What is a Visionist?

"A visionist is an artist, a creator or an individual that sees beyond what is visible to the eyes and brains of human beings. Visionists are thinkers, they are the recognisable brains in soociety, but most times they are seen as absurd, "nerds" and misfits – they just don't fit into the societies. They are people with great dreams and minds."

The English Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sorry to be out of touch

I am not sure if anyone missed me, but I am sorry I have left my blog go so fallow for the past seven months.   Perhaps it was the impact of the major change going on where I work as a defense contractor.  During this period, US Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) was "disestablished" as one of the twelve major DoD so-called Unified Commands as an early budget reduction or "efficiencies" measure.  After closing down its superstructure of General Officers and most of its staff, only certain parts of the Command were allowed to remain and were each assigned to other DoD entities.   As it happens, I worked in the J7 or Training Directorate, which was continued,  and we are now under the Joint Chiefs of Staff as part of the Joint Staff's J7.    So as some would say, I "survived" JFCOM's demise.  Some might even call it a promotion.  No doubt the dust still has not settled on JFCOM.   There is new leadership in the J7 and a restructuring, lots of moving of offices and new initiatives.  However, the fundamental work of the training arm, the only Joint Trainers in the US military, continues on in pretty much the same way as it did before.   Nobody who did make it through the "transition" feels totally secure in their position.   After all the state of the economy and high unemployment do not lend themselves for people to take their jobs for granted now, if they ever foolishly did.   People are working hard to demonstrate their value added to the new organization.   The big buzz word of the transition was that we would be an organization which functioned on a "demand signal."    In other words, the fate of the organization and everyone in it, especially contractors, would be based on how much of its services were requested by its "customers," in most cases referring to its regional Combatant Commands.  So far, the demand signal has been strong.  Nonetheless, any reorganization introduces a set of uncertainties, as old structures and functions are reassessed and evaluated for their contributions to the overall effort.  So, I would say, so far so good, and I do hope to write more frequently in my blog now that our work has become somewhat normalized.   See you soon!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Civil War Around Us

These days I am watching Ken Burns' "Civil  War" series on PBS and seeing Abraham Lincoln's picture on the front page of "Time" magazine.    OK, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, an appropriate time to remember that important and horrible event in US history.   But there is another spectre hovering over this country.  "Time" asked if the Civil War is over.  That refers strictly to the matter of if Americans agree on the causes of the war, and the broad denial that race was its central or perhaps its only cause.

But is all this focus on the Civil War also a wake up call to our present dilemmas.   The country almost stopped last night until minutes before a government shutdown, an agreement was struck by reluctant Democrats and Republicans to keep the government going.  Underlying this near collapse of our government, were deep seated and building conflicts within the body politic of our nation which threaten even wider rifts and more severe consequences.     Are we on the brink of a new Civil War? 

I don't want to be cute or provocative.   I believe a case can be made that our country is entering a great divide.  The divisions are over: yes, race, class, regions, cultural beliefs, ignorance, immigration, globalization, economics and foreign policy goals.

Although we were mostly all proud that we had elected the first African American President (actually he is biracial and he did not come from slaves but the marriage of an African foreign student with an American woman), in truth, from the very beginning of his Presidency, he was under attack for being a secret Muslim, not born in the United States (incredibly even Donald Trump has now gotten on this issue) and for being a "community organizer," all of which could be considered code words for his race, as is the term "Obamacare."  

We have an unusual class divide buiding, not between the rich and the poor, but between the very rich who run corporate America (not all of them, certainly but enough of them, and certainly characterized by the Koch brothers) who are stoking the fires of attack on the President and his policies, and sectors of the white working and lower middle classes that are joined in opposing big government and in some cases  any government at all.   The solid middle and upper middle classes, organized workers, minorities and the intellectual, cultural and enlightened business elites are arrayed against them.

Unfortunately, we remain divided along lines similar to that of the original Civil War:  South against North, Coastal America against the hinterland;  we now call it Red and Blue States.  Demographic shifts have made these boundaries less precise and in some cases we now have swing states, that shift back and forth at least in electoral contests.  One of these is my own state of Virginia.   I only had to go down the street to the corner where we have a few village stores to find Johnny Reb tee shirts (actually that store was destroyed last year in a tornado.)  

We are deeply divided culturally.   Our constitution provides for a clear separation of church and state, yet there are those who wish to impose their own religious beliefs on others.  This applies primarily to women's reproductive rights and gay rights, but also to what is taught in the classroom about things like sex education, history and evolution.  Increasingly, the religious right is imposing its beliefs on the rest of the country.  They have become increasingly powerful, organized and media-savvy.    There is still a legacy of the 60s, which is reflected in many of the beliefs of the Baby Boomers, who lived through that period of cultural awakening and sexual and freedom.

The ignorance gap is something not often explored and I am not simply saying that there are people who are intelligent or stupid.   I am speaking more about people who rely on science versus those who depend solely in belief.  This applies particularly to the debates about evolution and stem cell research.   This is something that goes back to the days of the Scopes Trial and persists today.  Our capacity to survive on this planet is most linked to our ability to apply science to the problems that confront humanity, but efforts to hold back scientific discovery, knowledge and implementation will continue to make this effort difficult.

We are an immigrant society, par excellence, yet we are divided over immigration.  We occupied a good part of Mexico.  We filled our cities with immigrants from Europe and more recently from the rest of the world.  We continue to depend on immigrants to do work that most American-born citizens would not care to do.    Yet there is a whole group of Americans who fear immigration.  Because of this, we have more, not less illegal immigration because our politicians cannot agree on a orderly immigration policy.   No matter what we try, we cannot stop immigration, only slow it down at a great cost.  People will lie on their visa applications, sneak in through, around and under our land borders.    But the false dichotomy of being for or against immigration or seeing it strictly as a law enforcement and not also an economic and social problem drives us to failure and conflict.  Most importantly, anti-immigrant sentiment is focused on flows from Latin America, mostly Mexico and Central America.   Of course, this concern is increased by the amount of crime taking place across the border as well as some spillover due to the nature of illegal trafficking both of narcotics and humans.  However, a lot of this anti-immigrant sentiment, in my opinion, is purely racism and nativism.  A fear of foreigners, their cultures their beliefs,their way of life and their poverty.  Of course, these attitudes are given justifications such as "they are taking jobs away from Americans," and "they are a burden to our social welfare policies."  But few immigrants take jobs on farms, on construction sites, in restaurants or in hotels that Americans really want, despite the depressed jobs market.  And in general, the immigrants who come here are hard working and conscientious, seeking a living for themselves and their families, many of whom are still back in their home towns down south.

Globalization and economics divides us. There are those who are better and worse prepared to confront the challenges of globalization, which are inevitable.  Those whose jobs are being displaced because employers, mostly industrial but also services, can no longer afford to pay people in this country 10-20 times the wages paid abroad.   There are many other challenges of globalization, such as the use of the social media tot divide us between those who use and those who do not use them or understand technology, which is the root cause of globalization.  Our counry has increasingly been creating a gap in income levels that has left a large number of people poor and undereducated, leading further to their economic marginalization.  The cost of education, the greatest tool for overcoming barriers to increasing income, has become prohibitive.

