Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Nationalizing reality: Part I. A Prostitution Ring, a Minister, and Another Sorry Tale of Nationalism.

While living in Bosnia I have realized the extent to which nationalism has infected the perception of reality itself. The coexistence of equally provable but mutually exclusive truths—all of which feel they have been wronged but undefeated in the recent war—has made interpretation of daily events, from the most banal to most consequential, impossible through the lens of objectivity. I will illustrate this argument by analyzing several recent events in the country, starting with the Srebrenica/Bratunac prostitution affair. I will discuss other events in following posts.

Last week the country was shocked by the news that the police of Republika Srpska (RS, the Serbian entity) raided several high profile institutions in the towns of Srebrenica (the place of the 1995 genocide) and Bratunac, arresting more than a dozen of public figures, accusing them of their involvement in prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation of a minor. Almost simultaneously, officials from the Ministry of Interior were interviewing Bosnia’s Minister of Security (akin to US’ Homeland Security Chief) Ahmetovic for his supposed involvement in the aforementioned activities. The whole action was carried out in front of cameras with all the major channels replaying the images of people being hauled into police vans by ski-mask wearing SWAT teams. From the little information the RS Ministry released one could piece together the tragic preface to the dramatic culmination: a 15 year old Roma girl from Srebrenica had been lured into prostitution by her own grandmother and serviced (often under the influence of cocaine) the local elites, including the town’s imam (Muslim priest), her school’s principal, a professor, and—most shockingly—the Minister of Security of Bosnia, Ahmetovic, who at the time was a Srebrenica official. He had just been recently appointed to the highly sensitive security post. The girl was found drugged and placed into protective custody when she (supposedly) revealed the names of the people who were later arrested and questioned (in the case of Ahmetovic). I, like anyone with any sense of decency, reacted to the news with fury, hoping all of those involved would be punished to the full extent of the law. I was especially depressed by the fact that one of the country’s high-profile ministers, and the one I had thought was fairly efficient and non-corrupt, Ahmetovic had been intimately involved in the graphic affair. As it turned out however, the Bosnian reality was much more complicated than the Hollywood-like story the RS Ministry of Interior told the public.

On the day of the raids, the visibly upset Ahmetovic came in front of TV cameras and swore his innocence, claiming that he was being set up by his political enemies in the Serbian entity. Coincidentally or not, the whole sting operation had been carried out by a Bosnian Serb official who had been involved in another affair that Ahmetovic was investigating. The affair centered around the release by the Bosnian Serb police of a list of 45 Bosnian humanitarian organizations—mostly Muslim—suspected of terrorism. The list, leaked to the UN Security Council turned out to be a forgery and Ahmetovic threatened on TV to carry out a full investigation and punish those responsible for denigrating the work of many humanitarian organizations—who had nothing to do with terrorism—and exposing them to retaliatory action from the US who was monitoring these lists. Again, coincidentally or not, Ahmetovic made the promise to investigate the “list of 45 affair” THE NIGHT BEFORE the prostitution sting unfolded. Ahmetovic explained that the only contact he had had with the Roma girl was when he awarded her a scholarship to help her complete high school since her family was destitute. He professed his belief in God and his own innocence and continued to carry out his daily duties. Keep in mind, this is the post akin to US’ Homeland Security Chief. So, a day after he was interrogated for his involvement in the affair of prostitution of a minor, Ahmetovic was meeting with EU security officials to talk about Bosnia’s path to the EU integration!

The story had another twist. The day after the highly publicized raids, all but two of the people arrested were released due to the “lack of evidence.”! My question immediately was: then why the hell were they arrested in the first place?! For the most part, these were people with public profiles—a teacher, an imam, a professor—and their reputation suffered a terrible blow. The only two people who continued to be imprisoned were girl’s grandmother and her high school principal. I thought to myself: “Ok, they are probably the ring-leaders and they are co-operating.” I was wrong. Two days later, the two remaining “suspects” were released! There was absolutely no explanation from the relevant courts, judge(s), or the Bosnian Serb police. Nothing. The dust settled as fast as it had been thrown into the eyes of the Bosnian public.

