Monday, January 29, 2007

The Muslim Street Is Not Ready To Follow Jerry Falwell

Well, it doesn't take much effort to figure out why thoughtful people on both the left and the right are rushing to distance themselves from the latest book by the egregious Dinesh D'Souza. Here is how he summarizes his argument in The Washington Post:
I argue that the American left bears a measure of responsibility for the volcano of anger from the Muslim world that produced the 9/11 attacks. President Jimmy Carter's withdrawal of support for the shah of Iran, for example, helped Ayatollah Khomeini's regime come to power in Iran, thus giving radical Islamists control of a major state; and President Bill Clinton's failure to respond to Islamic attacks confirmed bin Laden's perceptions of U.S. weakness and emboldened him to strike on 9/11. I also argue that the policies that U.S. "progressives" promote around the world--including abortion rights, contraception for teenagers and gay rights--are viewed as an assault on traditional values by many cultures, and have contributed to the blowback of Islamic rage.
It would take thousands of words to properly dissect the logical and factual problems with just this single paragraph, and life is too short. I'll just confine myself to two quick points:

1. According to D'Souza, Jimmy Carter (not normally identified with "the American left," but let that pass) is partly responsible for Muslim anger because he withdrew support for the Shah of Iran. But Muslims who resent the US say they do so, in large part, because of American interference in the region, including American support for corrupt, tyrannical regimes like that of the Shah. So is D'Souza saying that Muslim rage against the US would have been less if we had continued to prop up the Shah? Where is the logic in that?

Apparently "left-wing" figures like Carter and Clinton are to be condemned both for offending conservative Muslim sensibilities and for yielding to them (which suggests our nation's "weakness"). Please tell us, Dinesh, what you think we should do.

2. D'Souza says that Muslims hate the US because of our readiness to export "progressive" social values--gay rights and the rest. The implication is that American leaders who favor conservative values and abhor progressive ones ought to be more popular in the Muslim world than liberals.

Well, I am currently in Bangladesh, a Muslim country where conservative social mores are very much in force--alcohol is almost entirely unavailable, women dress extremely modestly (even on the beach), men dominate the business world, public displays of affection are unheard-of, etc. But every single Bangladeshi I have encountered expresses strong dislike for President Bush--and, without prompting, many mention their respect for President Clinton and their hope that Hillary Clinton will be president some day.

This is partly because Hillary Clinton actually visited Bangladesh while first lady, impressing local people with her interest and openness. But it is mainly because they feel that both Clintons respect Muslim people and culture, while Bush, by contrast, is viewed as an arrogant bully.

As for Clinton's personal morality, which social conservatives in the US find so distressing--and which you might assume would horrify the strait-laced Muslims: When Bill is mentioned in conversation, I often recount my favorite anecdote about him, which is about the time Mary-Jo and I were having dinner in a French bistro in Chappaqua and Bill came in to have dinner with not one but two beautiful young women. (True story.)

When I told this tale to a group of six or seven Bangladeshi men the other night, they all reacted exactly the way Americans usually react--with a big, appreciative laugh, as if to say, "That dog!" There was certainly no suggestion that Clinton lost any stature in their eyes as a result.

Dinesh D'Souza may wish that the typical Muslim hated the cultural decadence of the American left and admired the rigid moralism of American conservatives. He may even believe that to be the case. The only problem is that there is no evidence to suggest he is right.

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A Borderless Business World? Not Yet

If you are a friend of mine back in America, perhaps you have been reading my dispatches from Bangladesh and thinking, "Gee, Karl must be a little homesick. Maybe he would appreciate a CARE package with some American treats." You may even be getting ready to send such a package to me as a generous surprise.

If so, I have just two words for you: Please don't!

A few days ago, I received an email from Professor Yunus's publisher in New York, asking whether I thought Yunus would be willing to autograph a bunch of book plates. (They want to stick the plates inside copies of Yunus's first book, Banker to the Poor, to use as a promotional gift at some book industry event.) I said that I thought he would, and I agreed to present the request to Yunus personally next time I see him. And could the publisher go ahead and ship the plates to me at my guest house in Dhaka? Of course.

Well, it turns out that receiving packages isn't quite as simple a matter in Dhaka as it is in New York. I was just called down to the front desk of the guest house, where a brown-shirted UPS man was waiting for me with a five-page document beginning:
Dear Sir/Madam:

Kindly be advised that your Consignment has arrived at the Zia International Airport, Dhaka, through the Express Services of United Parcel Service/Air Alliance Limited. . . . Please be advised that the above Consignment can now either be cleared by your nominated C & F Agency or you may authorize M/S Bengal Airlift Ltd. to clear your consignments at no cost except for the payment of Customs Duties and taxes, VAT, Demurrage and miscellaneous charges incurred if any. If you require our assistance for clearing your consignments, kindly provide the following documents at your earliest convenience: . . .
This is followed by a list of nine documents, none of which I have or can even identify. To be fair, a couple of these are probably inapplicable to me. For example, Item 8 reads:
8. Incase, your company is listed with E.P.Z., Dhaka or Chittagong, then a Duty Bond, Risk Bond (on Tk. 1000 Non judicial Stamp each), Utilization Permission, Back-to-back, L/C, L/C copy.
I doubt that Karl Weber Literary (my company) is so listed, although I guess I really can't be sure, not having seen the list for myself. All I know for sure is that I don't want to see the list.

Luckily the hotel manager didn't just leave me to deal with this on my own. He spoke to UPS by phone and told me that what I actually had to do was to sign one of the other forms the UPS man was holding, and then go back to my room. Some time in the next half hour, another UPS person will come (I have no idea why this has to be done in two separate stages) and collect 1,000 taka from me as an advance payment against all those potential import charges (Customs Duties and so on). If all goes well at the airport, there is a chance that this could result in the package being released to me within the next few days.

I signed the form, and the (first) UPS man was on his way. The hotel manager was apologetic. "Our system very bad," he explained. And he told me about another foreign guest who had asked for someone at home to send a particular book that he thought he would need sometime during his month-long stay in Dhaka. Unfortunately, it was sent by regular mail (not UPS or Fedex), which meant it arrived at the guest house fully three weeks after the man's departure for home.

Some enthusiasts like to talk about how modern technology "abolishes time and space" and makes it equally easy to do business from anywhere in the world. Perhaps we are heading that way, but I don't think we're quite there yet.

A quick update: As promised, the second UPS man arrived within half an hour, took my 1,000 taka, gave me a neatly printed receipt, and headed back to the office to get the next stage in the process rolling. The people carrying out this system all seem perfectly nice and reasonably efficient--it's the system itself that's underdeveloped.

I know that the fact that this is an international package complicates matters a bit, but I get Fedex and UPS packages from England with some regularity, and they arrive on my doorstep with no fanfare, just the same as domestic items. Hopefully one day shipping to Bangladesh and the rest of the developing world will become that frictionless.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

His Finest Act In Office Was His Last

Here's an amusing item from the wonderful linguistics web site Language Log. The post is about legalese, and it contains this paragraph:
In Legal Writing: Sense and Nonsense he [legal scholar David Mellinkoff] pleaded for clear and unadorned language with no superfluous verbiage. My favorite example was his analysis of Richard Nixon's resignation letter, August 9, 1974. It's only one sentence long: "I hereby resign the Office of President of the United States." But, as Mellinkoff points out, it's still much longer than it needs to be: all he needed to say was "I resign."
I certainly consider that letter the finest piece of writing Nixon ever did, although I admit my reasons are not primarily linguistic . . .

