Well worth your time: this essay on Obama as reader and militarist, by Teju Cole, published today at the New Yorker Online. (It's currently #2 in poplarity on the entire New Yorker site, behind the article about the pope, and #3 in "most e-mailed.")
Well worth your time: this essay on Obama as reader and militarist, by Teju Cole, published today at the New Yorker Online. (It's currently #2 in poplarity on the entire New Yorker site, behind the article about the pope, and #3 in "most e-mailed.")
Barack Obama's inauguration, Washington, D.C., January 2009
On this election day I'd like to suggest a re-read of the guest post, "The Rewrite," by Teju Cole, written and published here the night of Obama's election four years ago.
What a different day that was, quivering with hope and anticipation! I was thrilled about the election of our first black president, but less dewy-eyed about his prospects for changing things than many of my friends. Still, my husband and I saw it as a momentous, historical occasion, so much so that we drove from Montreal to Washington that January to attend the inauguration. ("Inauguration Journal," The Cassandra Pages, Jan 2009)
As it turned out, I was unfortunately right about Obama vs. Congress, Obama vs. the status quo, Obama vs. the conservative media machine, Obama vs. the military complex, Obama vs. Public Fear, Obama vs. the Israeli lobby...on it goes. I wonder what he really thinks, when he sits down and talks to Michelle after a long day. Has he moved in his deepest convictions, or simply woken up to the divisive, mean-spirited, nearly-gridlocked reality that is U.S. politics today? I still think he is a good man, brilliantly quick to grasp the nuances of any subject -- and therefore I'd much rather have him at the helm than any Republican alternative. But, regardless, if he wins it's still going to be politics as usual.
When I visit the United States these days, I'm struck with the general level of frustration, bitterness and anger among not only the disenfranchised, but the solidly middle-class: people who've had good educations, worked hard, saved money. They see their children growing up in uncertainty, with fewer opportunities than we had, at a time when corporate greed runs rampant, aided and abeted by the government. These are people with common sense and a sense of fairness who see neither in the way their government operates.
I'm a writer, and have long valued the power of the spoken and written word. Obama came to office largely on the strength of his ability to speak. I think we all felt he spoke from his heart, and I don't doubt that still. But as we've seen, rhetoric may be golden, but it can turn out to be flimsy gilt foil rather than 24K; loftly rhetoric doesn't change the minds or hearts of people who are determined to work for their own self-interest and that of those who pay them with gifts, favors, trips, and contributions. Neither words nor good intentions can turn around the ship of insider-government: the way things are done and have always been done in an entrenched power structure. And even more tragic than that is the fact that how ordinary citizens feel, or what their live are like, is less and less a factor in what actually happens. The idea of representative government itself, in the United States, has become an illusion, but one we stubbornly cling to.
As a Vermonter, I was always proud to cast my vote for the independent Bernie Sanders, first for the House of Representatives and then as a Senator. I was proud to vote for him again this year. He's that very rare bird in Washington: honest and straightforward, outspoken, truly representing not only his constituency but the neediest within it, morally uncompromising, and beholden to few. He was a fixture in Vermont politics as long as I lived there. When we first sent him to Washington the naysayers insisted he'd always be on the fringes, unable to accomplish anything, unable to get his voice heard, but he's proved them wrong.
The difference, I think, is that Vermont is one of the smallest states, where a man of Bernie's integrity can cut across party lines and capture people's hearts not only through rhetoric but by actually doing what he says he'll do, day in, day out, year after year. I doubt if he could have been elected in, say, New York, the much larger state where I grew up. By virtue of its small size and tradition of local debate and control, Vermont has also been able to pass controversial, ground-breaking measures, from environmental protection laws to the early adoption of same-sex partnerships. Lately, the state has been pushing toward adopting its own single-payer, European-style health care system; today's election will probably decide whether that initiative continues to go forward or not.
I doubt if the Founding Fathers anticipated the sheer size to which the United States would grow, or the enormous difficulty of governing such an entity either at home, or in its capacity as a world power. If I have any hope for the future, it lies in greater local control, greater citizen involvement, and more insistence on representatives following the will of the people. Here in Quebec during 2012, public opinion expressed on the streets, during a summer of protest and unrest, forced the Liberal provincial government to call elections, which they then lost. Revelations from a province-wide, ongoing inquest into political corruption forced the mayor of Montreal to resign last night, and will have many other far-reaching consequences.
