Thursday, December 05, 2013

Madiba I: A Tribute To Nelson Mandela, One Of The Greatest Men Of Our Time

While there is no question that Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Alfred Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King  were among the great men of the 20th century, greatness can be a relative thing and often is in the eyes of the beholder. By those lights, my nominee for one of the greatest men of the modern era is Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, who left this mortal coil on Thursday at age 95, had been in failing health for some time and was repeatedly hospitalized with a recurring lung ailment that stemmed, in all likelihood, from tuberculosis contracted during his 27-year imprisonment, much of it spent on Robben Island, the notorious apartheid-era prison.  He had been largely absent from public life since 2004, a decade after he was elected South Africa's first black president and led the deeply divided nation into an era of truth and reconciliation that sought to give citizens of all races equal voice, and had not been seen in public since the World Cup soccer final in Johannesburg in July 2010. 
As a friend said, "it was time to let him go," yet he had stubbornly hung on.
* * * * *
Roosevelt and Churchill, of course, oversaw the global effort to overthrow fascism, although the peace they fashioned was deeply flawed.  Einstein's imprecations regarding the nuclear menace were borne out, while Gandhi led India to independence, employing the non-violent civil disobedience that King and later Mandela embraced.
Yet it is Mandela's story that resonates most deeply for me, in part because he was the last survivor among those leading lights, and because I directed the coverage of his release from prison, the end of apartheid and the wrenching early years of his presidency for a big-city newspaper that recognized the enormity of these historic events and dedicated substantial resources to bringing them to its readers.  A consequence of my hands-on involvement was that I understood early on that it would be South Africa's black majority, deeply fractured because of tribal and political differences, that would be the greatest impediment to realizing Mandela's vision.  Time and events have proven me right.  
* * * * *
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family.  He was given "Madiba" as a clan name, circumcised as a 16-year-old in a Bantu rite of passage marking his manhood, but refused a traditional tribal marriage.  He attended a Methodist boarding school and then elite Fort Hare, a black college that was the incubator for no fewer than four other African presidents, and eventually made his way to Johannesburg where he was taken under the wing of Walter Sisulu, father figure of the African National Congress.
Not unlike Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese liberation, Mandela embraced the teachings of Karl Marx and aspects of white Communism, but believed the struggle in his homeland was, first and foremost, by and for black Africans.
While imprisoned on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, he grew vegetables and cultivated his image with equal care.  
It is not widely known that he also quietly reached out to the apartheid regime in anticipation of his eventual release, and met secretly with Niel Barnard, the head of its intelligence service.  Two other men were delegated by the ANC in exile to talk with Barnard --  Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela's successors as president.  Unlike the great man himself, they have made themselves the centers of personality and have been hostile to the notion that diversity of opinion and tolerance of dissent must be at the heart of the young South African democracy. 
Biographer Ricard Stengel has written that "Prison taught Mandela how to deal with limits and how to govern his emotions; at the same time it taught him what was limitless, which was, broadly, the potential of humanity to do the right thing. Be constructive, Mandela advises, be pragmatic, be generous; look for the good in others. Mandela cultivated the mix of bluntness and courtesy Afrikaners (the ruling white minority group) respected.  He managed to disarm the apartheid president, P. W. Botha, a harsh man, 'with a robust handshake and a wide smile.' "
It is therefore not surprising that Mandela brilliantly handled the transition between his release from prison in 1990 and majority rule in 1994, while averting racial bloodshed.  Although in the end it was Mandela's extraordinary magnanimity that carried the day, less remarked on is that despite South Africa’s loathsome anti-black heritage, there were solid institutions to underpin the transition to democracy, including a parliament and electoral system, independent courts and a free press. 
In 1993, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid era president, an honor that rankles to this day, but then the Peace Prize has been irrelevant for me since 1993 when Henry Kissinger, a war criminal, shared the prize with Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese revolutionary and diplomat, who had the class to decline it. 
Mandela's legacy is not complete without acknowledging that Africa is becoming more democratic in his wake.
When the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, a few months before Mandela's release from prison, only three of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries were democratic. Now, 21 are seen as as functioning democracies, with another six regarded as semi-democratic. 
* * * * *
For much of Mandela's life, personal happiness proved to be elusive.
He left his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, after she became a Jehovah’s Witness and accused him of being an adulterer who abandoned his children and beat her, a charge he denied.  His second marriage to Winnie Madikizela was fraught because of her proclivity for corrupt and scandalous conduct. One of their sons was estranged from him and killed in a car crash in 1969.  Another was an alcoholic who died of AIDS in 2005.
He finally wed Graça Machel, the widow of the Mozambican president and former ANC ally Samora Machel, who survives him, as do three daughters from his first two marriages, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.  An ugly battle over control of his legacy, image and estate broke out as his health deteriorated, with two of his daughters suing to get access to a trust fund that he set up for his descendants. 
President Obama decided against a personal visit during his 2013 Africa tour, instead delivering his respects in a private meeting with Mandela’s family. "I . . . reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me," he said afterwards.  "That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives."
South African politicians were not so solicitous.  They invaded Mandela's privacy and exploited his frailty in order to be seen in his hallowed company, while squabbles have flared up over the TV rights to his funeral. 
"Everyone wants a piece of the Madiba magic,” said William Gumede, who has written extensively about a man who became a global symbol of forgiveness and the struggle for justice and equality. "This is just a preview of what will come when he goes."

