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Archive for December, 2008

I’ve been reading about the assault on Hamas sites in Gaza by Israeli military forces and the bellicose language coming from both sides.  First, let me point out that to fire rockets into another country is, by all international standards, an act of war.  So, I can understand why Israel felt a need to respond.  But that’s where the question of proportionality enters the picture.

The image that brought the issue of proportionality into sharp focus for me was of a Palestinian teen firing off a stone using a slingshot. A slingshot against smart bombs (provided to Israel by the United States).  While I don’t condone firing rockets into Israeli towns, let’s also consider that these rockets are crude tools of war — unguided missiles.  One fires them off in the general direction of a town, and they fall where they may.  They are small, creating chaos more than damage, fear more than destruction.  Periodically, they hit a building or a vehicle and someone is killed or injured.  These rockets have killed 11 Israelis in 2008.

Compare that to launching 100 tons of bombs in a single day into a crowded strip of land. Over 1.4 million people live in Gaza, an area of less than 140 square miles.  As a point of comparison, that’s approximately the size and population of the city of Las Vegas; twice the area and triple the population of Washington, DC.  Among the targets were the security headquarters of Hamas, the Interior Ministry, an Islamic University, mosques.  The death toll is over 350, with women and children among the “collateral damage.”  Israel has massed tanks along the border, and Egypt has sealed its border with Gaza.  The civilian population cannot escape.  Now, realize that this comes after a months-long siege that has made food and fuel scarce, medical supplies almost non-existent.  And after years of policies that have put increasing pressure on the residents of Gaza.

Israel’s goal seems clear — regime change.  They want to oust Hamas from control in Gaza.   And if Israel can oust Hamas, Fatah, the faction of the Palestinian Authority that controls the occupied West Bank, gets what it wants without having to take action on its own.  It can condemn Israel, support the Gazans, and come out the winner. Likewise, Arab countries who are trying to deal with their own radical movements are willing to pay lip service but otherwise turn a blind eye.  Unlike the conflict against Hezbollah in Lebanon, this time the Israeli campaign is being run by people with more military experience.  So, the planning and execution can be expected to be more professional.  We know there was a disinformation campaign designed to lull the Hamas security forces back into their headquarters where they would be more easily targeted.  But Hamas political leadership and symbols of Hamas power are included in the targets.  And since these targets are disbursed among the civilian population, we can expect more “collateral damage” even with the use of “smart bombs.”  For example, a bomb hit a mosque in one of the refugee camps in Gaza, but the debris crushed the home next door, killing several children.  Today there is talk of a cease-fire — or a ground assault should Hamas refuse.

Hamas came to power because it won election victories.  Their electoral success was due to several factors — among them that Fatah ran multiple candidates for the same post in many instances while Hamas ran only one.  But we also need to look at how Hamas gained the political support it did, because the tactics have been and are being used by radical Muslim groups in other countries as well, with similar success. Many of these groups — Hamas, Hezbollah, even the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban — understand that they can benefit by keying in on the basic needs of the people whose support they seek.  So, rather than trying to sell the people on a particular form of government or political ideology, they establish schools and clinics.  They provide food to people who are hungry, jobs to the unemployed.  Until people’s basic needs — food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, jobs, education — are met, they are relatively unconcerned about the form of government or economic system that ensures that they can meet those needs.  Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority understood that’s what Hamas was doing.  That’s why both urged a delay to the elections.  But the Bush Administration insisted that they be held as scheduled.  In their singular focus on bringing democracy to the Middle East, they failed to understand that Hamas’ radical political agenda was secondary in the minds of the thousands of Gazans who have been living in crowded refugee camps for generations — camps that lack many of the most basic needs of clean water, sanitary living conditions, adequate schools, clinics, hospitals and jobs.

In previous decades, Gazans were able to travel into Israel proper daily to jobs.  Over the years, successive Israeli governments have, in an attempt to prevent suicide attacks, instituted increasing restrictions on Palestinians’ movement from both Gaza and the occupied West Bank into Israel itself, thus effectively rendering these people unemployed.

