Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My New Dordt Diamond Column: The War in Afghanistan

Dear friends,

Here is the text of my column in today's Dordt Diamond. Any thoughts you fine people have would be more than welcome. It'll take me a while to respond to them, though, because this afternoon begins Dordt's Tristate break. Until Monday, I will be in Kansas City. One of my dear flatmates from Egypt is getting MARRIED there on Saturday (OMG! OMG! OMG!) and eight of us who were in Cairo together last fall are coming to celebrate with him. It is guaranteed to be a hafla. (That means "party" in Arabic.)

So a very merry Tristate break to you all. I'll be back soon.

Reality Check: The War in Afghanistan

“With regret, I have to say you’re really going to get the hell kicked out of you,” said the Russian government official in the week after 9/11, recalling his own nation’s war in Afghanistan.

“We’re going to kill them,” replied Cofer Black, head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. “We’re going to put their heads on sticks. We’re going to rock their world.”

Eight years later, we haven’t exactly gotten the hell kicked out of us, but the swift victory most of us hoped for has not come either. Osama bin Laden remains at large, and Taliban insurgents have waged a back-and-forth struggle against the U.S. and its allies for the past eight years. Over 1,400 soldiers from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and elsewhere have died. The fight we wanted has degenerated into something far less exciting and far more painful: a dirty, drawn-out, guerrilla war. Now, the top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is asking for 45,000 more troops for the fight.

In the face of all this, many are questioning the need to continue the war, from Democratic legislators to conservative columnists to allied heads of state. Support for the war among Americans has fallen to 39%.

But abandoning or downsizing the war in Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake. Ignoring Afghanistan during the 90s resulted in the murder of 3,000 people, and the murderers have promised to kill millions more if we give them the chance.

If the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, they would be in a position to destabilize already-unstable Pakistan next door – and Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons. Last spring, Taliban forces extended their rule to within 60 miles of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. They did that without a safe haven in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a country the size of Texas with a population of 18 million in the heart of the Islamic world. Leaving it to the wolves is not an option, strategically speaking.

Neither would it be moral. Many things separate us from the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but an affinity for Islamic terrorism is not one of them. Polls show that only ten percent of Pakistanis support the Taliban, and only four percent of Afghans would trade the current chaos in their country for a Taliban government. The Afghans and Pakistanis know the horrors of Taliban rule all too well. If the West leaves them now, it will be their disaster and our disgrace.

This war is not hopeless. The key is setting up an Afghan government strong enough to take care of itself. Gen. McChrystal’s strategy accomplishes this by accelerating training for Afghanistan’s army, sending troops to protect Afghan civilians, and using incentives to ply Taliban leaders away from the fight. President Obama should give General McChrystal the troops and resources he needs, and we should give President Obama the political support he needs. The struggle will be long and difficult, but a just peace is still possible. The Afghans wish to be free, and that is our biggest advantage.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sharing Holy Places (Or, My Astounding Cultural Arrogance)

On Sunday, violence erupted once again at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem. This place is home to the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine that covers the place where Mohammad ascended to heaven to meet with God and the prophets, and the al Aqsa ("Farthest") Mosque, which Mohammad flew to from Mecca on his Night Journey. It is the third holiest place in Islam. It is also (no matter what the Palestinian leadership says) the site of both former Jewish temples, the holy of holies, where God dwelled with his people for centuries, and according to tradition, the place where God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. The Temple Mount is the holiest place in Judaism.

As you can imagine, it's often a little contentious there.

It is the dream of some religious Jews to rebuild the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Muslims say: ain't gonna happen. Some Jews go there to worship occasionally anyway. And that's where the trouble started on Sunday.

It began when a group of 15 Jews tried to enter the al Asqa Mosque to pray. According to Reuters, "The Jews never managed to get into the complex, because several hundred Palestinians, who were on alert for such a possibility, began a loud protest." (You can usually pick out Jews because of the kippahs Orthodox men wear on their heads.)

You know the drill. Israeli police broke out tear gas and stun grenades. Palestinians threw rocks and chairs. 17 police officers and 13 Palestinians were hurt, though none seriously, il-hamdulillah.

Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, accused the Israeli government of "deliberately escalating tensions in Jerusalem" by "providing a police escort for settlers [How does one, at a glance, tell the settlers from ordinary Jews, I wonder?] who are against peace at all costs, and whose presence is deliberately designed to provoke a reaction." He also darkly warned, "We've seen this before, and we know what the consequences are." Yes, we certainly do. In 2000, then-Knesset member Ariel Sharon made a visit to the Temple Mount, and Palestinians responded with the second intifada, a wave of protest and rioting that quickly evolved into a campaign of suicide terrorism and all-out war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

As I read this story, I can't help but think of my first Friday in the Middle East. All of us students on the MESP program visited an open-air mosque in Cairo a few blocks away from our flats. The girls in our group donned hijabs (head coverings) and headed to the women's section of the mosque, and all the guys headed to the men's section. We took off our shoes and sat at the very back of the mosque area, trying to stay out of the way of the men coming in for worship. We were only there to get the experience, to respectfully observe. But when the cleric finished his sermon (which I didn't get much out of, since it was in Arabic), and all the men lined up for prayer, a young man standing in front of us turned around and motioned for us to join in. And we did. We had no idea what we were doing of course - Muslim prayer involves a sequence of bowing that looks complicated at first - but we followed along as best we could. It was a great experience.

I later found out that Muslims are supposed to wash their hands and feet before every prayer. We definitely didn't do that. The Muslim men who invited us to join in their prayer must have been able to tell. In fact, it was probably blindingly obvious to them that we were white, Christian American infidels, who "blasphemed God" by worshipping a man as God. Nevertheless, they welcomed us, not only to watch, but to participate, in their worship.

I later went to the same mosque to participate in the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I had fasted for that day, but certainly not for the rest of the month. Yet they welcomed me and my friends again, and even had us participate in the Qur'an recitation contests. (We handed out the prizes.)

Incidentally, I also visited the Noble Sanctuary last fall, and had no problems. I was not allowed inside the Dome of the Rock or the al Aqsa Mosque, however. In Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter. It seems the holier a place is, the less willing Muslims are to share it.

I have read that when the Muslims first conquered Jerusalem, the second Muslim caliph, Omar, refused to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, telling the Christians, "If I had prayed in the church it would have been lost to you, for the Believers would have taken it saying: Omar prayed here."

Why does Mecca, or the Noble Sanctuary, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where there are still yearly fights between the six denominations who control it) have to be lost to anybody? Somebody must control it, to be sure. (Otherwise who will handle the upkeep?) And the Jews probably never will get their Temple back. The global vote on this one is a thousand million to fourteen million. But why can't they worship at their Temple Mount?

Really, I'm just being selfish. In addition to North Korea and Iran, I want to go the Mecca someday.

ALSO: As I was writing this, my friend Zach called me.  He goes to the University of Minnesota.  He showed up for class today, and there was a note on the door: "Class is canceled for Yom Kippur."

Happy Jewish Day of Atonement, everybody!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

More healthcare?* You know it!

Here is my first column for the Dordt Diamond this year:

In some alternate universe, Americans recently elected a hardcore leftist as president. That president is now bent on destroying the world’s best healthcare system and making government America’s only healthcare provider. If he succeeds, alternate-America’s limited healthcare resources will soon be rationed out by panels of bureaucrats who determine each citizen’s worth.

In yet another quantum reality, healthcare in the United States is controlled by a cabal of evil corporations intent on making as much money as possible by killing as many sick Americans as possible. These corporations have now rallied to protect their power by organizing a national campaign of propaganda and intimidation against healthcare reform, drawing ignorant rednecks to their cause through fear.

I feel very bad for the inhabitants of those alternate universes. But I don’t think we should be fighting their battles for them.

Apparently though, a lot of Americans disagree with me, because this summer has seen a fierce debate about “government-run healthcare,” “death panels,” and “corporate-funded-DC-Beltway-PR campaigns” (that last gem was coined by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow). The debate has taken place on the internet, on TV, and at countless town hall meetings across the nation. People have brandished automatic weapons, handed out pictures of our first mixed-race president drawn as a Nazi, and literally bitten off fingers, all in an attempt to stop the evil leftist president/the greedy evil corporations.

