Saturday, February 23, 2008

Politicians: Who Seeks Common Ground?

I’ve heard being interviewed twice this week. Yesterday it was on ’s TV show, discussing her new book about . On Sunday it was about , for whom she has worked several years, currently as his senior foreign policy adviser. She obviously admires both de Mello and Obama, and for some of the same qualities.

Her description of de Mello (see his photo) sounded like an exaggerated version of Obama’s best quality, his readiness to negotiate with opponents as well as friends. De Mello evidently carried this trait to an extreme by, for example, searching for exactly the right gift to take on his first visit with a presumptive adversary. His opinions about the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq were diametrically opposed to those of , yet he revealed none of his misgivings when meeting with the President. Instead, he established a virtual friendship before he broached such topics as the prison at . Always his ultimate concern was to support the importance and effectiveness of the against all likely critics. This “friendship” with George W. Bush eventually proved his undoing, for when the President wanted to send someone to head the UN mission in Iraq, he immediately thought of that nice guy de Mello, who absolutely did not want the job and who, in fact, was killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber.

There is a gray area instead of a sharp line between diplomatic “buttering up” and principled straight talk. I haven’t read Samantha Power’s book, so I cannot offer an opinion about the merits of De Mello’s flexibility, but for myself I’m sure I would be a lot more rigid. Although I have taught , it is not an approach in which I excel. Sometimes I wish I did, for though I don’t know much about De Mello, I admire Obama’s friendly readiness to negotiate, without preconditions, with enemies of the United States. I don’t think, however, that he would disguise his principled positions for the sake of building friendly relationships that can later be converted into serious negotiations.

A similar dilemma was discussed today in the Globe and Mail by my favorite journalist, . He contrasted the approaches of Nelson Mandela and , who has just resigned his top role in . To my surprise, Saunders revealed that at the end of his revolution, Castro took over a Cuba that was extremely affluent for a Third World country, with a medical system for example that was already outstanding. (Leftists always attribute Cuba’s good medical institutions to Fidel’s wise leadership, and I didn't know otherwise.) And at the time, Castro denied that he was . There were, however, very incompatible factions within his team, and instead of staying liberal he swung around to accept the radical commitments of his brother Raul and of . He turned the Cuban economy in an ideological direction based on “import substitution” and . His estrangement from the US inevitably impoverished Cuba, which thereafter required economic support from the Soviet Union.

, in contrast, continued to pursue good relations with all sides when he was released from prison and resumed his leadership. He might have become an ideologue as easily as Castro, but instead he tried to find with as many others as possible, including his old political nemesis in South Africa. From every standpoint, his policy turned out to help his people more than the position adopted by Castro.

Obama’s approach is being contrasted these days to that of Hillary Clinton and, especially, to that of John McCain. Certainly the comparisons are apt. However, an even greater contrast is between Obama and Castro, while his resemblance to both Sergio De Mello and Nelson Mandela are remarkably conspicuous.

I see another remarkable similarity: between Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. This brings me to a related development going on in Russia now. Vladimir V. , who is almost the mirror image of the hawkish George W. Bush, is about to step down – or step sideways into the prime ministership of Russia. He has named his chosen successor in the presidency, , a younger man who had been his assistant for quite a long time. The usual way of portraying this transition is to expect Medvedev to continue serving as an acolyte of Putin, following his orders indefinitely.

That prediction may prove to be true. Medvedev does have to be elected and is going through desultory motions of campaigning, so what he says now may not reflect his future actions at all. However, I have been reading Johnson’s Russia List – a daily compilation of articles about and usually from Russia, and in many of his speeches, Medvedev is showing a far more liberal attitude than that of his mentor, Putin. He insists that the press should be truly free, for example. He upholds the , and he argues that people should have within the boundaries of the law. Thus he would loosen the rules for registering non-profit organizations, and he would abolish the usual requirement that citizens should have prior permission for their actions; instead they should simply notify the government about their plans.

True, Medvedev often criticizes the United States, just as Putin typically does, but that is understandable. Most Europeans and Canadians – indeed, most people around the whole world nowadays — are also critical of US policies. That will change when the US begins adopting more reasonable and conciliatory positions, as it will certainly do under Obama.