The demos in democracy is, after all, us -- and yet, over time, we've slowly handed over our own rights to others who have twisted them into something almost unrecognizable. It's an illusion to think they mean what they say, and an even greater illusion to think they're going to give those rights back without a struggle, a collapse, or a defeat. The Book of Kings told it like it was, in the dawn of written history, and that story has been written and rewritten over thousands of years: the basest qualities of human nature don't change, nor does the basic human struggle for equality, justice, and freedom. Voting is crucial, but it takes a lot more than that.
Life these days feels very busy, so much so that I haven't been able to write much of anything, either here or on any of my ongoing projects. But I think there is another factor, besides work deadlines, choir rehearsals, email correspondence, meals to cook and cats to feed, and all the other aspects of daily life.
It's the damned election.
Since moving up here, across that strange and rather arbitrary border, I've tried keep emotionally away from the ugly morass of American politics. It took us a couple of years just to de-toxify so that our reactions weren't automatically, knee-jerkedly, affected by the fact of being Americans who had been steeped in that particular soup since birth. And if that's who you are, still, I doubt that you can really know what I'm talking about unless you've lived elsewhere for a significant period of time.
Staying out of it is, of course, impossible, because U.S. politics affects almost everyone: it's the stuff of news, almost everywhere, and it matters. And I'm an American citizen, and always will be, even after receiving dual citizenship in Canada. I've followed Obama's presidency, at some distance, to be sure, but with interest -- four years ago, my husband and I drove all the way to Washington to attend the inauguration. Like many progressively-minded people on the planet, we had high hopes, but we also had big doubts about his own plans for bipartisan cooperation, and for what he would be able to accomplish in such a polarized, hostile, and money/special-interest-influenced atmosphere.
I'm afraid it has played out just that way. I've been gravely disappointed in this presidency, and particularly in the foreign policy as led by Hilary Clinton, who has turned out to be both hawkish and, I feel, completely wrong in her ideas of how to deal with tensions in the Middle East -- a subject I care about a great deal.
But the alternative - a Romney presidency - would be so much worse. Why anyone -- but particularly any woman -- would vote for him is completely beyond me.
I voted by absentee ballot, and was glad to cast my ballot for Obama as the better of the two choices. I hope, if he manages to win, that he'll have a somewhat easier time in a second term. I'll be in the U.S. on election night, and will be watching the returns. But I'm worried about what may happen, and dismayed that no matter who wins, I won't really feel my deepest desires -- for a world where peace is truly sought, where the natural environment is treasured, where the poor and disenfranchised are cared for, where every human being matters, where money no longer calls the shots -- will be represented. How many of us do?
I was fortunate to live in Vermont for 30 years, and I'm fortunate to live now in Quebec, the most liberal place in Canada, and in North America. My values are close to those of my fellow Quebecois. But I also know that the border is just a line on a map, and that what happens in the U.S. election will affect me, and all of us.
Pauline Marois' Parti Quebecois won a narrow victory in yesterday's election, but not enough to form a majority government. At the victory celebration at Montreal's Metropolis theater, a gunman came in through the back after setting a fire and fired a rifle, killing one man and critically wounding another. The gunman was subdued by police and taken away, during which he shouted in French at the TV cameras: "The anglophones are waking up!"
Those are the facts as we know them right now. Quebec and Canada being what they are - i.e., not America -- few in the media are speculating or laying blame; the police and the media have acted with responsibility, restraint, and professionalism. No one knows exactly what the gunman meant, because we don't yet know who he was. However, it seems most likely that he was an anglophone extremist who didn't like what Pauline Marois stands for and has been saying.
What we can say for certain is that the past six months in the province have been the most tense in many years. As I wrote yesterday, I was upset by Pauline Marois' rhetoric and platform calling for strengthening the language laws and imposing restrictions on religious dress. I'm not upset that she, or other people, have strong feelings about their own culture; that is her right and furthermore, I understand historically why she feels that way. But I am opposed to rhetoric that can be perceived as racist in any form, and particularly to public officials inflaming tensions along any societal divides: cultural, sexual, ethnic, religious. When political leaders, or celebrities, or talk show hosts -- anyone with a public voice -- does this, it runs the risk of inciting people to violence and hate crimes, as well as lesser but very damaging incidents where self-control would normally prevail.