Meanwhile, in this universe, one of my best friends just found out that he will most likely not be able to buy health insurance for himself and his new wife, because he has a preexisting medical condition that no insurance company is willing to cover. In this universe, the U.S. federal government spends more on healthcare, per person, than the Canadian government – and in Canada, everyone is covered. Tens of millions of Americans cannot afford insurance, and millions more can afford it, but are denied coverage because of preexisting illnesses. Medicare and Medicaid, the current free government healthcare plans, grossly underpay the doctors who serve their patients. Despite that, both programs are still on the verge of bankruptcy. Something must be done.

President Obama’s proposal – which is far to the right of any other healthcare program in the Western world – contains many common sense and much-needed reforms. Insurance companies should not be able to turn away or drop customers. Tax credits to help people buy their own insurance will keep us all responsible for our own healthcare while giving a boost to those who can’t afford insurance on their own. And a requirement for all citizens to have insurance, while a little unsettling to our individualist mindsets, is a good way to make sure no one gets a free ride from our healthcare system.

Obama’s proposal also has some troubling aspects. The so-called “public option” – a government-run insurance plan meant to be an alternative to private plans – might pose a threat to the private insurance industry. The public option cannot become the only option, or we will start seeing healthcare rationing. And Obama’s claim that his trillion-dollar plan will not add “one dime” to our massive budget deficit is dubious at best.

These issues need to be discussed. Our representatives need to hear from us on them. Our healthcare system desperately needs a fix, and we all have a chance to be involved in that fix in a way that honors our calling as servants of a God who calls himself “a refuge for the poor” (Isaiah 25:4).

Or, we can keep drawing Hitler mustaches. Those Nazi comparisons really never do get old.

* From SNL's 2008 Presidential Debate Series:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: "If you’re just joining us, the first segment of tonight’s debate, all three hours and forty minutes of it, was entirely given over to a discussion of healthcare. And sweet Georgia Brown, it was more boring than you could possibly imagine. A vitally important issue to be sure, but when this one here gets to talking about it, it’s all a person can do to keep the mind alive."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Equal Time for Canadians

Regarding my last post on healthcare, and the conversation I had with a Canadian Dordt alum:

One of my best friends from my time in Egypt is a rare specimen: a strident Canadian libertarian. After reading that blog post, he wrote to me:

"i was just looking at your blog, and it was great. [Why, thank you.] i did not give that nice canadian alumn permission to speak for me on healthcare. WE WANT OUR FREEDOM!!! and its NOWHERE NEAR FREE for anyone who pays income tax. lies and more lies."

Don't be fooled. While passionate, my friend is a very gentle soul, who will one day become a fine doctor in the profit-driven US system, insha allah. We used to argue all the time, though. Still do, in fact. Anyway, as I learned in Egypt, there are few things more frustrating than having one of your countrymen misrepresent your country to a foreigner. So I thought I'd give him his say.

حرية! للأبد!٠

٠Freedom! Forever!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Is Osama bin Laden F***ing serious?

From the good sheikh's latest video update:

And we, by the grace of Allah, continue to carry our weapons slung over our shoulders, fighting the evil powers in the east and west for thirty years, and in all that time, we have not recorded a single incident of suicide despite the global pursuit targeting us, praise be to Allah.

No suicide among the terrorists? No - please - stop - I can't take it! My sides! Oh, man!

Good falafel, that son-of-a-b**** has a twisted sense of humor.

On a more serious note, for the last few years, our old friend seems to have been cribbing his propaganda directly from the leftist blogosphere, with a few "God willings" and "Praise be to Gods" thrown in for effect. Check it:

"Both of our nations are victims of the policies laid down by the White House, which in reality is nothing but a puppet in the hands of powerful interest groups, specifically big corporations and the Israel lobby.”