It’s so easy to sit over here in our modern, well-constructed cities, with our freedom of movement, our relative wealth and lives of ease — even in these uncertain economic times —  to criticize Hamas, the other radical Muslim groups, and the political situation in the Middle East.  If we read only the accounts in the mainstream US media, it’s very easy to see the conflict as one-sided, with Israel always in the right and the Palestinians always in the wrong.  That may have been at the core of Karen Hughes’ remark that she couldn’t understand how Palestinian mothers could support their sons becoming suicide bombers.  Interestingly, there is far more lively discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict, reflecting a wider range of political views, in Israeli papers than in American ones.  I will be continuing to work on the Middle East tutorial as the weeks go by.  In the meantime, I encourage you to read Juan Cole’s blog “Informed Comment” along with alternative US news sources and English-language sources from both Israel and the Arab countries.

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Whether you have just celebrated the winter solstice or the end of the Hajj season, or you’re celebrating Hanukkah, or you’re about to celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa, or you view this time of year as a secular holiday filled with good old American over consumption of food, drink, and things, my wish for you is much happiness and joy.

The lights are up, the trees are decorated, the packages have finally been mailed, and my kids will (barring unforseen weather events) receive their boxes before the 12th day of Christmas.  The cards will be New Year’s cards this year.  I’m still awaiting delivery of one order, and there isn’t yet a cookie baked.  Sorry, Mom, I’ve never been able to live up to your standards on that one… a batch a day beginning the day after Thanksgiving.  We’ll settle this year for mostly bar cookies because they’re faster.  And I still have gifts to wrap and a house to clean.  But what doesn’t get done will be overcome by the sense of good cheer.

We will celebrate, more simply this year than in other years.  Some family members will travel to join us, while for others, phone calls will have to suffice.  We are blessed with a home while so many others have lost theirs.  We will be surrounded with family while others are alone.  We are blessed with more than enough food while so many others will go hungry.  We will be able to call absent loved ones, knowing they are safe, while others are far away from home and in danger.

But rather than seeing all the need as a downer, isn’t it also an opportunity for each of us to be that change we hoped for?  As we move towards a new administration, I’m inspired to plug in and see where I can meet some of that need.  I have time to give.  I know there is need.  I’m terrible about resolutions, but just this once, I’d like to remain resolute.  If the true meaning of Christmas was the gift of a child to show us how we should treat our fellow travelers on this speck of space dust, doesn’t that mean that each of us can pay that gift forward in our own small way?

Like many others, I was disheartened by the choice of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration.  But then I read a piece this evening by Melissa Etheridge.  As she says, the choice is ours.  Regardless of who we are or what we have, we have a choice on how we treat each other, how we treat our earth.  So, while I’ll be away for the rest of the year, I’ll also be thinking about the choices I can make to be that change we’ve been waiting for.

So, merry, merry, happy, happy.  See you at the turn of the new year. May these next days be filled with love and joy for each of you.  And may 2009 be the beginning of something new and wonderous.

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The new regulation has an appropriately Orwellian name — “right of conscience,” but the name apparently doesn’t apply to the rights or conscience of those who might seek certain legal, medically approved services.   Not surprisingly, the people who will be most affected are women, and especially women who live in rural areas.  The Bush Administration has issued a brand, spanking new and very wide-ranging regulation that has the potential to create chaos for Americans seeking health care.  Under this new regulation any person working in a health care facility — hospital, clinic, pharmacy, etc. — can refuse to do the job they were hired to do if so doing would violate their conscience.

Just think of the services that might include.  Abortion, of course, but also birth control, stem cell research, fertility treatments, antibiotics, blood transfusions, and those are just the most obvious. And it’s not limited to the person actually performing the procedure or service.  The person cleaning the medical instruments, the person stocking the pharmacy shelves, the person ringing up the sale, the person filing the insurance claim — all would have the right to refuse to participate.

