The Black White Divide: Sadness and Hope in Dallas

The recent shooting deaths of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota by white police in extremely questionable circumstances and then the vengeance killings of five white policemen and the injury to several others in Dallas Thursday attests, despite steady progress over the past 50 years, our ongoing failure to surpass our long standing racial divide.

While cable chatter is brimming with coverage of these issues and speculation about what could and should be done the plain truth is whatever positive changes can be made regarding this divide will be small and incremental and satisfying to no one in the short run.  That’s the way it has been and will be, but there is still hope.

We are continuing to pay the price of the Faustian pact that underlies the birth of our United States, that to come together as a nation back in the 1700s required that slavery be tolerated.  There would be no United States had the founders not allowed for it, because the Southern states would have rebelled, as they later did.  Most of the founders saw slavery as something that would evolve out of existence, or should I say that was their hope.

It took a civil war to decide the issue, but the results were far from perfect and we continue to try to get it right in imperfect ways.

It boils down to blacks being treated differently by police than whites.  Festering anger in black communities is because of that or the perception of that.  Numerous studies support the assertion that blacks are treated more often with excessive force than whites.  We could consider higher arrest and conviction rates, too, but that gets too complicated for this short post.

At an individual level it is the norm for black parents to have “the talk” with their children, emphasizing the danger of not acting carefully and politely if stopped by the police.  For you fellow whites out there, “the talk” for us more likely means the one about the birds and the bees.

I try to imagine the movement towards bridging the divide between blacks and whites and the most concrete results seem likely to stem from developing better relationships between the police of any given city and their black and Latino minority populations, what is called “community policing.”  I know you have heard it all before, many times as it has been mouthed by many over the years and progress has been uneven and slow.

However, it is heartening that this Dallas police department is arguably the best in the nation in terms of community policing and, according to Police Chief David Brown, the best department in the country overall.  In a press conference this morning he listed various impressive statistics  including a 60% decline over the last six years in excessive-force complaints.

How ironic is that?  That the shooter would take his anger out on the very department that seems to have been doing its utmost to reach out to people like him.  He murdered  police officers who were helping to keep peaceful protestors safe.

The best thing I can envision coming out of this tragedy is for other cities to pay closer attention to the Dallas form of policing because it clearly has worked, despite the exception of this apparently demented shooter whose life goal came down to killing as many whites as possible.  That could happen anywhere.

Unfortunately, the shooter developed his hatred apparently unaffected by the wise words of Martin Luther King:  “That old law about ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.”

In sharp contrast Police Chief David Brown looks like he can see clearly.   Perhaps he and the citizens of Dallas can help the rest of us see better.


P. S. – A recent article by Radley Balko in the Washington Post describes Brown’s work in Dallas.  Balko praises the work overall but fears unrest will prompt authoritarian reactions rather than reformist ones.   I can only hope he is wrong about that.

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“The Big Short” is Big Entertainment

I don’t like a lot of movies a lot, but I’d say I love “The Big Short” were I not prone to understatement.

In case you don’t know, it is about the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and under most circumstances it would never have become a movie.  Michael Lewis, the author of the book didn’t believe anyone would want to make it into a movie, let a lone a good one, but he turned out to be doubly wrong.   I don’t think he minds.

For the uninitiated the story is about several guys who, unlike just about everyone else, could foresee that the giddy rise in housing prices was a bubble about to burst and then found ways to bet on that eventuality using Wall Street financial instruments they created.   What makes the movie great, er, very good, is that these guys are all curious characters with interesting back stories portrayed strikingly through an excellent script peppered with humor.

Periodically some character says something to temper our enjoyment, reminding us that millions of people lost their homes and jobs as a result, but those sobering thoughts do not suck enjoyment from the story itself.

What does irritate is a statistic given at the end of the movie that only one man went to  jail despite the palpable guilt of many.   What the Obama administration settled for instead was large fines to the various companies involved while allowing those companies to deny intentional wrong doing.   THE BIG LIE!

My guess is the Obama team thought pressing for convictions would add to the shakiness of the financial system which they spent many of their efforts to shore up.  But the crimes ignored were so obvious that the government response is demoralizing.

For those who want to read more about that Matt Taibbi has written an interesting piece for Rolling Stone about an executive at JP Morgan who had a bird’s eye view of the corruption and tried to fight it the best she could, but her voice was stifled first by the company and later by the Obama administration.  Linked here.

