Thursday, May 31, 2007

What If...(circa 2003)

For months there were rumors that the Arab League was planning to punish the United States for invading Iraq. In truth CNN, along with the many voices of Rupert Murdoch, dismissed it as utterly foolish in their standard manner of dismissing non-Anglo messages. This time though, the alternative news outlets seemed to bring a level of seriousness to the claims that were worrisome. The messages were that the United States was to be punished for our violation of international law by invading a sovereign nation that is aligned with the League. In addition, the messages made claims about the tyrannical behavior of our president, George Bush, and their intentions of liberating us from him. These messages, their dismissal and our collective sense of invincibility persisted for months and months.

Being young and American, I was eight in 1980, it really did seem farfetched to me that anyone could punish the United States for anything, regardless of the merit of the punishment. We are told and have seen time and again that the United States is singularly the most powerful military nation in the world. Particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the apparent victory of western style democracy and capitalism, who could test the U.S.? In addition, the preponderance of conservative news and media is sufficient to make you forget that America is not in fact endorsed by God to rule the world. The tragedy of September 11th made us know that we are vulnerable to random attacks but that still did nothing to shake at least my confidence that we could not be punished militarily.

The first incident occurred and shook our collective confidence to the core. A single military plane was able to evade detection long enough to fly over the continental United States. It flew over Chicago and dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets. The news media covered the story with intensity. How could a foreign aircraft penetrate U.S. airspace? Where did it come from? What further threats did that imply? The line of questioning became increasingly feverish as the contents of the leaflets became widely known. They put forth three points in English and in Arabic:

· George Bush is not your popularly elected president.

· He is leading you down a course toward painful confrontation.

· If you do not rise up against his administration and stop the

transgressions in the Arab world, you will be punished.

Of course we do not take threats lightly. The president himself came on T.V. immediately after having heard the news and addressed the nation. He said that, "...if these thugs think they can make us rattle in our boots they've got another thing coming. America's got heart, you can bet your ass on that!" Never before had a president used such language on television. He was heralded in the press as a real American responding to a real threat. Tony Blair commented that, "punitive threats are destined to fail when hurled against formidable resolve." "You can bet your ass on that!", however, was splashed all over the front pages of newspapers the next day. CNN analyzed the three points ad nauseum. They brought on Arab linguists to determine what region of the Arab world sentences written in that manner might have come from. They brought on an array of old military personnel to speculate on the nature of the punishment. They brought on historians to determine what sort of nation to nation punishments had been meted out in history. The analysis and counter-analysis circulated furiously. It was a field-day of sorts for the right-wing pundits to exercise their unchallenged suburban bravado. They said that "America has God and glory on her side"; "this nation's might is unparalleled in the history of the world"; "the United States is a beacon of freedom and light in the world and every American will stand firm in defending that" etc., etc.

All the while the news of this impending punishment continued. Periodically on BBC America, they would show clips from Al-Jaseera showing very stoic Arab leaders laying down the case for the punishment of the United States. What was disconcerting about these men was their very clear and metered language and the very plain and logical case they made for the punishment. It was a far cry from the fanatical folks that CNN and Fox News showed. The fanaticism of those men was almost comforting. They seemed so irrational that they could scarcely be taken seriously. These Arab leaders, in contrast, seemed meticulous in their construction of argument, patient in their delivery of passion and the case they made was largely indisputable.

Over the course of several months they methodically built their case. They began by saying that George Bush was not the popularly elected president. Indeed he was not, however, he was lawfully elected which they overlooked. They went on to say that he was pulling the United States out of the very international agreements that foster safety and balance in the world. They cited his refusal to have America be a signatory on the Kyoto Protocol. That was true. They cited his refusal to have American forces be subject to the judgement of the international war crimes commission. They also mentioned that he scorned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These were all true. They then went on to try to make him out to be divisive among American people. They said that he wrote a friendly brief to the United States Supreme Court against affirmative action, a stance which would enrage black people and other minorities. They also said that he quietly and repeatedly attempted to appoint Charles Pickering to the federal appellate court despite his being clearly sympathetic to anti-black hate crimes and crude in his opposition to women's rights. In addition, he attempted to appoint Michael Estrada to the federal bench. They said that Estrada was a partner in the Florida law firm that helped sway the national election in his favor by overlooking the numerous black and Hispanic areas that were unable to vote. These things also were true.