The story had yet another twist. A day or so after the incident, a Bosnian weekly magazine suggested that the Bosnian Minister of Security Ahmetovic was not as innocent as he appeared. The magazine—without any evidence whatsoever—implied that Ahmetovic had a dark past and that the Bosnian Serb police orchestrated the raid as a warning to him not to meddle in anything that might disturb the status quo which was enriching a lot of people within the Serbian entity in Bosnia. It is also important to note, that this is an election year in Bosnia and the whole affair was interpreted—almost by everyone—as a complicated political game ahead of the October elections.

The affair divided the Bosnian public fairly predictably. The Bosnian Muslim officials—including religious figures—immediately compared the Serbian raid to a second Srebrenica genocide (obnoxiously invoking the memory of the 1995 genocide repeatedly!) and expressed unequivocal support for “their” Minister Ahmetovic. Thus, disregarding the fact that Ahmetovic was a minister of all Bosnians, including the Serbs. The Serbian officials pointed to the Muslim reaction as evidence that Bosnia’s jurisprudence was not working, that there was no trust in the Serb part of the country, and that the whole Bosnian project may not be working. The Croats issued muted statements about the need to let the system do its job, but for the most part, observed the whole spectacle with amused exhaustion.

The most devastating consequence of the publicized affair was the moronic, if not criminal, decision by many Bosnia’s newspapers and magazines to publish the picture of the underage Roma girl who was the only true victim in this story. Her picture plastered all over the front pages of many of the newspapers not only exposed the girl to further public shame, ridicule, or even threats, intimidation or worse from her old “customers,” but it also violated the UN Convention on the Rights of Child, which prohibits minors in these kinds of cases from being named, let alone from having their picture plastered on the news.

I consider myself a well informed resident (I am not sure if I am still a citizen) of this country. I read two daily newspapers, two main weeklies (well one since I no longer buy the one that published the picture of the Roma girl), and follow internet portals. I also watch the evening news and most of the main political talk shows (yes, I have no social life). I also consider myself fairly anational, if not anti-national, in the context of Bosnia, which is to say I don’t think I have any of my “favorites” among the country’s ethnic groups. And yet, I have no idea what the true story is in this messy case. The way the events played out, were interpreted, and re-interpreted, and the way it impacted people split so neatly along national lines that it is impossible for anyone concerned with truth to come anywhere near it. So, how can people make informed choices about their leaders, about the events that surround them in this nationalism-polluted environment? The obsession with national identity has truly flooded every aspect of reality, infecting the very interpretation of it. No wonder conspiracy theories find such fertile ground here!

Next post: the case of Ejup Ganic.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why We Should be Happy with the Health Care Bill

The shrillness of the contentious partisan debate surrounding the health care reform has truly drowned out any rational discussion of it (and here I am blaming all sides). In particular, I have to say I have been disappointed with some on the left who have reacted to Reid's stripping of the public option from the bill in such a knee-jerk reaction that they single handedly obscured many good things that are in this bill and that make liberals' threat to kill the bill sound like an act of lunacy. Here are some of the things that make this bill an historic attempt to reform the health care system in America, and that should make all of us progressives giddy as we await President Obama's signature. To quote Paul Krugman in today's NYT: "Count me among those who consider this an awesome achievement. It’s a seriously flawed bill, we’ll spend years if not decades fixing it, but it’s nonetheless a huge step forward."

Let me group the good things in this bill under three themes.

--The bill extends coverage to 30 million Americans by offering government subsidies to those who earn less than 400% of federal poverty level and by expanding both Medicaid and the CHIP (Child Health Insurance Program). Analysts estimate that some 94% of Americans will have access to affordable health insurance because of this bill. This fact alone should be enough for any progressive to support this bill.

--Many low-income people who previously have not been eligible for Medicaid, will now be covered. It raises the eligibility level to 133% of the federal poverty rate. It further expands the wonderfully successful Child Health Insurance Program.

--It mandates that every state establish an insurance exchange program which will be available on the Internet, and which will basically be a list of all insurance programs available in your area that you can buy into. The language has to be simple and uniform for all insurance programs with no small print. In addition it mandates that the Health and Human Services Secretary sign a contract with the Federal Insurance provider that currently insures our Congresspeople to create a national insurance program that we will all be able to buy into.

--It expands the age of dependent coverage to 26, so if you are fresh out of college, you can be on your parents' insurance until 26. (I could have used this after college).

The bill makes serious attempts at cutting health care costs.

