Archive for January, 2010

Between Van Gogh and Volcker

January 31, 2010

After reading a column by Paul Volcker in Today’s New York Times on the need to regulate the financial system, I couldn’t help drifting to two incidents that took place this past week.

I should warn the readers that the two true stories they’re about to read are scary.

A student of mine walked in to my office last week to ask questions about a pesky homework assignment. (My class is just a requirement he has to take). Looking at the wall behind his professor and feeling an advantage to being  friendly with him, he asked:

–  “Did you paint these?”

– “No”, I said, trying to hide a perplexed look.

-“Oh, did your kids paint them?”. His eyes widened.

-“No”, I said this time,  trying to hide a clenched fist under my desk. “They’re Van Gogh’s and Monet’s, ‘Starry Nights’ and ‘Water Lilies’ “.

-“Oh”, he shrugged. If there was an embarrassment vibe emanating from him, I couldn’t feel it. 

Trying to wear the friendly hat myself (hiding an ulterior motive, of course), I asked:

-“So…how are you doing in your other classes?”

-“Mostly B’s, with some A’s”, he proudly announced. 

The second incident took place at the mall yesterday. I was taking advantage of one of the weekly “Last-Chance Super Sale” at the local department store. The cashier asked me if I wanted an in-store credit card and save even more.

-“I dont like to own more than one credit card”, I said  matter- of- factly. “With identity theft as rampant as it is and all”, I volunteered.  She looked pleasantly surprised and said:

-“You know, apart from identity theft, credit cards are bad habits. They encourage people to live beyond their means”. 

Feeling she got my interested look, she declared in  a giddy tone reserved for “Eureka!”  moments:

-“Why do you think the country is in such an economic mess? We American live beyond our means”.

Just to make sure I understood whom  she meant by “we American”, I asked:

-“You’re not saying that average folks with more than one credit card in their pockets have brought the world economy down on its knees, wiped out people’s life-time savings,  created endless lines of jobless people, and caused the worst economic crisis we have seen since the great depression, are you?”

The recent college grad part-timer, wasted no nanosecond:

-“That is exactly what I am saying. Furthermore, I wish our president stopped giving money away in the form of stimulus packages so people would stop spending”, she added triumphantly.

I  contented myself with the greatly reduced priced of the coat I bought  and exited the place as gracefully as I could.

Good luck to Paul Volcker and the president in  trying not to cut their ears while  attempting to lay out a lucid and sensible case to regulate derivatives to a society in which the two horror stories  above are not uncommon and they’re  not taken out of a Steven King novel either.


Children of the Screen….

January 24, 2010

Future runaway kids don’t have to roam downtown L.A. or Rio De Janeiro. They may just be (or  pretending to be) sleeping in the bedroom next to yours.

According to a new study by Kaiser Family Foundation, kids (age  8 to 18) spend  7.5 hours a day on average plugged in to their smart phones, tv, computers, or other electronic devices. And just when the researchers thought kids couldn’t spend any more time doing that, given how many hours are in a day, they amazingly were able to make  the time (the average was 6.5 hours five years ago)!

How well do you really know your kids? Are you  raising your kids according to where you believe their best interest lies? Or are all these sites, friends, companies,  and advertisers (some of them may even be good) having bigger influence than you are? Even when you have the power, though admittedly often difficult, to limit their screen time?

It is really an unfair fight. You are a parent with increasingly limited time and resources. You have to contend with big media corporations that are catering to your kids with profit as the sole motive. You’re trying to raise your kids while all these corporations, under one disguise or another,  are trying to do the same. It reminds me of the Borgs in star trek who plug in to feed on a steady stream from “the collective”.

I may not be smart enough to forsee how this new generation of “screen kids” will turn out. But I know this. There is an ever easier and unlimited  access for “strangers” who seek joint custody (and not on your terms!).

It is wise to keep that in mind.


Culture vultures?

January 18, 2010

Why do we keep producing people like the CEO’s of Goldman Sacks, J. C. Morgan-Chase, and AIG that have brought the global economy down on its knees and robbed millions of their jobs, lifetime savings, and homes without showing the slightest hint of  any remorse or empathy? Before them, there were the Enron CEO’s , and the S and L scandal people before that.

This doesn’t start and stop at our financial institutions. America keeps producing individuals like president Truman who committed the greatest act of terrorism of all time by nuking  the civilian population in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Robert McNamara who ordered carpet-bombing of a massive peasant population, and Henry Kissinger who was heavily involved in the massacres in Latin America in the seventies.

You may be thinking this is happening within the political and financial spheres. And this is a crule, and cut-throat culture. Think again. It doesn’t get any better when we venture into the American religious arena . It is an amalgam of superstition, ignorance, hatred, and personal status that override the moral high ground. Just listen to comment from  Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham,  Jerry Falwell, and  Jimmy Swaggart about Mohamed, or other people they don’t like.  

These people are not on the fringe of our society. And certainly they are not an aberration. For the most part, they were educated in America’s elite institutions and not in Madrasas in remote Afghani caves. People like that are considered successful models of what the best in our culture can produce.

 Have we ever stopped to look in the mirror? Have we even remotely asked ourselves why every president since WWII has waged a war for one reason or another (except for Jimmy Carter who armed the brutal ruling junta in Burma to the hilt so they could crush the domestic democracy movement)? All that with the full support of our élite media pundits and religious leaders.

One, conceivably,  can mount a defense for a counter argument.  One can even list plenty of individuals that  have been educated in Ivy league schools and have opposed all the atrocities I have mentioned ( people like Ralph Nader and Chris  Hedges). But then the question can be rephrased.  Why aren’t these people at the helm running America? Why do they systematically fail to make much of a dent in public attitude let alone public policy?

