Tuesday, October 30, 2007

To Die In Jerusalem

When I was seven years old my brother and I were fighting in the back seat of my grandmother’s car. This particular skirmish had a back-story of recriminations and mutual dirty deeds. We were both angry. Each of us felt justified. As the fight escalated everyone in the car and others on the highway were endangered. So my grandmother turned sharply and simply said, “Stop it!” We both protested about who started what and when. My grandmother wasn’t having any of it and forcefully declared, “I don’t’ care who started it. It stops now.” We stopped. Grandma had spoken.

I recalled that incident from my childhood while watching a “screener” for the documentary, To Die in Jerusalem which premiers on HBO this Thursday at 9:00 P.M. EST.

To Die in Jerusalem recounts the tragic story about two teenaged girls – one a 17-year-old Israeli student named Rachel Levy, the other an 18-year-old Palestinian student/suicide bomber named Ayat al-Akhras – brutally entwined by fate in March 2002. They died together in a Jerusalem market when Ayat chose the path of martyrdom. Both girls made the cover of Newsweek as a result.

This documentary focuses on Rachel’s mother, Abigail Levy, efforts to coordinate a one-on-one meeting with her counterpart, Um Samir. Both mothers are in pain and victims of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On camera, Um Samir claims she would have stopped her daughter “by force” if she had known what Ayat planned to do. At the same time she blames the state of Israel for an occupation that has compelled Palestinians to resist by any means necessary. Naturally, Abigail Levy believes the act to be senseless murder making peace even more unattainable.

The mothers finally speak via satellite hookup. In fleeting moments there seems to be the potential for common ground. Um Samir proclaims they are both victims and observes that presidents and prime ministers who make decisions of war and peace were far above mothers like them. But as the conversation continued it was clear they were both culturally and ideologically locked and incapable of processing the other’s point of view.

Abigail Levy simply couldn’t accept that Israel’s occupation bore any responsibility for nurturing an environment of hate among the Palestinians. Um Samir seemed incapable of accepting that terrorism was only digging the Palestinians into a deeper hole of despair and therefore her daughter as well as other suicide bombers had sacrificed their lives for nothing.

The documentary ends with both giving up on trying to persuade the other because neither is truly listening to the other. When it ended my heart felt as if it were impaled on a dull blade. Um Samir had declared that presidents and prime ministers were above mothers like them. In reality the leadership of both societies largely reflect both of these mothers. Consequently, it’s doubtful we’ll see peace between both peoples in my lifetime.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Albany's Mayor For Life: An Interview With Erastus Corning Biographer Paul Grondahl

Erastus Corning 2nd was elected mayor of Albany, New York eleven times, serving forty-two consecutive years, an unsurpassed tenure in American political history. Even before birth, Corning’s destiny as Albany’s “mayor for life” was scripted. As pillars of the WASP establishment, Corning men were expected to attend Groton and Yale and assume positions of leadership in industry and politics. One could say that the Corning family was noblesse oblige on steroids: an assumption that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities. Yet the noblesse oblige represented by the Cornings had a dark side as their class established an oligarchy in Albany to preserve their status and power.

In the 1920s, the financial, institutional and industrial strength represented by the Corning dynasty forged an omnipotent alliance led by a salty tongued Irish working class political boss named Dan O’Connell. This unlikely union of the well bred Corning family and the O’Connell clan of Irish saloonkeepers initially bonded through cock fighting! Eratus’s father Edwin served as Lt. Governor in the late ‘20s and collaborated with O’Connell until poor health forced him to step away from politics.

When Edwin Corning died in 1934, Dan O’Connell became a surrogate father for the future mayor. As Albany’s political boss, O’Connell paved the way for Corning to assume the reins and become mayor at the age of thirty-two in 1941. Corning served until he died in 1983. Ironically, this powerful man who battled Thomas Dewey, sparred with Nelson Rockefeller and mentored Mario Cuomo, never enjoyed the power of self-determination.