Also, as good as the movie was, if you agree with that assessment, I think you’d find the book adding to your enjoyment as no movie can capture all the good parts of a book.   And Michael Lewis, whose books Money Ball and The Blind Side were also turned into good movies, is great at telling a story.

 

 

Peace in Syria: Can we get there from here?

The recent ISIS attacks in Paris and the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey add new corridors to the labyrinth that we are lost in when it comes to peace in Syria.  But while these changes add complexity to the ongoing enigma, the way forward remains the same.

We must reach a diplomatic solution among the various factions in Syria which then would allow them and foreign powers like ourselves and Russia to focus our full attention on destroying ISIS instead of splitting our efforts trying to destroy each other.

If that were the case, the long unanswered question of:  Where are more boots on the ground to come from?    Would likely be answered:  From a lot of places.

At present they seem unlikely to come from anywhere, besides the Kurds, who can only do so much, and the Shia militias in Iraq who, while willing to fight ISIS,  are further alienating the Sunni’s in western Iraq in the process.   Ah, the Sunni-Shia divide.  A clue.

Also, my sense of the Kurds is they are  less enthusiastic to shed blood in Syria than in Iraq, their homeland, so while some are fighting in northeastern Syria, don’t expect the Kurds to supply all the boots on the ground necessary, even if aided by a few thousand  U. S. troops.

The Kurds, like every other nation, have their own agenda which only partially converges with our own.   Our top priority is to destroy ISIS, their top priority is to establish a Kurdish state free from Bagdad control, a goal we are likely helping them attain with our growing arms shipments.

The problem of finding peace among the Syrian factions as well as finding troops willing to fight ISIS goes back to the same issue, the fundamental Shia-Sunni Muslim antagonism that goes back centuries.   While Iran and Iraq have majority Shia populations, the rest of the Middle East is Sunni dominated.

Syria is an oddity in that the Assad government is backed by a minority of Syrians who are Shia in the sense they are an offshoot of that sect.   A large majority of Syrians are Sunni.

What has mushroomed into the Syrian civil war is, in a general sense, a proxy fight between Sunni and Shia Middle East nations.   The key point in all of this is that while our top priority is to destroy ISIS, the top priority of the Sunni nations in the region is to defend against and weaken Iran, including its influence in Syria and Iraq.

As such, Sunni nations like Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have shown no willingness to put together a Sunni ground force to fight ISIS.  Besides having other pressing agendas to deal with (Saudi Arabia with Yemen and Egypt with terrorists at home), these nations are more concerned with ridding Syria of Assad than in fighting ISIS.  In fact, ISIS was initially funded by the wealthy in these nations as a Sunni answer to Assad’s dominance and probably still gets some support from them.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio has suggested that the “right” boots on the ground should come from Sunni nations, which makes sense since ISIS has Sunni roots, so it would be Sunnis cleaning up their own mess so to speak and would avoid inflaming tensions both between the Shia and Sunnis and those between the West and the Middle East.

But from what I have read, there seems no likelihood that such a force could be formed until some sort of deal is worked out in Syria in which Assad gives up power and a process to include Syrian Sunnis in the government is developed.   As long as Sunni ISIS counterbalances the power of Assad, the Sunni states cannot be counted on for much support (even their air campaigns have fizzled to nothing ).

So, you got all that?     If you have trouble imagining a diplomatic solution coming to pass, like I do, its happening anytime soon received a setback when the Turks shot down that Russian plane.    The Turks want Assad gone, while Putin remains his loyal ally.

It seems the Turks thought that plane was heading to bomb anti-Assad forces it supports, while Russian media portrays it as an act of Turkey helping ISIS, when most likely the Turks are right since Russian media has pushed the narrative that Russia is fighting a holy war vs. ISIS, despite most of their attacks being aimed at Syrians Turkey and we support.

Of course, since that bomb blew up the Russian plane, Russia probably is bearing down on ISIS more now.   I haven’t checked.

The labyrinth grows while the enigma remains.

 

 

 

The Latest Benghazi Committee and the Trial of Hillary Clinton

By all accounts I’ve seen or read, except for Fox News who continued to beat on her Friday morning, Hillary Clinton did more than hold her own under about eight hours of pommelling by congressional Republicans at their committee hearing on Benghazi yesterday.  The news reports say 11 hours, but that includes a number of breaks.   I know because I watched most of it, for which I deserve a medal or should seek professional help.  Perhaps both.