A lot has been made of Senator Reid's stripping of both the public option and Medicare expansion from the bill in winning the support of the so-called centrist Democrats and the former Democrat Joe Libermann. Now, don't get me wrong, even a brief appearance of that sorry excuse for a human being named Joe Libermann makes me cringe, but it is far from certain that either the public option or the Medicare expansion would by themselves solve the skyrocketing health care costs. The New Yorker had a brilliant article about this a few months back in which it argued even with the public option, health care costs would continue to skyrocket, increase our deficit, bankrupt Medicare, etc, if we did not change our health care compensation system (by ending the disastrous pay-for-quantity rather than quality, system). The Medicare expansion proposal was even more problematic as it would saddle the government with an enermous bill and funding for it was far from certain, creating the potential for an even more monstrous deficit and the possible insolvency of Medicare. So, how does this bill attempt to cut cost?

First it recognizes that we don't really know how exactly to cut cost. It acknowledges there is no one silver bullet to solve our problem. European countries, including those who have a single payer system (France) or those who have a mixture of single payer and private insurance (Germany) have struggled to keep their costs down and their health care delivery systems functioning. So, there is no easy solution.

The Senate health care bill creates numerous pilot programs to test the ways of cutting cost. Most innovations come in Medicare. It establishes experimental programs for Medicare to pay hospitals in bundles rather than for each operation and hospital visit, thus providing incentives for doctors to share their evaluations of patients, effectiveness of medical procedures, follow up hospital visits to reduce the number of second-hospital visits for each patient. It establishes the so-called Accountable Care Organizations which would pool all these methods and share the savings that come from them.

It creates the Medicare Advisory Board which would conduct thorough evidence-based research on methods, procedures (including testing), all with the purpose of figuring out which health care delivery systems work, and which do not. Most importantly, the recommendations that the Medicare Advisory Board makes to Congress will become EFFECTIVE AUTOMATICALLY lest the Congress pass measures that would make savings equivalent to those proposed by the Board.

The bill also empowers the Health and Human Services Secretary to coordinate all pilots programs and report to Congress.

--It also establishes a number of community-level wellness programs and prevention programs that promote preventive care, including school based programs. And it makes all preventive care free by prohibiting insurance companies from charging out-of-pocket fees.

As an article in the last New Yorker argued, a pilot program is how the US reformed its troubled agriculture system in the early 20th century. There is no reason to believe that these pilot programs cannot do the same in health care. In fact, it is the only way we can figure out how exactly to tamp down these costs.

--The bill imposes serious regulation on the previously barely-regulated insurance industry. Starting in 2014, it prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, from upping premiums for people who get sick (or dropping them altogether), charging different fees based on gender, it limits the amount insurance companies can spend on their administrative costs, and the amount they can charge in annual out-of-pocket expenses; and prohibits them from setting up an arbitrary annual limit it will pay for individuals.
--It also mandates that each insurance company create an accessible appeals process open to every customer through which he/she will be able to contest a denied claim. (I could have used this back in 2003 when an insurance company refused to pay for an expensive medical procedure I had had, and because of which I had to incur some debt).

There are many more things in this bill that are good, but these are the main ones that caught my attention.

Considering all these things that are in the bill, I cannot understand how anyone can fathom voting against it (unless you are a heartless Republican of course). It does so many good things that us progressives should be happy about. And this is why I shall be opening a bottle of the bubbly when President Obama finally signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law sometime in January.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Calling on Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Pragmatism and Solving the Bosnian Impasse

As Bosnia-Herzegovina plunges into yet another constitutional crisis, and the threads of the very state seem to be unraveling, I have been thinking a lot about pragmatism. Americans and Europeans are once again secluded in a Sarajevo military base with all the political bigshots, trying to come up with a solution. I have been toying with some ideas that I wanted to flesh out. Some of them are provocative (for the domestic audience), but I wanted to think of radical solutions to these problems, and stir up some discussion. My main argument is that the country needs a radical pragmatic solution and that the words of the eternally pragmatic Abraham Lincoln are instructive in how to achieve this.

For those not familiar with the current political system of the country, let me give you a brief background.

