Wednesday, February 1

Guilty

USA Today reviewed audio recordings of the Breitbart radio show and comments made by Trump adviser Steve Bannon. He is exposed as an insecure and cowardly man:

"Bannon told his listeners that the United States and the Western world are engaged in a 'global existential war,' and he entertained claims that a 'fifth column' of Islamist sympathizers had infiltrated the U.S. government and news media," report Steve Reilly and Brad Heath.

So we can imagine what someone like Bannon might think of Fear of Beauty and its protagonist Sofi. Fear of Beauty is the story of a Muslim woman who lives in a remote village in Afghanistan, how she yearns to learn how to read after the murder of her oldest son. Her family and village are comfortable due to a crop she plants in secret on a nearby hillside, and no, the crop is not heroin. This woman is thoughtful, resourceful and devout, but also an independent thinker who does not allow religion or the men in her life to impose controls. She is quiet and constant in resisting those who attempt such controls.

One of the great rewards of writing this novel was how US readers responded to Sofi as an Afghan woman. "For readers numbed by a decade of news reports from war-torn Afghanistan, Froetschel provides a fascinating glimpse into life in a humble village," wrote Cynthia Sebalius for Calliope. "More importantly, she lets us spend time in Sofi's mind and heart. The magic of reading this book is that we become Sofi, and we leave better for the experience." 

Fear of Beauty is a story about Afghans as individuals who work hard and love their families and communities, and not as terrorists, and Bannon probably would regard the novel and character part and parcel of his fifth column of Islamist sympathizers.

If feeling empathy for women on the other side of the world, if developing a thinking, caring, resourceful, independent and courageous Muslim woman as an admirable character, is the work of a sympathizer, then this author is guilty as charged. Bannon is defying everything the US military has worked for in Afghanistan. He is a bully who exaggerates and seeks conflict, terrified of the beauty of this world and incapable of understanding why others don't share his world view, much like Jahangir, the antagonist of Fear of Beauty. 

Fear of Beauty and the stories from Afghanistan carry a warning. Societies can go backwards.

Photo courtesy of SPC Kristina Truluck and Wikimedia Commons.

Loaded

"There's some upset in The Wall Street Journal newsroom over a directive from editor in chief Gerry Baker to stop using the phrase "seven majority Muslim countries" in coverage of President Trump's immigration order," reports Joe Pompeo for Politico. Pompeo quotes Baker's email to editors: "Can we stop saying 'seven majority Muslim countries'? It's very loaded."

Welcome to the land of "alternative facts" and realities.

Loaded? Let's go the CIA World Factbook and check the demographics for the seven countries from which travel and entry to the United States is banned:

Iraq - 99 percent Muslim
Iran - 99.4 percent Muslim
Somalia - 99.8 percent Muslim
Libya - 96.6 percent Muslim
Yemen - 99.1 percent Muslim
Sudan -  97 percent Muslim
Syria  - 87 percent Muslim

The ban comes from a president who promised as candidate to ban Muslims from entering the country until US officials could figure out what the hell is going on. His supporters cheered him on wildly.

Now plenty of people in the world are trying to figure out what's going on in the United States.  And anyone in a position of power should understand that their emails and directives on these issues will be forwarded to the world at large.

Get a spine, editors.

Photo of Blue Mosque in Iran, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 23

Markets

In the novel Fear of Beauty, the women in the fictional Afghan village do most of the day to day farming work. The story is about Sofi, an illiterate woman who innovates with crops and techniques in secret, all the while contributing to her village's prosperity.

No one should underestimate women's contributions to the global economy. Businesses and politicians should take note of the turnout for the Women's March in Washington DC and the more than 670 sister marches around the globe.

Women drive about 70 percent of consumer spending, explains Bridget Brennan, CEO of the Female Factor, for Forbes.  Women also have a multiplier effect: "Because women serve as primary caregivers for children and the elderly in virtually every society in the world, women buy on behalf of the people who live in their households, as well as for extended family (such as older parents and in-laws) and friends." Brennan urges businesses to monitor demographic trends. Women worldwide continue to enter and succeed in the labor force; women are marrying at older ages and families are having fewer children. Women pursue higher education at higher levels and they also vote.

