Tag Archives: United States

A Note to George Zimmerman

Last week’s post sparked great discussion.  It is so gratifying tackling these issues with so many friends.  Throughout those conversations, the following three points emerged:

First, as per usual, I am entirely unimpressed with the issues that the media and public choose to care about.  Obesity, to name just one issue, kills millions and costs the US economy at least $300 billion a year and is treated primarily with those two incredibly cost-prohibitive treatments: diet and exercise.

Horrible and solvable issues abound and the Trayvon shooting is not one of them.  All the ranting about this being part of a larger issue about gun control and “Stand your Ground” laws is silly.  Perhaps we will get more cases like this because of these new laws, but right now each year about 56.5% of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, a majority of what is left is drug or gang related, only 14% of gun deaths involve strangers, and on the whole violent crime like this has continued to decline across the country since the 1980s.  The rise of homicidal neighborhood watch volunteers is not likely to be an important public health issue in the future.

Second, we must be slow to judge what happened and why it happened (this video was something that made me pause).  This story has inspired racial outrage prematurely.  Of course, it very well might be racism that killed Trayvon Martin.  If so, when that is discovered to be the case, I will agree that it is part of a disturbing, larger trend of racism.  But the trends that I see right now are an America who jumps to conclusions when the victim of a shooting is black and progressives who jump to conclusions about gun owners.  So, my progressive friends, take it from me: I find the second amendment archaic, stand your ground laws unwise, vigilanteism foolish, and the modern Republican Party upsetting.  But nonetheless, Zimmerman deserves to be tried based on the laws of his state and not your sense of what is right and wrong.  He should have his day in court and, if you are truly an open-minded liberal, in the court of your opinion.

Third, I have something to say to Zimmerman himself.  (If he is anything like me, he probably spends too much time looking at his story online, so I hope he finds this.)

Zimmerman, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what happened, but please know that I’m feeling for you man, for the fame that has rushed in on you, and for the tragic circumstances that led to it.  Two years ago, I almost hit a baby in a stroller while pulling out of a gas station.  I cannot imagine what you are going through having actually killed a 17-year-old.  And now it must seem like your whole life is out of your control and you don’t know who your friends are.  I am sorry so much has been taken from you so quickly without a conviction to justify it.

But do me a favor.  I know my little traffic accident made me think about giving up cars entirely–that perhaps it just wasn’t worth speeding around at high velocity in large hulks of metal if I could destroy something so precious with it–but I ultimately didn’t because it was too inconvenient. But you could succeed where I failed.  I am wondering, has this experience caused you to reflect anew on whether owning personal handguns is worth it?  If you came out against gun ownership right now, or even sold your own guns, it would send a strong statement.  If you don’t change your mind on guns, I respect that, but you should still think about it.  Very soon your 15 minutes of fame will be gone, your national audience will dissipate, and you will lose the chance to effect enormous change.  Don’t waste the moment. ; )


My Favorite Republican Hopeful

Now that I am done with my Habitat temp job, it’s time to get down to what’s really important: crudely assessing the Republican presidential field.  I tend to think it’s pretty weak, and, to be honest, a bit embarrassing for Republicans.   Three big heavyweights are sitting out this round: Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, and Chris Christie.  I think the main reason is that they realize how little of a chance anyone stands of beating Obama in 2012.  Chris Christie and Marco Rubio are young, and despite what Christie recently said to my old pals on Fox & Friends, they both would make great VPs.  However, let’s look at who’s running.

In general, I think that there are three types of candidates.  For the first, it’s a publicity stunt, a way to sell books, raise your profile, and advance your career (think Michelle Bachman and Herman Cain).

In the second group are those that have very little or no chance of achieving the nomination, but they hope to shape the debate.  Ron Paul is the quintessence of this group.  Gary Johnson joins Paul in his love for most things libertarian, and I tend to like him.  He seems interested in solving problems and is refreshingly thoughtful on policy issues.  For example, in the June 13th CNN debate he proposed a kind of “amnesty” for illegal immigrants which centered around making it easy to achieve work VISAs.  I find it sad that it takes guts to suggest this in the Republican world of absolutist solutions (e.g. send everyone back!).  He’s also a fan of legalizing many types of drugs, which I agree with wholeheartedly.  Newt Gingrich has such high negatives that he really has little chance of being president, but he hopes to shape the discussion and be the Republican ideas man.  This hope betrays an intent that indicates a firm footing in the first group as well, as he hopes to sell more of the 21 books he’s published.  Really, the guy has very little chance, and you better believe that he knows it too.  Finally, Rick Santorum is in this group as well.  He wants to shape the debate by bringing the pet issues of the religious right to the forefront.  The problem is that he cannot distinguish himself as everyone seems on board.  There is no front runner like Rudy Guiliani who is pro-choice.  Nonetheless, I do believe that Santorum thinks Santorum has a shot at winning everything.

