Or Is It Just About Al Jazeera?

If you’ve ever watched Al Jazeera in English, then you were probably surprised by how progressive and liberal the programming was, especially if you had been led to believe by U.S. media propaganda that they were pushing a pro-Islamist or anti-West agenda. At least in English, Al Jazeera often focuses on human rights, including women’s rights, especially in the Middle East and is often very critical of Arab governments. A few years ago, friends of mine who work in the media sector in Spain told me that Al Jazeera had a fantastic reputation among journalists for giving reporters editorial freedom.

With regards to what or how Al Jazeera reports in Arabic, I can’t say. I don’t speak Arabic, except for maybe two year old level Moroccan dialect.

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But if you know anything about the Arab World and media, then you know that Arabs love watching TV and they get their favorite programs from their satellite dishes. Although each country speaks its own dialect – some very distinct – they can all follow Egyptian, Lebanese/Syrian, and Gulf TV shows. In fact, most of them watch Egyptian TV shows instead of not their local programming. In a country like Morocco, for example, if a person wants European content, they will watch French television, but if they want content in Arabic, they’ll watch Egyptian TV.

As we all know, there is not a single democracy in the Arab World, and all of the programming is heavily censored by the state, essentially making all television de facto state media. Then comes Al Jazeera:

  • Arabic content
  • easily and universally accessible by satellite
  • immune from local control and censorship (except with regard to Qatar); and
  • progressive stories and uninhibited political analysis.

During the second Iraq War, this drove the Bush administration nuts. The CIA went so far as to render an Al Jazeera journalist to Guantanamo, fully knowing he had no ties to terrorism. Add that to the fact that Al Jazeera have the same constraints as the U.S. media does with respect to the narrative about Israel and Palestine, and the uncontrollable Al Jazeera becomes a threat to the status quo.

During the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera drove many Arab regimes crazy. As Egypt has long been the center of popular Arabic culture, people throughout the region were glued to their televisions witnessing the popular and secular protests to oust the 30 year old Mubarak clepto-military regime. Guess which channel was giving them twenty-four coverage and putting the protesters in a positive light? Similar, though smaller scale, protests started springing up in almost every country in the region from Morocco to Iran, and yet the local regimes couldn’t shut off Al Jazeera. But several countries immediately forced the local Al Jazeera offices to close down, including those in Morocco and Egypt.

All of this brings me to the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, based on the claim that Qatar gives material support to Iran and terrorist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood. I am definitely no expert, so I can’t say whether these allegations are true, or whether Qatar is any more permissive with terrorists than say the Saudis. What I do know is that Egypt was quick to label Al Jazeera’s reporting on the Arab Spring as pro-Muslim Brotherhood, even though the Muslim Brotherhood was not the foremost player in the Egyptian Arab Spring. But this has long been the tactic in the Middle East. If you don’t push the totalitarian government’s official line, then you are a terrorist supporter.

So if you are Saudi Arabia you may both finance and support extremist, jihadist and non-progressive ideologies, but at the same time you are at odds with any political movement or player– be it ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran or even ones that advocate for something as basic as greater civil participation – that may put your absolute control over society into question.

But now Saudi Arabia and it coalition of despots have given Qatar an ultimatum with a list of 13 demands, one of which is to immediately shut down Al Jazeera. If Al Jazeera is closed, then essentially the only media left in the Middle East will be state-owned media. Again, I am no expert on the region, but I have my suspicions about why Qatar is under attack. The only thing more threatening for a totalitarian regime than democracy is a free press.

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Warmbeir’s Murder is Vile, but Spare Me the Outrage

UPDATE BELOW

Otto Warmbier’s death, like the death of any young person is tragic. The fact that it was done at the hands of the North Korean regime makes is particularly vile. The thought that this could ever happen to my own son is heart-wrenching.

But Americans need to be careful in their outrage. Just yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court – the supreme guardian of our fundamental rights – ruled that those abused by the U.S. government while in custody have absolutely no right to recourse against their abusers. In other words, the hundreds of people illegally rendered, tortured, held captive without trial and even those killed in the process have no right to sue the government for their abuse.

