Quick notes for a quickly changing world

Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,

    According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.

And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:

    In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
    “If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”

Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.

Remembering slavery in Virginia

Our country here is coming up to the 150th anniversary of the act of secession by southern states that launched the extremely bloody civil war of 1861-65. I am very interested in the civil war, for a number of reasons. For American Quakers and members of the other U.S. peace churches, the civil war was far and away the most morally challenging situation in which to hold fast to a position of pure nonviolence– not least because over the decades prior to 1861 the Quakers had done so much to publicize the appalling situation of the four million enslaved persons who lived overwhelmingly in the southern states that seceded in 1861, and to advocate for their freeing.
Also, the fact that since 1993 I have lived and voted in Virginia, which had been the capital of the breakaway “Confederacy”, has brought the agony of both the institution of slavery and the civil war itself home to me in numerous ways both large and small. Just 300 yards from our home in Charlottesville is a confederate cemetery where those graves that are marked bear on them the name, state of origin and fighting unit of each of the deceased– along with the simple notation “CSA”…
The sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the civil war is revealing many interesting things about the attitudes that many Americans hold today about their (our) country’s history of slavery. This post on a NYT blog tells us that in New York state, which is generally regarded as having been a pillar of the pro-Union (anti-secession) coalition back in the 1860s

    earlier this year, the State Senate failed even to authorize a sesquicentennial commission, much less appropriate any money to support commemorations, exhibitions, retrospectives or any other events around the state to mark the start of the Civil War 150 years ago.

The writer there, Sam Roberts, notes that back in January 1861, New York City’s mayor, Fernando Wood,

    unabashedly embraced the South initially because its cotton merchants were financed by New York banks and protected from loss by New York insurers, and it transported its harvest in New York ships.

Luckily, a proposal Mayor Wood launched to have New York City secede from both the state capital in Albany and the national capital in Washington never got anywhere…
In Atlanta, Georgia, meanwhile, the “Sons of Confederate Veterans” organization is currently reported to be hard at work planning,

    a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession… The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

These days, apologists for the south deny vehemently that what the southerners were fighting for 150 years ago had anything to do with slavery. It was, they claim, all about “preserving their heritage”, “safeguarding states’ rights”, and so on. Numerous scholars have skewered such claims, noting that in the original declarations of secession, the preservation of slavery was front and center among the concerns of the seceders…
So what was American slavery like for those who lived through and survived it? It was unlike just about all the other forms of slavery that have ever existed in human history because of the insistence of the slaveowners and the “legal” institutions that they built (including, I should note, with the drafting help of none other than John Locke, in the case of South Carolina) that the child of a slave would also be a slave, ad infinitum. In other forms of slavery, including those practiced by some native American nations, in early-modern Europe, and in some Muslim societies, the child of a slave would be recognized as having some form of higher legal standing than that of an enslaved person– and very often would simply be assimilated into the broader society. But in American slavery, the children and grandchildren of slaves were nearly always also considered simply the “property” of the mother’s “owner”. There were almost no routes into assimilation either for individual enslaved persons or for the community of enslaved persons as a whole. The only prospect was that slaves and all their issue would continue to be treated as “property” forever.
And as “property”, no human institutions or ties like marriage or the bonds between family members were recognized to have any legal relevance for slaves: A child could be sold to an owner distant from her mother; a brother separated from his sister; a lover from her beloved (if the latter was a slave.) Most importantly, enslaved women had no protection under any law from being subject to the lust of any white man in the master’s family: Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved paramour, Sally Hemings, was almost certainly the half-sister of his wife, Martha, having been owned by (and very likely spawned by) her father before she was “donated” to Jefferson.
Here in Virginia, in the early 19th century, laws were passed criminalizing the act of teaching an enslaved person to read. And of course, helping slaves to escape to freedom was also a serious crime…
Soon after I moved here in 1993, I discovered an amazing book called Weevils in the Wheat, which is a collection of interviews with survivors of slavery in Virginia that were conducted in the late 1930s by African-American interviewers/writers employed by the Federal Writers’ Project. The collection has been edited and re-edited a number of times– including, as the editors of this 1976 edition admit, it has been subject to editorial censorship and bowdlerization of some of the harsher aspects of what was said. But it is still remarkable.
If you click on “Contents” on that Google books page, and then “Interviews”, you can read many of the interviews– though Google has deliberately skipped some pages to try to preserve something of copyright that is held (perhaps not wholly justifiedly) by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. Navigate yourself to p. 206, for example, where you can read five pages of the material from the interview that ace FWP interviewer Susie R.C. Byrd conducted in April 1937 in Petersburg, Virginia, with Rev. Ishrael Massie (born 1849)…
You can even hear some (very scratchy) early audio recording of some related interviews, if you go to this page in the Library of Congress audio collections. However, most of the people doing those recording were doing so mainly to record and study the “dialect” of the former slaves, rather than to record their stories. I find the written collection a much richer resource… Go read some of it if you have time…