Madiba II: 'I Will Always See Mandela In The Faces Of My Everyday Heroes'

EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- It’s a death in the family. A family of millions who call him” Tata”, Our Father.

There is no person here in South Africa not affected by Mandela’s passing, even those who opposed him. He is the reason we are where we are today. Not that he achieved South Africa’s transition on his own, many South Africans on all levels were an important part of that achievement, from his closest comrades and prison inmates to the village women who defied apartheid laws in daily life. But Mandela was the caretaker of that spirit. He absorbed the responsibility and the pain that came with it. The course that South Africa took could not have happened without him.

We may never be able to find just the right word to define what it was that made him the one to lead the way.

I say, we. I am a permanent resident, an American African - living here for 16 years, knowing South Africa for seven years before that. Drawn to this country for reasons including the spirit of Madiba - his clan name - found on all levels. That his roots, that nurtured him are a two hour drive away and I live immersed in the same rural Xhosa experience with people of equally elegant spirit. 

If given the opportunity to live in a country headed by such a man, that embraced such lofty goals of transformation from a desperate dark past, who would say no to that? The wind, bearing the majestic music seemed to come out of nowhere, and hope was the color of the sky no matter what the sun decided to do.

There has been a lot of rain recently. Madiba’s shoes remain empty. Is it because there never will be anyone who can measure up to him, or are we are simply still waiting? Patience has been my greatest challenge here. It’s as foreign to an American as the language that sounds like a typewriter on drugs. Patience is a sign of optimism even when it is the result of oppression. It assumes - it believes - it knows - that sooner or later, the awaited, the object of our prayers, will happen.

February 1990

Bishops Court, the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Cape Town

I expect a fist pumping shouting Castro-style revolutionary. Instead, after less than 24 hours of freedom, he sits in a carved wood chair with the colors of the ANC behind him and radiates good cheer as he speaks quietly, politely, but firmly about his intentions for radical change. When a reporter stands to ask a question and gives his name, Mr. Mandela says, “Ah yes, Mr. Jolidon, how are you today?” He has read their stories, he remembers their names. And,  if this were not a press conference, he would inquire about their families as well.

Because that's the African thing to do.

He wears a fine blue-grey suit and is poised to take leadership of the most powerful country on the continent, and become a world statesman. His posture is upright. His fingers do not fidget. He is not bowed and he is not bitter. He has learned wisdom. He has known patience.

When the press conference ends and Madiba gets up to leave, the reporters do something I have never seen before or since. They stand up and applaud him. I watch him walk away with Winnie at his side, chatting, and wonder, what would they be talking about?

It is only later that I understand beneath the fine suit was the barefoot boy who enjoyed stick fighting and tended cattle in the hills of knee high grass and bright red soil on the other side of the country, the part the apartheid regime rejected and deemed only good enough for the “natives.”  Later on, when he was sent to school,  Mandela had found the transition to wearing boots and eating with cutlery awkward, like his awkwardness with girls.  His contemplation of the times he avoided conflict in the interest of a greater good, he reports years later, with convincing humility. 

He was not a boy who had dreams of greatness as it has been defined by his public life. He embraced his lineage of African royalty and knew he had to fulfill expectations that came with that. That was different from becoming the first black and democratically elected president of South Africa; it was a moral responsibility to his community and his family and his ancestors. Neither apartheid nor power could destroy that commitment.

Those hills and villages of round mud houses with grass roofs remain today, and there are barefoot boys still tending cattle there, almost like a museum of his culture. When that has been paved and exploited for tourism, the thorn tree kraals replaced by garages, one wonders where the secrets behind his greatness will reside. 

Madiba’s culture is one in which there are no lines drawn within families; children know aunts and uncles as another set of parents, cousins are brothers and sisters.

“I didn't know who my parents were for a long time, we all sat down at the same bowl together every night,” explained a man of traditional Xhosa roots.

After his release from prison, Madiba chose to return to his childhood home of Qunu, where he had spent the happiest days of his youth. He held family events at the house he built on the Mandela homestead. He asked to be buried there.

During his earlier years as president, when he stayed at Qunu, he would escape security and go to the village high school where he would disrupt classes and sit down with the students and tell them what life in their village was like when he was a boy. He encouraged them to value education. They loved him, running to him, cheering, “Madiba! Madiba!” when they saw him approaching. 

Despite his wealth and comfortable circumstances he continued to insist on porridge and amaas (the traditional African drink of soured milk) in the morning.