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Jack Welch's Forty-Thousand-Hour Work Week

Some good commentary From Mark Schmitt here on rising income inequality in the U.S. I, too, get my dander up when self-professed conservatives pretend that the affluent got that way because they are "more deserving" or "harder-working" than the poor. As someone in a higher-income bracket, I know full well that I do not work three or four times harder than someone who earns a fraction of what I do. I just happen to do work that is well-compensated for structural reasons having to do with relative scarcity, market conditions, and luck.

I would love to believe that I am affluent because I'm just such a very very good person, but let's face it, as Mae West said, "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

As for the idea that markets infallibly reward education, talent, social skills, "emotional intelligence," or other meritorious traits--well, those of our conservative friends who like to think that market fundamentalism comports well with Christian values might consider the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
So much for the notion that success and merit automatically go together. They didn't in the ancient Middle East, and they don't in modern capitalist societies.

One other point: I'd like to see Democrats raise more often the notion that extreme income inequality is undesirable even from the perspective of the affluent. (This point may be implicit in John Edwards's "Two Nations" theme, but I think it should be explicit.)

Think about places where a few very rich people are surrounded by masses of the poor. Mary-Jo and I experienced this when we visited the Dominican Republic and few years ago, and I am seeing it again here in Dhaka. (My sense is that the Dominican is a much better example of what I am about to describe, because there seem to be more truly affluent people there. Very, very few people in Bangladesh actually appear to be rich.)

In these societies, the well-off live in walled compounds surrounded by wrought-iron gates and protected by armed guards. They must travel by limo or private plane because the transportation infrastructure used by ordinary people is crumbling. On the relatively rare occasions when they walk the streets, they are surrounded by indigent people begging for help or (much more rarely) trying to rob them. And they must constantly monitor the political situation and be prepared to flee the moment popular resentment reaches the boiling point and violent revolution breaks out.

If you were rich, is this how you would want to live? Not me. I'd prefer a society where everybody enjoys a decent working-class standard of life, if not a middle-class one--where (again from the perspective of the affluent) waiters and taxi drivers and hotel employees and shop clerks are all well-fed, well-dressed, well-educated, skillful, and friendly. It's just a hell of a lot more pleasant to live like that rather than behind barbed wire--even if it is gilded.

Obviously the US today is not as harshly stratified as the Dominican Republic--although with the rise of gated communities and the flight of the upper classes to privileged sanctuaries like elite private schools, clubs, and resorts, we are drifting in that direction. It's time we reversed course.

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My 15 Minutes of (Anonymous) Fame

If you read Andrew Sullivan's well-known blog, you know his running feature "The View From Your Window," which shows what Andrew's readers, correspondents, and fellow bloggers can see when they look up from their computers. Well, I sent Andrew this view from my Dhaka guest house window and, sure enough, he just posted it on his site. My name and URL don't appear, however, so you have know me to know that it's my window. Now the secret is out.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Recycling Bangladesh-Style

Yesterday during my usual taxi ride "home" to the guest house from my research office at Grameen Bank, the driver and I got stuck in a bigger-than-usual traffic jam. We were on Begum Rokeya Sharani road at a point where it passes by a small lake (unnamed on my map) that is separated from the highway by a high concrete wall. As we sat there unmoving, I peered out of the open vehicle trying to figure out what was going on.

The first thing I could see was a giant pile of construction debris in front of the roadside wall. Climbing all over the pile were men, boys, and even a few women in saris, all beavering away at separating the large chunks of debris into portable pieces. A few had sledgehammers they were using to break individual bricks from big pieces of tumbled-down brick wall. Others were smashing wooden wall frames into separate bits of wood or breaking large pieces of corrugated tin off even larger sheets that had once been roofs. They then loaded the salvaged bits onto hand-carts or the backs of rickshaws to be carted away, presumably to become part of some new construction project.

As we inched forward, I realized that the scavengers were only a small part of a much larger crowd gathered on the site, most of whom were simply standing and watching the goings-on. And in the middle of the crowd were two large demolition machines, something like bulldozers, in the process of tearing down a series of shed-like storefronts that had been erected along the road in front of that high concrete wall.

One of the machines, piloted by a man in a green uniform, was actually maneuvering on top of what once had been the row of buildings, now collapsed into a high pile of brick, concrete, wood, tin, wire, rocks, and other materials. The other machine stood by, waiting to swing into action. Jutting from the top of the pile was a broken piece of sign from one of the storefronts; it read "GINEERING SYSTEMS."

As the crowd quietly watched, what had been a tiny business district--one of what seems like fifty thousand such that constitute Dhaka's economy--was reduced to rubble by the men with the machines.

I realized I was witnessing something I'd read about in The Daily Star: an ongoing government crackdown on illegal squatters who seized slivers of vacant land--road margins and medians, parks, river banks, even sidewalks--to set up little businesses. For years, the squatters have either gone unchallenged by local authorities or been permitted to remain in place because they pay the police a regular portion of their earnings. And as the scene I saw illustrates, the squatters don't just set up a pushcart or a folding table with a few items for sale, as they might in New York: they build structures, in some cases substantial ones, which they proceed to occupy for years.

Now the government is moving to evict the squatters from selected areas, a move loudly applauded by the editorialists of The Star. If the drive continues, they say, Dhaka streets will be more attractive, less crowded, and less chaotic, and one source of corruption for the police force will be eliminated. (I don't know where the proprietors of the illegally-housed businesses are supposed to move or what will happen to them now that their businesses are destroyed.)

It's normal in Dhaka for property rights to be enforced weakly or not at all. One day while Professor Yunus and I were talking in his fourth floor office, he pointed to several blocks' worth of buildings visible just outside the window--typical-looking concrete structures, three to five stories' tall, containing apartments and offices. All of them, he said are built and owned by squatters. The land is nominally owned by the government, but at some point people simply plopped themselves down there and started building--first small, then tall. For all intents and purposes they now "own" the properties, but they have no deed or certificate of ownership, and theoretically could be thrown out at any time.

It all vividly illustrates economist Hernando de Soto's point about how the failure to rationalize property title is one of the things that stunts the growth of the developing world by making ownership rights insecure, easily violated, and difficult to capitalize. (No one will give you a loan to repair, refurbish, or improve a property you may not really own.) This partially explains the decrepit appearance of most of the buildings in Dhaka.

Today I again rode past the demolition site and found that more than half of the debris pile was already gone, carted away by enterprising Bangladeshis (including, maybe, some of the squatters whose stores had been torn down). Some of the remaining material had been stacked into neat piles--pyramids of bricks, for example--by people who were now waiting for their friends to come by with carts or trucks.

A funny sort of efficiency marks an ultra-poor economy where even a used brick has enough value to be worth salvaging: Very little goes to waste, and the reuse happens not through any kind of organized planning but just through the self-interested actions of ten million residents of Dhaka who are always on the lookout for an opportunity and are ready to scramble as soon as they spot it. What a city.

P.S. I assumed that the guys operating the machines were from the Dhaka police. But when I opened this morning's Star I saw a photo of the operation in progress, and the caption identified the enforcers as a team from the army and air force--no kidding. When the hotel manager heard me exclaim over this, he told me, "Police cannot do this. The people who own the properties are too powerful. Only army can dare to offend them." Again I say, what a city.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Shots From My Album

Feeling pretty bushed after a long day that started with watching Bush's State of the Union Address on Al Jazeera . . . but I want to keep in touch, so here are a few pictures from my Bangladesh photo album.
The "pink palace," Ahsan Manzil, rated a must-see for tourists to Dhaka (all three hundred of them). Price of a ticket to the garden and the building: two taka (equivalent of about three and a half cents). Worth more than that.

