Do Americans respect Islam?

Are we at war with Islam?  George W. Bush, author of the “War on Terror,” said this about some American statements critical of Islam, way back on November 13, 2002, after a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi-Annan:

“Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.”

The current controversy over the so called “Ground Zero Mosque” shows that the sentiments of a vocal minority of Americans are not so welcoming of Islam.  They may claim that they only oppose the Islamic Center being built on “hallowed ground,” but you see Americans protesting mosques all over the country.  Is that just NIMBY?  Or, do they have a problem with all Mosques and Islam?

When you have Christians in Florida creating a Burn the Quran day on September 11, it is hard not to see a War on Islam from this vocal minority.  The danger of this rhetoric is that it may be feeding the radical minority of jihadist Muslims from groups like Al Queda.  By grouping those extremist few with the global Islamist whole, the rhetoric may be helping the radicals recruit and fundraise.  The Wall Street Journal, bastion of Rupert Murdoch, seems to agree.  They quoted independent terrorism consultant Evan Kohlman of Flashpoint Partners saying “We are handing al Qaeda a propaganda coup, an absolute propaganda coup.”

In the same breath, those that view President Obama as a secret Muslim without a birth certificate feed into the same rhetoric.  It shows an America that is intolerant of religious freedom, despite our Bill of Rights and our Constitution.  This whole “controversy” is a disgrace.  David Brooks has an excellent column today in the New York Times, where he talks about the “underlying” problem in America:

“In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.  But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness… There’s a seller’s market in ideologies that gives people a chance to feel victimized…To use a fancy word, there’s a metacognition deficit. Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate. A few people I interview do this regularly (in fact, Larry Summers is one). But it is rare. The rigors of combat discourage it.  Of the problems that afflict the country, this is the underlying one.”

Unfortunately, American attitudes towards Islam are often wrongheaded.  Before the Iraq War, most Americans did not know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, let alone a Sufi Muslim.  We tend to view Islam through the lens of the Iran Hostage Crisis, Al Queda, and the violent historical intersections between the minority of extremist Muslims and American foreign policy.  If we are really so serious about the Constitution that we inherited, and the freedoms encapsulated in the Bill of Rights, we need to reaffirm those freedoms by respecting Islam and the Muslim community in America.


Zeitoun and the “Ground Zero Mosque”

My wife and I just returned from a 8-day road-trip that took us from the Berkshires, through the Green Mountains, east through the White Mountains, ending with a day in Portland, Maine.  During the trip we hiked a mountain, idled by a stream, and generally unplugged from the noisy din of civilization.  I was blissfully unaware of the 24-hour news cycle, instead concerned only with the lazy whims of vacation-time.  I treasure vacations for many reasons, but one benefit that applies to all trips is the time to catch up on reading.  For me, that meant finally getting to Dave Eggers’ latest, Zeitoun.

Zeitoun is a true page tuner, one that I couldn’t put down and read in a day or so.  It is a non fiction account of the harrowing experience of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a successful Syrian-American businessman, in New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina.  Zeitoun, a Muslim, stayed behind to watch over his painting business and his rental units, but ended up saving people in his canoe.  Of course, the weight of this narrative, and the reason why this book is once again very timely, is the fact that Zeitoun, despite his honorable reputation, winds up experiencing the dark side of our society, our prejudice towards Muslims, and winds up detained where his family cannot find him.  I won’t spoil the story for you, but when you read what happened to Zeitoun, you might wonder, like I did, what exactly America has become.

In fact, given the controversy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” it is easy to see how intolerant we have become as a society.  Of course, tucked away in the White Mountains, I was blissfully unaware of the ongoing controversy until I returned.  Once I came within range of the media din and the 24 Hour news cycle, I could see clearly how stupid the entire controversy is.  The Islamic Community Center would sit two blocks from ground zero; an existing Mosque, Masjid Manhattan, sits three blocks away from the hallowed ground.  That’s right, there is already a Mosque only three blocks away from Ground Zero.  If the construction of the new Mosque is so unacceptable, shouldn’t we also tear down Masjid Manhattan?  Shouldn’t we tear down all Mosques in New York City, in the District of Columbia, in Pennsylvania?  After all, they are also “hallowed ground.”

Wait a second, lets not get ahead of ourselves.  The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. If that is the case, why are Americans protesting the building of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee?  Ahh, there is that prejudice rearing its ugly head.  It appears that certain Americans do not like Islam at all. I wonder how they feel about the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights?  A church in Gainesville, FL is planning a “Burn the Quran Day” on September 11; Tennessee Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Ramsey advocates that Islam is in fact not a religion but a cult, and thus does not deserve First Amendment protection; Indiana congressional candidate Marvin Scott compares ALL Muslims to Kamikazes.  It appears that in Republican eyes, the Constitution is only sacred part of the time (see discussion of Anchor Babies and immigration for another example).

