Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good night, Hitch

Young Hitch - in his prime he claimed his daily alcohol intake was enough, "to kill or stun the average mule."


Until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die.   Horace Mann


Atheism crept up on me.  It was always lurking, but never fully made its move until I reached adulthood.  Several public intellectuals nudged me along.  Some like, Jared Diamond, are the type who don’t really care enough about religion even to call themselves atheists – quiet intellectuals who simply enjoy showcasing the joy of reason.  Then there are the other guys.  The bareknuckle boxing atheists – duty bound to lambast the illogical.  The folks who wade knee deep into the religious mire and enjoy it.  Among these characters there is the holy trinity of the modern atheist: Dawkins, Harris and Hitch.  Big Hitch.  Brother Hitch.  Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011.   

Hitch was a fearless writer, a tough-guy liberal.  No one and nothing were sacred – the guy took on Mother Theresa and Ayatollah Khomeini.  I didn’t always agree with his views, but I respected his bravery in following his convictions.  His support for the Iraq War was wrong.  But support it he did, in ideological opposition to the majority of his fan base and with the same fervor with which he opposed the Vietnam War.  Whatever other faults may have clouded Hitch’s soul, a lack of courage was not one of them.

Hitch was an American by choice – he never pulled punches in expressing his affection for his adopted country or his criticisms of it.  For me this is the definition of patriotism.  He called faith and patience the most overrated of virtues.  And he grinned when he said it.  Hitch wasn’t the writer that gave me the final nudge from agnosticism to atheism (nod to Dawkins).  But, he helped.  My all time favorite Hitch quote on religion (and especially apt at present): 

Just consider for a moment what their heaven looks like.  Endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self; a celestial North Korea. 

Yeah, he helped.      

Last week a religious friend of mine wrote a couple lines on his Facebook page about Hitch’s passing.  My friend couldn’t resist sneaking in something about Hitch’s “eternal soul,” driving at a question that came up frequently in Hitch’s public debates: how do atheists find meaning in life?  How does a person with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?  He took the high ground in his response to such questions:     

A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called, “meaningless.” 

As his friend Sam Harris said, “Hitch produced more fine work, read more books, met more interesting people and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries.” 

He died without shame.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Sandwiches at the Gates of Hell

One of the camps in Dadaab, Kenya

When you tell UN and NGO people that that you’re going to Dadaab the reaction is usually sympathetic:

“Really?” they commiserate,  “For how long?”

We were in and out.  I can’t say that I’m looking forward to returning.    

Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp.  It is Kenya’s third largest “city” and by far its most miserable.  The population of the camps is almost entirely Somali.  The first refugee camps in Dadaab opened in 1991, when Somali strongman Siad Barre was overthrown, triggering the first wave of chaos in the country.  With Ethiopia’s recent (re)incursion opening a third front in Somalia’s conflict, we can be assured that the refugee population of Dadaab will not be declining anytime soon.

It was dusk when we arrived.  On the way from the dirt airstrip to the UN / INGO compound we passed lots of unsmiling people and evil looking storks picking at piles of rubbish.  The sunsets are incredible in Kenya’s northeast, unspoilt by pollution or buildings.  But, you can only look at the sky for so long before lowering your gaze to the wretchedness on the ground.  Life is hard in Dadaab and recently it has gotten a lot more dangerous. 

Since the summer, Kenya’s northeast has seen a significant spike in kidnapping, ambushes and clashes with police & military, including at least 8 separate improvised explosive device attacks.  The kidnap of two Spanish women working for Medecins San Frontieres (MSF) in Dadaab on October 13th garnered significant international attention; it also scared the shit out of the UN and INGO community in Kenya’s northeast.  On October 16th Kenyan forces entered southern Somalia.  Active combat has been ongoing since.            

***

Sometimes in this job I have crises of faith.  Is the UN helping?  When you visit long-term humanitarian hubs like Dadaab you are smacked in the face with this question.  As a field security officer, I am UN support personnel.  The point is the program – the UNHCR shelter project, the WHO inoculation drive, the UNDP microfinance campaign.  My job begins and ends with the program.  Get people in, let them do their work and hope the program is worth the effort.  It’s easy for UN field security personnel to throw their hands up, “Hey, I did my bit, the program is their business.”  I’ve felt the urge to succumb to this line of reasoning more often than I care to admit.  But, I could not dedicate my professional life to an institution that I did not believe in.  In War and Peace Tolstoy put it thus: 

Don’t you understand that either we are officers serving our Tsar and country, rejoicing in the successes and grieving at the misfortunes of our common cause or we are merely lackeys who care nothing for their master’s business.   

