Sunday, June 28, 2009

Now Let Me Get This Straight

This is me at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, trying to see Russia.

Let me get this straight. Sarah Palin can parade her progeny over the flat screens of America without anyone noticing her family is comically dysfunctional. She can be a soccer mom with a ready sucker punch, but a succor-seeking simp when anyone else strikes. She can see Russia from Alaska, but can’t see how in over her head she is.

IF I understand Rush Limbaugh—and please note that’s a big IF—he holds President Obama responsible for South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s infidelity. That’s right, yesterday’s Gospel According to Rush is: if the President had been handling the economy better, and if, according (I think) to Rush, the governor hadn’t gone through the strain of having to turn down the federal stimulus money he was offered for his state, he wouldn’t have two-timed his wife with his Argentine Inamorata. I get it, Rush—it was principle over principal! So how is it, I want to ask, that Mark Sanford can turn down 700 million dollars for his state, but can’t turn down a piece of ass?

So let me get this straight. The Party of NO, formerly known as the party of “family values” (mostly to itself), can say no to everything but extra-marital sex. “Just Say No”—to all vices, as Nancy Reagan would have it—only pertains to Democratic legislation these days.

I’m trying to sort this out. Republicans are angry because they had unchecked power for eight years, abused it, and left the world much worse off than the way they found it. They’re offensively on the offensive because they’re defensive because they were misgoverned by the world’s most narcissistic, elite left-behind child, a president who didn’t really want to preside over anything but the workouts he blithely put before work, and through thick and thin mostly went AWOL on his country.

Now let me try to get this straight. George W. Bush, a man whose most complete sentences end in non sequiturs, is writing a book. Will he go absent without leave by Chapter Two? I try to get into W’s head to imagine who could edit such a book, and… By George, I’ve got it!—Brownie could do a heck of a job!

And while we’re all waiting to see that book:
If I understand anything, Newt Gingrich is cagily running for president; Mitt Romney is blatantly running for president again!; and Dick Cheney is running off at the mouth again and again. Karl Rove is running in place; Tom Delay is running to find a place; and ill will is running rampant. McCain is running down; Ensign, Craig and Vitter are running on empty; and Sanford will be running for cover.

Does all of the above conveniently exclude Democrats? Not in the least. The distinction is that all of the above includes hypocrites—sanctimonious phonies getting away with hiding in glass houses far too long while hurtling stones wrapped in mock morality and bound with those disingenuous family values.

I intend to continue working on getting it straight.

photo: Amy F.J. Stone

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Doing Something

I keep scrutinizing news photos and images on my TV screen for someone or something familiar in the streets of Tehran. When I was in Iran thirty years ago attending the Tehran Film Festival, our hostess-guides wore red blazers and wide, effortless smiles, so when I see a face in the crowd with lips tightly pursed, I envision her as her mother with a smile, and if I focus on a young woman whose face is partially obscured by a chador or a scarf, I try to imagine her as a mature woman in a red blazer.

The streets are cluttered now with bodies and barriers and sporadic motorcycles, some overturned and burning. In those days, the heavily-trafficked thoroughfares were filled with vehicles always inching toward a standstill. The best roads went from the Shah’s Palace to his sisters’ palaces, or anywhere else the Shah desired to go.

The Shah’s portrait with or without his family hung in every shop and appeared to adorn every public fence and wall. I asked our guide Miriam if it was mandatory. She replied, “We love our Shah.” Those portraits have long since been replaced by ones of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamani. I wonder if Miriam and her children “love” them.

“The end of a supreme leader will come through supreme leaders,” reads a newer Twitter message. Is Mousavi one of those leaders, are there others and where will they emerge from? An ominous message states, “Mousavi - confirmed - If I am arrested the nation is to strike indefinitely.” Mousavi confirmed?

The Twitter messages are growing thin with lip service and little news. Some twitterers are contending the government is sending bogus messages and warning us not to be deceived. Others are asking us to “Pls set your Twitter accounts to Tehran time to stop the IR auth from tracking the kids who use it. Please ask your friends too. Thank you!”

Three messages, ostensibly from within the country, sound a repetitive warning note: “pls be careful and keep your cameras at home -- or well-hidden ... !” “A note from Tehran: police/basij pulling cars over to inspect at checkpoints... they will seize any cameras along with the owner's ID card.” "They are stopping and searching cars and peoples bags. They are taking peoples ID cards and cameras."

Little we can do from here. But we can do something. We can show our support and concern for the reformers by signing petitions (which are abundant), writing to our congressional representatives and, above all, by letting the Iranian government know how we feel. It worked for Roxana, I strongly believe, and it just might work or help again.