Hillary did get bouts of breathing room when Democrats on the committee took turns praising the former Secretary of State, adding information supportive of her or slamming the partisan nature of the committee.   Except to those intent on defaming her, she appeared more impressive in handling the often disrespectful questions than those who asked them.  She appeared, dare I say, presidential. I was reminded why I liked her prior to her personal server fiasco:  her brains, her knowledge of foreign policy and her toughness.  Reuters proclaimed the hearings made her “a new reality star.”  Move over Donald.

Republican Chair Trey Gowdy began the session by saying the purpose of the committee was to seek the truth about what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attack.  From what I saw the hearing was actually a trial of  Hillary on the unstated charges of bad judgement, insufficient caring and dishonesty.  There was certainly much more of that than the discovery of new truths.

The attack began with a line of questioning I found curious.   The Republican questioner basically made the case that it was Hillary who largely led us into Syria by developing an international coalition and convincing President Obama to act, a complex endeavor when you think about it.  I give her achievement points for that even though the enterprise went sour over time, a subject that actually deserves examination and has never received it because it wouldn’t  make either party look good.

That Clinton actually achieved something here helps refute Carlie Fiorina’s criticism that Mrs. Clinton’s many travel miles does not equate with achievement.  Though an odd tact, the questioning does fit the theme of blaming Hillary for as much as possible.  We got involved in this Libyan mess because of her and later she did some more bad things.

The second point of attack was Clinton’s role in the absence of sufficient security at the Benghazi compound.    Given the general chaos of Benghazi at the time and the lack of reliable support, if any, by Libyan police, it seems obvious now that more security was needed.   But how much to blame Mrs. Clinton remains an open question for those with open minds.   Yes there were requests for more security by Ambassador Stevens and it seems many were turned down, but as one knowledgeable commentator has suggested  they weren’t of the “hair raising kind.”   In other words, Ambassador Stevens was willing to abide by standard request procedures.

Clinton argued that she had security experts handle those requests and did not see them.   As a result of the attack, a review of procedures suggested two high level staffer failed to do their jobs, while procedural changes were made, such as a new staff position that focuses on posts with the highest risk situations.  You want to blame Clinton for not having a more responsive system already in place, go ahead but she did head up a department serving over 200 posts world wide including many other high risk situations as well,   Those who judge her harshly on what happened in Benghazi act as if that was the sole focus of her job, probably because it has become their sole focus.

In any event, the Republican questioning took an odd tact.  They spent well over an hour dwelling on the emails of Sydney Blumenthal, who had little to do with the situation.   Though not an expert on Libya, he is an old friend of Hillary’s who gave her some information culled form a former CIA agent it seems.   She passed on some of it to other officials who might be interested.   The Republican point seemed to be that she was much more available to talk about Benghazi with this friend than with Ambassador Stevens, as if email exchanges about policy are common in the State Department which actually uses cables and secured phones for the most part, at least that is my sense from the hearing.

No case was made that other ambassadors communicated with Clinton through email and had her personal phone number, either.  There was just the innuendo that Clinton was not really available to Ambassador Stevens while she was to Blumenthal, ignoring the way the State Department normally does business.

The third charge was aimed at Mrs. Clinton’s honesty in the days that followed as to who made the attack.   Finally some new information in the form of three emails, two to foreign leaders and one to a relative.  All went out the day after the attack and all indicated it was an act of terrorists.  In one she even dismissed the notion that the video and a demonstration in Egypt played any role.  In response, Clinton said that counter information came in later that blurred events which made her question her original opinion.

The Republicans have ginned this up as if it were another Watergate.  At worst it was a short term attempt to get a grip on the situation while putting the best political spin on it as possible.  The fair minded conservative columnist Kathleen Parker summed it up this way yesterday:

“Republicans have focused on a narrative that is too ghastly to imagine. One theory is that Clinton and the Obama administration didn’t want the world to know that their Libya mission had failed, so they blamed it on the anti-Islam video then in circulation.  More horrid is the suggestion that Clinton purposely denied extra security to Stevens lest her role in directing our Libya policy be tarnished.  People will believe what suits them. But the more probable truth concerning Benghazi is that the early story was a deception with a purpose, which was to buy time until the administration and the CIA could figure out how to manage the crisis without exposing the intelligence agency’s operation in the area.” 

