Archive for the ‘World affairs’ Category

Mad Dog

December 24, 2018

While the government is partly shut down, held hostage to his futile wall demand, the Russian stooge in the White House is pulling our troops out of Syria. He says ISIS is defeated. That’s as true as his claiming North Korea is denuclearizing. Trump’s first foreign policy precept is (as in everything): just lie.

Here too is the great deal maker in action. His negotiating strategy, and second foreign policy precept: give away everything for nothing in return. As with moving our embassy to Jerusalem, which he actually boasted took that issue off the table. For nothing in return. Now he’s given Putin, and Iran, and Bashar Assad, and ISIS, and Turkey’s Erdogan, something they all wanted very much. Getting nothing in return.

Meantime our erstwhile Kurdish allies — the one force in the region that was really in our corner — we’ve now repaid by royally screwing, abandoning them to the mercies of the Turks, Syrians, Russians, Iranians, and ISIS, all of whom want them destroyed.

Trump is also pulling half our troops from Afghanistan. For years we’ve tried to get the Taliban to negotiate. Now their intransigence is rewarded. They too are delighted by Trump’s actions.

So there’s his third foreign policy precept: give our allies the finger while rewarding our foes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest against this policy, pointedly saying Trump “deserves” a defense secretary who’s in line with it. If such a person exists. (But none of this should be dignified with the word “policy;” in truth Trump just acts blindly on whim.)

Mattis’s letter said he’d retire February 28. Trump then tweeted he’d be out by January 1.

When first nominating him, Trump reveled in his “Mad Dog Mattis” nickname. Mattis himself reportedly hated that name. Who’s the real mad dog?

Jim Mattis should be the Democrats’ presidential candidate. “Make America great again?” Let’s just hope it survives this shitstorm. Not even half over, two years and 27 days left. And it will get worse.

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Fear and Loathing in France and Britain

December 11, 2018

France is having a meltdown; a toddler’s screaming tantrum, pounding its fists and kicking its legs. Convulsed with truly scary violence around protests against Emmanuel Macron’s presidency.

I used to be contemptuous of France and its politics (here’s an example). Then in 2017 they had a fit of seeming sense, electing an actually good president, with 66% of the vote no less — a landslide of proportions unheard of in America. After that, his brand-new party swept parliamentary elections too. But this revolution wasn’t all it seemed. In the presidential contest’s first round, Macron got only 24%, just enough to make the runoff, which he won only because the other candidate was utterly beyond the pale. (Though just such a candidate was elected in America.) Macron’s new party romped because the French had lost all faith in the old ones.

Still, Macron did win with pledges of long-overdue reforms to juice France’s anemic economy. (Unemployment is 9%, due in good part to an over-regulated labor market.) But the French are like St. Augustine who said, “God, make me chaste, but not yet.” So France has a repetitive history of presidents rolling out reforms, followed by eruption in the streets, followed by presidential capitulation. Macron vowed this would not be his story too.

Then the streets duly erupted. The immediate issue was a fuel tax, but the deeper complaint is the idea that Macron is out-of-touch and his reforms benefit the rich. Those actually protesting may be a small minority, but most French citizens back them. Contrary to his brave vow, Macron folded on the fuel tax. However, that’s seen as too little, too late, and the violence continues. On Monday he made a speech offering more concessions. It doesn’t seem to be working.

Meantime in Great Britain —

I wrote in August recapping the Brexit picture. Parliament was supposed to vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal with the European Union. But she cancelled the vote because it was clear she’d lose, badly. Brexit voters in the 2016 referendum were delusional in imagining Britain could keep the benefits of the EU while freeing itself of the drawbacks. It turns out to be the reverse. The best deal May could get is clearly worse, all around, than the status quo. The Europeans are unbudging. But Brexiteers, still unable to face up to the hard reality, are screaming “betrayal” at May.

How can this mess be resolved? Britain should have a new referendum question — accept the deal on offer or stay in the EU. The latter would likely win. But Brexit zealots probably won’t allow such a vote. The deadline is March 29, and Britain now seems headed for crashing out of the EU without any deal — an economic nightmare. Meantime May’s hold on power hangs by a thread, within her own Conservative party. While waiting to take over is the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. A very bad man whose accession would consummate Britain’s national suicide.

