Category Archives: We The People

Treason Should Be Remembered, Not Honored

One thing I never understood was how Confederate flagwavers could still be considered American patriots. Isn’t the Confederate flag by its very nature incompatible with the U.S. flag? Now even though I am from Maryland – technically a Southern state— my public school system didn’t have a pro-South curriculum, and in my county we never considered ourselves Southerners. So maybe I just don’t get why the Confederacy by definition hasn’t been widely treated in our history books as an act of treason and why we today do not consider its symbols and monuments as symbols of its treason.

Earlier in the month, Ta-Nehisi Coates, apparently back from a long hiatus, had this to say about the Confederacy (not in relation to Charlottesville, but to HBO announcing its plan to air Confederates, a TV show about what the South would look like today if it hadn’t lost the war):

For while the Confederacy, as a political entity, was certainly defeated, and chattel slavery outlawed, the racist hierarchy which Lee and Davis sought to erect, lives on. It had to. The terms of the white South’s defeat were gentle. Having inaugurated a war which killed more Americans than all other American wars combined, the Confederacy’s leaders were back in the country’s political leadership within a decade. Within two, they had effectively retaken control of the South.

. . . Nazi Germany was also defeated. But while its surviving leadership was put on trial before the world, not one author of the Confederacy was convicted of treason. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg. Confederate General John B. Gordon became a senator. Germany has spent the decades since World War II in national penance for Nazi crimes. America spent the decades after the Civil War transforming Confederate crimes into virtues. It is illegal to fly the Nazi flag in Germany. The Confederate flag is enmeshed in the state flag of Mississippi.

[emphasis added]

As Coates reminds us, four million blacks were enslaved in the South, comprising 40% of the Confederacy’s population, “the South’s indispensable laboring class, its chief resource, its chief source of wealth, and the sole reason why a Confederacy existed in the first place,” people clearly not honored by the Confederacy’s flags or monuments. And the Confederacy caused a war that killed more Americans than any other war in our history. So if you are not a white Southerner in America, how comfortable are you in 2017 living in a country that publicly honors a bloody war of treason and oppression? Can’t we put the flags and statues in a museum where they belong and use our statues to memorialize our shared values? Those Western ones we’re always bragging about.

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The Country Run like a Family Business

There’s a popular myth, a cliché even, that America should be run like a company and only a successful businessman can get the job done. That’s a nice soundbite, but countries and governments are not corporations, and historically most businesspersons turned politicians are not to be successful presidents.

As mentioned here before, while Trump is a businessperson – with occasional success and regular failure —  he has never run anything like a large corporation where he’s accountable to shareholders. Rather, his managerial experience is limited to running a small family business with a fairly simply business model, where the only ones to enjoy in his venture’s success are family members and those who suffer its losses are employees and consumers.

It follows logically then that when Mr. Trump has no expertise on a subject or bandwidth – which as it relates to both domestic and foreign policy is always – instead of listening or delegating to professional bureaucrats, Trump defers to his children or people that have worked on his business dealings in the past, no matter how unrelated to the issue at hand.

Therefore it is no surprise that as President, instead of letting the seasoned pros do their jobs, Trump sends out his daughter to act as the official U.S. representative in front of foreign leaders, his son – who resembles the rich-kid bad guy from every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen – or his son-in-law or bankruptcy lawyer to do his billing. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers questions this in today’s Washington Post:

It is rare for heads of government to step away from the table during major summits. When this is necessary, their place is normally taken by foreign ministers or other very senior government officials. There is no precedent for a head of government’s adult child taking a seat, as was the case when Ivanka Trump took her father’s place at the G-20 on Saturday. There is no precedent for good reason. It was insulting to the others present and sent a signal of disempowerment regarding senior government officials.

So the question for Americans is: do we want the United States of America to be run like a family business?

 

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Our Sacred Western Values

In response to Trump’s The West is under siege speech questioning whether, “we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost,” the Washington Post’s editorial board rightfully asks if “Trump wants us to defend ‘our values’. Which ones?

This reminds me of 2003 during the Iraq War when a woman at my gym in Madrid, upon learning that I was American, felt the need to insult me over the lack of values of my country and countrymen. When I asked if she had ever been to my country to see for herself, she said that she would never go as long as we still had the death penalty.