So, after three years and eight congressional committees (with this one ongoing) we are left with the debatable contention that Hillary Clinton was somehow derelict in her duties by not being in more direct contact with Ambassador Stevens (who certainly could have contacted her directly if he chose), hence not responsive enough prior to the assault.  Also, the charge that she helped the Obama administration spin a murky truth situation in their favor for a week or so (as if immediately coming down firmly on the terrorist attack explanation would have changed anything.)

That is all that the Republican inquisition has been able to come up with to this point regarding Benghazi.   I can’t imagine how they will come up with anything more definitive, but that does not mean they won’t keep trying.

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P. S. – If you want to get more background details on the hearing check out this article in the Los Angeles Times.

Obama’s Foreign Policy, Reality and Putin: Enough with the tough talk, already!

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin's dacha...

Barack Obama & Vladimir Putin at Putin’s dacha 2009-07-07 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On March 2 the Washington Post editorial board opined that “President Obama’s foreign policy  is based on fantasy, the fantasy being:  “Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past.”

It is hard to believe Obama is that naive, since we have practiced our own  invasions, brute force and great power games in recent years, but let’s not complicate the Post’s simple fantasy of reality just yet.

When people talk about reality, they barely get the half of it, not to mention the nuanced complexity revealed when a given situation is truly examined.   The reality ignored by the Post is that these countries, at least Russia and China, are integrated into our global economy for the most part.   Yes, they rely on brute force, but again so do we.  And this being a global economy makes little if anything simple in terms of foreign policy because ramifications abound since we are so interlinked.  This limits our options when it comes to taking decisive actions in a crisis like Ukraine because hurting Russia economically, in this case, is also likely to hurt our allies.   It is hard for us to get tough, when they have little or no inclination to do so.

The armchair warriors  seem upset by Putin’s ability to play us as seems the case in Crimea, implying that Obama should be able to act with similar decisiveness.   Putin is a brutal dictator with no one in Russia effectively blocking his moves and no international considerations that he is unwilling to ignore for passing glory.   He is also acting on his doorstep, so actions are simple to take and, given the historical ties with Crimea, with a sliver of justification.

Obama, on the other hand,  is constrained by actual relations with many other countries whose interests he takes into account, while about half of our Congress carps at everything he does, including his failing to come through on the “red line” statement in Syria even though they would not back his acting in Congress.  They blame Obama for projecting a weak national image, while they do their best to weaken that image with their politically driven propaganda assailing him for being weak.

While there are various economic sanctions that we can muster against Russia,  much depends on our allies’ willingness to string along because we don’t trade all that much with Russia and some of them do.   Germany in particular has a lot of trade with them, but you may have noticed Angela Merkel is not talking tough.  She is barely audible at all.  For her to put economic sanctions on Russia is to also shoot Germany in the foot.   Along with much trade, Germany depends on Russia for a sizable share of its natural gas which is piped through Ukraine, by the way.   Angela is all about letting things cool down rather than warm up.  Her inclination is to make a deal and tough talk does not help, it hinders.

In short, our options to be tough and decisive are limited because we have gotten mostly past the cold war them-or-us reality to a point of economic integration with the likes of Russia and China.  But Putin has remained a law unto himself.   He operates with no concern for anyone but Russia and even then is willing to risk Russia’s future for gleaming moments of super power like glory now.   Reportedly Angela Merkel has said he lives in his own reality.  We have to somehow come to terms with that.

If I have persuaded you of nothing else, hopefully you realize how any talk of reality that hinges upon being tough and decisive vs. weak and slow moving in foreign policy is the most dangerous fantasy of all.

When the World Gets You Down, Perhaps a Visit from the Dalai Lama Will Perk You Up.

Over two weeks have passed since my previous post.    Seldom am I this slow to return.  It’s not that I haven’t tried.   For example, I spent a few hours working on a piece on immigration reform before I reached the conclusion:  Who cares?  It’s not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, nothing much is going to happen anytime soon in Congress, not until after the mid-term elections in the fall.  And after that who knows?

How to See Yourself As You Really Are

How to See Yourself As You Really Are (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suffer from  cognitive dissonance between what I sense as reality and what is happening politically.   The reality is we have ever growing problems as a nation while the politics is mostly theatrical posturing, with both parties spinning everything to suit the narrative they want to firmly implant in us by the mid-term elections in the fall.