Finally, we are divided over the role of our country in the world.  This is not an easy issue on which to see a clear divide, because more than anything you find elites on both sides of the political party barrier  finding a common position, versus the opinions of many ordinary Americans.  Both parties support our current policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while most Americans are going along with Iraq because we are leaving but have problems with Afghanistan because we cannot leave fast enough for them.  In truth, our current policies are to stay as long as we have to, but no President can say this so starkly and neither can Republicans who are hard liners when it comes to fighting terrorism.    The delicate nature of the problem is our current polices with regard to Libya.  Everyone hates Qaddafi, but few Americans really want to see our country get deeply involved in a third war with "boots on the ground," or with hemorrhaging expenses.   This is an issue where Republicans are also divided so it is not a partisan issue at this time, but could become one.  At root here also, besides those issues of "blood and treasure" that always emerge with foreign involvements, are deep seated sentiments of isolationism vs. internationalism.  These are more deeply rooted in class than in differences among elites.  For the present, however, anti-war sentiment has not been a major issue in our political campaigns, although Iraq was the root of BarrackObama's 2008 campaign.

These differences are often referred to as "cleavages" by political scientists.  If enough of these overlap, they are the basis for a large conflict within a society.   Are we moving in this direction?  Have we already arrived?    I am not sure, but I am fearful.   We entered 2009 on a note of hope and unity.  We are far from that today.  Let us hope for leadership that can move us back in this direction.   I have not specifically mentioned the issue of debt or the Tea Party, but these are obviously large factors of division in the country.  The Democrats have largely thrown in the towel on the debt issue, acknowledging the need for drastic debt reduction.   But the Tea Pary wants more than Democrats are willing to give and they are also salting their demands increasingly with cultural issues that make coming together even more difficult that purely over fiscal matters.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Qaddafi Cannot Win

As we watch the situation in Libya ebb and flow, there is a sinking feeling that the rag tag rebel army is not doing well and is in retreat against the onslaught of Qaddafi's better armed, better trained, more disciplined forces.    The international coalition that is supporting UNSC Resolution 1973 is learning that the tools it decided on to stop Qaddafi's forces, a no fly zone and air attacks against his ground forces, is not enough to tip the balance in favor of the opposition forces.  The recent unintentional NATO attack against opposition armored vehicles only underscores the precarious nature of outside assistance.

Several escalations have been discussed.  First, arming and training the opposition forces.   Second, use of more sophisticated air power such as A-10 Worthogs and AC-130 gunships.   But if only air power is to be used, a better system of air control needs to be introduced.  There are already stories of CIA teams in Libya but no indication that they are directing air strikes as they did in Afghanistan in 2001.    Finally there is the possibility of "boots on the ground" of foreign troops.  The West would want these to be Arab troops, but that is unlikely at this time.   Most Western governments have ruled out use of their own troops in Libya. And the UN resolution specifically rejects any foreign intervention on the ground.  So where do we go from here?

The NATO led coalition needs to rethink the question of the use of ground power.  This would be very unpopular among most publics.  The US fears getting involved in a a third ground war.   Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even said it would not happen "so long as I am the Secretary of Defense."  The implication there is that the option still exists with Gates' planned departure from DoD, athough his departure has not been specified.  Nonetheless, there is now serious talk about CIA Director Leon Pannetta taking over his job (and General Petreaus, taking Pannetta's.)    All of this is probably not intentionally linked to Libya, but it could facilitate a policy shift.   I know that nobody thinks we are going to dive into a ground war in Libya.  However, can anyone imagine that we would stand by while Qaddafi vanquishes the opposition forces in Benghazi?  I, for one, cannot.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Ever Happened to Idealism?

As I view the current landscape I am struck by the absence of idealism.  Too bad, because I have long defined myself more as an idealist than any other character trait.   It was easy to be an idealist in the past.  I was an idealist about being an American in a world in which few countries offered both the standard of living and the liberties of the United States.  It was easy being an idealist in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement and the Peace movement and Youth movement.   It was easy to be an idealist as a liberal.   It was easy being an idealist during the Carter human rights era of the late 70s,  the return to democracy in Southern Europe and Latin America in the 80s and during the 90s when there was a flourishing recoginiton of the role of women and civil society.

9/11 killed idealism.  It threw us all into an abiss of fear and militarism.  I can't go through an airport screening process without thinking how naive we all were.   Where the hell did those guys come from.  We didn't have a clue that our entire society would be challenged by a bunch of guys living in the most backward parts of the globe, who responded to an 8th century creed.   

The electiion of Barack Obama seemed to represent a return to idealism.   He won an election through inspiration.   We for the most part believed him.  Imagine electing the first African American ever to the Presidency.   It seemed something that only happened in the movies.   But we barely realized that we had already been hit with a sledge hammer of recession.   And we were already struggling through two major wars that were legacies of 9/11.     If politics was for a moment inspiring, it no longer is.   Antibodies to the election of a liberal Black President immediately began to build and have developed into a poisonous mixture of nativism, reaction to the health care legislation, vituperatively labeled as "Obamacare" by all those who seek to denigrate the President and his accomplishments.    And while the President has successfully pulled us out of the recession, he has been continually attacked for the sluggish jobs recovery and now for the Federal deficit, neither of which were of his making.   

Ah, the Arab Spring!   It is truly inspiring, perhaps one of the most important developments of our time.  But it is being met with a high degree of cynicism and fear.   We think that these revolutions could well get out of control.  We fear that a certain stability we have enjoyed in the Arab world is now at risk.   And we hesitate to know how far to go to support the broad revolution taking place differently in each country in the region.  Meanwhile the cost of a gallon of gasoline keeps creeping up, and we can no longer trust our energy future to the power of the atom.   We once again fear nuclear annihillation.

So where are the idealists?  Where are the idealistic causes and what can we be idealistic about in the future?

I have questions, but at this moment no answers.  Maybe tomorrow or the next day.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Eleanor's War

I have commented in past blogs about how the President and the Secretary of State have persistenty referred to "universal human rights" as a basis for our policies abroad, from China to Libya.   Hillary again refered to it on today's "Meet the Press," where she was unusually inteviewed side-by-side with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about our i ntervention in Libya.  

It occurs to me that our country has entered into a new foreign policy, that of "the defense of universal human rights."   Very few people seem to know the origins of this phrase.  However, as the former Executive Director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val-Kill (ERVK), Mrs. Roosevelt's former home, I am deeply aware that this is a reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was the main accomplishment of Mrs Roosevelt's career.   In 1998, ERVK ran a multi-part program to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the  UDHR.  It included a town hall meeting on the day of the anniversary, December 9, at Marist College, in the Roosevelt's home of Dutchess County; a 7 part college lecture series around the country on human rights that included then First Lady Hillary Clinton, former Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of Costa Rica Oscar Arias; Gloria Steinem and others. We also sponsored several teacher training courses on human rights and a local Welfare Reform Monitoring Program that used the UDHR as the standard for evaluating the results of Welfare Reform.  It was an ambitious program for a small organization.

Few people understand that the UDHR is contained in a UN General Assembly Resolution, at the time adoped by all the members of the UN (with some abstantions).    To read the relatively short text and background, I would recommend the website set up in 1998 by a coaliton of non-governmental organizations that banded together to promote the UDHR's 50th anniversary, of which ERVK was only one:  http://www.udhr.org/index.htm.  (Do not access the Declaration from the left hand column of the site, which is a dead link, but yes from the first line of the main page where it is hyperlinked.)

