Monday, September 01, 2014

If Only We Could Be As Good As Jeff Gates

Is that a chip on your shoulder or are you just better than the rest of us?

Jeff Gates, who describes himself as "a Web designer, writer and artist in Silver Spring," writes

After my family arrives on the Cape May ferry for our annual vacation to the Jersey Shore, I take pictures of our two daughters on the ferry’s deck as we leave the harbor. I’ve been doing this since they were 3 and 4 years old. They are now 16 and 17. Each photo chronicles one year in the life of our family and our daughters’ growth into the beautiful young women they have become. Getting just the right exposure and interaction between the two has never been easy. They’ve gone from squirming toddlers to ambivalent teens who barely put up with their dad’s ongoing photography project.

But this year, everything was perfect. It has been an extraordinary summer in the Mid-Atlantic: mild heat with low humidity. On that first day of vacation, the sea was calm and the sky a brilliant blue. As I focused on the image in my camera’s viewfinder, the girls stood in their usual spot against the railing at the back of the boat. I was looking for just the right pose — often waiting for that perfect smile or pausing as they fixed their hair after a strong ocean breeze. I was trying to get just the right exposure and flash combination to bring out their faces in the harsh midday sun.

Totally engaged with the scene in front of me, I jumped when a man came up beside me and said to my daughters: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”

At first none of us understood what he was talking about. His polite tone and tourist attire of shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap threw us off. It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over. (Only after we arrived at our rented condo did I find out I had gotten a great shot.)

At that point, you would figure Gates would have been merely happy that he had gotten a great shot, resolved to develop a good comeback if a similar situation would reoccur, and call it a day.  No such luck:

As I was telling my wife what had happened, I saw the man again, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. The more I thought about what he had said, the more upset I became. My wife and I, both white, adopted our two daughters in China when they were infants. Over the years, as a transracial family, we have often gotten strange looks and intrusive questions from strangers, but nothing like this. Yet part of me understood what he was seeing: Here was this middle-aged white guy taking lots of pictures of two beautiful, young Asian women.

Would this man have approached us, I wondered, if I had been Asian, like my children, or if my daughters had been white? No, I didn’t think so. I knew I’d regret not going back to speak to him about what had happened. My wife warned me I might be asking for trouble, but I reassured her that I would be fine.

He's probably correct that he wouldn't have been approached if of the same race as his daughters. But, truth be told, even today in the USA, most parents are of the same race as their children. Call it a quirk of society.

At least when he followed up, Gates was polite, diplomatic, and more than willing to see things from his inquisitor's viewpoint.  No such luck, again:

I walked outside to where he was standing and calmly said: “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.”

The man didn’t seem at all fazed. He replied: “I work for the Department of Homeland Security. And let me give you some advice: You were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes.”

I see. So we didn’t fit the mold of what he considered a typical American family, and he thought my picture-taking was excessive, possibly depraved. How long should family snapshots take? He thought he was qualified to judge. I told him I was a professional photographer and take lots of photos.

Well, no, Gates' family is not a typical American family which, otherwise, he seems acutely, smugly aware of. And if the Homeland Security guy "thought he was qualified to judge," he probably would have made an accusation, rather than offered up a question; would have been a little more direct than to say (or ask) if they "were O.K."; and wouldn't have prefaced the question with the passive, almost apologetic "I would be remiss if."

And, of course, when trying to elicit from a stranger the same tolerance you yourself exhibit, it's always wise to tell him he's being racist.

But when the Homeland Security guy was apologetic and tried to meet Gates halfway, the latter accepted the man's offer and was similarly forthcoming.  Yet again, no luck:

“My wife’s a photographer,” he said. “I understand.”

“Then you should have known better,” I replied.

He agreed to consider everything I had said. But he didn’t sound very sincere. When I had questions about his observations, he deflected them, hoping to manage my reaction with simple apologies, except they weren’t simple at all: He apologized; he criticized; and he apologized again.

There was nothing more I could say, nor did I need to hear any more explanations from him. I thought about asking for his business card or his name, but instead I just walked away, feeling exposed.

Then you should have known better, Gates responded. Could he have been any more smug?

There was one last thing for Gates to do: play the family card. "I'm not responding on my behalf, you understand, but for the benefit of my family."  Showing a fine political instinct, the Web designer, writer and artist continues

I had to consider my daughters’ feelings as well as my own. My 17-year-old, usually the stoic one, told me she almost cried when she understood what he was asking. And all the while I kept wondering: Had he overreached when he approached us, or was he just being a good citizen, looking out for the welfare of two young women? Perhaps he was doing what his professional training had taught him to do: Look for things that seem out of place, and act on those observations. But what is normal and what is not?...