Meanwhile, despite President Bush saying that we could not be "rattled in our boots" it was clear that our national feathers had indeed been ruffled. Tom Ridge was brought before a congressional committee appointed to investigate the incident. How, with his new department of 186,000 federal employees and an Orange Alert, could a plane fly over Chicago and drop threatening leaflets? Suburban machismo is only as deep as bankruptcy protected property in Florida however. Ridge immediately pointed his finger at the Pentagon's Director of Information Awareness Office, John Poindexter. Ridge claimed that Poindexter's people ought to have been able to intercept any information movement that would have indicated such an action. Poindexter, of course, was loathe to be involved in any public scrutiny lest his sordid past be rehashed openly. The conservative media looks out for its own though, they did not mention that Poindexter had been indicted for lying to congress and the president about selling arms to Iran and using the money to support the Contras in Nicaragua along with his friend Oliver North. The arguments stayed centered on the difficulty involved in tracking the information on millions of American citizens who are now all potential terrorists. In efforts to calm American anxiety, the president stepped in on behalf of both Ridge and Poindexter and said that, "America is complex, her freedom is simple. We are plenty capable of protecting ourselves, it just takes some doing."

The Arab leaders made use of the ranker to add to their message. They said that the Bush administration was hypocritical in that it has criminals and deceitful men claiming righteousness and the backing of God in attempts to free Iraqi people. Again, what was so disturbing about the case they made was the words they chose to use and the meter in which they delivered it. They did not call President Bush evil or a thug or even suggest that they had the backing of Allah in presenting their punishment to the United States. They simply pointed out information that is readily available to everyone. While all evidence is value-laden, their language was simply not provocative. It was the type of language used by someone who is absolutely convinced that they have right on their side. In that situation, there is need for neither insult nor reference to spiritual righteousness. The case was clear, logical and patient. They even agreed with the United States that Iraqi people are oppressed by Saddam Hussein. They did not overlook, however, the role of the United States in the suffering of the people there. The U.S. imposed sanctions have led to the starvation of countless thousands of Iraqi children and the under-nourishment of significant portions of their population. In addition, they pointed out that the weapons of mass destruction that the U.S. was so convinced were there, were there because the U.S. sold them to Mr. Hussein to aid in his campaign against Iran. These leaders went further to acknowledge that Saddam Hussein's dictatorial zealotry reflects badly upon the Arab League and Arab world generally. They stopped demonstrably short, however, of suggesting that those conditions warrant invasion.

While all this news and jousting continued, life here in Atlanta carried on as usual. Some of the obvious features of the city were as clear as ever. Young black men in Cadillac Escalade EXT's on 26" rims with pornos playing out of screens in the back of the headrests were still on their nighttime cruises up and down Peachtree Street. White women with their dyed blonde hair and false breasts were still carelessly drinking in Buckhead. Hispanic men were still standing out in the rain on Buford Highway waiting for some suburban Suburban to pick them up for a day's labor. White men in Dockers and golf shirts with corporate logos that stretched over their desk-job bellies continued to keep Atlanta's corporate sector limping along in these troubled times. Black and Hispanic children were still being hit and killed by cars in their neighborhoods with no sidewalks and no traffic lights. BMW X5's and Volvo V70 Cross Country's with the huge numbers emblazoned on the windscreens continued to pick up little white kids from their various private schools. Working class black Atlanta was still on MARTA wearily hustling between their day jobs and their permanent "just to tied me over" second jobs. The SUV's of the perimeter patriots in Gwinnett and Marietta donned American flags and their little black W stickers on their trunks while the Impalas and Cutlasses in South West were aching at the $1.51 a gallon gas. The Salvadorenos were still cutting the grass in Vinnings' sub-divisions in the day while white women with Abercrombie and Fitch caps, pony tails and diamond-laden ring fingers walked their Chocolate Labs, Molly and Maggie. The leading story on the local news was about a shooting in a black neighborhood and the reporter was interviewing a disheveled inarticulate adolescent who was trying painfully to describe what happened. Indeed, everything was normal in Atlanta when the inconceivable happened - a second air drop of pamphlets.