I yell at the T.V. screen when I hear (mostly right-wing American) commentators being intentionally dishonest about the United Nations.  One area that detractors of the organization are especially disingenuous about is expectations of UN humanitarian aid operations.  Which brings us back to my original question about the UN in Dadaab: are we helping?      

It has been said that the goal of any humanitarian aid operation should be to make itself unnecessary.  By this bar, UN operations in Dadaab have not been successful: 1991 – 2011 is a long time for refugee camps to be running.  But, housing, feeding and protecting refugees addresses the results of instability, not the causes of it.  The causes of instability in Somalia require political solutions.  In the absence of political empowerment in the form of a firm Security Council (SC) resolution, the agencies of the UN are left with humanitarian action.  Conventional wisdom dictates that humanitarian action is always a good thing.  I’m not convinced.  Interestingly, the word “humanitarian” is only mentioned once in the UN Charter:

“To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion;”*

The international community’s assistance to Japan in the wake of that country’s recent disaster is a good example of humanitarian action uncomplicated by political crisis.  The agencies of the UN do this type of humanitarian response very well.  Criticism of the organization’s humanitarian responses tends to focus on actions in places suffering political crises, usually war.  During the Bosnian conflict the UN was accused of distributing food, but not stopping civilians from being slaughtered.  Or, as French intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy put it, “passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz.”**  But, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was simply fulfilling the terms of its SC mandate, which was essentially to “freeze” the battle lines and allow UN aid agencies to keep people civilians alive.  So the question really is, should the UN conduct humanitarian operations in places where it is not empowered to make itself unnecessary?    

Journalist Linda Polman asks questions like this about humanitarianism the way Economist Thomas Sowell does about “Affirmative Action,” – with no bullshit.  Is humanitarian action always a good thing?  Are there instances when humanitarian action is actually counterproductive?
          
The humanitarian community is awash with examples of aid being used as a weapon in war.  During the conflict in Liberia, former President Charles Taylor demanded 15% of the value of aid, to be paid to him in cash.  In Somalia “entrance fees” charged by warlords have reached as high as 80% of the worth of aid supplies.  In 2006 aid organizations in southern Afghanistan handed over at least one third of their food aid to the Taliban. ***

What’s worse than handing out sandwiches at the gates of hell?  Giving those sandwiches to the demons. 

The desire to ease human suffering unconditionally is a noble undertaking.  But, is it necessarily always a logical one?  If “the greatest kindness in war is to bring it to a speedy conclusion,” then doesn’t blindly impartial humanitarian aid just prolong the misery?

Again, Linda Polman:

Imagine.  It’s 1943.  You’re an international aid worker.  The telephone rings.  It’s the Nazis.  You’ll be granted permission to deliver aid to the concentration camps, but the camp management will decide how much of it goes to its own staff and how much to the prisoners. 
           
What do you do? 

If you conform to the practices of the humanitarian aid industry, you’ll deliver the supplies. ***       

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the forerunner of every modern humanitarian aid organization; it prides itself on its utter impartiality and independence from political interests.  The UN is not the ICRC.  The UN takes sides – a “Chapter VII Peace-Enforcement” mission is the ultimate example of this.  Organizations like the ICRC have their place, but I’m glad that, as a political organization, the UN accepts responsibility for abuse of its largesse.  

Saving lives or fueling conflict – no one said this type of work was going to be easy.  Or guilt free.    


* Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1, Article 1, Section 3.

** “A Balkan Gyre of War, Spinning Onto Film” New York Times, March 12, 1995



Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Black Geek: Skateboarding and Hip-Hop

Green vs Grey - an as yet unresolved geek controversy
I remember buying my first issue of Thrasher magazine.  I placed it on the counter tentatively, halfway expecting the saleslady to shake her head, call me a fraud and instruct me to return it.  

Before I ever landed a kick-flip or dropped in a half pipe, I studied that Thrasher magazine.  I loved the counter-culture feel of it.  The magazine had pictures of impossible looking stunts and advertisements for things with stunningly irreverent (for an eleven year old) names.  I’d never heard a Butthole Surfers’ song but I wanted to.  I had no idea what one would use Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax for but I wanted some (or at least a t-shirt advertising the mysterious substance). 

Proper “professional” skateboards weren’t cheap and you bought them in pieces – the deck, the trucks, the wheels.  After some pretty consistent begging I convinced my parents to buy me a “professional” deck for my twelfth birthday.  It was a “Lance Mountain.”  What a cool name for a skateboarder.  Later in my short-lived skateboarding career, I would shun Powell-Peralta products as too “mainstream,” but at the time I was ecstatic.  My dad wouldn’t spring for professional trucks and wheels though, so I removed the crappy stuff from my generic skateboard and made due. 

