Monday, October 11

Stories and myths

 


Story

the series of events in a book, film or play


Myth  

story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of a people



 


Firuzeh’s family flees the threats of Afghanistan, traveling to Australia by way of Pakistan, Indonesia and Nauru in On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. Hope quickly turns to despair as the young woman observes the refugees around her resort to lies and bullying, prostitution and suicide. Firuzeh does not know how to respond when pressed about why the family left, and a doomed friend retorts, “We need reasons like we need water or air…. I’ll find you your reason.”

Experienced refugees warn that Australia is cruel, lonely, hard. After a lengthy process of confirming citizenship, the government offers families $2000 and plane tickets to return to Kabul. Only refugees who persist through the delays and indignities make it to Australia, and a prostitute reminds Firuzeh that those who still treat others with kindness, even after repeated pain and humiliation, are wealthy. Others, including the Australians who fear and resent the refugees, are poor. 

Beauty and creativity can be found even in hardship. Early on, the family tells favorite stories to entertain and inspire one another. Only a few stories reach the status of myth. “There’s something about beginnings and endings,” explains Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “That polishes them so smooth you nearly see your face in them. Then you open your hands and let them go, and the current pulls you onward and way. Behind you, those stones sink down to the mud, where no one will ever find them again.”

Individual tales of hardship go quickly forgotten for Australia's policies nad public opinion. Firuzeh’s family receives a TPV – a temporary protection visa – without understanding the consequences of a three-year stay.  A few Australian teachers understand that such visas are “inherently destabilizing” for children absorbing a new language and culture.  Others resist examining the deeper consequences:

‘I don’t think our government would do anything evil. Besides, isn’t Afghanistan safer these days? With the Americans there, and everything?’

Mr. Early said, ‘I haven’t heard much in the news lately.’

‘That’s good, isn’t it?’

The refugees endure long waits to enter Australia and start a new home life. E. Lily Yu details the meager rations and crowded conditions of refugee camps, with guards freely dispensing sleeping pills and other psychiatric medications to ease boredom and maintain order among detainees. “Sleeping is an easier way to wait,” notes one character. “All of us had something to wait for, and that kept us going…. Now the minutes of our lives are wasted. Time scrapes our nerves.”

Never-ending hardships replace the hopeful storytelling. “What a story, your family’s,” observes Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “Over and over, without an end.” Firuzeh admits she does not like how her family’s story is going and Nasima suggests “You can change it…. If you want. If you’re brave. If you remember how.”

Family cohesion crumbles as the couple and two children lose respect for one another. Upon learning about their temporary status, the mother urges the father to take action while Firuzeh insists their father is a hero who will think of something. The argument intensifies, the father blaming his wife for working and neglecting the children while she criticizes him for weakness and men's habit of blaming problems on wives. The wife repeats her mother’s assessment that hers husband is a frightened boy, not a man, and the Firuzeh’s father strikes her mother.

Firuzeh, who always admired her father, lashes out, telling him she hates him and wishes him dead. The man weeps, wondering how his more assertive wife and children will ever survive in dangerous Afghanistan.  

Of course, such tragic scenes unfold daily in the camps and neighborhoods where refugees try to start anew, so common that most fail to notice their own role in the dangers of routine cruelties and entrenched inequality. 

The anger and recognition of temporary status changes the world for Firuzeh and her brother who runs away. Searching for him, she boards a train full of happy students, “holding bookbags as shields, laughing and shoving each other. Firuzeh hated them wit ha black and overwhelming passion. Not one of them had to worry about deportation, or a missing brother, or a broken mother…. ”  

The father takes desperate action, giving his family a reprieve, and Firuzeh contemplates how the stories of Australia differ from those of Afghanistan and wonders if they are still useful. The imaginary friend reminds that “Stories go where people go…. In dreams, in fresh tellings, in memories.”

Taking control of one’s story, sensing how others respond and making adjustments that suit the author and her audience, can make all the difference in surviving the life we're handed. And we won't recognize that the making of a myth is underway, and our own role, until long after the fateful conclusion.

Tuesday, September 7

Left unsaid

 











“No one is truly voiceless, he whispered, either they silence you, or you silence yourself.”

After fleeing Aleppo and enduring a traumatic journey separate from her family, a young Syrian woman lives in a London apartment from which she observes daily routines of her neighbors. She does not speak and embraces privacy, an instinct for self-preservation.

Silence Is a Sense by Layla Alammar reflects the constant comparisons and contradictions of the refugee experience – the comfort and annoyances of tradition, the discoveries and puzzles of another culture, the curiosity and ignorance and assumptions of new companions, the guilt over fleeing one’s homeland, doing anything to survive and not knowing what happened to those left behind. Tyrants, whether in Syria or London or Kabul, fear comparisons. As observed by the protagonist of Fear of Beauty: “Those who prefer continuity avoid comparison and regard any hint of choice as criticism. New interpretations from others might twist opinions in unknown ways.”   

The protagonist writes her thoughts as a refugee for a small newspaper, under the pseudonym “Voiceless.” She initially resists the editor’s requests for more memories and experiences. “Everybody here wants a story,” she notes. “They all want stories – how did you get here? How long did it take? How easy was it to process your papers? … They want to hear about the hardship and the struggles and the people who died along the way.”  She worries that her more liberal-minded editor and readers have an agenda, wanting “to see, in me, all the hopes and ills and frustrations and struggles and singular stories of some five million plus people. They want me to speak for the chaos of the world…” She finds that “The human need for stories is itself an obstacle to memory. Like our dreams, we are not content with images or scenes or fragments of sensory stimuli… We try to place these elements within a structure that makes sense, wading back through fragments, trying to stitch it all together into a coherent pattern – a beginning, a middle, and an end.”  Stories are never so easily completed, and the protagonist feels “persecuted by the things I remember and by what my mind chooses to hide from.” She suspects that the most common routines may have been forgotten or blended into one memory: “It seems to me that complicit in the very idea of memory is actual forgetting.”

