Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fixing the Middle East

The Game: “Unrest in the Middle East”
The Major Players these days: Syria (both Assad and the Rebels), The Islamic State (ISIS, aka ISIL, aka Daesh), Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, and Russia.
Also in the picture: Lebanon, Jordan, and now Libya.   Oh yes, and the U.S. and its E.U. allies.

 The Story:

1. The most recent major “Middle East” problem, the antagonism between the Palestinians and the Israelis, is still there, but it has taken a back seat to the “refugee problem” now destabilizing European governments (Merkel's support has dropped to 44%) and challenging the unity of the EU.  The millions of refugees are a direct result of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
2. The refugees are fleeing both ISIS and the battle between Syrian rebels and Assad’s Syrian government. We don’t support Assad in Syria, but his forces are also against ISIS, so we would like to support them in that, but we can’t do that without hurting the rebels in Syria, whom we also support.
3. The Russians support Assad and are bombing not only ISIS in Syria, but some of the Syrian rebel groups backed by the U.S.
4. ISIS shot down a Russian commercial airliner and killed all aboard, and we want to show solidarity with Russia, but that is awkward because of their actions in Ukraine and Syria.
5. The Saudis have supported the Wahhabi Salafists who included Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and more recently ISIS, but we and our allies, like the Germans, still profit enormously from selling them weapons.
6. We support the Kurds, who are the most effective ground forces against ISIS, but if we send them too many weapons, they are likely to turn them on Iran and seek independence from Turkey.  But - it's worth repeating - they are the most effective forces now fighting ISIS.
7. Turkey is fighting with the Kurds, who are 18% of their population.  Turkey has also supported ISIS forces and has also shot down a Russian military plane involved in fighting ISIS, but Turkey is our NATO partner and a boundary country in the refugee crisis, so we have to support it.
8. Iran has hated us ever since we overthrew the Mossaddegh government to protect British oil interests against the Russians and set up a puppet government in the Shah, which they overthrew and replaced by a (Twelver) Shia Islamic state. 
9. The U.S. invasion of Iraq led to a Shia victory in Iraq, and boosted Shia Iran’s power in the region and radicalized the Sunni to create the Islamic State (ISIS).  We don’t know how to support the Shia without supporting Iran and we don't know how to support the Sunni without seeming to be supporting ISIS, so we try to stay neutral, which leads both sides to think we are supporting the other.
10. After the terrorist attack in Paris where 130 people were killed and 368 injured, François Hollande has been speaking of “war” against ISIS, just as Bush spoke of “war” against terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.  Most knowledgeable insiders agree, however, that war means bombs and bombs only kill more civilians and generate more refugees and that the real problem with ISIS is that it draws its energy from its ideology, not its military forces.  We are notoriously ineffective in fighting ideology.
11. There have been peace talks in Vienna, but neither Assad nor his rebel opposition, two main players, were invited.  Russia, who was, is seeking greater influence in the Middle East, which makes the U.S. uncomfortable.  Iran, also participating, is bargaining to keep its shipping channels open to ship weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which makes Israel, and therefore the U.S., uncomfortable.

I've used "we" all through this piece to refer to Americans, one of the players in this game.  It's perhaps worth noting that this "we" includes the following:

  • 20% of us believe President Obama is a Muslim.  That number is 30% if we're talking about Republicans.
  • 24% of Americans, according to one Gallup poll, didn't realize it was Britain we got our independence from.  Only 54% of black Americans were able to answer that question correctly.
  • 18% of Americans believe the sun goes around the earth and not the other way around - but to be fair, that's about the same as the number of Germans and even fewer Brits are able to tell you which goes around which.
  • 1 out of 5 Americans, the same percentage that believes in witches, will tell you George W. Bush was a great president and his goals were accomplished.
  • 30% of Americans don't know 9/11 happened in 2001.  5% can't tell you what month and day it happened.
  • 37% believe global warming is a hoax, 21% believe a UFO crashed at Roswell, 14% believe in Bigfoot, 13% believe Obama is the Antichrist and 4% believe politics is controlled by lizard people.
But nobody ever said you had to have everybody on board.  After all, between 15 and 20% of Americans were loyal to the British crown all through the Revolutionary War.