The third type of presidential candidate is actually running for president.  So far, only three people populate this group: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Jon Huntsman.  Mitt is the frontrunner I suppose, but these early polls are extremely meaningless.  I think he’s the frontrunner in large part because he is the only one of these three with larger name recognition, a holdover from the last presidential contest.  However, I remember him primarily for conveniently flip-flopping on abortion, viciously attacking John McCain in the primary debates last time around, and spending a shit-ton of money in Iowa and losing to an insurgent, relatively poor, and likable Huckabee.  I am comforted by the fact that even Romney’s supporters don’t really seem to like him, and may easily defect.  These numbers won’t be replaced, because he can’t get much tea party support with his record on health care reform, which is so toxic to the extreme elements in his party.  Tim Pawlenty seems like a serious candidate, but he seems to be continually trying to feign outrage in order to grab some share of the Tea Party.  But he’s not an angry guy, and he’s not really that confrontational, as was shown by how he sidestepped his Obamneycare line at the June 13th debate.  Also, I just disagree with him about most things he says.  So that leaves us with Jon Huntsman, my current fav.  I’ll talk about why in my next post.


Birther Brilliance

I just want to mention some of the profound ways that not being born in the United States would have affected the quality of Obama’s presidency.  He clearly would not have been able to truly understand the country or be capable of talented, decisive leadership.

My confidence in this knowledge stems from observing my own inabilities brought on by not being born in the US.   It has rendered me an imbecile in regards to all things American.  For example, I sometimes get the words wrong when saying the pledge of allegiance.  Americans even think that I stutter, when really I am just talking like everyone not born in the United States.

I’ll miss the Birther movement.  I find crusades for meaningless truths amusing (or depressing, depending on my mood).  Who could have better publicized the idea that citizenship jus soli (by the soil) is an idiotic idea in the first place?  I remember in 8th grade Social Studies when I found out that an illegal immigrant can have a kid in the US and that kid is automatically a citizen.  I thought my teacher was joking, but apparently dirt has magical properties, at least in America.

At the same time, there is a myth in the missionary kid world that those like me who were not born in the US can’t be President.  From what I can tell this isn’t true.  I did some research for the sake of Obama and I.  Please, correct me if I am wrong.  Article 2 section 1 of the Constitution says this:

“No person except a natural born citizen…shall be eligible to the office of president.”

Ok.  What is a “natural born citizen”?  In the fourteenth amendment, section 1, it says this:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

That didn’t really help.  Finally, title 8 of the US Code fills in the gaps in section 1401. It says a couple of things but most importantly for our purposes it gives citizenship at birth to:

“a person born outside of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents both of whom are citizens of the United States and one of whom has had a residence in the United States or one of its outlying possessions, prior to the birth of such person.”

Ok.  This means that I am good to go right?  My mom grew up in Ohio and my Dad in Virginia.  Yay!  I can be president.  What about Obama even if he was born outside the country?  Secion 1401 of title 8 goes on to say that someone is born a citizen if he or she is:

“a person born outside the geographical limits of the United States and its outlying possessions of parents one of whom is an alien, and the other a citizen of the United States who, prior to the birth of such person, was physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.”

Shouldn’t this apply to Obama also?  His dad was from Kenya who came to America to study.  His mom was from Kansas where she lived, presumably, more than five years.  What am I missing?

I’ll miss the Birthers.  They were off-base technically (I think Obama would still have been eligible for president), meaningfully (Obama would still have been capable of being president), and factually (Obama was in fact born in the US).   Nonetheless, in March one quarter of all Americans believed Obama was not born in the states, the majority of Republican primary voters believed he was not, and 49% of all Republicans nationwide.  Obama and his advisors must have been wondering when to release the long-form birth certificate. This would have been the best opportunity ever to make your political opponents look dumb.

