Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Release and Surrender

US Navy Seals snipers killed three Somali pirates to rescue American ship captain Richard Phillips this past Sunday. 

While browsing comments on a NY Times article about the recent incident I came across mixed views of the military action. The majority of commenters praised the snipers and wished the captain well. A good deal of the comments were nationalistic shouts that bordered on bloodlust and called for increased military presence off the coast of Somalia. 
However, a very small percentage of the comments were from people who did not think the military action was necessary. 

Daisy from Brooklyn commented that "we have simply murdered three people who had not dome the same to the Captain" and that she could "never applaud killings." Other comments alluded to the lopsided nature of the standoff (US Navy vs. raggedy lifeboat) and the fact that the pirates are only concerned with money and have never actually harmed any of their hostages in the past.

Imagine if your child had his/her money taken every single day by a bully at school. You go to the school and demand that the extortion end immediately. But, the principal says the bullying is allowed because your child has never been hurt. As long as the bully doesn't harm your child it's okay to have the money stolen. 

The above analogy may oversimplify the situation because there is a lot more going on behind the scenes. You have to empathize with the Somali kids who see no other option than crime to make ends meet. A young man's career choices are severely limited in the regions of Somalia where pirates abound. There is information that suggests the pirates use some of the ransom money and stolen cargo to feed hungry Somalian civilians. There is probably some profound reason why the bully is taking your child's money also. But you don't want to hear anything about that when you are responsible for your child's well-being. Likewise, the US (Barack Obama) had to make a decision here. 

The pirates have been successful in hijacking commercial ships for millions of dollars in ransom for many years now. They had to draw the line somewhere though. And the line was drawn once they saw the US flag waving on the Maersk Alabama ship. Not because the US is better than other nations. But simply because the pirates should understand US history and foreign policy. All of the hijacking made the pirates brazen and arrogant. They never thought there would be any retaliation and money would continually flow from insurance company coffers while the ransom game remained status quo. The United States doesn't play these games. Especially not with the world watching. 

I don't want to see anyone get killed. Especially not teenagers, because the three Somalis ranged in age from 17 to 19. But, if nothing else, people have to realize the history of the US when it comes to military action. As we have recently seen in Iraq, the US will launch a preemptive strike for no reason at all. In this particular situation, FBI negotiatiors were brought in to control the talks with the pirates. The pirates repeatedly tried to secure a "ransom" and were repeatedly told to release the captain and surrender themselves. There is no negotiation.  

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Response to NY Times Article: No More Excuses?

Charles Blow, op-ed columnist for the NY Times, wrote an interesting piece about black children's opportunities in America in the wake of Obama's election. Check it out here. And then read my response below:

Let's take it easy on Rep. Clyburn.

I am a fifth grade teacher. I have been telling my kids the same thing since Obama was elected last year. You have no more excuses. I will continue to tell them that until they leave my class in June. I have told all of my students to leave their excuses at the door even before I knew who Barack Obama was. Is the alternative to tell them that they "should" have excuses? My job as a teacher is to make sure that they succeed in life. I am responsible for giving them the tools to move forward. Obama is a perfect symbol of what they can be.

Is every student in my class going to succeed. No. I see exactly what goes on in the children's home lives. It's sad. Not all of the situations, but too many of them. Parenting and opportunity are the key and Mr. Blow is spot on with that assessment. However, opportunity is not afforded to everyone. If everyone was successful then "success" would have no meaning. If everyone was an employer then there would be no employees. And that's where the institutional aspect of opportunity begins to rear its head. This world is not designed for everyone to achieve. Someone always has to be at the bottom while others stay on top.

I know all of this and I will still tell my students to "have no excuses". They know better than anyone else how hard their lives are.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Celebrity You Don't Know

At first, Barack Obama was a celebrity. But now, you don't know Barack Obama. This is the new attack strategy that was fed by McCain's camp and is being disseminated by the media.

Well, which one is it? Is Obama a celebrity or don't we know him?

There's a lapse in logic here. Let's look at the two celebrities that were compared to Obama in the attempt to humiliate and emasculate him. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Two reckless white girls who are in the news all the time for the most scandalous affairs money will allow. The main point is that they are "in the news all the time."

The media frames our perceptions of issues through repetitious bombardment of images and ideas. The average American wouldn't tell you that they don't know Britney Spears. People have formed some opinion of her, good or bad, and she has been co-opted as part of the mainstream culture. The same with Paris Hilton, O.J. Simpson, Oprah, Martha Stewart, and Ronald McDonald.

It would obviously be exaggerating and misleading to say that we know Paris Hilton like she was our best friend. To say that you know a celebrity is just a way of saying "I know about them" or "I have an idea of what that person is about." Well, Barack Obama is in the news all the time. His life is being exposed and dissected in every conceivable way. I'm pretty sure the average person could tell you a lot about Obama - good or bad. So, don't they know him?

