Saturday, July 7, 2007

Where Do Arab Americans Fit In?

Jack Shaheen, a renowned scholar and retired professor from Southern Illinois University, has recently become famous for his book and subsequent documentary, entitled "Reel Bad Arabs." Both highlight the ways in which Hollywood and American media have long presented stereotypical views of Arabs. while it is true that Hollywood villifies Arabs to a much greater extent than any other minority group, Shaheen's work brings much-needed attention to the underlying issue: how do Arab-Americans fit into American society, especially in the post-9/11 era?

While we have seen a dramatic increase in negativity towards Arabs in American since 9/11, this is not, by any stretch of the mind, a new phenomenon. In his book entitled "The Arabs," veteran journalist David Lamb tries to understand the Arab people and make sense of where Arab-American relations went wrong. He explores specific decisions in history that have had a much more significant consequences than our leaders at the time could have ever predicted.

For instance, he elaborates on how President Roosevelt, after World War Two, promised that he would not make any decisions on the critical Palestinian issue without consulting King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia. However, this promise was quickly forgotten as Roosevelt's motives changed. "The irony," Lamb says, "of the uneasy course that Arab-American relations have taken is that the Arabs were America's first real friends in the vast Islamic world." And it is a friendship that dates back to the end of the American Revolution, yet somehow disintegrated in the twentieth century. When Roosevelt died and Harry S. Truman succeeded him, he was asked to follow through with the American commitment to consult Saudi Arabia before deciding what to do with Palestine. His response? "I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to account to hundreds of thousands of people who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents." American foreign policy has long ignored the interests of Arabs, and thereby increased tensions and misunderstandings between Arabs and America -- and worsened the situation of Arabs in America.

But Truman's statement may be inaccurate; Arab-American immigrants have desperately sought to assimilate. Many Arab immigrants in the twentieth century "anglicized" their names in immigration; many were Christian, and could easily fit in and celebrate the same holidays as everyone else in America; and most importantly, they were white, or at last considered white by the US census, so in the immigration and assimilation a part of their heritage was lost and today it is not always easy to differentiate Arab-Americans from the rest. However, according to No Snow Here, "Several decades later, a new wave of immigrants arrived, “fresh off the boat” with funny names and different religions. Assimilation was not as easy for this wave of immigrants, nor was it necessarily desirable or vital to survival."

And yet, they are still here, and often overlooked, simply because America just can't figure them out. They follow a different, foreign religion that most of America doesn't agree with and doesn't understand, they pray on Fridays, their women cover their heads, and many of them are terrorists--right? Think of every instance in which you've seen Arabs in the media. They're either a) terrorists, such as in one episode of 24, b) portrayed in a very exoticized manner that caters to American stereotypes what what the Arab world must be like (think Aladdin) or c)they're on the news everyday for a new suicide bombing somewhere in the world.

Like many minority groups that have come to America, Arab Americans are misunderstood, they're highly critical of American government and how our policies have affected their homelands, and they aren't always ready or willing to assimilate. Arab Americans have been villified, stereotyped, and been treated worse than any other minority group in America. A report from the US Commission on Civil Rights details how innocent Arab Americans have been subject to racial profiling, extensive searches at airports, and employment discrimination. Under the Federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, Arab Americans have been detained and sometimes deported by the American government without knowing the charges or evidence against them, and have been denied their right to due process of law. When will it end? And what does it take to put a stop to this?

Ideology or VIsion?

Barack Obama's plan for American foreign policy, laid out in the pages of Foreign Affairs, has certainly earned its share of earnest affirmations. I find this unsurprising, as it is bursting with the megawatt dosages of forward-looking intellect that have made Obama's campaign into the political event of our time. But the piece has also earned it's first big-name detractor – communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni has taken Obama to task on the virtual pages of the Huffington Post. Etzioni finds Obama's offerings insubstantial:

Obama's favorite term, repeated ad nauseum, ad infinitum, is vision. What we need, the Senator writes, is "vision." We need a "visionary leadership" and "a new vision of leadership." This is, of course, all too true but also tells us very little as to which vision of foreign policy this new leader would ask us to follow.

