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Archive for August, 2006

Something has been nagging me ever since Condoleeza Rice categorized the recent violence between Hezbollah and Israel as the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” I like the language of the analogy, but it set me thinking. We are seeing changes in the Middle East, for sure, and the Middle East in a hundred years will most likely be a greatly changed region. My question is, how will it be different? It seems like the Middle East is approaching some kind of tipping point, but which way will it go? In the last episode of the first season of Deadwood, Al Swearengen muses that “announcing your plans is a good way to hear god laugh,” and I think the same could be said for making predictions. However, what we can do is take another look at things and reevaluate where we are, and be willing to change course based on a deeper understanding of the issue.

The other day I was watching the News Hour, and the discussion was about Bush’s statement that “failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to U.S. security.” My first question to Bush would have been to ask him to define “failed states,” so as to clarify any ambiguity. Does he mean “failed democratic states,” or “states that have descended into anarchy,” or “states that are ruled by terrorists,” or “states in the throes of civil war”? It seems to me that the level, nature and cause of the failure would be an important factor in assessing threat to the United States.

One of the guests, Ralph Peters (retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of the book, “Never Quit the Fight”) had this to say:

…I draw on the definition of failed states…as far as Iraq goes, it hasn’t failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president’s assumption that it’s a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida’s Vietnam.

You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don’t generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they’re going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

…we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere…[a]nd it’s a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

…it’s the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, “How do we make this right?”

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who’s about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, “It’s all Israeli’s fault. It’s all the United States’ fault.” And, you know, the plumbing doesn’t work, so it’s [the] CIA and Mossad.

The other guest during this discussion was Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. While he pointed to foreign occupation and meddling in the Middle East as large determining factors in the region, he nonetheless acknowledged that the Middle East had some serious preexisting problems:

But it’s true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world’s oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system — Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States — are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there’s no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn’t put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I started to feel like I was onto something big – here we have two people with fairly different perspectives agreeing that there were big, even fundamental, problems within Middle Eastern civilization, independent of foreign “penetration.” This is a starting point, a premise, that clearly others have thought of long before me. To me, things start making a whole lot more sense when I frame related events with the idea that Middle Eastern, or more specifically, Arab, civilization is unraveling, and in fact has been for hundreds of years.

Lieutenant Colonel James G. Lacey, in his article, “The Impending Collapse of Arab Civilization,” notes that,

on the Arab League’s website there is a paper that details all of the contributions made by Arab civilization. It is a long and impressive list, which unfortunately marks 1406 as the last year a significant contribution was made. That makes next year the 600th anniversary of the beginning of a prolonged stagnation, which began a dive into the abyss with the end of the Ottoman Empire. Final collapse has been staved off only by the cash coming in from a sea of oil and because of a few bright spots of modernity that have resisted the general failure.

Lacey goes on to outline the general condition of the Arab world, getting his statistics from the U.N.’s Arab Human Development Report and the OECD, and it is very grim. Only 1.6% of Arabs, for example, have Internet access, 60 million people, mostly women, are illiterate, and GDP (after adjusting for inflation) is declining. Based on population trends, Lacey asserts that,

Things are indeed bad in the Arab world and will get much worse.

This statement should not be read as mere opinion. While predictions of the future are usually fraught with peril, those based on demographics are, barring some unforeseen plague or truly catastrophic war, uncannily accurate. Using even the most optimistic assumption—that fertility rates drop by fifty percent in a generation—the respected Population Resource Center, based in Princeton, New Jersey, expects Arab populations to grow from 280 million to almost 460 million by 2020 and to over 600 million a generation later. On the face of it the Arab world is staring political and economic disaster in the face. Arab governments and institutions are already failing to meet basic human needs in many Arab countries. It is hard to imagine how they will cope with the stress of such a massive population increase.

When you have a population explosion like this, you get what Lacey calls a “youth bulge,” or a large percentage of young people making up the population. We know, also, that acts of terrorism are largely executed by youth who are fueled by Islamism’s warped ideology and economies that cannot offer stable, fulfilling employment. Lacey explains that, “In socially and politically repressive societies, found throughout the Middle East, there are very few outlets for pent-up frustrations except for violence or immersion into religion—a combustible mixture.”