Memories meant to be cherished are reviewed over and over again until they become rote, over-practiced even while blending with new awareness and perspectives. Efforts to vanquish the most horrific memories, piercing again and again with renewed vigor, are useless. All shape her character, and she embraces literature and poetry, such as that of Edgar Allen Poe, because “There is someone out there who has been gripped by fear and loathing as I have.” Emotions may take precedent over actions in the most enduring memories, and it may be possible that life's most beautiful moments escape notice, failing to be preserved by memory.  

London is supposed to be safe, but refugees confront discrimination and hatred, and the character expresses pessimism about the na├»ve notion that education might overcome hatred, an error “repeated on the news, in op-eds, in documentaries, in social media posts. There’s this idea that if only you bombard bigots with enough facts and data and statistics, you can cure them.”  The problem is not lack of education, she maintains, but “fear of the unknown, the Other, fear that things are changing in ways he can’t predict or control.” Of course, change is inevitable for any society, with or without refugees.

The protagonist finds that memories presented as stories lure “the public into caring about things and Others they might not otherwise care about.” Stories carry listeners to other places, helping them understand other cultures and perspectives, and thus do “make migrants of us after all.”  

Some of the most powerful stories go untold. They might be too unbelievable or, in this case, a writer is “terrified that a story will diminish the real, that it will cheapen the experience beyond what I can bear.” The protagonist cautions others to examine the gaps in many tales, the questions that no one asks and the answers that remain hidden inside another person: “That’s where the story is.”

Tuesday, August 24

Need for expertise

 

cargo plane evacuating Americans and Afghanis from Kabul


As suggested by this blog's "Functional leadership?" and "Key to success," the Taliban cannot afford to lose the most talented, educated Afghani citizens. 

Al Jazeera reports today that the Taliban are urging the United States to stop evacuating skilled Afghans, such as engineers and doctors. “We ask them to stop this process,” spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at a press conference in Kabul. “This country needs their expertise. They should not be taken to other countries.” 

But like most fundamentalists, the Taliban will reject "expert" opinions on sensible education programs and public policies. Skilled agriculture specialists don't want to grow poppies. Modern health providers may support women's reproductive rights and family planning. Computer scientists do not want to collect or abuse citizen data. Weapons specialists won't want to target former international colleagues. Chemists and physicists will struggle to develop religious rationales for scientific phenomenon and limited resources. Engineers focus on math and lack time for theological rhetoric. 

The educated, fully aware of Taliban's past disdain for education, will balk at working for the extremists. "Insurgencies the world over, from the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka to Boko Haram in Nigeria, have sought to attack, resist, influence or control access to and the content of education," notes "Taliban Attitudes and Policies Towards Education" by Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson for the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups. "However, the Taliban’s level of interference, and the growing sophistication of its approach, sets it apart. It has developed a series of policies and bureaucratic guidelines governing education provision and established a shadow education ministry, with education shadow ministers at provincial and district level and monitors charged with overseeing schools in Taliban areas."

Key aspects of Taliban attitudes that will conflict with education that creates expertise:

-a preference for Islamic religious education, with the group divided between traditionalists and those who recognize the need for modern approaches;

- reluctance to acknowledge women's capabilities or allow mixed-gender workplaces and teams;

- opposition to donor conditions on human rights and women's rights, even though the country's education system heavily relies on international aid. 

In December 2020, the Taliban negotiated an agreement with UNICEF to operate 4,000 classes in areas then under its influence. "That the Taliban is willing to negotiate a national agreement with a UN agency demonstrates its desire for aid – and international recognition," note Amiri and Jackson, adding that "the Taliban is increasingly seeking to position itself as capable of governing. Some segments of the insurgency’s leadership acknowledge that Afghanistan needs a diverse, modern education system. They also understand that, if they want external recognition and political legitimacy, they will have to make concessions on some of their more hardline positions, particularly on female education."

Taliban policy documents on education are clear - the group intends to regulate, control and influence all forms of education, including "what subjects can be taught and who can attend school." 










True education requires critical thinking, which naturally lead to questions and doubts about fundamentalism and extremism. Ruthless, primitive policies that counter best practices are not sustainable. The writers concede that "Education is inherently political, and governments and armed groups the world over have long used the education system to indoctrinate, surveil and regulate the behaviour of the population." 

The educated will balk at working for a Taliban government that does not value freedom of thought that goes hand in hand with the best education programs. Many skilled Afghanis anticipate coercion, and the International Labour Organization describes forced labor: "work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities."

That is why thousands of Afghanis gather at the Kabul airport, willing to sacrifice all to flee the country.

Photo of  US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, evacuating more than 600 Afghans to  from Kabul, courtesy of Al Jazeera and Defense One; photo of library, courtesy of the American University of Afghanistan. 


Friday, August 20

Functional leadership?


A handful of western journalists have stayed in Afghanistan to report on the Taliban takeover and the chaotic evacuation of foreigners and Afghanis who supported US efforts over the past 20 years. 

Taliban leaders are desperately trying to send signals to the foreign media that they can improve governance and bring order to Afghanistan. But good governance requires good communications which rely on strong reading and critical thinking skills. 

Leaders lacking such skills will only deliver frustration, as suggested by Ian Pannell reporting for ABC News.