Where Obama's broader strokes appear vacuous to Etizioni, he is also underwhelmed by the specific topics Obama tackles in the lengthy article, dismissing each of Obama's concerns as betraying a “random shopping list approach” to foreign policy. Indeed, Etizioni isn't looking for “lofty goals” or “wonkish specs”, rather he would like to see Obama articulate a “worldview”. Goals and specs out, worldviews in. Now who's being vacuous?

The precise thrust of Etzioni's critique is hard to discern. But reading his brief piece leaves the impression that what Etizioni wants from Obama is an ideology. He looks favorably upon the neo-conservative movement, for instrumentalizing democracy in the provision of security, and even upon neo-liberalism, for taking economic development as the central component of a secure geopolitical sphere. But Obama's vision of leadership gets written off by Etizioni as lacking in "substantive vision" because it does not ask that America orient itself to the world in the name of any single principle. Instead he looks backward, to what he sees as the proudest moments in American foreign policy under the leadership of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. Then, from that footing, he moves to discuss the issues he sees as critical in our time.

Perhaps I am too eager to stake Obama as a philosophical compatriot, but his politics seems to be animated by a non-ideological pragmatism that I can only endorse. He tackles each vital issue – global warming, the war on terror, the proliferation of democratic societies, the struggle with poverty – with justice and freedom in mind, but refuses to marry himself to a single conceptual cure-all. Contrary to the bizarre optimism of the world's Fukuyamas and Friedmans, history has not ended and the world is not flat. The political, military and economic hegemony of the United States, whether set to baptize an Iraqi democracy with bunker bombs or simply to ensure that CAFTA allows our multinationals the cheap labor-force they demand, has only made incremental inroads against totalitarianism and poverty. And in so many places, our ideological commitments have blinded us to the misery that unfolds as a direct result of our foreign policies.

As for vision, Etzioni may disagree but I think a worldveiw is precisely what is at stake when a leader like Obama addresses the injustices of the status quo. Obama's vivid oratory (or in this case, prose) is not mere rhetoric. If, as constructivists say, international anarchy is what states make of it, than political hesitance and moral recidivism need not be the logical consequences of an American foreign policy and geopolitical context fraught with injustice and danger. Obama's calls to optimism, vigilance and leadership that take justice and democracy seriously are themselves moves to construct an international politics in which Americans can acknowledge that up to this point we have failed, and failed greatly, but may still hold out hope that our actions can give rise to greater things. Obama's vision is one to guide America between apathy and despair, between belligerent pride and defeated cynicism. It is a rich vision, and it would be a grave mistake to demand ideology in its place.

Friday, July 6, 2007

No Asylum

Though the sentiment most associated with Guantanamo is certainly outrage, readers of Kafka can only greet the reports from the world-infamous prison with grim familiarity. The intractable tangle of bureaucratic language and legal jargon that has confounded what progress the executive is willing to attempt – trials canceled because what we once thought were “illegal enemy combatants”, already a dubious conceptual category, have not proven to be discernibly “illegal” but merely “enemy combatants” of a more vanilla variety – recall the unnavigable bureaucracy of the The Castle, while Josef K could only take Jose Padilla as kin.

But long before Guantanamo became the symbol par excellence of America's institutional nightmares and grotesque easiness with egregious human rights abuses, Kafkaesque tales of absurdity and horror could be heard. Or at least they should have been.

Imagine a prisoner. He is in solitary confinement, spending twenty-three hours a day in utter isolation. Typically unsupervised, he babbles to himself, pound the walls with his fists and head. He may come to occupy an entirely hallucinated world. Or he may attempt suicide. He may succeed. If he even consciously committed a crime, his memory of the event may have deteriorated alongside his other capacities. You wouldn't find this man in Cuba. You would find him in New York City. And not just in the past six years, when Guantanamo's dark odyssey unfolded, but at virtually any point in the past three decades.