Gulshan Circle, upscale Dhaka's version of Times Square, at dusk.
Drive west of Dhaka and within an hour you find yourself amid vast fields of rice and yellow-flowered mustard seed, vegetable farms, and man-made fish ponds.
Three of the cutest engineers I ever met--young diplomates employed by a Grameen Shakti (Energy) center. Their job is to train local village women to maintain solar power systems, which both opens up income opportunities for the women and helps makes cheap, renewable energy available to rural Bangladesh. When I asked them to pose, they put on extremely solemn expressions until I made a funny face and induced a laugh.
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Monday, January 22, 2007

Pastoral Bangladesh

Today I took my first trip outside of Dhaka, visiting several sites in villages to the west of the capital: a Grameen-operated health clinic, a local office of Grameen Shakti (an energy company), and a number of homes where Grameen Shakti has installed solar-powered electrical supply systems or biogas systems that convert cow dung into methane fuel for cooking. Along the way, my Grameen Bank escort and I also stopped at a few typical local sites--a village market, a Hindu shrine, a century-year-old, once-grand house formerly inhabited by a local nabob. We even poked our heads into an uproarious pre-wedding celebration, where the groom and bride receive a shower--a literal, not figurative one.

There was so much to take in, and my mind and senses are so overloaded at the moment, that I am not going to try to write a lot about this experience--just two quick observations you might find interesting:

(1) In the United States, I associate rural poverty with apparent absence of economic activity. I'm thinking of the scenes Mary-Jo and I have observed when driving through the depressed counties of upstate New York--deserted downtown areas, storefront windows with just a few tired old articles on display, shuttered offices and factories, and so on. You can drive all day through these communities, scarcely ever see a soul, and arrive at your destination utterly baffled as to how anyone there makes a living. (And of course fewer and fewer people in those counties can make a living these days, which is why many of them have moved to the city.)

But the tiny slice of rural Bangladesh that I saw today, while far poorer (in monetary terms) than any place in New York, is an incredible bee hive of economic activity. Every village has its shopping street where dozens of tin-roofed sheds jostle one another, piled high with goods for sale (shoes, medicines, furniture, clothing, DVDs, foodstuffs--you name it) or offering services from barbering to tailoring. On the back roads, the villagers offer their wares spread out on mats--baskets, hats, rounds of bread, a few potatoes or vegetables. And in practically every house or yard you pass, you see people at work, making or fixing or preparing things for trade--tending milk cows, carving wooden furniture, soldering jewelry, gathering crops.

So rural Bangladesh is clearly not "depressed" in the same way as upstate New York. The people merely lack access to the resources they need to translate their obvious energy into material wealth--things like electrical power, links to regional and national markets, information technology, and financial credit. And they are working on getting those things. Perhaps this means Bangladesh will not be poor forever.

(2) In the countryside, I experienced my first glimpses of actual loveliness since arriving in Bangladesh*: tranquil rice fields, roads shaded by overarching trees, liquid-eyed cows quietly grazing, tiny farms glowing with rich-looking harvests, chattering girls strolling home from school in their pristine blue-and-white uniforms. Forgotten, for the moment, were Dhaka's incessantly blaring auto horns, the street-blocking piles of rubble, the crumbling, burned-out-looking cement-block factories and apartment houses, and above all the terrible air pollution.

This contrast goes a long way toward explaining the Romantic movement of the eighteenth century. London in those days must have been quite a bit like Dhaka today--a sprawling city filled with unregulated and overcrowded housing and workplaces, jerry-built to accommodate an historic tidal wave of rural poor in search of economic opportunity. And while there were no motorized vehicles back then, the thousands of horses (and other animals) in the streets of London must have produced an equivalent amount of pollution to assault the eyes and nose.

No wonder Wordsworth idealized rural life. He was driven by the same impulse that (I am told) makes middle-class residents of Dhaka today flee to their "home" villages whenever they have the opportunity. There's nothing like a little uncontrolled urban growth to make a nature-worshiping pantheist out of you.

*On second thought, these weren't my first glimpse of loveliness here. The Ahsan Manzil mansion in Dhaka deserves that accolade.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ban Abortion to Protect Women?

I found out on Thursday that the New York Times Magazine's cover story this weekend would be about supposed post-abortion syndrome-- a new tactic used by some in the pro-life movement in the drive to get abortion rights repealed. I was prepared to be enraged by the article and depressed that the Times would give national exposure to this drivel.

Fortunately, the article makes clear that research, when conducted correctly, does not find a correlation between abortion and things like depression, suicidal thoughts, etc. And author Emily Bazelon did the movement no favors by choosing to focus on Rhonda Arias, who councils women who have had abortions and who blames her drug use, suicide attempt, and FOUR abortions on the first abortion she had-- rather than on, say, the sexual abuse and rape (and resulting pregnancy) she suffered as a child. Bazelon reports that Arias' seventeen-year-old, unmarried daughter, who was taught to abstain from sex until marriage but was not taught about birth control, is pregnant, and she quotes Arias as saying, without a hint of irony, "Abstinence works better than birth control, really. It's just that people don't do it." I'm sure members of the pro-life movement will point to this article as an example of how biased the liberal media is.

However, I am angry anyway, because this new tactic in the fight against abortion is nothing more than disrespect for women dressed up as concern for women. The idea that abortion ought to be outlawed because it is harmful to women assumes that women are not independent agents who can decide for themselves if something is harmful or helpful. It sees us as children. I am willing to believe that, for some women, having an abortion does result in negative feelings-- depression, regret, shame, whatever. (Of course, I'd wager that those feelings are often the result of the cultural stigma attached to abortion, rather than the abortion itself.) I also believe, though, that for the majority of women, having an abortion results not in negative feelings, but in relief at having dealt with a bad situation in a responsible way.

Excursis: pro-lifers may wonder how I could possibly say responsible here. I say responsible because there is nothing more irresponsible than bringing a child into the world who cannot be taken care of or who is unwanted. There are plenty of American children waiting to be adopted, so adoption as an alternative is often not better.

To try to ban abortion because SOME women who have had one (or four!) suffer from it is ridiculous. That assumes that women are unable to consider their own moral and ethical principles and unable to intelligently weigh their options and determine which is the best for them. If having an abortion conflicts with a woman's sense of morality, it's no wonder she's going to feel badly afterwards; that woman is free to have the child and keep it or give it up for adoption (assuming that she was considering abortion because she's not equipped to care for the child, this also assumes that her sense of morality has no problem relegating a child to a life of poverty or the foster-care system...but that's between her, the child, and her God, I guess).

Women deserve respect as intelligent adults who can make decisions about their lives and their bodies. Pretending to care about women while really giving them nothing but contempt and attempting to take away their rights is disgusting.

Epilogue: I feel sort of sleazy making a big deal about Arias' four abortions, and I deleted several snide remarks about that fact as I typed this entry. But! I just have to wonder how on earth it makes sense to shun birth control (which I'm assuming led to four unwanted pregnancies, since she didn't teach her daughters about birth control) only to, in effect, use abortion as birth control. There's something seriously flawed with a philosophy under which abortion and birth control are wrong, sex without the aim of creating life is ok, and, when push comes to shove, abortion is better than birth control! Because you'd think after the first, or at least the second, she'd realize that she's going to keep having sex, and she's going to keep getting pregnant, and maybe she'd realize that birth control is a lesser evil than an expensive medical procedure that causes discomfort, if not pain?!