A complex and lonely soul, Corning presided over a fiefdom of cronyism, corruption and stability. He mingled easily with the working class that the O’Connell-Corning machine kept obedient while enjoying the exclusive privileges of men in his social class. As other cities peaked with post war development and endured social turbulence in the 1960s, Albany remained virtually unchanged. And the citizens of Albany continued to return Corning to power.

Paul Grondahl, an award winning journalist with the Albany Times Union skillfully captured the “shadow" and “light” of Corning’s rule, as well as his convoluted private life in his book, Mayor Erastus Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. Originally published in 1997, Grondahl’s biography about Corning was just released in paperback by the State University of New York Press.

William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Ironweed, writes in the introduction that,
“This is an important book for Albany, for anyone interested in political power. It widens our vision (with a view from inside City Hall) of the O’Connell Democratic organization, which controlled Albany from 1921 until the Mayor died in 1983, making it the longest-running boss machine in American political history.”
Grondahl agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book and Erastus Corning. Our conversation lasted forty-five minutes as we discussed the public figure, the political machine he served and his private life. Please refer to the media player below.

This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store at no cost by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Demand Serious Change

I received an important email today from J-Ro at The Seminal, a group blog that,
"presents an independent media viewpoint outside of partisan politics and corporate control. Hailing from all over the globe, our writers bring you thoughtful commentary on current events."
They've organized a national protest movement against the ongoing war in Iraq. As J-RO put it to me,
"Our blog has started a national protest movement against the Iraq war called Serious Change . Serious Change is about reclaiming the symbols of power for progressives and for the anti-war movement. We protest in professional attire to communicate that we are intelligent, we are organized, and we are seriously dissatisfied with our country’s direction. We demand Serious Change."
You can read more about it by clicking here. One of the cities they will be marching in is New York. Information on where and when to meet can be found by clicking here. Even if you can't make it yourselves, please publicize this information on your own blogs to help recruit as many people as possible.

Simply put, we're killing people we shouldn't be killing. And we're losing people we shouldn't be losing. The time has long past for Serious Change. Blogging is wonderful and the "netroots" have accomplished things. However, we will not end this war from our keyboards. Stopping a war requires marching feet and leather lungs.

How the U.S. Helped Sink Larijani

Editor's Note: This is Barbara Slavin's first post with the Intrepid Liberal Journal. She is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." Barbara has also covered the Middle East for over twenty-years as a reporter, most recently as a senior diplomatic corresspondent with USA Today. I'm most gratified at Barbara's willingness to share her unique perspective. The views expressed here are her own.

Bush administration officials often say they don't understand the Iranian government. They have proven this time and time again by undermining those mostly likely to negotiate crucial differences with the United States. Now the administration appears to have lost yet another opportunity to slow Iran's march to nuclear power and its efforts to play the spoiler in the Middle East.

The loss this time involves Ali Larijani, a red-bearded intellectual who styles himself Iran's Henry Kissinger. A conservative who ran for president and lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Larijani got the consolation prize of chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of Iran's national security council. This weekend, Larijani resigned from the negotiator post. His replacement: an obscure deputy foreign minister, Saeed Jalili, who is said to be an ally of Ahmadinejad.

Despite a reputation as a hardliner, Larijani began reaching out to the United States soon after Iranian elections in 2005. In an interview he gave me in Tehran in February 2006, Larijani praised his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Hadley, as a "logical thinker" and said "there is no limitation on our side" to negotiations with the United States.

Larijani authorized a deputy, Mohammad Javad Jaffari, to ask for backchannel talks with Hadley or a designated emissary. When the White House did not respond, Larijani publicly on March 16, 2006, accepted a prior U.S. offer for talks limited to the situation in Iraq. A week later, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the proposal -- a dramatic step for someone who had up until then threatened those who publicly advocated talks with the United States as traitors. An Iranian website close to the conservative leadership, Baztab, announced that the Iranians had put together a high-level delegation and that talks would begin in Baghdad on April 9. But the Bush administration got cold feet. Its refusal to meet undermined Larijani within the Iranian power structure and humiliated Khamenei. The chief beneficiary was Ahmadinejad.