BACKGROUND (*For those familiar with the region feel free to scroll down to the next paragraph).
Dayton Bosnia is a country with a constitution "worthy of a zen master" to paraphrase an anthropologist of the region. While enjoying some symbolic attributes of an independent, sovereign state, its internal sovereignty is non-existent. 49% of its territory is taken up by the Serb entity (Republika Srpska) and 51% by the Federation of Croats and Muslims. Each entity has a two-tiered parliament, prime ministers with entire cabinets, and each entity has the right to block any decision of the weak central government. The latter is mostly represented by the three-member presidency (Serb, Croat, Bosniak) whose constitutional powers are so minimal that makes the entire idea of a Bosnian state laughable; and the Council of Minister, but whose powers, are again, are limited and vulnerable to veto. The power is further devolved to the cantons (10 of them) and canton governments have jurisdiction over areas as important as educational policy. Then finally, the power devolution ends at the municipal level with the mayor and the city council. In short, Bosnia has 14 parliaments! The overlapping jurisdictions of power are so complex that the country needs a zen master to interpret the laws.

The Dayton Peace Agreement--which is the constitution of the country (oh yes, and we do not own a copy of it since the original one is in Paris!)--has cemented the hold of nationalist powers in each entity and each canton, and the result is a perpetual political paralysis. Besides making it impossible to ever enter into the EU, the structure reflects the stalemate of ideals which is the heart of the problem and which the war never resolved.

In short, Bosnia is an unwieldy conglomeration of (still) warring ideals.

The Serbs believe that the reason they spilled their blood was to create an exclusively Serb entity that can buffer them from any Muslim-Croat domination or worse, a repeat of the WWII-era massacres. They argue to the point of exhaustion that they never voted for Bosnia to succeed from Yugoslavia and never agreed to live in a single state with the other two people. This ideal is rooted in the early mid-to-late 19th century nationalist idea of peasant democracy, but is mixed in with the fears of genocide that came out of the WWII experience, and has then been filtered through the recent war which is seen as a delayed Serbian response to WWII.

The Croats
, who make up the tiniest percentage of the population (17% or so), feel completely marginalized in the Federation. They point out that the constitution gave the Serbs and the Muslims their own entities while relegating them to the permanent minority status. As a constituent people they want their own entity and until then, they are holding onto the Herzegovinian capital Mostar as "the only Croat city" in the country. Their ideal is also rooted in the late 19th century notion of Croatianness, but mixed in with the feelings of guilt (due to the Croat role in WWII), and deep frustration with the failure of the Croatian state to absorb the Herzegovinian Croats during the last war.

The Bosniaks might be the most divided and the most embittered. As the last group in the region to emerge as an ethnic category (only in the mid 20th century) they are also the most divided. The right-wing is seething with revanchist urges and wants Republika Srpska destroyed, claiming it is the direct product of the genocide in Srebrenica. Seeing no need for any devolution of power, the Bosniak right-wing wants a unitary Bosnian state with the "one man, one vote" principle that does not recognize the ethnic complexity of the country and the history of violence. The left-wing would agree to some devolution, but still sees Republika Srpska as the main obstacle to a better future. The still fresh, daily narrated memory of the Srebrenica genocide is the unifying force between all the fractions within the Bosniak political establishment.

The problem is that the war did not DEFEAT any of these ideals. All of the ideals are inherently democratic expressions of the majority of the people who vote (and keep voting) for the same parties. Despite criticizing the Communists for giving people utopian promises, all of the nationalist ideals are essentially utopian in that they promise a never-reached future in which the national being will be fulfilled. But these ideals are incompatible with one another, making the daily political life a zero-sum game that has to end either in a stalemate, or another war. So, rather than being conniving self-interested politicians (and they are), these nationalist politicians are also idealists many of whom genuinely believe they are representing "the will of the people." The sense of grievance--that goes back to WWII, if not earlier--and that is powerful within all three ethnic establishments is truly the most dangerous result of the Dayton stalemate.

PRAGMATISM. So, what this country needs is to reject utopian idealism and embrace pragmatism. Pragmatism is the only way we can push ourselves through the stalemate, and create a workable everyday solution. The practical consequence of a pragmatic approach is to look at the country not the way we want it to be (whoever "WE" are), but the way it is, and then come up with the best workable solution, which would entail the following two steps.

1) Stop talking about the war! All the politicians have to agree to separate the memories and narratives of the war from any political solution. This entails a painful acceptance by many that the country is basically ethnically clean in most places. But it would also mean that politicians need to stop using the word genocide. Used as a negotiating card, the memory of the war will always inevitably block any agreement.