The South Africa I know  remains a land of contrasts, like the deep thunderous purple sky with the glistening golden grass challenging it on the horizon. It’s vast beaches guarded by craggy mountains and flat endless desert with sky like a huge bowl and sunsets that color in every direction. It's donkey carts sharing the road with BMWs, women walking modern city streets with large bundles balanced on their heads, it's a construction crew that communicates in three languages. This is a country that, by having 11 official languages, chooses elegance over practicality, showing equal deference to each culture living within the borders. 

The sun shines while it rains. Rainbows are the result.

Modern Africans claim to be moving away from those tribal customs that were the glue to isolated traditional villages, that the  practice of barefoot boys tending cattle is something to be eradicated. Perhaps for good reason, when many of those boys tend cattle in lieu of continuing their education. Yet, because the wealth of a man is still determined by the number of cows he owns, there will always be the need for them to be tended.

The payment of lobola, or bride price, is treating women as property and some believe it should also be abolished, yet it remains custom all the way to the top, Mandela paid a large lobola for his wife Graca Machel. Professional negotiators for lobola make large sums for their services. In the past lobola was settled by family members from both sides.

The tradition of multiple wives still prevails in some cultures, President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, has four wives. Polygamy is accepted by the law if a man can show it is part of his culture.

Young Xhosa men still flock to the bush to be ceremonially circumsized in order to be called a man. More are dying from the experience these days because the circumcision schools have been corrupted by practitioners who do not follow proper procedure.
Many of the new suits who have migrated to the automated square houses behind razor wire walls in the cities load their families into their BMWs and every Christmas they return to the villages and the grannies who raised them, where they renew connection to their traditional roots. Families gather in thorny kraals and slaughter goats as messages to the ancestors, who protect them from hardship as long as they behave. A person who has had bad things happen is assumed to have offended the ancestors. Some still consult traditional healers whose skills include combating evil spirits that create havoc in peoples’ lives, and ensuring the next born will be a son, or one will win the lottery. Others go to witch doctors, because they believe someone, a witch, has cast an evil spell upon them.

The best educated still send their sons back for traditional initiation rituals.

South Africa today is not what any of us who watched for the freedom train expected. It's painful watching the pillaging by government and corporate officials, along with the corruption, or at least tragic inadequacy, of police. I ache when I experience the incompetence, some of it deliberate, of government employees, or the arrogance of teachers and nurses who have lost their reason for doing what they do.  I pray Madiba does not know about these things. He had his own brush with this disappointment when he had to cancel the annual childrens’ party he held at his Qunu home every Christmas. It became a mob scene after a few years and the worst offenders were the adults grabbing the gifts that had been intended for the children.

Yet I still see Madiba’s spirit  in the faces of my everyday heroes because that's where he started; the elderly African great-grandmother who recently could not tell me for sure, how many children she has raised, including those she raises now, like counting the number of dishes she has washed.  It’s the courageous young woman who exposes her HIV status to the world in order to help others avoid contracting it. It’s the man who visits his son in prison every week, hoping his continued love can help him to reject a life of crime. It’s in the everyday people who still live lives of unforgivable hardship who continue to maintain  dignity, and amazing generosity.

Madiba’s legacy is peace. Before 1990, peace had become an empty political slogan. When Mandela walked out of prison, shook hands with his jailer and embarked on a course of reconciliation, peace became a reality. The world watched in tearful, hopeful need to believe.

It can be done. Peace happens.

Ubuntu is the African concept of  humanity to others.  It  means "I am what I am because of who we all are."

We are, because he was.

We can be, because he is ancestor to our family.

We can be great, not as a nation, but as a people. Madiba opened that door. He shone the light in that direction, he walked ahead and turned on the sun, over there, like the brilliant light that shoots through the billowing clouds at the end of the day.

It's not Madiba’s shoes that need to be filled, it's his footprints in the red African dust that await the right pair of African feet to continue their journey.

They can be any color because we are a nation of rainbows, even when it rains.

Thank you, Madiba.

Hamba kamnandi.  Walk forward well.

Susan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier and a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.

Cook is the author of
Nozuko' Story: The Story of an African Family.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

From Scientology To Steve: A Dozen Great Books For Holiday Gift Giving

Is Tom Cruise out to save the world from aliens?
Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through 30 or so books in the course of 2013, some new, some not so old and a couple of classics that I had not gotten around to reading.  Here are the best dozen of the bunch, six fiction and six non-fiction offerings, all great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend.  Most are available in paperback from Amazon.

Bangkok 8: A Novel (John Burdett, 2004) Mystery books are like popcorn for me, tasty diversions from so-called more serious offerings, but I have never come across a book (and the four sequels to it) with a protagonist quite like Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Bangkok police detective who is a devout Buddhist and son of a bar girl and Vietnam War GI, whose quest for vengeance following the murder of his partner takes him into a netherworld -- alternately sinister and hilarious -- of illicit drugs, prostitution and profound corruption. 

The Cuckoo's Calling (Robert Galbraith, 2013) Galbraith is J.F. Rowling of Harry Potter fame. Down-on-his-luck private investigator Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, investigates a supermodel's suicide in a tony London neighborhood in a terrific tale of the wealthy and famous that owes much to the classics of the murder mystery genre.  Expect sequels, and knowing Rowling, a goodly number of them. 