"And the matter becomes even clearer if you read what your former president Jimmy Carter has written about the Israeli discrimination against our people in Palestine, or had you listened to his statement some weeks ago, while visiting besieged and ravaged Gaza, when he said, ‘the people of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings’…”

“The details regarding this have been clarified by two of your citizens, they are John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt in the book ‘The Israel Lobby in the United States.’"

"Those who issue statements from inside the White House and claim that your wars against us are necessary for your security are the same ones who worked under the regime of Cheney and Bush, and marketed their former policies of fear to safeguard the interests of large corporations at the expense of your blood and economy."

“The conclusion of my speech: it is time to liberate yourselves from the fear and mental terrorism that the neo-conservatives and the Israeli Lobby have used to manipulate you."

It's the corporations, man! We gotta rise up and set ourselves free, man!

I would really like to be a fly on the inside of Osama's brain. Does he think anybody in the States is listening to him? (God forbid, are they? We'll assume they're not.) If he knows that about the only thing all Americans can agree on is that he should die, is he trying to discredit Mearsheimer and Walt and Carter by quoting them? To what end? What is he trying to accomplish with these videos? Or is this just something he does because he can't pull off a terrorist attack anymore?

One could go crazy trying to figure this guy out. I'd much rather have a corpse of him. God willing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Misc. Thoughts on Healthcare

On Friday night, Alvin the Student Symposium slave driver forced me to show up to Dordt’s prestigious Distinguished Alumni Dinner to hobnob with the rich and powerful. (Just kidding buddy – I had a good time.)

At the dinner, I had the good fortune of sitting at a table with an alumnus from Canada. When I told him I was a political studies major, we started talking about healthcare. I asked him what he thought of Canada’s healthcare system. He got really excited and started talking about how great it works. He told me that his youngest daughter was born extremely premature and had to spend five weeks in the hospital, but that thanks to the Canadian system, all he paid for the treatment was $50. “We don’t understand the American fear of government getting involved,” he said. "We should take care of each other. Isn't that the Christian thing to do?"

I was not surprised by any of this. In my experience, Canadians transform into healthcare missionaries whenever they talk to Americans. It’s a national pride thing. (Not that us Yanks would know anything about excessive patriotism.) I once saw a poster of a group of Mounties that read: “Canada: Leading the World in Being Just North of the United States.” For many Canadians, I think, Canada’s great achievement is “Leading the World in Having Better Healthcare than the United States.”

But then the alumnus surprised me. “The system isn’t perfect of course,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for a shoulder replacement for two and a half years now.”

Come again? Two and a half years? So the terrible rumors are true!

“But I’m OK with that,” he continued. “I’m young and healthy. [He is.] I’m not gonna die. I’m willing to wait if that means everyone is taken care of.”

My Canadian alumnus friend reveals a collective mentality that is anathema to most Americans. I’d like to think that we’re a generous people, willing to help our neighbor in need. But when it comes down to it, we want to take care of ourselves. We want to ensure our own well-being by working for our own healthcare, and being able to buy whatever we need, when we need it. We don’t want charity, and we don’t want to share; we want to earn what we need.

That is both a curse and a blessing for the American system. A curse, because it means the poor will have much worse healthcare than the wealthy, and a blessing, because the profits that guide our system ensure that supply never falls behind of demand, as it does in Canada, where 800,000 people are on waiting lists for treatments.

Ideal healthcare reform would keep the profit incentive in American medicine, while making coverage accessible to everyone. I believe the best way to do this is through tax credits based on need, paid out to American employers and citizens, along with an individual mandate to buy insurance, which will ensure that everyone will pay into the new system and keep it viable. This is part of Obama’s proposal; the other part of his proposal – creating a not-for-profit public plan that will compete with private plans – is what worries me. There’s nothing like profit to keep supply up with demand, and screaming “Healthcare should be about people, not profits!” a billion times won’t change that.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes has an excellent piece on what the American healthcare system gets right. I’ll quote a few statistics from it here:

• “The United States has 27 MRI machines per million Americans. Canada and Britain have 6 per million. The United States has 34 CT scanners per million. Canada has 12 per million, Britain 8.”
• Because American health care plans typically cover more than government plans in other countries, out-of-pocket healthcare spending by Americans amounted to less than 12.6% of national health spending in 2007 – less Canada, Japan, and most European countries.
• 66.3 % of American men and 63.9% of American women with cancer survive five years after diagnosis. 47.3% of European men and 55.8% of European women survive the same amount of time.
• 99% of prostrate cancer patients in the U.S. survive five years. Only 77.5% of European patients do. 90% of American breast cancer patients survive five years, while only 79% of European patients do. Prostate cancer mortality is 604% higher in the UK, and breast cancer mortality is 88% higher.
• 56% of Americans who could benefit from cholesterol-reducing drugs are taking them. Only 36% of the Dutch, 29% of the Swiss, 26% of Germans, 23% of Britons and 17% of Italians who could benefit are taking them.

Finally, when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie!” at President Obama during his address last Wednesday, I was a little giddy, because part of the reason I sat down to watch it, rather than read it later, was my hope that something like that would happen. Obama and Pelosi whipping their heads to the right side of the chamber – priceless.

What set Wilson off was Obama’s claim that, “There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.”

Sure, Wilson is a jerk for disrespecting the president like that. And if the part of healthcare reform that bothers you the most is the prospect that illegal immigrants might benefit from it, you should probably check yourself for prejudice. But Wilson wasn’t wrong. The healthcare bill does not provide benefits to illegal aliens – but neither does it provide any meaningful way of keeping them from benefiting from it. Obama was, in fact, pretty darn well lying.

Obama went on to say, “And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.” OK – but will federal dollars be used to help buy insurance plans that will fund abortions? Of course they will.

The immigration and abortion controversies need to be solved separately from this debate. But let’s not pretend healthcare reform won’t affect them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight Years

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.

...your dead will live;
their bodies will rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
wake up and shout for joy.
Your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the earth will give birth to her dead.

Go, my people, enter your rooms
and shut the doors behind you;
hide yourselves for a little while
until his wrath has passed by.

See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling
to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her;
she will conceal her slain no longer.

- Isaiah 26:1, 19-21

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

- Revelation 22:20

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I Heart

Without Slate, I never would have found out how much my country is loved by the Albanians.

Bush's reception in this small, Muslim-majority nation may have been the most enthusiastic he ever received. At a time when his domestic approval ratings were near their nadir, crowds waited for hours outside the cafe to grasp, hug, and kiss the president. Ecstatic throngs chanted, "Bush-y! Bush-y!" as his limousine passed by. Three postage stamps displayed Bush's smiling visage, and a street in Tirana, the capital, was named after him. Parliament unanimously approved a bill authorizing "American forces to engage in any kind of operation, including the use of force, in order to provide security for the president," and Albanian newspaper Korrieri published the sarcastic headline "Please Occupy Us!"

Albania's prime minister since 2005, Sali Berisha, called Bush "the greatest and most distinguished guest we have ever had in all times." Berisha's rival, Socialist Party leader and Tirana Mayor Edi Rama, said, "Albania is for sure the most pro-American country in Europe, maybe even in the world."


Genc Pollo, Albania's eloquent, Austrian-educated deputy prime minister (he holds a doctorate in Roman history), casually recites the historical reasons for the "rock star treatment" Bush received: "Woodrow Wilson preventing Albania from being carved up"; "Ronald Reagan's inspiring statements of 'evil empire' and 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,' "; "Bush Sr.'s encouragement in our fight against communism"; "Clinton's bombing of Serbia" to protect the ethnic Albanians who make up roughly 88 percent of Kosovo's population; and "Bush Jr.'s promotion of Kosovo's independence and of Albania joining NATO." But, Pollo says, "there is also an emotional dimension to this affection that cannot always be explained in rational terms."

Though U.S. support of Albania has gone almost totally unnoticed by the American people, it has engendered feelings of great appreciation here, a gratitude Albanians have been eager to express. After Clinton's intervention in Kosovo, thousands of Albanians named their babies Bill and Hillary, and many rooted for the latter during the Democratic primaries in 2008.

Who says America can't get along with Muslims? I love you too, Albania!

