Category Archives: Point of View

Je Suis Tired of Posturing

charlierwbcharliegirls

After the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, a spontaneous expression of popular solidarity erupted in Paris and other cities. The new slogan “Je suis Charlie” was born, perhaps echoing President’s Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” during the Berlin blockade. There was defiance in these expressions. What they were saying was: You cannot stop us. We will continue to target intolerance, evil and stupidity wherever we see it.

What started as a genuine outburst of indignation soon degenerated into a mandatory automatic response. Even John Kerry followed suit. No doubt he was moved and moving when he proclaimed: Je suis un Bruxellois after the massive killings there. He reminded us that after 9/11, a French reporter said “tonight we are all Americans.” Unfortunately this has now become a knee jerk reaction. “Je suis” sayings proliferate like mushrooms after rain. It is also, alas a very selective reaction. Paris and Brussels got their fair share but unless my memory fails me, I recall no such condemnation of the Madrid attack. And no one said: Je suis Tunis or Je suis Ankara. Nor was the Eiffel Tower illuminated for them.

Another sentiment often expressed by European leaders after terrorist acts goes something like this: We will not be afraid. We will live like we did before all this. We will continue to sit at cafe terraces, go to the theater and lead a carefree life. But what is really happening everywhere is:greatly increased security and surveillance, a rise of Right Wing anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment and the spread of fear mongering. Civil rights are being attacked and privacy is in jeopardy. We need only look at the Apple encryption brouhaha after the San Bernardino killings to see this. This is not unusual. It happens every time a people is “at war” and feels vulnerable. It sees spies everywhere. Perhaps some of this is justified but it creates a tense and unhealthy atmosphere. In the meantime the refugee tsunami continues to swell and exacerbates an already shaky equilibrium.



ISIS and Soup

bowlofsoup

Our problem in tackling ISIS is that it is not just a piece of land inhabited by enemies of the Western World but an ideology willing to die for its belief that the West must be annihilated.

Recently Avigdor Lieberman, (former Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs) called for a full scale rooting out of ISIS…by NATO. Well, Turkey might not be so keen to help.

And as our military experts remind us, taking territory is so much easier than holding it. As Americans well know, it is very hard to know when it is “mission accomplished.” Is it ever? Lieberman’s Trumpian proposal has very real problems.

But how do we deal with a large scale ideological conflict? Didn’t we do that already when we defeated the Communist World? True it took a very long time to achieve and exacted a high price. In addition, although Communism started as an ideal it was quickly transformed into a “pretend” ideology. Its leaders stopped believing in it and used it principally to consolidate their power.

But Communism, though it stirred many people, did not generate the fervor that ISIS has achieved. Did anyone hear of any young communists blowing themselves up shouting “Marx is Great?”

ISIS, in contrast, is attracting and brainwashing young, ignorant, disaffected recruits with promises of a better life in Paradise where they will be greeted and wooed by 72 beautiful virgins. (Young women who become martyrs are not offered an equivalent benefit.)

It seems that we are dealing with a mutation to a new species of humanoids devoid of many of the traits of empathy, generosity and tolerance that mankind has slowly developed.

And so it is difficult not to be pessimistic about our ability to deal with this scourge. What can we offer in response? The imperfections of democratic rule? The greed of capitalism? Nobody has yet invented an anti-jihadist vaccine, and some of these addicts are too far gone for us to reach.

We can only start at the bottom with the very young. See to it that we give them the proper environment to thrive, a good basic education, role models to emulate, opportunities for jobs and social integration. We must make sure that they do not inhabit a parallel world, and live in enclaves where they nurse grievances that evolve into hatred.

We also need to keep stirring the melting pot of the world. It makes a pretty good soup.

Editor’s Note: Simone thrives on your comments. We encourage you to contribute your thoughts.



Bring them Back? Safe Return?

bringbackgirlssignabductedgirls

Two years ago in April the extremist group Boko Haram stormed a girls’ secondary school in the town of Chibok, Nigeria and seized 276 girls. At the time, this massive kidnapping created an enormous worldwide reaction. People “prayed” and “demanded ” that the girls be returned home. At the White House, Michelle Obama tweeted: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It is time to #Bring Back Our Girls.” Through social media, millions closely watched all developments.