Solitary Housing Units (SHUs) are the places that too many prisoners call home. They are not easy for anyone to withstand. But for the mentally ill, they are sites of unparalleled suffering. The Department of Justice concedes that 16% of America's inmate population suffers from a diagnosable mental illness. The American Psychological Association and Human Rights Watch estimate that the number is closer to 1 in 5. Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and many other acute mental illnesses impact over some 300,000 inmates. For some, mental illness motivated their crime. For others mental illness emerged after imprisonment. But either way, the likelihood that mentally ill prisoners will end up in SHUs is extreme. As Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch explains:

They end up in segregation because their illness makes them less able than other prisoners to cope with prison life. They are more likely to be victimized and more likely to be injured in a fight. They are more likely to break the rules. They are more likely to behave in ways that annoy, disgust and even enrage security staff who have scant training in how to recognize, much less cope with, symptoms of mental illness.

Not only are they more likely to end up in SHUs, but solitary confinement is uniquely hellish for inmates suffering from mental illnesses because it virtually guarantees that their condition will deteriorate as their needs go unaddressed. Fellner continues:

The very architecture of SHU facilities, as well as SHU rules, keep them from receiving group therapy, up therapy, individual therapy, daily living skill training, educational and vocational programs, structured and unstructured group recreation and other activities that can play a crucial role in restoring or improving mental health—or at the very least in preventing further deterioration in the patient’s psychiatric condition.

Fortunately, the State of New York has taken action to close this disturbing chapter in the history of America's prison system. S333, once signed by Governor Spitzer, will amend New York's correction and mental hygiene laws so that inmates suffering from mental illnesses will not be eligible for placement in SHUs. All inmates being considered for SHU placement must first be screened by a board of professionals prior to transference. Those found to be suffering from mental illnesses will be placed into special treatment programs where supervision and close treatment are mandated by law. A simple attentiveness has saved hundreds of women and men from a hellish existence, and it is possible that more states will take thus cue from New York. It is certainly welcome news. But it is also a relatively minor step in correcting the sprawling system of bureaucratic shortcomings, institutional failures, and social aporiae that have brought about the system in which the inhumanities described above can occur.

America's health and human services system, sprawling beast that it is, has utterly failed the mentally ill of this country. The web of failed and flagging programs that has produced the deplorable status quo is so complex and mutually reinforcing that it is difficult to even begin the discussion. But one thing is certain: responding to the crisis of mental health care in this country will be impossible within an individualist paradigm. Reinvigorated communities and an ethic of care must have a part in the process – easy enough to theorize, but wickedly difficult to implement since the communities and caregivers in most need of solutions already have their resources stretched thin.

Americans, committed to an ideology where “equal opportunity” is seen as the upper limit on egalitarian obligations tend to downplay inequalities in outcome. And the mantra of “individual responsibility”has dealt plenty of harm to the robust redistributive and welfare-provision policies that would actually be needed to redress the dire inequalities of wealth and assets that cut across America's socio-political landscape.

The dire implications for the mentally ill are made clear in this eye-opening report on mental health care in low income communities. Medicaid and Medicare programs that can't reimburse hospitals enough to even keep sufficient numbers of psychiatrists on the payroll make affordable mental health service hard to find. For uninsured Americans, or for Americans whose providers don't practice parity for mental health, mental health problems may go untreated until a serious lapse lands the sufferer in jail or in an emergency department (ED). Of course, EDs themselves, especially those serving low-income communities where huge numbers of people are on Medicaid or totally uninsured (and on avearage 20% of all mentally ill people are uninsured), have to cut back on which services they can provide and frequently send mental health patients away without treatment, as their emergencies are often easier to ignore than those suffering a physical emergency. Inadequate Social Security payouts are a problem, too. Currently, SSI payments average $632 a month. But a modest, single-bedroom apartment in the United States averages $715 a month. People dependent on SSI for income simply can't compete in the current housing climate. And, of course, many of America's mentally ill, unable to find consistent work, are in precisely that position. So they end up untreated on the streets, often facing prison as the ultimate destination. With all of these support networks – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, public hospitals – failing, is it any wonder the prison system has emerged as the de facto “solution” to the problem of mental illness – a solution that looks increasingly like reinstitutionalization?