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Semester Begins

I’ve been back at Dordt for two weeks now. It’s a little early to tell, but this might be my favorite semester yet. I got stuck in Dordt’s ghetto East Campus apartments again, but I’m living with five awesome guys who happen to be “bomb” (my roommate Evan’s word) decorators, so it’s working out well. We’ve been watching hardly any TV (Battlestar Galactica on DVD doesn’t count) and been making community meals. It’s anyone’s guess as to how long those good habits will last, but it’s been really nice so far.

I’m taking a full load of six classes, but I like them all so far: international relations, political ideologies, economics, advanced expository writing, mass communications, and senior communications seminar. It’s also great just to be back at Dordt. This place is home to me in many ways. The brick house, the Hendersons’ bonfires, Bridge of Hope church, Covenant church (where I was baptized and which I recently rediscovered), the treehouse off-campus, Sandy Hollow – it’s good to be here.

Some things I’m looking forward to this year: challenging myself to keep studying Arabic, my new tutoring job, serving on student government with my great friends Neal, Skip and Alvin, running in a marathon as part of a five-man relay.

I will also be writing a biweekly column for Dordt’s biweekly student newspaper, The Diamond. If I think what I come up with is worthwhile, I’ll post it here too.

The new year is upon us. Yallah yallah! (Let’s go!)

EDIT: I forgot, this semester totally SUCKS because Hani Yang isn't here; she's in LA on film semester. Sad face.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Bellyaching session

James Skillen, director of the Center for Public Justice, the dean of neo-Calvinist politics, weighs in with a delightfully wishy-washy essay on the war in Afghanistan that still manages to bug me.

Skillen begins by saying:

“The United States did not go into Afghanistan to build a nation-state. The aim was to defend us from terrorists. Which was also President Bush's stated reason for invading Iraq. Yet the long slog in both countries has continued for so long that other aims have been added along the way to justify the military losses and expenditures. Chief among the added aims is to promote freedom and democracy in the world, and that now involves us in trying to build a state in Afghanistan.”

That’s quite a claim. What is his basis for it? As these quotes show, state- and democracy-building in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the stated goals of American foreign policy for almost eight years now:

“America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror. We’ll be partners in rebuilding that country.”

- President Bush, January 29, 2002

“If military action is necessary, the United States and our allies will help the Iraqi people rebuild their economy and create the institutions of liberty in a unified Iraq, at peace with its neighbors.”

- President Bush, October 7, 2002

And Bob Woodward’s book Bush at War records Bush’s NSC drawing up nation-building plans for Afghanistan the week after 9/11 (P. 193).

Skillen goes on to say,

“The American venture in Afghanistan (and in Iraq) continues to be called ‘war’--to defend America--because Americans would not be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars each year for state-building exercises abroad.”

So state-building was arbitrarily added on to the wars after the fact to justify the wars, but the state-building projects themselves are justified by the label “war.” What is Skillen trying to say?

I bring this up only because he seems to be casting unjustified (and contradictory) aspersions on President Bush, President Obama and our military leaders. To me, it seems clear that nation-building has been the U.S.' goal since the start, as an integral part of the effort to address the "root causes" of terrorism, and is simply proving far more difficult than we anticipated (not that our initial mistakes helped any).

As for the rest, Skillen’s thesis about the limits of American idealism is very cogent and timely, but he does a better job of articulating the question than suggesting an answer. The closest he comes is his vague final paragraph:

“Meaningful answers to these questions will have to be rooted in a better, stronger, shared vision of what a just republic should be in this shrinking world. Confidence at home will require trust in government, for which we need a new system of electoral representation that will tie government more closely to citizens than to dominating interest groups. And sustainable prosperity will require hard work, durable savings, and stewardly investments in place of debt-induced consumption, unending warfare, and limitless grasping for the fulfillment of life's meaning in this age.”

