Name That Crossroads

Umair Haque has a question:

“Is freedom being murdered at school, but never having healthcare or retirement, even if you’re not  (murdered) — just so the economy can keep growing, as the profits of the people who sell the guns and the medicine rise ever higher? If that’s all freedom is, why should anyone want it? But if freedom’s something more than that, what is it, really?”

For a long time after the fall of the Soviet Union, all of us (other than Francis Fukuyama) waited for a new order to take shape that we could label with a term more descriptive than the “Post-Cold War Period.” And waited, and waited.

Nowadays though, with the rise of “populism,” however you define it, the general disillusionment with “neo-liberalism,” however you define it, global austerity-fatigue and the arrival of what increasingly looks like late-stage capitalism, we’re clearly no longer in the Post-Cold War Period. But where are we?

When we’ve begun to question the very nature of work, when “what is freedom” sounds like a reasonable question for Americans to ask, wherever we are, it’s a crossroads.

•••••

And that’s the post as I published it. But I revise it here, to pull a comment up into the body of the post so that people will be sure to see it. This is from the author of the blog WheatyPete’sWorld:

“Well I am a teacher and I became a teacher because I was not happy just making money for someone else, or even just for myself-me-me-me. I wanted to give something rather than be a taker. I had my tyre slashed on my pride and joy VW camper by a parent whose child told him a lie about me last week. I work evenings and weekends. I am in debt and can not afford to replace the tyre so am driving on the spare which is bald, nor have I money to get new lenses for my glasses which are too scratched to see through. But I am still a teacher because I believe in what I am doing. It is a poorly paid vocation, but I still believe in what I am doing. OK I drive for 45 minutes with minimal vision to get to work every day, but if any a-hole told me I need to carry a gun to do this… well that would be time to look for a new planet to live on. How could anyone believe that the answer to young people who are so disillusioned that they shoot people is to get their teachers to shoot them first? What sort of planet/society is this? I have many American friends and respect so many things about the country, but this president is … well words fail me. I am very sad for all those who lost sons/daughters/loved ones this week … but someone needs to take the guns away from people who think that freedom is the right to shoot anyone else. It is really quite simple, why can’t Trump or the NRA see that: if people don’t have guns then they won’t shoot each other. Do I need to draw a picture for Trump and his supporters in the NRA? No guns = no shootings. That’s all.”

Brash

In the early 1990s I had the good fortune to accompany an Atlanta-based group called the Friendship Force, founded by Presbyterian minister Wayne Smith and then (that is, at the time of its founding) Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, on a trip to Jerusalem.

The Friendship Force organized home stays, pairing, say, people in Atlanta, Georgia with people in Tbilisi, Georgia, to promote cross-cultural familiarity and understanding.

The idea behind that particular trip was for American Jews, Palestinians and others (like me), to stay in one another’s homes, with the aim of extending cultural understanding across religions just a little bit, day by day, step by step.

With much less background out in the world at that younger age, I sat astonished with, I think, everybody else in our well-meaning little peacenik assembly, when a young Likud parliamentarian, fluent in English from his high school in Pennsylvania and later MIT, bounded up to the podium to caution us on trusting those damned Palestinians, whose Green Line was within nine miles of the Mediterranean Sea at the closest point, and who had designs on it all!

Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks were perhaps not the most appropriate welcome to our particular group.

The Prime Minister has been a public figure since that day, more than twenty-five years now, much of an adult life. And now we read today (New York Times):

“The Israeli police recommended on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, casting a pall over the future of a tenacious leader who has become almost synonymous with his country. The announcement instantly raised doubts about his ability to stay in office.”

This thing and others like it have been dogging the Prime Minister and his family for years:

“The Netanyahus have long occupied pride of place in this crowded field of wealth-seekers. In 1994, a Jerusalem paper wrote about the family’s penchant for dining and dashing. Their appetites grew after Netanyahu became prime minister for a second time in 2009: a $2,500 contract for gourmet ice cream at their official residence, and a $127,000 bed installed on a government plane so they could nap on the five-hour flight to London. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, has been investigated for stealing patio furniture, and his son, Yair, for accepting free Mariah Carey tickets. None of this seemed to put a dent in the Netanyahu family’s political fortunes. But it all made for good headlines.”

