A country_united

January 24, 2009

While living overseas I could walk up to a stranger and connect with them merely because we were foreigners in a foreign land and spoke English. We would share experiences and many laughs over our social faux pas. I could connect with Asians no matter where I was if they spoke English because I was a foreigner there to learn more about their country. We connected over our love, new or life long for that country.

People act differently during exchanges with strangers while traveling and hopefully, it changes them. Travelers are open to interaction and developing a connection with people they never would have met otherwise. And the strangest aspect of American life is that we are country that is a frequent destination for foreigners and I can’t recall having many interactions with strangers in public places in America in my youth.

People visit our country because they admire the inalienable rights we enjoy and the wealth, until recently we could depend on making with hard work and determination. Yet, as a nation of mostly immigrants, Americans seem uninterested in foreigners. Some even feel threatened by their presence. And we fight among ourselves over differences of opinion, religion, race, etc. Even though we all appreciate our right to think and act as we choose, we challenge people with opposing lifestyles and choices to do the same. We forget so much of how we came to be as a country until moments as dramatic as 9-11 happen. The other moment of American unity, in my lifetime, happened Tuesday, January 21st at the Inauguration of President Barak Obama.

Sharing that day with strangers from San Francisco, Chicago, Vermont, I felt once again like a stranger in a new country, a new America. This day seemed to make people more open and giving, like two strangers who meet in a foreign land. People on the crowded subway made way for a mother with her young children. Someone gave me their napkin when they heard me sneeze. There was no impatience and no shouting despite the long lines and crowds. No fights. People were uncannily happy and patient without the aid of illegal substances, I can only assume.We knew that we would remember all those that we’d interacted with, even the strangers. They would become part of that memory just by being there.

I left the country two years ago with a heavy heart, disappointed after so many years of writing letters to politicians, pushing for new legislation on foreign policy. I had many arguments trying to explain my government’s actions to Germans, British and Filipino’s who sometimes seemed more educated than I was on our foreign policy. Their disappointment in the U.S. government was apparent. I said that maybe we needed to be knocked off our pedestal anyway.

Now, we were entering a new time in our country’s history. Change would have come with or without Barak Obama. Our country was ready for sweeping change and as President Obama has said many times, we are responsible for making that change happen by voting and by committing to changing our lifestyles and behaviors to change this nation for the better. One man can do nothing without group consensus to change. Speculation is needless. We will not know whether the country wants change enough to change themselves except with time and the results of many media and political pollsters endless toil.

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Madeleine Albright at the 92nd St. Y, NYC, January 7th

January 13, 2009

Former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright shared with Dan Rather thoughts on foreign policy punctuated by her dry brand of wittism last Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y.

Drawing insights from her new memoir, A Memo to the President, Albright answered Rather’s probing questions on  tough calls past presidents’ had made in foreign policy as well as her hopes for the new administration. Albright is expecting great things from the new administration:  change in the American approach to foreign policy, greater open discussion and collaborative decision making within the White House and a chance for America to turn around the negative view the world currently has for the most part of American society and politics.

“There is a sense that this election will change how America is viewed by the world…We’re going to be engaged actively (in improving relations with Middle Eastern countries) and we’re going to have a very smart president,” said Albright, evoking a shattering round of applause.

The next administration has great challenges to confront, far more intimidating than anything the nation has ever faced, even Roosevelt. There is once again a dire economic crisis, but we also have many issues to deal with overseas. While we’ve fought Afghanistan and Iraq, the Hamas and Iran have gained power. We “took our eye off the ball in Aghanistan” and Al Quada has continued to grow in strength. “The U.S. has been absent”, she said.

The most important thing is to change our approach and give up this notion of a “war on terror”.  Albright sees  fighting terrorism through predominantly military force as the wrong approach.  It won’t work. Our aggressive and military-driven approach has only fueled the extremist groups’ agendas. She indicated that our purely militaristic approach devoid of diplomatic means gave the world a dim picture of the U.S. foreign policy. And made it easy for terrorists to glorifying their agenda.

Clearly, Albright said, the current administration thought that they could go into Afghanistan and create enough damage that the terrorists would run away and hide and not try to bomb us again. We were egotistical to think that they could be so easily subdued and we lack the foresight to have a plan b, c and d.

Iraq was “the greatest disaster in foreign policy”. Albright claims that the results were worse than Vietnam War because of the damage done to America’s reputation in international relations.  Albright’s advice for turning around the world’s current view of America:  close Guantamanamo Bay was the second step. The first step has already been achieved _electing President-elect Obama.

Another item on her wish list for the future president’s foreign policy agenda is to create a global atrocity committee that can monitor possible conflicts and develop strategies for negotiations and conflict resolution, watch for the signs that lead to genocidal activity. The situation in Somalia and Rawanda taught her that detachment from conflict at the level of genocide is not an option.

“It is our responsibility to prevent genocide”.