Great. And Afghanistan? In this “shrinking world,” it’s not getting any farther away.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Over the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that racism is a lot more insidious than I used to think. Hardly anyone nowadays would openly admit to being a racist, of course. But there are fashionable ways of expressing racist sentiments. And these covert outlets allow it to thrive. The absolutely insane reaction of some segments in our country to the immigration reform proposals of 2006 and 2007 is one sign of racism’s endurance. The utterly inexplicable charges of racism brought against the first Latina Supreme Court nominee are another. Most of all, the fact that the “Obama is a Muslim” and “Obama wasn’t born a citizen” memes could spread so quickly and remain so ingrained, despite all the countervailing evidence, is clear evidence of residual racism in America. No white president would have this problem. And as anyone who reads the comments section after any news article, blog post or YouTube video dealing with Jews in any way will tell you, anti-Semitism is alive and on the rise around the world. The average culprit in any of these cases would probably deny being racist. But make no mistake: whenever we view someone negatively even partially because of their heritage, racism is present. I am definitely guilty of it. You are probably guilty of it. That’s human nature. If we acknowledge it, we can fight it. If we deny it, it will only grow.

I bring this up because today in my international relations class, in the course of a discussion about terrorism, my professor suggested that terrorism will be a permanent feature of the world system from here on out, and that any war to eliminate it will necessarily last forever. One of my classmates – who is in his fourth year of Christian higher education – agreed, and suggested that the reason for this is that the terrorists are “of a-RAB descent,” and are thus descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, who God cursed to fight with Isaac forever.

Srsly? Srsly.

Naturally, I took exception to this. I’d like to elaborate on the exception I took here. This idea, which is probably more common among American Christians than I’d like to think, is wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. So I’ll just start.

1) Not all terrorists are Arab.

2) Not even all Muslim terrorists are Arab – Muslim terrorists operate in sub-Saharan Africa, Russia, and Southeast Asia. (On that note, Muslim and Arab are not synonymous, anymore than “Christian” and “European” are.)

3) The idea that God favors some races above others is totally incompatible with Christianity. God will redeem “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

4) And finally, in case you were wondering, God did not curse Ishmael. God blessed Ishmael and his descendants.

And Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.”

(Genesis 17:18-20)

God kept his promise. The Arab nation is a great nation. They have huge problems, of course, but I will put Arab art, architecture, music, language, literature, philosophy and food up against any other culture’s. The Arab world preserved Greek and Roman wisdom for us during the Dark Ages. The Arab traditions of family and hospitality put the West to shame. The Arab church is strong in every Arab nation where they haven’t been driven out: Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, and more.

(On that note, some people also think that God cursed Ham and his descendants in Genesis 9, and that this is the reason for Africa’s woes. God did not curse Ham and his descendants. Noah, a sinful man, cursed Ham’s son Canaan. Look it up.)

What my classmate said might sound shocking because of its bluntness, but I believe it reflects a strong racist undercurrent in Christian culture. Think about it. When you’re talking with friends and neighbors, and some recent atrocity in the Middle East comes up, what’s our default reaction? Something I hear all the time is, “They’re just never gonna stop fighting,” or “Violence is the only thing they understand,” or “They’ve been at it for thousands of years, it’s never gonna change.” First of all, the current Middle East conflict is only a hundred years old, by the broadest measurement. (Things didn’t really get rolling until 1936). Second of all, what makes us think that Middle Easterners are incapable of living in peace? Does any other people group in the world have this problem? Have you ever met a person who prefers - honestly prefers - fighting and killing and being killed to peace? Such people surely exist, but they are not limited to the Middle East. (See: Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Tojo, Alexander “the Great,” etc.)

Europe was in an almost constant state of warfare from the fall of the Roman Empire till the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – and after that treaty came the Napoleanic wars, World War I and World War II, to name only the biggest ones. If we’re justified in condemning Middle Easterners to endless warfare after a mere one hundred years of fighting, surely a Middle Easterner living in 1945 would be justified in condemning the white race as hopelessly violent. But he would have been wrong, wouldn’t he? And so are we.

Middle Easterners are created in the image of God. They were created to live at peace with each other and with their God, just as we were. And when we write them off as incapable of that, we are being not only racist but blasphemous.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Visit to North Korea

The best free online political/social/pop culture magazine in existence is It’s part of my daily routine. I would suggest that you make it part of yours too, but you’re probably not an internet addict like me. Keep it that way.