As a matter of fact, in a recent CBS/NY Times poll, 55% of the surveyed pool said that they identified with Obama. McCain received 41%.

However, this aspect of the debate is not so relevant in the media. It seems to be taken for granted that the majority of Americans relate to McCain more. Just by watching the news, you would get the impression that John McCain was actually in your kitchen right now eating grits. That's how down-home he is.

The real truth is that the average American over 17 is an uneducated voter. Most people can't tell you what committees McCain sits on, what legislation he has or has not voted for, his true stances on most issues that affect the public, and probably not even what state he's from or how long he's been in the Senate. If they even know he is a senator. All people know is held hostage for five years in Vietnam.

In all fairness, the House of Congress is so far removed from our daily lives, literally and figuratively, that we don't know that much about most politicians. Unless you have the opportunity to watch C-Span all day long or run in political circles, you know what the media tells you.

Therefore, it is completely disingenuous for the media to keep spinning the "we don't know Barack" tale. If I'm not mistaken, Obama had significant polling margins over McCain that are just recently beginning to dwindle.

Is it that people dont know Barack Obama? Or, are people trying to forget him as the elections get closer?

Update: On the Sunday, August 31 edition of Meet The Press (MSNBC): In referring to Barack Obama, presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, said "...we know him now."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here

I had to go to the Post Office last week to deliver a package. I had been putting this chore off for over a week. Why? Because I hate going there. You already know what I'm going to say. It's the lines. They are ridiculous. Last week was no different. I hadn't actually planned on going this particular day but I went right by one and I was surprised because it was still open at a quarter to six. I didn't realize the Post Office extended their hours to 7pm on weekdays. 

Anyway, I go inside and there was indeed a long line. Since I was sending a package I knew that I needed to get one of those mailing slips to put on my envelope. When I walked in, there were 12 people on line. In the thirty seconds that it took me to go from the front door to the window to pick up the slips, three more people had magically appeared on the line. I was number 16 all of a sudden. 

I didn't know which mailing slip to grab so I just took all three that were available. I did this for a couple of reasons. Mainly because I didn't know which one I needed. When you eventually get to the window, you realize that you either don't have a slip or that you have the wrong one. The cashier then tells you to get the proper slip and fill it out on the side. The problem is that while you're doing that, the next customer in line steps up in your place and you have to wait for that transaction to be completed. Then the other people on line are looking at you all crazy like you're taking their place. I meant to avoid all of that.

Another reason I took all those slips was to occupy myself while waiting on the line. About five minutes had elapsed by now and I realized that the person that was first in line when I came in was still first in line. I was still number 16. I figured by the time I finished filling out those three labels, I should be closer to the front. But in reality, by the time I finished with the labels I had barely moved. 

I think Dante wrote the Divine Comedy while he was in some medieval post office. Being at the back of the post office line is like being in Hell. The front of the line is like Purgatory and actually getting to the window is like arriving at the gates of Heaven.

As I burned at the back of the line with nothing else to do, I started noticing things. Waiting in long lines with people you don't know will heighten your awareness of your surroundings. The first thing I noticed was that there were 11 total windows in this post office. Eight of them were for retail transactions. Two were for inquiries, and one was for passports. There were only two retail windows open. There was a postal worker behind another window but she was just sitting there doing nothing. She had something in her hand which I couldn't see because I was so far away. But what I could see was that she wasn't calling anybody to her window.

The inquiry side is where you go when you have to pick up a package. You know when you get that little pink slip in the mail because the delivery was attempted when you weren't home. Then the next day you get another pink slip that says "Second Attempt" because the package was delivered at the same time as the day before when you weren't home again.

Since I was focused so intently on everything around me, I suddenly noticed that there was an irate senior citizen at this inquiry window. His voice was rapidly escalating. Apparently, he was home all day and the package he was expecting never came. Yet, somehow he was left with a "Second Attempt" slip. He started yelling. He wanted to know, "How can two come before one?" He also kept warning the worker behind the bulletproof glass not to "play him like lotto." He kept repeating these statements for the majority of the time that I was there. Every once in a while he demanded to speak to a manager that never came.

I also noticed other little things that became annoying after a while. A baby. A balloon. A woman cursing on her cellphone. She had the baby. The baby had the balloon. Even more irritating was the worker behind retail window number one who was still doing nothing. Why don't they have curtains or something that prevents the public from seeing these people when they aren't working? I don't want to see that. Nobody does. It's the same thing at the bank. It makes waiting in line more frustrating.

However, the thing that frustrated me the most was the relaxed faces of the other postal workers that were actually servicing people. I guess the USPS really did a good job of addressing workplace rage after that spate of killings in the early 90s by so many of their employees. Maybe they did too good of a job. I can't remember the last time I have seen a stressed out postal worker. But I remember the last time I saw some disgruntled customers. I was in a line full of them. I was one of them. This line was barely moving. I wasn't even in Purgatory yet. 