Only four industrialized nations still have capital punishment: the United States, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. In this sense, the Spanish woman was right. Maybe the United States does not represent Western values after all, being the only Western country on the list. In fact, the Europeans use Turkey’s continued application of the death penalty as a key reason for denying them entry into the European Union.

But as I reminded the woman yelling at me, European abolishment of the death penalty began in the 1990s. Did that mean that no one should have visited Spain prior to that time or that Europeans didn’t have values before? Europe and America have different political histories and experiences. It takes time for societies to evolve.

For example, when Medieval Christians judged the innocence or guilt of a person by seeing if he could float or endure grueling pain, Islam represented a revolution in civil and criminal rights. In order to be convicted of a crime, Islamic law dictated that there must be witnesses to the crime and evidence presented against the accused.

As I wrote recently, Christianity in the U.S. was used as the main justification for chattel slavery and the subsequent torture, killings, acts of terrorism, denial of rights, and overall brutality that constituted Jim Crow until 1970. Certainly none of those acts represent Western values today. Does that mean that Americans or American Christianity did not share Western values until recently? Or did Western values change?

When the French, Belgians, English, Spanish and Italians colonized much of Africa to the south and the Middle East, India and South East Asia to the east, whose values were they representing? For example, when the Belgians slaughtered millions of Congolese for both sport and economic gain, were they manifesting Western values? Or when the French complain today about Muslims immigrants not integrating into French society or accepting French culture, did their French grandparents integrate or show any respect for the local cultures of the societies they were raping and pillaging less than 100 years ago? Or did their grandparents simply not yet accept Western values?

In part that is why Mr. Trump’s pontification in Poland is so contradictory: he preaches the values and need to defend the West precisely on the soil where so many human lives were brutally murdered to defend the superiority of those located directly to the west (not to the east). So then what does Trump mean by the “West”?

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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You Get What You Paid For: Not a Fighter but a Self-Absorbed Thin-Skinned Liar

UPDATE BELOW

They say elections matter. The people vote and get what they voted for. Back when Trump acted like a character out the Sopranos in his handling of the FBI Director, Paul Ryan excused Trump’s behavior – that in competent hands would clearly amount to an abuse of power – as innocent naiveté.  Trump is “new to this”. Maybe Mr. Ryan should have said something more akin to “every nation gets the government it deserves”. This is basically what Mike Huckabee’s daughter, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said in response to a recent twitter insult storm by the president: “Look, the American people elected a fighter. . . . They knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”

But is Trump really a fighter? Normally when under attack, Trump:

  • cries “unfair” like a five year old child
  • throws a tantrum, like refusing to attend a debate because a female journalist wasn’t nice
  • yells “fake news”
  • bluffs (as in the Comey tape bluff); or
  • insults someone’s ratings, physical appearance or ethnicity.

So really, Sarah, is dissing someone’s ratings or calling a woman ugly or fat the trait of a fighter? Maybe ask yourself what the President thinks of your looks?

No, Trump is not a fighter. He is liar. He is a blusterer. He is a crybaby and a whiner. He is a misogynist. And he is someone that makes shit up all the time and never keeps his word. He is reality TV incarnate, a high school bully and an overall scoundrel. The American people had access before Election Day to the long, well-documented history of Trump’s multiple business failures (subsidized by the American taxpayer), gaudiness, steaks and university, nihilism and nepotism, fraud, self-aggrandizing, infidelity, conspiracy theory pushing, and lack of attention to detail and disregard for the rules.  His tweet storm was the behavior not of a fighter but of a delusional psychopath.

Nonetheless, enough Americans voted for him to make him President of the United States. So maybe Democrats should stop complaining and Republicans stop making excuses for him. Perhaps Trumpsters’ only rational argument left is that if Americans voted for Trump, they “knew what they were getting”.  In other words, that Americans must have wanted a self-absorbed, thin-skinned liar for president. And they certainly got one.

We bought what he was selling, and like every nation, we’re getting what we deserved.

UPDATED JULY 3, 2017:

As if to prove my point, Trump boasts of his fantasy world where he’s a pro-wrestler fighting the hater Fake Press. But in the real world, when it comes to fighting, what does Trump do? He posts a fantasy video about a fantasy sport or he calls people names, insults their looks or their ethnicity. I for one feel a lot safer knowing that we have Trump to fight for us.

I don’t know whether this video promotes violence or what its origin is. What I do know is that our president is a buffoon. A self-absorbed, thin skinned, lying buffoon.

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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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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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