Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From The Hamlet by William Faulkner:

"In the first place, he did not want a wife at all, certainly not yet and probably not ever. And he did not want her as a wife, he just wanted her one time as a man with a gangrened hand or foot thirsts after the axe-stroke which will leave him comparatively whole again."

Friday, July 25, 2014

A course in global perspectives

In a couple recent posts, I made critical comments about situations in other parts of the world. In one post I wrote about the Cuban economy and in a more recent post I wrote about the developing war between Israel and Palestine. Even as I argued that should the U.S. embargo end and U.S. companies begin opening factories in Cuba, the work provided by these factories would not significantly lift the Cuban poor out of any sort of dire poverty nor would it enlarge the Cuban economy significantly. I believe something more needs to take place in Cuba - to see the growth and development equal to America, China, or Europe, any country needs to foster local business development and entrepreneurship. A economy cannot thrive and develop by just importing jobs.

What I wanted to acknowledge even as I wrote that post is that even if while I ponder long term development and growth from my apartment in Portland, Oregon, from my office by the river, over coffee and the New York Times, there are families in Cuba who live in poverty right now. I cannot blame these families for wishing for relief right now, for welcoming with open arms a Nike factory and the jobs and steady (if meager) income that could be provided. The immediacy of the present trumps my abstract projections for economic development.

In this same way, when considering the situation in the Gaza Strip we must consider the lived experiences of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. In response to my last post concerning the war in Gaza, an Israeli friend left a few comments detailing some important facts the international community should keep in mind which also highlighted her perspective on the situation.

I argued that the resultant deaths from the Israeli attacks in Gaza seem disproportionate to the effects of the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. I also believe that as a modern world leader, Israel has a humanitarian responsibility, even to Palestinians, and developing greater humanitarian efforts in Gaza and the West Bank would hopefully ease tensions between the Israelis and Palestinians and help open a path toward peace.

I do not believe that this view is naïve or misguided, but my friend is right that I do not live in Israel. I do not live under the circumstances of these tensions. I do not have to take shelter due to the threat of rockets. Perhaps this would change my perspective and prerogative.

My friend is also good to point out that Hamas does not have the best intentions. Hamas is not protecting the interests of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip; it is not taking steps to alleviate the humanitarian situation there. Hamas is focused solely on Israel, on vilifying Israel, on fighting Israel, and legitimizing itself. It is set against recognizing Israel and thus against taking any step toward living in peace with the Israelis. Israel is taking the steps it is because Hamas has placed rockets and stored weapons in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas has purposefully placed these weapons in populated areas to use their own people as shields against Israel. As the New York Times reported, “Well into the conflict the Hamas radio station was telling civilians — already reluctant to leave homes given their history of displacement — not to heed Israeli warnings to flee, calling the warnings ‘psychological warfare.’” It wasn’t until recently, probably because of the large death toll, that Hamas has become more active about warning residents to avoid activity in certain parts of Gaza.

Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ top human rights official, has voiced criticism over Hamas’ attacks on Israel and particularly from launching those attacks in densely populated urban sites. On the other hand, Pillay has also criticized Israel over the large Palestinian death toll. She says, "There seems to be a strong possibility that international law has been violated, in a manner that could amount to war crimes."

Obviously our experiences, our histories, shape our perspectives of the present. While I am not a proponent of the death sentence, I can understand how the family of a murder victim can demand it. Emotional situations affect our perspective. But I think what should be telling in situations like these are what those outside the conflict say. Much of the world is critical of the death penalty still meted out by some states. Much of the world is critical of the Israel’s forceful action in the Gaza Strip and the number of Palestinian deaths there. Criticism like this needs to be heard and considered. In these situations, every country, every person should ask themselves, “Why are the actions of my country being criticized as such and what does it mean for my country?” 

With over 800 Palestinians dead now, we should all hope for a ceasefire. But we should all, the entire world, be thinking about active ways to ease tensions, alleviate suffering, and work toward stability, particularly in Israel and Palestine but also across the globe. We need a few brave ideas and we need a lot of brave people to actualize them.

Friday, July 18, 2014

260 dead is the beginning of the second catastrophe

Someone said to me recently, “So what? The Israelis are just supposed to let down the Palestinians in Gaza continue to shoot rockets at them?”

And I said, “Yes.”

And he said, “Because Israel and can handle it? Because no one is dying in Israel like they are in Palestine?”

He got it. We had just been looking at the death toll for the current Palestine Israel conflict. Today, there have been more than 260 Palestinian deaths in the past week; there have been 2 Israeli deaths, and one was caused by friendly fire. Israel has now invaded the Gaza Strip.