2) Offer Republika Srpska the Presidency of Bosnia in return for meaningful, irreversible constitutional changes that would empower the central state. This sounds like the most outrageous claim, but I think it offers a real shot at preserving the state of Bosnia. What is the reason Bosnia fell apart as a state? It is because over 90% of the Bosnian Serbs did not accept its legitimacy and instead organized themselves into what became known as Republika Srpska (the Croat and Bosniak separatist projects were a response to this and came later). So, the Americans and Europeans need to go to Milorad Dodik, the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska and the most powerful politician in the country, and offer him the first mandate as the President of Bosnia if he would accept constitutional changes. Besides pleasing the ego of Mr. Dodik, the offer would also enfranchise millions of Serbs who would have something to identify with at the highest levels of the Bosnian state. It would also alleviate fears of the state's encroachment on Serb interests, the underlying cause of the war in the first place. Further, it would inject Dodik's political capital into the institution. Before accepting the newly created position, Dodik would have to agree to: 1) never again challenge the legitimacy of the Bosnian state; 2) never again to bring up the massacres. In return, the international community would also grant him a lifetime immunity from prosecution for his previous financial crimes (not future ones in case he commits them) in return for his service to the state. The immunity could be revoked in case he reneged on the deal.

Now, I know this is impossible. For this to happen, Bosniak and Croat politicians would have to convince their constituencies that this would be in their interest. They would have to be convinced that this would offer a long-term solution that would create a viable Bosnian state way past Dodik's time. The problem in this country is that there has been too much focus on personalities without looking at the institutions. Dodik will go away sooner or later and it is what he leaves behind that is more important. There is also a possibility that Dodik would not agree, but his ego, his fear of prosecution for his financial crimes, and his desire for more power, would definitely make him think twice before rejecting such an offer. Given that he is undeniably popular with the Serbs this would also boost their view of the state in its abstract. Dodik's nemesis, the leader of the one of the largest Bosniak parties, Haris Silajdzic would be picked as the VP with substantive powers (while at the same time making sure that these could not cause a paralysis of the central government).

For such political experiments to happen, this country needs a politician(s) like Abraham Lincoln. At his Second Inaugural, after some 620,000 American soldiers had lost their lives, entire South laid in ruins, and the North had emerged triumphant, Lincoln said:

"The will of God prevails — In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is somewhat different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect this."

It is hard to imagine today how shocking these words must have sounded to many in the US. Both, the South and the North having been convinced in the righteousness of their cause must have been disappointed, the former with a military defeat and the latter with its leader's attempt to reconcile both narratives into one. With that speech alone, he did just that.

Bosnia needs an Abraham Lincoln.

Monday, July 27, 2009

My Take on the Gates Arrest Controversy

I cannot help but think about the Gates arrest through the prism of my own experience. While I do not wish to imply that I understand what it feels like to be a black man in America during an encounter with a white cop, after reading about the arrest, I was reminded of my own experience in encountering an authority that once upon a time thought of me as a threat.

In late summer 2001 I was wrapping up my vacation in Mostar and was on a bus to Zagreb, along with my grandfather, from where I would fly back to the US. The southern border at Vinjani, between Croatia and Bosnia, is a primary target for all kinds of smugglers and the EU has been pushing Croatia and Bosnia hard to crack down on this border if they were ever to join the EU club. As our bus made its way along the rocky, nausea inducing winding roads of Western Herzegovina I was beginning to fall asleep next to my grandfather who was wide awake. It was my grandfather who woke me up from my hazy sleep, saying: "We are at Vinjani", the border crossing. A polite Croatian police officer walked into the bus and asked everyone to take out their passports. At this time I still carried my Bosnian passport along with my recently issued American Green Card. I handed the police officer the passport and the Green Card. After staring at it suspiciously, he asked me to step off the bus. At this point, I immediately became furious.

Now, an outsider looking at the situation could say "Well, he was disrespectful to the police officer. The officer has a tough job, blah blah blah." But the only reason an outsider could not comprehend my response if he/she did not know the history of my encounters with the Croatian police in general and in particular, my interaction with the border police at this particular border crossing.