The second air-dump of pamphlets hit right in metro Atlanta. It was a phenomenal experience. The city was littered with hundreds of thousands of red 5x5 cards. This time the message was far more ominous. The cards had a single bullet which read:

· The army has already been formed. It is among you and poised to strike.

With the CNN building itself awash with the fliers the news frenzy was indescribable. President Clough sent out a message to the entire Georgia Tech family. His message was classic Clough in its concern and compassion. It could not betray though, his sense of fear that we all shared. In his closing lines he said, "if the United States faces a domestic challenge, it is my prayer that members of the Tech family will remain steadfast in their dedication to freedom." It sounded as if he were saying, "if the bullets start flying, its each man for himself and God for us all." The folks at CNN were visibly afraid now. Paula Zahn and Jack Caferghty no longer made their glib morning jokes. They began to ask the questions of each other that their embedded reporters had been asking Iraqis for weeks, "So Jack, give us a sense of how you and your family are feeling with the threat of the Arab League hanging over our heads?" As Jack responded, "I'll tell ya what Paula, we're afraid;" it finally became clear to them both how foolish a question it was despite the thousands of times they asked it to Iraqis.

By now the threat was sufficiently real that even the news of the Red, White and Blue began to pay attention to the Arab Leaders that had been making their case for months. CNN and Fox News reported that the message now was that United States' aggression had continued therefore the moment had arrived. In mockery of our President, the Arab leaders said that the instant of delivery of justice would be of their choosing. Panic really began to set in when the President addressed the nation and reinstated the draft and Vice President Chaney disappeared again. The U.S. military was caught with its wings spread far afield. There were nearly 300,000 troops in and around Iraq. Although it had not yet been publicly acknowledged there were two other massive build ups of troops around Syria and Iran. Although the President did not say so directly, it seemed that the United States for the first time was ill-equipped to defend itself. Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangle from New York came out saying that he hoped all the boisterous backers of Bush would be equally anxious to register for the draft. While he was saying that, the Governor of Texas suggested that prisoners could be used to fight under strict military supervision. The suggestion brought forth a storm of criticism and cries of racism. People quoted the statistics that 12% of all black men between 24 and 35 were in prison compared to 1.6% of white men of similar age. They said too that it was projected that roughly 28% of all living black men currently in the United States will at some point in their lives see the inside of a jail. The critics said that America was far to willing to lock up black and Hispanic men and let them out to do dangerous work but remained opposed to rehabilitating them.

The Arab Leaders struck upon that national discord as well. They dissected the popular war stance, that support for the troops mandates support for the war. They suggested that Americans are so deeply self-interested that we were goaded into uncritical support of the war, in part due to our concern for the troops. The news broadcast countless scenes of battalions shipping out and the tearful good-byes. They leaders suggested that indeed soldiers are people, however, their mandate is to follow orders. Taken to its logical end, soldiers are simply weapons, they are theoretically incapable of making their own decisions and certainly have no say in the destination, duration or purpose of their deployment. The "support our troops and therefore the war" mantra, they claimed was simple and characteristic of American simplicity. They brought to light the conundrum raised by the Texas Governor. The largely black and Hispanic prisoners that he was volunteering for the draft would then become troops. If that were allowed to happen, then overnight, Americans would be forced to support a population that they have made a practice of forgetting. The Arab Leaders said that the U.S. is in no position to judge the social conditions of rest of the world.