Mourning Jay (and Gene)

This afternoon my beloved friend Jay Worrall died. Jay was a shining, Light-filled elder of our Quaker meeting here in Charlottesville who in an earlier era played a pioneering role in the racial desegregation movement here in town and founded the important, statewide prisoner-aid organization Offender Aid and Restoration.
I am still crying. I happened to be the only non-family member who was present in the hospital room as he passed away. Shortly before he passed, the 15 or so family people in the room, the respiratory therapist, and I all stood in silent worship together with Jay, as he lay on his bed. I had a profound sense of the Divine Spirit/Light bursting out in great pulses from Jay.
When I joined the Charlottesville Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), back in 1997, the meeting (congregation) had several really amazing, inspiring older members. Among them, Chic Moran, who had been a conscientious objector during World War II and had done some really important reconstruction work in Europe right after the war… Elaine Bell, who had worked with her husband Colin for many years for various Quaker service organizations in different places around the world… and Jay Worrall and his luminous wife Carolyn. They all meant so much to me. Chic died three or four years ago. Elaine died about 18 months ago. Now Jay, too, has passed. (Carolyn was at his bedside today, but she is in not in good shape.)
Jay Worrall was, I think, 96 years old. He had served in the U.S. military for many years in the 1940s and 1950s, including doing something in Ethiopia/Eritrea that always meant a lot to him afterwards. Then, fresh out of the military, he and Carolyn brought their five children to Charlottesville, where he got a job heading a pioneering organization called the Monticello Area Community Action Agency (MACAA) that worked to extend social-support services to all in the area, regardless of race… That, at a time of continued racial segregation in Virginia and much of the rest of the American south.
In 1956, Harry F. Byrd, Sr., a member of the U.S. Senate from Virginia, announced a policy of “massive resistance” to the federal court’s 1954 order that all the country’s school systems should end racial segregation. His followers in the Virginia General Assembly then enacted a series of laws forbidding any race-integrated schools from receiving state funds, establishing a board to determine which school each pupil should attend (based on her or his race, when this was in question), and offering tuition grants to pupils attending white-only schools.
The federal government ordered a number of school systems in the state, including the one here in Charlottesville, to desegregate their classrooms. Rather than do that, the state Governor ordered the closing of several key schools, including the high school and the premier elementary school here in Charlottesville.
There are still many older African-Americans here in town whose educations were grossly disrupted by the tensions of those years.
This was the racial cauldron in which Jay Worrall and his longtime African-American friend and collaborator Drewary Brown chose to work, building MACAA up into a powerful force for good in the community.
Jay carried on working on racial equality and racial healing issues throughout his life. He also did a lot of work on criminal justice reform and was a stalwart participant in all antiwar efforts. In the early 2000s, when I was participating in the weekly antiwar vigils here in town, he would quite frequently come by– though his legs were a little shaky and he found it hard to walk. And he’d stand with us for most of the hour, to give his public witness.
He was always keenly interested in the Middle East. As recently as last Sunday he was an active member of a group in the Quaker meeting who were discussing what campaigns can be mounted to address the current crisis in Jerusalem.
Oh, and did I mention that along the way there, Jay Worrall researched and wrote a compendious, beautifully written 630-page history of the Quakers in Virginia, an area where there has been a Quaker presence since almost the dawn of Quakerism in the mid-17th century.
So, Friend Jay Worrall has passed from our midst. Last night he had a fall, and he never recovered. I shall miss him so. My warmest sympathies go to Carolyn, their five children, and their many grandchildren.
… Last night, I was planning to write something to mark the recent passing of another man, someone whom I never knew in person, but who was another amazing force for good in our country. Gene Stoltzfuz was a member of another of the historic “peace churches”, the Mennonite church. He was the founding director of the Christian Peacemaker Teams from 1988 until 2004.
After Gene retired he started writing a blog called Peace Probe. His last post there is this quiet but profound reflection on torture and violence.


