Images of America

March 6, 2018

When the Metropolitan Opera came on with Madame Butterfly recently, I began to puzzle about why the opera is so strongly anti-American. In Butterfly, an American naval lieutenant trifles with the heart of a young Japanese woman ending with her ritual suicide, leaving their baby to him and his new American wife.

It turns out that the story originated with a French officer about his own experiences but Puccini, who wrote the opera, saw a rewritten version, the version that became the basis of the magnificent and tragic love story he was to immortalize in music.

My students never like to be confronted with dates but dates are telling. The original version of Madame Butterfly was finished and performed in 1904. That was shortly after the end of what we call the Spanish-American war, the war that left us with Puerto Rico and, until we gave them independence, the Philippines.

America has come to think of itself as Franklin Delano Roosevelt left it, decent and triumphant in the cause of freedom and democracy. The symbols of our battle were drawn by Norman Rockwell – freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. It was a war for self-preservation – we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor. It was also a moral crusade, for democracy, freedom and the welfare of mankind. Soon after the war, President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall sprang to the aid of refugees and impoverished people all over Europe with aid and redevelopment. America was a beacon of hope and decency for the world.

But more recently our military involvement in the Middle East and Asia has forced us to look back at our behavior, particularly in the Philippines. After World War II, some Philippinos told me they often thought of the U.S. like the cavalry in a western movie, massed on a ridge ready to save them from disaster. That may be a fair portrayal of our role there in World War II. But our part in the Spanish-American War is much less fondly remembered, in this country as well as abroad. American troops there pioneered methods of torture that we used later in Iraq. America’s great humorist, Mark Twain, wrote a searing short story about our part in the Spanish-American war – and, understanding how hard it would be for Americans to face that reality, dictated that it could not be published in his lifetime. During the war in Vietnam, we drove over to Mark Twain’s home town in Missouri and found that his War Prayer was his best selling work in the book store, but in the Mark Twain museum, The War Prayer was not to be found – it was still too upsetting for the townspeople.

The Founders of our country liked to refer to what they called the “genius of the people.” But the American people have stood for very different things at different times. Maybe it’s just that different people had more power or maybe it’s that the same people are driven by different motives. The Founders had a different thought – there’s evil in all of us.

But the wages of moral behavior are significant. The America that came off World War II leading the defense and reconstruction of the free world is not automatically the America that is closing itself off from the destinies of everyone we choose not to care about. And the international repercussions will be significant.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 6, 2018.


The Middle East, European Colonialism and the Result of Blank Checks

February 27, 2018

Steven Pinker, in The Better Angels of our Nature, argued we’ve become less bloody over the centuries. But so many issues involve life and death. For two weeks this country has been discussing how to stop school shootings. This week let’s address life and death in the Middle East. Next week, events permitting, let’s discuss two issues that threaten life worldwide.

I can count on hate mail whenever I speak about the Middle East. But let’s put some things in perspective.

The world’s refugee problem swamps most countries’ willingness to take people in. Our government wants to restrict immigration and we fight over who and why. Reaction to flows of refugees threaten democratic governments across Europe and contributed to the vote for Brexit. In addition to their own disputes, the American military footprint has aggravated war and population displacement in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine among many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Stepping back historically and geographically, most countries are dominated by conquering populations. This country conquered and decimated Native Americans to create our bi-coastal America. A succession of warring populations, Huns, Visigoths, Franks, Saxons, Vikings and more, fought for Europe long before the modern wars.

This has hardly been a good way of solving problems or competition for land. But even more harm lurks in the suggestion that we undo it.

The creation of Israel was plainly the result of European refusal to accept its Jewish population. Historically, the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, and the Moors in Spain, before Ferdinand and Isabella Christianized it, were much more hospitable to Jews. The twentieth century brought the fate of the Jews to a head. Europe could have solved its integration problem. But seeing the handwriting on many walls in the 1930s, people like Justice Brandeis, then on the U.S. Supreme Court, were telling friends in Europe to get out quickly. But where to? Franklin Roosevelt, despite close personal and professional relationships with many Jews, blocked boatloads of Jewish refugees from our shores for political reasons.