Themes of the Women's March included women's rights as human rights, opposition to misogyny  and encouragement of political activism on health care, the environment, education, labor rights and more. Thousands of women in cities around the globe will continue to think, talk and organize. They are concerned and will watch how leaders in every sector respond to the politics and policies in Washington. 

As the stories of Afghanistan and Fear of Beauty warn, societies can move backwards. But a few, sometimes the most unlikely of individuals, can question policies that most in their communities take for granted and they manage to resist the controls.

Photo of Women's March in Lansing, January 21, 2017.

Saturday, January 21

Climate

Eliminating films, books, websites and other media that analyze problems do not eliminate the problems themselves. Erasure won't eliminate analysis or discussions either - unless the threats are accompanied by the brute force, similar to efforts of the Taliban types described in Fear of Beauty.

The Trump administration has eliminated mention of climate change on the White House website, but other US government websites still address the issue.

CIA World Factbook includes a list of countries that have signed and ratified international agreements on the environment. 

Climate.gov is still up with great GIS maps showing warming global temperatures.

NOAA still posts on climate: "From supercomputers and state-of-the-art models to observations and outlooks, we provide data, tools, and information to help people understand and prepare for climate variability and change."

NASA still gives the vital signs of the planet.

And climate change still matters for the Department of Commerce. 

And the Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Department of Defense describes the security risks of climate change. 

All departments like Labor and the VA have prepared climate adaptation plans.

And the Department of Energy still begins: "Addressing the effects of climate change is a top priority of the Energy Department. As global temperature rise, wildfires, drought and high electricity demand put stress on the nation’s energy infrastructure. And severe weather -- the leading cause of power outages and fuel supply disruption in the United States -- is projected to worsen, with eight of the 10 most destructive hurricanes of all time having happened in the last 10 years."

Businesses and homes have no choice but to contend with the weather and their surroundings. They cannot ignore these fundamental inputs, and the same is true of government. Our environment is a priority, and our survival depends on those surroundings.

The new administrators may try to dismiss the research and pull down the pages, but nothing disappears with the Internet Archives and the Wayback Machine.

Some are watching. 

Image courtesy of Earth Observatory and NASA. 

 

Monday, January 16

Survival guide

Many of us share some traits of narcissism that linger from our childhoods, and most manage to tame extreme notions that we might be special.

In the novel Fear of Beauty, a bullying terrorist who resents education, books, women, Americans, joy, you name it, swoops down on the fictional village of Laashekoh and takes control. Janhangir assumes he can whip up resentment against a nearby American outpost for a provincial reconstruction team, including soldiers and civilians whose goal is to provide technical support on agriculture, and he uses that as an excuse to take control of Laashekoh. Jahangir and his men are brutal with high-powered weapons at their disposal.

Jahangir is a narcissist, covering every insecurity when near those more productive and intelligent, with a brash manner and assertive ignorance.

Some observers like Zoe Williams, writing for the Guardian, have suggested that we are amidst a narcissism epidemic: "From attention-seeking celebrities to digital oversharing and the boom in cosmetic surgery, narcissistic behaviour is all around us. How worried should we be about our growing self-obsession?" The examples include increased reliance on cosmetic surgery, selfies and oversharing on social media and includes informaton from Pat MacDonald, author of "Narcissism in the Modern World" who wrote:

"Seemingly irreversible alterations to family life, technological development – including social media, attitudes to death and dying and celebrity worship, all feature in the rise of our narcissistic society and are interconnected trends. Group greed and grandiosity, as in the world of banking, have led to wide-scale corruption and cover-ups leaving us vulnerable and unable to place our trust in many organisations. Perhaps most sinister of all is our attitude to the planet that supports us, as we play a part in the destruction of much of the environment and many of the species that share the earth with us."

And how worried should we be about the self-obsession of others, the Janhangirs of this world, who might have control over us? Mayo Clinic lists the criteria from the DSMV, the diagnostic manual on mental health:
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expects to be recognized as superior even without achievements
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents
  • Preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty
  • Believing that he or she is superior and can only be understood by others who are superior.
  • Requires constant admiration
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Expects special favors and compliance
  • Takes advantage of others
  • An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Envious of others and believes others are also envious
  • Behaves in an arrogant or haughty manner.
The cause?  Possibly genetics combined with parents who treated their children as objects with excessive praise or criticism. Awareness of the personality disorder is one means of protection. A goal is not to become what some call the narcissistic victim, compelled to reinforce the narcissist's self-image, obeying and telling that person what he or she yearns to hear, accepting all blame for the problems sure to ensue from focusing on petty appearances and slights rather than the larger challenges at hand. Oddly enough, some of the most insecure are repeatedly attracted to the traits.  

