is her duty to be a good person, and a good citizen. She naturalized and became an American in the mid 1980s.

She recently got her first ticket, which has precipitated the situation she is in now. Apparently, months or years ago (that detail was unclear), someone broke into her home in Miami and stole her entire filing cabinet, that contained all her documents--birth and marriage records, as well as immigration and naturalization papers. Now she cannot renew her license and the state is prepared to deport her back to Cuba.

Can I repeat, she has been living in the U.S. for fifty years, and has been a citizen for the last twenty-five. The problem is, since her papers are now missing, she has to request a new certificate, which is no problem, except that USCIS averages three to four months to process certificate requests. They are prepared to deport her in just a few weeks. So she called us for help, to see if the petition would serve as sufficient proof. It lists her final certificate number and everything on it. She has also been in contact with her congressman (who she said was not help at all), and her senator (who is now working to help her, on her side).

I am on her side. It makes me so sad that this person, who told me vehemently that she believes this country to be the greatest one on earth, despite its behavior to her at present, that she is now facing the risk of being sent to a "home" that is not really her home, based on stringent laws that stemmed from this ticket--for not paying a toll on a toll road once--something that is easy to do by mistake. The consequences for me versus her, who cannot prove her citizenship quickly enough, are starkly different. And she chose to come here, wants to be here, appreciates the land where you can "do anything" you can dream of.

We have high hopes to live up to. Great expectations. But she believes in them.

This is a real person, a victim of strict immigration laws that I often doubt the benefit of. The best I could do was represent my own government agency well, and to wish her the best in this process. I said I hope she succeeds, that this document helps to prove her right to be here. Without getting too political, I just cannot understand not allowing people who want to take part in a life in the United States the opportunity to try. I hope I played a small but crucial role in finding her citizenship record, certifying it, and offering my well-wishes.

It was a reality check, that there are real people, good citizens, suffering the brunt of laws that it's easy to forget about, me sitting over here on the "safe" side, a natural-born citizen. And the reality, her reality, made me very sad.

Ai Weiwei: A game of chess and China's elemental flaw

I have been fascinated by Ai Weiwei, the 54-year-old provocative artist and voice of dissidence in China, since May, when I heard an interview with his English translator on one of the my favorite podcasts. He was detained and questioned and kept by the government for 81 days this year, after his blog incited uproar from citizens who agreed and officials who saw him as a dangerous beacon. A tumultuous year has left him listed as one of Time magazine's People of the Year, as "The Dissident." I find him interesting in his amorphous and fluid form and interpretation of art, connecting what we think of as "Art" with unconvention and with blogging and microblogging (i.e. Twitter and very brief forms of connecting online), combining his artistic impulses with his gift for words, writing pithy and prophetic bits. That's a kind of artistry I greatly admire, especially in the face of the Chinese State And All Its Men. There is quite a difference--and a kind of bold bravery I cannot imagine--between being an artist in a free and functioning democracy and being an outspoken artist in a state which does not value or embrace free speech, open access to information, or the fullest extent of self-expression--even if it means criticizing the men upstairs.

In his Time interview he was asked "What would you like to see in China?" This was part of his brilliantly explained answer:

We need clear rules to play the game. We need to have respect for the law. If you play a chess game but after two or three moves you change the rules, how can people play with you? Of course you will win, but after 60 years you will still be a bad chess player because you never meet anyone who can challenge you. What kind of game is that? Is it interesting? I'm sure the people who put me in jail, they're so tired. This game is not right, but who is going to say, 'Hey, let's play fairly'?

I've been studying China, Chinese politics, language, culture and history, for more than six years now, and my own thoughts on its political system have shifted at times between the two most polar ends of the argument: that either the "Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics" official plan has merit, is working, can improve and continue; or that China will inevitably give way democracy because it has already given much up to a free market economic system, and its people still hold memories of the extreme poverty and problems that stemmed from early plans in the early years after the Communist Revolution. People--around the world--have spent much time waxing on the future of China's political system. No one has explained its crucial fissure in its system so well as Ai Weiwei, himself a son of China, and the actual son of a revolutionary poet.

Comedy relieves us again from news: "You food-chilling m**%$* f*#$%**"

My brother and I don't have cable, but I subscribe to Netflix Instant, and he subscribes to Hulu Plus, so we get access to a truly massive amount of material for less than $20/month between the both of us, via the PS3. So, for the first time in about five years, I've been able to watch The Daily Show a bit more often than, well, never. As has been the case forevermore, once comedians began making fun of politics for the viewing pleasure of millions, it can be extremely relieving to come home after two commutes' worth of NPR news to shake off the depressing facts of the news each day, with a little Stewart comedy. A week or so ago he took on Fox News's claims of "class warfare," in response to Warren Buffet's claims that the "super-rich" are "coddled" with their low levels of taxes. Stewart's response is fantastic, hilarious, and with many underlying nuggets of truth. "All we have to do to raise $700 billion is cut 700,000 NPRs. It's almost too easy!" Stewart joked.

Watch both parts, I swear you won't be disappointed.

Part 2:


Osama bin Laden brings back to the headlines our ten years of war, complicated emotions, and a distinct era in American life and remembrance

I made a special effort to listen to yesterday's broadcast of The World, my favorite radio program, as I wanted to listen to as much commentary and reflection on the death of Osama bin Laden as I could. Sunday night became a sweeping stretch: hours of news broadcasts, Twitter basically exploding with records numbers of tweets over a sustained period, and I was far too alert to go to sleep. But as I sped across some of my favorite blogs and news sites, there wasn't enough being said yet, enough valuable perspective to help digest all of what his death means for the world and our country and the wars we are fighting, so I headed to bed. But we are fighting two wars that began after al Queda sent two planes speeding into the World Trade Center towers back in September of 2001, as well as one into the Pentagon, and one that failed to make it to the White House, but still claimed the lives of its passengers. So this is a significant war-time event, as well as a reminder of the sadness and shock, and the anger, that arose from American people and the families of victims in the wake of the attacked ten years ago. It merits continued reflection now.

The most important reflection to make is that this is another, a continued, act of war, and bin Laden is another body added to the count. He was a man with extreme views, and who inflicted an immense amount of pain upon others during his lifetime, and that is never acceptable. As a wanted enemy of the United States during wartime, he has been in hiding for nearly a decade, because he knew his fate, and he has received it. But he is another dead, and it is more important, to me, to think about the American lives that have been lost in waging this war against the extremists that bin Laden represented--as he was indeed the personification, the face, of the enemy we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years.