I was in the sixth grade.  This was a formative year; kids were taking on roles and personas that they would keep for the rest of their school life.  The jocks were becoming, THE jocks, the preps were becoming THE preps, the overachievers were becoming THE overachievers.  With my comic books, role-playing games and skateboard, it’s not difficult to guess in which group I belonged.  I was the type of kid that could give you a painfully detailed description of the differences between the grey and green Hulk.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about you probably got laid in high school.    

Race started to matter a lot more.  Suddenly just being black was insufficient.  Seemingly overnight a list of blackrequisites sprung up: sports (basketball, football – ok, skateboarding, hockey – not so much), speech (broken), even reading habits seemed to be monitored (one risked being accused of “acting white” if seen with books too often).  And, of course, musical preference. 

My parents were firmly entrenched in an evangelical gospel church and did not listen to “secular” music.  I hated church, but loved gospel music – real gospel music in an old school, fire and brimstone black church – even when the voices crack or don’t reach a note, the songs are dipped in emotion and you’re moved.  In his autobiography, Malcolm X (who was, naturally, hypercritical of the black church) talks about the solace he found in Mahalia Jackson while in prison.  Even more than jazz, gospel is ingrained in the black American consciousness and despite my jaundiced atheist views it still feels like home.

But, a love of gospel music is not something that pre-teens are really comfortable espousing to their peers (or at least I wasn’t).  My skateboarding buddies were into bands like Dinosaur Jr., Siouxie and the Banshees and the Cure.  Especially the Cure.  I liked hip-hop too: De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Tribe Called Quest.  But by the time I got around to naming the hip-hop groups I liked it was too late – the Stranglers and Radiohead had already been discovered in my tape collection.  Junot Diaz asked,

You really want to know what being an X-Man feels like?  Just be a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto.  Mamma mia!  Like having bat wings or a pair of tentacles growing out of your chest.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, p 22

I’m an Air Force brat, but life was actually easier when we were visiting our cousins in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward (“Niggas from the nine, don’t mind dyin’. ” my young relatives would extol).  In New Orleans I was treated like a goofy anomaly.  On the Air Force bases I was a liability; there were less black kids so the feeling was we need our full strength – we couldn’t afford any anomalies.  When we first moved to the U.K. we didn’t live on the Air Force base and there were enough skinheads (not proper skinheads like my friend Mike Crawley, but racist thugs that made my daily walk home from the bus stop a harrowing experience) around, to justify the question, “was Dewaine black enough to be depended on?”  Black enough?  The question itself incensed me, but not so much as the fact that the answer was somehow linked to whether my English was sufficiently broken, I had a Run DMC tape in my Walkman and could hold passable guy talk about the NFL.

I’m still no big fan of team sports (I’d rather watch MMA than the NFL) and I still like hip-hop (but not Run DMC).  Now I have a different problem with hip-hop.  Discussing Israel, an American Jewish friend of mine once told me, “when you grow up really loving something it’s hard to turn off those feelings, even after it has turned so obviously ugly.”  This is how I feel about a lot of Hip-Hop.  I have songs on my I-Pod that I only listen to in the gym with headphones.  My daughter is very inquisitive and as much as I enjoy Ludacris there are aspects of his songs best left unexplained.    

So, with a nod to Nick Hornby, here’s a list of the top three Hip-Hop songs I am ashamed of myself for liking:

I am a black American and English is my first language – I still only understand about 30% of this song.  Some rappers have the ability to render misogynistic lyrics toothless.  Juvenile does not.  When he asks, “You gonna knock that ho’s teeth out, huh?” it sounds like a rhetorical question.  Of course you will, Juvenile. 

Ludacris does have the charm to make us laugh at some pretty raunchy stuff.  But, incorporating the inquiry “If you got some big titties with a matching ass” into the chorus of this song was a bold move indeed.    

This song sounds like an X-rated Saturday morning cartoon jingle.  To an electronic melody better suited to an episode of the Power Puff Girls, Too Short makes hard-hitting comments like, “I bet she can’t wiggle like that with a dick in her.”  Charming stuff.  

…and the top three songs I use to defend the genre:

Of course, “You Got Me is everyone’s default favorite Roots’ song.  And I do love that song.  But, “Sacrafice” displays creativity without pretense and positivity without preachiness.  That’s hard to pull off.
 
Lots of rappers have sampled Midnight Star’s “Curious.”  Eric B & Rakim did it first and best. 

Of course, Eminem has done lots of stuff that could easily make the other list.  But, in “8 mile” he describes insecurity, frustration and stifled ambition in terms that would make Dostoevsky proud.   