I'm not even going to get into her seventeen-year-old's pregnancy....
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Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Go Off The Reservation

Some of you have asked for a little detail about my work on the book project here in Dhaka. Not much exciting to tell. During my first week, I met with Professor Yunus each day and had him talk to me about Grameen Bank in general and, in particular, about the various Grameen family companies--Grameen Health, Grameen Energy, Grameen Phone, Grameen Fisheries, and so on. Each of these is an interesting business in itself, and all have contributed, I believe, to Professor Yunus's concept of "social business," which will be the central theme of the book we are writing.

I have also interviewed several of Professor Yunus's colleagues, including Muhammad Imamus Sultan. He is managing director of Grameen Danone, a new partnership between Grameen and the famous French yogurt company. They've just finished building a factory that will produce fortified yogurt, a low-cost, healthful food that they hope will become a common part of the diet of local people, especially children.

Grameen Danone is considered the prototypical social business, since it (1) provides a concrete benefit to society, especially the poor, and (2) has been designed as a self-supporting but non-dividend-generating business. Any profits produced will be plowed back into the company, to finance expansion or the development of new products. I'm hoping to visit the factory with Mr. Sultan sometime in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I have a confession to make.

When planning this trip, I asked my contacts at Grameen Bank to recommend a place to stay. They suggested the Pacific Inn Guest House, which is where I am currently ensconced. The very low price quoted made me wonder about the nature of the accommodations. In response to my questions, Grameen put me in touch with another American who had stayed at the Pacific Inn, and she emailed me this message:

Grameen Bank identified The Pacific Inn for groups who are visiting GB to stay some years ago. I have stayed there a few times. It is a clean, comfortable, inexpensive guest house inn quite typical of the kind of newer places that are available to stay in Dhaka. . . . The staff and management are very accommodating. They have a couple of computers so you can check mail and phones. TV downstairs. . . . Dhaka has 3 five-star hotels. When visiting Grameen Bank one might feel uncomfortable staying in such a place of luxury and expense.
Well, my correspondent turned out to be completely accurate. The Pacific Inn is indeed clean and comfortable . . . though the standard of "comfort" is a little different from what most Western hotels might offer. (I'm talking about small things, like the fact that the desk chair I am sitting in to write this post is very hard.) The best word to describe the place is probably "Spartan"--something like the typical dorm room at an American college.

(To be fair, there have been some upgrades since the last visit by my email correspondent. I have a TV in my room, although because of the location of the cable it is positioned in such a way that I have to twist awkwardly on my side to watch it, which produces a stiff neck after about fifteen minutes. Also, it is possible to get Internet access in my room, although it is not free as I originally thought but billed at 150 taka per hour--about $2.25.)

The nature of the accommodations matches the entire Dhaka experience. Saturday being one of the two weekend days when Grameen Bank is closed, I used today for my first "touristic" program, accompanied by another guest house patron, a woman from Spain who is studying Grameen Bank as part of her work toward a doctor's degree. We took a taxi from the northern neighborhood where the guest house is located into the downtown area where the "attractions" are concentrated.

The morning was fascinating.

We walked down Shakharia Bazar (also called "Hindu Street"), a fifteen-foot-wide alleyway jammed with tiny artisans' shops, storefront temples, jewelry kiosks, holes-in-the-wall where food is prepared and sold, stone masons' quarters, and more sheer humanity per square foot than I've ever seen elsewhere.

We visited Ahsan Mancil on the bank of the dirty, crowded Buriganga River, a serene palace of pink stone that was once inhabited by the Nawabs of Dhaka and is now a museum.

We wandered into Jaggannati University College, where we were immediately surrounded by about thirty students who wanted to ask us about our countries, tell us about their school, and practice their English.

And everywhere there were crowds, noise, smells, vehicles of every imaginable and several unimaginable sorts, swirling dust, potholes, unaccountable piles of bricks or stones or rubble half blocking the streets, rivulets of water or mud, barefoot kids under foot, signs and banners and garments decorated in colors that are almost painfully vivid . . . in other words, all the usual accompaniments of Dhaka street life.

And so I gave in to temptation. After four hours of tourism, exhausted, footsore, with red, bleary eyes and a sore throat, I insisted on lunch at the nearby Sheraton, one of the upscale hotels mentioned in the email . . . a place "of luxury and expense" that simply isn't appropriate for a visitor to Grameen Bank to frequent. Surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall and equipped with thick double-glazing that keeps out the dust and noise of the streets, the Sheraton is clearly the kind of place to stay when you need to be in Dhaka but don't actually want to be in Dhaka.

And it was great.

The buffet lunch cost all of 1,100 taka, or fifteen dollars--three times as much as any other meal I've had since arriving in Bangladesh. There was a clean linen cloth on the table and no rock music blaring from cheap speakers. I even drank a cold beer--something that is available only in a few Western enclaves in this Muslim-dominated country. I enjoyed an hour of pure respite from the assault on the senses that is Dhaka.

Lunch over, it's back to my "normal" Bangladesh life. I'm here in my Spartan guest house where the towels are thin and scratchy, as is the sound on the television. But I'll be fine. I know where the Sheraton is, and I'm planning on making my way back there once a week or so for the duration of my stay.

Now I just hope Professor Yunus never hears about this.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Democracy Takes Time

I had a particularly friendly cabbie today and I thought I'd share his image with you.

I'm proud because I've learned how to take cab rides in Dhaka all by myself. Somewhat nervously, I flagged down one of those washing-machine-sized cabs I've mentioned before and used my nine carefully-coached words of Bangla to tell the driver where I was going: "Ami Banani jabo, bari number baro, rasta number atharo," which means, "I'm going to Banani, house number 12, street number 18." (Come to think of it, only six of those words are actually Bangla.)

I offered the driver 100 taka (about a buck and a half) for the fifteen-minute trip; he didn't understand me and peeled a fifty and two tens from the wad in his pocket to show me he wanted seventy, to which I of course agreed. He tried chatting me up on the ride, which was hopeless since my pathetic store of Bangla was exhausted, and he seemed quite happy when I asked if I could take his photo. (Check out his smile, as well as the cool painting on the back of the cab in front.) When he deposited me at my hotel, I gave him the 100 anyway. Maybe the extra 30 can cover his modeling fee.

The big news around Dhaka continues to be the national state of emergency and the postponement of elections. The general mood is one of relief that the caretaker government has restored order and is taking its time to get a broadly acceptable plan for the voting in place. Unfortunately, no one has a good word to say about either of the two dominant coalition parties, and the temptation for someone like Muhammad Yunus to step in and bring his intelligence and credibility to a massive reform effort must be great. Hopefully if he ever does decide to become a real player on the political scene (he actually served briefly in a similar caretaker administration in 1996), he won't end up overwhelmed by the endemic weakness and corruption of Bangladeshi government.

Reading the local (English-language) press during this time of national uncertainty and stress is a powerful reminder of how lucky we've been in America to have a relatively stable, broadly accepted constitution. Sheer longevity is a big reason why. Bangladesh has been independent only since 1974, and the country has veered between periods of military rule and more-or-less democratic governance ever since. As a result, people still aren't sure how democracy is supposed to work, and you can hear and see them trying to figure this out in public.