So on The World's broadcast, the first show to air after the news of his death, several things brought about the kind of sentiment that best reflects what I am feeling at this time, only part of a wide spectrum of emotions across the United States. The first addresses the issue of killing bin Laden, rather than bringing him to trial. Who better to ask than a lawyer, and one who has stood as a top legal figure for the United States.

Show anchor Lisa Mullins interviewed Ted Olson, former solicitor general under President Bush, whose wife Barbara died on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Lisa Mullins: You're a former solicitor general, under President George W. Bush, a man who respects the rule of law and justice. Do you think it would have been better to apprehend and bring to trial bin Laden, versus killing him outright?

Olson: No I don't think so at all. I think that the courageous individuals that went in there in this operation, they had to move quickly and execute quickly. Secondly, this isn't a matter of a criminal trial, this was a matter of a declaration of war against the United States and United States citizens, and you bring that war to a conclusion as quickly as you possibly can. And there wasn't any doubt about what Osama bin Laden had done, there was never any doubt about his goals for continuing to inflict that kind of devastation and misery upon, not just the American people, but people all over the world. It had to be brought to and end.

His answer echoes sentiments I have, as in high-stakes war situations, I want our military men to do what they need to carry out their mission and protect themselves to the extent each case allows. This does not mean sacrifice is absent, but I trust the training they have received to respond with their best judgement in extreme and critical situations.

The same feeling comes from later remarks from former army captain Matt Thompson, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he spoke to Lisa Mullins. It has been a long war for our men, in the desert, searching for an enemy and trying to bring resolve, and no matter your thoughts on our intentions, our motives, our involvement, or invasion in the Mid-East, you have to think of our military operatives doing their job--staking out complicated nations, that comes down to spending a lot of time in the hot desert with sand permanently in all crevices. And for those who have served there, I imagine this is exactly how they reacted to the news that Target Number 1 has been apprehended and taken down.

Lisa Mullins: I wonder if there is a part of you, when you heard the news about bin Laden, that thought, well, you know, why couldn't that have happened when I was in Afghanistan?

Thompson: Right, no, absolutely, I mean, I think all of us wish we were on that mission. I think everyone that puts on the uniform wishes that they were on that mission, and had a chance to take the shot, especially people like me, that have been, you know, spent countless hours searching him out in the mountains of Afghanistan.

A death is a death, and it is no small measure to remember that every life is a human soul, one that harbored potential for good and evil both. I am barely able to look at photos of bin Laden now, as they flash all over the news prints and websites and televisions, because I see into his eyes and despair over the evil and hatred that exists in this world, and that pervaded his mind and lead him to commit terrible acts against others. I have complicated emotions about his death. But it is, as Olson said, "a matter of a declaration of war," and so I am happy that we have moved forward, closer to resolution, as a nation who has been battling in, and over, the events of September 11 for ten remarkably tricky, confusing, complex years. My own ambivalence towards our battles continues to grow more gnarly and fills with greater inherent contradiction.

Guilt, a luxury; and other emotions of someone watching Libya from afar

As I listen to the newscasts each day on the radio, and watch from afar as the world changes abruptly across North Africa and the Middle East, two things have struck me. The first is that somewhat cynical adage, hiding very near in the shadows in the wake of Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Egypt: "meet the old boss, same as the new boss." No one had confirmed this for me, but I felt there was a good chance, with military running the country now, that a new regime might turn out looking suspiciously like the old one. I hope not, but time shall tell. A news story from yesterday's broadcast confirmed my thought--actually quoting the exact same adage--and related Egypt's revolution to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004-05, in which protesters largely quit their progressive work too soon and things returned to much the same as they had before. (Listen to that here: Lessons for Egypt from Ukraine.)

The other has to do with my distance. A week or two ago, an American schoolteacher who had been living and teaching in Libya at the American school there was interviewed for a news report after she had landed somewhere in Europe, and she was talking about the collective sigh of relief that had arisen from all the passengers aboard as the plane finally lifted off the ground, spelling their imminent escape and safety. I was relieved for her two, as Libya is engrossed now in an all-out civil war, Muammar Gaddafi's forces and supporters, against those who want his more than forty-year regime to end.

I was also stricken by the fact that I would have the option to leave, I may have been so lucky. I am watching this at a very comfortable distance, not forced to watch as my neighbors are killed, and I must chose to leave my home and take my family to flee for Tunisia, or Egypt--and begin life as a refugee, the kind that end up on the covers of magazines, that the world takes on as a human rights issue or as the plight of whatever country has been good enough to offer me sanctuary. If I were lucky enough to get away.

These thoughts were not very developed in my mind, but I keep returning to them, in their ameba form, as the terrible situation continues to unfold and worsen across Libya. The American women who was interviewed had remarked that she expected her school and home would be overtaken, that she may not ever be able to return. I remember thinking at the time that surely she was overestimating the thing, this would play out instead much as it already had across the African north. A few more briefings on Libya's past--and how deeply it differs from that of Egypt's or Moroccos--and I'm chastised. A few weeks of watching Gaddafi rage like a lunatic--who makes Charlie Sheen look like a kitten, and I'm again embarrassed to think of my naivete of a few weeks ago.

Then, there in a book I happened to pick up, was a passage that got at this lingering pang in my head, and my heart: this distant emotion, this lack of connection, symptomatic of being a concerned citizen in the world, who is also only relatively aware of the danger and uncertainty that plagues many places, a kind of madness that I myself, as an American living a truly blessed life for being here, will never quite be able to understand. I am convinced it takes a great deal more faith to live in many other places on this earth, and Libya is the actualization of pain at this moment.

Spring break last week gave me some time to read some non-school items, and I have been absolutely engrossed in Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. I am honestly truly impressed with Obama's writing, the way he can write a flowing, complex emotion or experience out into words. He has also had a fascinating life, and it was in the midst of his years in Indonesia as a young boy, watching his American mother assimilate and attempt understand this island nation, the homeland of her second husband, Lolo, that he recounts exactly the evocative words I could not myself write.

Innuendo, half-whispered asides; that's how she found out that we had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. The idea frightened her, the notion that history could be swallowed up so completely, the same way the rich and loamy earth could soak up the rivers of blood that had once coursed through the streets; the way people could continue about their business beneath giant posters of the new president as if nothing had happened, a nation busy developing itself. As her circle of Indonesian friends widened, a few of them would be willing to tell her other stories--about the corruption that pervaded government agencies, the shakedowns by police and military, entire industries carved out for the president's family and entourage. And with each new story, she would go to Lolo in private and ask him: "Is it true?"