Some necessary solutions are clear: Medicaid and Medicare must receive more funding, SSI payouts must increase, housing prices may need to be capped or controlled, and government-paid health care (that includes parity for mental health care), needs to become a reality. The government should provide people who cannot afford a place to live and the mental health care they need with the income and assets necessary for survival.

But a more fundamental shift is also necessary. It is interesting to observe the drastic differences in treatment between the developmentally disabled and mentally retarded on one hand, and those suffering from psychological illness on the other. Americans, defying the typical individualist ethos of self-reliance, have by and large stepped up to the plate to provide for the former group (Vladeck, 2005). Many of the coverage caps in Medicare/Medicaid programs have been addressed, and political advocacy has been more effective on their behalf. It seems that Americans can comprehend permanent disability, but the idea that a person may experience episodic mental illness that requires extending the offer of assistance throughout a lifetime, to be taken as needed, strikes many as a blank check for welfare. People must either announce “dependency” (perhaps the most loaded word in the wide lexicon of social policy) or strike out on their own. Gray areas need not apply.

Feminist critics like Iris Marion Young have long pointed out the obvious problem with this ideological construct: most everyone falls somewhere in the middle of the autonomous/dependent spectrum. Those of us who can find all of the care we need within the private sphere – through family or friends – are fortunate, but atypically privileged. Again, it is the most vulnerable, those for whom everyday support structures are inadequate or absent, whose cases force us to reexamine our public policy. But in any event, we should not make the error of believing that it is only those people who are dependent while the rest of us live autonomous lives. The binary cannot stand, and social services ought to be implemented with the diversity of cases in mind. The goal of social policy should be the creation of communities of mutual aid which respond to the emergent needs and crises of members, but perhaps more importantly, support and care for members in affirmative ways that make crisis intervention less and less necessary.

At the level of policy, this might look something like a flexible fund, perhaps created at federal or state-wide levels so that patterns of inequality would not leave the most vulnerable communities with the least funding, that could be applied to support EDs, aid needy people in finding housing, or pay for routine psychological wellness exams for all who consented to them. These types of solutions would encourage communities to come together and analyze their needs, rather than suffering under larger bureaucracies whose shortcomings only become clear in the wake of failure. A community-oriented approach would also empower the mentally ill to participate in and with community aid projects, rather than facing strictly medical/institutional solutions that dehumanize on the basis of condition.

In short, a socialism that is truly “social” will emphasize community and communication as means of empowering and nurturing the most vulnerable segments of society, rather than expecting the kind of harrowing systems that have been producing incomprehensible no-exit nightmares since Kafka's day to do the work of justice. Nowhere is the need for such a revolution in thinking more apparent than in the crisis facing the mentally ill today. With their fate so firmly in the hands of ailing bureaucracies, the mentally ill in America are often the hapless playthings of a system that is dully malevolent in its neglect. Where the status quo produces Kafkaesque vertigo, it is incumbent on all who see the social bond as a site of obligation to respond with care.

Family Jewels and Harlot’s Ghost

States are dark, ominous creations. ‘A state,’ says Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, ‘is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”’ Thus, from this glacial physiognomy come crimes and abuses.

Nietzsche does, however, ignore the human operatives behind the state. The state is, after all, an enlarged version of the human self. The intelligence service is one of these manifestations. We have intelligence services to police us against our indiscretions, our disloyal tendencies. They also, so we are told, protect us against nefarious outsiders. These protectors may be flesh and blood zealots, or introspective moralists, deskwork operatives of raw ‘intelligence’ or ‘espionage’ agents in the field. They fall in love, they believe, they deceive, they betray. Some see all of this as, in the words of the Central Intelligence Agency motto, ‘working for the nation’. Some do so with enthusiasm beyond the call of office, authorising transactions that go beyond their scope. Others take the opposite view: they bat for the other side when the stakes become too high.

The CIA is no different, born in the tumultuous sea of an America newly ascendant after the Second World War. Moral categories are simple: the CIA comes across as brute torturer. Its exploits reveal an archive of victims, the corpses of history strewn over several continents. Its apologists, on the other hand, see a moral imperative: to kill in the name of promoting the faith; to torture in the name of protecting the people. Unsurprisingly, W. F. Buckley, both as messianic conservative and former CIA man, promotes the latter view. He even claims that he wrote novels in order to ‘demonstrate that we are the good guys and they’re the bad guys.’