What do the French and British situations have in common? Citizen bloody-mindedness. Unreasonableness. Irresponsibility. Wanting what they want without regard to sense and reality.

The French overwhelmingly elected a government but refuse to let it govern. The Brits still refuse to give up the utter folly of Brexit.

And what about America? Trump has jeered at Macron’s poll ratings; elected with 66%, he’s now fallen to an abysmal 20%, while Trump remains at 40%. Is Macron really worse than Trump?! But if the French are fickle, America has the opposite problem. Trump’s steady poll numbers, in the face of his presidency’s total train-wreck, bespeaks a different and worse pathology. At least the French are reacting (if wrongly) to what they see is happening. The 40% of Americans backing Trump refuse to see what’s happening.

Here is the problem of democracy (which the Chinese regime smugly points to). Democracy’s weakness is not politicians behaving badly, it’s voters behaving badly. Politicians only march to voters’ tunes. In all three countries — France, Britain, America — and, alas, many others — voters have been behaving very badly indeed.

Why? A big subject. But read this past blog post for part of the answer; a review of a book titled The Death of Expertise. In a nutshell, today’s culture encourages the narcissism of thinking your opinions are as good as anyone’s.

Well (sigh), democracy is still better than authoritarian regimes (like China’s) with government not accountable to citizens at all.

Coming to America

December 9, 2018

Olga Porterfield, a friend of mine, gave a talk to the Capital District Humanist Society, about Jewish refugees exiting the Soviet Union. She was one of them, at age 20, in 1979.

She began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. — “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

Olga Zemitskaya was born in Moscow in 1959. Jewish identity was submerged; in fact, she said, growing up she had no idea what “Jewish” meant. Her Jewish consciousness was awakened when her father brought her to a synagogue for a Simchat Torah celebration. This was actually a subversive thing to do in the atheistic USSR. Also subversive was the family’s “anti-Soviet” attitude; as a teenager she was reading “samizdat” — underground literature passed secretly from hand to hand. Being doubly such a rebel was heady stuff, especially when she fell in love with a boy with the same proclivities. But he was planning to leave for America.

Anti-semitism has a long and dreadful history in that part of the world. Russian anti-semitism went into overdrive in the wake of Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War victory. The situation was aggravated by the 1970 “Airplane affair” when a group of Jews tried to hijack a small plane to escape the USSR.

You couldn’t just pick up and leave. The authorities had to grant permission — and just requesting it marked you as a pariah, you were persecuted for it. Quite a few Jews nevertheless got permission, and went to either the U.S. or Israel. But there were also a great many “refuseniks” — Jews whose exit visas were refused. This became a focus of international condemnation toward the USSR. In 1975, America in response enacted the Jackson-Vanik amendment, punishing the Soviets on trade terms.

To illustrate the issue’s prominence, Olga showed Saturday Night Live’s Gilda Radner babbling on about “Saving Soviet Jewelry.” When informed that the issue was actually “jewry,” she responded with her standard line, “Never mind.”

Shcharansky

A leading refusenik agitator was Anatoly Shcharansky. I remember first seeing him, interviewed in Russia around 1976, and being flabbergasted by the courage of his outspoken criticism of the Soviet regime. In 1977, he was arrested, falsely charged as a spy, and sent to a Siberian ordeal. In 1986, finally, America got him out — exchanged for real spies. Today, as Natan Sharansky, he is an Israeli government minister.

Also mentioned by Olga was Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist who became a vocal dissident, and his Jewish wife, Elena Bonner. Sakharov was immured in internal exile in Gorki.

Sakharov

But as the dictatorship began to crumble, Sakharov actually became a member of parliament, called the nation’s conscience. He died the month after the Berlin Wall fell.

But for Olga her greatest hero was her mother, for whom Olga’s emigration was a deep personal loss; yet she actively supported her daughter in this.

In 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, becoming even more of an international pariah. In a piqued response to the criticism, the Russian regime slammed shut the door on emigration. But luckily for Olga, she had rejected her family’s pleas to hold off and wait until they all could go; she had applied for her exit visa; and got it before the door shut. Her parents were subsequently refused. (They finally reached America in the Gorbachev era.)