He would never say. The more she asked, the more steadfast he became in his good-natured silence. "Why are you worrying about such talk?" he would ask her. "Why don't you buy a new dress for the party?" She had finally complained to one of Lolo's cousins, a pediatrician who had helped look after Lolo during the war.

"You don't understand," the cousin had told her gently.

"Understand what?"

"The circumstances of Lolo's return [to Indonesia, from Hawaii, where he met Stanley, Obama's mother]. He hadn't planned on coming back from Hawaii so early, you know. During the purge, all students studying abroad had been summoned without explanation, their passports revoked. When Lolo stepped off the plane, he had no idea of what might happen next. We couldn't see him; the army officials took him away and questioned him. They told him that he has just been conscripted and would be going to the jungles of New Guinea for a year. And he was one of the lucky ones. Students studying in Eastern Bloc countries did much worse. Many of them are still in jail. Or vanished. You shouldn't be too hard on Lolo," the cousin repeated. "Such times are best forgotten."

My mother left the cousin's house in a daze.

. . . .

Power. The word fixed in my mother's mind like a curse. In America, it had generally remained hidden from view until you dug beneath the surface of things; until you visited an Indian reservation or spoke to a black person whose trust you had earned. But here power was undistinguished, indiscriminate, naked, always fresh in the memory. Power had taken Lolo and yanked him back into line just when he thought he'd escaped, making him feel its weight, letting him know that his life wasn't his own. That's how things were; you couldn't change it, you could just live by the rules, so simple once you learned them. And so Lolo had made his peace with power, learned the wisdom of forgetting, just as his brother-in-law had done, making millions as a high official in the national oil company; just as another brother had tried to do, only he had miscalculated and was now reduced to stealing pieces of silverware whenever he came for a visit, selling them later for loose cigarettes.

She remembered what Lolo had told her once when her constant questioning had finally touched a nerve. "Guilt is a luxury only foreigners can afford," he had said. "Like saying whatever pops into your head." She didn't know what it was like to lose everything, to wake up and feel her belly eating itself. She didn't know how crowded and treacherous the path to security could be. Without absolute concentration, one could easily slip, tumble backward.

He was right, of course. She was a foreigner, middle-class and white and protected by her heredity whether she wanted protection or not. She could always leave if things got too messy.

((Italicized portions are my own emphasis.))

Great listen: World in Words #114 on political language & Tucson

I've lost count how many times a story featured on the World in Words language podcast has shown up on my site, but it continues to be a thoughtfully produced weekly pod that clues me in to stories from the news that I might otherwise have missed. (It's produced by PRI and WGBH Boston, the people who produce The World, and hosted by Patrick Cox.) This week's podcast was on a story that is impossible to have missed, the shooting in Tucson, and political language surrounding it before and after the tragedy. But once again I learned a bit more, heard more debate on it, as the pod brought together some of the most interesting perspectives and soundbites that I've heard to date.

The whole controversy surrounding the use of the term "blood libel" in popular politics today--and especially since Sarah Palin's use of it in the aftermath of the shooting is discussed particularly well. Also stellar is the commentary on President Obama's remarks at the memorial service for the six victims of the Tucson shooting, and its comparison to President Clinton's similar position after the Oklahoma City bombing, and how their two approaches were distinctly different in their tone--Obama's lacking any politicized jabs at all.

Some of the most interesting stuff, the stuff I mentioned above, starts around 9:00, if you want to skip the first part (which is also interesting, on political language in a few European countries and how it differs!) and get to the best bits. Definitely worth a listen if you've got a few minutes. Patrick Cox pulled out some of the best discussion I've heard yet on the subject.

I land somewhat in the camp of supporting Palin's use of the term "blood libel," in that I see where she was trying to go with it. And some of the anti-Semetic backlash has been unnecessary. Even so, her entire video has some bizarre elements, which also confuse me. Making it, in my mind, all the more fascinating, given that I can see where the lines of contention fall between each side, and I understand both.

Anyway, listen.

[audio:http://betheink.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/WIWpodcast114.mp3|titles=World in Words Podcast #114]

The world, "moving irreversibly in the direction of openness"

I have had fairly ambivalent feelings about the Wikileaks drama that has been playing out in the last weeks. On the one hand, my journalistic integrity and my rights as a citizen implore the significance of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. On the other hand, I firmly believe one of our government's most important jobs is to maintain effective foreign relations and work earnestly with other nations, and some have risen concern that this would jeopardize some of those efforts. Not to mention, there is a reason sometimes I do not know everything the government is doing, some things I am better off learning about years later, especially if it means my protection and involves working towards national and (more often, please) international goals.

Starting on November 28, a collection of 250,000 government documents were disseminated via Julias Assange's website Wikileaks, 11,000 of which were labeled secret. In all actuality, though, these secret documents have not fatally wounded any governmental diplomacy or plans of action. In fact, to me it has seemed to place other countries' governments in front of a mirror, forcing them to consider things they may have been said behind closed doors about them, but never explicitly out in the open. Kind of like in middle or high school, the things teenagers say behind each other's backs are often more honest, and reflect sentiments that someone might wish they had the guts to say to your face. (Not condoning spiteful teenage behavior, rather recognizing that it occurs inevitably.) From the December 13, 2010 issue of Time magazine:

The repercussions of the WikiDump are only beginning to play out. In Korea, the nuclear-armed regime of Kim Jong Il learned that its longtime protector, China, may be turning on it and is willing to contemplate unification of the peninsula under the leadership of the South Korean government in Seoul. In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discovered through the leak that while his Arab neighbors were publicly making nice, privately they were pleading with the U.S. to launch an attack against Tehran's nuclear program. Whether that revelation weakens Iran's bargaining position or whether it will encourage Iran's leaders to hunker down and be even less cooperative in negotiations remains to be seen. What is plain is that in Iran and elsewhere, the WikiLeaks revelations could change history.

( Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2034276,00.html#ixzz17lbeFYHI )

That last line is certainly significant. We are witnessing a new phase in history, that will influence history itself, as we are seeing the convergence of two phenomena: a wired planet that has a nearly instant ability to share nearly limitless information meets an era where governmental secrecy has reached unprecedented heights. Reading this article, I started to see its similarities to the "crying wolf" problem, where too many bits of information are pegged "secret" by an increasingly large number of people with security clearances, and there is no way to standardize everyone's discretion or interpretation of the word "classified" and what merits such a branding.

Probably the reason for my internal confusion was the very revolutionary nature of these two forces colliding. The way we think about government and citizenship, and the protection of the latter from the former, is always evolving, and unknowns are scary things. And they way that government interacts with information is fundamentally affecting our lives too. This may be the natural next step in ensuring all three components of our world are in working order. Government. Citizen. Information.