So the west solved its problem by exporting it – to Palestine. Everyone was a victim in this process. Jewish refugees were uprooted and they in turn uprooted Palestinians. What to do?

At about the same time, Britain was facilitating the breakup of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan. It cost something like a million lives and uprooted many times that. The two countries still find it difficult to get along, but undoing 1948 is not on the table. It cannot be.

It is not true that whatever is, is just. That was proposed by the conservative philosopher Robert Nozick and I most emphatically reject it. But redressing all the wrongs of the past comes at a cost which will involve many who themselves were neither perpetrators nor victims and sometimes both. The argument about who was right and who was wrong in Palestine is not a soluble argument. No one was treated as they should have been. But even more important, fixing those wrongs implies a fight to the death of everyone there. That I cannot wish.

I cannot support complete and utter conquest for either side. We might once have insisted on an enforceable compromise. America once played a role as an honest broker and could have maximized the chance for peace. But we could not continue to play that role while giving Israel a blank check to violate its promises about settlements. The result, I fear, is going to be tragic. It may simply be too late to avert widespread disaster.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 27, 2018.

Sticking with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Iran nuclear agreement

December 5, 2017

JOPAC was the multi-national 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the Iran nuclear agreement. I’m happy to say that I’ve never been closer to nuclear weapons than listening to my chemistry professor, himself part of the Manhattan Project that created the first A-bomb, talking about them. My cousin Mimi worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory but all she could tell me was that she was there. Happily she lived into her 90s. But I have had some experience in Iran.

I was teaching at Pahlavi University, now called something else. Someone was sent to oversee the University. We were all warned to stay away from him. He wasn’t trustworthy. But this brash yours truly thought he knew better so I called on him. He was an economist. I had an article about the difference between Iranian and Turkish economic success to show him. He was of course interested.

Suddenly no one would talk with me. Not a word. I finally cornered someone and insisted he tell me why. He accused me of having called all Iranians liars. I remembered that on the first page of the article, Harvard Prof. David McClelland, with whom I had corresponded, criticized vague and unscientific statements about Iran like “All Iranians are liars.” McClelland set out to study Iran much more precisely. The young man I had cornered had good enough English that he understood exactly what had happened. All of a sudden people talked to me again – as if nothing had ever happened.

Would it have been better if I’d followed orders? Probably but it didn’t hurt that I had exposed the distortion of what I had said. Just as clearly, lots of people there took truth seriously.

Iran is a negotiating culture. You negotiate over everything, from carpets to the seams in a coat you’re having made. When I was getting ready to leave, I sat down with a Persian friend to sell him some of my record collection. He assumed I wouldn’t negotiate but would name fixed prices. I assumed he would negotiate so I asked for more than I wanted. When I realized what had happened, I reverted and gave him the records for much less than we’d agreed. Neither of us wanted to take advantage of the other. But if he’d negotiated as expected, I would never have thought him a liar. It’s just about conforming to culture and how things are done.

The Peace Corps Iran Association, or PCIA, composed of people like myself who served over there, has taken the position that “the Iran nuclear agreement [was a] historic and … excellent example of the success of diplomacy to resolve a major, contentious issue that threatened regional and world peace. As has been certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency … tasked … in the agreement to monitor and verify Iran’s compliance … Iran is abiding by the agreement. United States security agencies have confirmed the IAEA assessment.”

PCIA “urges the United States and Iran, along with the other parties to the agreement, to continue to uphold and abide by the agreement and to take no action that would violate the agreement.” PCIA concluded that both the United States and Iran should keep their word. Incidentally, Ambassador John Limbert, who was one of the U.S. Embassy hostages held for a year and a half, instead of being filled with bitterness and reaching cavalier conclusions about the country, told us at a recent conference of former Peace Corps Volunteers who served there, that he too, urges that we stay the course.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 5, 2017.