I’ve had a wonderful time, these past few days, hanging out at home with Bill the spouse, doing a bunch of work on my (soon to be disclosed) Next Big Project, getting my blogging voice back here on JWN, etc. But it hasn’t been all work…
We’ve hung out with several good friends. I did a couple of sewing projects that really needed doing–altering two pairs of rather tricky tailored trousers that I bought a couple of years ago and that never fit me well until yesterday. I finished crocheting a dress for the Best Grandbaby in the World, and now I’m knitting a pair of socks according to a slightly complex pattern my daughter Leila urged on me… I’ve done a few cooking projects, and some yardwork. Bill and I have been playing our favorite One-Minute Perquackey (word-game) in person, rather than by videophone. I’ve been wrestling with some demonic Ken-Kens. And today I spent a lot of time Quakering. Our monthly Meeting for Worship with a concern for Business was today: It feels good to once again be fully present in and with the Meeting.
All of which makes me aware of how incredibly blessed I am. I love doing just about everything that I do these days! I get real pleasure out of all of it. Well-fitting trousers? Yay!!!! And I made them that way, after doing a bunch of intricate hand-sewing down the center-back of both the main fabric and the lining… Yardwork? Yay!!! I revel in my body’s strength at doing it, and am delighted at the daffodils that can now grow straight and true after I cleared the weight of old, packed ice and snow off them… Working on my new work project?? Yay!!!
… All this also makes me really grateful for the excellent education I received. My parents sent me to two private, all-girls’ schools back in England. We really did receive a good, well-rounded education… including in art, needlework, carpentry (an elective I rushed to take), cookery, music, dance, and sport– as well as in Latin, Greek, French, complex mathematics, the sciences, and all the other usual subjects. So okay, a long time ago I left the art, music, sport, and classical languages behind. But I got basic skills in all those areas, and had the experience of doing some substantial work in them; so now I get to choose which of any of those areas I can go back to, at any point.
I’m afraid the formal curricula in the schools my kids went to here in the US weren’t anywhere near as rich as mine. Even though two of my kids went to the famed “Sidwell Friends School” in Washington DC… But Sidwell, I concluded along the way, was much more of an academic forcing-house than it was a truly Quaker (Friends) educational environment…. My son actually got a far better-rounded curriculum when he went to a non-Quaker boarding school up in Maine, than he ever did at Sidwell. And my daughter Lorna, who went to public (government) schools all along, in DC and here in Charlottesville, had a generally fine school experience.
None of them ever had needlework classes in school, though. What a pity!
… Now, my daughter Leila is a fourth-grade teacher in a New York City public school in Manhattan. From what she says, it seems like a good school. They have “clubs” after the formal school-day ends each day, and each teacher gets to lead the clubs of her or his choice in six-week sessions. So far this year Leila’s led a couple of clubs in knitting, and one in felting. With the knitting ones, she had the kids start out by making their own needles from dowels, and doing a little carding and spinning of sheep’s wool, so they could understand the whole process (which is what Waldorf schools do, I believe.)
So anyway, I really am very blessed. I have three amazing children, a fabulous, supportive spouse, work that I love, a whole range of different right-brainy things I can do when I need to unwind… and the immense privilege and pleasure of being able to make real choices about how I spend my time. (But then, being a Quaker means that when you have a privilege you also have this nagging feeling that you have a big responsibility to use it wisely…. Ah well, that’s okay… Did I tell you I love being a Quaker, too?)
Have a great week, everyone!

Qtube– what a resource!

If you want to learn about the form of Quakerism to which I belong, you should head over to the brand-new “Qtube” website published by Baltimore Yearly Meeting and click on a few of these great video-clips.
A small group of BYM Quakers were busy making these clips during annual sessions last month. Lots of the folks who were there volunteered to go and speak for them. (I kind of volunteered but then got busy with other things.)
I get a special pleasure watching these because I know so many of these people.