Just take a look at the CIA Torture Report. People like:

  • Khalid El-Massri, a German citizen who was rendered in Macedonia (by mistake), held incommunicado and abused, taken to a secret prison in Afghanistan where he was tortured, and then when the CIA realized they had the wrong guy, he was left in the middle of the night on a street in Albania. Macedonia was help responsible, but the U.S. courts have refused to hear his case.
  • Abu Zubaydah who was waterboarded at least 83 times in one month, and once claimed to be one of the worst of the worst, is now considered wrongly accused, regardless of have now spend a decade and half in a cage without trial or charges. He is now mentally unfit for trial. The European Court of Human Rights ruled against Poland – who was complicit in the rendering – and awarded damages.
  • Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, was stopped by the U.S. authorities due to transit through JFK where he was then rendered to Syria and tortured by the Syrian government and the behest of the U.S. government. The U.S. courts refused to hear his case, but the Canadian courts would and ruled in his favor.
  • Omar Khadr, Guantanamo’s youngest detainee. He was picked up in Afghanistan at age 15, tortured and sent to Guantanamo for allegedly throwing a grenade at U.S. soldiers (though it was likely a rock). He was held without trial or charges for 10 years. He was a Canadian citizen.
  • Gul Rahman was killed by the CIA while held in the secret prison in Afghanistan called the “Salt Pit”. He froze to death after the CIA order his guards to leave him chained to the concrete floor naked overnight.

Stories like these seem endless, with hundreds of people having been rendered or locked up in cages, and all end in the same way: a young man (even teenager) was wrongly accused, rendered, tortured, and then refused his day in court.

So stop for a minute and think about that. Were Warmbier killed by the U.S. instead of by North Korea under exactly the same circumstances, Warmbier’s family would be in the same predicament they are today: they have no right to sue their son’s murders. Ironically, the U.S. courts are more likely to entertain a case of abuse by the North Koreans than to hear a case against their own government.

Now, I am perfectly aware of the fact that the U.S. is not North Korea. I would never want to live in North Korea, let alone visit there. The U.S. is my country, and although I no longer live in America, it is my first destination of choice for travel.

But as an American how should I react? My heart goes out to this boy’s family, but it’s hard to argue with a straight face that Americans should be outraged, especially those who defend and defended torture – including our current president who campaigned on bringing torture back and our former Vice President Cheney who continues to defend torture today – and especially when our Supreme Court hot off the press rules against abuse victims’ rights to access our courts for redress. Or is it so hard for Americans to believe that a Muslim could be as innocent or unworthy of torture as an American college student?

UPDATED JUNE 22, 2017:

There is an article in yesterday’s New York Times about the two American psychologists who designed and oversaw the U.S. torture program. The pieces gives further insights in the program based on their own testimony. It is well worth the read and describes the torture and everlasting trauma of many of the program’s victims (some of whom were wrongly associated with terrorists), including this bit on Abu Zubaydah:

Drs. Mitchell and Jessen were sent to the jail to carry out the techniques, including waterboarding. Water was poured over a cloth covering Abu Zubaydah’s face to simulate drowning. He underwent the procedure 83 times over a period of days; at one point he was completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising from his mouth, according to the Senate report. A newly declassified August 2002 cable from the prison to headquarters noted: “At the onset of involuntary stomach and leg spasms, subject was again elevated to clear his airway, which was followed by hysterical pleas. Subject was distressed to the level that he was unable to effectively communicate or adequately engage the team.”

Imagine the outrage we would have if this was the treatment that Mr. Warmbeir had been subject to by the North Koreans.

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Unhinged and Unraveling: This Doesn’t End Well for Anyone

There is no hiding from what we already knew. Prior to entering politics, Trump was a well-documented fraud and con, a lech, a serial womanizer, classless and a blowhard. This is all well preserved in the public record.

What we are now witnessing of Trump – that sometimes successful but often times ruinous real estate and gaudiness salesman turned TV reality star, turned pusher of conspiracy theories, turned president — should also come as no surprise. As president, Trump is utterly incompetent and displays a total disregard and lack of interest in the office of the presidency, the institutions of democracy, the basics of foreign affairs and diplomacy, or American tradition. Trump has no respect for anything related to our country, arguably for anything other than himself.

We have also witnessed Trump’s questionable mental health. John Garnter makes the compelling case that Trump suffers real psychosis, which of course should also be no surprise to anyone:

His narcissism is evident in his “grandiose sense of self-importance … without commensurate achievements.” From viewing cable news, he knows “more about ISIS than the generals” and believes that among all human beings on the planet, “I alone can fix it.” His “repeated lying,” “disregard for and violation of the rights of others” (Trump University fraud and multiple sexual assault allegations) and “lack of remorse” meet the clinical criteria for anti-social personality. His bizarre conspiracy theories, false sense of victimization, and demonization of the press, minorities and anyone who opposes him are textbook paranoia.