Although Gates already had played the race card ("what you said was racist"), at least he eschews buzz words and avoids blowing up the incident to satisfy his own political urges.   Still no luck:

The world and its suspicions had intruded on our family’s vacation as we crossed Delaware Bay. Racial profiling became personal that day. And while our experience was minimal compared with the constant profiling experienced by others, it left a repugnant taste in my mouth.

Uh, no, that wasn't racial profiling (first cartoon by Matt Bors, second by Roy Delgado), which Wikipedia defines accurately as "the use of an individual’s race or ethnicity by law enforcement personnel as a key factor in deciding whether to engage in enforcement (e.g. stop and search or arrest)."  We could expand the definition (as Gates is trying to do) but then the phrase uses its unique meaning- and much of its power.

After clearly expressing his moral superiority, Gates, with a bit of humble brag, concludes "I’ve been thinking about this for weeks and have no clear answers. And that’s what disturbs me the most."  Finally, he has something right. He does have no clear answers, and he should be disturbed, especially at his own lack of self-awareness.

                                                      HAPPY LABOR DAY

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Or We Can Just Do What Feels Good

President Obama's remark to reporter on Friday that "we don't have a strategy yet" for combating ISIL (Iraqi security forces it slay in June, photo below) has unsurprisingly found few defenders.  For example, according to The Daily Beast

One has to wonder what sort of signal this administration is sending to ISIS by using tough rhetoric on one hand and then contravening what top officials just said,” said a former Pentagon official who served in Iraq. “It’s not just demoralizing to those who want to stop ISIS in its tracks, but ISIS is just going to act with greater impunity now if they believe they got a free pass. Every single ISIS leader was watching that.

For its part, Politico Magazine on Friday published the opinions of six strategists on the course the USA should pursue to counter the most current terroristic threat.

Senator John McCain argues for arming the Kurdish peshmerga and the Free Syrian Army, as well as bombing Iraq and Syria.   By contrast, Douglas Feith, an under secretary for defense under Bush 43, urges the U.S. to recognize  "religious extremists" as "the enemy"  in order "to deal with them as an enemy... and counter the appeal of their ideology" by empowering moderate Muslims.

Lt. General David Barno advocates a three-legged strategy in which the Administration to "increase the levels of targeted air attacks in Iraq, employ unmanned lethal drones to attack ISIL in Syria and selectively employ Special Forces and covert intelligence teams to assess and facilitate targeting of key ISIL military capabilities."   Retired army major general Paul Eaton urges creation of a regional coalition, preferably with Turkey at its head.  Admiral James Stavridis recommends the President aid the Peshmerga and Iraqi security strikes and conduct employ airstrikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Major General Charles J. Dunlap advocates a "determined American air campaign" because

Some pundits like to insist that airpower can’t do much, but they need to look harder at how ISIL’s style creates liabilities for itself. ISIL arrogantly eschews the furtive, hit-and-run tactics that other Iraqi (and Afghan) militants used to escape being bludgeoned by U.S. fighters and bombers. Rather, they like to collect themselves into brazenly visible groups and use their reputation for savagery to scatter their already terrorized opponents.

All of this actually makes them vulnerable to a determined American air campaign. Among other things, ISIL isn’t going to “scatter” or intimidate American airpower. What’s more, ISIL’s penchant for operating openly—as well as for seizing, occupying and trying to administer territory instead of hiding quietly among the civilian populace—presents targeting opportunities that other terrorists assiduously avoid.

There is overlap among the positions, especially those of Senator McCain and Admiral Stavridis.   None of the individuals recommends American ground forces, probably because the populace is dead set against it. (Still, we look forward to hearing in a few months about the limits of air power. Soberly stated with no sense of irony.)

But there is a reason the article is entitled "Six Strategies Obama Could Use to Fight the Islamic State." There are differences among all approaches, with each individual fairly confident he knows the way to success, unlike President Obama who admits to uncertainty.

It would be so much more comforting if we had an Administration as self-assured as the Bush Administration was about Gulf War II.  The nation had a vice-president who shortly before the fighting began confidently maintained "I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators" and a president who four years later declared "as long as I'm Commander-in-Chief we will fight to win. I'm confident that we will prevail."   Years later, the invasion's proponents still don't acknowledge we lost the war years ago.

Act in haste, repent at leisure.  The quandary facing President Obama is illustrated neatly, though unintentionally (and this, too, without irony) by the President of the Syrian National Coalition, who told The Daily Beast

The political process is in a coma… As long as the regime continues in power, these terrorist organizations will grow in power and size, and the problem that started in Syria and crossed now into Iraq and Lebanon, will soon move across the region and eventually into Europe and the U.S.

Those terrorist organizations are the precise outfits which are trying to oust that regime.  Bomb the world's most brutal terrorist organization, and "the regime" of Bashir al-Assad, which rules with an unusually iron hand, is strengthened.   Lay off ISIL and his Baathist government will remain in power. It's a choice no one likes making, except for those who are sure they're right.