I wonder if all this time ought to be enough for any one person to be in proximity to power, particularly in a small and tightly-knit land like Israel, but maybe, anywhere at all.

Weekend Reading

Hunting for something interesting to read this weekend? Here’s the list you were looking for. And since we’ve had a couple of posts that touch on British imperialism this week, we start it off with:

The Great British Empire Debate by Kenan Malik at NYR Daily

But wait, there’s more! Enjoy these, too, and have a lovely weekend.

A Bakery in a War Zone by Lily Hyde in Roads and Kingdoms
How warp-speed evolution is transforming ecology by Rachael Lallensack at Nature.com
What science is like in North Korea by Andrada Fiscutean in The Outline
The Person in the Ape by Ferris Jabr at laphamsquarterly.org
America Is Not a Democracy by Yascha Mounk at The Atlantic
How America Collapsed by umair haque at eand.co

The Clerk’s Stamp is Money

And a reprise of the most telling post from a previous trip to Sikkim:

The northern Indian province of Sikkim, between Nepal and Bhutan, borders Tibet. To visit, non-Indians require an “Inner Line Permit/Restricted Area Permit” issued by the Government of Sikkim Tourism Department.

It’s because of history. China chased the Dalai Lama from Lhasa over these mountains and off the throne in ’59. India took in his cadre and donated a whole city, Dharmsala, to their cause. That peeved the Chinese mightily.

The Tibet/Sikkim border isn’t drawn to either sides’ satisfaction. These are barren, forbidding, 12,000 foot mountaintops. Nearly 2500 died fighting up here in the 1960s. (The border at Nathula reopened for trade in 2006. Goods worth just over $1,000,000 moved through in 2013.)

So they try to keep up with where foreigners are.

The Inner Line Permit is a sheet of legal sized, pulpy paper with wood chips still evident. You can get one at the provincial border for free with passport photos and photocopies of things.

It cautions that the visitor must not overstay or go beyond the restricted areas, and must register at all check posts. It has us write down on paper what the NSA already knows: our arrival point, arrival and departure dates, names, nationalities, and passport information. This form requires a bureaucrat’s stamp.

The bureaucrat’s stamp is money.

•••••

We hurtled to a stop (driving is purposeful in India) outside a building labeled Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom and presented ourselves and our papers to two gentlemen inside. We wished to enter Sikkim via Rangpo town.

The presiding official wore a Millet brand down jacket with a tall, zipped-tight collar. He examined our materials for several minutes.

There would be no small talk. This was Official Business, far too grave a matter for that. Or for that matter, cordiality.

I think he demanded respect with his silence, or at least TAKE ME SERIOUSLY. This was his domain and these were his number of minutes and it was not our privilege to question or expedite things in any way.

Look here now: I can slow down anybody I want.

Here sat a man whose circumstances were not like our own. If he stayed warm at night, it wasn’t by pressing a button on his thermostat. He had a stove, or something. But the road to Gangtok spread before us. He held our progress toward our nice hotel in his hands right now and we would – if we wouldn’t do anything else – we would note it. He pulled a ledger to his blotter and began recording our passport and visa details both on the ledger and on our permit.

The official and his colleague presided across battered and aged metal desks and facing them, we had the better view. Picture windows at their backs revealed the permanently stirred up frenzy of the street, and on the other side of it, well, Ricki’s Cocktail King.

The Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom was sort of a rambling, half open, ad hoc thing. A clock ticked and a bird made a lot of noise somewhere behind us, up in the rafters.

Ultimately our application to enter Sikkim caused no incident (or uttered word), and in time out came The Stamp. It pounded around a few places including our new Inner Line Permit, and, naive as we were, we imagined that that was that and we’d be underway.

And underway we were, not to Gangtok but under our driver Sunil’s escort, picking our way on foot across traffic asserting itself along the pocked lane and a half of tarmac that constitutes the main road into Sikkim, down a hill to the right past Ricki’s Cocktail King toward a bridge.

Nobody in there. (I cast a longing gaze.)

Chaos prevailed unruly on this side of the street. Over here, besides rooms with clerks inside, other clerks stood in windows onto the street, labeled Excise Tax and Forestry Department and more, pay windows for goods carriers inbound to Sikkim where men stood belligerent and flushed and pointed and hollered.