In the scorching summer days of 1993--as the war between Croats and Muslims in Mostar exploded into a daily face-to-face, street by street combat--the Vinjani border crossing became both, a symbol of hope for Mostarci who wanted to escape the fighting, and a menacing obstacle for Muslim men trying to secretly pass into Croatia and escape the Bosnian Croat army concentration camps which had popped like mushrooms all over Herzegovina in the early summer of that year. In June 1993, my mother and I were leaving the city on a bus a day after my brother and my father had escaped the city in a cab of a known smuggler. Our original plan was to meet up in Split but we did not know if my brother and my father had actually made it the night before. Our anxiety about their fate was mixed up with our fear, if not panic, about the Vinjani border crossing. We had heard stories of Croat police taking all Muslims off the bus and then taking them in an unknown direction, probably to concentration camps, or worse. At the border, the Croat police took everyone off the bus, and then proceeded to rummage through everyone's baggage, take everyone's IDs and hoard us into the small police station under the scorching sun. A Muslim man begged an officer to let him pass as his son was suffering from epilepsy and looked like he was about to pass out. The soldier laughed at him (in front of my very own eyes) and called him a "pussy" for crying. The man, along with his son was hauled away in a police van. When it came our turn, my mother produced her birth certificate which showed clearly her Croatian heritage: her father was born in Split and her mother in Zagreb. The officer looked at the birth certificate and laughed at the Serbian spelling of my mother's name (Snezana as opposed to the Croatian version "Snjezana") shouting "Oh you are not a real Croat, look at your name." At this, my mother (a tiny woman) snapped the certificate out of his hands and told him that "I am a bigger Croat than you will ever be!" At this, the officer asked her to accompany him to a separate room in the police station at which I immediately pushed my way between him and my mother and followed them at the annoyance of the officer. I was terrified of what might happen in that room. As soon as we walked into the room, the officer changed his demeanor apologized to my mother justifying his behavior by saying he "didn't know you were Croats." My mother demanded he let us through. At this, he sighed, stamped our documents and we were on our way (on a much emptier bus this time) to Croatia where we re-united with my father and my brother.

So when I was asked to step off the bus almost exactly 8 years after this nightmarish incident, the first memory that popped into my mind was of the thug who treated us like dirt and worse of all who might have harmed that man and his epilepsy-stricken son. But this time, I had a green card and felt empowered. I told the police officer that I will not step off the bus until he tells me the reason for this. At this my grandfather politely told the police officer that I am a student in America and that I am on my way "home." The officer persisted: "this bus will not leave until you step off and follow me to the police station." I kid you not, but this was the same police station from the summer of 1993. But I honestly could not feel any fear probably because I was so angry. In the station, I demanded to know why I was taken off the bus. Then I realized that the incident arose out of the officer's confusion regarding the Green Card. He kept asking me what this document meant. In my attempt to clout myself into a more powerful status, I told him it meant that I was "under the protection of the US government" and that the document was tantamount to a US passport. He then proceeded to make small talk asking me why and for how long I had been in Mostar. I told him, in a very rude manner, that I was there for two months and the reason for it was because this was "the only home I will ever have and that I can go there any time I'd like." He wrote down my green card number and instructed me that I was now free to go back to my bus. I snapped the green card out of his hands, like my mother had done the same with her birth certificate eight years earlier, and stormed out of the station. I remember the sound of the door slamming behind me. Actually, I remember regretting the slamming the moment I stepped out as I was afraid it might have given him an additional excuse to hold me. I climbed on the bus to find my grandfather absolutely terrified as to what might have happened to me. The entire bus was staring at me. Then and there I vowed I would get my American passport and next time would immediately ask to see US consular staff if I were hassled again. I was too upset to talk to my grandfather and only told him of what had happened once we got to Zagreb.

I could not help but think of this experience when reading about Gates' arrest. In my mind, the professor was completely justified in his reaction and it is the police officer who has to apologize.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The (Im)Probability of Getting a Good Night's Sleep in Champaign, Illinois

Waking up at 6:00 AM, two hours before my alarm clock, for the third morning in a row, I thought I'd ruminate out loud, actually rant, about the infinitely minuscule probability that one can have a decent night of sleep in Champaign, particularly on the intersection of one of the many many many insanely and logic-twisting traffic-congested streets in this small town.

So, if I am woken up by the sounds of NPR's Morning Edition at 8AM refreshed after eight hours of sleep, this means that a series of events completely out of my control did not happen the previous night:

1) No insanely obese, sexually frustrated, and mentally challenged motorcyclists revved their penis-substitutes outside of my house, particularly between 1-2AM, which for whatever reason seems to be their favorite time slot.