One editorial-page column in Tuesday's Daily Star (Dhaka's leading Anglophone paper) quotes a series of clauses from the national constitution about how and when elections are supposed to take place (not to prove a point, just to inform readers about these basic matters) and speculates inconclusively as to what substantive issues the interim caretaker government may or may not address. A second column bemoans the way family dynasties have taken over the leading parties, treating the government almost as a private business whose control they are fighting over, and ponders whether the country can escape this syndrome. And a third discusses how the shadow of the still-recent independence war hangs over the current political scene: "It is no secret," the columnist writes, "that the Jamaat leaders, Nizami and Mujahid, played a role in making Dhaka a killing field of the Bengali intellectuals on the night of December 13, 1971, immediately before the victory in the liberation war." (Jamaat is now part of one of the two leading electoral alliances vying for power.)

The uncertainty, the teetering between totalitarianism and republicanism, the pangs of the national birth-trauma--these are all living issues for Bangladeshis. In the United States, we went through similar struggles. But they are generations past, not a mere thirty-six years old, and the anxieties, passions, and hatred they stirred are (practically) extinct. The sheer passage of time has also ensured that, by now, we have a fairly clear shared understanding of what the government is supposed to do, how elections are supposed to work, and how power can change hands peacefully. It's not because we Americans have some superior capacity for self-governance--it's just because we've had longer to practice.

All of which makes the ruthless disregard for constitutional values exhibited by the current U.S. administration doubly tragic. It takes generations for a nation to weave the fabric of democracy--but, as we're witnessing, determined autocrats with their hands on power can tear it apart almost overnight.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Some Dhaka Snapshots

It's very difficult for me to knowledgeably appraise the look, sound, feel, and smell of Dhaka--not only because this is just my second day here, but also because it's my first visit to a developing-world country. On the flight over, I was chatting with a BBC radio producer who was making her first trip to Bangladesh but who had previously covered stories in most of South Asia and other Asian and Africa venues. She told me that she'd been trying to get a sense of what to expect by swapping comparisons with a colleague who'd been here before: "Is it as dusty as Cairo? As crowded as Mumbai? As chaotic as Kabul?" I don't have those points of reference; all I can do is compare Dhaka to cities like Barcelona, St. Petersburg (Russia), and London--and believe me it is nothing like them.

It would also be very hard for me to try to capture all of the impressions that have crowded in on me these first couple of days. So for now I'll just share a photo or two and tell you a little about them. This first shot is a street scene in Mirpur, the northern Dhaka neighborhood where Yunus's Grameen Bank has its headquarters. The mixture of vehicles on the streets is mind-boggling, from dented multi-color-painted buses with passengers hanging on outside to tiny green mini-taxis not much bigger than a washing machine and looking equally roadworthy. But the most amazing are the bicycle-powered rickshaws, each painted with a unique collection of colorful images, some abstract, others drawn from sources that appear to include everything from science-fiction movies to Bengali legends.

As for the traffic--well, to me, riding in the back of a (full-sized) cab, it appears at any given moment as though at least six vehicles are heading straight for me (from six apparently random directions). Somehow the cabbie, completely unfazed, manages to evade all these missiles (as well as the men, women, and barefoot children who are continually stepping out into traffic without a glance) merely by leaning on his horn. The famous melees around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look sedate by comparison.

And here I am outside the headquarters of Grameen Bank, a complex of several buildings right on the main road in Mirpur. Yunus's image is everywhere outside and inside the complex; he is at once the visible symbol of the bank, a national hero, and one of the few widely respected public figures in a country where practically all the politicians are generally reviled and mistrusted.

I wonder and worry a little about whether a cult of personality has been created, but Yunus himself seems free of the usual failings of the self-obsessed autocrat. For example, the executives who run the various Grameen-related businesses appear to operate with significant autonomy. Yunus also has given a lot of thought to succession and has groomed strong candidates to run the entire operation after he retires (which can't be far off now, as he is getting on in years).

So on balance I don't believe that the adulation has gone to Yunus's head, which is yet another piece of evidence that he is a much better man than I would be if I were in his shoes.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Saints Are Where You Find Them

A nice diary by Matt Yglesias about the legacy of Martin Luther King. Matt surveys the dismal history of Black-white relations in the US prior to 1950 and concludes:

Under the circumstances, it would have been natural to conclude that the only thing the white south understands is force, that the use of force was eminently justified, and the time had come to launch a massive campaign of violent resistance.

King and other leaders of the civil rights movement apparently took their Christianity more seriously than a lot of people do, however, and, following in part in the political example of Gandhi, set out on a different path.
And of course both Gandhi and King were inspired by Thoreau. It's interesting that perhaps the greatest and most dedicated practical Christian in American history drew spiritual guidance from a Hindu and a--well, it's hard to define what Thoreau was, but he certainly wasn't a member of any Christian denomination. Maybe all of us who call ourselves Christians should be more focused on recognizing and learning from what is divine in every culture than on hunting for doctrinal errors and lapses from virtue that we can denounce.

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Disoriented in Dhaka (Though Not Politically)

Finally laid low by jet lag, I am lying on my very firm bed in the Pacific Inn guest house as sounds of an early evening in Dhaka filter through the windows: raucous conversation among men in the streets, droning/wailing music from nearby backyards, a cat meowing, kids yelling, some kind of thin metallic clanking from one of the many dusty construction sites, and, faintly, the symphony of horns of cars, taxis, buses on the busy main road a few blocks way.

I arrived at the guest house seventeen hours ago at three thirty on Monday morning, grabbed five hours sleep; showered, breakfasted on pineapple juice, toast, a banana, an apple, and a cup of strong black coffee; and was put in a cab to the high-rise offices of Grameen Bank, where I was whisked from floor to floor to meet people whose names I am struggling to keep straight (and who have already been making arrangements to meet with and educate me about microcredit and "social business"), shown a plain deal desk in a sunlit triangular space, which will be my office during my weeks here in Dhaka, set up with a Nokia handset by the efficient people at Grameen Phone, and finally fed a lunch of spicy vegetables, soup, and endless white rice at the Grameen Bank cafeteria.

Back in my guest house room, I felt excited and anxious, as one will during the early hours in a strange country. I went out for a walk; was stared at, not with hostility, by most of the people I passed; was offered rides by the drivers of at least a dozen of the amazingly painted bicycle-style rickshaws that fill the streets; wandered into an enormous, lovely nursery of tropical plants and trees that I vaguely thought was some sort of public park until a sari-ed woman with two small children approached, smilingly wondering what I intended to buy; and finally wandered over to the tin-shed "departmental store" I'd passed earlier to pick up two large boxes of tissues and a big bottle of spring water to bring back to the guest house (where the manager sadly reproached me: "We would put these things in your room! No need to buy--just tell us what you want!")

I will tell him next time, or maybe not, since the three items cost only a total of 110 taka (about a dollar eighty, which is what the water alone would cost at home).

Got back to the room, suddenly realized I was exhausted, took off my shoes and fell into a deep sleep on the very firm bed . . . woke up an hour ago, around 7:30 in the evening, changed into pajamas, and decided to surf the Internet a little before going to sleep till the morning. (And, yes, I can go on line for free from my room, which is more than I could say at the four-star hotel we stayed at in Madrid last fall.)

And scanning the Internet I find that much of the commentariat is reacting to this NPR commentary on the Bush administration by a disillusioned lifelong conservative named Rod Dreher. Key excerpt:
As President Bush marched the country to war with Iraq, even some voices on the Right warned that this was a fool's errand. I dismissed them angrily. I thought them unpatriotic.

But almost four years later, I see that I was the fool. In Iraq, this Republican President for whom I voted twice has shamed our country with weakness and incompetence, and the consequences of his failure will be far, far worse than anything Carter did.

