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

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.