Pannell and his team had permission from Taliban commanders to head to the airport. Stopped at a checkpoint, shown at the 3-minute mark in this video, the Taliban fighters stopped the crew, staring blankly at a letter from Taliban command. Amid shots being fired, the Taliban then turned the reporters away.   

"These guys can't read," said Pannell, clearly frustrated. "The agony of not being able to get to the airport, past Taliban-controlled checkpoints, is the reality on the ground here." 


The Taliban face a big challenge with the demographics of the country's 38 million people. The median age of the population is 18.6. So more than half the people were not around in 2001 when the Taliban last ruled the country and have no recollection of the harsh edicts based on arbitrary interpretations of Islamic writings. Women also make up half the population, and many bitterly oppose Taliban policies forcing subservience to male relatives, arranged marriages at early ages, and bans on a female presence at schools and work, 

One might wonder why the Taliban would desperately try to prevent Afghans who despise such policies - some of whom might organize formidable resistance - from fleeing the country. 

A key reason is that much of the country still suffers from illiteracy and functional illiteracy. Since 2016, the literacy rate in Afghanistan increased by more than 40 percent, reported UNESCO in March 2020 report. Still, the literacy rate is 55 percent for men and about 30 percent for women. 

Such high rates of illiteracy offers an explanation for the "wholesale collapse" of the Afghan military in defending the country against the Taliban. "[P]erhaps the biggest hardship was having to teach virtually every recruit how to read," suggested Craig Whitlock in the Washington Post, and "only 2 to 5 percent of Afghan recruits could read at a third-grade level despite efforts by the United States to enroll millions of Afghan children in school over the previous decade.... Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count."

The Taliban may have overtaken the country - along with a sizable cache of planes and artillery from the US and other foreign governments - but many of their fighters lack the skills to use the high-tech equipment. Hence, the Taliban have blocked borders and demand that neighboring countries return  fleeing Afghan soldiers who worked side by side with US and NATO troops. More than 500 Afghan soldiers fled to neighboring countries including Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, using US-supplied planes and helicopters, reports the Hill. Uzbekistan has since returned some of the refugees, after the Taliban offered security guarantees, reports Reuters. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan express concerns about admitting refugees, some of whom could be fighters in disguise or extremists, reports Al Jazeera

The Taliban also desperately need many Afghanistan's government workers for now, hoping to harness top minds and talent to sort through an array of policies and finances, everything from tracking down revenues and foreign aid to arranging new partnerships and favorable contracts for infrastructure and the sale of resources like rare-earth materials. 

So, the Taliban tolerates the foreign press for now, striking a "conciliatory tone," hoping to prevent mass panic and protests by emphasizing a smooth transition. The leaders continue to claim they will take no retribution against the many who supported the US presence over the past two decades. 

A handful of courageous people, reporters like Pannell and Afghan citizens on social media, document the tense transition, and Taliban leaders will struggle to appease a populace that has become accustomed to more freedom and opportunities over the past 20 years than the the new regime may be prepared to provide.  

Screenshots of Taliban handling a letter authorizing entry to the airport near Kabul and Ian Pannell, courtesy of ABC News. 

Thursday, August 19

Key to success

When our world offers troubled news, many of us embrace fiction – sometimes for escape and sometimes to understand the human response to massive political, economic and cultural trends. 

The ability to read is a treasure and so is the wealth of stories from around the world.

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura recognizes that illiteracy is a treacherous condition in the modern world, and the not-for-profit group based in New Zealand promotes literacy for multiple reasons, especially functional literacy: 

• Increasing demands of society and work require citizens to “be able to read a wide range of information to function effectively at work and everyday life.” 

•  About 40 percent of adult New Zealanders lack the literacy skills needed to participate fully in the society and economy, and an OECD 

•  Reading, especially for pleasure, is “critical" for a nation’s prosperity and well-being.

•  Reading for pleasure is a more important factor in determining “a child’s education success than their family’s socio-economic status.”

The functionally illiterate do have limited ability to read, write and do calculations, and most do not enjoy applying such to everyday tasks. An OECD survey of member countries suggested that "between 25% and 75% of the respondents aged 16 to 65 did not have a literacy level considered 'a suitable minimum skill level for coping with the demands of modern life and work." The dangers: A cleaning or construction crew might misunderstand directions and mix the wrong chemicals. A caregiver may make a medication error. Customers miss unreasonable terms in a contract for an appliance, car or home. A government official might overlook an obvious policy solution to a community environmental problem. Corruption thrives in societies with low literacy rates. 

Reading - often and for pleasure - is the cure. In that spirit, the organization in New Zealand offers weekly “prescriptions” each week from the Reading Doctor. Louise O’Brien, editor and reviewer with a doctorate degree in English literature, also conducts interviews and answers reading-related questions.

The organization launched the blog in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and an early prescription was for books that “soothe and comfort.” At that time, Wells urged readers to re-read old favorites: 

“Books have the power to distract us from the here and now, to amuse and occupy us, as well as to soothe and comfort. Reading is an activity ideally suited to quiet solitude, so, if you’re in isolation, turn to a book for company and reassurance. 

“What’s more comforting than re-reading, returning to a much-loved book, opening covers which feature in our memories, turning pages we’ve dog-eared ourselves, being lulled by the familiarity of a well-known story inhabited by old friends.” 

This week the Reading Doctor offers suggestions for books about Afghanistan. “It’s easy to forget, amidst the chaos, fear and violence of current events, that Afghanistan is also a country of poets and artists, with a rich history and enormous beauty, and that those fleeing their homeland must leave a great deal behind them.” 