And, unlike the previous regs, the person “of conscience” no longer has to inform their employer in advance so the employer can provide appropriate accommodation.  No longer is either the employer or employee obligated, either legally or otherwise, even to provide information that would allow a patient to make a fully informed choice on the ramifications of her condition or to provide information on alternate providers.  The part of this new regulation that seems the most capricious is that access to services and information will depend entirely on who happens to be on duty at the time.

There is no attempt at ensuring consistency.  No longer will patients have to choose providers based on competence, or even on whether the provider is connected to their insurance provider, but they will need to know the “conscience” of every person even tangentially involved to make sure they will have access to the medical services they seek. The question then arises — will we have access to that information?  And if the individuals are not required to reveal their beliefs to their employers, how can consumers be sure that some minor person — a cashier or a billing clerk — with no direct medical involvement won’t be able to control access, either before or after the fact.

I find this totally unacceptable.  It’s one thing to know that certain reproductive services won’t be available at a Catholic hospital.  One simply chooses a different hospital or clinic.  It’s one thing for an individual physician to refuse for reasons of conscience to perform abortions.  And I know physicians who do.  But they recognize that abortion is a legal medical procedures and so refer their patients to providers whose consciences don’t prohibit them from performing them.

Abortion is the most obvious reproductive service this new regulation affects.  But it also can apply to prescriptions for birth control, infertility treatments, and even rape kits that contain either information about or prescriptions for emergency birth control.  We know that the state of Alaska had to pass a law when one town began to charge rape victims for their rape kits because its mayor didn’t agree that women should be provided with INFORMATION about EBC.

Does the new regulation insist that “conscience” be linked to documented religious teaching?  Or does anyone now have the right simply to state that they are opposed, for whatever reason, to being even tangentially involved in a legal, legitimate medically approved procedure?

And if so, at what point do the rights and conscience of the consumer count?  As someone who lives in reasonable proximity to numerous doctors, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and the like, I would have options.  But what about consumers in rural areas where medical services are already limited by the size of the population being served?  If the only doctor in town or the only pharmacy in town has someone who doesn’t believe in birth control, where does that leave women?  Do they not become the prisoners of the conscience of the providers?

I am glad to read that the Obama team is looking at how and when to rescind this regulation.  It can’t happen soon enough.  Certainly, people have a right not to act against their beliefs.  But the consumers of medical services also have rights — at least they should!  This wide-ranging new regulation seems to place all the rights of conscience on the provide side of the equation and none on the consumer side.  A democratic system is designed to balance competing rights.  This regulation fails utterly in that task.

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My Southern California town is snowbound this morning.  It’s unusual that we get snow here in the high desert, but yesterday it snowed all day long, and this morning we have 8-9″ of snow on the ground.  Since snow of any consequence is so rare here, few people really know how to drive on frozen roads, and road crews lack enough equipment to plow and sand more than a few major roads.  Schools are closed, as are many businesses and government offices.  The roads in and out of our valley are closed, so our LA Times delivery, mail and anything that comes in from “down below” as we call the LA basin is on hold.

Unfortunately, I still have to brave a trip to the mall and also to mail packages to my out-of-state kids.  And  this year I’m behind the curve on shopping and shipping anyway….   There are several reasons.  Thanksgiving was especially late, and I tend to wait until after that to focus on Christmas preparations.  Then, there were other personal priorities that took another 2 weeks out of an already shorter season.  So it wasn’t until this week that I actually started seriously looking at Christmas and shopping.  The things I’ve ordered online won’t arrive until the roads are opened.  And then they’ll need to be wrapped and sent along. So it’s looking like Santa will be arriving late this year.  Sorry, guys.  I goofed.  Or, you can look at it that you’ll be having an extended Christmas.  It all depends on your perspective.

Like many Americans, we’re cutting back on Christmas spending, recommending to our kids that they consider donations to our favorite charities as their gift to us.  There are so many worthy organizations and so much need.  We’re lucky.  The job is safe, we’re able to make our mortgage payment, the heat works, the power’s on, and we aren’t going hungry.  We have books to read — more than we’ll likely read in a lifetime — music to listen to, DVDs to watch,  and conversations to have with each other and with friends.  And the view from our window this morning is almost magical.  We went to a party last weekend where we were encouraged to bring gifts to exchange.  It seemed almost decadent to me to exchange tangible items with these people, all of whom are secure in their jobs.  Sure, our homes are worth far less than they were two years ago, and our retirement savings have taken a huge hit.  But we are so much more fortunate than so many others in our country and in our world!