The article quotes a "former intelligence-community official" who said, "The world is moving irreversibly in the direction of openness, and those who learn to operate with fewer secrets will ultimately have the advantage over those who futiley cling to a past in which millions of secrets can be protected." If we want Chinese citizens to have access to their government, well we better have it, too. (And I don't think supporting the transparency of the government makes anyone anti-American. Period.)

Classifying too many things as "secret" is where the real problem underlying this theatrical world news began, as the Time article argues. Having a more stringent definition for the term means the ability to keep the truly important stuff from leaking, without jeopardizing governmental integrity. Because if a federal system has too many secrets, its people begin to question it, and with good reason. During the Pentagon papers case in 1971, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said just this, and Julian Assange has fully embraced the sentiment as well:

The hallmark of a truly effective internal security system would be the maximum possible disclosure, recognizing that secrecy can best be preserved only when credibility is truly maintained.

Less secrecy means, in other words, what needs to be kept under wraps can stay that way. Looking at it like this, I have fewer qualms with the whole Wikileaks thing, because I think it points to where the government must direct itself now and in the future, understanding that in the end, nothing can be guaranteed to remain secret forever, and using this fact to remain proactive in their disclosure of information. We live in an instant kind of world, but this won't be an instant transition. With the direction technology has taken in the last twenty years though, I can't imagine they've never discussed this eventual reality before. It makes us all consider seriously the responsibilities of our leaders and what we expect from them. It also makes us question our rights and where they start and end, and how much protection we can expect. All things considered, I'm OK with the Wikileaks commitment to holding leaders responsible and keeping them accountable.

"If men were angels, we would need no government"

So spoke James Madison, on that every pressing question of what to do with governance; how much is good and how much is too much? How much is too little?

Because men aren't angels, they lie to each other, sell each other faulty or unsafe products to make a buck for themselves, or any number of unwholesome things. Thinking more about what I posted yesterday, and the role of government in improving our lives and standards of living, I have to endorse many of the things it does for us. The government cannot be limited to, at its most bare, a military protection from outside forces, because we need protection from ourselves more often. I recalled something I'd read about a year ago, from the political commentary section of Reddit. It makes a strong point:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the US department of energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC regulated channels to see what the national weather service of the national oceanographic and atmospheric administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the national aeronautics and space administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of US department of agriculture inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined as safe by the food and drug administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the US congress and kept accurate by the national institute of standards and technology and the US naval observatory, I get into my national highway traffic safety administration approved automobile and set out to work on the roads build by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the environmental protection agency, using legal tender issed by the federal reserve bank. On the way out the door I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US postal service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the department of labor and the occupational safety and health administration, enjoying another two meals which again do not kill me because of the USDA, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to ny house which has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal's inspection, and which has not been plundered of all it's valuables thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the internet which was developed by the defense advanced research projects administration and post on freerepublic.com and fox news forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because the government can't do anything right.

Let's give the powers some credit...

Sean Wilentz, in the Fresh Air interview, comments on that notion, of the government always being seen as a threat to liberty, to a paranoid degree. "What are we left with? We're left with no government at all. It's basically, it would end up with, a kind of dog-eat-dog world, mitigated I suppose by religious charity; it's a view of America that's just un-American."

(Since this comment was not the original work of the person who posted it, here is  the link to the commentary on Reddit, posted by nailz1000. This is the source of this quotation. He notes there that this is from the Laissez Faire subforum on Something Awful.)

Historian Sean Wilentz on Glenn Beck: "Confounding Fathers"

Historian Sean Wilentz, a professor at Princeton University, was on Fresh Air talking with Terry Gross about the roots of the Tea Party in 1950s Cold War politics. He has an article on it, "The Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party's Cold War Roots,"  in The New Yorker this week as well, on the same subject. It was an interesting discussion; now looking forward to reading the story. Thoughts?

Aww, so the little white girl wants to make a difference? Or: The intimidating world of changing the world

Plenty of young people have dreams of changing the world, making a difference, having a purpose in the wider world. Realizing this goal seems more accessible the more the world shrinks, as if maybe through our interconnectedness and supposed knowledge of each other we can somehow bring about change, that we've learned enough to avoid the pitfalls of those before us who wanted to abolish poverty or illiteracy or some other plight of humanity. But an overflow of information can also have the opposite effect; can make us think we have all the answers before we even set foot in someone else's country and culture. Even with the very best of intentions, and the most endearing empathy for others, compassion alone can bring no large-scale result. The flip side is an all-brains approach, with its theories and algorithms and--if you're really serious--some language skills to really work with the people of the global community. Take all that, and it's still not enough. You also need really thick skin.

Jacqueline Novogratz learned this the hard way. Walking in to the African Development Bank for her first day on the job in Côte d'Ivoire in 1986, she received stony glares from African women in immensely colorful dress, and felt the part of an uptight librarian in her skirt-and-blouse combo and glasses. "I hadn't expected to encounter poisoning and voodoo among women bankers in Africa," she says, but after a week or two, that is exactly what was faced her. As most would, when she took a job with a development company in Africa, she had been imagining something more along the lines of sitting on the ground with women in a rural village; instead, she was facing somewhat powerful and relatively wealthy women who hated what she represented: white people from the economic "North" (read: developed world), who sat in their offices thousands of miles away and wrote up plans for improving the African continent while sipping $4 lattes.

This is a stereotype, of course, but as the women she encounters there argue, how can Africa ever stand on its own without Africans leading the changes, with the knowledge of their world and their ways. What kind of organization promotes solidarity by neglecting to ask the opinions of the people most dedicated to fixing their nations' problems, instead deciding to send in a young, white woman without first seeing whether the skills were already there. Regardless of the role Novogratz was supposed to play, and regardless of her most earnest intentions, her position there did not work out; but the feeling was mutual: she smiled daily at the street vendors during her time in Cote d'Ivoire without every getting to understand how they lived. "I'd wanted to know who low-income people were so I could be of greater service, but I had spent most of my time [in Africa so far] in big institutions with people who chattered and hobnobbed at conferences and did very little listening."

Long story short, Novogratz is today the CEO of Acumen Fund, which has successfully invested in local businesswomen in the form of microloans that have proven effective ways of empowering those who cannot start businesses or get loans the traditional way. She emphasizes loans instead of donations, proving to be a more sustainable approach, one which invests in the skills and integrity of real merchants and artisans in a bottom-up way. She has also spoken at TED about her real belief that poverty can be abolished, her determination founded not in naive idealism but in experienced optimism and creative thinking. She also wrote a book, The Blue Sweater, chronicling how it all happened. (Listen to the amazing story of her beloved Blue Sweater, and what it taught her about the world.)