What a prospect! By early 2009 both the United States and Russia may be led by flexible, liberal presidents, Obama and Medvedev. At that time, the progress that had been going on under Gorbachev may resume and even intensify. Let’s hope they get together right away and address the global challenges that lie ahead. We may be nearing a remarkable turning point in human history. I can hardly wait.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Mortality and Meaning in a Resort

I’m in a classy Orlando hotel, vacationing with a woman friend. What set off my present train of thought was my trip to the fourteenth floor lounge this morning. I managed to read The New York Times in a room with about thirty little eight-year-old girls who were having stage make-up applied before their dance competition. The sight irritated me so much that I had to search my own motivations. Why should I feel disdain for children who wear lipstick, tights, and chignons atop their perky little heads? I had to conclude that my own narrow judgmentalism is the problem, not the little girls, or even their parents, who were promoting their activity.

If they had noticed me at all (and no one did) I might have seemed a dour old witch, sitting in the corner and glowering at them.

It is about , I decided. Not , per se. Not , per se. Just the exclusive orientation toward this physical world as the only realm in which discussable human action takes place. Dance has no meaning, nor do sports, nor many of the other innocent ways in which people pass their time.

Later in the day my friend and I went to a spa for . I went first and submitted gladly to the pounding and prodding of my spine by elbows and oily hands. It did me good, I think. Then I sat in the waiting area while my friend took her turn. I was surrounded by vapid reading material. No political or controversial issues were addressed in any of the glossy , but only photos of opulent houses and fashionable hair styles. One friendly hair stylist displayed seven large tattoos all up and down her arms. Her hair was cherry-red. Why do I disapprove of this woman? Something is wrong with me. She is normal. Probably I am not. She seemed to offer competent advice to the client about how to redesign her haircut. I should respect her, I know. I know. Really I should.

But instead I started thinking about an article I’d read on the train in the current New York Review of Books. It was a review of David Rieff’s new book about the death of his mother, . Two or three years ago I spent a couple of days in the company of , who had come to lecture at the about his war experiences. His talk was not well received. He had decided that peacekeepers or NGOs can provide no assistance of any value in a war situation. The best that can do is merely to offer the combatants “a bed for the night” – the title of the book he had most recently written. But he could imagine no real solutions to conflict except by having the war fought and decisively won or lost.

I invited him for a drink in the bar afterward to pursue a conversation about that had arisen between us during the Q and A session. Clearly he has no interest in the nonviolent waging of conflict. However, instead of discussing it further, he simply got up and wandered away without excusing himself or offering any explanation. Though flabbergasted by his rudeness, I concluded that he was probably just burned out. He had been in every that he could find, and that had apparently damaged him. In the group discussions, he hadn’t denied that fact. He said that he had seen many people killed but that he had never killed anyone. An odd and unnecessary statement from a journalist, I should have thought. But later I wondered whether he, like another war correspondent named , had been , finding it a source of in his life.

Now I realize that he probably had been in the midst of tending to his dying mother. I discovered that fact sometime after her death, when he published an article in the , describing his uncertainty about how he should have responded to her emotional requirements. Then he wrote a book about it, and it is the review of that book that I recently read on the train.

The reviewers, and , never mentioned any of the issues that troubled me. Instead, they confined their comments to the medical framework that Rieff had already explored. And in my opinion, Rieff had confined his own comments about his mother’s fatal illness to the medical topics that she had explored. The whole discussion seemed remarkably empty to me — an emptiness that certainly must reflect a certain void in Sontag’s own view of life and death. I have read little of her work, so I may be mistaken, but her commitment to the brute fact of was evidently part of a worldview that avoided metaphysical or religious concerns in a studied, deliberate way. As Johnson and Murray write,

“Sontag had declared when she was a sixteen-year-old student at the University of Chicago that death was not going to cut her own life short, an interestinglyprecocious preoccupation at an age when people normally sense themselves immortal. She wrote then of ‘not being able to even imagine that one day I will no longer be alive.’ It was the start of her commitment to do whatever it took to live; dying was not an option…”

She had three different types of at different periods of her life, including the first one that was supposedly an incurable ‘stage four.’ Yet she undertook radical treatments that everyone regarded as long-shots, and survived the first two of the diseases. In the case of the final illness, she spent a fortune and underwent exceedingly painful treatments that had almost no chance of success. She would not discuss the possibility of and apparently continued to believe until the end that she would survive.