First-day thoughts: My latest trip

    One cool thing about Quakers is that, by tradition, we don’t use the Nordic/pagan names of the days of the week that are common in western society, but use a simple counting-off system: First-day is ‘Sunday’, Second-day is ‘Monday’, etc. In practice, among the members of my Quaker meeting in Charlottesville, VA, we quite frequently use the Nordic/pagan names, to be more generally understood; though sometimes, amongst ourselves we use the counted-off names, which were once an integral part of what was known as Quaker ‘plain speech.’
    Going to Meeting for Worship on a First-day often puts me in a reflective/spiritual mood that lasts long after the meeting itself. That happened today; so I thought I’d put these ‘First-day thoughts’ onto the blog. I may do so again, in the future. Anyway, here these ones are. ~HC

The trip turned out to be a big one. Qatar, in early May, was a lot more thought-provoking than I’d expected– thanks in good part to a friend who lives there who took me to the old downtown and talked a lot about what the conditions of life are like there for the country’s numerous Arab-national expatriate residents. The UNESCO conference was also a lot more substantive than I’d expected– and it gave me the great gift there of spending a lot of time with someone I’ve long admired, Allister Sparks.
London was good, too. Mainly, to catch up with some old friends and colleagues; to spend some good time with my best friend from Oxford days, the economist Bridget Rosewell; and to catch up with two of my sisters (though I did see them back in April, too.)
But the most memorable parts of the trip were the two weeks I spent in Turkey and the week I spent in Syria. Both these legs were with Bill the spouse. We had planned that part of the trip as a bit of an indulgence, to mark our 25th wedding anniversary; but it all proved extremely informative, as well as enjoyable.
I hadn’t been to Turkey since 1976, when I drove through the country with my first husband in the Fiat 127 we had bought shortly beforehand from Jihad Khazen for 250 Lebanese pounds (!) That trip was part of the longer drive we undertook from Beirut to the UK that summer.
This time, before Bill and I went I thought quite a bit about Mary Fisher, a young London woman who was one of the “Valiant Sixty” of early Quaker leaders, back in the mid-17th century. Some 18 months ago, Friends Journal published a terrific article about Mary, that focused on the journey she undertook in 1658 to go and share her version of the truth with Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV. I don’t have my collection of FJ’s to hand right now– and the full text is sadly not available online. But what I recall from it is that Mary persuaded a small number of male Quakers to go along with her on the trip– but they all turned back when they received advice from the British consul in Smyrna that there might be “brigands” ahead…
So anyway, she proceeded on her own, and caught up with the Sultan and his court in Adrianople (now Edirne), north and west from Istanbul. And she somehow, without speaking a word of Turkish, talked her way into his exalted presence and got an audience in front of him and his courtiers. He asked her to speak her promised message; and after a short period of silence in the Quaker fashion, she did just that. It was doubtless a classically Christian testimony, as proclaimed by all those foundational Quakers in the 17th century.
The Sultan apparently listened to it with due respect, and thanked her for it. He then courteously asked if he could give her an armed guard to ensure she could return to Smyrna in peace; but she declined the offer, returning quite peaceably enough on her own… Sometime later she was one of the first of the English Quakers who, suffering from repression at home, migrated to north America to find refuge there. She was persecuted by the Puritans there, too; but she ended her days many years later in, I believe, South Carolina…
In the current era, Turkey has been ruled since 2002 by the AKP, a party that is avowedly Islamist but is also committed to pluralism and democracy. It has been ruled very well indeed by them. In 2007, the party was re-elected, with a stronger mandate than before. I was really interested to go there, see some of the country, and meet with Turkish friends and colleagues, though sadly our attempts to meet with a few of the officials who’ve been working on their very innovative Middle East policy did not work out.

Continue reading “First-day thoughts: My latest trip”

A Gandhian talisman for Barack Obama

President-elect Obama faces many daunting challenges. Without a doubt the most daunting will be the still-escalating unraveling of the western-dominated financial system.
By the way, yesterday I taped a segment for Press TV’s ‘American Dream’ program. It will air tonight at 7 p.m. EST. At the top of the discussion, we three panelists were asked what the biggest challenge will be for the new president once he’s inaugurated. I said, without a doubt the economy, since everything that’s happening in that realm is unprecedented and fraught with uncertainty as well as risk, whereas the previously existing challenges in the area of foreign policy look, by contrast, much better understood and more handleable.
This morning, I walked in DC past the great, slightly over-life-size statue of Mahatma Gandhi that stands outside the Indian Embassy, near Dupont Circle. In addition to his amazing role “imagining” then organizing tirelessly to bring about the independence of India, Gandhi has also always been an inspiration to liberation activists and social/community organizers around the world.
Including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is so often cited as a major precursor and path-clearer for Barack Obama.
So I hope that as he makes his plans to deal with all the challenges he will face once he’s in office, President-elect Obama will take to heart the following words, that are inscribed at the foot of Gandhi’s statue:

    “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
    Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

The Gandhian Institute in Nagpur, India, describes these words on its website as “One of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought.”
I would just add that, as far as I understand it, the Hindu concept of “swaraj” is not just a sort of anything-goes type of permissive freedom, but really is synonymous with the idea that everyone, even those who are most marginalized or excluded from social, economic, and political power, should in conjunction with her/his fellows start to gain real control over her/his own destiny. So it has to do with self-control and self-empowerment as much as gaining freedom from the constraints imposed by others.
It strikes me that “swaraj” (an Indo-European way of saying “soi-raj”, self-rule) is very close to what Barack Obama has worked for throughout his entire life, from his days as a community organizer until today. Also, he might well have a copy of “Gandhi’s Talisman” framed and hung over his desk in the Oval Office.
Wouldn’t it be great if, in one of his early acts as president, he could come down and lay a wreath at Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC??
However, I have to say that, until now, I don’t see much evidence that, in planning his responses to the financial crisis, Obama is taking into sufficient consideration the effects his actions and decisions will have on the poorest and weakest people in society. Of the “experts” he surrounded himself with during yesterday’s economics-focused press conference (the full roster is given here), I could identify only Robert Reich as someone who has shown he cares deeply about, and understands the needs of, the poorest and weakest in society. The others all seemed to me to be big bankers and people who understand their claimed “needs”, much more than people who understand that the word “economy” is in the end derived from the concept of “oikos”, that is, the maintaining of a steady and sustainable home for all of our country’s families.

Thinking of My Son the Lieutenant

(This is Scott writing…. and reflecting)
It’s been a month since I last saw my son Keith, at a dinner where we said our farewells. I miss him; I am concerned for him. It’s taken me too long to write about this.
My angst comes in knowing he leaves for Iraq soon. As I’ve noted here before, my son Keith is an officer in the Virginia National Guard. His engineering unit is now in final preparations in chilly Wisconsin. He will be leaving soon and directly for Iraq, part of a region I’ve dedicated my own career to studying.
No, I don’t want him to go, not under these circumstances. I’m not like Governor Sarah Palin, who last June proclaimed from a church pulpit how her son going to Iraq was somehow “a task from God.” I think too highly of Providence to be so presumptuous. My prayers for Keith are more modest, and, for the moment, private.
The day after 9/11, Keith volunteered to serve his University’s rescue squad. He joined ROTC and earned a scholarship. Not a path I would have chosen. My late father, once a West Pointer, would smile. From all accounts, Keith is today a good officer; he feels honored to be doing his duty.
We see the Iraq war rather differently. Yet our recent conversations and our last dinner were not to be about the cause, but about… Keith and his family. I was speechless; still am.
Helena at the time helpfully reassured me that “for Quakers, being speechless is our most common and usually deepest form of spiritual connection.” I like that. Just being with Keith, his wife, and my grand-daughter was precious. (Jessica is the one who so kindly delayed her birth until my birthday – 9/11 – last year. She’s an angel, just now learning to walk.).
Yes, I did manage to talk a bit, listened hopefully a lot more.
My son is an engineer in training, with a focus on bridge building. (for VDOT) If only he could be doing that for Iraq! I gather his unit will be engaged in “horizontal construction.” (roads & such) I wonder just why it is that Iraqis could not perform such tasks. It seems “trust” remains in short supply.
At a family briefing day in September, I was struck that most of the speakers inserted quick lines to the soldiers about “how much we appreciate your service” — without quite mentioning what it was they were to be doing. We were mercifully spared any of the Bushisms about a “war on terror” and undefined hoo-ahs about “victory.”
We were there vaguely as “a band of families,” even as we are dispersed up and down the east coast. Most Guard member families are isolated; I doubt my son’s neighbors in Augusta County even know he’s been deployed.
Like Vice President elect Joe Biden, when speaking about his son, I wanted – and tried – to tell Keith I am proud of him, that I admire his courage, that I can celebrate his maturity, his achievements in his own right, that I know he will make good decisions, that he is a good leader
Maybe I didn’t get that all out quite right; I had lump-in-throat disorder.
When Keith was told that his former middle school was asking about what they could do for him, what things they could send, Keith at first was a bit defensive. As his unit’s executive officer, he takes pride in making sure his troops are well supplied. (Think Radar — as a Lieutenant!)
But then he swallowed hard and asked quite earnestly that any care packages be sent to his daughter — Jessica — that she gets extra love and attention while Daddy is away….
In that sentiment, I could not be prouder of my son. I salute you Keith.

