Saturday, February 27, 2010


Last night, my friend Sudeep, who is from Karnataka state in India, invited me and some other people to his place for dinner. Once I learn how to pronounce it, chicken tikka masala with chapattis will be my new favorite food.

Seriously.  The other day, I decided that Mexican, Indian and Arab foods were my three favorite foreign food styles, but I couldn't pick an ultimate favorite.  Now I know.  It's Indian, fo sho.

For dessert, Sudeep made gulab jamuns, which are basically dough balls fried and served in thick clear syrup.  Sudeep gave us each a bowl with two gulab jamuns. "They're testicles!" my friend Evan joked.

"No, they're not," Sudeep reassured me. "But in India, 'gulab jamuns' is slang for testicles.  Kind of like how you guys say 'plums.'" After we stared at him quizzically for a few seconds, he corrected himself: "...or maybe that's the British."

And that is why multiculturalism is awesome.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dordt Diamond Column: Moving on from torture

“I was a big supporter of waterboarding. I was a big supporter of the enhanced interrogation techniques.”

- Former Vice President Dick Cheney, ABC News, February 14, 2010

“Waterboarding” is strapping a person to a board, putting a cloth on his face, and pouring water over the cloth to make him feel like he’s drowning. The experience is said to be unbearable, and can cause lasting psychological harm. Some of the other “enhanced interrogation techniques” Cheney refers to include keeping prisoners awake for weeks, forcing them into stress positions for days, and keeping them in a cold cell and repeatedly dousing them with frigid water.

The Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against terrorism suspects has been open knowledge for years now. Still, Cheney’s brazen admission on national TV to supporting the use of these techniques has renewed calls from the left to prosecute Cheney and other administration officials for the crime of conspiring to torture. President Obama has rejected this idea out of hand.

The Bush administration’s most enduring legacy will be its overall success in the war on terror. Al Qaeda’s leadership has been decimated, Iraq is moving away from extremism and towards democracy, and terrorist attacks have dropped across the globe.

Yet this success is deeply stained, not only with horrendous tactical mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with the moral compromises the administration made to reach its goals. The worst of these compromises was violating American and international law by using torture to extract intelligence from captured terrorists.

In the past, the United States has been only too willing to forgive crimes committed during successful wars. Abraham Lincoln’s illegal suspension of habeas corpus rights, Franklin Roosevelt’s interment of Japanese-Americans, and Harry Truman’s use of atomic weapons against Japanese civilians were never prosecuted. We moved on.

Still, America has obviously not come to terms with the fact that our government tortured people – some of them innocent. We haven’t moved on. The fact that our former vice president openly calls for torture to resume on national talk shows is evidence of this. Writer Glenn Greenwald asks a valid question: “What would stop a future President...from re-authorizing waterboarding and the other Bush/Cheney torture techniques if he decided he wanted to?”

I don’t have any good suggestions for this one. But something needs to be done to ensure that this sorry chapter in our nation’s history is closed for good.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Best Postcard Ever

I have a very dear friend who is getting ready for med school and spending the semester working at a clinic in Kenya. He is bookending his Kenya experience by living out my biggest fantasies for me - traveling to Dubai, Oman, Kuwait, Nepal and India. My friend and I argue about a lot of things, but we agree that dictatorships, on the whole, suck. My friend (who I cannot name, for reasons that will become apparent) is also a big fan of Borat (Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.)

Before he left, he promised to send me a postcard from "some repressive Arab country." I sent him my address, and told him, "The more repressive, the better! You can write in code to me, so the censors won't know you're mocking them."

Today, I got a postcard from Oman:


Oman beautiful place! Great ruler sultan deserve all accolades for make Oman best country and prosper! Also sunny weather! Calls to prayers now, must go make worships to be good muslim!

Hug and kiss, [redcated]."

I laughed really hard. The people in the mailroom gave me weird looks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

New Dordt Diamond Column: Bring on the Robber Barons!

On January 21, 2010, American democracy came under attack. Or so President Obama and a slew of media voices would have us believe.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign finance in Citizens United v. FEC, Obama said, “strikes at democracy itself.” And Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter said the ruling would lead to “the greatest accumulation of corporate power since the age of the robber barons.”