Some narcissists are downright clownish with their belligerence and unbearable and experts offer advice. "Keep your distance," suggests Preston Ni for Psychology Today.  Of course, that does not help when someone like Jahangir takes over an entire community and is capable of brute force. But Ni also advises reliance on assertive communication, saying no firmly, not over-reacting and expecting plenty of disappointments. "The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to 'stand down' a difficult person," he writes. "Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the narcissist, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect."

Steve Berglas describes workplace narcissists for Forbes and also offers some defense: They overpromise. Any consideration of another is intended to exact future promises. They demand attention and immediate response. They crave praise, and any criticism must be couched as praise. They regard themselves as victims and expect others to share that view.

The narcissist's craving for praise can be maniuplated in practical ways, and some narcissists can be convinced to pursue good deeds to obtain that praise. "All is not lost," notes Williams of the Guardian. "MacDonald picks out five principles of self-improvement: gratitude, modesty, compassion (for self and others), mindfulness and community. Some of these are obvious – modesty as an antidote to self-love – and some have a practical application." 

Though some prominent narcissists seem beyond help. So back to the village of Laashekoh and how Parsaa and Sofi, husband and wife, managed to remove Jahangir. Sofi describes her feelings; "From my home, I watched Jahangir with disgust, how he raised tension and then smiled and laughed, letting everyone think that his wrath had faded. the speed of his changing moods was most disturbing. The anxiety of waiting for his next eruption was a dark and all-consuming force."

The couple remains mostly quiet about their concerns and resist in secret ways. Each is on the lookout for others whom they could trust, and for most of the novel, Parsaa and Sofi are uncertain about whether they can trust each other. One is more impatient and angry than the other. So, they work separately on their own strategies - analyzing long-term consequences, following Jahangir, tracking him and taking account of his secret deals and meetings. Both rely on help from outsiders to the village for support. This comes from the same American soldiers at the nearby outpost who Jahangir wants to attack.

Those committed to the development and enforcement of the rule of law is one challenge for the Jahangirs of this world and another is clashes with other narcississts.

And the worst experience may be for the child who is trapped at home with a narcissistic parent, as explored in Allure of Deceit. An interactive version of the Narcissistic Personality Inventory is available online - a good tool before dating or hiring someone as well as for assessing one's self. Studies suggest that self-reporting of narcissism has climbed among college students in recent years.

Some will be lulled into the notion of feeling special, but few appreciate or get along with a narcissist for very long.


Image of Narcissus and Echo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, courtesy of Stefano Bolignini and Wikimedia Commons. The term "narcissism" is from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who is fascinated with himself and rejects the admiration of others including Echo, whose voice is limited to repeating just a few words of what another has just said.  

 

Wednesday, January 11

Focus

We are what we do, what we say, what we read and follow. Our conversations and interactions and activities shape who we are.

We have a choice - to be inspired or to inspire, to dream and hope and care. Or, we can wallow in mindless, salacious, rote activities. We can take shortcuts and quick fixes, or we can concentrate, analyze, examine and weigh our options. How we invest our time shapes who we are. We can agonize or stay calm. There is no one set path, and yet with every word, every choice, we can actively work to improve life for us and those around us or we can simply subsist.

The choices are stark, as illustrated by this morning's headlines. Most television morning shows focused on an leaked report, unconfirmed, by a British intelligence officer doing opposition research during the US presidential campaign. The officer suggests that Russia has compromising information on Donald Trump.

President Barack Obama also gave his farewell speech in Chicago and that took backseat to the leaked report. Obama offered an example of the choices that we as society can make: "How can elected officials rage about deficits when we propose to spend money on preschool for kids, but not when we're cutting taxes for corporations?"

Yes, our decisions every moment reflect our values and who we are as individuals and a society.