Furthermore, we are increasingly witnessing more erratic behavior from the unprovoked insults hurled indiscriminately at our closest allies (as in the case of London’s mayor) to his prosecution complex and self-victimization at the hands of the fake news press. Trump who redefined nepotism in US politics is now facing his son-law’s likely political demise in shame, the coming testimony of former FBI director Comey, non-stop leaks from professional bureaucrats as well as his own staffers, open war within and amongst his administration and the executive branch, the inability to find anyone willing to fill the massive vacancies in his administration from prosecutors, diplomats and even the FBI director position (though today it looks like he will nominate a lawyer who specializes in governmental investigations). This is all combined with his increasing personal isolation — all alone in the White House consuming lots of cable news without friends or family. And the question is: is President Trump beginning to unravel? He is obviously unhinged, but he now also appears to be unraveling, on the verge of breakdown.

One would think the GOP is better off cutting its losses now and putting Pence in charge. They might get slaughtered in the midterms but they could potentially recover by 2020.  Meanwhile, the Democrats are banking on an easy win -basically that Trump will either self-destruct or the Russian scandal will somehow take him down. The former is probably more likely than the latter.

But the Democrats’ quick fix also highlights their denial. They can’t see that they still lose as long as they have no value proposition for voters other than Trump is undoubtedly unacceptable. Americans already knew Trump was disgusting when they elected him. And even if Democrats could take the Trump presidency down, they still have no compelling message for voters at the local level.

So here we are at a critical moment in American history. Democrats think they are winning. Republicans think they have nothing to gain. We have an unhinged president who is unraveling in a very public, arguably irreparable way. Both Democrats and Republicans are taking the wrong approach. If anyone in either party was patriotic, they’d cut a deal that allows the Republicans to get rid of Trump and still save face. I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This doesn’t end well. For anyone.

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No, It’s Not Comparable, but …

I would much rather be a Catholic woman than a woman living in Saudi Arabia any day. Women in Saudi Arabia suffer all sorts of daily humiliations, indignities and inequalities. They are prohibited from driving, their mobility is limited when not accompanied by a male chaperone, and they are subject to strict dress requirements. Furthermore, women and men are segregated in the workplace.

Lots of praise was given to Melania and Ivanka for not covering their heads in Saudi Arabia (contrasting with Trump’s own criticism of Michelle Obama for doing the same), yet not much was made of these women covering their heads when visiting the Pope at the Vatican (other than that it was mere protocol).  And there was of course no mention whatsoever about the other similarities between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia, mainly the conspicuous absence of women in official state business and the total prohibition of women in government. Without any women around, it almost looked like the Republican leadership debating women’s health.

So of course, you cannot compare the two, but still …

 * * *

This week we saw in Manchester another disgusting, gut-wrenching, and inexcusable attack on innocent lives. That someone is capable of willfully taking the lives of these young people is mind blowing. Communities around the world are and should be rightfully calling these murders an inexplicable, unjustifiable evil.

Meanwhile we have just learned that a U.S. airstrike killed 100 civilians in Iraq on March 17th.  Also “US-led air strikes on Syria killed a total of 225 civilians over the past month” including 44 children and 36 women, making it the deadliest month for civilians at the hand of American leadership since we entered the country in 2014. Those 100 people who were one moment alive in Iraq and those 225 people who were one moment alive in Syria but are all now dead today, were human beings just like those people in Manchester, Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere. They were just different people.

So of course, you cannot compare the two, but still …

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Are We the Rapists?

Just a few months ago our worst fears were confirmed: maybe Trump was right, immigrants crossing the Mexican border are a band of rapists after all. In my own backyard, in a Montgomery Country Maryland public school no less.

So goes the narrative that Mexicans, Muslims and other men of color are serial rapists and a danger to our more advanced Western Christian societies and enlightened sensibilities. In fact, during most of America’s history, so devastating was the threat of a black man entering into physical contact with a white woman, that the mere allegation that a woman had been raped (or even looked at) by a black man, sparked mass hysteria amongst white folk, leading to populist lynch mobs who would execute the first black man or child they found in their paths.

So goes the narrative that German women are suffering mass rape at the hands of refugee mobs, female journalists are being sexual assaulted by Egyptians, and of course that Mexicans are crossing the border to rape American girls.