It’s an honor for one of my books t o be included in this week’s prescription: “The politics of Western charity and intervention in war-ravaged Afghanistan is the backdrop for Allure of Deceit by Susan Froetschel, in which suspicions of fraud and murder follow the mysterious disappearance of a group of aid workers.”

Fear of Beauty, also set in Afghanistan, explored one woman's desperate quest to learn to read. Banned from classrooms, Afghan women had high rates of illiteracy under the previous Taliban rule, which ended with the US-led invasion in late 2001. Since 2016, the literacy rate increased by more than 40 percent, according to UNESCO in a March 2020 report. Still, the literacy rate is 55 percent for men and about 30 percent for women. Reading is the key to new ideas and success, and Afghanistan's readers will resist bullying, authoritarian efforts to dismiss this essential skill.

Books both inspire and record individual dreams, and offer a reminder about how the Taliban will struggle to convince Afghanistan’s 38 million people that reading and education are worthless endeavors. 

Photo courtesy of Mohammad Ismail/Reuters and the Guardian.



Wednesday, July 7

Minority control

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban is determined to take control. The extremist group does not represent the majority will in Afghanistan, yet its members apply brute force and ruthless religious extremism to bend communities to their will. Many fear the Taliban could succeed with up to 85,000 full-time fighters, compared to the Afghan government's 180,000 troops, trained by US forces. 

Asia Foundation surveys also report that public support for the Taliban and other armed opposition groups has dwindled, dropping from 50 percent in 2009 to 13.4 percent in 2019. 

Various studies have suggested small groups can overturn established norms by reaching a critical mass of anywhere from 10 to 40 percent, with the required level varying depending on circumstances. A University of Pennsylvania professor pointed to 25 percent as a “likely tipping point at which minority views can overturn majority ones.” 

Of course, the constant threat of violence reduces that threshold. 

The United States signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 and the group agreed to peace talks with the Afghan government. Delays and ongoing violence hampered those talks.  Today, Iran hosted “the first significant talks in months between the Taliban and Afghan government representatives,” reports ABC News. But the Taliban continue to apply pressure to multiple provinces and key transportation routes. “The Taliban have made relentless territorial wins since April, when President Joe Biden announced that the last 2,500-3,500 U.S. soldiers and 7,000 allied NATO soldiers would depart Afghanistan."

An editorial in the Afghan Times expresses fury about the US rapid withdrawal and the prospect of civil war even as the Taliban advance and newer extremist groups like the Islamic State take advantage of the chaos. 

Women and children have the most to lose, as the Taliban are expected to reinstate controls and eliminate education opportunities. Individuals must decide how to respond as Afghanistan fails to provide security. “Women have taken up guns in northern and central Afghanistan, marching in the streets in their hundreds and sharing pictures of themselves with assault rifles on social media, in a show of defiance as the Taliban make sweeping gains nationwide,” reports the Guardian.
One journalist in her 20s told the newspaper: “No woman wants to fight, I just want to continue my education and stay far away from the violence but conditions made me and other women stand up.”

The United States must take immediate steps to evacuate interpreters and other Afghans who risked all in assisting US troops since the invasion in 2001, as described in Fear of Beauty and many other novels. With family members, this could total 50,000 people. “Our top priority should be getting through this red tape as quickly as possible…,” writes US Marine Corps veteran Michael Wendt for the Hill.

Map courtesy of Long War Journal and Council on Foreign Relations; photo of Afghan interpreter and US soldier interviewing a villager, courtesy of Military.com and USAF Staff Sgt Jonathan)



Wednesday, June 9

Shame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sexual assault, along with the behaviors that lead to such crimes, can mortify both victims and perpetrators. The boundaries of what is right and wrong may seem vague to those who do not understand the full truth. 

The legal thriller Take It Back examines the case of a disabled teen who claims four Muslim classmates sexually assaulted her. Zara, a legal rape counselor, aids the victim and narrates much of the tale. Jaded and weary with her life and career, she suggests that “Smart people are never happy. Their expectations are too high.” As such, she yearns to appreciate life as it hits and never stop trying for more: “I want to accept that the journey is all there is. That when you get there, there’s no there there and so you keep going, keep trying, keep looking for ways to fill the hole but it will never be filled because we are just human and life has a hole….”

From the start, Zara notices changes in her young client’s story and urges the truth: “Those who tell the truth don’t need to rely on memory.” Yet Zara makes multiple mistakes along the way, and readers join Zara in veering from sympathy to annoyance and back again. 

Of course, all involved are tempted to withhold details that shade perceptions of others, and such decisions reaffirm the horror and shame associated with nonconsensual sex or coercion in general. Set in London, the book also examines reversal of double jeopardy law in England and Wales, the legal principle that prevents people from being tried for the same crime twice, especially painful for sexual assault cases.  Second trials for the same crime have been allowed since 2005 if new evidence emerges, reports BBC News

The over-riding conflict in this book is not the crime itself but the mix of social pressures that collide as some cultures accept some forms of coercion.  The World Health Organization identifies cultural and social norms that support violence that can be found around the world, including developed nations:    

-    Devaluing female children
-    Physical punishment of children
-    Genital mutation
-    Child marriage and forced marriage
-    Lack of power and loss of rights for women in marriage
-    Pressures to marry and bear children
-    Restricted freedoms for women
-    Discouraging divorce
-    Dowry requirements in marriage
-    Rejection of others based on race, gender, economic status or ethnicity
-    Discouraging reporting of rape and other sexual violence
-    Denial of youth bullying and violence.