Taking this premise to an applicable conclusion, one that we can use to help stabilize the world while this collapse plays itself out, Lacey argues that,

By accepting that we are facing the collapse of Arab civilization we can, for the first time, create a grand strategic concept for success. We no longer have to engage in a war against terrorism, which is a method of fighting and not an enemy. Additionally, we now have a strategic explanation for what is going on that does not make Islam the culprit. Hence we do not have to fight a religious war to win.

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Are we smart enough to win the “War on Terror”? Has the very term, “War on Terror,” set us up for failure before we even embarked? It seems to me that eradicating Islamism’s guerrilla and terrorist tactics will only be possible if we come to better understand human development, on both an individual and global scale.

Can you negotiate with a two year old in the throes of a hysterical tantrum over not being allowed a third piece of candy? Does this two year old understand that too much sugar is bad for his teeth? Do you even bother explaining this fact to him? Well, you might try, but probably to little effect. If you are the parent, and your child is having his fit at, say, the mall, what do you do to stop it? Do you reason with a screaming two year old, or do you outsmart him, distract him, or ignore him until he realizes he hasn’t got a taker? Can you sweet talk him into thinking there are better things than candy? More importantly, when your two year old becomes a three, four and five year old, does he continue to have tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants, or does he eventually grow out of it? Is it because you, wise parent, have done something extraordinary to permanently alter his behavior, or would his behavior evolve naturally in a healthy social context, as he became better able to communicate his needs and wants?

I tend to view people as going through certain stages, both as individuals and as parts of larger societies. If a society is made up of mostly two year olds, well, we could probably imagine what that would look and sound like. Even if that society contained a few infants, some teenagers, some young and middle aged adults and some elders, it would still be a society dominated by two year olds.

As with an individual’s development, I believe that nearly all societies contain people at various stages on the human spectrum of potential, and that environmental factors serve to both limit and promote progress. Just as a human being goes through stages along the path to maturity, so does a society. First you (or your society) are focused solely on your physiological needs: food, shelter and some measure of emotional comfort (think of infants and very early man). Then you realize you are part of a larger world, and you begin to learn through trial and error your culture’s mores and how to communicate your needs in that context. Next you become more self-centered, focusing on your own wants, often referring to a god or gods to justify yourself. Then you learn the importance of governance, and of sacrificing yourself for the good of the community, followed by an awareness of the importance of not only pursuing your own goals, but also doing what you can for the wider community. Next you realize that you are part of a holistic system, which includes everything on earth, and while you still strive to achieve your own goals, you do it in a way that is in harmony with all life. There is no way of knowing how far we can go beyond this, but the possibilities are only limited to our ultimate, currently unknowable cognitive potential.

Of course, in this context, not every human being or society will realize its full potential. This is where we return to the issue of terrorism. Without a society to support it, it would not exist. Terrorism, in my opinion, clearly thrives in an environment where the culture is at the level where one sacrifices oneself not for the good of community, but in the context of justifying one’s actions in reference to a god, in pursuit of an aim that does not necessarily benefit the wider community (but convinces it that it does). It will take a critical mass of people within this culture to evolve to the next level, one that recognizes that one’s actions can only be justified if they benefit one’s society (and hopefully eventually evolves to a more holistic view, but one careful step at a time).

Where is the majority of America on this path? I believe we are actually regressing, responding to fundamentalism with fundamentalism. We need to move in a better, more holisitic direction, one that recognizes and works on the premise of systemic health, both environmentally and socially. While we cannot currently reason with terrorists and their networks, I do think that we can at least attempt to mitigate the circumstances that help them flourish.

We cannot forcefully impose our will on others and expect them to comply, no matter how fervently parents, executives, legislators and diplomats may hope otherwise. Terrorists will not stop terrorizing until the people who produce and support them feel that their needs are being met, until they learn to process information critically, and until they have reached a level of development that transcends their current understanding of the world. Before people can contemplate higher issues of equality, humane justice and democracy, they must have a certain level of basic comfort, security and education. We cannot achieve a successful and stable democratic revolution from without. Lasting change, by nature, comes from within.