Write to: His Excellency Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee,
Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran
622 Third Ave.
New York, NY 1007

Mahatma Gandhi is not around to twitter. Someone did it for him: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win"

Friday, June 19, 2009

It's Easy Being Green

As you can see, I’ve gone green, and not in the environmental sense. Along with more people than it’s possible to count, I’ve gone green on Twitter to “Show support for democracy in Iran” by following an invitation to “add green overlay to your Twitter avatar with 1-click –.” I clicked, and as my small Twitter avatar, in my case the head shot, above, became uniformly green, something else clicked for me: never before in history has there been such a united world-wide effort to make one country a better place by listening and responding to the call of its people.

I came to Twitter reluctantly and wasn’t enthusiastic about it until now. Iranians who have taken their protests to the streets are using it to communicate with each other, to locate, mobilize and strategize, to alert and inform and encourage each other. As the government revokes and refuses to renew press credentials, blocks news reports and web sites, reformers use Twitter to let the world outside know what is happening inside. An early RT (a Re Tweet, i.e., reposting) announces, “All communication lines from and to abroad are closed. No Internet access. PLEASE HELP.” A subsequent one warns, “CNFRMD ALL ambulances must bring ALL wounded to army hospitals. DO NOT put the wounded in ambulances” and pleads, “PLS RT.” Repeat it and repeat it for all eyes and ears!

By rough count—but by any measure more accurate than the egregious Iranian presidential vote count—I note that three or four of every five twitterers outside of Iran using the maxim of 140 characters at a time to mention Iran is casting a vote of solidarity for those whose votes were so cynically, corruptly mishandled. A site beckons, “Add your username to the Green Wall to show support for #iranelection And proclaims, “1990 users have added their picture! PLEASE add yours, and then tell your friends and followers! PLEASE TWEET THIS GREEN ME.” The number of “users” has increased by 66 since I began writing this piece. I urge you to go to the site and view the photos, ikons and logos of the passionately-committed on the Green Wall.

Tweeted from Iran two minutes ago: “Security forces in Iran are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches.”

Last Monday, a State Department official asked Twitter to defer a scheduled maintenance which, had it occurred, would have interrupted Iranians’ contact with each other and with all sources of information and succor globally at a critical time.

A grateful message from Iran: “Humbling to remember how small the world is.”

Monday, June 15, 2009


Louts who murder educated people (like doctors). Curs who target innocent ethnics (like museum guards). Charlatans who beguile mindless oafs, whipping their short-changed psyches into lunatic lathers. Pols who spin lies into Vaseline to ease their entry into the orifice of least resistance.


A former vice-president concocting a ponzi scheme of deceitful misstatements, transferring lies from the sinister side of his two faces with forked tongue to distribute inflated lies to compliant patsies.

Spin. ‘Til they’re twisted.

The popular “Three Biggest Lies” we swapped for amusement years ago—“The check is in the mail” was big—are archaically amusing half-truths that pale in light of today’s whoppers, diabolically false syllogisms:

“This government does not torture people.”
Waterboarding is not torture.
Ergo, “This government does not torture people.”

In the aftermath of 9/11: madness, generated coolly by an administration playing on the fears and foibles of “the people” that “government… by the people” was supposed to be “for.” People frightened to the brainsick point of frenzy, made so paranoid about attack from the outside they attack fellow citizens from within.

Spun ‘til they’re twisted.

People who damn others, who take lives in the name of saving lives, who do their damndest in the name of God—all God’s creatures? If all men and women are created in God's image, who are they who profane the name of their God in the name of their God?

Is a cold-blooded scheme to bomb a clinic any less barbaric than strapping explosives to one’s body and bombing a market place or a public bus? As fringe loonies lose their sanity, do houses of worship lose their sanctity?

They have aborted individual rights and God-given rights, civil rights and the Constitution.

And the real twist is: when destiny has its say, they’ll spin in their graves.

Monday, June 8, 2009

On Entering Lebanon

As I anxiously await news of Lebanon’s bitterly-contested Parliamentary elections, concerned that history—primed to repeat its obstinate self—will once again rouse the beast of the country’s sectarian rule and lead to renewed violence, I reflect on an answer to a question so many have asked me: how did you get so involved with Lebanon?
- - -

My curiosity, more than anything, landed me in war-torn Lebanon in 1980. I had read that a Lebanese Army major, Sa’ad Haddad, had defected to form his own militia in southern Lebanon—and he, a Christian Arab, had allied himself with the Israel Defense Forces. I wanted to know why.