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief (Lawrence Wright, 2013) Wright is the author of The Looming Tower, the definitive book on the events leading to the 9/11 attacks.  In Going Clear, he applies his Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative chops to the profoundly secretive, wealthy, powerful and vindictive Church of Scientology, which is based on the pseudo-scientific flapdoodle of sci fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, and has successfully courted celebrities like Tom Cruise.

Good-Bye To All That: An Autobiography (Robert Graves, 1929) It is easy to see why Good-Bye makes lists of the best books of all time.  It traces Graves' monumental loss of innocence as a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as he grapples with the horror of the First World War and later bitterly bids farewell to England and its absurd class culture. Like all great classics, there is a timelessness about Good-Bye that still makes it so powerful nearly a century later as we deal with the horrors of wars of our own making.

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder (Charles Graebner, 2013) Registered nurse Charles Cullen, dubbed "The Angel of Death" after his 2003 arrest, was a monster, not a mercy killer, who may have murdered as many as 300 hospital patients, making him perhaps the most prolific serial killer in American history.  Graebner also deftly fleshes out the story behind the story: The criminal malfeasance of a series of hospital administrators who suspected Cullen was a homicidal maniac but failed to stop him.

Lawrence in Arabia: War Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Scott Anderson, 2013) While nominally a geopolitical history and biography of the heroic if quixotic T.E. Lawrence, played to such great effect by Peter O'Toole in David Lean's 1962 cinematic masterpiece, this book more importantly is the tale of British duplicity, with ample help from the French and the quasi-involvement of feckless Americans, in double-crossing the Arabs in the wake of their successful revolt against their Turkish oppressors in the closing days of World War I. 

Memoir From Antproof Case (Mark Helprin, 2007) Helprin is a master of satire, high comedy and adventure (witness his A Winter's Tale and A Soldier in the Great War), all on offer in this tale of an elderly American ex-patriot in Brazil who is writing a memoir about his past lives as a World War II ace, investment banker and thief of staggering proportions, as well as a murderer, whose lifelong enemy is coffee, which he considers to be an insidious enslaver.  Yes, really.

The Patriarch (David Nasaw, 2013) Joseph P. Kennedy was the founder of the twentieth century’s most famous political dynasty, and our understanding of his son, John F. Kennedy, becomes clearer in the 50th anniversary year of his assassination because of this riveting biography by a master historian of a man who participated many of the major events of his times, not least of which was the birth of the New Frontier.
Police: A Harry Hole Novel (Jo Nesbø, 2013) Since the publication of Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2008, the Arctic Noir genre of crime fiction has taken the literary world by storm.  In the latest novel featuring Harry Hole, my favorite Arctic Noir protagonist, the police inspector returns from a near-death experience to hunt a killer who is stalking Oslo's streets, slaying police officers at the scenes of crimes they investigated but failed to solve.  
The Power and the Glory (Graham Greene, 1940) Word for word, this relatively short novel is among the most beautifully ever written, telling the story of a deeply compassionate alcoholic priest who believes himself too humble for martyrdom who is on the run in a dirt poor section of Southern Mexico in the 1930s where a paramilitary group has taken control and outlawed God, systematically hunting down and killing the priest's Roman Catholic peers.  This classic is, without question, the prolific Greene's masterpiece.  

2666: A Novel (Roberto Bolaño, 2008) An unlikely trio of three academics embark on an idiosyncratic search for a reclusive German author.  They are joined by a New York reporter, a widowed philosopher and a police detective.  All are drawn to the Mexican border city of Santa Teresa, where hundreds of women have disappeared, in an ambitious book that sometimes is more about a novelist's place in the world than the mesmerizing tale that underpins this nearly 900-page tome.

Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson, 2011) On the one hand, I ended up hating Jobs, an often ferocious, vindictive and even demonic genius, after reading Isaacson's bio, which is based on more than 100 interviews with family members, friends and foes, and more than 40 with Jobs himself.  But on the other hand, in the end my admiration for this intensely creative entrepreneur -- who revolutionized personal computers, animated movies, music, cell phones, tablet computing and digital publishing -- won out.
Meanwhile, have you read any good books this year?  Which would you recommend as gifts?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

GOP Extremists Engineer Bloodless Coup

 Having twice failed to defeat Barack Obama and having repeatedly failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the president's signature achievement and the most sweeping social reform since LBJ's Great Society initiatives in the 1960s, the extreme right wing of the Republican Party has engineered a bloodless coup in which a comparatively small handful of hateful zealots have shut down the federal government.

While this New York Times story, the most important piece of journalism to appear anywhere in years, stops short of calling the shutdown the result of a coup, it is exactly that:  These zealots have not merely ransomed the federal government, throwing hundreds of thousands and people out of work and possibly triggering a debt crisis that would have global implications, making the recent recession child's play, they also have imposed their most narrow of political goals, which is to say their wealthy self interests, at the expense of individual rights.
In this case that is having greater access to health care.  Heaven forbid that ordinary people be empowered!  And so much for love of country.