Realism, war, and pacifism

Is pacifism the new Realism? Or is Realism the new pacifism? I’ve been toying with both arguments for a while now, including back in June when I made the first of them in connection with the panel discussion I did at USIP on ‘Foreign Policy and the next US administration.’ That was linked to my growing, evidence-based conviction that foreign wars have been become growingly unwinnable.
Okay, so then came the Russian-Georgian War. Russia to a great extent (though not wholly) “won” that war. So if we judge that Georgia is “foreign” for Russia–as by and large I think we must– then they had waged a foreign war and won it.
(Some Russians might perhaps argue that Georgia is not actually foreign for them, and/or that they engaged in the war to save the lives of the Russian citizens– both Ossetians and Russian peacekeeping troops– who were getting badly attacked in Ossetia. Neither is a trivial argument, but on balance I don’t think either of them holds up sufficiently.)
What is much more the case, it seems to me, is that long-distance foreign wars have become very nearly or wholly unwinnable. I argued one part of this when I blogged about ‘The Return of Geography’, a couple of weeks ago.
I would like to note now, though, that some of the most serious and cautious thinking about the Georgia-Russia war– as, earlier about the US invasion of Iraq– has come from pillars of the Realist and “Old” (paleo-)conservative movements in the United States. That, while Obama and many other Democrats have been bending very strongly toward a McCain-like level of pro-Georgian partisanship and anti-Russian outrage over the whole Georgian issue– and while Obama and many other Democrats have been worryingly belligerent in arguing for escalations of US force deployment and use in Afghanistan and also against Pakistan..
In this recent article (PDF, and registration required) in The American Conservative the paleocon former CIA officer Philip Giraldi wrote candidly that,

    The fighting between Georgia and Russia is yet another foreign-policy disaster in which Washington might have encouraged a war where there was no conceivable American interest. It is also, by all accounts, the latest intelligence failure…

(He also wrote that when the Russians invaded, the 130 US military advisers– serving soldiers and DOD-financed contractors– who were in Georgia immediately regrouped to Tbilisi, while the many US-paid Israeli mercenaries working as ‘trainers’ there were evacuated back to their country so rapidly “that they abandoned their classified training manuals.”)
Giraldi’s piece is well worth reading. We should remember, too, the excellent and very constructive role that he and other paleocons have played for some years now in running the Antiwar website and making other contributions to the battle of ideas against neocon militarism.
In that same issue of The American Conservative Pat Buchanan’s take-down (PDF, registration also required) of McCain’s lead foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann is also worth reading. Scheunemann is the same man who, as a well-paid lobbyist for Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili, has had as one of his primary missions the winning of US support for Saakashvili’s reckless war venture into South Ossetia.
Buchanan doesn’t mince his words when he writes about Scheunemann:

    He is a dual loyalist, a foreign agent whose assignment is to get America committed to spilling the blood of her sons for client regimes who have made this moral mercenary a rich man…
    Scheunemann came close to succeeding. Had he done so, U.S. soldiers and Marines from Idaho would be killing Russians in the Caucasus and dying to protect Scheunemann’s client…
    Now Scheunemann is the neocon agent in place in McCain’s camp. The neocons got their war with Iraq. They are pushing for a war on Iran. And they are now baiting the Russian Bear. Why would McCain seek foreign-policy counsel from the same discredited crowd that has all but destroyed the presidency of George W. Bush?