Soviet exit visa

Olga showed on the screen that most precious document — her official permission to leave the Soviet Union — forever.

She travelled first to Vienna, then to Rome, to wait for documents to come to America. She loved the weeks she spent in Rome. People were all smiling, she said; “nobody smiled in Moscow.” The workers’ paradise.

Olga arrived in the United States of America on June 21, 1979. When we still welcomed immigrants.

Trump, China, and the axis of evil

November 21, 2018

For a long time we imagined China’s rise would be its growing up — into a mature member of responsible world society. But now that society itself is looking ever more ragged, its norms of civilized behavior being shredded by Saudis, Russians, Iranians, and others — including indeed America — as well as China. China epitomizes the badness of the bad old days, a regime exerting muscle to get its way abroad and to repress its own citizens at home. (China employs two million people censoring the internet; has put maybe a million in “re-education” camps.) Not the better new world we’d hoped was a’borning.

An editorial in The Economist’s October 20 issue said the Trump administration is right to step up what had really previously been a weak response to China’s sharp elbows; right to recognize that China’s interests (actually, its regime’s) conflict with ours, and that it’s a bad actor needing to be confronted and opposed.

But in that battle, despite all his bluster, Trump — so besotted with military strength — is unilaterally disarming us. He’s “a bull in a China shop,” whose actions actually boost China.

The first thing he did was to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which had been our most forceful response to China’s challenge. It was a carefully built deal among eleven key nations to set the regional terms of trade to our advantage, blocking China’s aim for economic dominance. When Trump threw that away, the rulers in Beijing celebrated and guffawed, unable to believe their luck.

Then Trump’s trade war hurts America more than it hurts China, weakening our economy by reducing our own exports while making stuff we buy more expensive.

But here is the bigger picture. China has four times our population. Contending with China requires strong solidarity among the alliance of Western-oriented democracies. America actually had the world’s greatest-ever network of global friends. Until Trump came along, showering those alliances with contempt and doing all he could to wreck them. As if we can take on China all by ourselves.

Meantime China itself isn’t so stupidly blind to the need for alliances, assiduously working to build its own such network. Which China does through bullying, intimidation, bribery, throwing its money and its weight around. Which, unsurprisingly, countries actually resent. Whereas America had true friends — nations standing with us because they shared our positive values.

Those values and ideals won the cold war. Communism stood for a closed society of enforced conformism, a repressive Big Brother state. Not only did our economic model work better, it did so by giving people the opportunities freedom provides, with democracy and human rights — a very attractive package. But that crucial American asset too Trump is throwing away. He neither honors, nor even understands, those idealistic values; instead he actually stomps on them.

When the Saudis sent a 15-strong killer squad to Turkey to dismember a Washington Post journalist, denied any knowledge for two weeks, and then concocted a ludicrous lie about a fistfight (but couldn’t say what happened to the body), Trump initially declared that “credible.” He deemed our selling arms to Saudi Arabia (to brutalize Yemen) more important. And now, with his own intelligence service concluding that the Saudi ruler in fact ordered the murder, Trump dismisses that, calling Saudi Arabia our “steadfast partner.”

Which sends the world a clear message: that America no longer stands for truth, justice, freedom, and human rights. Instead America now stands for a world of might makes right. Where money trumps morality. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with autocrats who commit murder and lie about it.

Who ever imagined America would join the axis of evil?

If the world must choose between an incompetent buffoon of a would-be American autocrat, and the real thing in China, China will win.

 

Make America America Again

October 29, 2018

When I wrote recently about the coming elections, I didn’t mention “health care.” Which Democrats pitch as their main issue. (Republicans respond by lying about their record.)

Columnist David Brooks thinks Democrats are missing the boat. In the remote past (pre-2016), health care might have been a great issue for them. They continue to think in materialist, transactional terms, trying to offer voters good policy. But Democrats could never fathom why many people voted against (what Dems saw as) their economic interests. And today, more than ever, many are voting not their wallets but their values, their souls.