This is not to say that the Israelis should just accept this shower of rockets from Gaza. And this is not to say that the situation isn’t dangerous for Israel. But as a country with a superior air force, which support from the US government, with a strong, stable economy, Israel should be able to deal with the danger of Palestinian militants in a different way than just blindly killing scores of Palestinians.

The aggressive acts by Hamas-affiliated Palestinians are committed out of desperation. The Palestinians have nothing. They do not have access to building supplies. The Israelis collect taxes for the Palestinians but will not disburse it to them. The Egyptians have withdrawn support. The Palestinians have limited access to the rest of the world other than what can be smuggled from Egypt and Iran.

What Israel and the world must learn is to be charitable even to our enemies. Israel has pressed in upon the Palestinians and have offered little support for the people they have displaced. Israel is not going away. Palestinians must accept this, but Israel must be a little more accommodating.

Negotiations have between the Israelis and Palestinians have been continuing for decades. I do not expect these peoples to come to any accord anytime soon. But in the mean time, Israel can aid a suffering people who are their neighbors and with whose history theirs will be forever entwined. Israel can provide monetary aid. They can provide building supplies. They can provide food and water. Alleviating the stress and suffering experienced in the Gaza Strip may alleviate some of the pressure that contributes to these missile attacks. Not only would this be a humanitarian gesture, but it would be strategic to continuing negotiations, to compromise, and to finding final peace.

What has happened instead will probably be remembered as a second catastrophe. Palestinians continue to die; Palestinians will continue to suffer; nothing will be solved. With this latest aggression, the world needs to hold Israel accountable for its crimes.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Long trip; long odds

My sister left this evening from Birmingham, driving with our cousin’s fiancee to Tampa, a ten hour road trip to visit our madre who has recently moved to Florida. It’s a long drive, especially with a very young woman my sister only knows casually though my cousin. And then there’s Tampa. And madre. And who knows what they’ll find on the way as the foothills of the Appalachians around Birmingham flatten out around Montgomery to fall flat to the coast, where they will leave behind the trees and green for the Serengeti of coastal Florida.

I wish I were my making this trip with my sister. We need to have a long road trip like this together, especially if it’s to visit madre in her new home of Tampa, Florida. We need to explore that city together, to sit on the beach and make snide remarks about Florida, sidelong remarks that might puzzle our madre even as she pretends she has heard nothing.

My sister, Evian, has had long week. She’s fretted about a “friend date” as she calls it with a man we befriended years ago when I still lived in Birmingham. Not even a date, my sister just wanted to meet new people in Birmingham, make new connections, but she found the spectre of the rendez-vous with a near stranger overwhelming. Understandably, I should say.

I found myself recently in a group who started joking about how absurd it would be for young gentiles to try their luck on JDate, the Jewish dating website. They imagined awkward questions like, “So Jesus… Is he just some hot guy on a cross, or is he… your savior?” I stopped listening and my mind started to think about how in Islamic tradition Jesus is not the messiah but he is considered a prophet. And then I thought about the upcoming Ramadan holiday. I thought about the Muslim students in my boyfriend’s class who would be fasting.

The group had moved on from dating services to celebrity gossip and I knew that none of my thoughts would be interesting if shared. They wanted jokes and dirt and scandal and another drink. Often I want to talk about China and language and novels and the news when everyone else’s head is moving another way. Which doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t like the company I find myself with, but it does mean that sometimes hanging out with some people at certain times isn’t as interesting or as fun as it can be for other people in the group.

Forging relationships, meeting new friends, can be difficult. Meetings between new friends require a great amount of concentration; one has to adjust to the mannerisms and speech and energy and interests of another person. One must defer to them; one must hear them and respond. Simultaneously one must not come across as too proud or cocky or sad or lame or boring or neurotic or judgmental. The pas de deux is difficult but sometimes it’s the only way to move forward.

Like my sister, I also find social engagements nerve-racking, energy-sapping, and awkward. And I feel many people feel the same way when first meeting a new person. There are those of us in the world who may be socially apt, who may find any social situation effortless, but I think for the bulk of us, it can be trying. We ease into friendships.

And to avoid loneliness, we just have to do it. We have to say hello.  We have to say excuse me, do you mind if I ask what you are reading? We have to say, could I buy you a drink? We have to put up with the awkwardness. And boringness. And insecurity.