Buckley’s infantile adoration for the agency he promoted and loved is one side of the grim story; a blanket condemnation of the agency on the other hand, would serve little purpose. The CIA is no more a violator of laws than the policy makers who gave them the green light to do so. They do kill in your name, Mr. President. Or so the story goes. Contain the Soviet Union, and so it did. Overthrow governments, and so it did. Norman Mailer, never a fan of American institutions, found room to see into a heart of an institution half-noble and half-savage. Harlot’s Ghost (1991) uses a huge scale plot to chart the rise and fall of lives with the agency. The CIA, in short, is merely the sum of its human components.

What are we to then make of the recent round of declassification from that fallen agency of men and women? They are named the ‘Family Jewels’, the bitter fruit of James Schlesinger’s efforts in 1973 to identify activities of the agency that contravened the provisions of the National Security Act. Director Schlesinger was fully aware that his murderous, adolescent employees might still be living in 1973. As he wrote in a memorandum on the jewels, ‘through their knowledge of the activity [they] represent a potential threat or embarrassment to the Agency.’ (16 May 1973)

The report reveals ‘transgressions’. Declassify or be damned, suggests its current Director, General Michael V. Hayden. To not do so encourages speculation, such as the European Parliament’s report of 1,245 CIA flights over Europe, many seen as a case of ‘extraordinary rendition’ dealing with terrorist suspects. But that, counters Hayden, was a half-truth: the sin was limited to 100 suspects since the attacks of September 2001.

Espionage becomes a habit, itself a machine work of half-truths. Conspiracies, suspicions, are its by-products. In a field where trust must be won in order to be destroyed, illegality is hardly a far step away. The CIA remains mired in a profession that simultaneously protects and corrupts. Hardly surprising is its inability to distinguish between a project involving the assassination of a communist leader and the use of the underworld to do so. It is perhaps expecting too much of it to document activities that ‘conflict with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947’ precisely because its modus operandi is extra-legal to begin with.

Results? Assassination, surveillance, abduction. It surveyed newspaper men involved in ‘leaks’ to public sources; it detained a KGB defector in a manner that reminds one of Gitmo-styled luxury – ‘with nothing but a cot in it for this period [between August 13, 1965 and October 27, 1967].’

Most prominently, it sought to assassinate Fidel Castro with the help of America’s underworld. CIA operative Richard Bissell is unabashed in seeking the means to facilitate a ‘gangster-type action.’ Then director of the agency, Allen W. Dulles, ‘was briefed and gave his approval.’ Colourful characters are farmed for the operation. Johnny Roselli in Las Vegas, a ‘syndicate’ member involved with Cuban ‘gambling interests’ is retained.

Others on this list were the Premier of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. Both were successful efforts, though the CIA could hardly claim credit for the former, keen as the Belgians were in getting there first. Again, Bissell leaves his marks on such operations like bad cologne.

But such operations are childish – the CIA comes across as ineffectual, incompetent. Methods such as poisoning are recommended – no firearms, suggests Sam Gold (documented as ‘the successor of Al Capone’), one who ‘knew the Cuban crowd’. Gold’s recommendations were unsurprising, given that he was none other than the mafia strongman Momo Salvatore Giancaca.

Bureaucratic stasis seems rife in this agency, though no more than any other organisation narcotised on half-truths: ignorance of various organisational duties reigned under Director Richard Helms. In a memorandum by James A. Wilderotter, Associate Deputy Attorney General (January 3, 1975), Helm’s successor Colby makes observations on certain ‘legal’ matters. Helms was the ‘hub’ of an organisation where ‘compartmentalized units constitution the “spokes”.’ Thus, one “spoke” would not know what the others were doing.