Kia Abdullah crafts her book so that every detail matters, constantly influencing how investigators and jury members perceive motivation and character. Take It Back details how painful it is to investigate sexual assault and the challenges in enforcing the rule of law, and readers can only hope the courts ease punishment for mitigating factors such cooperation with investigators, remorse and lessons learned as revealed in an exchange by two of the defendants who are most ashamed of their behavior and involvement. "What are you worried about," one asked. "That we'll be found guilty?" The other responds, "I'm scared that we'll have to live with this regardless of the verdict."

Cultural and social norms simultaneously influence levels of violent behavior, and so the WHO briefing “Changing cultural and social norms that support violence” suggests: “Interventions that attempt to alter cultural and social norms to prevent violence are among the most widespread and prominent. Rarely, however, are they thoroughly evaluated, making it currently difficult to assess their effectiveness.” The briefing on concludes: “While it is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of laws and policies in changing social attitudes, legislation that is enforced can send clear messages to society that violent behaviour is not acceptable.”

Victims should know that any lie, no matter how small, reduces their credibility. As Zara shockingly points out to one character toward the end: “I wish you knew how hard it is to come forward, how horrifying it is when [rape victims are] not believed, how ‘innocent until proven guilty’ means you’re a liar by default.” 

Despite the tangle of lies,  Zara is intent on enforcing the law, and sometimes that requires admitting our many assumptions are wrong.

Thursday, March 11

Trap

 

The British royal family, particularly the newest members, remain under constant scrutiny. Prince Harry, the younger son of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, married Meghan Markle in 2018. Less than two years later, they moved to Canada and then the United States, thus escaping family controls, public pressure, conflicts with staff and relentless bullying from the British press. 

Staff members perceived Meghan, an American of a mixed racial heritage, as an outsider. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the couple described their disappointment over other family members declining to lend support in resisting negative attacks on Meghan.  

During the interview, Harry suggested the entire family fears “the tabloids turning on them” and he described palace life as a “very trapping environment,” adding that he did not realize how trapped he was until he met Meghan. 

Vanity Fair reports that the couple’s relationship with the palace is at a low point, with some staffers “comparing it to the period n the early 1990s when Charles and Diana’s staff would brief the media against each other.” Harry's parents separated in 1992 and divorced in 1996. Diana died the following year in Paris, after a car crash along with Dodi Fayad and the driver who lost control of the vehicle. A bodyguard survived. Reports suggest the driver was intoxicated and attempting to elude photographers on motorcycles. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parenthood can be a breaking point for individuals trapped by such a system. Royal Escape, a mystery novel about Elena, a fictitious British princess, and her two sons, explores the restrictions and classism from a mother’s point of view. Staff resent her global popularity, striving to contain her every move while playing her two sons off of each other. A system that appears glamorous on the surface institutionalizes inequality and minimizes individual choices. Elena does not want her sons growing up on a pedestal with limited career choices and friendships, prevented from living life as they please.   

Perhaps nothing is more dangerous than questioning a mother's choices for her children or limiting their dreams.

Clinical psychologist Natalie Frank was initially skeptical about the premise of Royal Escape, questioning “how the author would attempt to pull off a plot and characters… too recognizable to fully come across as fiction. And where could the mystery possibly come in?” But she described it as a "must read" with a "magnificent protagonist." 

As I mentioned in an interview for Irish World in 2009, “I hope my book reflects the challenges in a fair, yet thought-provoking way and that readers will better understand why some members might want to break away…”

Photo courtesy of VOA. Read the Kindle edition of Royal Escape.

Friday, February 19

Perils of lies

 

Donald Trump delivered thousands of errors, exaggerations and outright delusions during his four years as president, and political strategist Stuart Stevens blames the Republican Party for going along. "Republicans are linked to a vast life-support system of lies, terrified that the truth will unplug the machine,” he writes. “American history has never seen a party so unified in perpetuating a massive fraud.” Trump is “the logical conclusion of what the Republican Party became over the last fifty or so years, a natural product of the seeds of race, self-deception, and anger that became the essence of the Republican Party.” 

Stevens worked for Republican candidates, but his book It Was All a Lie will delight Democrats.    

The Republican Party rejects dissent, critical thinking and questions, eroding personal responsibility and courage while weakening party leadership. Groveling for money from lobbyists supporting policies rejected by a majority of US voters also weakens party leadership: Special interest groups are like terrorists, explains Stevens, as “they test for weakness and exploit fear.”

The party shelters its most compliant politicians and turns against those who dare to think for themselves, such as Justin Amash, the first Republican congressman to call for Trump’s impeachment. Cracks in Republican unity have widened with Trump’s refusal to concede to President Joe Biden in the 2020 race and his role in the January 6 US Capitol riots. The party balks at allowing members to vote their conscience, and state Republican officials swiftly condemned the ten Republican congressional representatives and seven senators who voted in favor of Trump’s second impeachment and conviction. The quest for ironclad unity – with no room for critical thinking or individual reflection – is treacherous as the party repeatedly embraces problematic policies and candidates. Stevens blasts the party for endorsing candidates like Roy Moore of Alabama, despite multiple sexual misconduct allegations, while ignoring effective, popular, moderate governors in blue states like Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts. 

Republicans lose major voting blocs such as black Americans, maintains Stevens, not because of how they communicate but on how they govern once elected: “The fact that the Republican establishment is so invested in the myth that their problems are a matter of language is revealing and self-damning. “

If anything, Republicans are superbly skilled at communicating and framing issues, as long pointed out by George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant. “There’s a language war here that Republicans have been winning for decades,” Stevens writes. Republican political leaders label programs meant for the poor as “welfare,” yet reserve terms like “tax breaks” and “incentives” for agriculture subsidies and other corporate handouts. The real description, he suggests, should be “corporate blackmail.” 