What makes this coup additionally outrageous is that political leaders present and past with a conscience and sense of history are not speaking out. 
How is it that former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton could forge a non-partisan alliance in the wake of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami but they and their peers, for the most part, seem struck deaf and dumb about a homegrown catastrophe that threatens the core values of our democracy?

Is it simply cowardice or have we become so inured to the cancerous effects of hyper-partisan politics that what once had been unthinkable -- a very few who in effect have become a shadow government controlling the lives of the vast majority -- has become the new normal?

Who do we look to for salvation?  If not our so-called leaders, then certainly not a Supreme Court that greased the skids making the coup possible in the first place because of its Citizens United ruling.
Yessiree, it's the birth of a new era in American politics. 
If the NRA's thoroughly successful effort to cow a Congress contemplating meaningful gun control laws through intimidation and fear mongering in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre was Old Style politics at its most insidious, then the government shutdown coup surely heralds an era of New Style politics that, if possible, is even more insidious.
Oh, and while we're throwing around powerfully loaded words like coup, let's toss in another couple:  Despot and Treason.  Because the Koch Brothers and their ilk are despots and what they have done is treasonous.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Book Review: 'Lawrence In Arabia'

History, one might presume, is an assemblage of facts, and the longer and more complex a particular history is the more facts there are.  But facts are malleable, and it took me many years of history reading to come to understand that they too often are merely reflections of historians' perspectives -- the political axes they happen to grind.  This may be no truer than in the modern history of the Middle East because of the diet of chauvinistic Eurocentric claptrap that we have been force fed beginning with school texts and continuing through the tsunami of books extolling the benevolent greatness of the once and future colonial powers.
That Scott Anderson refuses to buy into this big lie is chief among the many virtues of his magnificent new geopolitical history, Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East.  While nominally a biography of the heroic if quixotic T.E. Lawrence, played to such great effect by Peter O'Toole in David Lean's 1962 cinematic masterpiece, it more importantly is the tale of British duplicity, with ample help from the French and the quasi-involvement of feckless Americans, in double-crossing the Arabs in the wake of their successful revolt against their Turkish oppressors in the closing days of World War I. 

Having been promised self-determination in the form of their own homeland as a reward for crushing the Ottoman Empire in its inhospitably arid western expanses, the Arabs instead were left with sloppy seconds as the imperial powers arbitrarily carved up the region, ostensibly at the post-war Versailles Peace Conference but in reality as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement hammered out in secret two and a half years before the Armistice. 
The upshot was the artificial boundaries of colonial Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and eventually the state of Israel, as well.  The predictable result -- and it broke Lawrence's heart as the Arabs' only true champion -- has been never ending ethnic strife, poverty, disenfranchisement, religious extremism and, of course, terrorism.  Long story short, the Iraq, Iran and now Syrian crises were not accidents, but inevitabilities.
"Ever since [the end of World War I], Arab society has tended to define itself less by what it aspires to become than by what it is opposed to: colonialism, Zionism, Western imperialism in its many forms," Anderson writes.  As a New York Times op-ed columnist recently noted, this culture of opposition has enabled generations of dictators to distract attention from their own misrule.
And in one of his most prescient comments, Lawrence discarded the fiction relentlessly peddled by the Great Powers that the Arabs would accept a Jewish nation in their midst.  Instead, he predicted that "if a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelmingly hostile population."
Oh, and let us not forget that the emergence of the U.S.'s best regional buddy, Saudi Arabia, and its terrorist-breeding, ultra-conservative Wahhabist form of Islam, is a result of the stew concocted by Britain and France.
Things might not have worked out a whole lot differently had those nations kept their promises. But we will never know because once planted, the toxic seed of imperialist duplicity has not and never will be completely eradicated.  While the Arab Spring is a beautiful thing, the tortured history that preceded it and its uncertain future are an inevitable result of the folly alluded to in the subtitle of Lawrence in Arabia.
* * * * *
T.E. Lawrence was a welter of contradictions.  Beyond agreement that he had the iciest of blue eyes and stood five-foot-five inches tall (10 inches shorter than O'Toole), historians have squabbled endlessly over whether this controversial and enigmatic figure, who "rode into battle at the head of an Arab army and changed history," Anderson writes, was greatness personified or merely lucky.
The short answer, Anderson concludes, is anticlimactic: Although Lawrence's exploits were larger than life, he was able to become Lawrence of Arabia because no one was paying much attention.
"Amid the vast slaughter occurring across the breadth of Europe in World War I, the Middle Eastern theater of war was of markedly secondary importance.  Within that theater, the Arab Revolt to which Lawrence became affiliated was, to use his own words, 'a sideshow of a sideshow.' "
* * * * *
Lawrence is, of course, the primary focus of Lawrence in Arabia, but Anderson artfully weaves in the stories of four other key but comparatively little known characters: Curt Prufer, a German scholar turned spy and Turkish adviser; Djemal Pasha, a Turkish leader who showed equal parts compassion and ruthlessness; William Yale, a New England blue blood and State Department special agent while on Standard Oil of New York's payroll, and Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist and master spy who was at odds with most other advocates of a Jewish state and contemptuous of the dirt poor Palestinians who would be displaced.
While Lawrence helped the Arabs win the war but could not help them win the peace, his lasting legacy is his plea that Westerners discard their stilted thinking about Arabs and immerse themselves in the local environment, wherever it might be, as to know "its families, clans and tribes, friends and enemies, wells, hills and roads."
Lawrence is best known for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a sometimes overly fanciful yet fascinating account of his years as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt on which the Lean movie is based.  But it is his Twenty-Seven Articles, a treatise written for his superiors in 1917, that continues to have profound influence today.   Nearly a century later, Twenty-Seven Articles has the force of revelation, and amid the American military "surge" in Iraq in 2006, General David Petraeus ordered his senior officers to read it so that they might better learn how to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
Today's State Department diplomats -- whether toiling in Benghazi or Beirut -- would be well advised to do the same.
Two other books that I've recently read brilliantly capture the transcendental futility of World War I: Robert Graves' autobiographical Good-Bye to All That and Mark Helprin's fictional A Soldier of the Great War.
Good-Bye (1929), which is considered to be one of the greatest of non-fiction books, traces Graves' monumental loss of innocence as a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as he grapples with the horror of the war and later bitterly bids farewell to England and its absurd class culture.  A Soldier (2005) is the magnificently told story of a prosperous Roman lawyer whose life is shattered by the war.  He becomes a hero, then a prisoner and deserter who wanders through a ravaged Europe, in the process losing one family for another.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Crisis In Syria & The Bush Legacy: A Toxic Gift That Keeps On Poisoning