I have not finished reading the book yet, but one of the most striking things I've discovered is how harshly the world can hit that little white girl with a big heart and some education, who wants to make a difference and see the world while she's at it. Novogratz spent three days writhing on the bathroom floor after a reception she'd attended with the women of her development banking office, unable to drink even water; whether this was a coincidental illness or a moderate dose of poison, the event was ominous and painful. And the world is ominous and painful, especially for poverty-stricken women in villages and cities around the world, but also for little white girls who venture out into it.

I'm not comparing the experiences of these two types of women at all, I am simply observing through Novogratz's experience the heart-breaking rejection the world can serve even when you bring it everything you've got. We question, once again, the outsider's role in development and economies not our own. We question the very goal we have set out to achieve--making a difference--and many have dismissed it as impossible. Novogratz has not, and she is an inspiration. I read of the discrimination she faced and literally question my own courage and confidence. I question whether I would have even risen from the floor; I like to think so, but sometimes I am victim my own doubts, which seemed exponential in her shoes. Even when things started to turn towards positive progress, she was still communicating in French, far away from her family and home, and living in the pre-internet world of letter-writing. In Rwanda, where she found a more welcoming evironment and was helping to create a microfinance company for women there, she still had boughts of doubt and despair:

Starting anything new is an all-encompassing proposition, and typically I worked 16-hour days. Doing this in a different language, in a place far from home, where navigating even simple things could thwart the best intentions challenged me to my bones. There were plenty of nights when the sheer injustice of the world in which I lived would come crashing down. With no mean of communication other than letters, a sense of isolation would envelope me, and there were nights that ended in tears of tiredness and sadness for a world that didn't seem to want to see the possibilities right there in front of it. In those time, I would turn to music. Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Cat Stevens began to feel like good friends on lonely nights.

I crack so easily over my own trials and am such an emotional person when I'm talking about things I'm passionate about, I honestly think I would have broke down crying in front of those intimidating, strong, hardened, female African bankers. What things they have faced that I've never had to face myself! And then, even if I began to make progress with a new job in a new country, as Novogratz did, the work is still accompnaied by doubts and tribulations aplenty, and you go about witnessing hardships while struggling against the established status quo. This difficulty intimidates me to my core. The world of changing the world is scary, messy, disheartening business. But Novogratz never gave up hope; for it is also rewarding, enlightening, and after everything, beneficial to the people who need it the most-- if you've got a smart plan. And great compassion. And, really, if you're tough enough. I hope that if such an opportunity or chance position comes my way, I'm brave enough--and also crazy enough--to take it.

Tamil Tiger warfare via... Rambo: thoughts on the complexity of South Asia

Location: Woodstock, Georgia

Subject: the subcontinent; South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh)

Reading material: William Dalrymple's The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters (Oakland: Lonely Planet Publication, 2005)

Impetus: Class, History of Modern India and South Asia

The strange thing about getting my book list for this class back in January was that not only did I already know the book, I had bought it in high school off Amazon.com, after reading many positive reviews. Something had tickled me about India, and I was obsessed with the "travel essays" section of bookstores at this time (which, I should add, rarely carry Dalrymple's book). When the material I was grabbing seemed mostly dull, and the enormous Lonely Planet country and traveling guides were mostly just a tease--with their lists of hostels, restaurants, and sites--I turned to the internet, and found The Age of Kali.

Back in 2004-05 though, I don't think I had the background knowledge or the sensitivity to appreciate his collection of essays on various people, customs, and locations across the subcontinent. I was a teenager; one who had enough curiosity to buy the book, but perhaps not yet enough to read through the whole thing. I think I read the first two essays.

So upon seeing this book on the list of requirements alongside six others, I saw this as an unexpected chance to try again, nearly six years later. This time around it's a breezy read, filled with tiny insights and often conundrums that only India could present to the outsider's brain. How do we reconcile the actions of an eighteen-year-old young woman, married for less than a year, who jumps atop the funeral pyre of her deceased husband, therefore martyring herself in the classical Brahman practice sati? One such case embroiled all of India in a highly publicized legal debate from 1987, when Roop Kanwar walked calmly to her own death, to 1996, when the villagers involved in the funeral were acquitted. Was it devotion to her husband and to her religion that led her willingly to death by fire, or, in the easiest to rationalize theory, was she drugged by the villagers and her husband's family (therefore, basically complacent)? Or, as some anonymous village sources told newspapers in the flood of reporting that came from their Rajastani village in the wake of the death, did she actually try to escape the flames, and was pushed back upon them by village men? As there was no evidence, and no witnesses who would argue the latter in court, all involved men were let off in 1996 when the case ended. And rightly so; there is no evidence against them, and though womens' rights groups and western media might find it uproarious, we cannot assume she did not do it of her own accord and imprison men for crimes which they may never have committed. There is no easy answer; on one hand we must consider the alternative life Roop would have had if she did not perform the sati: she would have been condemned to shave her head, don a white sari, and beg for food for the rest of her life. She was only eighteen; that is an equally frightening prospect. The flip side is that she was relatively educated for the rural region where she lived, and she had lived in the city Jaipur for awhile. Dalrymple tells of the many urban Indians who abhor the idea of her decision being anything other than forced, for, what educated woman willingly does such a thing? (We must keep in mind that sati is an exceedingly rare practice, and in the several dozen of cases since 1947, occurs in rural India.) The point is, Roop could have been at once a devout wife, a scared widow, an educated and religious young woman, and a little bit on-edge--as most teenagers are. The combination may just have produced the event that occurred on September 4, 1987. There is neither easy answer, nor simple resolution. When Dalrymple visits the Roop's village, nearly all the people he talks to claim they weren't even there on the day of the sati.

And this is India through Dalrymple's eyes and made vivid through his stories and reporting. Messy, multi-faceted, in-your-face, with plenty of moral dilemmas thrown at you...