I beleive that a good argument can be made that we went into Libya because the current administration believes deeply in the UDHR.    Therefore, I am not ashamed to say that Libya could be called "Eleanor's War."

Sunday Nonsense

When I was teaching political science at Tidewater Community College as an adjunct lecturer, I made my students watch and report on at least one of the Sunday talk shows..  These reports became the basis of our discussions of current political events at our Monday evening class.  I always thought that the best discussions of the previous week's events were found on these Sunday shows, which continue to evolve with the addition of such programs as Farid Zakaria's GPS and Cristine Amanpour's show.

But I have been disappointed in the disucssions for the past two weeks on these shows about Libya.  There continues to be a reserve on the part of most commentators on the wisdom of our military intervention there.  Some observers are clearly in favor of the President's decisions, but even they do not firmly resist some of the allegations of those who opposed him.   Richard Haas of the Council of Foreign Relations has been especialy critical.  

One of the most insistent points made by Haas and other critics is that we simply do not know who the Libyan opposition is so should not have rushed to support them.  Even John Negroponte, a supporter of Libyan policy, ceded this one to Haas and urged the State Department to get diplomatic representatives to Benghazi to meet them.    All this talk seems to ignore the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself met with these leaders as did earlier French President Sarkozy. (The story of how French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy travelled to Benghazi to meet them and then arranged for them to meet with Sarkozy is one of the fascinating turns of fate of this matter.)   While I agree with Negroponte that we should dispatch diplomats to Benghazi, all this talk seems to ignore information already available about the Libyan opposition.   For one, an excellent piece abou the origins of the revolt and the nature of it was published in the recent issue of "The New York Review of Books," by Nicolas Pelham called "The Battle of Libya:"  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/apr/07/battle-libya/?page=1)

My hope is that the rebels, after a most successful air intervention by the anti-Coalition, will continue their westward sweep and that all this doubt and angst will also be swept away by their victory and the President's and Hillary's wisdom and compassion will have been confirmed.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Fourth Wave

I met Samuel Huntington, the noted late Harvard political scientist, only once when I was a young vice consul in Brazil and he had come there to advise the Brazilian military regime on their desire to make a slow return to democratic, civilian rule. Unfortunately, I was not invited into his private meeting with the American Consul General in Rio, but when he came out of the meeting, the CG turned to me and asked me to help Dr. Huntington with something: could I help him buy a parrot to take back to the US with him. I did. Huntington, from all I could gather, actually was a main architect of the Brazilian process of "distension:" the "slow, secure but steady" evolution towards democracy devised by the regime's intellectual leader, Gen. Golbery do Couto e Silva.

Huntington wrote a book in 1993 called "The Third Wave," about the wave of democratic transitions that took place in Southern Europe and Latin America, including Brazil, in the 1980s and 90s. The first two waves of democracy had taken place between 1828-1926 and 1945-1962, he noted. He explained a series of factors that made this third wave possible, but did not go on to say they had been inevitable. The last place that Huntington thought there would be democratic change was in the Islamic world. Most students of the Middle East and Central Asia would have agreed with him.

However, Huntington would have surely been one of the first to identify the current democratic uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East as a likely fourth wave of democratization. Though the dust certainly has not settled on the region and many properly express concern that these revolutions could be "high-jacked" by militant Islamic extremists, there are not concrete indications that this is happening or, even more important, that Islamic fundamentalism is at the root or even a part of these movements.

This is why I remain nonplussed by the consistent note of scepticism about these democratic revolutions and especially the decision of the international community to go in to protect and support the revolution in Libya. This is an unparalleled opportunity to see the entire Arab world move in the direction of democracy and modernity. Whether these revolutions have external support could be critical, if we read Huntington, to their success. It is easy to say, "this is not my fight," but in fact we have huge interests, global interests, in their success. I hope others can see it this way.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Not Far Off on Libya

I was pretty close to interpreting what had happened within the Obama administration over Libya in my previous blogpost according to the New York Times:


Several commentators on today's Sunday talk shows, based on the NYT piece, have noted that the shift in policy in favor of a military solution was the work of a group of women policy makers, including Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. One said, "the girls prevaled" against the boys, namely Robert Gates and Admiral McMullen and Tom Donilon. This had already occurred to me, and I think it is important to think why this happened. Some associated this with the Clinton administration's failure to respond adequately on Rwanda and the roles of these women at that time. I believe this is valid, but it goes beyond Rwanda. The Obama adminstration, as I have noted in previous blogs, has embraced fully the doctrine of universal human rights--without properly citing the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights--including again today during the President's speech in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I believe that this deep seated adherence to universal human rights and the importance given specifically to the new doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (P2P) drove the Obama decision. I would further venture the opinion that for whatever reason that one may chose to identify, women in general have been more dedicated to human rights than men, and the rise of women to positions of the highest power in government has influenced our foreign policy.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Miiracle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Something extraordinary happened this afternoon in New York at the United Nations. The Security Council, charged with defending world peace and security, voted 10-0 with 5 abstentions to defend the Libyan revolt against Muhammar Gadaffi, against the wierd and dangerous tyrant's military might that was about to come crashing down on it. Far superior weapons and better organized, paid and led professional soldiers and mercenaries under Gadaffi's and his sons' leadership were winning a succession of victories against the rebellion and closing in on Benghazi, the rebel "capital."

The United States seemed for a long while not to sense what was at stake in this conflict. A repeated call by the rebels themselves and their supporters for a "no-fly zone" appeared to stir concern and preoccupation with the complexities of carrying this out, the fact that, duh!, it would require taking out Gaddafi's air defenses, and would thus be getting involved in, well, a war. Obviously, US defense and military leaders, spooked by the hobgoblins of Iraq and Afghanistan, were loath to get involved in another "war" in a Third World hell hole, I mean "send a land army into Asia, the Middle East or Africa." They took the lead in the administration in expressing this view.

But in other recesses of the Administration, other views were being expressed. In the White House itself, the President had already made some bold statements in support of the rebels and that Gaddafi "had lost his legitimacy, and must go." But that was when rebel victories were piling up and ultimate victory seemed as inevitable as those of democratic forces in Tunisia and Egypt. But Libya is not either of those two countries, where leaders were toppled by peaceful protests and where the armed forces played a first neutral and then decisive role in dictators stepping down. Perhaps nobody in the US government thought that Gadaffi, crazy as a loon, could rally his forces to push back. But he and his regime proved much more resourceful. Crazy like a fox, seemed a more appropriate characterization.

As Gaddafi's forces took the initiative and rolled over the rebels, a debate of major proportions must have been going on within the administration. I believe that liberals in the White House and the State Department felt that we needed to be firmly on the side of history in this conflict and were also moved by the spector of a nationwide massacre of civilians associated with the revolt similar to a Bosnia and maybe even a Rwanda, or something that could be so characterized. In the White House, such a voice would be coming from foreign policy advisor Samantha Power (of "A Problem From Hell," about the genocide in Rwanda), and other "liberals." At the State Department, I am quite sure that people around Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were interpreting the importance of the wave of Arab rebellions and urging military action. However, the White House and State Department were spooked by their own hobgoblin, that of unilateral US action, stemming from Iraq, without UN authorization. The only problem is that the US was not taking the lead at the UN in seeking military action.

