Archive for April, 2009

20ambusha6002 The photo on the front page of Monday’s New York Times of a soldier caught in a firefight in a remote region of Afghanistan came in the midst of a news cycle filled with depressing stories out of the region: Taliban takeovers of towns and villages close to Pakistan’s capitol city, new bombings in Baghdad and the story out of Afghanistan.

The day after the story about the ambush, the paper ran an op-ed piece by two young Afghan women who begged America not to turn its back on give up on the brave women who took to the streets to protest the latest government law caving in to fundamentalist demands. “[Westerners assume] Afghans are a ‘tribal people’ who probably do not want a say in choosing their leaders,” they wrote. “Others claim that because Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic society, any promotion of democracy and women’s rights will be resented as an imposition of Western values… These assumptions are wrong.”15afghan2-600

That’s good to know. There are people in Afghanistan and in Pakistan who fervently support women’s rights, human rights and democracy. Possibly even more of the population simply wants to live in peace under whatever form of government is presented to them. In any event, we should support their efforts to live a life free from terror and intimidation.

And it’s not quite fair to say we’ve turned our backs on Afghan human rights, regardless of which country our politicians may discuss from one day to the next. We’ve got boots on the ground there who will soon be joined by new troops our experts are moving from what we and they hope is a more stabilized Iraq.  Although we have no troops in nuclear neighbor Pakistan, we have planes overhead and an Executive Branch proposal for nearly 3 billion in investments to support a military I worry seems far more focused on India than the Taliban militants. Decisions have to be made about how and where to place finite resources – our resources. Maybe that’s why it seems as if Uncle Sam is playing in  high-stakes chess game all by himself.

It’s no fun to be a superpower soloist.

The authors of the piece about Afghan’s marching women note that “Democracy and progress are not products to be packaged and exported to Afghanistan. Afghans have to fight for them.” Absolutely true, as I think our government is beginning to figure out.  Democracy promotion isn’t something that can be done strictly from the outside in. We should assist, support, speak out in no uncertain terms  concerning anything relating to human rights. But as far as translating words into actions, we can always use a little inside help.


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With North Korea threatening nuclear testing, Somalia pirates threatening sailors, Taliban tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan threatening women, and Rush Limbaugh threatening my fragile equilibrium, I’m ready for a new kind of threat: the updating of perfectly decent pieces of literature.

Actually, it’s a new and, in this case, ghoulish twist on the idea that someone can always improve on a classic that caught my eye: an article in the New York Times concerning a book soaring up Amazon.com’s best seller list about zombies run amok in the rarefied world of Jane Austen heroines. Okay, to be honest, I don’t know whether to be appalled or jealous. I mean, Amazon’s Top Ten! zombies-pride-431-212x300

The book in question is called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and if you don’t think someone’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, let me share with you the book’s author biographies: “Jane Austen is the author of Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and other masterpieces of English Literature. Seth Grahame-Smith once took a class in English literature. He lives in Los Angeles.” Of course he does.

The book’s opening paragraph is as compelling as any Austen novel you might read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” One online purveyor describes it as “…an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” And the price has just been reduced!

The mind boggles – well, mine does, since it hasn’t yet been chewed by zombies, at least to my knowledge (but then again, would I know?) Literary mashups, unlike writer-for-hire sequels, have a host of modern-day options or obsessions from which to choose in order to spice up the original. Sure,  there’s been some adjusting to the P & P plot-line but at least this author appears to be relatively true to Austen’s writing style. That’s something, isn’t it?

Producers, directors and writers have been having good, mostly clean fun taking license with the classics for some time now. Marie Antoinette was reimagined in the person of Kirsten Dunst as a bored party girl. Henry VIII on the HBO series “The Tudors” is young and studly and entirely worth losing one’s head over. I don’t know whether classic authors would be appalled or amused by this turn of events but I suspect this kind of silliness is here to stay.

My mind (or what’s left of it) has begun to wander with the wonder of this new cultural phenomena. There are so many classics that might benefit from an extreme makeover. What about Dr Zhivago Meets Doctor Phil or Moby Dick Cheney? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t rush out to buy Survivor: Treasure Island or Monsters Versus Strangers in a Strange Land? And shouldn’t your book list include The Inconvenient Truth About Dante’s Inferno?