It's not always the numbers that make the difference.  It's what you do with the numbers.

photo credit:  An ABC news photo from 2013 with credit to: Abo Shuja/AFP/Getty Images.  Image still appears relevant.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Oh how bourgeois (yawn) we've become

Just as the French use the word bourgeois to sneer at somebody who has all the boring characteristics of the conformist middle class, Germans have this wonderful word spießig, which means roughly the same thing.  Boring, mostly.  Unimaginative.  Conventional and dull.  The noun form, Spießigkeit, carries the range of connotations from smugness to narrowmindedness.

In today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s daily, there is an article titled, “Irritiert über so viel schwule Spießigkeit” – “Annoyed by so much gay Spießigkeit.

Gays have arrived.  And with their “success” at becoming accepted the greatest fear of the avant-garde gay liberationist would seem to have come true as well.  “We” have defeated “them” by becoming them.  Infiltrated the lines.  Pre-empted the criticism of being different. 

Gay locales seem to be going out of business right and left.  No longer needed, they say.  You’ve got your job now, your life partner and your civil partnership, your dog, your fancy apartment in the right neighborhood.  And access to all the good places to go in the city.  Why restrict yourself to the gay-only places?

But that’s not the whole story.  While once the issues were things like working to change the definition of manliness – real men cry, real men like beautiful things – today it seems more and more gays are being redefined as people who have always been spießig.  Always had their little private lives of domestic tranquility.  Maybe, the writer of this article suggests, what’s going on has nothing to do with the gay world at all.  Maybe it’s just Germans who are spießig.  Or is it that all Europeans are inclined toward Spießigkeit, and only the Germans worry about it?

See?  You can write an article about gays now and say absolutely nothing much of interest at all except that maybe there’s nothing much to say.

How’s that for having arrived?

Except that this is profoundly insular thinking.  Marveling over how we've "arrived" is understandable for people who have lived through some astonishing changes and whittling away of homophobia in the mainstream.  I've guilty of this triumphalism myself.

But if the "A-Gays," as the spießig gays of San Francisco and other American cities are described (this Munich phenomenon is not news here) are now actually making straight men stop and wonder if maybe they are missing out, there are still plenty of spaces where gays and lesbians live in fear and discomfort.  Just as the rising economic tide has been great for the 1% while 48 million Americans still live in poverty the rise of the A-gays and gay acceptance has not meant success for everybody. And I'm not just talking about Russia and Uganda and those unspeakable places where gays are pushed off roofs to their deaths.  I'm talking about the useless clowns running for president on the GOP ticket - homophobes to the last man plus Carly the Liar Lady.  We still have not cleared the air yet about Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal all appearing with an evangelist urging death to gays and lesbians.

This is a challenging task.  You don't want to be a Debbie Downer (to use an old pre-gay arrival term in a language we used to call faggotese).  You do want to celebrate the victories and both the successes and the rapidity of the changes for the better.

But let's not get all hung up on how "we're all gay now" and "oh, dear, what mountains are left to climb?"

photo: The photo above accompanied today's Süddeutsche Zeigung article in question.  Whether it was irony or cluelessness that it was chosen to comment on the gay mainstreaming point of the article, I can't say.  It's actually a Christmas tree ornament.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A mere bump in the road

Out of context, the news that a minority of right wingers in Northern Ireland have shot down the right of gays and lesbians to marry there is just another story of homophobia.   You grit your teeth, shake your head at the latest evidence that gay rights are a long hard slog, and ask yourself, cynically, what else is new?