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So What?

There was an astounding exchange during W’s recent interview with ABC’s Martha Raddatz.

BUSH:  One of the major theaters against al Qaeda turns out to have been Iraq.  This is where al Qaeda said they were going to take their stand.  This where al Qaeda was hoping to take…

RADDATZ:  But not until after the U.S. invaded.

BUSH:  Yeah, that’s right.  So what? The point is that al Qaeda said they’re going to take a stand.  Well, first of all in the post-9/11 environment Saddam Hussein posed a threat.  And then upon removal, al Qaeda decides to take a stand.

It’s now official.  The man is as delusional as Illinois Governor Blagojevich!  This is so stunning a statement that it’s hard to know where to start.

First, the arrogance.  Or ignorance.  Or maybe both — could it really be that he’s proud to be so totally clueless???

Second, the statement totally puts a lie to the facts.  We now know that the Bush administration was looking for an excuse to topple Saddam Hussein even before 9/11.  Bush and his neocon cronies began to plan for such an action almost as soon as he took office.  And following the attacks, they were eager to find a connection to Iraq that would justify their plans — whether such a connection actually existed or not.  Could it be that Bush’s reality exists only in his mind???

Third, the rise of an insurgency shouldn’t have surprised anybody.  Post-invasion planning was almost non-existent.  So, once Saddam was toppled, a power vacuum existed.  Just who the hell did Bush figure would fill that vacuum?  Let’s see… there were all the criminals that Saddam had released from prison in the run-up to the invasion.  And there was the Iraqi army and bureaucracy that Grand Poobah Bremmer fired as his first two acts.  And then there were all the ordinary Iraqis whose sense of honor and national pride was battered by the invasion.  And, finally, Rumsfeld and his cohorts thought they knew better than the US military leaders about the number of troops that would be needed, and the neocons wanted to believe that we’d be welcomed with roses.  Hmmmm…. so, is it really any surprise that an insurgency developed?  Not to most people who were paying attention to the facts beyond the official pronouncements or just using common sense.

After all, if our country were invaded and our political leadership toppled, our military and bureaucracy toppled, the Smithsonian looted, would we have been tossing flowers at the feet of the invading military?  I think not. Rather, I think we’d be doing everything in our individual power to thwart the plans of the invaders.

Given all this, the disconnect between Bush’s response and that of the Arab street to the shoe-tossing is also far more understandable.  Bush laughs it off — another “so what” moment I suppose.  Whether he understood the depth of the insult that came flying with those size 10s is questionable, given that he seems totally oblivious to criticism from any quarter.  The Arab world, on the other hand, have had more than enough of the man and his policies.  These latest incidents only serve to confirm what they’ve realized for some time.  The tragedy is that rather than trying to tamp down the hatred, his every pronouncement serves only to ratchet it up further.  And when the blowback occurs, too many Americans will wonder why…

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It would seem that at least one Iraqi journalist has had enough.  He took off his shoes and threw them at President Bush at a news conference held during a surprise “victory tour” visit to Iraq.  It seems that the journalist had lost members of his family to the war, had been kidnapped at one point, had spend considerable time reporting on the violence in Sadr City.  Journalists who know the individual say that he just snapped.  Were he an American serviceman, he might well have been diagnosed with PTSD.  But the act of throwing shoes at the American President and, as the Secret Service wrestled him to the ground and hustled him away, calling out, “You dog!” needs to be viewed through the lens of Middle Eastern values and cultural mores.