Then everything changed when the Gaddafi forces started rolling back the rebel cities, one after another, and a major human tragedy appeared in the making. Suddenly something clicked. But it is more than that. An activist position was a secret desire of Administration liberals but they were unwilling to appear to be taking on the Defense Department's wariness of another major military commitment. (I am sympathetic to some extent because Afghanistan is really hard and has required an enormous commitment by DoD and the military, remains a delicate and dangerous problem, but issue should crowd out another of national importance. Inevitably, we must fight the wars we have to fight, not the one's we choose to fight.) But the key element that added to this switch was the position of conservative Republicans and neocons who from the very beginning favored a more activist and militarist position. This both embarrassed the administration but also gave them political cover to do what they really wanted to do but were scared to do.

What followed was both a miracle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and one at 1st Ave. and 44th St. in New York.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Is the World Becoming Unhinged?

The sweeping changes taking place in North Africa and the Middle East and demonstrations against draconian cuts in the US in state budgets, all seem to be coming together to make a "perfect storm" of upheaval that is rocking the world. Are these profound changes simply coincidental or is some larger process at work that is shaking up institutions globally? I would say, well, both. As previously stated, there is no question that globalization is transforming our world. This may be from underlying processes like seismic shifts that send shock waves to the surface. Or it could simply mean that there is a "demonstration effect," where people seeing protest work as a means for bringing about change in one part of the world see it as a way forward in other parts of the world. Is the US copy catting Egypt?

But there is a third factor at work in all of this and that is the power of liberal (classic liberalism) democratic ideals in the postmodern world. I say "postmodern" intentionally, because we are no longer in the indusrial modern age and have long moved on to the postmodern postindustrial age. The postmodern age is not driven principally by issues of class, but by issues of identity. Information is inherently liberating and democratizing. If the events of today seem to have a common thread, it is that democratic ideals are quickly moving through and being embraced globally.

I find most interesting that both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton now speak frequently about "universal human rights," in relation to the reaction of authoritarian regimes to legitimate protest. But this is not the first time: during the January visit of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao's visit to Washington, President Obama used the same phrases in relation to China's suppression of dissent. The reference to universal rights unfortunately has been left somewhat vague in the President's declarations. He should more specifically say not only that "we believe in universal human rights," but the concept has been enshrined in international human rights law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the most important legacy of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two treaties (called covenants) that followed protecting civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights, respectively. China voted for all of these human rights documents, and it and all other governments should be held to this universal standard. They should never be let off the hook with the argument that such governments obey a different "cultural tradition."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Global Social Revolution

As we see what has been happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and now Lybia and other places in the Middle East and North Africa, it is easy to say how shocked we all are that this is happening. "Nobody forsaw it." "The CIA was caught off guard." All of this now, however, should seem to have been inevitable. Why are we so shocked by the consequences of globalization that is transforming ou world? If you go back to my slideshow on globalization, you will find one slide on the globalization of democracy and also one on the globalization of private empowerment. In the Arab world, these two trends came together to create a special chemistry that produced an irresistable social and political movement.

Now one other thing happened that is really key to this movement, the rise of a new generation, a youth movement, to fuel this revolution. One cannot separate the emergence of new generations from the thrust of new technology. This has certainly been the "Facebook Revolution." But it has also been the rise of a generation of internet savvy and dependent young people who have set new standards for themselves of freedom and possibilities. I have already written in this blog about the Millennials. In a great sense, the youth movement in the Middle East is part of this Millennial Generation which we are familiar with in the US. I described them in my article, "The Kids from Cleveland," found in an earlier blog. It is not surprising to find generational change across global boundaries. It clearly happed in 1968 and it is happening now.

I had and have great faith in this new generation. First of all, they are liberal and cannot be swept up by dogmas or extremism. That is why their rising is so hopeful for the ME and the rest of the world, presening an alternative to the next generation to extremism. In most ways, these youths speak the language of the West. Let us welcome them in. It gives great hope that we are moving to a global democracy instead of a Clash of Civilizations.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Future of Education

A couple of things made me want to write about education and educational reform in America. I just saw an interview on Charley Rose with Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach for America (now Teach for All). And I also recently sat on a plane next to the deputy superintendant of public schools of Kansas City, Kansas, and had a bit of a conversation with her. Both brought to mind my own experience seven years of working in the New York City schools as a Teaching Fellow, people who are hired based on life experiences who don't have a Masters Degree in Education, but who agree to go to grad school to earn one while they work in the system. I have always been interested in education and believe deeply in the importance of education for human fulfillment, socio-economic advancement, democracy and human rights. Of all the things that can make the world a better place, education along with health, tops the list.

I went to teach in NYC as part of an experiment, following the takeover of the schools by Mayor Bloomberg and his appointed Chancellor Harold Levy. I had taught at the college level before for a few semesters and also spent a lot of time in schools. I approached teaching with some idealism, although I was not sure I was ready to face a classroom full of teenagers every day, quite different from the work I had done as a diplomat and nonprofit manager. I did not succeed as a middle school teacher in the Bronx, trying to do bilingual teaching to Spanish speaking 13 year olds. But I did experience the new philosophy and the new techniques being introduced into the schools by a reformist administration. It turned out to be a learning experience for me. Teaching fellows taught alondside Teach for America teachers as well as otherteachers being employed in New York, such as teachers from the Philippines and Australia. Of course there were the older teachers who remained the most numerous. Some represented continuity while others represented "the problem," imqualified teachers who had stayed on for years, some of which had not even passed the basic exam to hold a teaching credential.

I have been observing the debate about school reform. They make it seem like the only thing you can do to improve kids education in tough inner city schools is to find great teachers and put them in the classrooms and weed out teachers who do not suceed in raising test scores. I did not stay in teaching long enough to be evaluated, but it seemed to me that even good teachers confronted problems in these schools that would be difficult to overcome.

It would be easy to blame a lot of the problems in the schools as a result of the social milieu in which they operate: students come from poor, dislocated families with little education, high levels of family breakup, constant moving around and little discipline. This comes directly into the schools with the kids. Second, with middle school kids, one confronts what some teachers call "raging hormones." Both boys and girls are feeling their sexuality and spend a lot of time trying to impress each other by doing outrageous things and behaving badly.

However, I would say a lot of the problem is that the schools are not organized to help teachers teach. First of all, one cannot teach without what is called "classroom management." Discipline is the first barrier to teaching. Classrooms are on the edge of breaking into chaos without a very firm hand on the part of the teacher. But the schools do not help in this regard. The biggest threat a teacher had against a misbehaving student is to call his or her parents (actually the boys are the biggest problem), but it is nearly impossible to get a phone number for them. Kids are allowed into or return to school without administrators making sure they have a working number for a parent. Kids will intentionally give you false numbers to avoid having their parents informed of their shenanagans.