It is possible to argue that Buchanan and his colleagues at The American Conservative are more paleocon than they are ‘Realist’… and that perhaps their flavor of paleoconservatism comes with more than a dash of isolationism. (Though compared with the bellicose zeal of the neocons and their friends among the liberal hawks, isolationism looks like a distinctly preferable alternative these days.)
So the main place where Washington’s Realists hang out is at, guess where, the Nixon Center. And there, too, there has been some good, solid thinking going on about the Georgia crisis. For example, in this (Word doc) testimony that Center director Paul Saunders delivered to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe September 10, he shared the following lessons:

    First, the Bush Administration has profoundly over-personalized U.S. relations with Georgia…
    Second, U.S. officials must be much more careful when and how they put American credibility on the line…
    Thirdly, it is now clear that Russia’s commitment to and interests in Georgia and other former Soviet Republics along its southern frontier exceed our own… [Return of Geography, anyone?]
    Fourth, we should learn a powerful lesson about “precedents” and “vetoes”. American officials and others argued vociferously that NATO military action against Serbia without approval of the United Nations Security Council, and American and European recognition of Kosovo’s independence without Serbia’s consent, did not establish a precedent because Kosovo was a unique case. The problem with this is that we are not in charge of what others interpret as a precedent. We decide on our national interests, the best policies to advance them, and the best arguments to explain them. We don’t get to decide how others see what we do or how they decide to respond…
    Finally, we should remember what NATO did right during previous rounds of enlargement: insist that prospective new members resolve internal problems with their ethnic minorities…

Well, there’s a lot more good sense in Saunder’s testimony, as well. And I see that The National Interest, which is the Nixon Center’s flagship publication, has a lot of other good analysis of the Georgia crisis, too.
So what I want to note here, firstly, is that all this good sense from the Realists is pushing clearly toward a much less belligerent and more diplomacy-focused policy toward Russia than either McCain or Obama is currently espousing. Secondly, I’d note that many of these same people were also against the invasion of Iraq, back in the day.
Historically, in this country, the ‘Realists’ have been people who took a big-picture look at the balance of power in world politics and argued for robust– often very belligerent– action by the US government, using all its many levers of power, in order to maximize a version of “the US national interest” that was chauvinistic and was generally dominated by the interests of US corporations, not necessarily the US citizenry.
Looking at the “global balance of power” in the way they did most often meant that they respected the traditional, post-Westphalian view of national sovereignty, which is more or less that whatever a government does inside its own country is its own business and not that of anyone else.
The neocons and their allies among the liberal hawks broke clean away from that view, arguing that the US could and should use all the elements of its national power (including, if necessary, military power) to end dictatorships and to “bring” human rights to populations formerly denied them.
How “rights” could ever meaningfully be “brought” to long-oppressed populations by outsiders, and on the tips of cruise missiles, was a conundrum they never satisfactorily solved.
Personally, having lived for six years in a situation of active war, in Lebanon, I have quite a bit more sympathy with the Westphalian model than most of my colleagues in the western rights movement. I have seen at first hand the degree to which warfare is itself a massive motor for the abuse of the rights of all persons living in its path. The idea that westerners might fairly easily go to war in an effort to improve the rights situation of others is one that could only be dreamed up in salons thousands of miles distant from any actual war zone.
Also, though it is true that, under the Westphalian model, there are high “walls” of sovereignty around each country that protect the ability of dictators to carry on oppressing the subjects trapped behind them, throughout history those walls of sovereignty have also– much more significantly– protected the ability of settled and more liberal-minded populations to progress toward greater democracy, and respect of human rights, without the various despots who were their neighbors having any recognized “right” to intervene to abort their liberal project. Too many of the neocons and liberal hawks have forgotten that aspect of Westphalia’s history.
So personally, I see some things of value in the position of the Realists– historically, and even more so today, when the raw pragmatism and respect for empirical ground truth that underlie their approach has brought them to a situation of extreme caution in their attitude toward war.
So maybe pacifism is becoming the new Realism, as well as the other way around?
I think what my form of Quaker pacifism adds to the traditional Realist way of looking at things, though, is that it adds a commitment to caring about and according equal respect to every one of the world’s people, not just those who happen to be my compatriots, and a commitment to undertaking the kinds of nonviolent mass actions and other nonviolent initiatives that by themselves, without the use of arms, can actually transform political realities towards a greater respect for everyone’s rights.
I like to think that these are very pragmatic, or one could even say ‘Realist’, ways to look at the world, too…

Iraq: Another Quaker in the ‘Red Zone’