The United States finally agreed to enter nuclear negotiations at the end of May 2006 but only if Iran would suspend its efforts to enrich uranium and as part of talks including Britain, Germany, France and the European Union. (Larijani did take part in a half dozen subsequent meetings with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana but without success.) Direct U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq did not take place until May of this year. Delay on both fronts has been costly: Despite a U.S.-driven campaign of pressure and sanctions, Iran-backed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq have escalated and Iran is much closer to the ability to make nuclear bombs. President Bush said last week an Iran with nuclear weapons would usher in "World War III."

A U.S. decision to talk to Iran unconditionally in 2006 might not have stemmed this escalation. But it is impossible to know -- just as it is impossible to say what would have happened had the Bush administration not put Iran on an "axis of evil" in 2002 or accepted an offer for comprehensive negotiations with the government of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, in May 2003.

Administration officials argue that U.N. and other sanctions are exacerbating divisions within the Iranian regime and that Iran will eventually knuckle under to pressure. Divisions certainly are increasing in Tehran but the "reasonable people," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likes to call them, are still not getting their way. The victors so far are those like Ahmadinejad who argue that the best way to earn U.S. respect and recognition is to confront Americans in Iraq and elsewhere and gain the capacity to build nuclear bombs as soon as possible.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Interview With Iranian Expert and Journalist Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today since 1996 and author of the recently published book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin’s Press), writes that,
“Iran and the United States are like a once happily married couple that has gone through a bitter divorce. Harsh words have been exchanged – husband and wife have come to blows and employed others to inflict more punishment. Apologizing is hard and changing behavior even harder. This relationship is unequal, with one side or the other feeling more vulnerable at any given time and afraid the other will take advantage of concessions.”
Currently, the public faces of both nations, presidents George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been content to throw rhetorical bombs and raise the diplomatic temperature – increasing the likelihood of war. Indeed, at times it appears that conservative hardliners in both countries are eager for conflict as a means to maintain their respective grips on power.

The journey from the CIA backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader Mossadeq in 1953 and replaced him with the Shah, to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and current tensions is replete with ill conceived schemes that damaged both nations. Slavin, using her extensive contacts among the powerful inside Iran and the United States, documents missed opportunities for reconciliation between both countries during the administrations of the first President Bush as well as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The combination of her remarkable access to people such as Madeline Albright, Condelezza Rice, Iranian reformers like former President Mohammad Khatami, longtime establishment figures such as Ali Rafsanjani, as well as dissidents like Akbar Ganji and everyday citizens, allows Slavin to shed sunlight on a nation most Americans know very little about. She is also the first newspaper reporter from the United States to interview Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

Slavin has accompanied three secretaries of State on their official travels and reported from Iran, Libya, Israel, Egypt, North Korea, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Syria. She is also a regular commentator for U.S. foreign policy on National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System's Washington Week In Review and C-Span. This month, she joined the U.S. Institute of Peace as a Jennings Randolph fellow, to continue her research on Iran. Slavin also serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prior to joining USA Today, Slavin was a Washington-based writer for The Economist and the Los Angeles Times, covering domestic and foreign policy issues, including the 1991-93 Middle East peace talks in Washington. From 1985-89, she was The Economist's correspondent in Cairo. During her career, Slavin has traveled widely in the Middle East, covering the Iran-Iraq war, the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya, the political evolution of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Earlier in the 1980s, Slavin also served as The Economist's correspondent in Beijing and reported from Japan and South Korea.

Prior to moving abroad, she worked as a writer and editor for The New York Times Week in Review section and a reporter and editor for United Press International in New York City.