We were taught some methods to gain control of a classroom, but from what I saw, the most successful teachers in this regard were those who I liked to called "Nazis." These were really tough teachers who could scare the kids into compliance through screaming or different forms of intimidation. Having a thick New York accent helped a lot. Of course there are other methods. One is keeping kids so busy they can't get out of control. Another sure method of calming down a class is to engage in reading to them or making them read to each other. It is amazing how kids like stories. But you can't do this all day. Some teachers do very well by using slides, transparencies and projectors to teach, which takes advantage of the inherent instinct of kids to be captivated by visualizations. When I started teaching, nobody prepared me to prepare this kind of teaching tool or even how to get the use of a projector. Of course, today where I work in the military and business world, powerpoint presentations are the principal means of communication, but it was something of a novelty for me seven or eight years ago.

One would think it would be easy to begin a new semester by being assigned classes and the books for the classes. What I found, however, was that I had to find and figure out which textbooks to use and where in heaven's name they were kept. All this only started the same week school began. It was a race against time to get and assign books, let alone familiarize myself with them or begin to figure out what I was supposted to be teaching. The dirty little secret is that nobody actually tells you what you should teach.

Now, I have to admit that I learned a lot in the graduate courses we had in the summer before we started teaching, although they were focused on the subject matter I was assigned to teach, namely English as a Second Language (ESL). The teachers who taught those courses were of course model teachers. We were also taught to "teach to the standard," following a methodology called standards-based teaching. You make a connection from the State teaaching standards to your required daily lesson plans. We did get tips and lessons on how to teach ESL. Too bad I was not assiged to an ESL job. Althought the NYC schools had hired a bunch of us for ESL, when it came to finding a job within the system, the jobs were not there. What I learned was that the schools hold back hiring ESL teachers until they know how many non-English speaking students will be enrolled, which apparently changes considerably from one year to the next. So when I saw the opportunity, I grabbed onto a bilingual ed teaching slot instead of waiting any longer. Unfortunately, in addition to English, I found myself teaching both math and science in Spanish with no realy preparation and also was happy to teach social studies in Spanish. But I had no real clue about how or what to teach in these subjects beyond the textbook.

There was a big push in the NYC schools to teach reading and math. I appreciated the short seminars we attended that focused on reading. I did not attend the math prep courses which were only for math teachers. We were actually given in each classroom a small library of about 200 books to work with. This was great but at times, the books only served for students to break out into pandemonium and start throwing the books at each other or all over the classroom. Now some of my students, the boys, loved to play a trick on the girls: we had a large coat closet in the room and the boys' greatest pleasure was to shove a girl into the closet and hold her in there as long as possible. The girls usually came out laughing and happy as opposed to being scared or crying. It was all part of the rituals of spring, I suppose.

One of the biggest threats a teacher has over a student is forcing him to miss recess or lunch, keeping them to detention. It became more and more clear to me that the wilder students actually liked detention and the more they were placed there the more other students wanted to be with them in detention. I was quickly informed that while I could detain students during the lunch period, I could not make the actually misss lunch. It was a bizarre situation, but it was even hard to punish misbehaving students in any way that made them feel some degee of contrition.

So when people tell me that educational reform is all about the teachers, I think, well yes maybe. But it is also about the kids, their fmailies and the schools themselves who don't always make it easy for teachers, especially new teachers to figure out how to teach with the best of intentions.

Oh yes, when I left my Middle School,a bit precitiously I should say, to take this job with the military in Virginia, I went to see the Vice Principal, who had been nice to me, to say goodbye. When I told her where I was going, she said, "Can you take us with you?" I guess I was not the only one to feel frustrated at the systemic difficulties of teaching in an inner city "under-served" school. And when I said goodbye to the principal, who tried to manage the chaos, feeling a little guilty I was bailing out, he said to me, "Don't worry, you didn't do too much damage."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A World Defense Force?

While nobody wants to admit that we are moving towards a form of world government, it is evident that there is a constant movement towards world governance, i.e., efforts by the international community to find solutions to global problems. The hardest part of governance is enforcement. At the international level it is even more difficult because it depends on decisions by international organizations and the voluntary contribution of troops. We have now had about half a century of UN peacekeeping experience and now there are currently 15 peacekeeping operations all over the world and have been over 50 from the UN's beginning. Peacekeeping missions are something like a boy with his finger in the hole in the dike, holding back a flood. They rarely are decisive in ending conflict and merely suspend it. Now NATO--or some other regional organizations like the OAS in Haiti or the OAU in Somalia--interventions have been more vigorous, in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan. They can actually lead to a new status quo with hopes of solutions to conflict. But it also means a willingness to engage in armed conflict to defeat one side or another in a conflict.

There are lots of drawbacks to both peacekeeping and NATO interventions. Countries must volunteer troops or other assets, and they usually joint with certain "caveats" that prevent them from engaging fully in all aspects of conflict. NATO countries often commit themselves to a tentative engagement and struggle with public opinion that is often pacifistic and tentative. We are seeing in Afghanistan, for example the withdrawal of certain countries from the field or to forms of support that remove their troops from the battlefield such as the training and advisory missions (which are also essential, but with less risk).

However, I would put forward that gradually but clearly a form of international defense force, loosely organized, is taking shape. My most significant experience is with the NATO and ISAF effort in Afghanistan. I find it quite amazing that armed forces from almost fifty countries manage to coordinate and work together in as complicated a task as security. I have worked with officers from a number of NATO countries who work side by side with American counterparts. What strikes me as most interesting is that soldiers from different countries, who often speak different languages, share a common military culture, use the same professional vocabulary and the same procedures for conducting military operations. It took me quite a bit of time as a civilian to adapt to military langauge and acronyms. However, foreign officers are fully steeped in the stuff. And even more interesting is how well this is a coaliton of warriors who work together and respect each other's national differences. The normal military comraderie is made stronger by the multicultural nature of the effort.

What is also clear is that this culture is largely American-made, the result of the undeniable fact of American military predominance in the world. Countries are not "doing us a favor" by joining us in Afghanistan. There is a common understanding of the stakes there, perhaps more among the military than their civilian masters or their publics. Ultimately, however, these officers could not participate in coalition warfare without a basic guarantee of political and diplomatic commitment at the level of the NATO political leadership.

I see this development as progressive although slow to evolve, but inevitable nonetheless. The international community can no longer afford to have terrorism, piracy and rogue regimes and non-state actors without some force to count on to bring enforcement of international law and norms. This is an extremely hopeful trend.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Globalization Encore

When I first started this blog, I was smitten with globalization as a force reshaping the world. It is easy to forget how important this force really is. A recent email from a cousin reminded me of it. He said of himself and his wife, "We both feel a major worldwide transformation happening before our eyes especially in the areas of money, energy, technology, food, health and privacy and more. Kinda like what our parents have told us about but worse. I feel powerless to do much about it at this time. Just dealing with life a daily basis and trying to stay positive and creative." I guess I just forgot this underlying transformation that indeed helps to explain most things going on in the world, even what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East right now.

So I decided to post the slideshow I produced for Tidewater Community College two years ago. I had only posted portions of it at that time. You can view the whole thing by cutting and pasting this link:


I am a SME

Recently I updated my entry in Linkedin, the professional/business connection website, kind of a Facebook for serious people. Linkedin cleverly asked me if I wanted to connect to everyone in my private address book who were also members, so I said yes. This has resulted in an amazing set of reconnections to people I had not been in touch with for years and I am actually having fun with that. However, when asked to update my profile, I realized that I had placed a job title at my company that had mysteriously been switched from Senior Technical Director to Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Of course, in the military environment and in the IT company where I work, the term SME is quite common. But I had never really looked into the meaning of the term beyond its obvious meaning if you break down the words.