Nowadays kids have it easier when it comes to music.  It seems it’s perfectly permissible for my young cousins to have both Vampire Weekend and Lil’ Wayne on their I-Pods.  Lucky them.  I hope that it hasn’t gotten any easier for geeks to get laid though, that just wouldn’t be fair.                 

Friday, October 28, 2011

Heer

Siad Barre and Muammar Qadaffi

 
I’m not completely new to Africa.  I’ve spent a couple weeks living in a tent in Rumbek, another few weeks (mostly) on the toilet in N’djamena, two or three weeks dying for a beer in Khartoum, a few weeks feeling the closest we Americans can get to post-colonial guilt in Monrovia and enough time in Kenya to understand that the presence of a United Nations headquarters in Nairobi probably brings more money into the country than tourism does.  I’m not an absolute newbie to this part of the world, but I’m far from an expert.

While working in the Caucasus I took pride in being able to hold a credible conversation with my friends Azret and Maga about the security situation in Kabardino-Balkaria, a place many westerners are only vaguely aware of.  I was proud that my Russian was decent enough to maintain informal contact with my counterparts in the local security services.  When I was assigned a post with Somalia responsibilities I knew I was going to be playing catch up.  My Somali is non-existent and my Swahili is solely derived from The Lion King.  I did (cursorily) keep up with news in the region, but that wasn’t going to cut it.  I dove into Horn of Africa literature, starting with a crash course on the tribes and ethnicities in the region. 

Tribal and ethnic tension is a well-documented cause of bloodshed all over the continent, not just in the Horn.  It’s also easy to understand; you hear linguistic differences, a lot of ethnic variances are visible and the cultural distinctions between tribes (even those in close proximity) can be stark.  These differences don’t excuse tribal and ethnic tension, but it does help to explain it.  While Somalia does have a small disadvantaged Bantu-Swahili minority, it is still one of the most homogenous places in Africa.  It is not ethnic or tribal tension that is the crux in Somalia, it is clan.  Blood, honor and justice – encompassed in the Somali word heer, a concept that it is hard for us westerners to wrap our heads around.

The four major (or “noble”) clans in Somalia are the Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Rahanweyn. For outsiders the differences between these clans are seemingly inconsequential; they share a common Samaal heritage and all speak various dialects of the same Cushitic language. 

Long ago, in the desert, nomads in clan societies bound themselves together by family ties, through old lineages that gave them protection and assistance across great distances.  Outside the clan lineage lay danger and chaos, every man for himself.  In a clan society, every kind of human relationship turns on your honor within the clan; outside it there is nothing – you are excluded from any kind of meaningful existence.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad, p 152  
 
From a strictly anthropological perspective it is fascinating that this nomadic system survived into modernity.  But, the idea of clan is not just some charming throwback to a long forgotten era – in Somalia it is life and, very often, death:

A queue of civilians was huddled at a roadblock before a gang of rebels.  As each person was waved through, another came forward and began uttering a litany of names.  My guide with the flaming red hair said the people were reciting their clan family trees.  The genealogies tumbled back generation after generation to a founding ancestor.  It was like a DNA helix, or a fingerprint, or an encyclopedia of peace treaties and blood debts left to fester down the torrid centuries.  I was thinking how poetic this idea was when bang!, a gunman shot one of the civilians, who fell with blood gushing from his head and was pushed aside on a heap of corpses.

“Wrong clan,” said my flaming-haired friend.  “He should have borrowed the ancestors of a friend.” Aiden Harley, The Zanzibar Chest, p. 184.

In addition to precise rules of blood compensation (in the event of a man’s murder his clan is owed one hundred camels, a woman’s life is only worth fifty camels*), the clan system also accounts for a lot of good old-fashioned nepotism – business, military and government positions are all dished out via the clan.  Old Somalia hands and many Somalis themselves are thankful for the clan system.  In the absence of a functioning government, heer is at least some kind of authority.  And this is the paradox; while clan does represent an authority of a kind, it is also stops Somalia from developing the sense of community needed to achieve true nationhood. 

In the 1970s and 80s General Siad Barre bent Somalia to his will, (partly) by trying his best stamp out the clans.  A common question Somalis ask when meeting one another is “What is your clan?”  Comically, while Barre was in power this question became “What is your ex-clan?”  Barre could be descried in a lot of ways that are not complimentary, but you can’t say the man wasn’t canny.  He understood that clan encourages a separateness that is antithetical to forging a true nation-state.  Ousted from power in 1991, one of Barre’s last public statements was:

When I came to Mogadishu there was one road, built by the Italians.  If you try to force me to stand down, I will leave the city as I found it.