In the midst of this senseless election-year controversy, Dave Eggers’ brilliant account stands out as a must-read book.  I was reminded in some ways of Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song, because the narrative builds suspense effortlessly, and weaves together the past and present experience of Zeitoun and his family, to give you a whole picture of these Muslim patriots and the difficult trials they encounter.  Tune out the media din, and pick up Zeitoun.


Review of The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

I was born in 1976, and came of age in Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America.’   After reading Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, I feel as if a veil has been lifted from my perception of history, and the important events of my youth stand out in new significance.  The story told in this important book centers around Milton Freidman, and the fundamentalist capitalist beliefs espoused at the University of Chicago School of Economics, where Freidman taught.

Klein’s main thesis in the book, which travels across continents and decades, is that in order to implement the fundamentalist economic policies espoused by the Chicago School, a clean slate is required.   The technique to facilitate that clean slate is what amounts to the shock doctrine.  Klein uses a quote from Freidman’s introduction to his seminal work, Capitalism and Freedom to quantify the shock doctrine.  Freidman observes that:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change.  When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.  That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

The crisis that Freidman describes is crucial.  To analyze how that crisis and the clean sheet are created, Klein uses torture as a metaphor, tracing the ghastly experiments at McGill University by psychiatrist Ewen Cameron, under the direction of the CIA (through its MK FrUltra program).

Dr. Ewen Cameron

Cameron believed that in order to teach his patients new behaviors, old pathological patterns needed to broken up to create a tabula rasa.  The way to create that blank slate was to attack the mind with electricity, uppers, downers, and hallucinogens to, in Cameron’s words, “disinhibit [the patient] so that his defenses might be reduced.”

The CIA provided grants to Cameron starting in 1957; at this point Cameron started upping the number of shocks to unprecedented levels, increasing the dosage of drugs, and experimenting with sensory deprivation and extended sleep.  The CIA took the fruit of Cameron’s research and produced a handbook, Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, a secret manual on the interrogation of resistant sources.  The CIA taught these methods to authoritarian governments including Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, and Iran.

Klein traces the introduction of this fundamentalist form of capitalism over the last 40 years and finds that:

“Seen through the lens of this doctrine… some of the most infamous human rights violations of this era, which have tended to be viewed as sadistic acts carried out by antidemocratic regimes, were in fact either committed with the deliberate intent of terrorizing the public or actively harnessed to prepare the ground for the introduction of radical free market ‘reforms.’”

Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia were part of the first wave of the imposition of Freidman’s reforms, and those junta regimes used disappearances, as well as torture techniques from the Kubark handbook, to eliminate opposition to the implementation of reforms.  Klein also views the 1990s crises in China, Russia, and Asia through the lens of the shock doctrine, and closely looks at the role of the International Monetary Fund in creating the necessary shock condition.  Ultimately, Klein turns to 9/11, Iraq and Sri Lanka to show the rise of disaster capitalism as a global movement.

Economist Milton Freidman

In the 1960s, at the University of Chicago, Freidman saw a United States where its capitalism was tainted by “interferences”  (fixed prices, minimum wage, public education); while they may have provided benefits to the public, these interferences polluted the equilibrium of the market and inhibited market signals.  Freidman and his fellow Chicago economists (including his mentor Friedrich Hayek) wanted to purify the market, to get rid of these interferences.  Friedman saw the mixed economy supported by John Maynard Keynes as the enemy to be defeated.

Freidman’s prescription was as follows: remove as many rules and regulations as possible, privatize most state assets, and cut back most social programs.  Taxes should be low, and flat, if they should exist at all.  Protectionism was sacrilege to Freidman.  The invisible hand should determine prices, and there should be no minimum wage.  These were bold steps to take, even in the capitalist United States.  In order to prove his theories, Freidman would have to demonstrate them in the real world. He found a laboratory in Chile, one of the Developmentalist, mixed economies in South America that sought to find a middle road between the Cold War economic extremes.

These economies were linked around the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, based in Santiago Chile, and headed by economist Raul Prebisch.  In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Developmentalist economies prospered, and nurtured a burgeoning middle class.  However, American multi-national companies like Ford convinced the United States government create a program that, starting in 1956, educated 100 Chilean economists at the University of Chicago.  These Chileans, indoctrinated in Freidman’s fundamentalist beliefs, were unable to change Chile, however, without America’s help.

After the 1970 election of leftist Salvador Allende, the new government promised to nationalize sectors of the economy that were being run by foreign corporations.  President Nixon declared a virtual war on Chile through the Ad Hoc Committee on Chile, which included ITT, owner of 70% of the Chilean phone system.  Ultimately, in September 1973 General Augusto Pinochet took power in a military coup, but before the coup, the Chicago boys prepared a set of laws and regulations known as “The Brick” which went into effect immediately, a 500 page economic bible full of deregulation, privatization, and social spending cuts.