The good news is at least you can drive from Belfast, in Northern Ireland, to Dublin, in Ireland Ireland in a couple hours and get married there, now that marriage rights for lesbians and gays have just taken effect.  It’s a small place, Ireland.  Even if you are one of the 72 people who live in Ballyvoy in County Antrim, it’s only 54 miles to Londonderry and across into Ireland to Bridge End, in County Donegal.  I can’t say for sure, but it’s likely that at least one person from among its population of 497 might marry you if you ask them right.

I know.  The problem with that is you still have to put up with being a second-class citizen, since your straight friends can pop down to the courthouse and do it locally.  Northern Irish folk need to keep up the good fight.

68% of the residents of Northern Ireland are in favor of the right of lesbians and gays to marry, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, after four attempts to get the law passed, finally succeeded on the fifth earlier this month (Nov. 2).  The fact that the Assembly voted for gay rights is telling, since fifty-six of the members are Unionists, members of the party associated with the conservative Protestant majority.  Only 43 are Nationalists, the more liberal (Catholic) bunch, who would like Northern Ireland to reunite with the Irish Republic.  People who understand Irish politics better than I do may have an explanation for why the Catholic vote here should be pro-gay and the Protestant vote anti-gay.  It would seem that the Catholics of the North are as good at separating themselves from official Roman Catholic church doctrine as their fellow Irish to the South.

But the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” cover a multitude of sins.  The Protestants are mostly of the evangelical sort, doctrinaire literalists who ignore injunctions in the Bible against divorce at the same time they come down on gay people, missing the irony that their finger-pointing at “sinners” makes them a shoddy bunch of hypocrites.  As usual, the terms Protestant and Catholic actually misrepresent what’s going on.  The majority of both Catholics and Protestants are in favor of full rights for gays and lesbians.  Only the officials of the Roman Catholic Church – not the people in the pews – and the literalist-type evangelical radical branch of Protestant Christians would conserve the pre-enlightenment view of homosexuality as wickedness and use every means at their disposal to get their way.  When you hear of the religious war between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, keep in mind how this important social and legal rights issue reveals the real line is between open-minded progressives (Catholic and Protestant majorities) and “the way we’ve always done it” conservatives (Catholic and Protestant).

The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, one of the conservative lot pushing to prevent gay rights, has this remarkable quote on their website from Matthew 24:12: “Jesus describes days in which, “because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.”  Lawlessness will be increased?  No, dear.  The Assembly created a law actually extending rights to a minority previously denied those rights.  It was you guys who thwarted that extension.  And, that bit about love growing cold?  You need to get out more.  And read the papers.  Those gays knocking at the door are celebrating their love in all sorts of ways.  Just look at these crowds in Dublin.   

The subversion of the pro-gay vote reveals a conservative minority ignoring majority rule to get their way, a move neither Christian nor democratic.

You remember the “Troubles,” as the Irish called the three decades of deadly strife between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, which led to 50,000 casualties, including the loss of well over 3000 lives.  And the happy day when everybody agreed to lay down their arms and form a two-party peace government, where the two sides could agree to disagree on the fundamentals without offing each other.  Part of that agreement involved a safety valve.  In case the legislature should find itself on the verge of legislating against the rights of minorities, either party can file a “petition of concern” to protect that minority.

We are familiar in the United States with the chutzpah of the religious right when it insists that its right to discriminate against gays and lesbians is a “religious right.”  Well here’s the same thing going on in Northern Ireland.  The Protestants are a majority in Parliament.  But when some of their members vote with the opposition and the total number of yes votes is sufficient to get a law passed, the Protestants then submit a petition of concern,  effectively vetoing the majority decision.  What the petition does is change the rules and require a majority in both parties for the vote to win. 

Badges?  We don't need no stinkin' badges!  Or, in this case, rule by majority. We’ve got a god-given right to stop those gays any way we can. A mere 30 members of the Assembly can force a petition of concern.  The U.S. is not the only country where the Tea Party tail wags the congressional dog.