Rieff asks himself whther he should have been truthful, in the face of her denial. At other times he asks himself whether he should have been more adept at helping her deny reality. Yet he never asks himself, apparently, what spiritual work his mother needed to accomplish in order to face her own .

After reading his New York Times article a few months ago I had coffee with a dear friend who has undergone three operations for a brain tumor. He copes with anxiety about his own mortality every day. He and I agreed that Sontag had continued searching for medical answers far longer than he or I would have done. No one can be immortal. How can any seventy-year-old woman deny that fact?

At a certain point, my friend and I agreed that we each would surrender. Indeed, in preparation for that, we already spend a lot of time considering the lasting meaning of our lives. Sontag’s fierce clinging to life must have shown her , a denial that anything significant about her would last beyond her final breath.

Did Sontag ever write about the meaning of her life? Did she discuss it with her loved ones? I hope so. It is impossible to decide whether one’s life is fulfilled without first deciding what one is supposed to do with it. And what one is supposed to do is the meaning of one’s life.

People can find meaning in countless ways. Even atheists must discover meaning, I understand, but for most people, the search for meaning is a spiritual quest. Some people find crazy meaning for their lives – such as a nationalistic ideology that may require the ultimate sacrifice in warfare. Today’s go to meet their maker with joy, certain that they are fulfilling their assigned duties. Fortunately, there are other forms of meaning, including the cultivation of nonviolent modes of conflict, though David Rieff could not consider that approach meaningful when I discussed it with him. Had his mother contemplated the meaning of her own life? If so, the conversation was not a topic about which either of them wrote much.

Possibly a conversation about the meaning of life would offer answers to the other question Sontag avoided: the meaning of death.

I, myself, don’t know what to believe about . I don’t really have any belief. But I do have , which is quite a different matter. I can never know what is true about reality beyond the physical (or indeed, even about physics) but I have faith. That is, I am convinced that whatever the truth is, I would be satisfied if I could know it. Therefore I can trust that my life, and your life, are part of a reality larger than we can understand, but which is benign. At a certain point in my final illness, I expect that my conversations with loved ones will deal more with that faith than with the prospect of medical procedures that might extend my life span a while. I wish Sontag had discussed that topic with her son. And I hope that he finds a way to consider it now for himself, since she has gone.

I wish, in fact, that the glossy magazines in the spa had alluded to that issue. And that the eight-year-old dancers under all that lipstick think about it sometimes too. The meaning of life is larger than material events. And the meaning of life confers meaning on death.


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Fast Forward to 2016

I had never heard of the young scholar until this afternoon, when I read the long feature article of his in the New York Times Magazine of January 27. It’s a stunning geopolitical forecast. (See his photo above.)

He asks you to imagine the year 2016, the final year of the second term of President Hillary Clinton/John McCain/Barack Obama. Now open your eyes and tell us what you've seen. Khanna tells us his vision, which is pretty interesting. He divides the world’s nations and regions into three categories while mangling the terminology introduced by in his 1966 book, Three Worlds of Development. Horowitz’s three worlds were: The First World (we rich capitalists); the Second World (the socialist countries); and The Third World (the undeveloped states). But now that socialism has almost vanished, Khanna redefines the as intermediate “swing states” such as Venezuela, Vietnam, Morocco, and Malaysia:

“Lying alongside and between the Big Three [superpowers], second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics.”

Khanna predicts that there will be three superpowers or “First World” regions: The the , and . I was puzzled by the omissions of certain countries or regions from this First World list, which included no India. No Russia. No Middle East. No Africa. No South America.

Imagine: no ! This absence surprised me most, but he justifies it cogently.