So I did some online research and came up with the following defintiions of a SME, which I found interesting in more specifically indicating the situations in which a SME is used within an organization. I had not really thought of myself in this way. And the term SME is used more specifically in the IT world than in the military world. For the military, anyone who brings some specific knowledge to any job is a SME. In that case, I am a political and governance SME. More commonly, however, I am referred to at work as a political analyst and a governance theme manager. I should say that while I do think of myself as a political specialist, I consider myself more essentially to be a generalist as you would expect from someone who aspires to be a visionist. Plus, any form of social science expertise would certainly be less technical than expertise in engineering, IT, or the physical and natural sciences. But no matter. In the current world of work, in which terminology is changing, being a SME is not a bad profession as it is in synch with current information age changes that are transforming our world. So here is what a SME is according to various sources:

subject matter expert
someone particularly knowledgeable about a certain topic
Sales and Marketing Glossary

Specialty Expressions: subject-matter
Subject-Matter Expert
An individual recognized by his or her peers as an authority on a specific topic. (references)
Webster’s Online Dictionaryexpert

Professional who has acquired knowledge and skills through study and practice over the years, in a particular field or subject, to the extent that his or her opinion may be helpful in fact finding, problem solving, or understanding of a situation.
From BusinessDictionary.com

Definitions of Subject matter expert on the Web:
• A subject matter expert (SME) is a person who is an expert in a particular area or topic. When spoken, sometimes the acronym "SME" is spelled out ("S-M-E") and other times voiced as a word ("smee").
• (or Data Expert): A Subject Matter Expert (SME) is the individual or unit responsible for advising on the appropriate use, protection, access, degree of sensitivity, criticality, and risk tolerance of a specific data set. ...
• Staff possessing special expertise in an ES&H program, for example, industrial hygiene, confined space entry, or lead abatement. Some SMEs may be outside of the ES&H Division, for example, hoisting and rigging SMEs reside within the Conventional and Experimental Facilities Department.
• The term subject matter expert, or SME, is used to refer to personnel who are used at different phases of the test development process because of their extensive knowledge of the content and competencies being assessed by the exam. ...
• An expert in a particular field who contributes or verifies the accuracy of specific information needed by the project team.
• An individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.

ThinkTank Blog
Social Networking: The Subject Matter Expert
Posted by Gordon Plutsky on Fri, Nov 07, 2008 Are you a subject matter expert? A subject matter expert is the “go-to” person for their customers and social network contacts. These experts are seasoned professionals with references and a portfolio of proven success. Subject matter experts get the customers, win the bids and are answering the phone rather than cold calling
Interested in being an expert? Then begin thinking like one. An expert by definition is “having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.” In other words if you can demonstrate that you know more than most and are recognized as a leader within a community you are an expert.
In the 1980’s it could take you years to establish yourself as an expert. With today’s social networking communities you can be recognized almost overnight. Let’s look at two communities and how to position you and your business as leaders.
LinkedIn is established to be a business networking community. You have the opportunity to ask questions, answer questions and participate in discussions. The more time you dedicate to positioning yourself the more you will differentiate yourself. Include links to your sites (blogs included) and where possible share your books or white papers on the subject. References also speak volumes. Anytime you can say “don’t take my word for it, read what my customers think” the more credible your opinions and suggestions become.
You can also join “like-minded” experts on LinkedIn. These are small groups inside of the larger community that often focus on a discipline (e.g. marketing, sales, recruiting, human resources, or accounting) or on a specific interest (e.g. events, public relations, consulting). Groups are reflected on your profile and allow people to see your affiliations and interests.

SME - Subject Matter Expert
By: Bruce Bahlmann

A person whose up to date experience and knowledge exceed that of the rest of the project team or organization. Frequently, the SME is an expert contracted or assigned by an organization to consult on a specific project or is a member of a Technology Advisory Board (TAB). SMEs know what is critical to the performance of the task and what is nice-to-know. SMEs typically have participated with standards bodies and/or have development or operations experience that dates back to the inception of their area of expertise that provides them with uncommon wisdom and patience.

Subject Matter Expert Job Description
By Alyssa Guzman, eHow Contributor
updated: May 25, 2010

A subject matter expert is the definitive source of knowledge in a specific subject area.
A subject matter expert (SME) is the definitive source of knowledge, technique, or expertise in a specific subject area, such as business management, information technology, software development, process engineering, plus others. The SME functions as the organizational ambassador for their knowledge area, and applies their expertise to support an organization's vision and strategic direction.
Main Duties and Responsibilities
1. A subject matter expert understands, articulates, and implements best practices related to their area of expertise. Depending on the work environment, the subject matter expert may lead or be an active participant of a work-group with the need for specialized knowledge. The subject matter expert provides guidance on how their area of capability can resolve an organizational need, and actively participates in all phases of the software development life cycle.
Software Development
2. During software development assignments, the subject matter expert is responsible for defining business requirements and recommending a technical approach to meet those needs. He also generates design specifications for software development, which typically involves translating business requirements into detailed algorithms for coding. The SME oversees the development, testing, and implementation of the technical solution, and validates the final product satisfies the defined requirements. He reviews technical documentation, such as user guides, training manuals, and system specifications, prior to distribution to end-users, and ensures their subject area is accurately represented.
Business Relationship Management
3. A subject matter expert must cultivate and maintain effective working relationships with a variety of stakeholders, including end-users, project managers, engineers, and senior staff members. The nature of the position involves actively participating in multiple work-groups at one time, and disseminating information across all levels of the organization. The subject matter expert is articulate and communicates information effectively to diverse audiences. She translates subject matter terminology into business terms, and recommends alternatives to both senior management and software developers. The SME also performs product demonstrations in a variety of settings, including internal meetings, training sessions, and trade shows.
4. Employers generally require candidates to have completed a bachelor's degree program; individuals with a bachelor's degree in business, or an MBA/advanced degree are preferred. In addition to certification(s) in the individual's area of expertise, Six Sigma Black Belt or Green Belt professional certifications are highly desired credentials. Individuals interested in pursuing the position of subject matter expert must have a minimum of ten years of directly related work experience in their area of expertise. Related knowledge and experience in business management, core system configuration, software development life cycle (SDLC), RICEF (Reports, Interface, Conversion, Enhancement & Forms) development, systems testing, and business process re-engineering are considered beneficial. Individuals who have worked in a global, highly matrixed business environment are especially effective in this position.
5. According to salary data from Glassdoor.com, the median expected salary for a subject matter expert in the United States is $77,560 as of 2010, while the average salary of jobs with related titles, including intelligence specialist, program manager, and systems/applications developer, ranges from $58,000 to $134,000. Factors such as employer, industry, experience and benefits can dramatically affect a subject matter expert's compensation.
Project Mgmt Templateswww.ITBusinessEdge.com/ProjTemplate
Complimentary Web Site Membership Includes Free Project Mgmt Tools

Read more: Subject Matter Expert Job Description | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/about_6549153_subject-matter-expert-job-description.html#ixzz1DCTiZZOY

Subject Matter Expert - SME
The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.