                                                      HAPPY LABOR DAY

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Not Perfect, But Much Better Than Good Enough

At a town hall meeting in Hyannis, Massachusetts, Senator Elizabeth Warren responded to a constituent disappointed, in view of the recent Hamas war, that she voted to send an additional $225 million to Israel for the Iron Dome anti-missile system. Cape Cod Times reports

"I think the vote was right, and I'll tell you why I think the vote was right," she said. "America has a very special relationship with Israel. Israel lives in a very dangerous part of the world, and a part of the world where there aren't many liberal democracies and democracies that are controlled by the rule of law. And we very much need an ally in that part of the world."

Warren said Hamas has attacked Israel "indiscriminately," but with the Iron Dome defense system, the missiles have "not had the terrorist effect Hamas hoped for." When pressed by another member of the crowd about civilian casualties from Israel's attacks, Warren said she believes those casualties are the "last thing Israel wants."

"But when Hamas puts its rocket launchers next to hospitals, next to schools, they're using their civilian population to protect their military assets. And I believe Israel has a right, at that point, to defend itself," Warren said, drawing applause.

This kind of talk rankles Glenn Greenwald and some of the commentors on his website, who are miffed that a strong progressive is not charmed by terrorists such as Hamas. To be sure, Greenwald notes also that Warren was cool to the idea of another questioner who supports pressuring Israel to halt its settlements (a somewhat more defensible view), though Greenwald inaccurately complains she "rejected" the suggestion. He also commends "many of (her) domestic views" (and links to this appearance in February, 2013; video below), though sarcastically commenting they have "elevated her to hero status for many progressives."

It is evidently at least a venal sin to contribute to an ally's defense of its population against rocket attacks. (Better to ramp up the death toll.)  More oddly, Greenwald knocks the Senator for what is essentially boilerplate language on her Senate website.  The website, he notes, "still contains statements such as 'it is a moral imperative to support and defend Israel' and 'as a United States Senator, I will work to ensure Israel’s security and success.'"

Greenwald neglects mentioning that therein Warren has gone full-bore militaristic, rattling her sabers by maintaining

I am also a strong proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I believe to be in the interest of Israel and the United States, with a Jewish, democratic state of Israel and a state for the Palestinian people. The U.S. can and should play an active role in promoting a diplomatic resolution to the conflict that is agreed to by the parties, but I do not believe that a lasting peace can be imposed from the outside or that either party should take unilateral steps - such as the Palestinians' application for UN membership - that move the parties further away from negotiations. 

Notwithstanding Warren largely merely restating the policy of the U.S. government,  Greenwald criticizes the Senator's defense of the Israeli bombing campaign for "echoing Benjamin Nentanyahu." That would be the same Benjamin Netanyahu who recently went to war determined “we don’t get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria” because "I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan."

The journalist concludes by snarking  "That, ladies and gentlemen, is your inspiring left-wing icon of the Democratic Party."  Domestic policy typically doesn't capture his attention, allowing him to ooze sarcasm for a Senator who last November

appeared at a congressional event to attack regulators for failing to tackle the problem of financial institutions that are "too big to fail".

"We have got to get back to running this country for American families, not for its largest financial institutions," said Warren, who said the issue was an indictment of how little had changed since the 2008 banking crash.

The four biggest Wall Street banks are 30% larger than before the financial crisis, she said, while the five biggest institutions hold more than half the bank assets in the country.

Warren claimed this amounted to an $83bn-a-year taxpayer subsidy for some Wall Street institutions, because they were so large that they could safely rely on a government bailout in the event of a future crisis, and were therefore able to take bigger risks than rivals. She also cited research suggesting the crash had cost up to $14tn, or $120,000 for each American household.

If there were no Elizabeth Warren, there would be no Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Massachusetts Senator, recognizing the contribution of the financial sector to the economic catastrophe the country (and world) endured a few years back, also has been a leader in the effort to reform the student loan program.

There is a reason no one has been quoted as saying "The Israeli lobby owns this place." Ditto for organized labor, the insurance industry, the NRA, or reproductive rights supporters or opponents.  It's because no such claim can be legitimately made. But Majority Whip Dick Durbin in 2010 did credibly remark "The banks--hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created--are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place."

Elizabeth Warren is mostly, perhaps not completely, right about Israel. But never mind. She is not a member of the Foreign Relations Committee but of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and of the Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee.  Fussing about her views about the Middle East, which are fairly standard, would be akin to being obsessed with the views (whatever they are) of Glenn Greenwald on gun control, abortion, or restrictions on genetically- modified ingredients in crops.

However, while the mega-banks have only gotten bigger and more powerful, no congressional Republican, and too few congressional Democrats, have taken them on. One who has is Elizabeth Warren. That is not enough to make her an "icon"- no human being should be- but it ought to make Massachusetts residents proud.

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