In fact, one of the most intriguing, and possibly disturbing, revelations in Dalrymple's tales is not in India, but in Sri Lanka; and then, specifically, the northern occupied region of Tamil Eelam. In 1990, when he visits, the country remains embroiled in the brutal civil war, between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamil's brutal homegrown army, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The decades-long war ended, as far as we can tell now, in 2009 with a treaty and the vague promise of some sort of federal representation for long-disenfranchised Tamils. The linguistic and nationalistic origins of this war are a fascinating a sad subject, as the Tamils had been the favorite of the colonial British government, learned in English and given opportunities for more education (classic move by colonizing power, favoring the minority). Sri Lanka (Ceylon) enjoyed quite high levels of growth, literacy and education, and wealth in the aftermath of WWII, far greater than their neighbors to the north (India and Pakistan). In 1956, Prime Minister Soloman Bandaranaike would deal his country a blow (hindsight's 20/20) with the Sinhala Only Act, which effectively removed the Tamil and English languages from governmental and all public sector jobs. In a single move, which was carried on by his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, millions of Tamils were out of jobs, and a generation of Tamil youth were disenfranchised. Marginalized by their own government and left with no say in national policy, the LTTE grew out of a natural vacuum of opportunity.

Dalrymple visits the terrorized city of Jaffna, on the northern Sri Lankan coast, which has been caught in the particular violence that raged from 1983-1990. After a particularly humorous bit on the utterly poor conditions of the hotel where he stays (which hasn't seen a non-Tamil in eighteen months), he has the opportunity to talk to some of the gun-toting teenagers who compose the ground forces of the Tamil Tigers.

Up til now, we might write all this off as civil war, bloody and ruthless, but not posing any specific moral dilemmas to an outsider. Then Dalrymple meets Castro, a man similarly aged and the mastermind behind some brutal LTTE moves. And then he discovers a very strange source of their warfare inspiration:

I asked him to tell me more about the attack, and he happily compiled. He described the preparations, the spying and the intelligence work. He told me of the long, wet fifty-mile march through the monsoon jungle, the moonlit crossing of the lagoon and the silent belly-crawling as the guerrillas surrounded the camp and cut the wire. As he talked, I was aware of a growing sense of deja-vu. It all sounded a bit familiar, I said. Hadn't I seen a film of this somewhere? He smiled.

'You're right. Our camps are all equipped with televisions and videos. War films are shown three times a week, and are compulsory viewing. We often consult videos like The Predator and Rambo before planning our ambushes. None of us are trained soldiers. We've learned all we know from these films.'

So, I thought: video-guerrillas. To Sri Lanka from Hanoi via Hollywood. It was an arresting idea: real-life freedom fighters earnestly studying Sylvester Stallone and Arnie Schwarzenegger to see how it was done.

Later I saw the camp's video library: complete sets of Rambo, Rocky, and James Bond; all the Schwarzeneggers, including Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, and Commando; most of the recent Vietnam films; and, touchingly, no fewer than three copies of The Magnificent Seven. Moralists have often speculated the much of today's violence is inspired by violent movies. If only they knew. Here in Sri Lanka the tactics of an entire civil war--tens of thousands killed, maimed and wounded--seem to be largely inspired by imported videos.

I'm not an advocate for ending violence in movies, and I don't think if that was attempted it would even prove effective in the least; we live in a very violent world. I also do not think that thirty years of the LTTE's military tactics were guided entirely by Hollywood; Dalrymple is just reporting what he's witnessed and making a strong point for his readers. But with the grain of salt, I still find a bit of horror in the idea of Rambo inspiring an actual rebel army of merciless killers. Kids, teenagers, adults in the western world understand the violence in these movies as not only staged, but to some extent, unrealistic. I've never seen a James Bond movie without that over-dramatized, glitzy, glamorous murder--all while wearing a great suit and with accompanying witty dialogue. To my eye it is so clearly imaginary. And so the idea of Tamil Tigers watching with rapt attention and invoking the ideas of battle choreographers is a lesson in my own morality--or at least that of my society's.

Part curious, part shocking, this is a real case to consider when we think of the world that exists around us. I've read of plenty of the terrible violence, deaths of innocent people, and refugees who live around the world whose lives have been destroyed or forever changed by this civil war. And it jabs at precisely Dalrymple's point, that we cannot take this region at face value, nor can we easily label it. We cannot lump South Asia's innumerably diverse people into one large group, nor can we simply define what "Indian" means. Most importantly, we cannot transplant our own moral codes atop the functioning of thousands of years of history and define the subcontinent in our own terms; it does not translate that way. The reality is much, much more complex.

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

"What the world wants today" is both that elusive peace, and a Coke, as the commercial famously puts it. Buying a Coke is one form of peace, I guess; but how else do we define it?

War, in the name of peace...

The thought is bewildering, paradoxical, and also quite present in our world, both now and in the past--even if it has been defined differently throughout time. Recently, Patrick Cox mused over the meaning of the word "peace" in his podcast, The World in Words (which I've cited several times before--great listening), starting with President Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In itself, this oratory does a number on the definition of the easily-rattled-off but elusive-to-conceive word.

Here's a segment from President Obama's speech:

"We must begin by acknowledging a hard truth: we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations, acting individually or on concert, will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: 'Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem, it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of nonviolence. I know there is nothing weak, nothing passive, nothing naive, in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King; but as a head of state, sworn to protect and defend my nation, and I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world."

Maybe it's a side-effect of my historiographical debates class, where we examine the words of great orators of the past, and where we're reading and arguing weekly about Hegelian and Marxist views of history as an up-hill march towards perfect societies, but President Obama's speech incited several things in my mind: as Patrick Cox says in the podcast, these things, phrases like "evil exists," and "morally justified use of force," are all things we have heard before in political speeches. Joseph Stalin defended force and violence many times, as a means of improving the Soviet state; Mao Zedong incited suspicion and approved violence amongst his Red Guard youth devotees. These are keywords used by politicians that justify a nation's actions, and also ensure that the people are enthralled and uplifted by the leader's response to evil. This means of inspiration, that we are improving, that we see our goal in sight and so violence is justified, appears throughout political oratory, and indeed nearly every leader in every country in the post-Enlightenment modern world harks back to the idea that we are improving, moving towards something better. Classic, and proven to be effective.

The remarkable thing about this speech, which makes it quite unique among political addresses, is that he is accepting the peace prize; he is not rallying his countrymen, but is speaking to a large crowd of educated people, many of them not Americans. But the President readily admits that he is no Martin Luther King, Jr., nor can he defend a nation using only the practices of history's peacekeepers. His speech certainly adds another meaning to the word peace, Cox argues, making it "a bit more slippery" than it had been. Obama: "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." Pause, and consider.

One may write the whole thing off to being a political speech written to speak to both sides, the peacekeeping America and the two-wars America, and indeed the sentiments somehow seek to provide both at once. And that is not such a terrible thing, for nothing exists in a vacuum and nation-states tend to be bundles of juxtapositions.