I don’t have a cure for terrorism, but I believe our current actions only provide the proverbial aspirin tablet to a cancer patient. We can keep on slappin’ ’em with the flyswatter, but, like flies and other profoundly successful procreators, we can’t with our current methods get at their source without devastating and extreme measures. We need to outsmart and out-humanize them. They need their people to hate us in order for their engines to continue to run. I believe it is better to use honey in terms of attempting to soften and hopefully, eventually, reverse this hatred. We need to value and use reason, logic and knowledge of human and cultural development especially when dealing with people who are unable to do the same. We need to take the higher, more enlightened path, using our brains rather than our guns.

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Here I am, gearing up for another year of teaching for a major metropolitan public school system, wondering what the year will bring. I look forward to meeting my new students, to getting into the rhythm of a new year of learning. As the summer quickly comes to an end, I am reminded that I have a mountain of odd tasks that I’d like to accomplish while I still have some free time on my hands.

These two things were on my “To Do” list today:

1. Call the car dealership to schedule service

2. Call HR to confirm receipt of my transcript (documenting my updated education level, and thus my salary)

I called the car dealership first. A pleasant voice answered on the second ring, transferred me to the service department, where it rang once and another pleasant voice had my appointment set in about thirty seconds.

Next, I called the school system’s HR department. It rang several times, asked me to hold (“Your call is VERY important to us,” explains a silky voice, “but all HR representatives are assisting other callers. Please hold.”) Finally, a tired sounding person answered, and I explained why I was calling. “Um. You are calling the Elm Street location. Where did you have the transcript sent to?” I explained politely that I dialed the number for the other location, which is where I was instructed to send the transcript. “Oh. We’ve recently moved.” After a little back and forth, ironing out the apparent misunderstanding, I was then informed that I needed to speak with someone else, anyway, so I was transferred to another person’s line.

After about four rings, I was asked to hold, which I did…and then I held some more. Finally, another tired sounding voice answered, and I had to explain myself again. When I stated that I mailed in the requisite application and transcript, my friendly helper exclaimed, “Why do all you people do that?!?! You should have delivered it in person!” At this point, I said, “Oh no, no, no. We are not going in that direction. I mailed it in because the form instructed me to MAIL IT IN. I asked whether you have received my transcript, and that is all I need.” My friendly helper said gruffly, “hold on.” And boy did I ever hold on. My guess is about 8 minutes (enough time to empty the dishwasher and clean up the kitchen). Then, finally, my friendly helper came back on to ask me when the transcript was sent, which forced me to log onto my on-line banking account, to tell him the date I was charged for the transcript. “So this is just your first Master’s degree?” he sniffed. “Yes, just the first.” “Hold on………” Finally, my friendly helper returned to grudgingly report that yes, my transcript had been received (I got the distinct impression that this was the result of a physical search, not something that he looked up on a database).

This is not a new experience. In fact, every single time I have had some business with the central office, there has been some sort of bureaucratic problem. Last year they needed some (seemingly trivial) paperwork from me, which, I was told, I must hand deliver downtown. Weeks after I did this (and received a date stamped copy), I was informed in a rather threatening way that I had not submitted the paperwork. I had to fax it to them (twice!) before they “received” it. Oh, and don’t even bother showing up to “hand deliver” something or otherwise in need of assistance any time between 11:30 AM and 1:30 PM. It will be a ghost town in the name of “lunch.” Teachers are not treated as clients – they are treated as obstacles to an otherwise blissful day of solitaire and Internet shopping. I have never witnessed such unprofessionalism, such mismanagement, and, ultimately, such waste. I guarantee I could do the work of at least four people at this bloated operation. I read with no small measure of glee about the plan to cut jobs at headquarters, in an attempt to “balance the budget.”

My point here? When the system doesn’t value its teachers, and in fact treats them with grudging condescension, I wonder what that does to overall morale, to the sense that we teachers are a valued and integral part of making any school system succeed. Students deserve the very best teachers, and teachers deserve the very best support from their districts. Believe me, every time I have an experience like this, I start thinking about working in the suburbs.

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