This election is indeed not about material issues like health care. It’s about America’s soul.

In two ways. First, Trump offers a story: that America has been screwed by foreigners, both immigrants and other nations, and by corrupt elites. He offers an appeal to cultural identity; a raw nationalism, both economic (however misguided) and ethnic. Not all Trump supporters are racists; but all racists are Trump supporters. And now, gender chauvinism is added to the stew, as Trump bangs the Kavanaugh drum.

All this, as Brooks notes, reflects how today’s core ideological divide is no longer between traditional left and right, but between open and closed societal visions. Thus, on the international stage, Trump says he rejects “the ideology of globalism.” This has profound implications; a go-it-alone policy will produce a world America will find much less comfortable to live in. China’s outlook, notably, is the opposite, in terms of global engagement.

Secondly, as Brooks puts it, Trump has “overturned the traditional moral standards for how leaders are supposed to behave. He’s challenged basic norms of honesty, decency, compassion and moral conduct. He unabashedly exploits rifts in American society.”

Many Republicans say they don’t like Trump’s behavior but like his policies. Never mind how wrong they are about much of the policy picture. What they fail to grasp is how Trump’s conduct is of the essence. Especially the war on truth. He is methodically degrading our civic society, not just morally, but really destroying its whole underpinnings. We can’t have a democracy with debate unmoored from factual reality, and refusal to accept each other’s political legitimacy. This matters more than any particular policies.

All of this is why America’s soul really is on the line. As Brooks says, Trump and the Republicans have “thrown down a cultural, moral and ideological gauntlet.”

And Democrats respond with: better health insurance?

That’s not entirely fair. Many Democrats do push back against everything Trumpism represents. But not in a coherent, focused way, that really meets and answers the Trumpist threat with an alternative big-picture story. Part of the problem, according to Brooks, is that Democrats’ moral vision is of the “social justice warrior” sort, targeting how societal structures marginalize certain segments (the poor, women, blacks, gays). But “if your basic logic is that distinct identity groups are under threat from an oppressive society, it’s very hard to then turn around and defend that society from an authoritarian attack, or to articulate any notion of what even unites that society.”

It doesn’t help that Democrats don’t speak with a single voice, but a gaggle of them, that cannot really get heard in answering the huge Trump shout-a-thon. In 2016, the news media (far from working against him as Trump claims) gave him billions in free air time to blast his message. And they’re still doing it, having failed to learn their lesson, continuing to broadcast his every rally and tweet, becoming his enabler in spreading his poison. Indeed, by presenting it as news, they even give it a patina of legitimacy.

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate must focus on articulating an American cultural identity different and better than what Trump appeals to. One that re-embraces the principles, ideals, and values that made America great. A vision of this nation as an open, confident and optimistic society, where all people are accorded equal dignity. A nation strengthened by its diversity. A nation that engages in the world to make it a better place, for our own benefit as well as others. In sum, an appeal (like Abraham Lincoln’s) to the better angels of our nature.

And at their convention let them reprise proudly the song they played in 1988 — what a different country it seems! — Neil Diamond’s They’re Coming to America.

Jamal Khashoggi, and murderers we love

October 16, 2018

The rule used to be that you could murder all the people you liked within your own borders, but doing it elsewhere was a no-no.

Or was it?

Trotsky

In 1940, Stalin’s arch-nemesis Trotsky, having been thrown out of Russia, lived in exile in Mexico. But Stalin still wanted him dead, and an agent of the Soviet secret police killed him with an ice axe. Exiled Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed in 1978 in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. Alexander Litvinienko, a defector from Russian Intelligence, was murdered in London in 2006 with radioactive poison. More recently a similar defector, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter survived a nerve agent attack that wound up killing a British woman. Iran’s regime has perpetrated the overseas murder of many opponents including a former prime minister, Shapur Bakhtiar, killed near Paris. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un had his half-brother murdered in a foreign airport. Israel has done an overseas job on a Hamas terrorist. China has grabbed an inconvenient person in Thailand to whisk him back.