Whom are they addressing these demands and prayers to? A remorseful Boko Haram suddenly contrite? An efficient and competent Nigerian Government? Or an attentively listening God eager to grant wishes?

Now two years later crowds are marching in the streets of Abuja again chanting and “demanding” the return of the girls. Do they think that the girls who most probably were promptly dispersed into neighboring countries will magically reappear looking just as they did when they were violently snatched by vicious intruders? Boko Haram has killed and kidnapped thousands in a campaign of violence as it (like ISIS ) seeks to establish a caliphate in Africa’s most populous nation. It coerces men to become fighters and girls to be slaves or even suicide bombers.
I recently saw a television interview with a Nigerian girl who had been abducted on another occasion (these raids are a regular occurrence) and who had somehow managed to escape. She had been 13 when she was snatched and was now 17 . She told of girls forcibly married or used as slaves by many of the warriors.

The girl had returned, but with a baby. Instead of being comforted and embraced by her family, she was brutally rejected. Her family wanted to kill the baby. He died later without their help. The girl had “dishonored” the family. She was now a pariah. Throughout the interview the girl played nervously with her shawl. She looked beautiful but her eyes had no expression. She told the interviewer she wanted to return and join Boko Haram and become a suicide bomber. As long as such pernicious attitudes continue to exist in the population, and when a perverted code of honor is invoked, there will never be a safe return for these very unlucky girls.



Better or Worse?

Simone & Daughter Dina

Simone & Daughter Dina

Recently my daughter Dina and I were talking about how some things had improved in our lifetimes and how some had gotten worse. Were things better in the “olden days” or today? So we made lists. Some changes are for the better – such as opportunities for women and some things have gotten worse – political discourse seems out of control. Some changes are more important than others, but it was fun to try to list them – major and minor both.

Simone: I love Google and the Internet! In my work as a librarian I specialized in computer information retrieval. People filled out search request forms and we had to find the information for them using an algorithm designed to give them as comprehensive a listing as possible and at the same time eliminating extraneous information. The end product was usually a bibliography, which is a list of sources. Sometimes it included a digest. Rarely was it a full-text result.

Google finds the actual information and seems to have an in-built intuition of what is wanted. We have designed it to reach beyond what we can do, as an extension to our senses and capabilities, just like a microscope or a telescope can look further and deeper. A caveat: We still have to assess the reliability of the source of information. Wikipedia itself warns us to sometimes look further. In general, though it’s two thumbs up for Google.

Dina: Women’s lives have been vastly improved by the development of the birth control pill, which gives women a lot of control over their own bodies and reduces unwanted pregnancies.

And look at the improvements in medicine including vaccinations. No longer are chicken pox, mumps, measles, and rubella (German measles) a normal part of childhood. Other conditions have been eradicated by the vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, shingles, pneumonia, and flu. Cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence.

Simone: But where have all the doctors gone? In my childhood the slightest ailment, a sore throat, an earache, caused a doctor to materialize. Equipped with a big smile and a black bag of miraculous cures, he would touch, probe and declare reassuringly that everything will be much better “tomorrow.” Now health care is a cumbersome bureaucracy. It takes a long time to get a doctor’s appointment. So instead you go to an emergency service where you are placed on a conveyor belt and moved from one station to another, with repeat questions and no real diagnosis. You also get a big bill afterwards. In France, doctors still make house calls at a modest price.

Dina: We both feel that one thing that has deteriorated is service! We are both bothered when work that used to be done by trained employees has now been turned over to us. The first thing to go was the gas station attendant. If you are in a hurry, nicely dressed, tired, ill or old, you are out of luck. How do “little old ladies” put gas in their cars?

In supermarkets, we still have a choice between regular check-out and “self-service” check-out.” How long will this choice last? Most of us do not know the code for Belgian endive.

