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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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 that the propaganda that they push 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 the language, 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 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 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 send an Al Jazeera journalist to Guantanamo for years, fully knowing he had no ties to terrorism. Add that to the fact that Al Jazeera does not 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 protesters twenty-four coverage and putting them 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. So what several countries did was immediately force 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 Arab Spring reporting 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 – as long as they put your absolute control over society at risk.

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-controlled 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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