The 1987 FCC decision to stop enforcing the fairness doctrine, allowing constant partisan attacks, “supercharged conservative media into a billion-dollar industry,” according to Stevens. The left lacks the equivalent of the right-wing media strongholds – instead cooperating with leading media outlets and research institutions that strive to question, test, criticize and debate. “Republicans have built a political ecosphere that thrives on deceit and lies,” Stevens writes. “It is an industrialized sort of deceit that is unique to the Republican Party.” In a civil society, he explains, a “shared reality, that truth, is the core energy that drives the functioning of society,” yet Republicans find it easier to maintain that their opponents lack “the correct information on which to base decision.”

Amid shrinking support, Republicans hunt for ways to reduce support for Democrats: 

Misinformation – Hypocrisy and lying go hand in hand. Republicans have long campaigned on “fiscal conservatism” and the need to tame US debt. Stevens points to Trump, who instead of decreasing national debt, as promised increased it by $2 trillion in two years. That was before the Covid-19 pandemic. Republican candidates refuse to admit the need to increased taxes in addressing the massive debt load, and Stevens points out how a “simpleminded conspiracy of silence that is a central tenet of Republican politics” will force future generations to shoulder the burden.

Discourage the opposition – Black Americans steadfastly support Democrats, and no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 15 percent of black votes since 1964. A 1971White House memorandum conceded “there was little Richard Nixon could do to attract black voters” – representing about 11 percent of US registered voters – “so the focus should be on utilizing black voters’ support of Democrats to alienate white voters.” So Republicans insist that city leaders are incompetent and Democrats are elites who have no interest in the concerns of black communities.    

Divide opponents – The major parties are gleeful when they can introduce issues or third-party candidates that siphon votes from the other side. For example, news reports suggested that some state Republican Party officials supported singer Kanye West’s efforts to run for president. 

Fuel culture wars – Republicans depend on support from the religious right even though speechwriter Michael Gerson, writing for the Atlantic in 2018 and quoted by Stevens, points to the Trump presidency as a disaster for norms:  “It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise.” But that support is dwindling, too. Polls by the Pew Research Center suggest that evangelical Protestants totaled about 25 percent and Catholics 21 percent in 2014, down from 26.3 percent and 23.9 percent in 2007, respectively. Those describing themselves as non-affiliated increased from 16.1 percent in 2007, 22.8 percent in 2014 and 26 percent in 2019.

Religious affiliation with Protestantism and Catholicism and rates of religious attendance is declining while the numbers of religiously unaffiliated are growing (Source: Pew Research Center)

 

Republicans’ intense desire for lockstep unity, combined with a stubborn refusal to admit Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential campaign, has weakened the party. Numerous Republican officials hope to run for president and have little choice but to court Trump’s most fervent supporters. Expect the former president to delay anointing a successor, keeping would-be candidates guessing while extracting promises and favors along the way. 

Another problem for future Republican candidates: Trump confronts multiple criminal investigations, and if authorities file charges, the candidates struggle to disconnect.

The book is direct, witty and a fast read, yet rambles in parts, skipping about decades. Notably, Stevens dodges analyzing the messaging around a key issue dividing Democrats and Republicans - abortion. He briefly mentions the topic five times, mostly referring to candidates’ policy positions. 

Stevens goes beyond expressing scorn and fury over Republican methods in which he participated and calls for party members to reassess and revive individual personal responsibility and integrity. Republicans failed a moral test by twice promoting Trump’s candidacy and Stevens argues that the party must adapt to a changing society: “history tells us that once those in power legitimize hate, it is difficult to manage.”                               

To win without gerrymandering, vote suppression and misinformation, Republicans must serve an increasingly diverse America. But to suggest that the party under its current leadership might rise to the challenge, “would be a lie," Stevens concludes, "and there have been too many lies for too long.” 

Instead, Republicans turn on one another with greater ferocity. 

Friday, February 5

Point of view


The US Federal Bureau of Investigation does not officially name domestic terrorist organizations – but Canada is doing a favor for its neighbor. 

After the violent riots at the US Capitol on January 6, Canada is taking steps to add Proud Boys to its Criminal Code list of terrorist entities along with three Al Qaeda affiliates, five Islamic State affiliates, a militant Kashmiri liberation group, two neo-Nazi groups founded in the US and a Russian nationalist group. “These extremist organizations newly added to the terrorist list join the ranks of Boko Haram and the Taliban, among many others,” reports Rachel Aiello for CTV News.

The United States does not designate domestic groups as terrorists to avoid infringing "on First Amendment-protected free speech" because "belonging to an ideological group in and of itself is not a crime in the United States,” notes a US Congressional Research Service report. FBI Director Christopher Wray has pointed out in congressional hearings that the FBI investigates violence, not ideology.

Canada's Public Safety Minister Bill Blair maintains that "there is a threshold” when freedom of speech and freedom of association transform into violence, criminality and terrorism. Canada’s list now includes 73 groups. "This update hopefully sends a strong message that Canada will not tolerate ideological, religious or politically-motivated acts of violence," explained Canada's Blair. Supporting activities associated with groups on Canada's watch list, even making purchases from their websites, can result in criminal charges and revocation of passports. 

The United States focuses on foreign threats. The country has designated more than 70 foreign groups as terrorist organizations - but not homegrown groups like the Ku Klux Klan or the Proud Boys.