So how do we define peace, within ongoing global disunity and war? What is its nature? Does it in fact, contain war, as has been argued? "The word 'peace' is either taken as a given or used very lightly," said Dennis Ross, a U. S. diplomat and author. Can you have a commitment to peace but never come through, or in fact, consistently perform opposite to such peaceful notions? And on a larger scale, is progress the ability to reduce both good and bad in the world?

Listen to the entire discussion and hear the speech in the World in Words podcast #79 (the peace discussion begins around 11:30 minutes in). Then tell me what you think.

Danger and escape along the Tumen River: North Korean refugees, the struggle to survive, and the effort to tell their story

Laura Ling and Euna Lee must have quite a story. What they have recently published, in the form of an Op/ed in the LA Times, is a brief explanation of their reason for being in that part of the world, and a narrative description of how and what happened when they were detained by North Korean forces.

Assisted by a Korean Chinese guide, they were doing research and conducting interviews near the Chinese-Korean border, along the Tumen River. They state in their explanation that they are neither prepared to discuss in detail their experiences as prisoners nor looking to take any attention away from the dire situation they were there to cover in the first place.

As both of the articles I have linked to will suggest, the "underground" crossing North Korean citizens are making to escape the totalitarian state is dangerous and heart-breaking-- and means either death or a life sentence in a labor camp if they are caught and deported. Ling and Lee were near the border where this journey begins when they were arrested, interviewing refugees and the people helping them escape in an effort to highlight their stories. It is a frightening reality to imagine that for just a 90-second stint on North Korean soil, these two American citizens were apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. This is a government that clearly has some issues, and seriously takes action against anyone trying to escape or trying to illuminate the situation.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.21.23 PMIt is important that these refugees' stories be told. In early 2009, I read an article about the dangerous crossing in National Geographic; the article also added the story of the trouble North Korean citizens have even after a safe settlement in, most often, South Korea. After thousands of miles traveling under-the-radar through China (the Chinese-North Korean border is still a much safer bet than the most heavily-guarded border in the world: between North and South Korea) down to Laos, they trek across mountains and finally reach Thailand-- where they can apply for asylum. Months and much paperwork later they can be granted a refugee's visa and are able to move to South Korea. (I am of course giving the ideal course of a refugee's story; many times, it is neither this smooth, quick, or simple.)

A refugee who has landed safely in South Korea, or maybe even one waiting on placement back in Thailand or China, still has cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome. These people have been living in a hermit society, speaking a somewhat archaic and nowhere near modern version of the Korean spoken by South Koreans. Down to the phrases and greetings used in everyday life, it can be a struggle for North Koreans to communicate with their Southern counterparts. Oftentimes looked down upon for their accents, it can be difficult for them to find good jobs in the South Korean job markets; sometimes they are not qualified educationally. Every day is a struggle.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.03.25 PMSince April, I have been donating $9 per month to the 9 Lives Campaign, through the organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). LiNK uses donations to assist refugees in language training, cultural adaptation, education, and job placement while they are settling into new lives in other countries around the world. The 9 Lives campaign in particular aims to end the 9 different violent and tragic lives that befall some of these North Koreans--including sex trafficking and child labor-- when they cannot find  any other work or are tricked by people who claim they can help them. There is additional tragedy in the fact that many of these people leave their families behind, with very little chance of seeing them again.

Journalists Ling and Lee have been making headlines since March 17 when they were arrested. But the more important story has been going on much, much longer.

I urge you to listen to PRI's The World in Words podcast from February 19, 2009: "Two Koreas divided by language," which takes the listener on a journey into North Korea, from the point of view of a Korean-American young woman who is granted permission to visit with her uncle and mother. Some of their family members were suddenly enemies when the line was drawn through the peninsula in the 1950s. She is quite aware, during her stay, that their lives could just as easily have been hers; her story is stunning, and highlights the Korean split in a starkly personal way.

Flying kites

The Kite Runner has already been read by millions, translated and subsequently read in dozens of other languages, but I have only just read it. The book was published in 2003, a ripe time in history for considering the Afghan people, and studying their history and culture in detail, if not to completely understand, at least simply to gain some knowledge of what it must be like to be a citizen of that nation today. With U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it is important to know something about the people there, be familiar with some major cities, its religious system, and indeed, with the mindset of an Afghan person. Reading the story of Amir, the narrator, brought me into the mind of a Muslim boy, first, struggling to decide his religious thoughts in the midst of Muslim teachers and the beliefs of his secular father, and then, into the mind of Muslim man, battling his own demons and ultimately coming to terms with his life. The novel tells Amir's story, with amazing characters scattered all throughout the story; some are glorious; some gloriously evil-- all very poignoint and very tangible. I felt I was struggling with the characters through the entire story. When there was death, sadness, joy, celebration, struggle, I left all those things as if they were my own friends and family. Adding to the depth emotion, I felt I could understand the Afghan Muslim mindset, and the code of honor and tradition maintained in the culture, even while being an American woman reading the story. More than anything, the book made me feel for Afghanistan. The last thirty years of the nation's history read like a nightmare: peace in the streets and kite runners battling in them, transformed first by a coup (ending the monarchy), then the invasion of the Russians, then civil war, political factions, and eventually, the takeover by the Taliban. Only recently, I gleaned from the story, is there even the possibility of some governmental proceedings taking place. The story is clearly expresses the sadness author Khaled Hosseini feels over his homeland, and what the last years of violence have done to it. Violence, needless murders, food shortages, missing children and child abuse, bombings, destruction, lawlessness-- the smells and sights described before 1978 are so vivid, and in such direct contrast to the ravaged, littered and dilapidated country Amir sees when he returns in 2001 (having been gone since emigrating in 1981). I had not known a whole lot of Afghanistan's recent history, and when reading this story I really felt an honest, gut-wrenching hatred for the Taliban's policy of violence and murder. I feel more connected to the people living in Afghanistan than I ever have. I feel for them, I hate that children live in squalor with no hope of escaping, and no one to stand up for their rights.

Not meaning for this to sound like a rant or a book review, though I fear it may be a combination of both. What I mean is to express the pain I felt, for the people of Afghanistan. I can never again think of that country as merely a place on map; I feel more connected than ever, even while never having been there, nor speaking the language. But within the history of the last thirty years, I see the strength and courage it takes to live there. Many may have no choice in the end, but hope is powerful force, and I'd like to think there are bright glimmers of hope for Afghanistan.

There is still a lot violence on the streets every day in Afghanistan. For additional reading (besides The Kite Runner, obviously), NPR has a recent report on assassinations of political, social, and religious leaders and activists. I also read a really interesting collection of stories from various peoples' lives in Afghanistan now, but cannot seem to relocate that report now that I'm trying to find it. Expect an update later if I have luck.