An SME might be a software engineer, a helpdesk support operative, an accounts manager, a scientific researcher: in short, anybody with in-depth knowledge of the subject you are attempting to document. You need to talk to SMEs in the research phase of a documentation project (to get your facts straight) and you need to involve them in the technical validation of your drafts (to make sure that your interpretation of information matches theirs).
Six Sigma Principles

Monday, January 31, 2011

Solutions for Egypt

I have been watching with fascination the popular revolution taking place in Egypt during all my non-working, non-sleeping hours. I now remember why I like CNN: it offers the most comprehensive and continuous information on an ongoing crisis of any TV news network. What has become quite clear from watching the ongoing drama in Cairo, much as it was clear in Tunisia, is that a critical turning point in history is taking place. And to my relief, in the most volatile and dangerous part of the world--what Zbigniew Brezinski once called "the Arc of Crisis"--a truly democratically inspired revolution is taking place.

This raises the question of US foreign policy in the face of this crisis. The US is historically a revolutionary power. The first democratic revolution in history, the American Revolution inspired democratic transformation across the world, first in Europe and then in Latin America. The US also inspired what the late Samuel P. Huntington called the "Third Wave" of democratization that swept the Third World beginning in the 1970s. However, Huntington was also the coiner of the concept of the "Clash of Civilizations." So the question for US policy is whether we believe that the operating principle in the emerging transformation of the Middle East and North Africa is Huntington's theory of the spread of democracy or his concept of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

The answer to that question should be coming from those making the revolution itself. There is no or little anti-Americanism, Islamic fundamentalism or even Islamic language coming out of the demonstrators in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. What I see is mostly young people, middle class people, students whose main chant is the removal of a dictator named Mubarak. The US is clearly concerned that it may be about to lose a bulwark for stability and peace in the volatile Middle East. We held our nose while supplying his regime with billions in economic and military assistance. Indeed, we have done in the Middle East what we abandoned as a policy thirty years ago in Latin America: the support of friendly military dictatorships. In Latin America, such friendships were rooted in the Cold War and fear of the spread of the Cuban Revolution. In the Middle East it was strategic interests surrounding the importance of petroleum resources, the Suez Canal and the Arab-Israeli Conflict and more recently the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism from within its midst.

However, now is the time for a strategic shift in policy. There is little the US can do to change history in this case. But we do run the risk of coming out against the thrust of history to the detriment of our own position when the dust settles over the rolling revolution taking place. No doubt the Mubarak administration is more resilient than the Tunisian dictatorship. It may or may not find itself suddenly ousted. But it inevitably will give way to a new political system in Egypt.

US media commentators continue to throw up the specter of a possible Islamist takeover of the Egyptian Revolution as a reason for the Obama administration to be cautious in its support of the revolution. This concern seems rooted more in ignorance than anything else. The Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly will play a role in the new reality, but it will only be one of many forces vying for power. The revolution itself is eminently secular and democratic. This does not mean that the new Egypt will be as malleable to US interests as the Mubarak government. It may also not be as firm a partner in the Arab-Israeli peace process. However, it is unlikely to significantly abandon its peace treaty with Israel or its relationships with the United States. Also, nothing in the current constellation appears to threaten the role of the Army within the Egyptian power balance, although over time its autonomy from civilian rule is likely to shift significantly.

The questions asked by the media are also very naive concerning "who will replace Mubarak?" It is not a question of who, but what. If they get the right what, the who will follow, not before. That is why it is so important that the process move forward for the transition. In this, the Obama administration has been spot on in insisting for a speedy transition. It is clear that the Administration has not and should not specifically ask for Mubarak to step down, although it clearly would like him to. In the end, it won't matter as long as if he remains, it is in a purely ceremonial position until he can "gracefully" leave office.

That is why I was not pleased by Sen. Kerry's response on today's "Meet the Press" that it was up to Mubarak to set a timetable for reform and transition. This is absolutely wrong. Mubarak has only to fully pass to his Vice President the reins of power and let him and his new government work out arrangements and timetables with the opposition. To even think that prior to discussions and negotiations that a timetable is possible is quite naive. I respect Sen. Kerry, but he has no diplomatic experience, only foreign policy experience. There is a big difference. Meanwhile, I was appalled at the statements made by former ambassador to Egypt. Frank Wisner. He must have known that he was not speaking for the Administration when he said that Mubarak should stay on. Again, while he might believe that Mubarak, an old friend, should be allowed the dignity of a prolonged exit, he should never have made such a statement. Wisner is a very seasoned diplomat, someone whom I met in Vietnam 40 years ago when he came to inspect my work there. But even seasoned diplomats make mistakes. Indeed, Wisner is from the old school of realists in the Department, and his preference to stand by old friends, no matter how they have treated their people, is typical of his generation.

In the end, let's give Egypt a chance to work out its own future. Once arrangements are made, there will be plenty of space for the West to help. I spent two years working on democracy promotion programs during the last two years of my Foreign Service career. There are good techniques and programs to help promote free and fair elections, to help develop political parties, civil society and the media in a free society and to perfect the legislative and judicial branches of government and improve civil-military relations. I hope we will expend considerable resources in helping Egypt in this way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Great American Religion - Sports

I would not be the first person to note the similarity between religion and sports, and there are serious studies about it. However, I believe more specifically that sports is the American religion. This is not to diminish the American affinity for religion as has been documented in opinion polls that show Americans to be more religious than inhabitants of any other country based on the percentage who actually attend religious services of all kinds on a regular basis.

However, I can honestly say that Americans do not always talk about religion. They do always talk about sports. I probably did not feel this as much as I have recently, since going to work in a military environment. Where I work, people either talk about their work or they talk about sports. On the edge, their might be some chatter about family, good places to eat or people's vacations, but the reference to sports is constant and continuous. Americans love their sports. They can get passionate about their teams or favorite players, can recite sports statistics and make predictions about the future outcomes of games and sports tournaments.

So you say, "Well, what would you expect from the high testosterone military?" While that question might contain an element of truth, it is important to note the degree to which the military is representative of the country at large, one which may be somewhat ignored by the intellectual and financial elites in our country. Just turn on your TV set and realize the number of channels and shows dedicated to covering sports, all sports. In some parts of the country, most channels are sports channels. Also, today you cannot walk into most bars without being flooded with big screen TVs with total coverage of whatever game is on at the moment. I walked into a "wing bar" the other day in Texas which had more big screen TVs than I have seen in any military "war room." They showed football, golf and tennis games going on simultaneously. OK, it was a "sports bar," but most bars are becoming sports bars.

Don't get me wrong, although I have never been very interested in sports, I have nothing against them. My problem is with any type of obsession. And the national obsession with sports is what concerns me. It concerns me more because sports occupies our waking hours to such an extent that it crowds out all other discussions and activities. I hardly go to a party at friends' homes where the TV is not on in a family room, sometimes with all the men gathered around and the women off in the living room socializing. I find myself with the women! Politics, world events, serious social issues are not discussed at all. Now take this to a national level and what we have is a national tendency to escape into sports as a way of avoiding discussing important national international issues. Well, maybe these are being discussed on college campuses, on PBS, CNN, on C-Span, on NPR and the BBC. Well, yes. That's where I go for environments where these things are discussed, but how many of us live in these spaces?