The best-known U.S. Quaker to have undertaken a peace-witnessing mission inside post-invasion Iraq was Tom Fox, the widely loved member of Christian Peacemaker Teams who was killed there in early 2006. From my own personal experience, I know there are many Quakers, all around the world, who are working in different ways to help restore the rights of the Iraqi people, to provide humanitarian assistance to them, and/or to end the US occupation of their country.
Now, I can reveal to you that Bob Fonow, whose ‘End of Assignment report’ from his work as the US Embassy’s chief telecoms adviser I shared with you here recently, is also a Quaker. What’s more, shortly after Bob finished his 18-month term working with the Embassy inside the heavily fortified ‘Green Zone’, he returned to Iraq as a private individual, with the aim of trying to mediate an apparently complex set of disputes among shareholders of the country’s largest mobile phone company.
He went on that mission in April. And that time, he was working in what many people call the ‘Red Zone’– that is, the area outside the Green Zone.
Tom Fox and his CPT colleagues made a point of working in the Red Zone.
Bob is a member of the Herndon, Virginia ‘Meeting’ –that is, congregation– of the Religious Society Friends. (The RSF is the official name of the church, though we’ve been called ‘Quakers’ since almost the beginning of the RSF’s emergence as a pacifist Protestant church, back in 17th century England.) He first got in touch with me back in, I think, December, to challenge the assertion I’d made that I thought I was the only Quaker who’s also a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Not so, he said, since he is one, too.
And unlike a number of other Quakers– oh, for some reason Richard Nixon comes to mind– who have strayed pretty far from their connection with their home meeting, Bob has stayed in good touch with, and well grounded by, his meeting.
Bob has now been kind enough to say I can publish here a couple of the short reports that he sent back from the ‘Red Zone’ to members of his home meeting during and right after his late-April stay in the Red Zone. His descriptions of life there, and of the attitudes of the people he met and worked with, are certainly valuable for all of us to read and to reflect on. When he was there was when the US military was trying– using massive amounts of violence and force– to fight its way deep into Sadr City…
In his second letter to the Herndon friends, Bob wrote:

    At an Iraqi government meeting I was asked to attend on Tuesday I heard that several hundred thousand people in Sadr City have no clean water. They are drinking sewage, or water from filthy canals. The city is rat infested from garbage piling up. Electricity is limited to a couple hours a day. Medical services are holding up but US and Iraqi Army units are stopping ambulances. So far in the two weeks since Coalition forces started their attacks 925 Sadr City people have been killed and 2695 wounded. Earlier in the day I was told by one official that US Army snipers are playing games with killing. For a couple hours they are shooting men in the testicles, then a couple hours to the foreheads, and then a couple hours aiming at the heart. I hope this isn’t true, but I hope someone investigates.
    Several Mahdi Army officers visited my host in Baghdad on Tuesday to tell him that they can’t take much more. They are being attacked after calling a truce. They will have to declare all out war in a few days if the attacks don’t stop.
    … How is any more violence going to lead to peace, unless you kill every potential militant in Sadr City – which means hundreds of thousands of men and women? I haven’t yet met any Iraqis or Americans prepared to suggest that alternative. So there has to be a political and diplomatic solution.
    It’s time to stand down the military attack on Sadr City. It’s a useless operation with no strategic utility. There must be a better way.

He concluded like this:

    I’d like to go back to Baghdad, and I don’t want to go back. I want to help but I don’t want to get killed. I don’t know how to reconcile these competing feelings or how to determine the right level of my commitment to Iraq and the people I have learned to understand and like. Time for a clearance committee.

A clearness committee is a mechanism we Quakers use when we face difficult decisions or dilemmas. I hope that in the four months since he wrote about his conflicted feelings in that intimate way, Bob found the clearness he needed.
And now, the whole US citizenry and our government need to look much more seriously for the clearness we all need, at the broader level, regarding Iraq. As Bob wrote, “there has to be a political and diplomatic solution.” It so happens that– as longtime JWN readers are doubtless aware– I have done quite a lot of thinking about what that solution might look like, stretching back more than three years now.
… But now, I am just very happy to let you read the full text of Bob’s two reports from the Red Zone. To read them, just keep on reading or click on the link below. Thanks, Bob– and here’s praying for your safety in your continuing world travels.

Continue reading “Iraq: Another Quaker in the ‘Red Zone’”