Many reasons have been offered for the near-paralysis among the U.S. and its allies in fashioning a response to the thuggery of the Assad regime in Syria.  Does anyone really believe that relieving the strongman of a few canisters of nerve gas will make a difference?  But the perhaps least discussed reason is by far the biggest: The Bush Legacy, a toxic gift that keeps on poisoning.

I write of course, of the eight-year interregnum during which George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their henchmen, chief among them Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, used the 9/11 attacks some 12 years ago today as a pretense for invading Iraq at the cost of a trillion-plus dollars and 4,400 American and many tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.  Their actions obliterated a healthy budget surplus, in tandem with tax cuts for the rich tanked the economy and, most importantly in the context of the Syria crisis, plunged America's standing in the world to an historic low. 

The toxicity of the Bush Legacy cannot be underestimated, or as Dubya himself would say, misunderestimated.

It, and not some new found cowardice, is the predominant reason Britain, the U.S.'s most dependable ally in the post-World War II world, and Germany, among other European powers, have turned cold shoulders to Obama's overtures, as if to say, "Fool us once, shame on you; fool us twice, shame on us."  

"The real reason the vote [in the British Parliament to back Obama] was lost was not so much doubt about strategy as the toxic nature of association with the United States, the idea of being dragged along again like a poodle in a U.S.-led military operation," Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute told The New York Times. “For Britain’s self-defined status in the world the vote was catastrophic. It has fatally hit the special relationship.”

Combine that with a profound war weariness at home directly attributable to the Iraq war and the mission in Afghanistan, which was repeatedly looted by the Bush administration in service of the Iraq fiasco, as well as a maddening wishy-washiness on President Obama's part on foreign affairs generally, and you have the recipe for that near-paralysis.

If there is an upside to the Bush Legacy, it may be that the very neocons who are sharpening their knives in anticipation of playing a major role in which Republican will face off against Hillary Clinton in 2016, will find their standing in the party seriously diminished.  But there is a downside to that, as well -- the neo-isolationists like Marco Rubio now emergent in the party who in their own way are as dangerous as the waterboard crowd.

After all, Assad and other bad guys doing bad things around the world aren't going to go away.  And the United Nations isn't going to suddenly grow a pair, which means that the next strongman accused of having weapons of mass destruction needs to be dealt with firmly.  Like that Saddam Hussein. 
Oh, wait a minute . . .
* * * * * 
There is more or less a consensus among historians that the worst presidents in U.S. history were Warren G. Harding, Ulysses S. Grant, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Franklin Pierce. 
While each of these ignobles left big messes for their successors to clean up (except in the case of Grant, who made an even bigger mess than had Johnson, his predecessor), and even allowing for how different the world stage is today than 60 or 160 years ago, the Bush Legacy is indeed in a league of its own.
If we can be thankful for anything, it is that unlike the unapologetic Cheney and Rumsfeld, whose loathing of Obama is visceral, Bush has kept his pie hole shut about Syria.  Some commentators are saying that his refusal to take a stand is cowardly, while I happen to think it is wise. 
I give Bush enough credit to believe that he knows he's a Nowhere Man.  And to riff off another rock lyric, most Americans -- as well as the world community at large -- won't get fooled again.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Environmental Activist Nancy Shukaitis Goes Back To The Barricades. Again.