Worse still are the airlines. No longer does the nice clerk behind the counter print out a boarding pass. You are now expected to do this yourself at a “self-service” computer even if you are holding a squirming two-year old, keeping track of all your luggage, or don’t know English.

Simone: There are several establishments I use often that have greatly reduced their services: The Post Office and the Banks have cut back on their employees. The result is empty service windows and long lines.
At the Public Library, you can now check in your books, pick up your holds and check out without any human interaction. I must admit that after an initial period of resentment I am now used to this but I miss the niceties of personal contact.
The telephone tree is an abomination the likes of which has seldom been seen. Its originator should be shot on sight without benefit of a trial. Who in their right senses would replace contact with a warm human voice with even a modicum of intelligence, by prearranged messages that have no relation to your information needed? It is a dehumanizing experience.

Dina and Simone: We both love email!

Simone: Let me end with a recollection from my childhood in Lebanon. It wasn’t considered a luxury at the time, but I certainly miss it now…Even though our family was not wealthy, we did not buy clothes in stores. Instead we had a seamstress who had our measurements. What we provided was material and patterns and she sewed clothes to our requirements, adjusting hems with pins while we pivoted this way and that. At the time, I longed for store-bought clothes not realizing that garments made to order would be a luxury some day.

What do you think? Which things were better during your childhood and which ones are better now?

A note from the Editor…Your comments on this blog are like a nourishing rain. You are encouraged to put in your two-cents worth. -ed.



How We Learn #3 – Science, Humans and The Infinite

Previously I mentioned that in my school days the sciences were taught so as to never kindle any interest in me. Our teachers seemed more interested in laying traps (Gotcha!) than in imparting knowledge. I thought of physics and chemistry as bitter-tasting medicine that had to be swallowed. No more.

Nowadays sciences which were strictly separate seem to have coalesced and melded together. Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” combines anthropology, history and geography. Diamond links the human trajectory through time and space to climate, terrain , invasions, scientific discoveries and other unpredictable elements.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an Oxford Professor of Public Understanding of Science and an excellent teacher with a gift for making the esoteric comprehensible. I like his proposition that we humans are only the disposable wrapping that allows our genes to travel on without us. I think that is what immortality really is.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Natural History Museum in New York. He follows in the footsteps of Carl Sagan whose television show Cosmos helped to debunk the idea that we humans are at the center of the universe. Sagan showed that we and our planet are but a tiny dot in the immensity of the cosmos. Tyson notices children’s natural curiosity about the world and observes how it can be drummed out of them by making them adhere to a structured way of learning. This famous scientist encourages daydreaming.

I now leave the familiar sphere altogether with Physicist Lisa Randall. She explains dark and light matter, black holes and introduces us to the Large Hadron Collider which reenacts the Big Bang by accelerating particles and simulating the birth of the Universe. She also explains the recent discovery of Higgs-Boson, an elementary particle that gives other particles their mass and is sometimes called the God Particle. In her latest book she explains how meteorites deposited the seeds of life on earth, and how the dinosaurs disappeared making possible the birth of mammals.

My mind is stretched to its outer limits. Dizziness is imminent as I am desperately trying to hold on to these new ideas. I shall stop with this slippery and elusive knowledge before it totally eludes my grasp.

In Part 4 I will attempt to understand time/space and dwell on our very limited senses.



How We Learn #2 – Missed Opportunities

palmyra (Above, Palmyra, Syria)

How We Learn – Missed Opportunities

In the last post, I discussed the ways in which some of my teachers discouraged learning. I also realized that my own family missed opportunities to help me understand the world.

At home in Beirut, Lebanon we had a curious way of ignoring the very world we lived in. My parents never thought of taking us to the many historic places which were very close to where we lived. There were Roman ruins at Baalbek in Eastern Lebanon which I did not see. I also didn’t get to visit the nearby old city of Damascus, Syria with its colorful souks (markets). I also never made the trip to Palmyra, Syria, which is now all the more regrettable because many of the sights are disappearing before our eyes. We had snow in the Lebanese mountains, yet we never went skiing. Perhaps I should not be too harsh on my parents. They were strangers in a strange land and my father’s main preoccupation was to adapt and survive which he did very well.