Yesterday a YouTube video went viral on the social networks. It showed a drunken couple on a late-night Montreal street verbally attacking some Asian men for speaking English instead of French in public. Of course, there is no law in Quebec saying that anyone has to speak French in public! But like the video of a London woman berating an immigrant on a bus earlier this year, this couple were out of control, repeatedly demanding of the men if they had been born in Quebec, calling them "fucking British," and screaming at them to speak French.
Today, anyone can turn into a public figure, with an audience. 80,000 people have watched that video so far.
The election concerns all of Quebec, but we also have our own city to consider. The most unique and precious thing about Montreal is not merely its French ambience and European flavor, but its vibrant and peaceful multiculturalism. That is what we all should be trying to recognize and protect.
A society can be full of people who have reasonable, rational, balanced attitudes about difficult issues -- frankly, this election demonstrated that, and in general our daily culture does too. A shooting incident like this is very unusual for Montreal, and shocks us -- it is only the 22nd homicide of the entire year, in a city of over 3 million people, but every senseless human death is a tragedy. It should wake us all up to the fact that there is no room for inflammatory rhetoric in our society. I've lived with so much of this in the United States, and seen where it leads. Surely we can do better here, and demand better from our leaders as well as ourselves.
Political posters in my neighborhood. The man in the photo is our current representative in the National Assembly in Quebec, his name is Amir Khadir. The fact that he could be elected here speaks volumes about why I want to live here - read the link to see why.
Today, a provincial election, and I cannot vote. I'm not pleased about this; it makes me feel helpless. But, as permanent residents but not-yet-citizens, that's the rule. I hope I can vote in the next one.
Many people, myself included, are not entirely pleased with the choices. Yesterday I did an online "how do you stand" survey on the CBC website, which asks for your (completely anonymous) views on the major issues, and then not only shows whcih party you are closest to, but you how you stand on each issue in relation to all of them, and gives you tools for understanding and studying the results. It was the most sophsiticated tool like that I've ever seen; I was impressed and fascinated. The problem is that while my views are closest to the Greens; to Quebec Solidaire, a new party trying to get established; and even to the Parti Quebeçois in some areas, the latter two are separatist, and I don't want that. (I agree with Quebec Solidaire's basic platform; what I'm not sure about is its economic viability. But I remain open to hearing more. Most people agree that Françoise David, Quebec Solidaire's spokesperson along with Amir Khadir, won the recent debate.)
The Liberals, under Jean Charest, have held power for the past nine years. There have been a number of corruption scandals, and I think Charest's recent handling of the student strikes was arrogant, conservative, and wrong-headed. It's time for him to go. But the Liberals are a national party; they want Quebec to stay part of Canada, and on the surface they seem more sympathetic to the anglophone and immigrant minorities. But are they really?
In the end, I am here because I like what Quebec stands for. I like it different drummer, its refusal to go the way of Stephen Harper. I like its pacifism, its socialism, its sense of restorative justice, its stubbornness about putting the welfare of the whole society first and individualism a little bit further down. And I want it to stay that way.
All the polls indicate that a referendum on sovereignty wouldn't pass; it has failed twice already, but the issue doesn't die. The Parti Quebecois seems likely to win, and what distresses me about their rhetoric is that it continues to be informed by the past, and to look inward, from a point of view of insecurity, cultual protectionism, and even paranoia, when Quebec can and should be looking outward, toward the future. Provinicialism serves no one, and it absorbs a huge amount of energy that could be placed elsewhere. French society and language are well protected here, and loved and appreciated even by many - like me - who are not part that culture by birth. It's time for fear of the outside, of the other, to be relegated to the past, and a new attitude of openness and outward-looking to begin to shine. Quebec is unique in North America, not just for its language and its culture, but for its determination to hold to decent and honorable social and democratic values while other so-called democracies are really run by the rich and powerful for their own interests. We can all be proud of that, and champion it strongly.