The Israel and Palestine was also at the center of the conversation and at the top of Albright’s concerns in foreign policy. Albright saw a bi-lateral instead of unilateral with drawl of military would have been a more successful solution. And using a moderate from Israel or W.Gaza who could take credit for the withdrawl would have been the best approach.

The major benchmarks for change in Gaza-Israel conflict are related to the cause/effect of many political leaders tactics and their opponents’ reactions.  If there is a ceasefire for long enough to initiate a peace process, probably led by someone such as Tony Blair or Dr. Ahmed Mohammed Nazif, there might be some progress towards a resolution between the two nations. Also, it is very important to see what the U.S. role will be in this situation and how we will become involved under the new administration or possibly the old. Albright also saw a need for more consistency in the U.S. approach to the foreign policy on the Middle East. A regional policy may be necessary.

There is also a considerable amount of work overdue in the Americas region. Illegal border crossing continues despite the recent increase of 18, 000 border patrol officers. Albright believes the U.S. can influence Latin American countries in a positive way.  Encouraging and promoting democracy is important but not at the expense of the peoples’ quality of life.

“People want to vote and eat.”

Can Obama achieve all this? The most important thing is that he act as a “confident not a certain president”.  A confident president isn’t afraid to be challenged by various points of view, to insist his cabinet members’ challenge each other and remain open himself to considering all the angles his team has presented to him before making a decision. That takes team work. And the American people should also be a part of the president’s effort to create change.

“I hope that when you stand for the first time behind the presidential seat you will have uppermost in your mind the need to restore our faith in each other. Speak to us as adults–share with us your thinking, tell us your doubts…Beyond that, let us know what we can do to help. Challenge us. We aren’t afraid of the truth and we’re more willing to make sacrifices than we ordinarily let on”.*

To read more about Albright’s insights on foreign policy during her service as Secretary of State, pick up a copy of A Memo to the President. Her memoir gives you a 101 class in modern foreign policy since World War II. It’s an engaging peice of nonfiction and worth sharing with fellow history/current affairs fanatics.

 

*Albright, Madeleine. Memo to the President. HarperCollins Publishers; New York: 2008, pg. 310.

 

Award-Winning Iranian Authors Read in Noho, NYC

November 29, 2008

She was arrested, pushed to the ground, humiliated and taken into custody for attending an anti-war rally? Did she do anything wrong? Nothing. Was she given a phone call? No.

Sitting in silence, Goushegir’s audience listened intently as she read from her one-act play, “My Name is Inanna,”  a story not uncommon to middle-eastern people living in the United States. This is one of many stories, Iranian exile, playright, Ezzat Goushegir was born to tell.

Captive, her audience sits on stools, at the bar, even cross-legged on the floor of the KGB Bar in Noho last night, silently watching Goushegir reveal how a courageous Iranian woman’s sense of self is challenged by American social standards and rules, in a prison and  in a beauty store. The mask that her character Inanna wears in the beauty store and in the questioning room is the same, doing what she is told and trying not to cause trouble. These scenes bring to mind the questions: how has Inanna’s life changed in America?  Does she truly have more freedom here? The irony of a woman exiled from post-revolutionary Iran only to be arrested at an anti-war demonstration is felt heavily in a room full of 1960’s activists, intellectuals and fellow Iranian exiles. Goushegir goes on to account for the fears that might infect someone’s mind as the clock ticks by and she waits and waits for the police officer to return.

When asked during the question and answer session, Goushegir admitted that the play was based on a compilation of stories from many Iranian people and their experiences and perceptions as a foreigner living in the United States. She said that most Iranians living in America fear being imprisoned at one point in their lives.

Censorship is also a point of concern for both authors. Rachlin, author of Persian Girls and the opening reader, discussed the difficulty of getting her work read in Iran. She says that censorship of anything immoral is strong right now. Both writers agreed that during the Shah’s rule, there was also censorship but it was more about not discussing anything negative about the government or how the country was run. Rachlin said that made it impossible to share even the most basic realistic details of life in Iran such as the cockroaches scurrying down the alley. Due to censorship and other inequities in Iran, both authors touch on protests in America during the 1960s. One man commented that the Iranian students he knew in NYC opened his eyes to the situation in Iran and difficulties people were facing there.

If you happen to be in Chicago and Goushegir is reading “My Name is Inanna”, be sure to see her performance. It will leave you speechless. There are no upcoming readings scheduled yet. Rachlin

 

Goushir is a playwright, short story writer, theatre critic and poet. Her published work includes: The Woman, the ROOM, and Love and … And suddenly the panther cried: WOMAN, collections of short stories in Farsi; “The Sulking Sunflower”, Stylus, Medea was born in Fallujah, Exile in America, Now Smile, Crawdad, English translations of short stories for literary journals, Migration in the Sun, a book of poetry, and  Metamorphosis and Maryam’s Pregnancy, Two plays, a book of plays. She has won a Richard Maibaum award and a Norman Felton award for her plays. Goushegir is currently a Creative Writing and Iranian Studies professor at DePaul University in Chicago. She recently read “My Name is Inanna” at Women and Theatre Program (WTP) Conference, Confronting the Silence: Building Bridges of Engagement, in July 30, 2008 at El Centro Su Teatro in Denver-Colorado. She also actively contributes to literary journals. 

