20th debate

I’m watching the debate tonight in Ohio between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I’ve actually cringed for Hillary. Such bad, even embarrassing responses: complaining that she’s being “picked on” first and picking fights over insubstantial matters. This is clearly last-gasp maneuvering. You can almost see it in her face — this is all over.

The issue that still gets me is health care. They spent the first 17 minutes debating it. But neither seems at all interested in discussing the merits or demerits of a single-payer plan. By that I mean that all people would pay into one plan — getting us lots of economy of scale — and that this plan would then pay for your trip to your own local doctor. I know single payer is controversial. But it’s worth debating. And I’m missing a debate on that now.

best sentences I’ve read today

“An isotope is an element with a secret.” — Miyoko Ohtake, Wired Feb. 2008, p 44

“Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” — William James, from “The Will to Believe” in John Stuhr (ed.) Pragmatism and Classical American Philosophy, p. 235

“Ms. Sunée forked up a bite of achingly sweet tres leches cake and cited the Édith Piaf song ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’.” –Mimi Read, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2008, D6

Genocide’s Children

This is almost too much to bear. Alas, there’s not a podcast available of this story I heard earlier this evening on PRI’s The World radio program on children born of rape during the Rwandan genocide. But here’s the teaser and a link to the transcript.

  When we talk about genocide in Rwanda we tend to focus on the slaughter—close to a million people killed in a mere three months. But the genocide was also about rape–brutal, widespread rape– mostly of Tutsi women by Hutu men. It’s thought that the majority of the women who are genocide survivors are also rape survivors. Thousands of them bore children as a result.

BBC Newsphoto: BBC News

Those children and their mothers now live at the margins of Rwandan society in shame, poverty and neglect. The World’s Jeb Sharp reports. Read story.

facebook personae

Over the weekend I have become fascinated by the social networking site, Facebook. I week ago, I lumped it together with My Space, as a realm a respectable professinal, especially a professor, would never deign to enter. It’s one thing to blog; it’s another thing to have one’s profile out there for all to see. But is it?

Last week at a meeting I spent some time with a long-time acquaintance and now friend, Taylor Willingham, who runs Texas Forums and works closely with the LBJ library and the rest of the library system. She’s one of the most brilliant civic entrepreneurs I know. She start talking up Facebook and I started quizzing her: why would anyone want to do this, blah, blah, blah. By the end of the night, way past my bedtime, I decided to check it out. A few days later I went to the site, and against my better judgment offered up the contents of my address book, and it tells me who all of my friends are on facebook. It’s stunning. It’s a hell of a lot of people. Very few of my academic friends, but very very many who are involved in public issues, public media, and public policy. So I click to start inviting some of them to my circle of friends. This is weird. “Will you be my friend?” I never utter that, but I invite them with other words. And they respond. And suddenly I have this whole other facebook world.

It’s strange to go to someone’s Facebook site, someone I know and who I know is widely admired, and see that in facebook land someone “has no friends.” That’s a person who joined on a whim and never bothered to follow up, forgot about it. and is now listed as friendless. There is clearly something awful happening here to the very concept of friendship. It can easily become about who I’d like to be seen and known as being friends with rather than who I’d like to have a cup of coffee with or invite to take part in my next project.

But not really. I find out about what my past acquaintance and now facebook friend, Mark Sandell, is thinking about as he produces BBC’s World Have Your Say. I find out that someone I admire who runs a major production company has just had a pedicure. I learn that another colleague in public media is jetting off to Japan. Another colleague is at the optometrist’s office. This is cool.

When people go on these sites there’s a deep pull to pull away from the professional persona, to show a little bit more spark. There’s the picture of a think tank leader with Jimmy Carter, but he’s grinning like crazy. There’s my intellectual friend with her new baby. The other with his dog. This morning’s paper warned about the soft and blurry line between professional and personal personae, waking up to find that your colleagues knew what you were doing the night before. This problem calls for better management. Watch the lines, but don’t mind them too strictly. Don’t let the world know how smashed you got the other night. Do let them know about your intellectual pursuits. But it can’t be entirely the latter. Otherwise you’ll come off as a suit in a world of blue jeans.