He left it worse.  Today Somalia is a strong contender for the most dysfunctional “state” on the planet and, while Al-Shabaab is grabbing all of the headlines, it is the concept of the clan that that keeps the country this way.

“We need another Barre.” My Somali neighbor in Nairobi frequently laments.  It’s a common refrain: the idea that it takes a despot to govern places with strong tribal and clan roots.

***

The first thing I read in the Economist every week is the obituary.  My wife frowns on this somewhat macabre habit.  I can’t help it; the obituary is often the most interesting section of the magazine.  Last week’s was Muammar Qaddafi’s.  In the wake of the dictator’s death a lot of people are worried about what role Islamists will play in post-Qaddafi Libya.  But, reading the story of how Qaddafi clenched Libya’s tribal and clan based society in his fist, I found myself asking a different question: do the Libyas, Somalias, Afghanistans and DRCs of the world need Qaddafis and Barres?    

The Arab Spring dispelled many long held (and racist) notions about what type of government people in the Middle East and Africa are “ready” for.  The Libyan revolution’s place within the wider Arab Spring is debatable; the challenges the country faces in overcoming clan and tribal tensions are not.  Qaddafi is dead.  But, the Libyan equivalent of heer is alive and well.  For the Libyan Transitional National Council now is the really hard part.       


http://maghreblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/end-of-qaddafi-new-beginning-for-libya.html

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Diversity


A lot of liberals are fucking cowards.  I take no (or at least not much) pleasure in this proclamation.  But, these are my people, so I have the right to say this.  Sometimes I complain about Russians.  I feel I have earned a little leeway in discussing a culture I’ve become so close to.  I’m careful though, I know that I am still, and always will be, an outsider in Slavic affairs.  With liberals though the gloves are off.  These are my people and I know the word “fucking” probably offends the delicate sensibilities of a great many of them.  Good.  American liberals could do with getting a bit more pissed off now and then. 

I have a recurring argument about “diversity” and it’s always with liberals, folks of various backgrounds, ethnicities and educational levels, but always liberals.  It tends to start something like this: 

“Where are you from?” 

“I’m Sudanese,” said with a distinct American accent.  

“Did you study in the United States?”

“Actually, I was born in the United States, but my parents are from Khartoum and we would go back for visits all the time.”  

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“Silver Springs, Maryland.” 

“College?”

“Columbia.”

“So you’re American.”

“Well…  I have an American passport.”

“Did you find it in a bus station?  Steal it?  Is it your passport?” 

“It’s my passport.” 

“So ethnically you’re Sudanese, but your nationality is American.”

“I’m Sudanese.”

I’ve had conversations of this type more times than I care to recount.  Often, with second-generation immigrants, but sometimes it’s a proxy argument with native-born (mostly white) Americans who feel they’re defending “diversity” – but, always with people who consider themselves liberals.  At its root, the argument is about citizenship versus ethnicity, but that’s not all it’s about.  It’s also about what citizenship means.  In multi-cultural societies there is a constant tension between ethnicity, religion and citizenship.  Our identities are wrapped up in all three.             

I happened to be in Kyiv during the tail end of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004.  The “Orange Revolution” was about a lot of things: the influence the Russian Federation should have in the former Soviet States (the so called, “near abroad”), the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and questions of ethnicity & citizenship.  Was Ukrainian a nationality or just an ethnicity?  The answer is it’s both, but that answer wasn’t (and still isn’t) so clear for a lot of Russians and Ukrainians.  Many Russians and Ukrainians think of themselves as “ethnic cousins” of a sort, and still the tension persists.  One thing the “Orange Revolution” helped convince me of is that nationality matters.  It’s more than just a passport.  It’s part of our identities. 

We black Americans have had our own struggles with what citizenship means.  The comedian Chris Rock said that black Americans view the United States like a rich uncle who paid for our college education, but sexually abused us.  Maybe.  But, I never felt my ethnicity or religion (or lack thereof) excused me from the responsibilities of citizenship.  And that’s exactly what the conversation with our Sudanese friend above is about.  By not acknowledging her citizenship she was excusing herself from the responsibilities associated with it.  And that, to me, is an awful act of cowardice.  Citizenship means different things to different people, but it shouldn’t.  For everyone it should involve responsibility and participation. 