My introduction to Iran

November 10, 2017

With Iran in the news I’ve been remembering my own introduction to the country. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Iran in winter, after the semester had begun where we were supposed to teach. We were taken to the home of Prime Minister Hoveyda and stood there not knowing what to do or say. As it happened, I was standing next to the Prime Minister. Looking down, I realized we were standing on a magnificent Persian carpet.

We have a friend here who admired the carpet of another Iranian who instantly responded it was his. Sure enough, when our friend Bob got home, there was the carpet, rolled up and leaning against a corner. Bob was beside himself, not knowing what to do. But his friend showed up a few days later and admired the carpet. It’s yours, Bob quickly responded and the carpet was returned to its proper home. But I didn’t know that in the Prime Minister’s house and barely understood their system of etiquette.

I’ve since learned that it’s risky to make small talk with someone much higher on the social ladder – in any country. But I didn’t know that yet.

So I admired the Prime Minister’s carpet. Understanding American culture much better than I knew Iranian culture, Prime Minister Hoveyda dropped to the floor, motioning me to join him. He then turned over a corner of the carpet and gave me my first lesson in distinguishing the quality of Persian carpets, turning what could have been my intense embarrassment into a warm introduction to Iran.

Our next stop was Shiraz, near the ancient capital of Persepolis, in the desert over four hundred miles south as the crow flies or something like nine hours by car or bus. We went to what was then named Pahlavi University, designed to be an American style institution. All but one of us had graduate degrees so that we could teach there. The students were required to speak English and spoke it reasonably well.

But this country hadn’t told Iranian authorities who was in our group, or what we were qualified to teach. University officials had asked for natural scientists and one art historian, understanding that art historians were broadly trained and could be versatile. We had an art historian and people in the natural sciences. But we had an equal number of people in social science, economics, history, law and politics. The Peace Corps, and the late President Kennedy, wanted to get Americans over as soon as possible. So who was available determined who we sent. That was a problem, however, so Peace Corps and diplomatic personnel neglected to convey the information.

Therefore we were taken to the Provost’s office. He assembled the heads of each of the departments at the University. After he explained the situation, he asked department chairs which of us they could use. Since their semester had begun, we would be underemployed for a while, but our hosts were gracious in helping us get our feet on the ground. By the end of the semester we enjoyed many friendships among faculty and students. Our welcome was warm even if a bit chaotic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 7, 2017.



Jajja’s Kids and the Power of Kindness

October 3, 2017

I awoke yesterday to the horrible reports from Las Vegas but I decided to take a week to organize what I want to say, and deal with guns and Vegas next week. This week I want to tell a story about generosity.

For some of us, generosity is its own reward. Others need to be shown that it does some good, not only for others but for themselves. Take it either way. I don’t care to be judgmental but the consequences, both ways, are important. I want to illustrate that with Jajja’s Kids. Jajja means grandmother in Uganda but it’s an honorific, not confined to actual family relations. A lovely local woman, Diane Reiner, has taken on that role with Ronnie Sseruyange who has become like a son to her.

I have spoken about Jajja’s Kids before and WAMC’s Joe Donahue has interviewed the people who make it happen. But I was at a fundraiser for Jajja’s Kids and it’s message is important to ponder.

When his mother died, six-year-old Ronnie Sseruyange, had to fend for himself on the streets of Uganda, and was promptly welcome to the streets by an older child who broke his jaw. But at 16, Ronnie was taken in to a youth shelter, and he turned around to look after other street children, to feed, clothe, house and educate them, though he himself had no formal education. He became known as the Chairman of the Street Kids.

A few years later, Diane, a photographer from this area, went to Uganda for a workshop, and there she was introduced to Ronnie. Instinctively she wanted to help. They set up a charitable organization here and an NGO there so that Diane could raise money and Ronnie would have the wherewithal to provide for the children. Diane has been there repeatedly and brought back stories, letters and photographs that make clear their progress in feeding, clothing, housing and educating the street children in Ronnie’s care.