I have since learned to open my mind to science topics thanks to reading and listening to wonderful communicators like Neil DeGrass Tyson, Richard Dawkins and Lisa Randall. I will write about them next time.



How We Learn #1

Schulhaus

On the whole, I think I had a good education. When I was growing up, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon which was then under a French Mandate giving it a status that was slightly higher than a colony but not by much.

The French considered it their duty to educate those of us who did not have the good fortune to be born French so they established “lycees” in all their dominions. A lycee is a combination middle school, high school and part college.

Each lycee throughout France had the same curriculum as all the other schools in France. A centralized and uniform system rigidly controlled everything. This meant that early grade history books invariably started with “Our ancestors the Gauls….” Whether our real ancestors were Phoenicians or Israelites was beside the point.

Our school was called “Mission Laique Francaise” which translates as “French Secular Mission” so you might say that our teachers were secular priests spreading culture and civilization instead of religion. Besides imparting knowledge in the sciences and the humanities, they taught us how to think rationally and ask questions. We did not have “true or false” tests but had to write essays in most topics giving reasons for our point of view based of course on our mastery and interpretation of the facts. This was an excellent preparation for higher education and I am grateful to have had the opportunity.

In other respects there were serious deficiencies in the mode of teaching our school espoused. Many of you have heard about the English “public schools” where teachers not only inflicted corporal punishment but mocked, ridiculed and exposed pupils to humiliation. I see now with hindsight that some of that sadism was also present in our own teachers. For instance our graded assignments were always returned to us in class publicly following a system of “worst first” and with sarcastic comments. The longer your name was not called the more relieved you felt. The best assignments were handed out last.

Our physics and chemistry teacher had a sixth sense for sensing who had not prepared the homework and unerringly homed in on those unfortunates with unanswerable questions seemingly enjoying embarrassing them in front of the class. I guess the concept of self-esteem had not yet been invented.

Editor’s note: More musings on education to come in the next post. Please volunteer your own experiences in the comments section and we will publish them.



Me and J.P. (Sartre)

J.P. Sartre when he refused the Nobel Prize

J.P. Sartre when he refused
the Nobel Prize

In 1946, when we were still living in France, I came upon a publication called “Existentialism is a Humanism” by Jean Paul Sartre. It captivated me. Sartre wrote of choice, personal responsibility and discipline. He advocated a philosophy of free will, of man being the architect of his own destiny, with no help from religion or other diktats. Sartre rejected other-directed moral imperatives and received values. I liked the idea of man being defined by his actions and their consequences, without a prescribed way of life. To Sartre, life was a succession of free choices. Jean Paul Sartre was a philosopher, a political activist and a novelist. I read No Exit, Nausea, The Flies and others and enjoyed them all.

But Sartre’s views led him to strange engagements. Like many other intellectuals of the day he had become a Communist during World War II. To him communism was an antidote to fascism. Wasn’t Stalin fighting and defeating the Nazis? After the war, Sartre traveled to Russia and wrote a favorable report, unable to see forced collectivization, and the mass executions of political “enemies” that did not fit his preconceived views.

Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir when they were both studying philosophy. De Beauvoir was a novelist and a feminist. She wrote: The Second Sex and Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter which I read and found to be a little heavy. She had no sense of humor.

De Beauvoir and Sartre had the same philosophy of life and thus a very strange relationship. They were a couple but led totally independent lives. Sartre loved women and both he and de Beauvoir had many affairs. She even introduced him to other women. They both affected to despise conventions and to reject bourgeois morality. Though she was a feminist, de Beauvoir was totally subjugated by Sartre.

In May 1968 they both joined the student revolt in Paris and marched with placards glorifying Mao Zedong. They had chosen a path that I could not follow and I lost my respect for them. It was incomprehensible to me how such intelligent people could so willfully blind themselves to what was happening around them.