But remember your incensed social media feed and links to conservative news sites about those two illegal immigrant teenagers who had raped wholesome white girls in a Rockville, Maryland high school? In their high school bathroom no less! Boys from Central America with very dark skin! Remember how liberal political correctness was at fault? Guess what? The prosecution will drop its case. It looks like video footage and text message evidence make proving rape very difficult.

Call me a liberal, but just because a girl sends naked pictures of herself to a boy, says she’ll meet to have sex, and then enters a bathroom with him for that purpose, doesn’t mean she loses the right to say “no” at the last minute. There still could have been rape. Nevertheless, when it is a white boy (especially a football player) being accused and when those accusations are later proven false, the right wingers are in an uproar over an epidemic of false rape accusations. Now you get why VP Pence won’t be alone with a woman not his wife. Wouldn’t want to fall into the trap of a conniving feminist.  So why didn’t we side with the boys on this one, rather than doing a Jim Crow era lynching campaign? Why weren’t we siding with those refugees accused of rape in Germany? And you guessed it: those accusations also turned out to be trumped (excuse the pun).

So the narrative goes, everyone other than us has a rape culture. But we do have a problem. Forget about journalists in Egypt. Our female journalists have been suffering sexual harassment at Fox News for years, by both its CEO and its top media star. America’s favorite TV father, Bill Cosby, turns out to be a serial rapist. And twenty years after one president was receiving fellatio in the Oval Office by an intern half his age, the American people nevertheless elect an old man who bragged about moving on a married bitch and being entitled to assault women at will, well, at least if he has a Tic Tac on hand.

Far worse, one in five of your daughters report having been sexually assaulted on college campuses. Think about that, dads. You’ll pay between $20-60k/per year to have a 20% chance your beautiful little daughter will be sexually assaulted at one of your elite clubs. And those aren’t Muslim or Mexican boys with their hands on your precious girls. They are not poor, uneducated street roughs. They are the sons of those who can afford the world’s most expensive colleges and universities. They are being groomed to be the nation’s future elite.

So forget about Mexican rapists. Think about the Baylor University football team being accused of 52 rapes, and why Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, and rich kids around the country are told that if you’re rich and entitled enough, you can move on any bitch you want. Why else would you want to go to college or be on the team? And when those hysterically clever Baylor frat boys have a dress-like-a-Mexican-day-laborer theme party, it makes a lot of sense why we mistakenly thought it was Mexicans raping our daughters. Ooops, my bad. But no need for a full retraction.

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Max Roach, Death, Jazz and Malcolm X

After giving up podcasts on my commute and spending an entire month listening to nothing other than Beyoncé’s Lemonade (that’s for another post), I decided to go back to my jazz listening days.

One day on shuffle, my iPod hit two Max Roach pieces back-to-back, the first one with trumpeter Clifford Brown and the second with trumpeter Booker Little. Both Brown and Little were perfect, innovative fits for Roach’s style, yet died tragically young. In fact, Roach — one of the great (if not greatest) Jazz drummers and pioneers– had close musical relationships with many promising Jazz musicians whose lives were tragically lost to substance abuse, car accidents, or disease. From the top of my head I can think of these Roach sidemen and leaders he played with who died young:

  • Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
  • Clifford Brown (1930-1956)
  • Rich Powell (1931-1956)
  • Oscar Pettiford (1922-1960)
  • Booker Little (1938-1961)
  • Douglas Watkins (1934-1962)
  • Herbie Nichols (1919-1963)
  • Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
  • Bud Powell (1924-1966)
  • Paul Chambers (1935-1969)
  • Wynton Kelly (1931-1971)
  • Kenny Dorham (1924-1972)
  • Charles Mingus (1922-1979)

Apparently, the sudden deaths of Clifford Brown and Rich Powell in a car accident in 1956 sent Brown in a deep depression that lasted for years. Back in the late 50s and 60s, I doubt anyone talked about depression, let alone PTSD or Survivor’s Guilt. So one can only imagine how Roach must have handled so many of his bandmates dying so young in such a short space of time.