And, since it seems a given according to the pundits that the House will safely remain in Republican hands, it is all about which side will win the Senate this time around.

But what does this have to do with anything in the real world?   If the Democrats hold the Senate, how will that change anything for the good.  And if the Republicans take the Senate what can that produce beyond more gridlock and even more investigations of the White House through Senate committees with the same inquisitorial zeal of Darrell Issa, Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Issa begins his fact finding missions by declaring something to be scandalous and then tirelessly going about trying to prove his accusations, not interested in information to the contrary.  I haven’t seen him “prove” much of anything, but with all his posturing, he captures a lot of theatrical time propping up the Republican narrative that the Obama administration is both incompetent and untrustworthy.

With so little real going on in national politics, pundits like to concentrate on the 2016 presidential elections, otherwise known as the coronation of Hillary.  I have much respect for Ms. Clinton, but what can any president achieve in today’s deeply divided political atmosphere while facing  a world made mind-boggling complex through economic  globalization tied to instant connectivity to almost everywhere?   It seemed so much more simple in the good old days when our foreign policy was  shaped by the struggle between the evil empire and our white hat wearing selves.

Given a burgeoning chaos in the Greater Middle East and tensions between China and other nations in the Far East who can say what this world will look like in 2016?   International crises seem to be simmering to a boil all over the place.  The Ukraine, Syria, Iran, North Korea come first to mind, and those threats should prompt us to come together, but instead act as  more grist for political theater.    In terms of unity, the best our government  can do is keep the doors open for business by passing a budget for a change and not precipitate untold economic harm  by a refusal to raise the debt ceiling, which would have left  the world’s “full faith” in our stability further diminished.

You might be asking at this point:  Where does the Dalai Lama fit into this?   Well, given what I have written, you can see why I would love to get a fresh perspective on the world’s problems.  To my surprise, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a generally respected conservative think tank (in contrast to Heritage Foundation) apparently has felt a need to get a fresh approach, too, as they recently “hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama for two remarkable conversations about human happiness, economics, and the moral core of free enterprise.”

I could use a boost from a remarkable conversation.   Care to join me at this link?

A Slice of Americana: The Super Duper Bowl

The San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl XXIX troph...

The San Francisco 49ers’ Super Bowl XXIX trophy on display at the 49ers’ Family Day at Candlestick Park. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once again we are about to celebrate our uniquely American holiday, the Super Bowl, that extravaganza of commercialism made fun in commercials spiced up with bone and brain crushing hits provided by the players  and socially acceptable soft porn provided by the cheerleaders, not to mention an occasional clothing malfunction.  Also, reportedly it is only second to Thanksgiving as a food fest.

I’m not knocking it, I enjoy it and this year I hope to enjoy it more because I think both teams are very good.  On one side the unstoppable force, a Peyton Manning controlled offense.  On the other an immovable object, the Seattle defense, not to mention the young Seattle quarterback, Russell Wilson, who has a magical poise and a sixth sense as to what to do when.  He is one of those who are much better than his stats.

Hey, move over and pass the Doritos.

But before I go I want to share a little research with you.   For years I have believed the story that Kansas City Chief’s owner Lamar Hunt, who was central to  the super bowl idea, also was responsible for the name.   The story goes that during a meeting of the team owners several weeks before the  game January 15, 1967 , Hunt referred to it spontaneously as a super bowl, getting the “super” from super balls that his kids played with, and “bowl” from the season ending college bowl games…..an idea probably helped along by ball and bowl being similar.

That was what I was going to share with you so at a pause during the game or a surprisingly dumb commercial you could impress everyone with your historical knowledge.   However, I decided to double check the story so I wouldn’t be adding one more tainted “truth” to the cyber library.   I’m glad I did, too, after reading an article by  Henry Fetter in this week’s The Atlantic:  How the Super Bowl Got It’s Name:  The Real Story.

He cites various references using the name, or close to it,  months before Hunt supposedly came up with the term, including what may be the earliest:  “On June 10 (1966) New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley looked ahead to “a new superduper football game for what amounts to the championship of the world.”

Dailey came up with that months before the big game, and you can imagine how that could morph into the final form.    At any rate, now if someone brings up the Hunt story, you can school him if you wish, especially if you bone up some more by reading the article linked above.

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