Khashoggi and fiancee

The latest, of course, is journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, who had left the country in 2017, relocating to America and writing for the Washington Post. On October 2, he went to a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey for some routine paperwork relating to his upcoming marriage, while his fiancee waited outside. Apparently knowing of Khashoggi’s plans, the Saudis had flown in 15 operatives, on two private planes, arriving and leaving the same day. Inside the consulate, they tortured Khashoggi to death, chopped up his body, and somehow disposed of it. These facts are pretty much beyond dispute.

Saudi Arabia’s nominal king is Salman (the last of the numerous sons from the harem of the founding King Saud), but the real ruler is Salman’s 33-year-old son and crown prince Muhammad bin Salman (“MBS”).

MBS

This family’s rule has never been exactly benevolent. But MBS, under the guise of modernizing and reforming the Saudi state, is actually taking it to the next level of viciousness. (Women are now allowed to drive — while advocates for their driving are being locked up.) Apparently MBS’s model for a modern state is Putin’s Russia.

And apparently this young genius MBS either imagined nobody would notice 15 guys flown in and out and Khashoggi missing, or else imagined that the world would simply yawn and move on. As to the latter, he might yet turn out to be right.

With the fact of the murder no longer plausibly deniable — facts do actually still have a toehold in this world, imagine that! So retro!! — now the Plan B is the “rogue elements” line. That is, MBS had no knowledge of those 15 guys and two planes, of course he would never have countenanced such a horrible crime. Of course not. Or maybe they never intended to kill Khashoggi, just a little good-natured horseplay, and it got out of hand. Something like that.

Trump, with his usual eloquence, said what the Saudis did was “not good.” He said there would be “severe punishment” if it were proven true. Of course, in Trumpland, words don’t necessarily mean what you or I might think they mean. Especially the word “true.” But anyhow, the “severe punishment” would not include canceling our arms deal with the Saudi regime, because that might cost us money. So now we know exactly how much, in dollars, America’s morality, principles and ideals are worth. (And never mind that the Saudis use our weapons to commit horrendous atrocities in Yemen.)

But now Trump is himself mouthing the slimy “rogue elements” lie to get MBS off the hook. Trump is not going to smack MBS, because he loves dictators, bad guys, ruthless villains, and killers. Because looking at them is like looking in the mirror. At least he fancies himself in their tough guy image.

This is in fact the Trump who recently stated that he and Kim Jong-un “fell in love. (“No, really!” Trump added; “He wrote me beautiful letters.”) Yes, our president has fallen in love with the blood-soaked North Korean dictator who had his uncle killed with anti-aircraft guns and his half-brother poisoned in a Malaysian airport. Melania, asked recently about Trump’s affairs with porn stars, said that doesn’t faze her. But what about this thing with Kim Jong-un? This is different; Trump never said he’d fallen in love with any porn stars.

Is there a new “first lady” in our future?

(Note to readers: nothing in this blog post, unfortunately, is satire.)

Secular Rescue – saving lives, freedom, and open debate

October 10, 2018

Religion can inspire good deeds. Or killing people with machetes.

This is happening today, notably in Bangladesh, where organized vigilantes target and murder dissenters from Muslim religious orthodoxy, particularly secularist and atheist writers, bloggers, and activists. While the government hardly pretends to disapprove.

The West has its own history, of course, of religious intolerance, persecution, and violence. The Inquisition tortured people for God. Untold numbers were burned at the stake (including philosopher Giordano Bruno who, unlike Galileo, refused to recant his ideas contrary to church dogma). The Thirty Years War, a conflict over theology, killed a third of Europe’s population. Even in America, Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston Common for holding the wrong faith.

But in the West, religion finally calmed down, became domesticated, and nobody here any longer imagines burning people alive for God. My local humanist society meets openly, unmolested, even advertising its nonreligious orientation.

That would not be possible in most Muslim countries today. This actually represents retrogression, because in past epochs Muslims were much more tolerant of religious heterodoxy; but they’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Christian West. There’s no church/state separation. In many Muslim nations, “apostasy” carries a death sentence. (In Pakistan “blasphemy” does. Pakistan has not actually executed anyone for blasphemy, but over 60 people accused of it have been murdered.)