I crossed mined roads, war zones and hostile checkpoints to get a credible answer from Haddad, himself: to rid his native soil of the encroaching Palestine Liberation Organization and the occupying Syrians, infiltrating predators who were destroying his country and pursuing his people’s extinction. I thought I was in relatively hot pursuit of him, but he walked in on me—late at night and all of a sudden—in the alcove of what wouldn’t pass for a hotel elsewhere. Paltry press accounts and political scuttlebutt had prepared me for a hothead, a warrior, so I must have had some cross between Douglas MacArthur and Genghis Kahn in mind as I initially mistook the unimposing figure in combat fatigues and dirty boots for his intermediate lackey. The man I sat down with—can this be Haddad?—was burdened, weary and plainly sad. No airs, no histrionics. As I would discover, a peasant-patriot. He interrupted the interview to say, “You ask interesting questions.” In time, I became his confidant and unspoken friend. He took me to his house, just dirt road steps across from the house he’d been raised in, to show me his bullet-riddled walls—just above his reading chair… inches from where his wife and children dined… closely splayed over the family’s only toilet.

I entered Lebanon as often as I could. I would run into Haddad and his odd lot of soldiers on a nameless dirt road anywhere, whereupon he would bring his jeeps or tanks to a halt and find a place for us to chat privately. I would lean toward him and say, “Come on, level with me,” and inwardly marvel that he would. Once, he borrowed a house, its occupants honored to vacate quickly as we took over their kitchen.

I was distracted by the rumble of tank engines idling outside and said, “I feel like I’m holding up the war.”

The course of my life took an abrupt turn. While in Lebanon, I could feel everyone—from Haddad’s band of men through Israeli, Lebanese and Arab troops to multi-national United Nations peacekeeping forces—wondering, “Who is this man?” In little time, people began to see me as the Middle East expert I was swiftly becoming: welcome mats (and rugs) were spread out for me, while in the States, my accounts and viewpoints appeared in major publications and in the U.S. Congressional Record, and I appeared on TV and radio, and addressed large gatherings, always alerting audiences to, imploring them to prevent, a Christian genocide.

Did anything I said make a difference? Save lives? Spare any part of the Christian community? Haddad later told authorities that I “turned it around” for him.

Israeli troops were gathering on Lebanon’s southern border. The military, led by General Ariel Sharon, planned to enter southern Lebanon to stem the PLO’s missile attacks on northern Israeli towns. When it did (1982), it rolled north through Lebanon. Sharon, whom I came to know well, told me with boyish candor that it was not part of any strategy he had in mind—but that his forces encountered so little effective resistance from the PLO, they just kept going. With an expansive shrug, he explained, “We couldn’t stop!”

As the PLO fled north, and soon to Tunis, the Lebanese started taking their country back. They elected a president, a cultured, charismatic 34-year-old Christian Maronite, Bashir Gemayel, who didn’t live to take office.

[If you haven’t read the February 20th, 2009 entry on this blog, please click on “Who Was Bashir?” or scroll down.]

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Scanning the Great Firewall of China

As the nations of the world prepare to mark the Twentieth Anniversary of the weeks-long student-led pro-democracy demonstrations crushed on June 4th in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, The People’s Republic of China, twelve hours ahead of us, is already suppressing it.

The news is not controlled, it’s stifled. Television crews are banned from the Square. Access to Internet sites is blocked. Popular social networking sites such as Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail are effectively shut down. The Great Firewall of China has wound its way through the inroads of progress, ostensibly rendering modern China impregnable again. But for how long?

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” wrote U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Frost. Will it be Chinese students again? Or the offspring of the workers who supported them so ardently twenty years ago? Whatever it is “That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,” as Frost has it, will invariably have to surface from Chinese soil. What we know, from Jericho to Berlin, is that even in the face of the seemingly impossible, unwelcome, untenable walls come tumbling down.

Two Chinas, the mainland and Taiwan, are slowly, but no one will say surely, becoming one China—aren’t they? Invisible walls prevail. Ten days ago, I was one of six journalists invited to fly from mainland China to Taiwan for the first time in sixty years. More was made of it here than in China. Applying for a visa in New York, I was told that being a “writer” was a problem—“We don’t want you to write anything critical of us.” I was up against a wall—until I asked why they would expect something critical. I got the visa. So nothing I say is critical.

BUT. Here’s where the information factor becomes critical. I have seen first hand what a communist-controlled education can do to people, in the Former Soviet Union, in Mongolia, and in [censored]. It deprives them of the ability to think for themselves, to make decisions and to take responsibility for them. It primes them for taking orders and strips them of any notion under the sun of not following them.

Still, contradictions abound. The educated are super-educated. Three consecutive guides learned English in Chinese schools and spoke it better than many an American I’ve heard. When someone used any English word they didn’t know, they took a small electronic gizmo out of a pocket or pocketbook, entered the word, read the definition provided on the screen and “saved” it. The management and staffs of the hotels we stayed in, the grandest of Grand Hyatts in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, were fluent, fast on the uptake (and we gave them plenty to take up, and in) and charmingly, often wittily, responsive.

All things computed, the “new” China is better served without firewalls.