2) The girl who lives next to me did not spend only a part of her night at her boyfriend's (or boyfriends') house only to be dropped off at 3 AM, literally outside my window, after which she almost ALWAYS proceeds to do her laundry while talking incessantly on her cell phone. Oh yes and the laundry is in the basement so close below my bedroom that I can see the laundry machine from a hole in my floor (I am not even kidding!). So, getting a good night sleep also means that she did not turn the drier off and on either putting her clothes through many cycles or doing a year's worth of laundry in one night!

3) The neighbors upstairs did not drag their furniture in the middle of the night, vacuum, or have an argument. By the way, I can hear them sneeze not to speak of other noises, which are (unfortunately for them and fortunately for me much rarer). It also means that my neighbor did not literally stamp on the floor as he was preparing for work only to slam the door behind him as if turning his anger for having to go to work at the poor wooden door and by extension, at the disgruntled Bosnian living beneath him.

4) The neighbor in the house next to mine did not start with the construction way before sunrise nor did he rev his own motorcycle which he keeps parked in a giant mobile garage right outside of my door (which blocks my sight as I am pulling out of my driveway--thanks a lot asshole!).

5) My soft-spoken and generally nice landlord did not come at 7AM (I guess before going to work) to do some shoveling and gardening (oh I forgot the mention, both the gravel and the garden are right OUTSIDE MY BEDROOM WINDOW)!

6) Finally, it means that it is not Tuesday and the garbage truck did not pull into my driveway at 4AM incessantly beeping and taking for God knows how long to empty the giant trash container outside my window.

So as you can see, in order for me to get my eight hours of sleep in this town all these six conditions have to be met. And honestly, what are the chances of that? Slim to none, says the sleepy, cranky me.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Stop saying Obama is just like Bush!

There is one thing that the right-wing and the far-left in this country agree on these days: President Barack Obama is much like President Bush in fighting the war on terror. Whatever your disagreement with Obama may be--and I have many, particularly on the so-called doctrine of prolonged detention--to compare his approach to Bush's is not only patently false, but it betrays a breathtaking lack of understanding of a long-running contest over the meaning of the Constitution.

From the internal memos, memoirs, and transcripts from the Bush administration--leaked in interviews, books, and Bush himself--it has become clear that Bush's approach to fighting terrorism was guided by one principle: unitary executive. The greatest advocate of this principle was of course Vice President Dick Cheney and his legal adviser David Addington who believed that at times of war (actually at all times, but particularly during a war), the President of the United States had an unchecked authority to abrogate any law the Congress made if the protection of the American people was the motivating factor of his decisions. This is the American version of Louis XIV's infamous creed: "L'etat, c'est moi." The Cheney crowd consisted of angry right-wingers who still felt slighted by the Congressional oversight of the Presidency instituted after the Watergate fiasco. They believed that in the aftermath of Watergate, the Presidency had made way too many concessions to Congress. The main real-life repercussion of this was the infamous "enemy combatant" doctrine.

According to the "enemy combatant" doctrine, the President of the United States had an unchecked, oversight-free, Constitutional power to declare any single human being on the planet--even if he or she was a US citizen--to be an enemy combatant and as such, could be imprisoned indefinitely as long as the "war on terror" goes on. The example of this was of course the case of the so-called "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla who was held for years in an army brig, and Al-Massari, who was held in isolation until this year when President Obama transferred him to a federal court where he plead guilty and got a long-prison term.

Obama's right-wing detractors and his supposedly betrayed left-wing critics lament his supposed continuation of Bush's policies, pointing to his doctrine of "preventive detention" and his continuation of military tribunals, to argue that other than being an eloquent defender of the Constitution, Obama is doing pretty much the same amount of damage to it as Bush had done, and is continuing his policy. FALSE!

The Obama approach to terrorism is guided by the respect for the Constitution. In every instance where he has to judge how to approach fighting terrorism, he has bent over backwards to stay as true to the Constitution as possible, and more importantly, to completely ABROGATE THE IDEOLOGY OF UNITARY EXECUTIVE! The last point is key to understanding how Obama's approach differs from Bush's. In every matter--from detaining terror suspects, to trying them, to attacking other countries in self-defense--President Obama has disputed the idea of unitary Executive. Instead, he has delegated many of the powers Bush claimed for himself to the Congress. For example, in the so-called preventive detention policy, Obama has set out clear and multi-layered oversight by the US Congress and the courts so that no one single man or a woman--even if they are the President of the US--can pass such profound judgment on the life of a human being. The same rule follows in military tribunals--while they are still not the same as our civil courts, they will be under the oversight of courts and many constitutional obligations are still in effect--such as the prohibition against torture-extracted evidence and the right to habeas corpus for the detainees.