Eating Chinese

In my Understanding Asia class (required for my Asian Studies minor, and one of the most engaging classes I've taken), we've been studying Asian-American literature for the last two weeks. We've been looking at several major elements: 1) what does it mean to be Asian-American, and to what extent do you remain Asian while at the same time incorporating this identity into being "American"? and 2) how do elements of a multicultural person create the cultural hybridity that we have around us today? and 3) can you choose your your ethnicity to some extent (and, if so, will society let you)? To do so, we've read a collection of poetry written by Japanese Americans about the internment during WWII, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. It has been a fortnight full of enlightening ideas regarding what your ethnicity means to others and to yourself, and how one adapts culture, and creates hybridity. The guest professor (the entire course has been taught by guest professors, except for the first 2-week segment taught by the coordinator, Dr. Tom Keene), Sarah Robbins, has facilitated a series of great class discussions, getting us really deep into what it means to be Asian-American.

Somewhat by coincidence, my own curiosity lead me weeks earlier to a book on the new release table at Barnes and Noble-- one that delved into the curious incident of a Powerball lottery that had several dozen winners, all of whose numbers had been identical and inspired by the same thing: a fortune cookie. The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, written by New York Times writer Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, 8), takes the reader  on a  journey into everything you've never imagined behind the ethnic food we love so much; and, Lee argues, it isn't really all that "ethnic" anyway. Chinese American food is essentially American food, says Lee, and from there she shares stories about the origins of the fortune cookie, the international argument caused by soy sauce, the dangerous lives of Chinese deliverymen, and a heart-wrenching tale of a Chinese immigrant family who was nearly torn about by working and living in a rural Georgia town.  I have found this book to be an interesting addition to my own understanding of the Chinese-American experience. Though it focuses on food, who can really argue that food is not a basic playing field for cultural exchange, no mater what your ethnicity or geographic location? Even without knowing a person's language or culture or history, they can share with you their food. And so, through this familiar medium, Lee explores the whole globe to define "Chinese food."

I am going to share an expert here, because I think it is an excellent illustration of the way we see cultural hybridity today, and how "assimilation" itself may be changing in meaning. Her sentiments in this passage echo almost exactly a point we touched upon today in class-- when a minority combines itself with the majority, what elements of each culture are retained, which are lost, and to what extent might each be a bad or good thing? By giving up parts of your own culture to assimilate, how much becomes a personal loss? And what happens when walls or bumps arise between the two cultures one may be living in that might cause someone to step back an reevaluate their identity? She adds to it an interesting additional point: when the minority or immigrant population becomes an integral part of mainstream society, that society itself adapts to it, and appears different than it used to. We can see this most clearly all around us in the United States. As shes says earlier in her books, we often think of apple pie as being quintessential "American"-- but when is the last time you had apple pie, and when is the last time you are Chinese food? Exactly. Probably in the last week or so. Interesting...

I think it is a testament to the writer, and a great cultural learning tool, that we can see elements of the Chinese American experience in her own exploration of American Chinese food.

I'll leave you with her words:

"As much as the mainstream changes the immigrants, the immigrants change the mainstream. As recently as three decades ago, being American often meant distancing yourself from your immigrant ancestry. In her 1975 essay "Ethnicity and Anthropology in America," anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote, 'Being American is a matter of abstention from foreign ways, foreign food, foreign ideas, foreign accents.'

Even our definition of 'assimilation' is changing. The old-school definition referred to how a minority blended into a majority. Now social scientists are pushing a new definition: the convergence of disparate cultures. The popularity of Chinese food shows that assimilation may no longer require that minorities be subsumed into the majority. Instead, in a country where 20 percent of the population consists of immigrants and their children, assimilation means convergence from all sides.


In reality, General Tso's chicken is arguably as American as it is foreign, Chinese only in the way that burritos are 'Mexican' or spaghetti and meatballs is 'Italian.' These are 'native foreign dishes'-- 'native' because they originated here and may exist nowhere else, but 'foreign' because they were inspired by other cuisines. American Chinese food has developed its own identity-- so much so that it is sold in Korea, Singapore, and the Dominican Republic as its own distinct cuisine. "

My bread-and-butter

Having finished the first half of the semester, I have finished writing one of the two main research papers that have been assigned to me this spring. The first was the easier one, and also the less interesting of the two. The second is the one I turn to now, to focus my attention and tackle head-on. Sitting at the very beginning of projects like this is the worst part for me; the whole thing looming in front of me is intimidating. The paper is not due until the final week of class, around April 21 I think, but this is going to require a lot of thought and time. I also hate hate the crunch feeling of finishing a huge assignment the day (or even last few days) before it is due. So, ahead I charge. The assignment (for my World Since 1945 class) is to research an event of international political significance that has taken place between 1945 and 1999. Approaching it at a specific angle-- versus just attempting to do "the Vietnam War"-- we need to examine three primary sources relating to that event. So basically, I need three sources coming from the time period that the event occurred, analized and compared in 5 pages. I've not done much yet in my career in history with primary sources, and that is essentially the bread-and-butter of an historian's job. Examining the documents (journals, letters, government documents, etc.) that remain from history give us the real insight. It is when the analysis comes in that books and essays are created, giving us the perspectives we may have on history. You have historians to thank for compiling and tidying much of the history you know.

For my topic, I have chosen the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that Mao Tse-tung began in communist China in the 1960's. His confidence that tradition and intellectuals would ruin the socialist society was so strong, thousands died in the wake of their attempted obliteration. This is when the Red Guard came to be, and images  still linger of young children in their Maoist uniforms patrolling their country for "revisionists" who posed a threat to the state.

From this period of Chinese history I will draw several primary sources and narrow it down to the three that best bring varying viewpoints to the table. My initial research returned several works of compiled documents from the state and Mao, a compilation of first-person accounts of the response of Chinese villagers and peasants, and several works from reporters and diplomats from abroad who experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand while there. I will be going through these sources and others, and hopefully narrowing it all down to my main three points of view on the singular movement. From there, I will look at the Cultural Revolution as an entity and use those three viewpoints to analyze it; vise-versa, I will use the context of the Cultural Revolution to analyze what is said in the documents I choose.

Sitting at the start, this seems like both a daunting and exhilarating project. But at the same time, this is an essential part of doing research-- looking at primary sources. And I couldn't ask for more flexibility in the topic, nor for a better topic. China is, after all, full of intrigue for a foreigner. So, I must get started.