So the law extending the right of gays and lesbians to marry in Northern Ireland will be delayed a while longer.  And more pounds and pence will be spent on legal battles to fight this obstruction and bring progress to the fifth and last segment of those islands off the coast of France which are England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland – by extending marriage rights to same-sex couples.  Already there is talk of taking the case to the courts, the way same-sex marriage rights were finally established in the United States.  At least three couples are prepared to take their case to the European court of human rights, if necessary.  

Meanwhile, down in the Republic of Ireland, they’re taking a more welcoming approach to same-sex marriage.  If you are already in a same-sex civil partnership, you don’t need to wait the usual three months after getting a license.  You can get married right away. 

The slog continues.  But these days, in the land where the fairies have beards and will fix your shoes for you – I’m talking about the leprechauns – there’s a rainbow to be seen down at the end of the road.

May that road rise up to meet you.  And the wind be always at your back.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hoàn Lão to Hpa-An (and back)

Dear CF (Chosen Family) Nephew:

I just realized that one of my favorite* CF Nephews (i.e., you) was living at just about the same latitude as one of my favorite CF Nieces, on the 17th and 16th parallels, respectively.  Moreover, you are less than 9 degrees of longitude apart, you share the same Indochinese peninsula, the same Southeast Asian land mass, the same Indomalaya and Australasian ecozone and phytogeographical floristic paleotropical region, and are thus readily accessible to each other by car, horse, tuk tuk, shank’s mare, or in your particular case, motorbike.

I have therefore taken the liberty to provide you with directions from  Hoàn Lão, Vietnam to Hpa-An, Myanmar (Burma) by road.  Should you find yourself taken with a wanderlust and some time on your hands, the trip, Google informs me, can be made in about 19 hours – two very long days, or three days of reasonable driving time, not accounting for traffic or possible tie-ups at border crossings, (i.e., better figure in some extra time.)  About 262 hours, if you make the trip on foot.

Here’s how.

Hoàn Lão
1. From Hoàn Lão, take the Ho Chi Minh highway, the TL 561, west to the Lao border.  It’s a tad over two hours, 142 km. Last rest stop before the Lao border is the Cửa khẩu Cha Lo at 12A, Quảng Bình, Vietnam, two minutes from the border.
2. Cross the border into Laos and continue on the same highway (there is only one, and from now on it is called Highway 12) to the Mekong River.  Crossing Laos should take you about two and a half hours (158 km).
3. Stay on the highway and cross the river on the Third Thai-Lao Friendship 3 Bridge into Thailand where Highway 12 continues, running concurrently, at times, with Highway 212 and Highway 22.
4. Stay on Highway 12/212/22 until you see the turn-off to Highway 2028.  Turn left onto Highway 2028 (Actually, it’s still Highway 12).
5. Just past the Artificial Insemination Station (Kusuman District, Sakon Nakhon), Highway 212 ends where it joins Highway 22. Turn right onto Highway 22 (which is actually still Highway 12).  The trip across Thailand from the Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Mae Sot (แม่สอด in Thai) , on the border of Burma, should take you about 12 hours.  It’s 858 km.
6. Stay on Highway 12 and at the Thai border town of Mae Sot, cross the Moei River into Myawaddy ( မြဝတီ in Burmesein Myanmar/Burma.  You are now in Kayin State, of which Hpa-An is the capital.
7.  From the border, it is about two hours (149km) on the AH1 to Hpa-An (ဘားအံမြို့ in Burmese).

Let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll google you an answer.

Hope your motorbike has a soft cushion.

To get back, simply retrace your steps.

Have a great ride.



*All my CF nephews and nieces carry the designator “favorite”.

P.S.  You might want to check for insurrections, revolutions and weather disturbances before starting out.  And do make sure you contact CF Favorite Niece and tell her you’re coming.  She travels a lot and it would be a shame to go all that distance and find her vacationing in Bangkok.