Remember the images of Iraqis beating the downed statue of Saddam Hussein with their shoes?  Well, in Arab culture showing the soles of your feet to another is is considered extremely bad form.  Watch carefully, and you’ll not see Arab leaders sitting with their legs crossed in such a way as to expose the soles of their shoes to others.  We read body language as positive if western leaders are pictured with their legs crossed toward each other.  Not so in the cultures of the Middle East.  Even in photos of Bedouins sitting in their traditional tents, it’s extremely rare to see the soles of their feet or sandals. So, for an Iraqi journalist to throw shoes at the current American President is an insult of the highest order.  Furthermore, dogs are viewed as unclean animals, not as members of the family, so to call another a dog is also highly insulting.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of hearing a Christian minister of Middle Eastern origin discuss the New Testament parables from an Arab cultural perspective.  He spent considerable time discussing the parable of the prodigal son, pointing out details that would have been meaningful to those hearing it at the time and that we who are not schooled in Middle East culture miss entirely.  And what depth those details add!  One detail that relates to today’s incident in Baghdad comes in the description of the father as he goes out to meet his returning son.  He doesn’t walk sedately, as befits a man of some social stature within a traditional community.  No, he runs to meet his son, his robe flapping about his ankles.  And not only does he expose his ankles, but he throws all custom and mores to the wind in his eagerness and allows the soles of his feet to show as he runs.  What a powerful demonstration of unconditional love!

I cannot help but wonder at how much else we miss by not understanding other cultures and the various nuances that are part and parcel of the myriad ways in which we communicate.  It’s said that well over half of all communication is done without benefit of words — written or spoken.  Some cultures use gestures far more often when speaking.  Eye position is also culturally determined — eye contact can convey a degree of intimacy that is inappropriate beyond close relatives. If you happened to see the interview of Fareed Zakaria interviewing Queen Rania of Jordan, you might have noticed that she looked at him briefly at the beginning of each response, then looked away.  I was aware that the “personal space” bubble is smaller among Arabs than it is among Americans, and that one finds Arab acquaintances standing closer together in conversation than do most Americans.

I recall an occasion when I was chatting with a young Lebanese man while I was in grad school.  I became aware that we were in constant motion — me backing away a step as he came closer so that an observer might have described our motions as a sort of dance.  Realizing that two different sized personal space bubbles were colliding, I decided to stand my ground.  My sense of discomfort was intense, and this was a person that I found very likeable and with whom I’d had many long conversations sitting in the cafeteria over coffee!  As our conversation continued, my discomfort eased, largely because I was aware of what was causing it.  I don’t know if he was aware either of our “dance” or of the fact that I had chosen to accommodate to his comfort level initially at the cost of my own.  But I can’t help but think that if my awareness and decision allowed us to continue our conversation, being aware of cultural nuances and making accommodations to them would facilitate communication between our nation and others.

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There is plenty to write about, including wondering about the real motives of those Southern Republican Senators who killed the auto industry bailout and the spine of the Democratic Senate leadership who, once again, caved in to the threat of a filibuster.  I don’t understand why they don’t call the Republicans’ bluff more often.  It seems that once again the Senate, and the rest of us, are being held captive.  Mitch McConnell’s new moniker is Senator No.  The filibuster was supposed to prevent the tyranny of the majority, but in recent years it has served more to extract concessions for special interests, in this case union-busting.

In the meantime, I’m waiting to see if the White House decides to scare up some of the massive bailout to throw towards the auto industry.  Left-eyed Jack posted a most interesting map yesterday showing where the largest concentrations of poverty are in this country.  Well, guess what?  That map, and the post-election map showing where the voters are growing even more conservative are just about the same!  And you could pretty much lay a map showing where people are the least healthy and find a close correlation.  Folks, this is not a coincidence.   Despite what the Republicans would like us to believe, the facts prove that we’re all better off, including the stock market, when Democrats are in power.

But more on that another day. There’s a pretty exciting and significant even occurring in my life today — a wedding.  Not a big splashy one, just a small, civil ceremony.  In and out in a matter of 15 minutes.  But it’s an important event, and my personal calendar is rather crowded.  A gal has to look her best, you know.  After all, there will be photos to commemorate the occasion.  So, fee free to comment, to read back through previous posts, and even to make suggestions on possible topics.  I welcome the discussion, and your concerns and topics are as important as mine are.

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