“Apparently stabilized and resurgent under the Kremlin-Gazprom oligarchy, why is Russia not a superpower but rather the ultimate second-world swing state? For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country. ... Filling the vacuum they have left behind are hundreds of thousands of Chinese literally gobbling up, plundering, outright buying, and more or less annexing Russia’s Far East for its timber and other natural resources.
“Russia lost its western satellites almost two decades ago, and Europe, while appearing to be bullied by Russia’s oil-dependent diplomacy, is staging a long-term buyout of Russia, whose economy remains roughly the size of France’s. The more Europe gets its gas from North Africa and oil from Azerbaijan, the less it will rely on Russia, all the while holding the lever of being by far Russia’s largest investor....Privately, some EU officials say that annexing Russia is perfectly doable; it’s just a matter of time. In the coming decades, far from restoring its Soviet-era might, Russia will have to decide whether it wishes to exist peacefully as an asset to Europe or the alternative — becoming a petro-vassal of China.”

This was the most astonishing prediction, to my mind. On the other hand, I was not surprised at all by Khanna’s assertion that the US cannot possibly regain the global supremacy it enjoyed even a decade ago. This is not merely because of its lost economic resources, squandered on war, but equally because of its defunct moral credibility, squandered by high-handed bullying. America will be a superpower, all right, but merely one of three.

Equally unsurprising was Khanna’s prediction that the European Union will be as rich and powerful as the United States, and will more fully represent the higher political and economic orientation that once made the US into a moral global leader.

Throughout most of his long article, the analysis reflected a geopolitical that saw the three dominant First World powers as vying for control over Second World nations, these so-called “swing states.” The author came across as a hard-nosed strategist, advising the successor to President Clinton/McCain/Obama on the best ways of winning this game. His theoretical approach was not offensive, but nor was it inspiring.

Yet at the end, Khanna turns so idealistic that he might well be writing Obama’s uplifting stump speeches for him. No, he does not identify here with Obama, but instead JFK. He advises the new president to

“channel your inner J.F.K. You are president, not emperor. You are commander in chief and also diplomat in chief. ...No more ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ only ‘we.’ That means no more talk of advancing ‘American values’ either. What is worth having is universal first and American second. ...We have learned the hard way that what others want for themselves trumps what we want for them — always. ... This new attitude must be more than an act. To obey this modest, hands-off principle is what would actually make America the exceptional empire it purports to be. It would also be something every other empire in history has failed to do.”

I am impressed with Khanna’s approach, which of course sounds eminently respectful to other societies. Still, I am not completely happy with his willingness (which is becoming normal these days) to desist from . For one thing, he assumes too readily that spreading democracy means imposing democracy. It does not. Until quite recently, one could see all kinds of countries adopting democracy eagerly. Even now, that would be the case if the remaining dictators had not learned to suppress such movements by suppressing access to communications. Not to assist the people of to wrest democratic power from the ruling junta would be a betrayal of human rights, but that is the hands-off attitude Khanna’s policy would presumably entail.

Though he does not exactly advise us to desist from promoting democracy, he advises that we be cautious about the “timing” of it. I think, however, that the message should be one of method rather than timing. We should always offer support to in repressed countries; it is simply a matter of basic human decency to do so. But we must offer only — help for nonviolent liberation. It is the difference between violence and nonviolence, between military equipment and money for communications technology that counts. Apart from this caveat, I hope that the president elected in 2016 adopts exactly the advice that Khanna offers here.


Is Obama Like Gorbachev?

I’ve been sick with a cold all week, spending a lot of time in bed watching the and the political pundits who have so much air time to fill with inventive verbosity. Today in a phone chat with a cynical woman friend who is temperamentally atheistic and anarchistic, I said that I adore Barack Obama for his integrity.

She snorted dismissively. “To get into office,” she said, “all politicians have to . To do so is antithetical to idealism or honesty.”

She is right. I could never be a politician because I do not instinctively seek areas of common ground. I take a position and defend it by arguing tenaciously. But Obama’s gift is to bring people together and . I am impressed by genuine , even if I am not one myself.

Yet integrity is not peacemaking. It’s not even political astuteness. Politicians must have to maintain some kind of balance between pandering to get votes, on the one hand, and exercising , on the other. Politicians who are especially “politic” must necessarily lack sufficient consistency to inspire followers.