If you read the Koran (here’s my review), its number one theme is nonbelievers will be punished. Repeated on almost every page. But some Muslims today can’t wait for God to do the punishing. They think they’re doing his work for him. A small minority of Muslims, actually; but it doesn’t take many to perpetrate an awful lot of violence.

I am a fearless blogger. Not courageous — but literally fearless because I have nothing to fear in America’s paradise of free expression. I wouldn’t have the courage to do this in a place like Bangladesh, risking machetes.

Some show bravery in battle, for their country or comrades; some in defending their families. But the courage we’re talking about here — for an idea — is of a very special sort. I’m in awe of these noble heroes.

And I’m proud to support them, with money at least, by funding Secular Rescue, a program run by the Center for Inquiry (a leading organization promoting secular humanist values). The program assists, defends, and protects writers under threat for expressing viewpoints that challenge local religious orthodoxies, mainly in Muslim countries. It provides tangible help, such as legal services, and even relocating them to safer places — a kind of “underground railroad.” Secular Rescue works very hard to evaluate and verify cases, to make sure the people helped are truly in danger. All that work, and the help itself, costs money.

I will match contributions to Secular Rescue by any of my blog readers (click here).

This is not just a matter of freedom of expression — increasingly important though that is in today’s world. Open debate is crucial for moving any society forward. But it’s especially urgent for the nations in question because they do harbor the kinds of pernicious beliefs that bring forth the sort of violence described. These Muslim societies are in need of an Enlightenment, like the one in the West that ultimately tamed religious persecution, and opened the path for human progress in so many other manifold ways. That sort of progress requires people with the vision and courage to challenge reigning orthodoxies. That sort of progress cannot happen if such people are silenced, intimidated by violence, squelching free debate. Not only the lives of these brave individuals, but these societies’ futures, are at stake. That is the importance of Secular Rescue.

One nonbeliever in a Muslim country was not killed but was actually diagnosed as insane by its medical establishment, forcibly hospitalized and “treated” for his “affliction.” I was reminded of the Twilight Zone episode where a gal undergoes surgery for her ugly facial deformity. But when, in the hospital, the bandages come off, it’s a failure — she’s still (in our eyes) beautiful, in contrast to all the “normal” people around, only now revealed as (to us) grotesque.

Atheism is the sane, rational understanding of a cosmos whose observable reality is wholly at odds with religious ideas. Those ideas would be called insane, delusional, if held only by a few; but when held by the many, they are normal. But that nonbeliever may have been the only truly sane person in that Muslim nut house.

A non-ugly American in Somaliland: Jonathan Starr’s Abaarso school

September 30, 2018

Bad news abounds. Even efforts to improve the world often do the opposite — that’s the history of foreign aid and development initiatives. “Ugly American” overseas misadventures are legion.

In 1991, Somalia imploded, becoming the textbook “failed state.” But an isolated backwater area broke away, declaring independence as the Republic of Somaliland. It’s not an internationally recognized country, and no halcyon place. But at least (by local standards) relatively stable, peaceful, and even democratic.

Enter Jonathan Starr. Having made some bucks in finance, at 32 he wanted a better life mission. So in 2009 this American went to Somaliland to start a school.

Lousy education is a key factor impeding progress throughout Africa. Even where kids do attend school, teachers often don’t, they’re ill-equipped anyway, and lessons emphasize rote memorization, so little is really learned. Starr’s aim was to create not just a good school but a great one. With high academic standards, nurturing and character building, preparing students to go on to the world’s top universities, and come back to become Somaliland’s leaders.

Was he nuts? Many would have said so. I’d actually entertained African school fantasies myself — until realism dissuaded me. Starr was indeed extremely naive thinking he’d just walk into such a hardscrabble country and do this. It broke all the rules. He had no relevant expertise; didn’t even speak Somali.

Abaarso School

The story is told in his 2016 book, It Takes a School. It actually got built, and Starr got some Americans to come teach there (in English). Along the way, some big mistakes were made, and numerous setbacks and nail-biting crises occurred. The book is candid about this. One section is titled, “The Great Miscalculation.” (A later chapter: “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”)

For one thing, the Abaarso School of Science and Technology was named for the locale — Starr didn’t realize “Abaarso” means “drought.” So water was an unforeseen problem. Then a local mover-and-shaker he teamed up with, named Khadar, turned into the partner from hell, exploiting his government and clan connections trying to take over the whole project himself. He even planted fake news stories accusing the school of anti-Islamic activities, and tried to get Starr thrown out of the country.