Nancy Michael Shukaitis is a hero in her own time. 

Beginning in the 1950s, she opposed a plan to dam the scenic middle Delaware River -- the largest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi -- that would create an immense reservoir at Tocks Island and submerge hundreds of homes and farms.  At first she was a lonely voice facing down the powerful Army Corps of Engineers and politicians in four states.  Twenty years later, she was a leader of an eclectic coalition that would be a lightning rod for the nascent American environmental movement.  Shukaitis and her allies fought the plan all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- and won.
Now four decades on, Shukaitis, who is approaching 90 years old, is back at the barricades again.  Her tireless efforts resulted in legislation that substantially enlarged the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area with its stunning range of flora and fauna, waterfalls, the Appalachian Trail and historic homes and farms only 75 miles from New York City.  But that legacy is now threatened by a plan by two power companies to build high-voltage electric transmission lines strung between looming 197-foot-tall towers over clear cut forest through the heart of the recreation area that will dwarf everything in their path and be visible for many miles, despoiling a leafy, river-straddling panorama without peer in the region.
A coalition of New Jersey environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, has filed suit against the U.S. Park Service in federal District Court in Washington to stop work on the 500-kilovolt Susquehanna-Roseland Power Line, which would run 130 miles from Berwick in Columbia County in Northeastern Pennsylvania to Roseland in Essex County in North Jersey. 
The coalition argues that the Park Service unlawfully granted permission for construction of the line on the existing 4.3-mile footprint of a much smaller 230-kilovolt line build in the 1920s, nearly a half century before the recreation area was created.  This, it says, is in violation of the Park Service's own rules, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  They note that the Park Service itself acknowledges in its own power line impact study that it "would adversely affect protected resources within the park, in some instances irreversibly." The plaintiff's case would seem to be a slam dunk, but given today's anything-can-happen legal climate, it is not.
PPL of Pennsylvania and Public Service Gas & Electric of New Jersey, the power companies that would operate the line, claim it must be built because of an order from PJM, the regional electric grid operator, to upgrade existing lines to address power demand issues that were expected to occur in North Jersey by 2012.  But not only have such issues not materialized, demand has dropped because of energy conservation, while four cleaner burning natural-gas powered generating stations will be coming on line in North Jersey in coming years that will provide more than enough electricity.  As it is, electricity for the line would be generated by highly polluting coal-fired power stations in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

The real -- if unstated -- reason that PPL and PSE&G are anxious to build the power line is that the utilities would be able to pass on the
entire cost of the $750 million project to 51 million ratepayers in the PJM region while making a tidy profit.  The electricity available because of the line would be sold by PSE&G to New York City at rates far greater than it charges its New Jersey customers.  When PSE&G completes a long-term agreement to manage the Long Island Power Authority, electricity from the line also would be sold there at inflated rates. 
Except for Shukaitis, the silence on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River has been deafening. 
The editorial page of the hometown Pocono Record, which slavishly supported the Tocks plan, has remained silent.  It's not hard to see why: One of the companies behind the power line is among the Record's biggest advertisers.  When Shukaitis submitted an op-ed piece in opposition to the power line, she was told it would not run unless she personally paid for it in the form of an ad.  Insulted, she nevertheless did.
Meanwhile, environmental and conservation groups in the Poconos are not taking a stand on the power line.  Again, it's not hard to see why.  The power companies have said they will create a multi-million dollar fund to purchase open space in return for desecrating the heart of the recreation area, and these groups seem to be in thrall of the prospect of "free" land.
The ugly underside of these bribe lands is that if the power companies get their way in the recreation area, this extraordinary precedent will allow them to wreak irreversible environmental havoc wherever they want in the region. 
Take the Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge and its diverse mosaic of wetland and upland habitats.  The refuge was created in 2008 largely because of the efforts of the Friends of Cherry Valley organization, but the group has been a study in silence as the power line controversy has played out, although one of its board members, who happens to be a public official, has attacked the Sierra Club for its opposition to the power line.
Having made a deal with this particular devil by default,  the group will be unable to stop a power company from putting a power line through the heart of the refuge or any other encroachment, for that matter.  A dam -- yes, a dam, in this case to drive a hydroelectric power system -- may be lurking in the future at Wallenpaupack Bend, some 10 miles north of Tocks.  This would be bitterly ironic since it was the very fight against that dam that was to leave the river and the verdant valley through which it flows in their natural state.
And in the latest potential assault on the river and recreation area, the Delaware River Basin Commission -- the four-state and federal authority that regulates water resources in the basin -- is being pressured to lift a moratorium on fracking, a controversial method in use elsewhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania to extract more natural gas using water and cancer-causing chemicals.  A new study concludes that allowing fracking near the recreation area would have a negative environmental impact.
"We don't need enemies.  They are us," Shukaitis told me several years ago with her customary prescience, aware that the battle against Tocks would not be the last she would have to fight.  It was not.
* * * * *
Peter Hall of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call has written a fine article on Shukaitis.  Click here for more on the Delaware River and Shukaitis's crusade against the Tocks Island dam.  Click here for more on the fracking study.  Shukaitis's extensive papers are at Lehigh University's Special Collections Department.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mahavishnu John McLaughlin: The Amazing Godfather Of Fusion Is Back