When I have the proxy argument with native-born American liberals who feel they’re defending “diversity” it’s something different.  No less awful, just different.  These people aren’t just saying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities shouldn’t have to meet the same obligations of citizenship as the majority; they’re also implying that members of certain religious and ethnic minorities are incapable of meeting these obligations.  It’s the quiet insinuation that (for instance) there’s something about Islam that makes it incompatible with being a patriotic American citizen, so American Muslims should be held to a different standard of citizenship.  We shouldn’t expect Muslim Americans to serve in the military or run for office or be too involved in our public discourse.  In the name of diversity we should accept the fact that Muslim Americans are just too different for these levels of responsibility and participation.  It’s the worst type of ethnocentrism, that of diminished expectations and it’s sugar coated so that we hardly notice it.        

Defending his appointment of a Muslim American judge, Governor Chris Christie, didn’t feel the need to mention any special considerations for citizenship as it relates to Islam.  What he said was the following:

“I nominated Sohail Muhammed because he’s a good lawyer and an outstanding human being.  The guy’s an American citizen, who has been an admitted lawyer to practice in the state of New Jersey swearing an oath to uphold the laws of New Jersey, the constitution of the state of New Jersey and the constitution of the United States of America.”           

I imagine it’s not easy being a patriotic American Muslim.  But, hey, it’s no picnic being a patriotic American atheist either.  We are the most universally and publicly detested group of people in the country.  One good thing about being universally detested is that you get used to having your views questioned.  It doesn’t offend me.  Quite the opposite, I relish the opportunity to get on my soapbox about being a Godless commie.  Atheists are rationale.  We like debate.

Why is the discussion (or rather the challenging) of my atheist values fair game, but the discussion of Muslim or Christian values somehow sacrosanct?  When your religious views inform your political positions, guess what?  They become fair game in public discourse.  Why are we liberals so cowardly about holding legitimate debate about ethnicity, religion (especially regarding Islam) and citizenship?  The Republican Governor of New Jersey clearly isn’t.    

During the dust-up over Dutch cartoons back in 2005, the much-reviled Ayaan Hirsi Ali said,

“I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny.  Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad’s teachings should refrain from drawing him,” or, I would add, discussing how his teachings mesh with the American concept of citizenship, “is not a request for respect, but a demand for submission.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a lot of things, but a fucking coward is not one of them.  

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jefferson's War

I couldn't find any portraits of him with Sally Hemings... 

Like the rest of the world, I watched the Arab spring unfold in awe.  Most recently that awe has been centered on Libya. A lot of pundits have pointed out that it is oddly fitting that it is in Libya – the place where the Stars and Strips flew for the first time in battle on foreign soil – that the United States has taken its first stumbling steps in reevaluating the way we intervene abroad.  I count myself among the chorus who were very happy to see the U.S. relinquish the driver’s seat to our European allies.  But, when the “rebels” entered Tripoli on August 21st, this was not at the forefront of my mind; I was thinking of Thomas Jefferson. 

Thomas Jefferson was President at the time fo the U.S.`s first foray into Libya during the first Barbary War in 1805 (the word “Barbary” stems from the Berber population of North Africa and also, probably, from the not so subtle similarity in English to the word “barbarism”).  At Marine boot camp every young recruit learns the story of Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon raising the American flag over Derna (in what is modern day Libya) during one of the crucial battles of the first Barbary conflict. The part of the Barbary adventure that most Marines are chiefly concerned with is the presentation of the Mamulke sword to Lieutenant O’Bannon by the Viceroy of the Ottoman Empire as a testament to his (and the nascent United States Marine Corps’) valor in battle.  Marines (me included) love the story of O’Bannon leading a ragtag band of leathernecks to victory on a foreign shore and the modern Marine Corps officers’ sword is modeled on the Mamulke blade. 

In Marine Corps boot camp you learn the organization’s history similar to the way you memorize the effective range of the M-16 A2 assault rifle: without the burden of too much context.  So, while the Barbary War is immortalized in the first line of the Marine Corps hymn (“From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”), at boot camp I didn’t consciously make any connection between Libya and the U.S.’s first intervention abroad.  What can I say?  I was a kid.  While the military is one of the few institutions in American society where 17, 18 and 19 year olds are expected to conduct themselves as adults, a teenager is still just a teenager and I was probably less mature than most. 

A few years after boot camp I attended the “Corporals’ Leadership Course.”  One of the exercises in the course was the presentation of a small research paper to our peers.  The subject I drew was the Marine Corps’ involvement in the Barbary Wars.  I was psyched and approached the project with gusto.  Probably a little too much gusto; I exceeded the allotted time limit by more than 15 minutes and ended up getting a pretty low mark.  I spent the majority of my outsized presentation pointing out the very executive nature of the Barbary conflict. 