Many of their peers had also fallen prey to this bizarre fascination for Mao and his little red book. How they could overlook the 36 million or more dead in the artificial famine of the “Great Leap Forward” and the tortures, massacres, and imprisonments of anyone not in favor with the ruling powers was incomprehensible to me. Why did they ally themselves with the executioners rather than the victims? I saw a yawning trench between their ideals and the path they had chosen to follow.

French intellectuals in those days also worshiped Stalin and Castro and exhibited a virulent anti-Americanism. It was their way of “epater le bourgeois,” (to shock the middle class). They seemed to enjoy this role. They had followers in the United States including Leonard Bernstein who affected this form of “radical chic” also.

Protected from reprisals because they lived in a democracy, they became “revolutionaries” from the safety of their armchairs. To me, it was blatant hypocrisy. The French author Jean Francois Revel called Sartre an impostor with his Marxist acrobatics. He wrote that Sartre was a philosopher of liberty who hated liberty and wondered why this intelligent thinker chose the intellectual night of Communism.

Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1964, but turned it down stating that writers should not affiliate themselves with institutions.



The Other Africa

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi

Mma Ramotswe and Mma
Makutsi

Our constant news cycle gives us a very skewed view of the world. We are at the mercy of the media which have a penchant for the brutal, the sensational and the disastrous. Take the coverage of Africa. We know all about greedy dictators who accumulate obscene fortunes while their people are destitute. We know about rigged elections and corrupt rulers who cling to power long after their terms have expired. There is chaos in Somalia and Eritrea, mayhem in Congo and Sudan. Nigeria has an infestation of terrorists (Boko Haram) and in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe has instituted a North Korea-style brutal dictatorship.

But what do we know about countries where people lead ordinary lives, going about their business, not causing trouble or bothering anybody? We never hear about Malawi, Senegal, Gabon, the Gambia, Tanzania or Botswana.

For this reason I would like to give a huge thank you to Alexander McCall Smith who takes us to Gaborone, Botswana in his series about The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. He shows us another Africa that is not torn by violence and mayhem. Granted he has idealized Botswana a little, but the good thing is that he introduces us to a different culture, one of people who show much kindness and consideration for others and who look at life in their own unique way.

He introduces us to Mma Ramotswe, the founder and owner of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency, presented us to her secretary-assistant-partner Mma Makutsi, and to her husband J.L.B Matekoni, proprietor of the Tolkweng Road Speedy Motors garage. Mma Ramotswe’s name is Precious and she is euphemistically described as “traditionally built.” Mma Makutsi whose first name is Grace is the proud recipient of a 97% final grade in Secretarial School. Mma is a polite and formal way of addressing ladies. The equivalent for men is Rra. J.L.B. Matekoni’s first name has never been divulged. We are also told that Mma Makutsi has many virtues which “she is the first to admit to.”

We all have an inner voice which talks to us. Mma Makutsi who has a weakness for colorful shoes, has projected this voice onto her shoes and they talk to her and guide her choices in life.

Mma Ramotswe and J.L.B Matekone live in a comfortable house on Zebra Drive, with a verandah where they drink bush tea, and a shady garden with an acacia tree. They have two adopted children, one of whom is in a wheelchair. In Africa it is very common to raise children who are not your own, sometimes nieces and nephews, sometimes strangers, because of the large number of orphans, and to treat them as your own children. Although Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L. B. Matekoni obviously love each other, they have a curiously formal way of addressing each other.

People come to Mma Ramotswe ‘s agency with problems that she solves with a combination of common sense, determination, empathy and astuteness. The detection aspect of the story often serves to demonstrate the Botswana way of thinking and to illustrate a way of life which is essentially leisurely, old fashioned and unassuming. There are, of course, also villains, cheaters and baddies or Precious Ramotswe would be unemployed. Gaborone’s inhabitants have a circuitous way of conversing, going off on tangents and meandering before they get to the point (if they ever do.) They have a knack for making a short story long and the author loves to poke gentle fun at them. People’s wealth is measured in heads of cattle.