One of Slate’s best features is a column called the Explainer, which answers questions about the news that we’re all asking, but no one in the mainstream media takes the time to answer. Questions like, “How many retired generals are there?” (which the column answered in 2006 after about twenty of them starting attacking Rumsfeld all at once), “Why don’t English speakers name their kids Jesus?” and “Who owns the Arctic?” (It depends on the shape of the ocean floor.)

When Bill Clinton made his jaunt to North Korea a month ago to secure the release of two kidnapped American journalists, he went as a “private citizen,” not in any official capacity. This led the Explainer to ask, “If Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea as a ‘private citizen,’ can I?”

The answer is so interesting that I will quote it at length:

Yes. If you're feeling adventurous and wish to visit beautiful Pyongyang, the U.S. State Department recommends getting a visa through North Korea's U.N. representative. ...You can be barred for any reason, but the only explicit deal-breaker is listing "journalist" as your profession. Even if approved, you can stay only five days during the period coinciding with the country's annual Arirang Festival, or "mass games," which this year is being held in August and September...

Travelers to North Korea can expect constant oversight. Upon arriving at the airport, you're met by an official government tour guide, who stays with you for the duration of the trip. Customs officials can confiscate anything they consider pornographic as well as religious materials that could be used for proselytizing locals. You have to leave your cell phone at the airport, and the guide holds onto your passport. From there, you're taken directly to your hotel—usually either the Koryo or the Potanggang, known for being the only hotel in North Korea that gets CNN. Tours are highly regimented and tend to cover the same circuit of tourist attractions, from Juche Tower, which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, to the Korean Central History Museum, which presents a rather unconventional history of the country, to museums that house all the gifts given to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il by foreign dignitaries over the years. Trips during Arirang include viewings of elaborate Beijing Olympics-style presentations that include music, dancing, and the games' famous "card stunts." (See photos here.)

Wandering off on your own is strictly forbidden. Same goes for talking to North Koreans. If you do try to speak to locals, they're supposed to report you to the authorities. If they don't, someone else may report them. Travelers are discouraged from being openly critical of the government. And if you take photos, especially of military buildings or personnel, your camera or film may be confiscated. There's no American Embassy to turn to in case of emergency, but the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang provides basic consular services for U.S. citizens.

Two days later, Slate ran another piece, this one by a journalist named Sarah Wang, about her visit to North Korea this July with a group of investors. I strongly, strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It’s gripping:

...our tour guides intervened whenever we tried to take pictures. "Our people don't like to be photographed," they explained.


Our guides repeatedly reassured us that the people had enough food and that each Pyongyang resident receives a ration of vegetables and rice every day. They didn't mention meat or fruit. When a member of the tour group spat out the tasteless meat that was a rare treat at one of our meals, the waitress standing behind him visibly stiffened. On one occasion, I drew a banana on a piece of paper and showed it to a waitress; she had never seen one. She knew about apples, but she had never eaten one.

I brought 150 Kit-Kat bars into the country, and I always took several out of my bag when I was alone with a North Korean. They would hesitate for a few seconds, look around to make sure that no one else was watching, and then stuff the Kit-Kats into their pockets.

Half of a nation, 30 million people, under the thumb of one family of nutcases. No internet, no TV, no travel, no freedom, no hope for change. 3 million North Koreans starved after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Kim Jong Il refused to let in food aid. 300,000 North Koreans today are living in concentration camps that cover hundreds of miles. It is estimated that a quarter of them die every year, from starvation or murder, but of course, no one knows for sure. And the international community is only too willing to ignore all of this, as long as Kim keeps the crazy inside his own borders, and keeps showing up to the nuclear disarmament “talks.”

This satellite photo of the Korean peninsula has become one of the most enduring symbols of Kim Jong Il’s manufactured land of darkness:

Anyway, does anybody want to go to North Korea with me someday? In days of freedom, insha allah, but I think it'd be fascinating to be there regardless. The only problem is that I also want to visit Iran soon, and my family's police state-visiting tolerance (I've already been to two) is probably getting thinner.