When I think of this dilemma, it is who comes to mind. I still admire him enormously. Trying to bring and common security to his society, he had to steer a dangerous course. As a centrist, he had to hold together a middle ground of public opinion. In doing so, he zig-zagged with increasing unpredictability. Late in his presidency he appointed reactionaries to posts in his cabinet, trying to keep them from ousting him, but by doing this he lost all among the people who should have been his strongest supporters. Then the reactionaries staged a coup. Though he survived, his authority was so weakened that he could no longer hold together the fissiparous Soviet Union. His pursuit of had destroyed his visionary leadership.

Did he have any better alternative? Once he was a passenger in a car on a winding road when the driver asked why he hadn’t just followed a straight course. Gorbachev replied, “Can you just drive us straight ahead now?”

Today Gorbachev claims to support , who represents all the authoritarian ways that he had tried to abolish during his own presidency. But we wonder: How can he possibly support Putin? He explains that Russia needs a strong leader now. He himself was not strong enough to hold the country together. Putin appears to be consistent; he seems to be driving forward in a straight line. Even if it is in the wrong direction, he enjoys the approval of seventy or eighty percent of the Russian population. Russia is no longer a democracy, but even if it were, Putin would win any election. Probably Gorbachev hopes that this prosperous dictatorship will create a new opportunity for democracy. At any rate, he is still the same old Gorbachev, playing along with his natural political enemies in the hope that compromise will produce a better outcome than futile visions. He is a wonderful visionary, but one cannot call it integrity. This is perhaps the underlying dispute between him and his greatest rival, — the dissident who displayed far more integrity than common sense.

And now we have Obama. He does have integrity — at least in comparison to Hillary Clinton. The woman never stands up for what she believes if there are votes to be won by taking a different position. That’s democracy for you! It’s supposed to work that way, I guess, but it is not inspiring. I like Obama’s principles. He knows, as everyone should, that America’s are still immensely dangerous, and he promises to begin eliminating them. She is willing only to reduce them a bit. He knows, as everyone should, that the world’s respect for America has been impaired by its to every problem — and he promises to begin a leaders, seeking common ground.

That’s integrity. Obama’s sticking out his neck. Hillary warns that he’s not prudent. Maybe she’s right, but I like his courage better than her caution.

But of course, he has to get elected first. And for that, a politician must be “politic.” Or, to put it crudely, a politician must pander to particular voting blocs, which is not so courageous. Today I received a fascinating e-mail from entitled “Obama’s Jewish Problem.” Lerner is the leader of America’s “,” a category that includes Obama. Nevertheless, the older generation of American Jews tend to be hard line neo-conservatives who support military strength for the security of both the United States and Israel. In their opinion, “those who seek peace, disarmament, and reconciliation with antagonists are naive, utopian, dangerous and de facto anti-American or anti-Israel.” Although Jewish voters are only 2% of the US population, they are concentrated in the states with the largest delegates and electoral votes — New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. And they contribute a lot to politicians. According to Lerner,

“Faced with Clinton campaigners making charges that he is not sufficiently pro-Israel, Obama himself wrote a letter to U.S Ambassador to the UN last week urging that the US reject any resolution critiquing Israel’s cut off of fuel and food to a million residents of Gaza ‘that does not fully condemn the rocket assaults Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel.’”

Well, that’s “politic“ of him, though I doubt that it reflects his true attitude. To give him the benefit of a doubt, perhaps he is taking that position so as to leave open the possibility of dialogue with . In any case, Lerner observes that

“Obama’s problem is that his spiritual progressive worldview is in conflict with the demands of the older generation of Jews who control the Jewish institutions and define what it is to be pro-Jewish, while his base consists of many young Jews who support him precisely because he is willing to publicly stand for the values that they hold. We can expect that this tension will be central should Obama win the nomination. But once in office, whether Obama actually pursues policies that are in accord with his highest beliefs as a spiritual progressive, or whether he finds it ‘too unrealistic’ to try to buck the spineless Democrats who will bow to the Israel Lobby automatically, depends on whether we can build a powerful enough movement of ordinary citizens to push for a peace that provides security for Israel and justice for the Palestinian people. Obama has made it clear he would want to do that.”