Societies struggle to agree on a definition for terrorism, and that may be why it’s easier to detect terrorists from other cultures rather than those in our midst. Oxford Languages defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” - a definition that surely captures the essence of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

“While the participants’ actions on January 6 may be consistent with the definition of domestic terrorism, it is important to note that domestic terrorism is not a chargeable offense on its own,” explains the US Congressional Research Service report. The federal definition of domestic terrorism covers those who commit “ideologically driven crimes in the United States but lack foreign direction or influence” and involves “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population… in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The United States lacks criminal penalties for US domestic terrorism.

Authorities continue to make arrests, about 200 so far, and file charges daily. USA Today and other news organizations keep a running list of charges that include obstructing or impeding an official proceeding; aiding and abetting; knowingly entering or remaining in restricted building or grounds; violent entry and disorderly conduct; assault on a federal officer with a dangerous or deadly weapon; destruction of government property over $1,000; possession of an unregistered firearm; and conspiracy.

Some of the arrests were easy with suspects bragging and posting photos on Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts. Many participants at the rally claim that they were doing the bidding of former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly and falsely insisted that he won the 2020 presidential election while berating former Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers who did not support his claims: "we’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated, lawfully slated. I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard." 

Authorities warn that terrorism and extremism are growing threats with active recruitment online. During a September 2020 US House of Representatives hearing on Homeland Security, FBI Director  Wray pointed out that combating terrorism is a top FBI priority, with more than 1,000 investigations and more than 120 arrests for domestic terrorism that year. "What I can tell you is that within the domestic terrorism bucket category, as a whole racially-motivated violent extremism is I think the biggest bucket within that larger group and within the racially-motivated violent extremists bucket, people subscribing to some kind of white supremacist-type ideology is certainly the biggest chunk of that," Wray said in response to questions from Michigan Representative Elissa Slotkin. 

The investigations are not complete and more charges are sure to be filed. The FBI is also looking into whether foreign groups provided financial support to extremists behind the Capitol attacks, reports NBC News. And the Senate Intelligence Committee is examining the influence of Russia, China and other foreign powers. "By law, the most influential agencies, including the C.I.A. and the National Security Agency, are not allowed to collect information domestically," report Julian E. Barnes and Nicholas Fandos for the New York Times. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security can collect such information.

Congress will likely consider new laws. Acknowledging the threat, pursuing accountability and swift consequences are the first steps in countering and defeating domestic terrorism based on so much misinformation. 

Photograph: CNN; map, Southern Poverty Law Center.

Thursday, February 4

Juggling criticism


The novel Homeland Elegies demonstrates how one individual’s patriotism, nationalism or even confusion over ideology might be viewed as extremism and terrorism by those of another culture. 

Criticism is how individuals discover new paths to improvement. Yet, criticizing one's country - any country and, perhaps, especially the United States - prompts resentment and all types of fury. Opinions are hastily dispensed in the United States, and even the most sincere or thoughtful comments can trigger angry reactions from even close, well educated family members or trusted friends. One enters dangerous territory by revealing feelings in a divided society.

The plot of Homeland Elegies is presented as a novel, but reads like confessional memoir. Despite the mix of genres, the reader trusts that the narrator did not merely change a few details, but employed imagination and connections in the stories about family and friends that reflect American materialism and angst of recent decades. This country is a place where money reigns as "our supreme defining value." Deep in the book, the narrator who shares a name with author Ayad Akhtar warns readers about trust: "point of view is always shaped by desire; if some part of you doesn't trust your desire, then you better not trust the picture of the world it's giving you."

The narrator, the child of Pakistani immigrants, begins by describing his father's medical practice and a meeting with Donald Trump in the early 1990s to offer an opinion on a potential heart condition. During this period, the father binges on debt, declares bankruptcy and eventually builds a successful practice. As a result of that chance meeting, the father is a fervent supporter of Trump's 2016 outlandish presidential campaign. Few Americans expected the man could win: "The improbable saga of this campaign, its whiplash reversals, its perverse pleasures - didn't a story this insane require an ending commensurate with the madness? The writer in me knew that stories are made of movement, not morality; demand conclusion not consonance; and often conjure into being the very terrors they are written to wish away."

The same could be said about the improbable stories of the family in this novel. The book details the allure of choices and excess for both father and son, including debt, speculative investments, sex, alcohol and gambling - activities prohibited in Pakistan's Islamic society.

The book, like Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, details how major economic and political events shape individual reactions and social policy. These events include the Iranian Revolution, a series of financial crises and, of course, the 9/11 attacks which posed a dilemma for the many Muslims, including those most successful and Americanized. Some Muslims, like a character in a play written by the narrator, remain guilt-ridden about feeling a momentary hint of pride about the attacks, but perhaps that was more about the new attention directed toward the culture and society's yearning for understanding rather than the actual event. 

The narrator describes his own quest for attention as a writer and playwright and coming to the realization that the source of his life's work was in part "the pursuit of something as simple as my mother's gaze, a gaze she gave happily to books. Was it a coincidence I, too, had sought the comfort of books as a child? Wasn't I seeking her attention? Isn't that what I really wanted as I would sidle up to her warm body on the couch as she read, a book of my own in hand?"

The connection between an unseemly yearning for attention tied to tragedy and the cherished memory of a mother and child reading together is jarring – and the book teems with such contrasts. I remember my own mother reading to me before bedtime on our living room sofa, and I repeated this ritual with my own son when he was young. I remember the texture of each sofa, the low light from lamps illuminating our pages, the warm skin in soft pajamas next to me. We didn't just read but talked about books, character motivation and some of the most difficult moments. There can be no more secure place in this world for posing questions and sharing opinions.