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Can empathy be taught? I asked myself this question when I read about a new program instituted in certain suburban high schools to combat bullying and harassment among young people, both of which are apparently on the rise. Instead of merely being shunned by the mean girls or humiliated by the bad boys – bad enough when you’re in puberty – you can have your mind messed with, your reputation utterly ruined and your family stalked and also humiliated via text, Twitter and on any number of social networking sites.  There have been reactions that have made the news (high school shooters and MySpace suicides) and many more that haven’t.

We accept that some people are more empathetic than others, that women are generally (although not always) more empathetic than men, that the whole concept of relating to one’s fellow person simply comes more easily to some than to others. Michelle Obama is scoring high points for being so genuinely interested in the people she meets. Her husband’s empathy quotient is harder to read even by those who support his agenda but he is connecting on some level. Dogs are supposed to be highly empathetic creatures although they are also into their version of self-preservation. I adore my dog but I’m not sure she cares whether I’m having a bad day if she wants to be fed right at that moment.

When I first heard Bill Clinton exclaim: “I feel your pain” I was a little taken aback. What pain was he able to feel, I wondered. The shock of a young man diagnosed with a fast-acting terminal disease? The anxiety of a family on a downward economic slide? The fear of woman on the run for her life in the middle of the latest ethnic warfare? What kind of pain were we talking about here?

I sense what Clinton was saying: I can empathize. Whether and how this affected his style of governance is something I’ll set aside for now. But he somehow engaged in the task of putting himself in someone else’s shoes of trying to sense how they might feel.

Of course he couldn’t have literally known what it might be like to fully experience living someone else’s life unless he were living it. We can’t know what its like to be living in Gaza or in a refugee camp in Darfur or even as a high-schooler with a lisp or a limp or an odd way of relating to people unless we’re in the moment. Even then, people react differently depending on their emotional makeup. We’re all unique that way, which makes this whole business of relating somehow trickier.  I can’t tell you how many people said after my husband was killed on 9/11, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Some of my angrier friends who had lost loved ones used to retort, “No, you can’t.” I’d only say, “You don’t have to.”

The fact is: you don’t have to imagine the specifics of a horrible or difficult situation or the origins of the anger, fear another person is experiencing because, frankly, what purpose would it serve? Instead, you might recognize the sorts of feelings and impulses a person in such a situation might have; somewhere along the line, we’ve all had similar feelings. You base or adjust your actions and words to take those feelings into consideration, so that you do no harm. There’s compassion involved and also a willful putting aside of your own interests and desires, even if you can never truly understand what it might be like to feel like an outcast or feel threatened or feel terror. Then there’s the whole idea that you might be able to modify your behavior in a more sympathetic manner. It seems like a lot of work, more like empathy isn’t “just” a feeling but also a way of thinking. Which means, yeah, it could be taught and we’re all probably due for a refresher course.

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In America, we bring each other to trial on a regular and, it seems, profitable basis. Off course we say we’re not doing it for the money but because issues of justice, fairness and respect are involved. Did a school overstep in strip-searching a thirteen-year-old girl to see whether she was carrying prescription Ibuprofen? Can a chiropractor sue a patient who posted a negative review on the website Yelp.com? Whatever the decisions, it should be noted that both lawsuits involve claims of compensation.

Then there are those court cases that are more about symbolism than anything else. No one expects six onetime Bush administration officials, including former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to actually go on trial for, much less be convicted of violating international law in allowing for the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Nevertheless, a Spanish court is reviewing the complaint and warrants may well be issued.

An even more fraught case involves the indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Al-Bashir and other leaders in the Arab world have united in condemning the indictment as an act of neo-colonialism designed to undermine Sudan’s stability. The African Union Peace and Security Council is seeking to overturn the indictment.

Why bring each other to trial, especially when the outcomes are so dicey?  In many (although not all) instances, a trial will bring particular issues into focus for public discussion – school authority and privacy, free speech and the value of protecting a reputation, torture and international law and sovereignty in the face of incalculable human suffering. Furthermore, there are people around the world who believe coming before a tribunal of presumably impartial judges is the way to go – this despite various attempts in both democratic and less democratic societies to thwart, rewrite, abolish or simply ignore the rule of law. I’m glad of that. The judicial system is often flawed but there is scant evidence the alternatives – incarceration, incapacitation, humiliation, torture or genocide – work at all.

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