This is the first election here that I've really cared about, and I thnk that means I really feel this is my home. So even though I won't be casting a vote, I'll wait for the results tonight with interest, and hope that whatever happens, we can raise a new generation of leaders who represent all of Quebec, who are committed to protecting our shared values, and to looking outward, and forward.
David Attenborough's most recent BBC documentary series, The Frozen Planet, is being aired in Britain and around the world, but American viewers won't be able to see the seventh and final episode, "On Thin Ice." Why? Because it shows and discusses the dramatic climate change that has occurred on both poles since 1980. The BBC, in a cowardly and self-serving move, decided to offer the first six episodes as a package, making the final one optional because some TV channels might find it "too controversial." Well, guess what -- the US is one of those.This quote is from the New Statesman:
Seven episodes of the multi-million-pound nature documentary series will be aired in Britain. However, the series has been sold to 30 world TV networks as a package of only six episodes. These networks then have the option of buying the seventh "companion" episode -- which explores the effect man is having on the natural world -- as well as behind the scenes footage.
The six-episode series has been sold to 30 broadcasters, ten of which have declined to use the climate change episode, "On Thin Ice", including the US.
In America, the series is being aired by the Discovery channel, which insists that the final episode has been dropped because of a "scheduling issue".
Everyone on the planet should see this episode. From what I've learned, it's not even that hard-hitting or political; countries and policies are barely mentioned. But the facts, and the visual evidence, are so dramatic they can't be disputed, and that's what's so threatening. Well -- we can continue to pretend that what we can't see won't hurt us, but nature is going to change that in fairly short order.
UPDATE: After Change.org mounted a petition drive, the Discovery Channel has backed down, and U.S. viewers will be able to see the series in its entirety!
Meanwhile, that bastion of the so-called "liberal" media -- NPR -- has aired what's practically a commercial for the domestic use of military drones. I live near the US/Canadian border, and fully expect the drones to be overhead, but the aircraft, advertised as "ideal for urban monitoring," are also being purchased by domestic police departments and may be coming soon to a city near you.
One new type of drone already in use by the U.S. military in Afghanistan — the Gorgan Stare, named after the “mythical Greek creature whose unblinking eyes turned to stone those who beheld them” — is “able to scan an area the size of a small town” and “the most sophisticated robotics use artificial intelligence that [can] seek out and record certain kinds of suspicious activity”; boasted one U.S. General: “Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything.”
I doubt if terrorist suspects make up even one tenth of one percent, but we now know that the 99% are not only paying the bills, but they're going to be subjected to unprecedented surveillance and invasion of privacy, with no public discussion and no recourse.
"If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire:" In The Guardian, George Monbiot ponders the psychology of why the 1% have been allowed to capture so much of the world's wealth.
Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the ruthless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes....
...In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses's scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.
The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for. Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations.
I think that Monbiot's remarks about class distinctions as a prerequisite for reaching top positions may still be more true in Britain than in the U.S., where ambition and hard work actually can propel a person toward the top of their field. But his article quotes the work of several psychologist-economists and rings true, to me, in defining the traits that are rewarded in business, and mirrored in society's adulation and envy.
Until recently, we were mesmerised by the bosses' self-attribution. Their acolytes, in academia, the media, thinktanks and government, created an extensive infrastructure of junk economics and flattery to justify their seizure of other people's wealth. So immersed in this nonsense did we become that we seldom challenged its veracity.
I'd like to see this taken a step further, with a psychological exploration of why we - society - build up cults of celebrity around those with wealth and power, even when it is clear that we have nothing whatsoever to gain.
And from Toronto's Globe and Mail, a thoughtful lament about why there will be no Israeli-Palestinian Spring.
Nor is the unholy alliance that supports Israel the kind of allies we hoped a just and humane Israel would attract. To be adopted by American Christian evangelicals whose ultimate goal is either the conversion or annihilation of all Jews; by far-right European political parties of Muslim-haters who only yesterday demonized Jews; by American Republicans who want to roll back the modern world; by Conservatives in Canada who flagrantly exploit and exaggerate anti-Semitism for their own political purposes; by bogus friends everywhere who insist that criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism; by the violence-prone Jewish Defence League in Canada, who befriended the English Defence League, a violently anti-Muslim group embraced by Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik; by politicians too craven and opportunistic to stand up for the real well-being of Israel, led by the man who used to be Barack Obama. Can such friends really help assure Israel of a secure future?