Finally, after about  fifteen minutes, another window opened up. It was for stamps and money orders only. It was the express line and several people got on it. I wasn't one of them but I was able to move up to the front of my line. For some reason I felt cooler. 

Now, I was only two sinners away from the pearly gates. My heart rate increased slightly and the endorphins got happy. I was so close that I could see what was going on behind window number one. Nothing. But I didn't care about that anymore because I was only a few feet from the promised land. I turned my head around to look at the people who came in after me. I could feel their pain, but it was my time to go. I had already paid my dues. John McCain's a fool for staying in that Hilton. 

A couple of minutes passed and then I heard the "Bing!" and saw the flashing light. It resembled the light at the end of a tunnel. I stepped up to the window. The cashier was nice. All stress free and whatnot. I showed her what I was delivering and asked for the envelope that could fit the items inside. I was ready to slap one of my labels on it. But the envelope I needed didn't need labels. I had to write on it by hand. And then the cashier said what I had dreaded hearing all along:

"Fill this out over there and then come back to me when you're done."

But I was already done. In every sense of the word. After all that time, this is what it had come to. Ridiculousness. I could feel the burning gaze of the damned behind me. I read their thoughts. "So now we have to wait for you too?" I moved over slightly and quickly wrote out the addresses for the fourth time. But it was too late. The next person on line was called out of Purgatory, still smoldering. Smelling like ash. She had nothing less than 30 separate pieces of mail that needed to be stamped and weighed. And all I could do was watch and wait as it got hotter and hotter.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Like A Fella Once Said...

Last Saturday, Angel Valodia Matos from Cuba kicked a referee in the face during his Olympic taekwondo match with an opponent from Kazakhstan. Apparently, Matos broke his toe while fighting his opponent for the bronze medal. The rules give fighters one minute to tend to their wounds. When the minute was up, Matos was disqualified from the match by the Swedish referee. He was obviously not too happy about the decision and after some scuttlebutt on the mat, Matos put his foot all over the ref's lip. Hard and quickly. If you haven't seen the video yet then please search for it online. (Click here for a picture.) I happened to catch a replay on MSNBC. It was quite entertaining.

So, if he could still fight, why did he kick the referee?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Date With A War

Last week at the gym I was near a gentleman who was watching the television on his exercise bike. He turned to the person next to him and said, "Russia is at war with Georgia and they're playing in the Olympics. That's not right."

I'm paraphrasing, but that was the jist of his comment. It's funny because a few days earlier, I made the same comment to myself. Countries at war shouldn't be competing in the Olympics. But then I had to stop and think...the USA is at war right now too.

Initially, I started this post to discuss whether it is okay for warring countries to compete in the Olympics. But now my attention has focused more on how conveniently people overlook similar situations.

The question is: why did we so easily forget that we live in a country at war also? This is an interesting question especially considering the fact that the Iraq War recently passed its fifth anniversary. However, that's precisely the point. The war has been going on for so long that we are immune to it. (From here on out, I'll take license and use "we" to mean the average person living in the US who is not a soldier in Iraq or the family of one.) It's become part of the scenery. We've been dating the Iraq War too long. Just like in a relationship, it's new and exciting at first. But after five years you just get used to it.

And, even though we suffer from the effects of the war in many ways, we are largely insulated from it. This is mainly because the war is not taking place on American soil. Most Americans are not used to experiencing war. The last time a war broke out here was in 1890. It would be hard to find a person alive who even knows someone that fought at Wounded Knee. So it's easy to relegate a war going on half way across the world to a minor role in our lives, despite all of the "footage" and reporting we receive from the media. Now if you were an Iraqi, I'm sure the war would have a totally different level of prominence. We are grateful that we haven't had to experience any modern wars here. Can you imagine your house being blown up by a tank and foreign soldiers running through your street? This is why a video game like Call of Duty could only be conceived in the USA. We are truly simulating someone else's reality.

Ultimately, the fact that the South Ossetia War broke out on the dawn of the Olympics is what initially led me to question whether the countries' athletes should participate. When I heard about Russian forces entering Georgia my mind immediately traveled to the next hot international topic; the games in Beijing. The new war made me forget about our beleagured five-year relationship with the old war and I was more concerned about punishing athletes than the welfare of the Georgian citizens.

So as we sit around and complain about gas and mortgages and unemployment and which candidate is more incompetent, remember, that we can also ride our exercise bikes and not worry about bombs dropping outside the gym.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Late Is The New On Time

I'm beginning to realise that meeting times are just very loose estimates. When people say meet me at such and such a time, they really mean plus or minus about 20-25 minutes. Which is not that bad considering, but I could be doing other things in that time. I try to be as punctual as possible for the most part. I get to work on time, and get to my meetings on time. I leave early enough to be early. If I'm late then I'll call.

What really gets me is when people assign a time and then show up late themselves.But now the new thing is that people call and say they'll be late at the time they said to meet. What's that about?