If the élite institutions in America produce people who  arguably commit crimes against humanity, and if  “democracy at its best”, as we’re told, can produce such individuals, then the flaw lies deeper than we may like to admit.

This should get any caring person deeply worried.


Where is our own outrage?…Really

January 9, 2010

We as a nation, and not some fringe lunatic sect among us, are violating our own laws and ideals, let alone international laws. We are committing crimes at home and abroad.   Why haven’t we heard the outrage of our religious authorities and  elites over our own atrocities?  We commit these gross violations as a matter of public policy and it didn’t cost any public official, to my knowledge,   her/his job.

What we hear instead is  “where is the outrage from the Muslim World over terrorism” no matter how many times their highest religious authorities, let alone intellectuals from all walks of life, condemn these heinous acts.

 The New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR, are  supposedly a progressive  voice.  All of sudden, they have developed a severe case of  blurred vision.  They can’t even recognize torture when they see it.

Yeah…where is the outrage? Where is the outrage  from the religious authorities and the elites over torture?  over indefinite detention of innocent people?  over keeping innocent people jailed in subhuman conditions when we even admit their innocence? over the use of  drones to indiscriminately bomb the populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and (now )Yemen, causing the death of innocent women and children on an almost daily basis (over 700 civilian deaths by drones since Obama took office)?  over  war crimes in  Gaza and elsewhere? etc…etc…

But wait, it gets better. The religious authorities in our country are  either the most stalwart supporters of these criminal and immoral violations or at best silent. Corporate media pundits such as   Thomas Friedman repeatedly ask for an outrage from the Muslim World when he supports the mass killings in Gaza and Lebanon as an educational tool. He   boasts “suck on this” as one reason we invaded a nation causing unspeakable carnage and misery.

Have our religious authorities lost their moral compass? Have our elites become desensitized to killings? Has God died in America? 

So yeah..really…where is the outrage?


Here we go again, Tom…

January 7, 2010

In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes yet another article repeating his recommendation for the Arab and Muslim leaders to unequivocally condemn suicide bombers. He repeats his question: “where is the outrage in the muslim world”? 

If Friedman thinks King Abdullah’s condemnation would deter  suicide bombers, then Friedman is not the middle east expert he purports to be. Other than igniting civil unrest by giving  some factions in the middle east one more reason to fight about, the king would achieve little. The radicals that commit these heinous crimes are not fond of the king by any measure. Saudi Arabia brand of Islam is not popular even among mainstream muslims. Saudi Arabia’s influence and prestige derive mostly from the cash reserve they swim in and not from their superior religious , intellectual, or democratic heritage.

Only one dimension of this problem is religious. The highest religious authorities and figures that speak for the muslim faith in Egypt (Al-Azhar), Iraq (Najaf), and Iran (Kom) have repeatedly condemned these acts (Juan Cole did a good job  documenting this here).   They have expressed their opinion about the subject unambiguously. And Friedman has repeatedly ignored their denunciation.

The second dimension to this problem is political. In addition to the Arab and Muslim leaders,  the united states have a big role to play here. And since  Friedman is in the business of recommending to others what they should do, here is an easy, cheap, and quick way to greatly reduce  suicide bombings. Stop bombing innocent people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Stop bombing their weddings and bulldozing their homes. Stop undermining the integrity of their homelands. And most of all, stop propping up and  supporting the unpopular and undemocratic  regimes and brutal tyrants of the middle east.


Cause Celebre

January 5, 2010

In yesterday’s New York Times, Bono, the lead singer for the group U2,  wrote an interesting article in which he paid tribute, among other things,  to  the fallen heroes fighting against tyranny, injustice, and brutality.  One of those heroes was Neda Agha Soltan, the young Iranian woman who was killed in the recent brutal crackdown on the protesters  against the regime  in Tehran. He also mentioned the evil regimes of the world, the usual suspects, Iran, Myanmar, and North Korea, of course.

While the article contains some original points, there was a huge negative space in the picture on display. The essential prerequisite for any honest reformer or self-appointed champion for human rights is the willingness to see truth and justice as non-fragmented whole. 

Noticeably missing from his article is the young and brave american woman Rachel Corrie  that was crushed by the Israeli bulldozers while trying to protest the demolition of Palestinian homes. If he’s so appalled by the  brutal murder of  Agha Soltan, why wasnt he equally appalled about Rachel? What about that “little” snaking wall, that is cutting the limbs of the Palestinians, that Bono’s sensitive lens  couldnt detect in his prescient article?   He wondered about a Gandhi, a king, a San Suu Kyi coming from Gaza but was totally oblivious about a similar  coming from Israel. These huge holes call into question any genuine point Bono was trying to make in support of oppressed people’s struggle.

Bono may be  doing a commendable and visionary work with his advocacy group “One”. But he is the same old hack when it comes to human rights in the middle-east where the mantra seems to read: “Whatever you do or say has to have the approval stamp of Israel”.

This has become a  fad. A celebrity choses a “safe” cause to champion. He/she carefully dances around the controversial issues which, for the most part, are at the heart of the matter. The celebrity starts getting enormous publicity with help from a senile  corporate media. The white knight to the rescue. Everyone feels cozy. A real-life-fairy-tale- induced smile beams across our face.   Good triumphs over evil. Meanwhile, unspeakable atrocities are being committed  with few genuine, outspoken, brave people  standing up to the madness .