That brings me to a remark that Ronnie made at the gathering I attended, that the children he takes care of have said “God bless America,” to which Ronnie added that he has not heard that said about their own country.

I don’t want to be naïve about this. I suspect the song had something to do with the kids repeating that phrase. And generosity doesn’t solve all problems. Nor does it create an obligation to do whatever otherwise generous people want. But it does matter. It does create opportunity for children who would have none, for children who would be terrorized by older kids intent on impressing them with their power, what can euphemistically be called a rite of passage all too common in the ghettos of the world.

And American generosity is a form of diplomacy. Some call it soft-power. But it matters. The Peace Corps matters. Our Congressman, Paul Tonko, was at the gathering to lend his support because kindness matters. In this age when so many suffer from the what-about-me’s, it’s important to recognize the corrosive implications of thinking only of ourselves and the international reach of open hearts. The what-about-me’s are all about creating a jungle. The openness of kind hearts is all about creating civilization, and the wealth of kindness and productivity that cooperation make.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 3, 2017.



The Courts Stand Up for Impunity

June 27, 2017

In one of the last cases to be decided this term of Court, the Supreme Court described the death of Sergio Hernandez as “a tragic cross-border incident.”[1] Indeed. I want to make clear that I care deeply about this case. Several friends and I helped write an amicus brief to the Court about it.[2]

Sergio Hernandez was 15 years old. The Court continued, “According to the complaint,” which the Court must accept as true at this early stage of the proceedings, “Hernandez and his friends were playing a game in which they ran up the embankment on the United States side [of the Mexican border], touched the fence, and then ran back down.” Border Patrol Agent Mesa caught and detained one of Hernandez’ friends but “Hernandez ran across the international boundary into Mexican territory and stood by a pillar that supports a railroad bridge spanning the culvert” between the c ountries. At a distance – the Court wasn’t precise but the culvert was up to 270 feet wide – Agent Mesa shot and killed Sergio Hernandez though the Agent was in no danger.

Notice the issues that the District, Appellate and Supreme Courts have been “struggling” with.

First, the Court had to deal with whether the Constitution itself authorizes a remedy when Congress has not provided one for the violation of constitutional rights. In other words, do our rights exist at the pleasure of Congress? That’s known technically as the Bivens question.

Second, do foreigners have any constitutional rights or may American officials kill them at pleasure? The Court of Appeals had decided that Sergio had no rights under our Constitution.

Third, even if Sergio’s rights were violated, did the Agent have “immunity … from civil liability.” They would have immunity if “their conduct ‘does not violate clearly established … constitutional rights.” So the fourth question is whether killing foreigners across the border violates any clearly established rights?

Along the way the Court commented that some of the issues in the case  are “sensitive and may have consequences that are far reaching.” Sounds like the Court was thinking about foreign relations. The Bible just says “justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”[3]

The Court finished by noting that the case “result[ed] in a heartbreaking loss of life” but thought the Court of Appeals should think about those issues before the Supreme Court reached any final resolution about the issues in the case:

  • whether foreigners have any rights that American officials are bound to respect;
  • whether there is any remedy for murder;
  • whether murder by a government official is a clear violation of a constitutional right?

Abroad, and we use the same term when describing behavior in other countries, people who are protected from any responsibility for the harm they do are described as having impunity. It does not describe freedom. It describes lawlessness, in countries run for crime bosses and rapacious masters.

Think now about shootings of Americans in America by police officers, shootings of Americans with their backs turned, with their hands up, with their house keys in their hands. Are we now a nation with impunity? Does freedom still live here or are too many people here forced to bow, scrape and beg those with the power to kill. If there are people who, in the language of Dred Scott, have “no rights which … [American officials are] bound to respect,”[4] does that mean that they and we are treated like the slave in Dred Scott?

[1] Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118, decided June 26, 2017.

[2] Brief for Amici Curiae Legal Historians in Support of Petitioners in Hernandez v. Mesa, U.S. Sup. Ct. No 15-118.

[3] Deut. 16:20.

[4] Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 407 ((1856).

The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.

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