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.


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.


Japanese in political paralysis – is this our future?

Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama will be the 4th PM in 4 years to resign.

After conceding in the matter of the Okinawa Marine Corps Air Station, and going against a campaign promise, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama will resign before November elections.  After only eight months of service, the embattled Democrat becomes the fourth Prime Minister to resign in four years.

The last successful Japanese Prime Minister was Junichiro Koizumi, who was known as a maverick of the Liberal Democrats (who lost their long held grip on power last fall).  Koizumi privatized the post office, and became the first PM to deploy the Japanese Self-Defense Forces overseas, to Iraq.  Since Koizumi resigned in 2006 at the end of his term, with the Liberal Democrats holding a historic majority, politics in Japan fell into paralysis.  With the newly elected Democrats, who now hold a significant majority in Parliament, already faltering in their promise to reform the entrenched political order, rife with corruption, the selection of the next Prime Minister will be crucial.

I worry that here in the United States, if we as Americans are unable to reconcile our desire for government services with our dislike of paying for those services with taxes, our political order will fall into the same type of paralysis, with neither the Republicans nor the Democrats able to find consensus and take action.

The short term deficits are overblown by critics of the President.  Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Stimulus expenditures are not the problem in the longterm, but critics look at tax receipts that have fallen due to the recession and blow the short term deficit out of proportion.

The long term deficit is the concern.  Even the Tea Party, who wants small government, seems unwilling to deal with Social Security and Medicare.   Eventually (sooner rather than later) we will need to confront this, and either raise taxes, cut entitlements, or both.  Economists believe that we have a long-run fiscal imbalance of 6% GDP (1 Trillion).


Is Blumenthal sunk?

The New York Times reported today that Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut and leading candidate to replace Senator Christopher Dodd, misspoke about his service in the Marines Reserves during the Vietnam War.  He reportedly sought 5 deferments before joining the Marine Reserves in 1969, where he served until 1975.  However, Blumenthal said in 2008 at an event in Norwalk, CT, “We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam.”  Apparently, Blumenthal has been vague about describing his service during the Vietnam War for years, which resulted in misleading profiles, like this one in Slate magazine, which stated that “he enlisted in the Marines rather than duck the Vietnam draft.”

Blumenthal was a rising political star even back in the late 1960s.  He completed graduate school at Harvard, a graduate fellowship at Cambridge, and served as a special assistant to Washington Post publisher, Katherine Graham, and finally got a job in the Nixon White House.  However, when deferments were becoming difficult to obtain, he obtained a what the Times calls a “coveted spot” in the Marine Reserve, “which virtually guaranteed that he would not be sent to Vietnam.”

It is difficult to imagine a Marine Reserve unit today being viewed as a way to avoid war.  Today, because we do not have a draft, and because we are fighting two large scale engagements at once, we routinely send Reserve Units for repeat deployments into Iraq and Afghanistan.  Periodically a politician will introduce legislation to bring back the draft, because many believe that the Reserves today make up for the draft.  The Reserves are known in some circles as a ‘back door draft’ because of the Stop-Loss policies, which allow enlistments to be extended indefinitely beyond initial service obligations.

However, when Blumenthal was a Marine Reservist, the draft was in full effect, and many people tried to avoid it.  In 2008, he said at a rally, “I served during the Vietnam era.  I remember the taunts, the insults, sometimes even physical abuse.”  Because Blumenthal spent time working in DC, and participating in many public events in Uniform, he certainly had first-hand knowledge about how Veterans were treated.  However, there is a fine line between people who have battlefield experience, and those who served away from the front lines.  Military service, especially during Vietnam, is heavily politicized. Senator John Kerry was attacked for not deserving his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Silver Star awards.  Nicholas Kristoff wrote during the 2004 Presidential campaign that :

“In fact, as Mr. Kerry was about to graduate from Yale, he was inquiring about getting an educational deferment to study in Europe. When that got nowhere, he volunteered for the Navy, which was much less likely to involve danger in Vietnam than other services. After a year on a ship in the ocean, Mr. Kerry volunteered for Swift boats, but at that time they were used only in Vietnam’s coastal waters. A short time later, the Swift boats were assigned exceptionally dangerous duties up Vietnamese rivers. “When I signed up for the Swift boats, they had very little to do with the war,” Mr. Kerry wrote in 1986, adding, “I didn’t really want to get involved in the war.”

Of course, Kerry ended up in harms way, but he was not too far off from Blumenthal, a privileged, well-educated young man that did not want to fight in the war.  Kerry managed to distinguish himself, but that did not stop Republicans from attacking him.  Today, it is Republican candidate Linda McMahon that is taking credit for the opposition research that inspired the Times report.

Looking at the statements that have been attributed to Blumenthal, it strikes a personal chord.  Last year I left the Navy after 11 years of service as a Naval Officer, and while I deployed to the Persian Gulf, and served briefly in areas from which I received special hazardous duty pay, I never went to Afghanistan or Iraq.  Still, I received a Medal after September 11 for service in the ‘Global War on Terror.’  When I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles, I received a license plate that has ‘Veteran’ on it, based on my active-duty service around the world after 9/11.  Today, we treat Veterans very different than we did back in the 1970s.  Still, I have no doubt that in coming years there will be political attacks on Veterans for ‘not really’ serving in the War on Terror.

Blumenthal’s statements to me do not fall to the level of lies, but merely ambiguities about his generation and war.   Clearly, the McMahon campaign hopes that this will sink Blumenthal.  Looking back at Blumenthal’s experience prior to his enlistment, and after enlisting in the Marine Reserves, there does not appear to be a lot of distance between Blumenthal and Kerry.  They tried to avoid the war, like many privileged and educated kids did during the Draft.

Ultimately, Blumenthal spent that time serving his country in a different but also honorable way.  While there was some ambiguity about how people described that experience, and while Blumenthal should have been more careful about the conclusions that reporters and supporters made, this episode will be blown way out of proportion.  That is what happens in modern politics.    In some ways Americans of Vietnam vintage have still not come to terms about how Veterans were treated, and how military service in the 1960s and 1970s is viewed.  Unfortunately, long after the Americans left Saigon, that conflict continues to eat us from within.  Ultimately, Blumenthal should be judged on his political accomplishments, which Connecticut residents of all stripes have long valued.


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