Thomas Jefferson was freshly inaugurated as president when he requested permission from the congress for authority to deal with the Barbary pirates with “all the hostility as a state of war will justify.”  Congress granted this authority, but it never formally declared war on the Barbary States.  To a large extent, Jefferson’s actions in 1805 set the stage for the way the executive office has approached conflict abroad since.  That is to say without too much congressional oversight.  I was at the “Corporals’ Leadership Course” in 1999, so in my presentation I compared the broad executive authority exercised by Jefferson during the First Barbary War with Clinton’s disregard for the War Powers Resolution in the Kosovo conflict.  Ironically, in the early days of the most recent Libyan campaign Obama drew similar ire for supposedly ignoring the same (possibility unconstitutional) resolution.

Interesting.  But, this isn`t the only part of Jefferson`s legacy that is wrapped up in Libya.  As the drafter of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson helped established the modern concept of human rights: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.  That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.   

In1859, Abraham Lincoln put it thus:

All honor to Jefferson: to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.         

This “abstract truth“ is the modern notion of human rights and one can draw a line directly from the American Declaration of Independence to the modern concept of  “Responsibility to Protect,” which got its first real test in Libya this year.  I dislike the acronym “R2P” (it sounds like a droid in Star Wars), but it’s so ubiquitous nowadays that there’s no point fighting it.  R2P contends that state sovereignty does not just entail rights, but also responsibilities.  When states fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, than other states have the responsibility to protect those populations by, if necessary, armed intervention.  In a statement that would have made Jefferson proud, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described R2P as follows: 

Sovereignty should no longer be seen as a privilege but as a very heavy responsibility.  Every State has to protect its people: it is only when States respect fundamental human rights and uphold the dignity and worth of each person, that sovereignty will be recognized as credible and legitimate.


The UN adopted the principle at the 2005 World Summit and (crucially) the UN Security Council affirmed its support for the international norm in 2006.  In January 2009 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued, “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect,” which outlined the principles of R2P.  R2P takes its cue more from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a direct descendant of the American Declaration of Independence), than the UN charter, which solely addresses state-centric security issues: 

Nothing contained in the present charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. (Article 2, Part 7).   

The Libya case once again demonstrates that many of the threats to international security today do not stem from inter-state rivalry, but rather from deteriorating conditions within states.  The concept of R2P is still dangerously elastic.  Hopefully Libya will prove a stepping-stone for further formalization of R2P and eventually lead to a much-needed rewrite of the entire UN charter (as the Russians say, “hope dies last“).   

I`m constantly being accused of looking at the world through “American tinted glasses.“  It`s a charge that I don`t go to a lot of trouble to deny.  Maybe this post is further evidence of some truth to the accusation.  But, so many of his legacies are wrapped up in Libya that it’s the first thing that popped into my head when I watched the footage of the rebels entering Tripoli: Jefferson’s war.  It’s not just that he dug black chicks that makes him my favorite president. 


Sunday, August 21, 2011

UNsung Heroes

Vincent Cochetel arrives to Moscow after his release

In 2008, when Samantha Powers’s biography of Sergio De Mello, “Chasing the Flame: One Man’s fight to Save the World,” was published it was a bit of an oddity.  Jon Stewart’s interview with Rachel Weiz prior to the release of her new film “The Whistleblower” last month was more run of the mill. 

“I am going to lose faith in our institutions,” Stewart quipped, “to hear that the UN mismanaged military contractors in a war-torn nation.” 

I cringed.  As an American “International Civil Servant” you get used to a certain degree of reflexive anti-UNism in our political discourse.  But, when it comes from the left, from a pundit you actually respect, it is unexpected and stings. 

I happened to be in New York when Powers’s book came out and I excitedly bought it in hardback.  Powers painted a picture of Sergio De Mello as a very cool and deeply flawed guy who, while accomplishing incredible things at some of the defining UN missions of his era, was also (for most of his life) a hard-drinking womanizer.  I couldn’t put the book down and, okay, I admit it – I became a bit of a Sergio groupie after finishing it.*  Many of my UN colleagues gently chided me,

“It’s ridiculious to lionize a man just because he happened to be killed at the bombing of the UN Headquarters in Baghdad.”

The unspoken paratheses at the end of this sentence seemed to be, “no UN staff member deserves to have such praise heaped on them.”  Why not?  Sergio’s death was tragic, but his life was extraordinary.  When I was in the Marine Corps I pored over the autobiographies of Chesty Puller, Dan Daly and all the rest.  I devoured every detail of these men’s lives and remained hungry for more – what made these guys tick?  Ask a Marine what he loves most about the Corps and the words you will hear mentioned most frequently include, comraderie, esprit de corps, tradition and history.  Part of this ethos is the mystquie of the larger than life men whose stories are the story of the Marine Corps.  Was it so strange to be fascinated by the UN’s luminaries?  More to the point, was it so strange to assert that we have even had luminaries? The UN has had its share of heroes: Ralph Bunche, Paddy Ashdown, Dag Hammarskjold – these men’s stories are the story of the United Nations.  And not every one of them gets the attention they deserve.    