What do you think?  I think he blew it.  He played his ace prematurely.  If he would have waited, I think he could have painted an abysmal picture of the entire Republican party right before an election (BTW, 83%/12% of Republican birthers viewed Palin favorably compared to 41%/52% of republican non-birthers).  Some Republicans, Karl Rove for instance, did try to discourage this preposterousness, but most leaders, such as John Boehner, did not.  When asked about it on Meet the Press he said, “it’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”

That’s the sort of inspiring leadership that magic soil is capable of.


A Stutterer’s Take on the King’s Speech

Many of my friends have asked me, as a stutterer, what I think of the King’s Speech.  I watched it tonight with Alicia, and I have a couple of thoughts worth sharing and a few that are not (I apologize for the length).  However, I feel strongly that, because of the great multitude and degree of stuttering problems, different stutterers will respond to the film differently.  So I do not pretend to speak for all stutterers.

A bit about my situation: my own speech impediment used to be much more severe and, after all, just last week I gave a few reasonably coherent on-air interviews.  However, for those who watched those interviews, you may not have noticed that nearly every word is a struggle.  I am constantly flipping through a thesaurus in my brain, trying to say words and phrases in different ways.  I play rhythm games, and I’ll tap my thigh, my chest, etc.  I’ll rap four words in a row and change up the rhythms as to avoid notice.  My pauses are often forced errors in the middle of phrases, and I’ll finish the thought on the upbeat of the next rhythm I can create (in the 4 minute F&F interview for instance, I did this maybe 6 times, most noticeably between “each” and “other” two times in a row towards the end).  I’ll hold onto vowel sounds for longer than normal.  Fun aside: by just spending too much time with me, a few folks, maybe 15 over the course of my life, have found themselves exhibiting some of my speech patterns.

Almost everyday there is some blooper related to my speech.  Today, for instance, I was talking to two people, and they thought I was making a joke when I stuttered on the word “planning,” and they laughed nervously.  About a month ago I failed to get a job because I could not read a simple prompt.  In fact, for years now, I have broken down and cried irrationally about once a month through sheer pent up frustration, usually in response to one of these awkward incidents.  Alicia and I call it my PMS.

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad for me.  We all have issues.  My point is that even if my stuttering does not come across as that bad, even if I am usually able to speak coherently with minimal problems, I am still thoroughly a stutterer, and to not see that, and my frustration with it, is to not understand me as a person.  It has done much to form who I am.

As the film shows quite well, stuttering is extremely frustrating.  It’s imprisoning.  (I thank God that I have the outlet of writing.  It is the one place where I can express myself in such a way that I truly forget that I have any sort of communicative impediment.)  The frustration definitely affects our behavior and our inner personalities. Therefore, I think stutterers are actually really bad film critics for this movie, because we want to feel understood first and foremost.  You can’t be a good critic if you are also seeing the art as a form of therapy and concurrently worried about its accuracy.  But on to the film:

  1. What helped Bertie’s speech impediment seemed odd to me.  My speech is the most fluent when I am not being judged on my speech as much as the quality of my ideas.  This is why I find myself good at speeches and bad at speech class.  Bertie, on the other hand, seemed to improve by divorcing himself from the ideas he was trying to say and focusing exclusively on the sounds themselves.
  2. I can relate heartily with how Bertie resisted attempts by those that he loved to fix him.  My mom for years tried to get me to try this and that, and many doctors promised what they didn’t deliver.  It becomes frustrating.  One nice thing (probably the only one) about other disabilities, like a missing arm or something, is that people aren’t assuming that if you talk about your deep fears and earliest memories your arm will grow back.  Stuttering’s quasi-fixability is exasperating.  As for me, I’ve mostly given up on fixing it.  However, I can give speeches with my stutter and function pretty well, so I can afford the luxury of defeat.
  3. I related to how embarrassed people feel for you, averting their eyes when you are stuttering.  This makes us not want to talk at all.  If I hate it, and you hate it, then I’ll do us all a favor and keep my ideas to myself.  However, in a strange way,
    my stuttering sometimes helps me in speeches.  People think I have something important to say if I am willing to risk looking like an idiot.  Also, in the same way that you cannot be bored when someone is crying on stage or making a fool of himself, when I am on stage it is hard not to pay attention to the high wire act I put myself through.  Also, my speech is often just bad enough to be a noticeable disability, but not so bad that it is overly inconvenient.  People, me included, like to be nice to people with disabilities if it’s not too much hassle.  In fact, I’ve observed at times that people will walk away from conversations with me feeling good about themselves for being a patient, caring person.  It’s a strange dynamic.
  4. “Keeping it real” and informal is one of the most helpful things I can do to decrease my likelihood of stuttering (the FUCK-FUCK-FUCK method is one I’m excited to try).  I am a very informal person, and it’s not just because I don’t like the arbitrary irrationality of pomp.  I can see how, as a king, keeping things chill-lax would be very hard to do, and that would make your speech much worse.
  5. I was appalled at how badly people in his family treated him.  “Just say it” is one of the stupidest things you can say.  Runners-up include “just relax” and of course people finishing your sentence for you.
  6. The king’s stutter was not at all like mine, and seemed fake to me, but I do not have a lot of exposure to stutterers.  In fact, when I come across other stutterers, their stutters often seem fake.  I can see how people who do not stutter at all look at a stutterer and wonder what in the world they are doing and that they must be doing it on purpose.
  7. I am glad the film raised awareness of the issue.  I am amazed at how many people remain ignorant about it, including service people.  However, virtually nobody has made fun of me for my speech knowing that I genuinely had a stuttering problem.  For me, meanness is usually just ignorance.  In fact, after someone laughs or makes a joke about my stuttering, I usually cringe for their sake, because now I have to tell them, and they are going to feel like a jerk.
  8. Stuttering is deeply associated with stupidity and/or mental frailty of some sort.  I got annoyed that Bertie did not break the stereotype with his brilliance.  He is portrayed as a normal person with average intelligence, I guess, but I was wanting him to turn out to be brilliant.  But again, this is also my own issue.
  9. As a lover of history, I actually became more interested in the content of his final speech instead of his experience speaking it.  Ultimately, a stutter is a boring thing and not that difficult of a difficulty.  Europe was descending into war for a second time.  I found myself just listening to what the king was saying and thinking about how alone the British were (America would not enter the war for a while of course).  They must have been thinking, “Is this really happening to us again?  Seriously?”

Ultimately, I am a lover of content, of ideas.  I don’t really care about stuttering, accents, grammar, punctuation, or capitalization.  I want to understand the speaker’s thoughts, and I want others to return the favor by stretching past my own interminable disfluency and seeing my ideas more polished and more brilliant than my presentation could ever make them.  I imagine that though my words and I might be frustrated, or even imprisoned, by a speech impediment (or melodrama), my ideas are not.

Clearly, I am not the guy you want as a film critic for this one.  It all was a little too personal and uncomfortable.  And they did not even show the worst parts: when he is stuttering heavily in front of people, this happened maybe 3 or 4 times, they just ended the scene instead of showing it.  But the worst part is when you completely give up and step down.  I’ve done that in the middle of stories and jokes with my friends and in class a couple times.  It gets real quiet.  Nobody knows what to do.  I suppose it makes for bad television.

I am impressed that Hollywood pulled off a successful movie about a stutterer in the first place.  However, in order to make this a good movie, his stutter had to never get in the way of what the film-watching audience wanted to hear or needed to hear in order to advance the story.  For example, at the beginning, the film-watching audience does not care what he is trying to say to the crowd.  They are only sympathizing with how badly he is struggling in saying it.  But of course, in reality, stuttering is very inconvenient, and the real audience often desperately wants to, and even needs to, understand what is being said.  But that, of course, would make for an awful movie.

So, I don’t think I’m going to watch it again, but I’m happy people are seeing it and it is raising awareness.  If you have not seen it, you should.


My Last (and longest) Post on the Middle East

I just finished Professor Yaqub’s 24 lectures on the history of the Middle East 1915-9/11.  I found it very interesting, and remarkably depressing.  Alicia is going through the same thing right now as she is studying the history of development practice.  It feels like a history of dashed hopes.  This, I think, is true of all history, but this type of history especially.