So what are the latest scores?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Oprah...Aw, Shucks!

I am sitting here watching the first interview on the new Piers Morgan show with Oprah Winfrey and thinking, "Aw, shucks I should have gotten her first." No I do not have my own TV show, but I did have the responsibility of "recruiting" honorees for our annual award ceremony at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center at Val Kill, in Hyde Park, New York, where I was the Executive Director for seven years following my career as a US diplomat. Of all the things I did at the Center, including starting what has become a premier leadership program for high school girls, the annual Val-Kill Medal Ceremony was the high point of my work there. It was the most visible and important aspect of our work as it was the one day each year that about 500 people came to Eleanor Roosevelt's Val-Kill home to see deserving award winners acknowledged for the work they did that reflects the humanitarian legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.

I should say that the legacy of Mrs. Roosevelt is huge and covers her work in promoting the rights of women and African Americans, to human rights in general and support of the United Nations, expanding the role of First Ladies into the social and humanitarian arenas, her role as a social activist and advocate for social reform, her work for refugees and politically persecuted people of all kinds,her efforts for poor people, her role as a journalist and educator. The list of her achievement could go on and on. Although ERVK is a small nonprofit, it carries the enormous responsibility of promoting her legacy, unlike any other organization that carries her name. Its place on the site of her historic home, rooted on the role of the organization in saving Mrs. Roosevelt's home from likely destruction, gives ERVK a status that raises high above the size of its staff or its budget. The annual Val-Kill Medal Ceremony succeeded in honoring such individuals as Mrs. Hillary Clinton, Queen Noor, Lea Rabin, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, Cristopher Reeve, Dorothy Height, Richard Gere, former Brazilian First Lady Ruth Cardoso, Bill and Judith Moyers, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Vartan Gregoian and many others.

We had a remarkable process at ERVK in deciding on people to invite to be our honorees. A Medals Selection Committee pondered for months over potential nominees and suggestions. There were criteria as well for achieving balance and diversity in the annual ceremony which usually honors four individuals: a balance between men and women, ethnic groups, local, national and international honorees, and among backgrounds in history, journalism, social, human right and humanitarian pursuits, philanthropists, civil rights figures.

Once decisions had been made, I was in charge of approaching and securing the honorees. That's when the fun began, because one of the things you learn in approaching famous people is that they are not easy to approach. They are surrounded by barriers to access and their contact information is often very difficult come by. More importantly, in seeking to capture the time and attention of very busy and important people, it often required more than just an address or a phone number. How do you marshall some support for your approach to them? All of this require considerable research, from the selection phase to the recruitment stage.

Oprah Winfrey was a natural selection for our committee. She is adored by millions of people around the world for her humanitarianism and empathy for ordinary people and those struggling with life's difficulties. It was interesting that Piers Morgan succeeded in getting Oprah to go on his show by going through her best friend Gail King. Well, I too went through Gail. I am not sure how I discovered who Gail King was, but I did, and I also happened to have met somebody from Hartford, Connecticut who knew her phone number. I called her and got her advice as to how to contact Oprah through her Harpo Entertainment Group in Chicago. This was in the year 2000. I wrote Oprah and waited, had contact with an aide, and did receive a response from her. Unfortunately, she said she could not accept the award that year because she was "over-extended" for the year, though this was just February. This was understandable, although I must admit it was a disappointment. After all, Mrs. Roosevelt had done so much for women and for African Americans. Oprah seemed in some ways to be the ideal beneficiary of her efforts. I do not remember clearly why we did not persist in seeking her for another year. I guess it was because we feared she would have the same reason for refusing us in the future. Perhaps I should have tried to get Gail King to give us more direct support for our request. Piers Morgan apparently did just that and succeeded where I had failed. Of course, ERVK is not CNN.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Miracle in Haiti

As we stop to acknowledge the first anniversary of the earthquake that ravaged Haiti, I find it interesting that nobody is noticing a major miracle that has occurred. With over 300,000 dead and more than a million people homeless still after so many months, most of the commentary is on how little has been done for the survivors. The presidential palace, symbol of power in Haiti and once the bastion of the Duvalier family, remains a total wreckage and the formerly empty park facing it, the Champs du Mars, is now a tent camp. But there is one thing that has not happened: no boat people. I was the Haiti desk officer in the mid-1970s when the Haitian boat exodus began. We used strict criteria in determining which of these boat people were legitimate refugees. Unfortunately, most were really economic and not political refugees and not in danger of being returned to persecution (known legally as refoulement)at the hands of the state, but yes to hardship and even hunger. However, it was largely a crisis that resulted from the retrograde political system that had existed under the Duvaliers and indeed for much of Haitian history.

I was struck by one commentator who opined that the international community had intervened after the earthquake to shape Haiti in a way that would benefit itself. I had trouble holding back a laugh because the only reason that international community intervenes in Haiti, aside from long standing humanitarian concern for a noble but battered people, is to prevent the outflow of people that would flood the beaches of neighboring countries, especially the United States. In 1994, when the United States intervened to restore President Aristide to power it was to end a politically deteriorating situation that was generating large numbers of so-called refugees. So why now is Haiti not generating thousands of people trying to escape the hardships of life after the biblically monumental disaster? Frankly, I don't have the answer. It could be that they are simply still in shock, too disorganized or not capable of leaving behind other family members. Or perhaps the people still believe that international help is still on the way and are awaiting a major opportunity to rebuild their homes and lives. I would love to know the answer to this question, but do know that the fact that they have not abandoned their homeland for a better life abroad, remains a major miracle.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Just Plain Folks

About a decade ago, I started to hear "folks" used a lot. What ever happened to people? Just ordinary people. Nobody seems to acknowledge that the world is inhabited any more by people. Now the world is made up of "folks." I hear folks all over the place: at the office, among my kids' generation, on TV and the radio. I hear the President of the United States refer to people as folks. A young Hispanic woman used the term twice in the same sentence on the radio. The other day when three experts on violence were discussing the Tuscon tragedy, they all referred to folks, not people. Sarah Palin also talks about folks.

What is it about using folks? Folks comes from a German word, Volks, yes, the same as in Volkswagen. It means people, or the people. It is not a new word. We have studied folklore for over a century, referring to the popular behaviour and ways of the common people in far off parts of the world,in our own hinterland or in the past, like the Middle Ages. These are often quaint and lusty, as in a Bruegel painting.

Politicians are quick to use "folks." It brings them immediate familiarity with the people whom they are addressing. It is, well, folksy. It is not distant or clinical. Folks are just like us. We are folks too, and we want everyone to feel like they are just plain folks. But do we always want this kind of familiarity when hearing from experts or our leaders, or do we want some degree of distance and respect, our respect for them. But we live in an age when such respect, dignity or any pretensions of superiority are simply not tolerable. Why do we call our most exalted leaders Jimmy, Bill or Mitch. Why not use a nickname when the opportunity arises? Well, George or Barack do not seem to fit the pattern, but how could they? There must be some political mileage in trying to demonstrate that you, though an elected member of Congress, are just like ordinary folks. We like our leaders to be like us. We do not like "elites." So even though our leaders enjoy a huge advantage over the rest of us in terms of wealth, power and influence, it is comforting to think that they are just "folks," so no real threat to our own self-esteem.