Then one night it began. As Americans were settling in to watch Fear Factor's D-cup white women in spaghetti strapped tank tops eat slugs and drink cow bile for $50,000, the punishment began. Soldiers of the Arab League marched on various cities in the United States. From the sketchy bits of news it appeared as if the army had been amassing in the U.S. for years and years and there were hundreds of thousands of soldiers already here. The call to arms was immediate, particularly here in the South. The suburban patriots showed that indeed they were patriots of mettle. They called on everyone with arms to draw them in protection of our way of life and our homes and families. When it became clear the Punishing Forces were going through county by county assaulting and killing people they thought were in support of the United States aggression, pandemonium ensued. The Punishing Forces were going door to door. They would surround a home, storm it and then interrogate the occupants. Of course their interrogations were terrible experiences. The soldiers did not speak English well, if at all, and they entered homes screaming and pointing their guns and people's families, in their kitchens and dens. After a moment or two of terror, they drew their own conclusions about the leanings of the people and would take away those that they thought were supporters of the aggression. If people fought back or resisted they would be beaten into submission or simply shot.

As news of the practices spread, the local instructions to only allow uniformed United States National Guardsmen or soldiers engage the enemy seemed ridiculous. Why should we wait for the soldiers if our families and livelihood were under immediate threat. The Punishing Forces declared that they wanted information on people who were war supporters. Although the divisions in the country were deep concerning our involvement in the war, no-one was willing to speak to these invading soldiers. In instance after instance people began devising methods of killing them. American citizens resorted to the ultimate practices of self-defense. Individual people would approach the soldiers under the guise of corporation and then try to shoot as many of them as possible. This invariably led to their own death. This became common as the punishment became more and more gruesome. Americans generally began to wholly embrace the stance of slain Muslim leader Malcolm X, we will defend our claim to our position on this earth and in this society, "by any means necessary." A self-proclaimed patriot drove a truck, under heavy fire, into a Punishing Force enclave and blew himself up and killed nearly two hundred of the invading soldiers. Every man woman and child was involved in the resistance to these marauding forces.

These horrific conditions continued for weeks. The Arab Leaders were claimed to have said that civilians engaged in fighting their forces would be viewed as unlawful combatants and would be treated accordingly. With the blood flowing in our streets and the death and terror tolls rising it was clear that it was unlawful not to fight. It appeared in that moment in our nation's experience if you did not fight, you were committing the highest form of treason. Everyone brought to bare every piece of courage they could muster if not to fight, to merely survive. All forms of guile and deceit were employed in resistance. It seemed a logical human response. When finally the news media were able to broadcast, the very voices of war, the hawks as it were, all agreed that we use every bullet and stone in defense of our great nation. Those citizens that blew themselves up and got themselves killed in the name of the United States were recognized as national heroes. President Bush said, "we're gonna fight like we did at the beloved Alamo, but this time we're gonna win."

The siege did not last very long, the full weight of American forces returned in haste to defend the American homeland. As the punishment began to subside with the arrival of American forces returning from abroad, the terror, devastation and palpable fear was overwhelming. With the return of our military forces, the Punishing Forces were devastated. Those battles were long, ugly and gruesome, however, in the end it was the United States men and women who were left standing. There were dead of all sorts in the streets. Access to news and communication was spotty at best; not entirely because communication had been damaged but because survival had been foremost in people's minds. Our behavior quickly had returned to its most visceral level. When cornered in our own homes and cities we fought desperately with everything that we could. All levels of human emotion were threadbare; from cowardice to bravado. Nerves were frayed and suspicions, blame and accusation were rampant; however our flag was still there.


Friday, May 18, 2007

If I Were Arab

When the students at Virginia Tech were killed recently, the entire American nation paused to reflect and to mourn. The nation, as a set of individuals, took a moment to consider the grief of their families and the terror each student must have felt when they stared at Seung-Hui Cho just as he shot them. Premature death of young people is a universal point of human sorrow. The outpouring of grief for these students; however, was particularly intense because they are Americans. It was a shared nationality and sense of connection that intensified our instinctive human reaction to grieve. It hurt more and we grieved harder because they were Americans.