We stood facing green pastel walls in an office lit by a swinging bulb. Two new gentlemen. The inferior clerk sat at his superior’s side on a rolling office chair that had no back, wielding sheaves of paper, fretting. The boss man sat behind a half window with space for pushing critical documents back and forth beneath the plexiglass.

Letters on his window spelled out “C. O. I. Verification Officer.” The C. O. I. Verification Officer took our papers, examined them with a practiced eye to detail and frowned. He wore a high-collared parka similar to the gentleman in the Ministry of Handicraft and Handloom, only it was Kappa brand, not Millet.

With the joy of a cat in a cloudburst, he reached for a sheaf of papers like his adjutant’s and began his work. Which consisted of copying our same details into his papers, performing a vital verification, no doubt, of his could-be conniving colleague up the hill.

There would be a delay now, for the inferior clerk riffed through his stack of papers, shook his head and spoke. The C. O. I. Verification Officer put down his pen and gingerly leaned back in his chair. It was one of those chairs that at a certain point in its trajectory of recline, collapses all at once the rest of the 45 degrees backward.

So the Verification Office was careful, and when his chair settled without capsizing he and his clerk discussed matters for a time. At length, with no small amount of labor he summoned himself upright and handed his clerk a stapler.

During the process a small, older gentlemen entered, puttered here and there, then headed back and down the darkness of a hallway. His movement led my eye to a hand-painted sign farther down, the entrance to the Forestry Department. Between us and the sign an open electrical box on the wall stuck wires out into the hallway. There was just the faintest smell of piss.

In his own time, the C. O. I. Verification Officer completed his work and looked none too happy about it. The Stamp came out and pounded around the C. O. I. desk and our papers.

And we were free to go. Silently.

More Trouble in Turkish Cyprus

Earlier this month I published the post Erdogan & Northern Cyprus, in which I admitted ignorance about the aggressive Islamification of Turkish Cyprus. Now that it’s on my radar, I have found new news in the Washington Post today, which may be behind a paywall for you, so here is the first bit:

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The editor of a left-wing Turkish Cypriot newspaper on Monday accused Turkey’s president of instructing supporters to launch a violent attack against his publication’s offices over criticism for Ankara’s military offensive into Syria.

Sener Levent said his newspaper Afrika won’t be silenced in calling out Turkey’s policies either in the breakaway north of ethnically-split Cyprus or elsewhere.

This has to be seen in light of Turkish President Erdogan’s Afrin moment, obviously. The question now, in both incidences, is where will Mr. Erdogan stop. The so-called international community should have something to say on Afrin, though I continue to search in vain for a White House response. In Cyprus, the question is, is Mr. Erdogan is content to merely boil frogs, or does he mean to cause real trouble?

For a little bit of a longer view, here is Cypriot hopes for unification are on life support, but not doomed from theconversation.com.

Clarity Clinic

President Donald Trump from today’s Oval Office remarks with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan. This quote begins on this YouTube clip at 3:53:

Our country is doing very well. Economically we’ve never had anything like it. I don’t believe we’ve ever been in a position and the president was so, saying we’ve never been in a position like we have.

No. Guess not.

An Argument for Seeing More of the World

We’ve spent a couple days now watching the president’s supporters defend him over this Haiti/Africa affair. There are three and a half main defenses.

There is the “everybody does it” defense. Senator Graham once said people come to the USA from “hellholes,” thus making the president’s words okay. There is the “In the year ____, Donald Trump did something nice for someone of color, so he can’t be so bad” defense. And then there is the “he was making an economic, not racist, argument” defense, when he said he preferred Norwegian to Haitian immigrants. Finally, there is the “it was regrettable, it was unfortunate, it is not helpful” non-condemnation, a half a defense.

Couple of things:

First, suppose Narendra Modi or Shinzo Abe or Emmanuel Macron had words about the USA similar to President Trump’s condemnation of an entire continent. I invite you imagine his or her subsequent reception in Washington. Anyone who believes this incident isn’t damaging to America’s reputation in the eyes of people all over the world needs to spend more time abroad.

And second, suppose, for whatever reason, this president eventually goes down in flames. When his defenders this weekend come knocking, looking for their own reputations back, they shouldn’t be surprised if nobody answers the door.