At our Anglican cathedral here in Montreal, I'm very pleased that just today, the Dean opened our undercroft kitchen for use by the Occupy Montreal food people 3 days per week.
J. and I have also both agreed to serve on a newly-forming social justice committee; we'll have our second meeting this Sunday. It feels better to be working in a group, trying to raise consciousness among the congregation, bearing public witness, and eventually taking real action. I want to help make the church and diocese politically responsible, as they should be, and to be a voice for those who have none.
Over in London at Blaugustine, Natalie has a very good post about her take on what's happening between the Occupy protesters and their "hosts", St. Paul's Cathedral and the Church of England. St. Paul's Dean resigned today; he has been in favor of seeking an injunction to evict the protesters and has decided to step aside in order to allow other leadership to take over. My comment on Natalie's post states briefly what I think about this, but you can probably guess!
For four days, Qaddafi's body has been on public display. In a Muslim society, where burial is supposed to be immediate, this is an ultimate desecration. Here in the west, there is triumphalism, there is endless political analysis leading nowhere, but, au fond, it is the media on a rampage, a pack of dogs circling in for the kill. They show whatever pictures or videos they can acquire; nothing is too grisly, too inexplicable for children's eyes or damaging to their spirits; everything is fair game; no one is spared. Today's New York Times front page not only had videos and photographs of Qaddafi's end, but videos of the executions of Mussolini and Ceausescu.
I didn't watch them. I am sickened by all of this, even though I see little. I am not arguing that Qaddafi or Hussein or their ilk were not crazy, murderous dictators who had committed unspeakable criimes against their own people, or that they did not deserve justice. What sickens me is the atttitude in America, where the public appetite for violence and sensationalism apparently has no limit, while our hubris is coupled with blindness to our own acts, to the blood on our own hands.
I'm reminded of imperial Rome, and the scene of Hector's death in the Iliad, many centuries before that. The Greeks, who gave us the word "barbarian" -- for them it meant "foreigner" -- were the barbarians that day. Achilles threaded sinews through Hector's ankles and dragged his naked corpse thrice around the walls of Troy behind his chariot, while Hector's wife and parents watched. Then Achilles, still mourning the death of his beloved friend Patroclus at the hands of the Trojans, refused to give up Hector's body for burial until King Priam, his aged father, came and begged on his knees for it. Rather than being a hymn of praise to the Greeks, the Iliad was, and remains (at least in my opinion) a poet's commentary on the folly of war, and a bitter insight into human nature.
But oh, the never-ending cruelty of victors, who always seem to feel their triumphalism is justified by the prior acts of those they kill! They make sure that the wheels of malice, war, and retribution remain well-oiled.
My dental surgeon left Romania as a young man shortly after the fall of Ceausescu. His hygienist, who I visited this morning, is Moroccan; the dental assistants are Salvadorian and Iranian, the receptionist French-Canadian. They've all known something about minorities, repression, violence, disappearances. The office runs mostly in French, but there is always a flurry of other languages; it's one of the surgeon's hobbies. I speak to my hygienist in my limited French, and she replies in her limited English. We laugh; at 11:00 I opened my mouth for her, and said, "La leçon commence!"
But today, after we spoke about our recent trips --mine to Iceland and London, hers to New York, which she loved but where her language uncertainty made her afraid to use the subway -- I asked, "Penses-tu q'une paix est possible à la Libye?
She paused, the instrument poised in mid-air, and sat back, her eyes dark above her mask. Then she slowly shook her head. "It's very difficult," she said. "Dans toute la région, l'islamisme..." she gestured with her hands moving upward and raised her eyebrows: "il monte..."
"It's rising," I said.
"Yes," she said. "Et les jeunes ne l'aime pas."
"The young people don't like it."
"C'est ça. That's right. And the military, the dictators, don't like it. So...what do you do?"
This really is the impass facing the whole world. The problems are obvious, but what is the way forward when factions insist on their own ideologies as the answer, and those in power use it for greed and cronyism, rather than cooperating for the common good? Here in the west we may dress up in suits and speak formally rather than brandishing rifles, but how far have we come, really, from these tribes in the desert?