Starr realized he was up against the way things too often work in Africa — or, more accurately, don’t work, stymying progress. But by now he was far along the learning curve, and had built a network of local relationships enabling him to defeat Khadar’s efforts. Starr got the Somaliland government, finally, squarely in his own corner. A blue-ribbon Muslim religious council was summoned to give the school a stamp of approval. And it helped that Abaarso started showing spectacular results: graduates accepted, with scholarships, to leading U.S. universities. That was something unheard of in Somaliland, where those kids became national heroes.

Mubarik

One was Mubarik, a former nomad goat-herder; the first time he saw a truck he thought it was some kind of animal. Mubarik has now graduated from MIT.

We met Jonathan Starr at the Ingersoll event I wrote about; only because my wife happened to notice “Worcester MA” (where she went to college) on his mother’s name tag. That led to seating ourselves beside them at the dinner, and hearing a little of his story. Which also led to our spending some time with three female Abaarso alums, one of them starting at the nearby Emma Willard School. You couldn’t find more impressive, admirable young women. They rhapsodized about how Abaarso, and its founder, changed their lives.

Unlike many American kids who take for granted what they’re given, these Somalilanders realize they’re escaping what would otherwise be a life without hope (that’s led so many Africans into rickety boats), and they behave accordingly. The Emma Willard gal literally kissed the steps upon arrival. No slackers, these kids work very hard to make the most of their precious opportunities.

Cynics and pessimists always see problems as intractable. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s sometimes true. But Starr was not deterred; was naive enough to make the effort, despite all the obvious handicaps he started with. This is a tremendous lesson for positive thinking. We humans have huge abilities to accomplish things — and often making the effort is the key. As the old line goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Starr, in a speech, said that once he’d started, failure just wasn’t an option. (I was reminded of Susan B. Anthony’s motto, “Failure is Impossible.”)

I also think about America’s own failing schools. Indeed, it’s been shown again and again that even in the worst circumstances, students can succeed in schools having positive-thinking leadership. No circumstances could be worse than what Starr faced in Somaliland. If his school could succeed there, ours can here.

Starr hasn’t stopped with Abaarso. His “Horn of Africa Education Development Fund” has started a second school, a teachers’ college for girls. The plan is for those girls to teach in a network of dozens of good K-12 schools, to be run by Abaarso grads; the first of those is slated to open in 2019. It would not be hyperbole to say the overall project bodes well to ultimately transform the country.

Click here to donate (I have made a significant contribution).

Starr and Abaarso have been profiled on 60 Minutes. Anderson Cooper ended the report by noting that Trump’s Muslim travel ban applies to Somaliland, making it harder for Abaarso grads to seek higher education in the U.S. So far, they’re still managing to get student visas. But staying after their education is another matter. A great self-inflicted loss for America.

Trump’s cruel war on refugees and immigrants intensifies

September 27, 2018

When, for this post, I googled “U.S. refugee admissions,” the very first thing that came up was this quote on the State Department’s website:

“The United States is proud of its history of welcoming immigrants and refugees. The U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

I thought this might be old — but no, strangely enough, it’s still on the website today.

U.S. refugee admissions have fallen steadily since 1994. The refugee cap for President Obama’s last year was 110,000. In his first year Trump slashed that to just 45,000 — the lowest ever (since Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act). And the number actually admitted was far lower still — 21,000.

The administration has now announced that the cap will be slashed again, for the coming year, to only 30,000.

This at a time when worldwide refugee numbers are surging. There are now 68 million displaced people, including 25 million classified as refugees. Thus we are taking in about one tenth of one percent of the world’s refugees. One in a thousand. Is this the Trump administration’s idea of “compassion, generosity and leadership?”

In his UN speech (where his lying braggadocio was literally laughed at) Trump said the answer for refugees is for their own countries to be fine to live in. Yeah, right. As if he’s doing anything toward that end.