Are they right? Do we stand at the edge of a corporate dictatorship? Not quite.

Before this ruling, it was illegal for corporations – even political non-profits like the ACLU – to donate money to political candidates in federal elections. These groups were also banned from using their money to fund independent TV or radio ads encouraging people to vote a certain way in the 60 days before a general election.

All well and good. But there were huge loopholes in the law. All those annoying ads telling you to “Call John Smith and tell him it’s time to stop hiding from Iowans” were perfectly fine, so long as the ad didn’t actually tell Iowans to vote against John Smith. Corporations could also donate without limit (and anonymously) to trade associations and so-called 527 groups, which ran their own disingenuous ad campaigns. Corporations spent over a billion dollars in the 2008 campaign.

So really, this new ruling doesn’t change much. Corporations, trade associations and unions are still banned from contributing directly to candidates. But these groups can now spend as much money as they want on campaign ads that explicitly tell you not to vote for John Smith.

In short, they used to have to be sneaky about it. Now they can be blatant about it if they want to.

Constitutionally, the decision is tough to criticize. The First Amendment protects both free speech and free association. That’s hard to square with laws against free speech for certain free associations.

Now that the Court has spoken, Congress should abandon its vain quest to control campaign advertising. Instead, Congress should require corporations to disclose their political spending, and to allow their shareholders to vote on whether to spend profits on political advocacy. That way, every member of the corporate “free associations” would have her proper say.

In the meantime, let’s remember the story of the boy who cried “Dead democracy!” and thank God that we live in 19th least corrupt country on the planet.

North Korea: The Won Starts to Hit the Fan

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on inside North Korea. Visitors are strictly forbidden from having any real contact with the people, and all lines of communication in and out of the country are tightly controlled by the government. (If they weren’t, how would the regime be able to get away with news broadcasts that start out, “Today, the world’s people are consistently envious of our people, calling our people the people blessed with the leader”?)

Nevertheless, some Chinese smugglers and “North Koreans close to the Chinese border who take the risk of keeping illegal mobile telephones” have informed London's Times that the people of North Korea aren’t taking the latest outrages lying down. In November, the government revalued the country’s currency, the won, at a hundredth of its old value, instantly wiping out the savings of...well, anyone who had savings. The sole purpose of this move? To crack down on “private markets, which have become an essential part of the food-supply system in the chronically hungry North.” It’s all part of the regime’s “Fifty Day Battle” against evil capitalists.

The result?

Agents of the People’s Safety Agency (PSA)...were reported to have been attacked and driven away as they sought out market activity in the city of Pyongsung, in North Pyongan province. In the once prosperous industrial city of Chongjin, on the country’s east coast, a steel worker named Jeung Hyun Deuk was reported to have killed an agent of the National Security Agency (NSA) named Cho.

Killed? In a country where your kids and parents can be sent to death camps if you speak against the government? Whoa.

Apparently, even North Koreans know when they’re getting totally screwed.

According to reports from inside the country, after the unrest, the government reversed its decision to ban private markets, and the member of the ruling party responsible for the crackdown has been “purged.” Hmm...

Sometimes, the fact that I grew up in a middle class home in the United States of America, while twenty million other people grew up trapped in a country built in the image of Kim Jong Il's diseased brain, gives me the chills. Come, Lord Jesus.

See also: Christopher Hitchens' great review of the book The Cleanest Race, which argues that Kim Jong Il’s regime is rooted not only in crazier-than-usual Stalinism, but rightist ultranationalism and xenophobia. Pretty disturbing.

In other news, it’s the end of another all-nighter for this undergrad. Ironically, I spent it reading economics journals, trying to figure out why South Korea’s economy is so magical. Something about “capital factor accumulation.” Blah. Enough to make me want to become a Marxist. Almost.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Israeli right-wing view of the peace process

One of the fundamental paradoxes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that since the peace process began in 1993, just about everything has gotten worse. Before the first Palestinian uprising, in the days of the occupation, Palestinians and Israelis largely coexisted, did business, and traveled freely throughout the territories. While the Palestinians were lacking in many basic political rights, at least there was some semblance of peace. But when territory began to be divided between Israeli and Palestinian control in the 90s, terrorism skyrocketed, Israeli security measures became more stringent, and the old relationships frayed beyond repair. Israel has fought three horrifying wars with the Palestinians and Lebanese since the “peace process” began.