The fraud, the mendacity, the utter haplessness of our government's conduct of the Iraq war have been shattering to me. It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Not under a Republican President.

I turn 40 next month - middle aged at last - a time of discovering limits, finitude. I expected that. But what I did not expect was to see the limits of finitude of American power revealed so painfully. I did not expect Vietnam. As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war.

I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority.

On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn't the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely?

Will my children, too small now to understand Iraq, take me seriously when I tell them one day what powerful men, whom their father once believed in, did to this country? Heavy thoughts for someone who is still a conservative despite it all. It was a long drive home.
Barbara O'Brien writes about this on The Mahablog, noting that one element in the creation of the sixties "counterculture" was the sense of betrayal many young people were feeling at the time. She talks about the idealistic belief in America that many kids growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s felt, and then says:
For many of us, these feelings reached their apex during the Kennedy administration. I was nine years old when he was elected. He seemed to embody everything that was noble and good and heroic about America. I remember his tour of Europe the summer before the assassination. I watched his motorcade move through cheering crowds on our black-and-white console television and never felt prouder to be an American.

But then our hearts were broken in Dallas, and less than two years later Lyndon Johnson announced he would send troops to Vietnam. And then the young men of my generation were drafted into the meat grinder. Sooner or later, most of us figured out our idealism had been misplaced. I was one of the later ones; the realization dawned for me during the Nixon Administration, which began while I was a senior in high school. Oh, I still believed in liberty and democracy; I felt betrayed because I realized our government didn't. And much of my parents' generation didn't seem to, either.

The counterculture was both a backlash to that betrayal and to the cultural rigidity of the 1950s. And much of "movement conservatism" was a backlash to the counterculture, albeit rooted in the pseudo-conservatism documented earlier by Richard Hofstadter and others.
I would add another key piece to this story. In 1968 (when I was fifteen), hundreds of thousands of young people poured their sense of frustration and anguish about the war into politics. While some (from those on the far left who toyed with the rhetoric of revolution to those in the mushy mainstream who were focused mainly on musical and pharmaceutical experimentation) were already thoroughly disenchanted with "the system," many of us tried working within it, organizing voters on behalf of the Democratic peace candidates in that year's primary campaign.

And by god the voters responded. Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy won primary after primary that spring and summer of 1968. Vice president Hubert Humphrey, who took up the administration's banner after Johnson withdrew his candidacy at the end of the March, scarcely competed in the primaries. But he didn't have to. Instead, he accumulated support through deals with state and local party bosses, who then controlled the majority of convention delegates. The summer culminated in the disastrous Chicago convention at which the party "regulars" steamrollered the angry peace delegates and nominated Humphrey for president.

So despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Democrats had voted for peace, the party handed us a candidate fatally tainted by his long-term support for the war. And the country ended up with Nixon as president.

"So much for working for change through the system," many of us said. "The people speak--and the powers-that-be do exactly what the hell they want." (It's another parallel to today that I've been thinking about lately, as Bush wields his prerogative as The Decider to ignore last November's electoral results. When the Republicans win, we get lectures about how "elections have consequences." When the Democrats win, elections apparently have no consequences.)

In the aftermath of 1968, I dialed my personal commitment to politics way down, as did many people of my generation. That is, until Bush revealed himself to be an even worse abuser of the Constitution than Nixon, and the Internet helped give us our voice.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Off To Bangladesh

I guess this is what overseas correspondents mean when they refer to a "fluid situation." Professor Yunus has sent me an email message describing the current climate in Bangladesh as "almost normal" and urging me to journey there as quickly as possible. So I'm off. Watch this space for words and pictures from Dhaka over the next few weeks. It's not called World Wide Webers for nothing.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Pray for Bangladesh

Updated below

Many readers of this blog are aware that I was scheduled to visit Bangladesh beginning this Saturday to work with Professor Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, on his new book.

Sadly, those plans are now on hold--hopefully for just a short time--because of civil unrest in Bangladesh.

In the runup to national elections that were scheduled for January 22, the two leading parties had been battling over control of the voting process. Street demonstrations and strikes had resulted in violence, hundreds of injuries and tens of deaths. Travel within the capital of Dhaka as well as in the surrounding countryside was difficult.

Events came to a head yesterday, Thursday, when the interim president Iajuddin Ahmed announced a national state of emergency, imposed a nighttime curfew on cities throughout Bangladesh, postponed the election, and then resigned his role as head of the government.

The next steps are in the hands of the two leading parties (which are really coalitions of many smaller parties, one right of center, one left of center). They must work together to agree on a new timetable for elections and, hopefully, a voting process that will produce credible results.

Now is a good time to pray for the people of Bangladesh, including, of course, Muhammad Yunus, his many colleagues at Grameen Bank, and the millions of poor people they serve.


Today (Friday) the situation may be starting to stabilize. The curfew has been lifted and a respected economist, central banker Fakhruddin Ahmed, has been named as the new government administrator. (Professor Yunus was reportedly invited to join the government, but declined, as he has done in the past.) The streets of Dhaka supposedly look normal, filled with cars and pedestrians. However, the official state of emergency remains in force, and no new date for elections has yet been set. I'll keep you posted.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bush's Latest Desperate Effort to Get Traction

Just a couple of thoughts related to Bush's speech and the "new strategy" for Iraq:

1. After the speech, Chris Matthews on MSNBC seemed deeply impressed by the fact that the president accepted "responsibility" (though without consequences) for any "mistakes that have been made" (by persons unnamed). Sorry, but this is way, way too late to be relevant, let alone impressive. Matthews invoked a comparison to JFK, who took public responsibility for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Let's compare, shall we? The Bay of Pigs fiasco began on April 15, 1961 and had totally collapsed by April 19. Kennedy's speech accepting responsibility was made the following day. Kennedy did not wait almost four years, then grudgingly and indirectly admit his errors. He admitted them immediately. That's the difference between a man and a weasel.

(If you want an apt historical comparison for Bush's "confession," don't look to JFK but to Pete Rose, who indignantly denied betting on baseball for fifteen years, then confessed in a desperate ploy to sell copies of yet another ghost-written memoir--his fourth, I think.)

2. This morning, Bush appeared before troops and families at Fort Benning to sell his escalation plan. The response was cool. This is not surprising, considering that one of the biggest selling points Bush offered went like this:
The American people say, well, you tried [a troop increase] before -- and we did. They said, what went wrong, what's different?

Well, what's new about this plan is there will be enough troops to clear, build and hold, and that our troops will be able to move alongside the Iraqis without political interference, and that's very important. It's important for our troops to hear, and it's important for the American people to know, this is new. This is something different that enables the military folks to predict that we will succeed in helping quell sectarian violence in Baghdad.
Imagine that you are an enlisted man in the audience, or his wife or his dad. You may have already lost buddies in Iraq. Now, almost four years into the war, the president informs you that, until today, the US forces were fighting while hobbled by "political interference"--apparently with the knowledge and acquiescence of the administration.

Would you feel like cheering?

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

George, Laura, and Condi in Wild White House Love Romp!

If, like me, you like to spend those boring minutes waiting in line at the supermarket scanning the covers of the tabloids, you may have noticed something interesting. Over about the last year and a half, several of these papers have been running expose-style stories about President Bush. Judging by the front-page headlines (honestly I haven't gotten up the nerve to actually buy the papers yet), the stories say or imply that Bush has returned to drinking heavily, that his marriage is on the rocks, and that he has been having an affair with one or more of the women in his administration (Condi Rice being the obvious favorite candidate).