The country they live in has been democratically ruled since its independence in 1966. It is sparsely populated and has a modest standard of living. Once in a while we are reminded of medical epidemics (AIDS) which leave children orphans. The Limpopo River and Kalahari Desert add a note of exoticism. There are still some wild animals and human hunter-gatherers in the desert.

There are now 15 titles in this series and they are all a pleasure to read. The latest one is “The Woman who Walks in Sunshine.”



Terror Stalks Paris, Beirut, Bamako

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There were three terrorist attacks in in the world in one week carried out by ISIS and Boko Haram: They were in Beirut (Lebanon), Paris and Bamako (Mali). The magnitude, character and location of the Paris attacks captured all the media attention and managed to suck the air out of anything else that happened that same week.

In Paris, the planning by at least four groups had been meticulous. Much of the preparation originated in Brussels, Belgium. Many of the terrorists have now either died, been captured or killed but some are still not accounted for as of this writing. Saleh Abdelsalam, thought to be the brains of the operation is still at large. As a result, for much of last week, Brussels was a “dead” city. Everything was shut down, streets were deserted as people were encouraged to stay home because large gatherings were likely to be targeted. Life did not “go on.”

President Hollande of France whose job performance ratings had been very low, rose to the occasion and took a De Gaullesque stance. He announced: We are in a state of war and ISIS must be destroyed. Well, Monsieur Hollande, we have been in a state of war for some time already. The attackers were not “strangers.” Many of them are disenchanted locals, second and third generation immigrants who reached the citizen stage without ever going through the “melting pot” stage. They did not grow roots or learn how to fashion their own destiny. As a result, they fell prey to the jihadists’ siren songs. These West-haters are only too happy to do the thinking for them. They lure them with promises, give them a sense of belonging and a group identity not to mention a salary. The French have been lax in detecting the signs of this mounting discontent. They have closed their eyes to these youth’s increasing restiveness and have not been able to gain their allegiance.

Another contributing factor to this new vulnerability is that Europe does not have a common defense system. There is no coordination in information sharing and precautionary measures. So now the violence is no longer peripheral to Europe. Contamination has set in. We know now that this sort of attack does not happen only in destabilized societies. Europe is not used to living in a context of violence, suspicion and paranoia. It is also helpful to remember that France is one of the countries that has been selling arms to Qatar which finances revolutionary mosques in which much terrorist recruiting occurs.

In Beirut, forty people were killed and 200 injured at the American University of Beirut. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. Beirut once known as the Paris of the Orient has had many upheavals and a bloody civil war. It now has an absent government and many Syrian refugees. In spite of this, life had been relatively “normal” recently. However, because the country is associated with upheavals and conflict, hardly anyone took notice of this terrorist attack even though the killings were as random and deadly as the ones in Paris. They happened in crowded areas and affected young and old, Christian and Muslim alike. But in the aftermath, no monuments were illuminated, no flags flown. No outpouring of sympathy and grief were visible. There were no signs of support, solidarity or compassion and no one called it “an attack against humanity.” Was Beirut’s grief less important?

The third attack took place in Bamako, Mali at the Radisson Blu Hotel where many Westerners congregated mainly for business. They were all having breakfast when the assailants burst in and started shooting indiscriminately, randomly and repetitively. Most of the dead were Westerners including six Russians.

Mali had not quite yet recovered from an attempt a few years ago by Tuareg rebels to split the country in two. Fighting raged for months and was only stopped by an infusion of French forces which succeeded in reestablishing a fragile order. It was during this war that the shrines of Sufi Saints, those historic monuments that had stood in Timbuktu for centuries, were blown up.

Motivated probably by the terrorist attack on a Russian airliner which killed 224 people and the Bamako attack, the Russians have decided to join, at some level, the Western anti-terrorist coalition. Suddenly Vladimir Putin is a persona grata and not a pariah . He says he is quite eager to help. But so long as Russia supports Syria’s President Assad, the Syrian Sunnis will not take up arms to expel Isis. We don’t know what Russia will do and can only watch and wait.