Why have negotiations led to more suffering and violence than before? The January 2010 issue of Commentary magazine carries an excellent summary of the right-wing Israeli answer to this question. The article is sunnily entitled “The Deadly Price of Pursuing Peace,” and is authored by Evelyn Gordon, “a journalist living in Israel.” According to Gordon, Israeli concessions and withdrawals in the negotiations have only served to embolden Israel’s enemies, leading to more violence.

Gordon makes many good points. Perhaps the most insightful is that the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces tends to rise dramatically after an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory – because that territory is then used to launch terrorist attacks on Israel, and Israel has no choice but to respond militarily, from the outside, rather than simply using their control of the territory to hunt down and arrest the perpetrators. This observation highlights Israel’s legitimate demand for a responsible Palestinian government to step into the void after the occupation ends.

I’d recommend this article to anyone who wants to step into the shoes of a right-wing Israeli. (OK, I know too many people who would not find that appealing at all. But neoconservatives are human too, folks.) Nevertheless, Gordon’s biases undermine her article and conclusions. The three biggest failures I see in her thinking are:

- A failure to recognize the reality of the occupation of the Palestinians, and the resulting moral obligations Israel has to resolve the crisis. Gordon criticizes former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his 2003 statement: “I think the idea that it is possible to continue keeping 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation—yes, it is occupation, you might not like the word, but what is happening is occupation—is bad for Israel, and bad for the Palestinians.” Gordon says that this statement undermines Israel’s negotiating position and international standing by surrendering its “legitimate” claim to the West Bank and Gaza. But she never tries to refute it. Sharon had it exactly right. There are 3.5 million Palestinians whose lives are determined by the military and policies of a foreign government. That is occupation. And while Israel does have a legitimate claim to possess Gaza and the West Bank, surely that claim does not outweigh the Palestinians’ right to exist as a nation.

- A failure to recognize the ways that Israel itself is to blame for the failure of the peace process - namely, continued settlement-building. To Gordon, the entire story is one of Israeli concessions followed by Palestinian terrorism. This is not accurate. As Palestinian academic Rashid Khalidi explains in his book The Iron Cage, Israeli settlement-building has made life under the "peace process" worse for the average West Bank Palestinian, because the checkpoints and Israeli-only roads set up to connect and protect settlements in the midst of Palestinian territory have hindered travel and economic growth to an intolerable extent. These actions surely undermine Palestinian support for the peace process (if not peace per se), and fan the flames of Hamas’ extremism.

- A failure to recognize the reality of Israel’s demographic crisis. Israel is the Jewish democratic state. Therefore, by definition, it can only survive so long as the majority of its citizens are Jewish. But Palestinians (both those occupied by Israel and those who are Israeli citizens) already outnumber Jews in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and they have a much higher birthrate. If the occupation does not end soon, the Jewish population will either be overwhelmed, or will have to transform itself into the ruling class of an apartheid state. Contrary to popular opinion in many quarters, Israelis are not monsters, so neither of those options are appealing to them. But Gordon simply glosses over this problem: “Finally, Israel must stop projecting a sense of panic, through both words and deeds, which merely emboldens its enemies,” she writes. “Israel has not only survived for 61 years despite the absence of peace; it has thrived. Its population has increased more than seven-fold; its per capita income has risen nine-fold; it has maintained a strong democracy in a region where democracy is otherwise unknown. And it can continue surviving and thriving without peace for as long as necessary.” Hey, we’ve been around for 61 years. That’s practically forever! What could possibly change?

If these three failures of thinking are overcome, even the most ardent Israel supporter must conclude that Israel has not only a strategic, but a moral, obligation to make peace. No, the Palestinians aren’t exactly on board yet. But that’s no excuse to keep settling their land, Mr. Netanyahu.