In the summer of 2009 I attended the United Nations / Scotland Yard Hostage Incident Management Course.  Here 32 professional UN Security Officers were indoctrinated in the nitty gritty of the negotiation process and the ins and outs of managing a hostage incident.  All week I had been waiting excitedly for the Friday session, when we were to hear from Vincent Cochetel.  Vincent is a senior manager at the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and holds the dubious distinction of being the UN staff member held longest in captivity – 11 months in Chechnya. 

As Vincent stepped in front the class I thought he looked a bit like the American comedian Robin Williams, like your favorite college professor – ruffled, scholarly.  At the beginning of this talk he apologized for his strong French accent.  You don’t really apologize for a French accent though, you draw attention to it and then smile as the crowd warms up to you.  Say what you want to about the French, but you have to admit, they are some charming sons of bitches.   

Vincent was abducted from his apartment in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.  A gun was put to his head and he was told to kneel.  He commented that when you watch films or read books you always think of what you would do in such a situation.  No one thinks they will kneel.  But, as Vincent put it, when the gun is pointed to your brow, “You kneel.  And you are afraid.”  The weight of these two sentences hung in the room for several moments after he said them.  He spent 72 hours in the trunks of various vehicles on his way to Chechnya.  When he arrived he stank of dried piss and was so cramped he could hardly stand. 

The men tending to Vincent in captivity rotated.  He spoke of sexual advances, of days without food, of eating soup he knew had been fouled by a particular nasty pair of teenagers’ urine.  Don’t try to set limits for yourself he warned; when trying to purchase survival, you forfeit the right to negotiate the price.  He spoke of life inside his skull, playing translation games in his head from French to Turkish to English, of decorating an imaginary house in his mind, of working out with the frame of his bed.  He spoke of a near release.  He spoke of UN Security Personnel with a degree of respect that is not often heard in the organization.  Sometimes he paused and sometimes his voice wavered, but when it did so it wavered with courage. 

Vincent is a professional United Nations staff member who bravely endured terrifying conditions in the service of others.  I cannot imagine the pain he felt when one of his captors whispered his thanks for the UNHCR shelter that housed him and his family during the first Chechen war.  Vincent tells his own story much better than I ever could – here’s a clip of an interview he gave on World Humanitarian Day in 2010.  If there is a part of the heart that produces valor, then the experience left that part of Vincent’s heart swollen. 

Most days I’m glad I ended up a Field Security Officer in the United Nations and not in the alphabet soup of U.S. government agencies where I thought I would find myself after graduate school.  Like any big bureaucracy, the UN has its defects (but, as someone who has been a defense contractor, I cannot say they are any worse than the waste and abuse I saw at the Pentagon), but there are also great things about the organization and the people that serve within it.    In U.S. political culture, one’s attitude toward the UN traditionally constitutes a sort of political litmus test: positive = liberal, negative = conservative.  But, after you see the missions in Chad, Darfur, Haiti and all the rest, you understand that the United States is dependent on the UN for cost effective peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention.  My experience in the United Nations has made me a true believer in it. 

That’s not to say that I don’t find myself sometimes nauseated when my colleagues casually justify risky field trips with spongy humanitarian buzzwords like “encouraging sustainability,”  “fostering a gender balanced approach” and “capacity building.”  The end-goal of any humanitarian program should be to make itself unnecessary.  I worry that this is not always the objective of people whose livelihoods are tied to specific projects.  But, while it may sound hopelessly jingoistic, the raw fact of the matter is that if there was no UN the United States would often be forced to choose between letting chaos continue unchecked in many parts of the world or footing the bill of intervention alone.  What would be the third option?  In terms of human life, international security and money, it is bi-partisanly in U.S. national interest that UN peacekeeping and humanitarian interventions be done well.  The sooner American policy makers recognize this and give the organization the capabilities to live up to its obligations, the better.       

I made a point of approaching Vincent after his talk and I wish I could have come up with something better than a firm handshake and “Thank you so much for that.”  It was a good reminder for me: despite my occasional disgust with the more fervent tree embracers among my colleagues, the vast majority of the women and men serving in the organization are proud dedicated, international civil servants.  And many of them are made of tougher stuff than they are given credit for.  Happy World Humanitarian Day.**


**On August 19 2003 22 people were killed in the bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.  World Humanitarian Day is held on the anniversary of this attack. 

***Vincent, thank you for your permission to write about this.