Pakistan, Politics, and the Bomb

Check out the blog, The Washington Note, for a critical take on politics in DC and abroad. The blog’s author, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, wrote today about Pakistan, today’s elections, and the Pakistani Military-Industrial Complex. It’s worth noting, though Clemons isn’t focused on it in his piece today, that Pakistan’s military-industrial complex is totally tied up with ours. For more on that, check out Joseph Cirincione’s review essay in the March 6, 2008, New York Review of Books, on the nuclear threat and U.S. complicity with Pakistan and its retired / under-cushy-house-arrest nuclear salesman, A.Q Khan. Don’t think for a moment that that threat has passed. The shopkeeper might be sitting at home, but proliferation continues. That’s what my sources tell me.

Ersatz Democracy

The surge in Iraq is working, we’re told. There is less violence; there is an elected government. Never mind that the Iraqi police include thugs, torturers, and murderers. The United States’ FBI is working on it, helping train a special unit to fight corruption and to develop respect for the rule of law. Good luck.

Democracy isn’t about election booths and the rule of law — though of course these are ultimately necessary. It is about finding ways for people to rule themselves, creating spaces for collective self-reflection and civic relationships among people with different views and backgrounds. As Randa Slim has noted in discussing “democratization” in Iraq, the voting booth can increase partisan division. Emerging democracies (as well as established ones) need spaces for people of different orientations to build relationships.

One of the leaders of the Iranian Revolution, now a dissident intellectual, is Ibrahim Yazdi. Today’s New York Times ran a feature on him and his views about democracy, which echo William James’s pluralism as well as John Dewey’s call to focus on democracy and not just the mechanisms of government:

Unexpectedly, Mr. Yazdi finds himself today aligned with some of those hostage takers, like Abbas Abdi, who, like Mr. Yazdi, now want to reform the system, and, like Mr. Yazdi, have been marginalized for their views.

“We thought we knew a lot of things back then,” Mr. Abdi said. “Everything was simplified. We thought, if only the shah goes, everything will be solved and finished. But the revolution was right, there was no alternative, no solution.”

Mr. Yazdi says he is a fundamentalist, but what he means is that he is a Muslim intellectual, traditional in his adherence to ritual and teachings. But he is a staunch democrat who defines democracy not by the mechanics of governance, not by elections and institutions, but by ideas.

“We recognize tolerance as a basic component of democracy,” he said. “God has not created all of us alike — we are different — human society is a pluralistic society. In the Koran, God is telling us that man is created to be free. So we are free to think, and think different. So the aim of democracy is to recognize the pluralistic nature of human society. The second item is tolerance, I have to tolerate my opponent. With tolerance comes compromise; without compromise democracy doesn’t exist.”

So, real democracy involves space for engaging ideas, other people, and other views and it involves creating bridges and not just electoral enclaves. These are lessons community organizers—from the back of the yards in Chicago to the jirgas in Pakistan—have long known. It would be nice if our own elected leaders, present and future, learned them as well.

The Better Candidate

What a delight to vote yesterday for the candidate I liked the best rather than, as in years past, the candidate that I didn’t dislike more than the other.

Obama’s huge success in Virginia, a state with an open primary, seems to show that independents are drawn to Obama more than they are to McCain. Note how tight the race was between Huckabee and McCain. I suspect this was because conservatives rallied around Huckabee and many moderates and independents voted in the Democratic primary.  If it ends up being a race between Clinton and McCain, the conservatives may come out to vote against Clinton.  But if it’s a race between Obama and McCain, the conservatives may stay home, the independents may go with Obama, and the Democrats will finally take back the White House.