If I were Arab today I would be unconscious with grief. If the Arab world had a collective spirit-voice to speak to the heavens, it would be screaming in agony. The number of individual voices of family members and friends everyday yelling in pain at the death of a loved one might be too much to bear. If I were Arab, the news clip images of an Arab woman running and screaming with the dead body of her child in her arms would make me consider my own mother running with my dead body in her arms. That kind of pain is unconscionable. If I were from Lebanon, for instance, not only would I see the image of the woman, but I might recognize the backdrop as a familiar neighborhood – somewhere I played or went to school. If I were Palestinian I might have a grandfather would could tell me with tears in his eyes about life before 1948 and his inability to reorient himself to the current state of occupation, dehumanization and carnage. If I were Iraqi, my emotional capacity would simply be spent.

My personal anguish would be compounded by the overwhelming sense of injustice and the staggering imbalance of power. The ability of the United States and Israel to not only dictate the terms of my subjugation, but characterize my desire to be free as rooted in hatred would burn my intellect and my sensibility as a human being. Their demands that my world submit to the terms of their existence runs counter to the very spirit of freedom and justice that they proclaim to be defending. The combination of resistance, violence and terrorism that is now rampant in the Arab world is evidence that those terms are not acceptable and they never have been. You cannot beat a people and demand that they not fight back in order to peacefully negotiate an end to the beating. That is not how justice works. The power imbalance between the Arab world and the west; however, is such that these are the terms. They are obviously unacceptable and therefore the personal pain and the humiliation of injustice are compounded by a growing sense of hopelessness.

If I really were Arab, I might know more about instinct and the long cycles of history. I might be better able to understand the instinct towards hope embedded in me as a result of being part of a people whose civilization dates back several millennia. With that understanding, a 60 or 80 year convulsion of pain may be tempered by the length and breadth of my identity. Maybe.


Monday, May 14, 2007

Colored People's Time

CPT is an old acronym. It is probably getting to be a little outdated. There is a growing class of black people who are absorbed in the corporate, financial and consultant worlds who don the uniform of that world – golf shirts, Dockers, BMWs and Blueteeth, ample senses of their own importance, Fossil watches and a commendable respect for time. That’s righteous, but culture is what it is. I recently attended a forum on diversity where the expert on culture was explaining the various cultural relationships with time. According to him, in general terms white cultures or western cultures are far more concerned about punctuality than are brown cultures or southern cultures. One of the reasons he gave was that brown cultures place a higher value on social consensus than white cultures do – unilateral action probably doesn’t have its origins in brown people’s lexicons. I loosely interpreted that to mean that white people like to go off and play by themselves, while we like to play in groups. There is nothing novel in any of this or inherently good or bad. It just corroborates the special relationship between colored people and time.

I visited Ghana some time ago and took a ferry on Lake Volta to see the Akosambo Dam. Ironically, the rivers that flow into Lake Volta are the White Volta and the Black Volta. It is up for debate which water shows up for work at the dam on time. The ferry had a schedule posted which said that it would leave at time t = such and such. Time t came leisurely strolling up the clock and continued to stroll right back down. The boat, nearly capsizing under the weight of what seemed like a whole community of people, didn’t move. After waiting for nearly an hour, the captain of the boat ran out from a group of guys politicking on the dock. He was laughing and yelling his last joke to them as he unhitched the boat and got us going.