I find this fascinating from several standpoints:

1. It's an interesting bellwether of how far the administration has fallen in public favor. My sense is that the tabloids rarely offer any moral or social judgment that the vast majority of Americans wouldn't endorse. Hence their fondness for stories that confirm what "everybody knows" about celebrities: O.J. Did It! Madonna Is a Slut! Michael Jackson Is Weird! Hollywood Starlets Are Too Thin! Brad Was Mean to Jennifer! etc. etc. If "Bush Is a Lying Bully!" has been added to this list of universal verities, it's hard to see how the administration has any chance of coming back during the next two years.

2. I wonder whether any of the tabloid stories are true. Has Bush been drinking? Is his marriage in trouble? Does he play around with other women? (For what it's worth, none of these would surprise me; they don't seem sharply contradictory to what we've seen of his personality. But of course that means nothing in evidentiary terms.)

3. Do the tabloid headlines reflect rumors that are widespread among the Washington press corps (as similar headlines about JFK, for example, would have done)? Is anyone from the mainstream media trying to track down the facts behind these allegations--or do the august personages who run the Times and NBC News still turn up their noses at the likes of the Globe or the National Enquirer? (In this day and age, that would be a highly short-sighted attitude, considering that the tabloids have been breaking big political stories since at least 1987, when the Enquirer printed those famous photos of Gary Hart and Donna Rice aboard the Monkey Business.)

4. Finally, what effect, if any, does tabloid coverage have on public opinion? Have the stories about Bush's personal life helped to drive the president's steadily-declining poll numbers? Sophisticates like you and I (ahem) may think we are too highbrow to be influenced by stories in America's sleaziest papers. But plenty of people read the tabloids; although circulations are generally down in recent years, papers like the Enquirer still sell over a million copies a week. And even those of us who may not read them are exposed to their "worldview" (if that's not too hifalutin a term) whenever we go shopping.

I wouldn't be shocked if there was a correlation between a celebrity's declining favorability rating and the number of times he or she gets trashed in the tabloids. Why shouldn't this apply just as much to a politician as to an actor or singer?

We political bloggers, and our establishment counterparts on the op-ed pages of newspapers, might like to imagine that the average voter gets most of his or her information about the great political figures of our day from Time, The Nation, and The Weekly Standard, or at least Hardball and The Daily Show. But maybe our sights should be set a little lower.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Schismatics Defend Their Brave Stand Against Heresy

In today's WaPo, the rector and a parishioner from Falls Church, one of the schismatic parishes in Virginia, offer their justification for leaving the Episcopal church. Here's what they say:
The core issue in why we left is not women's leadership. It is not "Episcopalians against equality," as the headline on a recent Post op-ed by Harold Meyerson put it. It is not a "leftward" drift in the church. It is not even primarily ethical -- though the ordination of a practicing homosexual as bishop was the flash point that showed how far the repudiation of Christian orthodoxy had gone.

The core issue for us is theological: the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. It is thus a matter of faithfulness to the lordship of Jesus, whom we worship and follow. The American Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers. Some leaders expressly deny the central articles of the faith -- saying that traditional theism is "dead," the incarnation is "nonsense," the resurrection of Jesus is a fiction, the understanding of the cross is "a barbarous idea," the Bible is "pure propaganda" and so on. Others simply say the creed as poetry or with their fingers crossed.


These are the outrages we protest. These are the infidelities that drive us to separate. These are the real issues to be debated. We remain Anglicans but leave the Episcopal Church because the Episcopal Church first left the historic faith. Like our spiritual forebears in the Reformation, "Here we stand. So help us God. We can do no other."
Well, as I've noted, I've been a very involved Episcopalian for the past thirty years. During that time, I've been a member and a leader in four different parishes (one in Manhattan, one in Queens, one in the Bronx, and one in Westchester County), and have participated in services and other activities in many other churches, from small chapels in Cape Cod to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. I've worked and prayed with dozens of Episcopal clergy--young and old, male and female, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, white and black, of various ethnic and social backgrounds. Never once have I heard statements like those quoted by the Falls Church schismatics.

Oh, I have no doubt that they can back up their quotes with citations. I suspect that at least some of them will prove to be out-of-context distortions. For example, there are certainly passages in the Bible that could be fairly described as "pure propaganda" (recalling, of course, the basic meaning of the word "propaganda"--a statement designed to persuade an audience of the truth of a particular political, social, or religious belief). But have many Episcopal leaders described the entire Bible as "pure propaganda"? I'm dubious.

But, again, I don't doubt that the schismatics have some evidence for the phrases they cite. I'm sure that, if you devote time to scouring theological journals, sermons, websites, and other documents, you can probably find evidence that some priests in the Episcopal church have said things that most Christians would strongly disagree with. So what? Is that a reason to condemn the church as a whole?

Put the shoe on the other foot. As a political and social liberal, I'm sure I could find a number of theological statements with which I strongly disagree in the writings or speeches of particular Anglican leaders. In fact, I could probably do this with ease just by consulting the utterances of Nigerian Bishop Peter Akinola. For example, Akinola has made veiled threats against Muslims ("May we at this stage remind our Muslim brothers that they do not have the monopoly of violence in this nation") and has offered public support for a proposed law that would, among other restrictions, make it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison for two gay people to have dinner together.

Somehow the fact that some of my fellow Anglicans have beliefs that I consider profoundly contrary to the spirit of Christ doesn't make me feel driven to agitate for a split in our denomination--or to try to seize legal and financial control of the assets of my local parish.

But then, I don't consider myself a latter-day Martin Luther--just an individual Christian trying to worship God and love my neighbor, rather than diligently searching for reasons to take offense at him.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Tough Talk and the Reality Check

Maybe the most important basic skill that kids aren't taught in schools is the ability to operationalize language: that is, the processes involved in analyzing things that people say and asking, not, "Does that sound good?" but, rather, "What does that mean? In concrete terms, what real-world facts are implied? And does that make any sense?"

If we could all get into the habit of asking questions like these, particularly when people are trying to persuade us, we could avoid seventy-five percent of the most heartbreaking and destructive errors we usually fall into.

Case in point: This excerpt from a letter in the current issue of Vanity Fair, taking editor Graydon Carter to task for refusing to support President Bush's war in Iraq:

I am certain that Carter, and those of a similar liberal mind, would have preferred more deliberations and more meaningless U.N. resolutions to handle the pre-war quagmire that was Iraq under Hussein. But true leadership requires action--usually action that others are too cowardly to take. That seems to be the approach of the Democratic Party: let's wait to see what happens, and we will take action once things have gotten really bad and the costs are 10 times what they would have been if action had been taken earlier. If Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor and pulled the U.S. into W.W. II, how much damage would F.D.R.'s Democratic administration have allowed Nazi Germany to inflict on Europe? How many more innocent Jews would have been killed? I'll ask similar questions regarding Iraq. How many more innocent Iraqis needed to die before we stepped in to unseat Hussein? How many terrorists would it have been O.K. to allow Iraq to harbor while they planned attacks against the U.S.? I would hope that Carter would say zero.

--Brian Borger, Oregon, Ohio

Let's ignore the grossly anti-historical implication that, during the 1939-1941 period, Republicans were courageously urging the U.S. to enter World War II in order to defend the Jews of Europe, while the cowardly Democrat F.D.R. shrank from this responsibility. (In fact, of course, the Republican party was dominated by isolationists, and the most right-wing among them didn't hesitate to attack F.D.R. as the Jew-loving "Rosenveldt" who was trying to drag America into a European war that was none of our business.)