I'm always grateful for the friendship I have with my sister. It's easy. When last in Birmingham, we drank margaritas together and watched tv and played with the dog. Simple, not boring. I miss her all the time. But now we need to start planning that road trip: Birmingham to Tampa, all the way down the Florida coast. All the way to the beach, to more margaritas and sunshine and private jokes and hours of all our favorite tunes.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cuba is not Vietnam is not China

She said when her boat arrived in Cuba from Massachusetts, the boat owner asked her to pull out a bar of soap. She had been instructed to bring as many cheap bars of soap as she could. The owner of the boat shaved a sliver of soap from the bar and gave it to a woman who returned with a week’s worth of produce, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some friends recently described their experiences traveling in Cuba. They both were appalled by the poverty in which Cubans live. They seemed to feel great sympathy and pity for what they describe as the abject poverty Cubans live in.

And I said, if everyone is so poor, why wouldn’t you just give all the soap away to everyone.

Certainly I understand the idea that you might need to protect yourself as a tourist, that it’s not always a good idea to draw attention to yourself, to flaunt your wealth. It makes sense to remain inconspicuous when traveling in any country. But if the people of Cuba are living in the crippling poverty as described to me that night, how could one not want to give up something as simple as soap if one finds him or herself in that position?

Last week I listened to a series of stories about Cuba on NPR. One woman described the residents in Mariel longing for the end of the U.S. embargo, believing that with its end will come a period of opening and great prosperity in Cuba. I agree. I think the embargo is antiquated and it is time to normalize relations with the country. I, too, believe that lifting the embargo could do a lot for the Cuban economy, but I cannot believe that the situation in Cuba will change drastically just because the U.S. will open itself up to trade with the nation.

One of my friends that night said that once the embargo stops he sees factories opening in Cuba and extolled what benefits that could bring the economy. “I mean can you even imagine what a Nike factory opening in Cuba could mean for these people that only make twenty dollars a month?” He pointed out the economic lift that had occurred in China and Vietnam because of the U.S. factories that had opened in those countries.

China is not Vietnam. While the U.S. and China have very large populations and the largest economies in the world. In terms of GDP, Vietnam ranks only as the 55th largest economy in the world according to the U.N., directly under Ukraine, New Zealand, and Romania. Cuba, with its economy “on the brink of collapse” according to my friends, ranks only a little below this as the 65th largest economy. And let’s point out one very telling fact: Vietnam has a population close to 90 million people whereas Cuba only has a population just over 11 million.

With a population including over 1.3 billion people, China has an extremely large workforce and domestic market. But it is obviously not just population and the factory work sent from the U.S. to China that has buoyed the Chinese economy. Let’s remember that Japan held the title of second largest economy for decades. Japan’s current population is 126 million, much less than half that of China’s, and relatively only a little larger than that of Vietnam. (And to put it in perspective, let me also mention that the U. S. population is currently coming in around 318 million.

So what then makes a successful economy, like those of China, Japan, the U.S. and Europe? Innovation. We understand it when we think about the U.S. and Europe and Japan, but it is time we understand that the Chinese economy is not just propped up on manufacturing.

I’ve heard it before: China has dozens of large metropolises you have never heard of. Americans know Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, but what about Guangzhou and Nanjing and Shenzhen and Chongqing. My boyfriend lived two years in Kunming, a city in Yunnan province I had never heard of, with a metropolitan population quite a bit larger than that of Portland’s. The real estate market is huge in China and people are making money.

I like to say China has dozens of huge companies you have never heard of. Xiaomi, Tencent, Weibo, Feiyue: these are only a few of the companies that America has even the faintest inkling of but are huge in China. Sure, Nike sells shoes in China, but China has Feiyue, which now hipsters in Brooklyn buy for six times the price they would pay in Shanghai. Apple has a relatively small presence in the Chinese smartphone market, and this fall, Xiaomi, one of the other major players there, hopes to offer a phone to the American market.

A Nike factory in Cuba isn’t going to change the Cuban economy. With manufacturing wages may be lifted, people in general may come to have more disposable income or more stable jobs, but it will not automatically produce the prosperity we experience in America or China or Europe or Canada. Sure, the embargo must be lifted, but the Cuban government and the Cuban people must also search for a way to push internal economic security, to push for and encourage local innovation and entrepreneurship. Imported jobs manufacturing foreign developed commodities will not grow an economy.

It may be idealistic to say the Cuban people should hope for something more than just to see the end of the embargo because I don’t have a solution. If we are truly concerned about the conditions in any country, we must definitely see that American manufacturing cannot import prosperity. The Cuban government and people must find a way to nurture innovation and put in place an economy that invests and develops internally.