Akhtar is eloquent in describing his caution in answering questions from strangers after 9/11 and hiw awkward attempts to avoid suspicion: "if all this sounds somewhat paranoid, I am happy for you. Clearly you have not been beset by daily worries of being perceived - and therefore treated - as a foe of the republic rather than a member of it." He is subtle in how he compares the forces contributing to the rise of Trump and far-right extremism with the extremism in Pakistan: "...when you feed a monster, it grows. When it attacks you - because it always will - you have only yourself to blame."

Like the narrator, we may bristle at others' questions and criticism. Still, we should follow the narrator's lead as detailed on the final pages of the book, by hearing others out and trying to understand. We may not agree, but we can respond by telling our stories, again and again.

Wednesday, January 20

The task at hand

 


 

 

 

 

 

Joe Biden, the 46th president of the United States of America, begins the tough work of governing in the midst of unprecedented challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and deep partisan divisions. “Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now,” Biden warned.  

The speech echoed the urging from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address: “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."

Like Kennedy, Biden reminded citizens of their responsibilities: “As we look ahead in our uniquely American way, restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be” – that all have a part in repairing, restoring, healing, building and contributing to the nation’s unity.

Biden promised to devote his “whole soul” is in uniting the country: “And I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face, anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness.” He urged Americans to “see each other, not as adversaries, but as neighbors” and he asked Americans not to dismiss unity as a “foolish fantasy,” even though “the forces that divide us are deep and they are real.”

The work of uniting and improving the nation for all is never done, and each American has an opportunity to participate.

The task requires listening to one another, showing respect, seeing one another, defending democracy and the Constitution:  “And we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.” He urges all citizens to work towards common goals including “opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor and, yes, the truth.”

Biden called on Americans to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal” by opening souls rather than hardening hearts. If all step up, “master this rare and difficult hour,” America will be stronger for it and “pass along a new and better world on to our children." And he quoted from the song “American Anthem,” written by Gene Scheer and performed by many artists: 

“Let me know in my heart
When my days are through
America America
I gave my best to you.
 

"Democracy has prevailed," he said. But that is true only if Americans are vigilant about protecting democracy. Americans have another opportunity to draft a chapter of American history together: “...together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear,” Biden concluded. “Of unity, not division. Of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.”



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the poem by Amanda Gorman, the country's first youth poet laureate, concluded by emphasizing that each individual can choose to be a beacon of democracy and light: 

The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we're brave enough to see it
If only we're brave enough to be it

That is the task at hand.


Read the transcript of President Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address. Read the poem "The Hill We Climb" by Amanda Gorman.


Friday, January 15

Review: The Calligrapher's Daughter

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The Calligrapher's Daughter is set in early 20th century Korea, but the exploration of culture, women's rights, the desire for education and war recalls the themes of Fear of Beauty. A woman grows up in a family with Confucian values, prioritizing the status of men and and tradition. But the family is also Christian - and the author points out in a historical note at the book's end that "Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written world - Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631."

Author Eugenia Kim weaves the girl's story with Korean history from 1915 through the end of World War II. The child's father is disappointed by political change underway since her birth in 1910, due to Japanese control, and the fact that his first child is a girl, so he does not give her name and blames her for a long list of woes. Such humble beginnings do not dampen the girl's spirit or determination to pursue education and a career, partly due to her mother's deep and unconditional love. Those denied an education can become the most motivated students, as I explored in Fear of Beauty. Students can also benefit from a slow start that forces them to develop their own motivation. As the main character's husband recalls from his early childhood: "I read a chapter from Pilgrim's Progress and can still hear the murmurs of surprise. My father says this is the reason I was such a lazy student - too much pride, too early."

The mother encourages her daughter, remembering her own childhood experiences, sitting outside her brothers' classrooms to learn on her own: "She had longed to study the history of the Bible, the history of its writing, to see how... mere words had come to mean so much to so many." As I have written and taught in Sunday school classes, knowledge of the Bible is essential for literary studies

Of course true learning requires critical thinking, and that includes questions and doubt in addition to faith. The protagonists in both books share such doubts and the ability to pose questions.

Korean society requires men and women to hide their emotions and the protagonist in The Calligrapher's Daughter struggles after her marriage, arranged hastily before her husband's travel to the United States for studies. The Japanese occupiers deny the protagonist's visa application, and the couple is separated until the war's end in 1945.

Some other readers describe this book slow, but I found it especially suspenseful throughout knowing that the family lived in Gaeseong with the turmoil of occupation politics. That city was part of US-occupied South Korea in 1945, but was then transferred to North Korea in 1953 with the signing of the Armistice. Today, the city so close to the north-south border is a place for many exchanges between the two Koreas. In the book, the family is distraught when the Japanese take their home, relocating them to Seoul, but in the end, that can be viewed as a major blessing.  

I am grateful for this historical novel that provides context to WWII and the Korean War because my uncle Willliam Froetschel served in the latter: 

"Private Froetschel, a Medical Aidman, volunteered to accompany a raiding party into enemy territory. As they moved out from friendly positions and up a valley into hostile territory, the enemy suddenly opened fire with automatic weapons, seriously wounding one man and temporarily halting the rest of the patrol. Private Froetschel, with complete disregard for personal safety, ran through the heavy machine gun and mortar fire to reach the wounded man. After stopping the profuse bleeding from the wounded man’s leg, and helping him to the comparative safety of a draw, Private Froetschel returned to the fire swept area and attended to the wounds of another man who had been seriously wounded, and required his personal attention all the way back to the aid station. Private Froetschel was directly responsible for saving the lives of these two men and his heroic actions were an inspiration to all who observed him."

I hope the author considers writing a sequel.