On a happier note, my iPod would also shuffle to some less well-known gems that I had almost forgotten about:

  • Out of the Afternoon led by Roy Haynes on drums with Henry Grimes on bass, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Roland Kirk on every wind instrument you can imagine (and some you cannot).
  • Someday My Prince Will Come led by pianist Wynton Kelly with Paul Chambers or Sam Jones on bass, Billy Cobb on drums and the track “Wrinkles” with Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter on trumpet and tenor sax respectively
  • Point of Departure by pianist Andrew Hill with Eric Dolphy on alto sax, bass clarinet and flute, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax and flute, Richard Davis on double bass, and Tony Williams on drums
  • Blue Serge by baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff with Sonny Clark on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Leroy Vinnegar on bass
  • Where? led by bassist Ron Carter (playing both the cello and bass) with Eric Dolphy on alt sax, bass clarinet, and flute, Mal Waldron on piano, George Duvivier on bass, and Charlie Persip on drums.
  • Unity by organist Larry Young with Woody Young on trumpet, Joe Henderson on tenor sax, and Elvin Jones on drums
  • Contours by Sam Young who plays tenor sax, soprano sax, and flute, and with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Cambers on drums
  • The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy by soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy with Charles Davis on baritone sax, John Ore on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums.

I recommend all of these!

Talking about Jazz, I just finished the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley. What’s the connection? Besides the fact that like Jazz, Malcolm X was ironically very popular on white college campuses, he also spent a significant part of the 1930s and 40s as a hustler in Harlem, dancing at the Savoy and befriending many of the Jazz legends. While I really enjoyed the first third of the book where you get this amazing historical insight into Harlem life in the 30s and 40s, I found reading about Malcolm X’s entrance into the Nation of Islam and his relationship with Elijah Muhammad much less interesting. Politics aside, this could be due to the fact that I was frustrated to see the hustler getting hustled.

I recently read Claude Brown’s fantastic autobiographical Manchild in the Promise Land which is also about a young black man finding his way coming up in Harlem and which I have to admit I enjoyed more. But when I got to the end of Malcolm X where Malcolm returns from his pilgrimage to Mecca and has definitively broken with the Nation of Islam, you can clearly see what a gifted and charismatic thought-leader he had become. What earns the autobiography the full four stars is the afterword where Haley discusses how the book was written and his relationship with Malcolm. There you get the full sense of the times and Malcolm’s intensity and intellect. But for Malcolm’s talent in action, I can only recommend watching his speeches on youtube.

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Twenty Years

I dug up this old photo from twenty years ago. It’s of the same view that Mr. Trump would have had at his inauguration this January as he looked over the Washington DC Mall from the Capitol. Every time I’d read about the crowd size controversy, I’d think about that photo from a time when I was still living in my hometown.

Twenty years ago it was 1997. The English Patient had just won the Oscars, and Titanic was out in theaters. Notorious B.I.G., whose songs “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” were hits that year, had just been murdered. And it was the year that Mother Theresa and Princess Di would die.

I was finishing my second and entering my third year of law school. Bill Clinton was a few years older than I am now, and Monica Lewinsky was a few years younger than I was then. In a matter of months scandal would break.

Twenty years ago, a president had to lie about smoking pot and about consensual sex with an intern, long before a president could openly say inhaling was the point or another one could brag about being able to grab a woman by her private parts without her consent.

Twenty years ago, Donald Trump was getting ready for his second divorce and was about to “move on” Melania. The Twin Towers were still standing in Lower Manhattan and no one had heard of Bin Laden. George W. Bush was not yet president and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were alive under a local dictator had not yet lost their lives to an American democracy. It would be a decade before the U.S. had its first black president or female presidential nominee.

In 1997, I was a few years away from my first cellphone, Apple still hadn’t made its comeback, and I got my email from AOL on a

desktop computer with a firm “you’ve got mail”. I made mix tapes, was building my CD collection, and apparently dedicated a lot of time to my hair.

Later that year, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack was released, with its stellar roster of vintage Cuban musicians, including the great Omara Portuando singing:

Si las cosas que uno quiere
Se pudieran alcanzar
Tú me quisieras lo mismo
Que veinte años atrás

[If the things that we wished for
Were ever attainable
Then you would love me the same
As you did 20 years ago]

Twenty years ago, I had no idea where and to whom my life would take me. Twenty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I wake up in the middle of the night to someone crying in the next room. I look at my wife sleeping next to me. I walk past my baby girl breathing softly, past my middle child snoring, to my eldest who’s calling for Daddy, and Daddy is me. A wife and three kids. A family. People I didn’t know or who didn’t exit twenty years ago. Who would have thought all this was possible in just twenty years and at such a young age?

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Filed under Digressions, Living la vida española, Parenthood, Trump 45, We The People