When the history of the jazz guitar is written, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin is sure to have a chapter of his own, and a deservedly large one.  It was McLaughlin who changed the direction of the instrument from the smooth sound of Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Wes Montgomery, imbuing it with a technical precision and harmonic sophistication paired with aggressive speed, exotic scales and unconventional time signatures. As a godfather of the fusion genre, he galloped off into uncharted musical territory, catching the attention of jazz legends including Miles Davis, with whom he recorded five albums, among them the seminal Bitches Brew.
Forty years on, the man Jeff Beck calls "the best guitarist alive" not only has not lost his virtuosic intensity, but has returned with a passion to amplified music after an acoustic sabbatical.  This was very much on display during an electrifying performance on June 17 at the Musikfest Café at SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pa.

Backed by the 4th Dimension, a band he assembled in 2010 for To The One and his new Now Hear This album, McLaughlin is celebrating his 71th birthday year with a tour of jazz festivals and intimate clubs like the Musikfest Café.  This formidable ensemble includes powerhouse Indian drummer Ranjit Barot, Cameroon-born bassist Etienne M'Bappe and fellow Yorkshire Brit keyboardist (and occasional drummer) Gary Husband.  You know they're great musicians because they would have to be to keep up with the master, and the interplay -- no set lists and no whispering instructions between songs, merely eye contact -- melded them into a sublime oneness. 
* * * * * 
I count the first time I saw McLaughlin in 1973 as one of my most unforgettable musical experiences. 
My friends and I (how to say it?) were ambushed.  The main event that evening at Philadelphia's Academy of Music was Weather Report, and the warm-up act a group called Mahavishnu Orchestra, about whom we knew nothing.  The deeply powerful opening notes from McLaughlin's trailblazing ensemble levitated me out of my seat, and I never really came back down.  Weather Report was in its heyday and great in its own right, but Mahavishnu (with McLaughlin on double-neck guitar, Billy Cobham on drums, Rick Laird on bass guitar, Jan Hammer on keyboards and synthesizer, and Jerry Goodman on violin) was transcendental.
Fast forward four decades.
In the course of a two-hour set, McLaughlin ranged  from Mahavishnu Orchestra-tinged compositions to pieces reminiscent of his tabla-infused Shakti ensembles to lovingly played covers of jazz classics, including Pharoah Sanders' Light at the Edge of the World and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. McLaughlin now plays a single-neck custom Paul Reed Smith guitar, but his early fascination with Indian classical music merged with jazz, rock and Eastern influences is never far from the surface in everything he plays.
* * * * * 
Mahavishnu John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu translates roughly as Godhead) seems to be able to talk endlessly about the musical universe and his place in it. 
The title Now Hear This "is related to the state of awareness, very important in jazz and all improvised music," he has said. "It all has to do with the environment. Being in the moment is important to jazz musicians. We spend time living in yesterday and tomorrow, but collective improvisation can only take place in the moment.
"I don't see myself as a composer. I can't sit down and expect it to happen. Inspiration might come under the shower, in a restaurant, or even in a plane. When it comes at inopportune moments, I have to write it down. I remember one time when it came on a plane and the only thing I had to write on was the barf bag."
The Musikfest Café is about as unusual a musical venue you're likely to encounter.  The stage is framed by floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the immense blast furnaces of the former Bethlehem Steel Works, the surreal looking structures morphing through an mesmerizing series of colors as the sun set behind them.
In the end, McLaughlin's music is deeply satisfying.  But just as you couldn't ride a roller coaster every say, or as a friend suggested watch a fireworks display, an evening of music with this godfather of fusion goes a long way.
Bethlehem is located in Pennsylvania's Lehigh valley, 80 miles west of New York City and 70 miles northeast of Philadelphia.  The gritty industrial city suffered a grave blow when its largest employer, Bethlehem Steel, once the U.S.'s second-largest steel producer, closed is doors in the face of withering foreign competition and cheap labor, and a short-sighted penchant for short-term profits.
But the community has fought back, revitalizing its historic downtown and building SteelStacks.  More than $70 million has been invested in SteelStacks through state and federal grants and contributions from corporate and private donors.
Today, the former plant is once again thriving, this time as one of the premier destinations in the Northeast for music, art and entertainment. Since its opening in spring 2011, more than one million people have visited SteelStacks to enjoy over 1,700 musical performances, films, community celebrations and festivals, including Musikfest, the largest free music festival in the nation.  
The purpose-built Musikfest Café, located on the 3rd and 4th floors of the ArtsQuest center, is among the most intimate venues I've visited in nearly 50 years of concert going.  No seat is more than 60 feet from the stage and the acoustics, despite all the open architectural steel work, are excellent.  There also are a full-service restaurant and bistro offering pub fare.  Table service was excellent and parking is free.