At the end of the lecture series, Yaqub categorized what amounts to two camps, with most people falling somewhere in between, with responses to the question of why Middle Eastern-US relations are so bad.  One camp points to specific modern day grievances, such as American support of Israeli oppression, the iraqi sanctions that led to roughly 500,000 iraqi deaths, and the presence of American infidel troops on holy Islamic soil on the Arabian peninsula.  Another camp points to specific ancient cultural and civilizational differences that make bad relations in many ways inevitable no matter what happens.  He mentions Bernard Lewis and Huntington as the big names in this second camp.

A few weeks ago, I finished Bernard Lewis’ “What went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.”  I had just gotten the book from the library, having no idea that it was an important work in the field, and by an important thinker, who was often invited by GWB to the White House to advise on Middle East policy. (Lewis was also the guy who said that Middle Easterners respect power and a firm-hand.  “Staying the course” was then the wisest strategy in nearly any tussle with them.)

Lewis’s basic idea is fairly straightforward: what went wrong? Christianity was initially the political and religious rival of an emerging Islam.  But, for years and years, this rivalry was not taken seriously because it was painfully obvious to anyone who travelled to medieval Europe and medieval Arabia that the Arab world was way way WAY ahead of them in virtually everything: the arts, human rights, literature, mathematics, architecture….every standard of civilizational progress.  (Interesting fact: for centuries, oppressed peoples fled Europe for shelter in the more tolerant and peaceful Arab world.)  Eventual domination of Christianity and the west by Islam and the Arabs seemed inevitable.

As we all know, however, the moors were kicked out of Spain.  The Ottomans were stopped twice at Vienna.  And the tide slowly started to turn.  For years, middle easterners had not even been looking at the west, assuming that they were barbarians and generally pathetic.  Suddenly, they were being forced to adopt western ways of doing things just to keep up, especially ways of conducting warfare, but also things like clocks and standard measurements of weights.  Not only was it necessary to adopt western ways of fighting, they had to have westerners come and teach them how to create effective armies, a huge blow to civilizational pride.  The knock out punch, if you could call it that, was Napoleon’s escapade in Egypt, in which a relatively small force of 30,000 Europeans captured what I believe was the most populous Muslim state at the time.  Lewis thinks that this “clash of civilizations,” a phrase he coined, led to  an underlying resentment and hatred which permeates and undermines western-middle eastern relations today.

While I was initially compelled by this theory, I have come to believe that it is not very relevant.  America was widely liked at the beginning of the 20th century.  A benign power not yet tested, most American interest in the region was philanthropic, and middle easterner greatly preferred America to France or England.

I think two factors did more to erode the American position in the Middle East than anything else: our willingness to do almost anything to contain the Soviets and our continual support for Israel.

Why does American values stop so quickly at the water’s edge?  Anyone who knows me knows that I very selfishly desire meaning over money.  In the same way, I wish America was a little more philanthropic in its foreign policy; we would all feel better about ourselves.

Will Airhart, in a comment to an earlier post, mentioned that when we have intervened, it  has not worked out.  I want it to be clear that I am not advocating interventionism at this time.  I am simply advocating not helping governments suppress it citizens.  In the Middle East, we have generally acted as if we were France in 1780, but instead of coming to aid America, we provided arms to England in order to suppress the American revolution.

This sort of thing we keep doing, even now that the Soviet Union is gone.

I love the Kurds.  The Kurds in Turkey and Iraq have been oppressed for years.  The reason why they have not been allowed to form their own country seems to be that Turkey is an ally of the US, a NATO member.  This pushes the US to not allow the Kurds in Iraq to form their own state either, because empowered Turkish Kurds might threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

I love America for the Marshall Plan, for our overall restraint post WWII, for our continual  evolving government, for our constitution, for many things.  But I hate America for how its treated the people of the Middle East.

Ok.  I want to talk about more fun things now.  My next book is Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict the XVI.


We Missed Our Chance!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance.  Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets.  Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat.  In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist).  We kept military bases around the world.  We supported bad guys because we needed air bases.  We supported bad guys because we needed oil.  We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse.   We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.

Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad.  You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.

Our policies should have changed internally as well.  Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat.  In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.

Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness.  He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals.  And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.

His speech could have ended,

“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top.  All great powers eventually fall and we will too.  When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice.  In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong.  Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security

‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome.  In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people.  We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings.  Instead, we are on the side of the people.  We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.

‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity.  Thank you.”

We missed our chance and it makes me sad.

(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.”  Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.  I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)