Thus, Obama's complete abandonment of the term "war on terror," is more than a semantic exercise. It shows Obama's contempt for Bush's view of "unitary executive." By avoiding this term, Obama is also giving up the claim of the US Executive to some extraordinary "war" powers. In fact, this is exactly what many of us on the left wanted from the President: to treat our efforts to protect the US from terrorists more as a legal battle, than a war which would automatically authorize the President to use some unconstitutional powers. The closure of the GITMO, which will happen by January 2010, will be a powerfully symbolic, and also practical, proof of President Obama's continuing dismantling of Bush's illegal unitary executive doctrine.

Sometimes I think some on the left are unable or unwilling--or both--to recognize a good thing while we are experiencing it. And Obama's Presidency has definitely been a great thing for this country. Again, it is a healthy thing that many of us still disagree on him on many issues-including the preventive detention-but to argue that he is the same as Bush, is simply not true!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Republicans' failed experiment with sexuality

The "disappearance" of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford this week shows the failure of the long-running GOP experiment with sexuality.

Mark Sanford's Danielle Steele-like romance with an Argentinian woman is an interesting human story not only due to the saucy details it contains, but also because it serves as another illustrative example of the never-ending hypocrisy of human beings. During his stint in Congress, Mark Sanford in 1999 called on President Bill Clinton to resign immediately following his own (less geographically adventurous) trip with Monica Lewinsky, because the President had, according to Sanford, betrayed the office by lying about his affair. When it became revealed (courtesy of Larry Flint) that the incoming Republican-Speaker of the House Livingstone, the main henchmen of the witch-hunt against Clinton, had also been in an affair, Sanford came down hard (pun intended) against his own Republican colleague, once again throwing his weight on the side of marital, and moral, purity. It was the same Sanford who, every time the issue of same sex marriage came up, defended his bigotry by arguing that he only wanted to "protect" traditional marriage.

Governor Sanford's blatant hypocrisy shows not some weakness that is endemic to the governor, but rather, the Republican instinct to deny reality in all circumstances. By trying to fit sexuality into neat, black-and-white, moral rubrics, the Republican right, particularly the religious wing, has always distorted reality in order to make their own sins sound better in their own heads. That is, seeing their own sexual impulse as some sort of "weakness," they immediately externalize it by painting it as a "sin," and then proceed to beat down their opponents with the stick of morality, hoping that this would not only offer them a cover from their own "weakness," but that it would help them deal with it internally, as if they are saying to themselves "I might be an adulterer, but at least I am fighting adultery in the society at large."

The Republicans will not become relevant in our political discourse until they stop distorting reality. Sexuality is an immensely fluid (pun intended) human experience where moral categories of "right" and "wrong," and "weakness" and "strength" and "purity" have always, inevitably, collapsed when confronted with reality. By trying to stuff these categories onto their own unwieldy sexual experiences, the Republicans will always, every single time (no exception), come off as idiotic, self-destructive hypocrites. And for this, they need to stay as away from our political discourse as possible! Because in this hypocrisy they have also become tiring.

But the reason why Governor Sanford should resign is not due to his hypocrisy--albeit, it has been fun to watch--but due to the fact that he has been a horrible governor and, umm, how shall I put this, well an asshole! This is the man who wanted to reject President Obama's stimulus money, to be used for the skyrocketing unemployment in the state, arguing, get this, that it would obligate the state to expand its unemployment requirements after the stimulus money runs out. Again, abstract, mean-nothing, principles trumping reality. Not once, did the governor think about REAL LIFE consequences of his actions before getting on the worn soap box and shouting nonsense to everyone who would and wouldn't listen. Oh, yes, and I forgot to mention, that the stimulus money he rejected, he would later use to fund his trip to Argentina (some $12,000) and was thankfully, rebuffed by the more sensible state legislature which overturned his veto, and accepted the money.

So, Governor, please let us all be, and just go away!