Slavin agreed to a podcast interview with me about her book, Iran and their turbulent relationship with the United States. Please refer to the media player below. Our conversation is just under thirty minutes. This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes Store by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are Voters Irrational: An Interview With Economist Bryan Caplan

People across the political spectrum routinely question the senses, intelligence and values of their fellow voters. A decade ago conservatives chafed, as President Bill Clinton remained popular in spite of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In recent years liberals like myself seethed while Republicans maintained one-party dominance in spite of their incompetence and criminal policies. They’re also citizens who challenge the wisdom of any voter who supports the two-party duopoly.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and co-editor of EconLog challenges the rationality of voters with his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press). Caplan, a libertarian, contends that democracies fail because of voters themselves rather than favorite scapegoats such as special interests. He argues that voters are regulated by four irrational prejudices:

1. Too little faith in the free market;
2. A distrust of foreigners;
3. Undervaluing the conservation of labor;
4. Unjustified pessimism that the economy is going from bad to worse.

Referencing those four biases are a reoccurring theme of Caplan’s book that skillfully mixes economics, political science, and psychology to analyze how voters think and the public policies that result from what they want. Overall his book is compelling and provocative. On July 30th, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times referred to Caplan’s book as “the best political book this year.”

I concur with Caplan that for too many voters ideology is analogous to religious faith and evidence doesn’t penetrate their entrenched worldviews. However, as a liberal I disagree with Caplan’s equating skepticism about the free market or free trade agreements with irrationality.

In my opinion the free market isn’t appropriate for all sectors of the economy such as healthcare or education and free trade has too many imbalances that require attention. Furthermore, I believe too many conservative/libertarian economists ignore the hidden economy that isn’t measured by the Gross Domestic Product or quarterly statements. Caplan of course disagrees and I suppose by his definition I’m one of those irrational voters.

Each of us can become imprisoned by our own belief systems and it’s healthy to challenge our perspectives. Caplan graciously agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his controversial book. Our conversation was approximately forty minutes. Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Erik Prince Is the 21st Century Cadillac Queen

Remember when Ronald Reagan mythologized welfare recipients as “Cadillac queens” who lived luxuriously off the government as a presidential candidate in 1980? His anecdotal hyperbole about welfare Cadillac queens successfully exploited racial stereotypes and helped convince working class whites that government “was the problem.” Hence the “Reagan Revolution” facilitated an ethos of hyper individualism that dwarfed community values as greedy privatization fundamentalists lay in the high weeds.

Erik Prince, the 38-year old owner of Blackwater USA, is the public face of this privatization fundamentalism championed by corporatist conservatives. Click here to review Prince’s political contributions according to the Federal Election Commission database. Since 1998 Prince has donated over $140,000 to either the Republican National Committee or its candidates. Naturally, Blackwater USA was awarded a no bid contract in the aftermath of “Mission Accomplished.” As Jerry Schall, an investigative reporter for The Nation put it, Blackwater USA are "hired guns, above the law."

Erik Prince and his company illustrate how our government and civil service has been subcontracted to hell, even to the point of using mercenaries in war. They are funded by American taxpayers, committing crimes in our name but have not been regulated.

Thankfully, Representative Henry Waxman of California's 30th congressional district is relentlessly pursuing the truth about Blackwater. But that is not enough. Once and for all, Democrats and liberal/progressives of all banners must vigilantly make people like Erik Prince the personification of all that is immoral and wrong about privatization run amok. Reagan’s, welfare Cadillac queen was a myth. Prince and his company are shamefully real. And the innocent blood they’ve shed in America’s name is also real.

Too many people such as Erik Prince are profiting off the American war machine, as well as our deteriorating healthcare system and the prison industrial complex. As private contractors they have avoided accountability for their incompetence and indecency. The time has long past to rise up and challenge their perversion of our economy, values and national honor.

ADDENDUM: I’ve received some emails from loyal readers noting that I’ve reverted to posting mostly on the weekends and wondering why. Well, as some may have noticed, I’ve had numerous interview posts in recent weeks with authors. Reading and preparing for the interviews are quite time consuming as I have a fulltime job. Consequently, I’ve had to sacrifice posting more frequently or writing developed essays for the time being. Please stay tuned as my next few interviews in October and November are with provocative and accomplished subjects. Most likely they will be posted in podcast format on weekends.