After we had been underway for about 10 minutes, a smaller speed boat came blazing to catch the ferry. There were three or four women in the boat, each of whom had those enormous crocus sacks that only women from brown parts of the world would carry. I think those bags are correlated with culture too. You only see them with women at check-in counters on flights to South America, the Caribbean or Africa. And the women are always of – shall we say – substance; a different version of woman than Blonde Becky of Abercrombie and Fitch. You really have to have a deep sense of community to even think of carrying a bag that big. Anyhow, the speed boat drove right up alongside the ferry – which, if it slowed down I didn’t notice. Two guys from the speed boat heaved each of the sacks to two other guys on the ferry. Then with the help of a pair of strong arms on both sides, each of the women proceeded to step across from the speed boat to the ferry. It was incredible. Water was splashing up between the two boats and the speed boat was rocking wildly under the shifting weight of the substantive women and the choppy water. While the last woman was still bringing her second foot onto the ferry, the speed boat swerved and turned back.

I asked a fella next to me what the story was. He said that the ferry runs late because they don’t want to leave people who are late. The speed boat picks up people who are late for the late ferry and carries them out to meet it. I joked that the whole system is based on being late. He laughed and said, “Ah!! My American broda, in Africa people are more important than time.”


Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Mentorship, Humility and Ego

There are innumerable studies focusing on the afflictions of black men in the United States. Many of these studies focus on the lack of mentorship for young black boys. A popular argument in the education community is that the shortage of black male teachers is a contributing factor to the poor academic performance of black boys. A similar argument is put forward to explain the demise of the black fatherhood. The argument goes that black boys grow up without the example of responsible fathers and husbands. These arguments suggest that there is a special element of personal connection that is only attainable between black men and boys. I would not challenge the merit of those arguments. Open for challenge is the willingness of black men with gifts and talents to offer themselves as mentors.

Mentorship is a universally understood concept. Socrates was a mentor to Plato. Jesus was a mentor to John. Malcolm X was a mentor to Muhammad Ali. It is the time honored process of imparting wisdom and guidance by example and instruction from one generation to the next. One of the necessary characteristics of an effective mentor is humility. The mentor must have the ability to recognize and be comfortable with the fact that the mentee’s light may ultimately shine more brightly than his own, indeed that is the point. Progress hinges on the outcome that the mentee improve on the achievements, understandings and accomplishments of the mentor. Such is the progress of knowledge and such is the progress of men.

In the context of black men, the conditions are so dire that mentorship is often targeted to the least experienced among us. Successful black men are enlisted to serve as examples to young black boys in hopes that they will consider college as an option. The hope is that the boy will see possibilities for himself in the towering figure presented to him. I argue that this component of the mentorship game is the most popular because it is the easiest. Often the separation between the mentor and the mentee is so vast that there is little challenge involved for the mentor. Indeed the mentor is not a mentor, but an example – a one time, feel good, ego feeding display of what is possible. Further, the expectations are often that the boys just be decent. This is a consequence of the dire circumstances. The conditions are so bad that often all that is hoped for young black men is that they not grow up to be local terrorists and biological fathers to functionally fatherless children. These are important, but painfully low expectations that make it easy to be a mentor. The mentor can feel good and feed his ego by simply presenting himself as a visible example to the mentee and discussing the benefits of having his life. There is little challenge in that.

On the other side of the accomplishment divide among black men there is an entirely different level of mentorship that is necessary. At this level, an effective mentor is required to give more substantively of himself. Young black men with Ph.D.’s and other professional degrees have already reached academic heights. Mentors – older black men – are needed to help them navigate through a world of dollars and smartness to a place of integrity and contribution. Simple presentation of themselves is no longer sufficient. At this level the difficult features of mentorship become more clear. The mentor is forced to evaluate himself and reconcile the balance sheet between his success and his contributions. He must ask if he is willing to have the young mentee stand on his shoulders to achieve greater height. That is a different proposition than presenting himself as a polished example to a rough child.

The willingness to have a young star stand on your shoulders is rooted in humility. In that circumstance the mentor is not visible. Photographs are never taken of the foundation of a building. It is the spire that appears in magazines. This brand of mentorship is a bit more difficult to come by. While our community continues to raise the alarm about the crisis of black men, the state of high level mentorship is often overlooked. Is there a quiet network of old sages nurturing the next generation of stars such that when the time comes they are ready to receive the baton? Or has ego taken mentorship hostage in the battle against humility?