 

Rachlin, a novelist and short story writer, is well-known for her memoir, Persian Girls and four novels, Jumping Over the Fire, Foreigner, Married to a Stranger and The Heart’s Desire. Rachlin is a winner of the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her work has been published in Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Farsi, Arabic. Rachlin currently teaches at the New School University and Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. She also is an Associate Fellow at Yale.

 

Aside: As I’m so close to the center of a major metropolitan hub for writers and intellectuals, my plan is to try to attend a reading or lecture a week so I can share news on great new authors and people to watch in politics, business, art, etc. to my friends and former colleagues throughout the world.

Comment from Joel Simpson: jsspoto.verizon.net-Thank you for this sensitive review of Ezzat Goushegir and Rachid Nachlin’s readings last month. It’s very gratifying to know that their respective messages were received and deeply appreciated.

Giving Credit Where it’s Due

November 27, 2008

CEOs of AIG, Citibank and others have much to be thankful for this year. The government has saved their profit margins and secured their savings for their annual sunsoaking trip to Belise in their private jet. Meanwhile, Salvation Army prepares to feed 3,000 people in downtown Detroit this morning alone. I am not a economist but the numbers still leave my eyes burning.

In the last three months, the unemployment rate rose from 6.1 to 6.5 percent with a total increase of unemployed persons now at 10.1 million in the U.S.  Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson syncretic move? He decided to use $200 billion dollars, part of the U.S. government’s 800 B initiative to revive credit markets, to increase credit card limits for the average American.  The idea is certainly to increase spending and jump start the economy, but giving people plastic is the most ridiculous way to help people. There is once again no accountability or forethought given to the great debt this will take the Federal Deficit into! 

When the average weekly earnings of an American working full-time is currently $720 for the third economic quarter, how credit cards turn into anything but lifelong servitude to a laundry list of credit card companies? The Consumer Federation of America and other lobbying agencies are encouraging Congress to include legislation in the bail out package to curb credit card companies from illegally hiking up their interest prices on existing card holders. In the recently passed Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, market transparency and financial oversight of credit card companies will be monitored by the U.S. government.

Will this system work? Will the government be able to help the average American balance their check book? I don’t see how this solution can be anything but a bandaid until the unemployment rate drops and food prices start to decrease.

We need farm aid in order to increase production and lower the prices for basic commodities. Regulation on loans without high interest rates is also needed to generate small business income. And we need an increase in the productivity of projects under the departments of public transportation, water and sanitation which will in turn increase the number of jobs available to Americans. It’s only logical. And that doesn’t an economist to deduct.

Taking responsibilty for U.S. Education

November 18, 2008

We have the resources, the funders and the connections as a wealthy nation, yet 70% of eighth graders in America can’t read at an 8th grade level and most won’t catch up, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress 2007. What is happening to our education system?

As a recent returning Peace Corps Volunteer, I saw the results of the symptomatic problems in Philippines education system first hand. But what is more shocking to me is to find the same inefficiency and mismanagement in my own country.

But I don’t believe there is one part of government, institutional organization or group to blame. We are all responsible.

Since Lyndon Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, there has been federal funding allotted to our public schools. The goal of the No Child Left Behind Act was to reauthorize the commitment to public education by creating a system of accountability. Unfortunately, the NCLB failed to produce the resources to enable schools to meet higher standards. Our country obviously needed a longer time table before putting new testing standards into effect.

Currently, there is a bill, S.2001 All Students Can Achieve Act, which may offer schools the funding for further development. No progress was made to move the bill forward after August  2007. Hopes are that Obama will request congress to reintroduce the NCLB Act in legislative session in 2009.  

But my main concern is that in the flurry of excitement following the 44th president’s first months, when he has the most leeway with his congress, that this act is in fact, reintroduced. WE can’t let our troubled economy distract us from holding our president-elect and his congress accountable for all the promises they’ve made to us.

But the role of change in our education system during the next four years isn’t the responsibility of just legislators. That’s where our role as voters and constituents comes in. As voters we need to demand accountability from our legislators. We need to write our senators, representatives and actively lobby for change. We need to entreat special interest groups and educational organizations such as International Institute of Education, Strong American Schools, National Education Association to push government to present a reformation of the NCLB. We need to talk to our PTA, teachers, principals and members on the Board of Education to ensure the changes that happen in the next four years include positive changes in our education system.

 This is the year for change, America. What are you going to do about it?