The result was fracture and eventually, implosion. As far as the Castro programme was concerned, members of the agency began to deceive colleagues and other members of government. Only Dulles and a handful knew about the Castro operation. In 1972, the CIA would lend operatives E. Howard Hunt and James McCord to the ignominious task of the Watergate break-in. But again, the CIA was merely the projection of a paranoid administration, a gun for hire that was turned on its owners.

And so, we are left pondering as we wade through these documents whether the current CIA director Hayden is correct to assume that such documents ‘do provide a glimpse of a very different era and a very different agency.’ An era where terrorism promises to strike at any given opportunity would suggest that things are hardly different. Given the Bush Administration’s penchant for being economical, even inventive, with evidence on a state’s threat to global security, Hayden has already been proven wrong.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

No Bloodlet For Bartlett

Dan Bartlett, communications director for the White House, will be departing soon. He claims to be leaving to “spend more time with his family.” In Washington-speak, this can mean “I love my kids a lot,” or “I didn’t bury the bodies deep enough.” Bartlett has been a loyal friend to President Bush, shaping messages back in Texas in 1993 and following the team to the White House. He was close with President Bush and people claim he helped soften President Bush, particularly against the combative influence of Karl Rove. Bartlett downplays the role he brought in balancing advisors, and may be a minor figure in the mythology of the Bush White House. Even in his departure, Bartlett’s influence is unclear to outsiders.

Bartlett claimed in a GQ interview that the early George W. Bush was a pretty “raw.” Raw Bush made a few appearances during the 2000 campaign, calling a New York Times reporter a “major-league asshole” while simultaneously campaigning to raise the discourse in Washington. He attempted to link Saddam with Al-Qaeda in a 2004 debate. In 2006, President Bush approached German Chancellor Angela Merkel from behind and shook her with a vigor not seen used on a German Chancellor since 1933. Bush continued his streak with Europe, winking at the Queen of England in 2007. When asked directly if the 1993 Bush looked presidential, Bartlett said “No. N-O. And [President Bush] would probably agree with that.” I wonder what 1993 Raw Bush would have done with the Queen of England…

Communication surrounding the Iraq War also has some Bartlett fingerprints. Bartlett admits being part of the decision to embed reporters with troops. Embedded media was the greatest issue of the relationship between the Fourth Estate and the military. Placing reporters in danger stopped the discussion of a war’s merits and forced reporters to discuss everything in terms of action. A reporter riding in a Humvee had no perspective on the geopolitical movements because, as was said in Black Hawk Down, “when those bullets start coming at you, politics fly out the window.” Reporters, in the age of YouTube and military blogs, remain relevant with embedding. As the military actively shuts down the voices of soldiers, embedded reporters could become the major source for information on the war front. Bartlett, among others, has limited our access to information about the war in the early days.

Embedding, while stifiling debate, may still serve a noble purpose. An all-volunteer force grants most our generation the luxury of freedom from participating in war. Day-to-day danger is personal and visceral, easily closer to reality than the newsreels set to patriotic music. Edward R. Murrow was famous for being part of the action and inserting himself into the story, enhancing coverage of the war and giving a human dimension to horror. There is no piece of war reporting that matches Murrow but the embedded reporter has more access to the front than Murrow did during the war. Perhaps the public should blame the quality of reporters rather than the policy of embedding. Collaboration between media and government is a difficult issue for everyone but was successfully implemented by Bartlett and he has no regrets over that issue.

The one regret Bartlett has about the war, and his entire term, was the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Bartlett splits the blame with others, including former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, but believes that was a mistake. He says the phrase was never in the speech but he didn’t control the banner. He pawns mistakes of other members of the administration (Bartlett is responsible for all the communication that comes out of the White House, not just President Bush) on the difficulty of working with the staffs of other people. Dan Bartlett was to communication what some conservatives were to government. Conservatives that rail against government power and intrusion feel a bit of cognitive dissonance when forced to intervene in the lives of citizens. A White House with such a hostile relationship to the press and with so many stubborn staffers create a quagmire for communication. This White House is infamous for stonewalling the press, slight-of-word tricks with the public, and debate through force with each other. Bartlett was present for so much communication in the White House and appeared to do so little that I wonder if the better analogy is “Bartlett is to communication what Alberto Gonzalez is to law.”