The president's speech focused on the state of our democracy and the requirements: a state of solidarity, the sense that economic opportunity and a good education are options for all, the endless battle in society against racism and bias, the need to be open to others who may not think like us but to agree on a common baseline of facts, and resistance to taking our democracy for granted.

Many are dispirited by the mean and divided state of politics. But Obama urged we resist that attitude.

"For too many of us, it's become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. The rise of naked partisanship, and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste -- all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it's true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there."

Every individual has responsibility to protect our way of life, through active citizenship, through standing up for freedoms.  "But protecting our way of life, that's not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are. " 

We must resist the coarseness in our society, the divisiveness, the disrespect for science and reason and evidence, as well as the notions that ordinary people cannot contribute.

 President Obama cried, especially when he paid tribute to his wife and daughters for putting up with so much, and yes we cried with him.

Fear. Bullying. Citizenship. Choices. Education that lifts and strengthens communities, and the yearnings for democracy and equality when those might seem so out of reach in our communities. Our communities can progress or decline. Those are the themes of Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan and a  remote village that seems to be beyond all hope for mutual respect or democratic aspirations.

Yet the choices made everyday, by deliberate planning or courageous impulse, can transform an individual and his or her community.

The photo of a Morning Walk By Georges Seurat, 1885, is courtesy of the National Gallery in London and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 30

Under a spell

Brunhilde Pomsel, now 105, recalls her position as one of five secretaries for Joseph Goebbels during 30 hours of conversation that serve as as the basis for the film A German Life. Goebbels was the minister of propaganda for Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, and Pomsel worked for him during the last three years.  Connolly interviewed Pomsel for The Guardian.   


Pomsel insists that she did not know about the extent of the Holocaust or her employer's own role in the genocide until after April 30, 1945 when Hitler along with Goebbels and others killed themselves. She served five years in prison for her wartime role. 

Connolly describes Pomsel as unrepentant: "As she holds court, gesticulating wildly, with a broad grin on her face, it seems as if she even takes something restorative from her insistence that she simply acted the same way as most other Germans. 'Those people nowadays who say they would have stood up against the Nazis – I believe they are sincere in meaning that, but believe me, most of them wouldn’t have.' After the rise of the Nazi party, 'the whole country was as if under a kind of a spell, she insists. 'I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics but the truth is, the idealism of youth might easily have led to you having your neck broken.'"

Of course, many in Germany and occupied countries sacrificed their lives by resisting the Nazis.

Pomsel's dismissal of modern critics of the Nazis is juxtaposed with a memory of being handed a case file on Sophie Scholl, a student activist with the White Rose resistance movement. Pomsel recalls being ordered to lock the file away without reading it, and she describes being "quite pleased with myself... that my keenness to honour that trust was stronger than curiosity to open that file."

Scholl, enrolled in the University of Munich in biology and philosophy, was a liberal thinker who like other members of her family questioned Nazi policies. Her brother had been arrested in 1937. A few years later Scholl joined her brother and a small group of students to distribute leaflets warning that Hitler and the Nazis were leading Germany into an "abyss" of immorality and war.

Later, Scholl was reported to have said: "Somebody, after all, had to make a start." She and other members of the White Rose resistance group were arrested in February 1943. They were convicted on February 22 and beheaded that same day.


The profile of Pomsel offers a glimpse into the varying power of resistance, duty, trust, discipline, and curiosity.  Germany was divided before 1933, and the Nazi Party came into power with less than a majority. The Nazis were intent on masking their motivations and many of their activities while destroying resistance by any means necessary.


Those who long to control others try to squash activism, warnings or investigations that might present an opposing view. They cannot endure simple questions let alone democratic procedures. They deny and resist the full range of observations and evidence, excluding any that fail to support their views. Curiosity is a trigger to caring about other humans and the world and a basis of explorations in science and art. "The important thing is not to stop questioning," said Albert Einstein, as quoted in Life Magazine in 1955. "Curiosity has its own reason for existing."

Stay vigilantly curious about what others try to hide or deny.

Photos, all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: "Nazi Hierarchy" of Adolf Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and Hess; an unrelated typing class in the 1930s; and a bust of Sophie Scholl by sculptor Wolfgang Eckert by RyanHulin.