General Augusto Pinochet

Unfortunately, by 1974, counter to the expectations of Freidman and the Chicago Boys, inflation doubled to 375%.  The Chicago boys argued that the medicine wasn’t strong enough, and Freidman himself came to the country in 1975 to personally make the same case.  Freidman urged another 25% spending cut, and even more deregulation.  Unfortunately, in the next year the economy contracted by 15%, and unemployment reached 20%.  In fact, the economy did not start to improve until 1982, when Pinochet was forced to follow Allende’s advice and nationalize many companies.  Ultimately, the real legacy of Freidman’s prescription in Chile was that by 1988, 45% of the population had fallen below the poverty line, while the richest 10% had seen their incomes increase 83%.  But it wasn’t just poverty that eviscerated the middle class; Pinochet used the techniques in the Kubark manual to torture prisoners, who instead of being arrested, were “disappeared.”  In fact, the CIA trained Pinochet’s security forces, along with those in Uruguay and Argentina.  Ultimately, in South America, that was the effort required to create a tabula rasa: military coup, economic shock, and torture.

Klein’s conception of the Shock Doctrine is most clear when she looks at the brutal dictatorships in South America, as well as South Africa’s transition and Russia’s paradigm shift in the 1990s.  Klein’s analysis of Russia under Yeltzin is powerful.  I was in high school and college during those years, and my impression was formed from the jingoistic American press.  Klein makes clear that the IMF and Jeffrey Sachs, economic wunderkind, produced the kind of pressure that resulted in tragedy and mass killings.

However, Klein’s argument loses coherence when she looks at China, the United States, and Sri Lanka.  In the United States, Klein makes the leap from Freidman laissez-faire economics to the privatized homeland security apparatus.  I applaud the critique of Donald Rumsfeld, a Freidman acolyte, but it doesn’t fit the overall thesis.  In China, Klein describes the protestors as resisting the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping.  Klein argues that most of the protestors opposed free market reforms, and that Xiaoping attacked those protestors to quell the rebellion and implement reforms while the Chinese population was still in shock.  This narrative is historically tenuous, at best.

However, the larger point of Klein, particularly as demonstrated in South America, is valid.  Freidman’s fundamentalist free market reforms require a tabula rasa, and the middle and lower classes will naturally oppose the lowering of their standard of living.  In order to create the tabula rasa, some level of force will be required.  The research that Ewen Cameron completed at McGill University is particularly troubling, especially in light of the torture that the United States implemented in Iraq.  In fact, Iraq is a Pandora’s box that should continue to produce troubling revelations.  Hopefully, those revelations will remain in the public consciousness the next time that we want to create the kind of fundamental change that President Bush wanted to in Iraq, that General Pinochet wanted to do in Chile, and that dictators have long sought to do in the name of the free market.


Uncle Sam wants YOU to consider the world your grandchildren will inherit

Happy Independence Day, America!  Seeing all of the American flags that blanket Bristol, Rhode Island in preparation for the 225th parade tomorrow (the oldest in America), I can’t help but think back to the days after 9/11, when George W. Bush addressed the nation, and told us to join together and consume:

“When they struck, they wanted to create an atmosphere of fear.  And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry.  It’s to tell the traveling public:  Get on board. Do your business around the country.  Fly and enjoy America’s great destination spots.  Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Americans always go big.  We consider conspicuous consumption to be a sign of success, of generosity, of having achieved something.  Of course, with the dust of the fallen Twin Towers still in the air, Bush asked us to go to Disney World.  The debt-fueled consumption binge of the last decade is now past due, as seemingly half of America has defaulted on debt in a significant way.  However, the bigger picture goes beyond the economy that is dependent on continued exponential growth. The problem is that growth cannot continue to grow endlessly; we humans are reaching the limits of what this planet can provide, and like Icarus, we may fly too close to the proverbial sun.

Sustainability has become a buzzword in corporate America, but it means more than using green products.  The fact is that we waste too much energy and minerals.  Many of the products we buy are designed to fail so that we will go out and buy another one.  Now, that lack of quality may help create jobs in China, but that just wastes resources.

It wastes water, for one.  Fresh water is a resource that we all take for granted; do you know how much water goes into a hamburger?  I bet you would be shocked.  Second, we have a finite amount of energy and mineral resources, and we remain in denial about the need to shift to alternative energy resources.   The Energy Returned on Energy Invested for oil, coal, natural gas, and most common minerals continues to drop, which means that each new unit of resource will require the use of even more energy.  Once upon a time oil had an EROEI  of close to 100-1; now we get only three barrels for every one barrel we use in the extraction process.  That problem will only get worse. Additionally, those finite energy resources are destroying our climate by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases.

On this July 4th, I wonder why conservation, efficiency, and sustainability can’t be considered patriotic.  See, our grandchildren and great grandchildren will inherit the world that we leave to them.  We can have one last big party, or we can give them an opportunity to flourish as well.


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