Trump demonizes refugees and migrants as a safety threat. Another of his big lies. In fact they commit fewer crimes than the average American. No refugee has ever committed an act of domestic terrorism. Nor are they an economic burden. Immigrants strengthen our economy and are net contributors. A recent article in The Economist said that if Silicon Valley fizzles out it will be because we’ve foolishly stopped up the immigration pipeline.

And indeed it’s not just refugees (and their children) Trump is targeting — and illegal immigrants — but legal immigrants too. He’s been pushing a set of proposals that would cut legal immigration by up to half. And as if that weren’t enough, now Trump proposes (Congressional action not needed) that receiving any sort of public benefit will disqualify an immigrant from a green card (which means legal residence).

The range of public benefits, that have become so much a part of American life, is vast, making it hard to imagine how anyone could comply with such an extreme rule. For example, suppose you, like most seniors, receive prescription drugs under Medicare Part D. That’s a “public benefit,” pursuant to Trump’s prospective rule.

Ostensibly the rule would apply only to new green card applicants (in order to reject many of them), but it seems unclear how it could affect people previously approved. Some may be caught out when reapplying or renewing their green cards. Some may feel compelled to stop using “public benefits” to protect their status. Anyhow, when all these benefit programs were enacted, they didn’t say “citizens only.” In some cases there’s a five-year waiting period. But otherwise, legislators knew these benefits would be available to legal residents, and nobody ever imagined it would make any kind of sense to exclude them entirely.

How many more times will I have to use this picture?

Nobody until Trump and his depraved administration. The vicious meanness of this latest atrocity takes away one’s breath and twists one’s stomach.

In a different country — Canada — it’s been reported that citizens brought folding chairs to queue up overnight to apply for the privilege of sponsoring a refugee.

Somebody ought to re-write that State Department website, now a cruel mockery of what America used to stand for.

Idlib: the coming holocaust

September 17, 2018

Idlib is the last part of Syria still holding out against the Assad regime. Which, together with its Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah allies, is readying a final gotterdammerung bloodbath, against what will likely be equally ferocious resistance. This will not be good for the two to three million civilians there, who will be blasted, incinerated, poison-gassed, starved, and sucked into Assad’s vast torture-industrial complex. Survivors will be made homeless refugees. Where they can go is unclear.

The words “never again” ring ever more hollow.

It was President Obama’s worst mistake to fail to act at a time when there were actually still good options in Syria; compounding it by failing to act even when Assad crossed Obama’s own declared chemical weapons red line. Instead Obama let himself be snookered by a phony Putin-engineered deal. That itself crossed a red line that gave Assad and Putin a green light to act with impunity.

But after hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees, even now it is actually not too late to do something right.

Trump, who conceives himself the total anti-Obama, did ding Assad with airstrikes for a chemical weapons attack. But it was just a pinprick and in reality Trump is actually following Obama’s policy — or non-policy. Indeed, only more so, because his Putin ensorcelment stops his pushing back on anything Russia does.

And Trump’s “policy” makes even less sense than Obama’s because at least Obama was pursuing an arguably desirable strategic objective of engagement with Iran. Trump trashed that, but doesn’t see how his anti-Iran efforts are at odds with his Syria behavior. His only aim in Syria is to defeat ISIS. But ISIS is fighting Iran, and Iran’s client Assad. If Trump really wanted to torpedo Iran, he’d act to stop the victory of the Iran-Assad axis.

And we could. We have the military capability. Some serious bombing could annihilate Assad’s air force and military command-and-control infrastructure. Also what Iran has deployed in Syria.

Trump did apparently, at one point, order Assad’s assassination. Defense Secretary Mattis ignored the order; it was in fact an illegal order (in a normal world, by itself grounds for impeachment). Nevertheless, bombing a presidential palace would be a nice thing to do. If Assad happened to be home, boo-hoo.

NEWS FLASH: Just as I was about to post this, I heard a news report of some kind of deal by Russia and Turkey to establish an Idlib “buffer zone” and put the offensive on hold. Both are bad actors who cannot be trusted.