Instead, I just want to focus on the last two sentences of the letter: "How many terrorists would it have been O.K. to allow Iraq to harbor while they planned attacks against the U.S.? I would hope that Carter would say zero."

This kind of tough talk sounds good. No one likes the idea of terrorists planning to attack the U.S., and it sounds bold and determined to declare a zero-tolerance policy against regimes that harbor them. But now let's apply our operationalizing questions: "What does that mean? In concrete terms, what real-world facts are implied? And does that make any sense?"

Let's start by asking, What does "harboring terrorists" mean? As we've seen, no intelligence expert seriously claims that Saddam Hussein had a cooperative working relationship with al-Qaeda. However, it's quite possible that some anti-U.S. terrorists were permitted to live inside Iraq while planning attacks on America or other targets without being harassed by the government of Iraq. I suppose this could be described as "harboring" them.

If so, what the letter-writer is demanding is that Iraq (and, by logical extension, every other country in the world) take vigorous steps to identify, locate, indict, and punish every terrorist or potential terrorist within its borders. (Potential terrorists must be included, since our letter-writer is very concerned about preventing attacks, not just responding to them after the fact.) We're talking about every single terrorist, since the only acceptable number, according to the letter-writer, is zero.

Of course, this is not easy to do. The United States has not succeeded in doing it--that is, unless you believe that we have managed to find and arrest every single potential terrorist anywhere in the fifty states. And some might consider it unrealistic for the U.S. to demand that countries around the world--including some that are America's adversaries--live up to this exceedingly high standard.

Nonetheless, this is what our letter-writer demands--that Iraq be allowed to harbor zero terrorists. And since he is defending Bush's invasion of Iraq, we can see that the real-world implications of this policy would be that any regime that fails to meet this standard would be subject to invasion, overthrow, and occupation by the U.S.

Does that make any sense?

Well, I suppose it depends on the assumptions you make about worldwide terrorism and American military might. Most people believe that the world contains at least a few thousand terrorists and potential terrorists--people who might well be planning attacks on the United States (depending on how rigorous a definition of "planning" you apply). They are located, one would assume, in countries all around the world, including not only the United States itself but also many countries in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere.

By the logic of the letter-writer, all those countries are subject to invasion by the U.S.--provided, of course, that we reject the weaselly policies advocated by such cowards as Graydon Carter and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now, as we know, the U.S. military is currently having a devil of a time fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does our letter-writer have any thoughts as to how we might fare if we decided to invade five or six additional countries--let's say, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, and Lebanon, for starters? (Some of these countries have done much more than Iraq ever did to aid and support terrorists.)

Has he thought about the real-world implications for our country if we were to expand the military to the extent required to make such a policy practicable? (We obviously couldn't do it with our current roster of 1.4 million men and women in uniform. How many would it take? Three million? Five million? Your guess is as good as mine.)

I don't suppose our letter-writer has considered these issues, since even to raise the questions is to make his "policy recommendation" appear ludicrous.

This diary post is, of course, overkill. I'm applying real-world logic to what is probably no more than a rhetorical flourish, a bit of meaningless tough talk of the kind that conservatives constantly use to put their opponents on the defensive and make themselves appear (and perhaps feel) "strong" and "brave." But my point is this: The logic it takes to demolish this absurd demand for zero-tolerance of potential terrorists in foreign lands is incredibly rudimentary. You merely have to think about what it actually means for about thirty seconds to realize how risible it is.

If the average American--to say nothing of the average news reporter, editorial writer, or Congressional representative--were accustomed to applying such logic, it would be impossible for conservatives to get away with such talk. People who talk this way--and God knows there are lots of them, in high government positions as well as behind talk-show microphones, in magazine offices, and in think-tank conference rooms--would be laughed to silence, leaving actual grown-ups to debate plausible policies for our nation.

Am I really expecting too much of the "average American"? I find that hard to believe.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Upholding Episcopal Tradition? Not Exactly

When I wrote, two weeks ago, about the breakaway Episcopal churches in Virginia whose members are so horrified by gay priests and bishops that they are trying to align their parishes with ultra-conservative bishops in Africa, I provoked quite a bit of hostile commentary.

For example, check out this conservative site, where a number of commenters took me to task for my supposed ignorance of how liberals have been perverting the traditional nature of the church. One concludes his (or he) analysis of my errors with the remark, "I would guess he is not an Episcopalian." And commenters right here on World Wide Webers wrote things like this:

Since the conservative, orthodox, whatever we are called these days, are the ones following "the faith once delivered," and the liberals, progressives, whatever, are the ones making the "innovations," perhaps they are the ones who need to find their own path. Why change an organization if you don't like its basic tenets? Just start your own!
But this article from WaPo sheds another light on the controversy. It details how the two leading churches among the Virginia secessionists have, for the past thirty years, been gradually taken over by non-Episcopalians with a style of theology and a form of worship normally associated with very different branches of Protestantism. A few highlights:

Parishioners say it happens quietly, unobtrusively: As the sick make their way to the altar, some worshipers begin speaking in tongues. Occasionally, one is "arrested in the spirit," falling unconscious into the arms of a fellow congregant.

The special faith-healing services, held one Sunday night a month at The Falls Church in Fairfax, are a rarity in the Episcopal Church. But members of The Falls Church have long felt at odds with fellow Episcopalians, who they believe have been drifting theologically in an ever more liberal direction.

Shortly before Christmas, The Falls Church and neighboring Truro Church -- which in Colonial times belonged to a single parish -- vented those feelings by voting overwhelmingly to break away from the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church.

The vote reverberated across the country because Truro and The Falls Church are two of the Washington area's most wealthy, historic and prestigious congregations. Their pews are studded on Sunday mornings with such regulars as Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and former CIA director Porter J. Goss.

Moreover, they are reversing the usual relationship between Christians in the United States and the developing world by joining seven other Northern Virginia congregations in a new missionary branch of the Anglican province of Nigeria.

The decision was emotionally wrenching and fraught with legal issues, not least of which is a potential battle with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia for control of the two congregations' land and buildings, conservatively valued at $25 million.

But the votes appear less sudden or surprising when one realizes that for more than 30 years, Truro and The Falls Church have been part of a "charismatic revival" within mainline Protestantism, said the Rev. Robert W. Prichard, professor of Christianity in America at the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

Charismatic, in this case, refers to an ecstatic style of worship that includes speaking in tongues, a stream of unintelligible syllables signifying that the Holy Spirit has entered the worshiper. It is a hallmark of the fast-growing Pentecostal movement but unusual for Episcopalians, who are so thoroughly associated with solemnity and tradition that they are sometimes referred to teasingly as "the frozen chosen."

Prichard, who grew up attending Truro, said many of its members and almost of all its lay leaders spoke in tongues in the 1970s. "There was a kind of coaching in which people who had spoken in tongues would surround a person who was praying for the gift of tongues," he said.

Parishioners say the practice continues today in both congregations, though not at Sunday morning services. Some members have never seen it.


These days, Truro is a magnet for conservatives across the Washington area, and the percentage of "cradle" Episcopalians among its 2,000 regular worshipers has dropped steadily. In the 1980s, more than two-thirds of its members had been raised Episcopalian, according to church surveys. Today, fewer than 40 percent grew up in the church.


At least two-thirds of the worshipers [at the Falls Church] are Methodists, Presbyterians or Baptists, and there is no pressure on them to be confirmed as Episcopalians, said the Rev. Rick Wright, associate rector.

Wright said the diverse membership of both congregations illustrates one of the great changes in American religion of the past half-century: The divisions between denominations are far less important today than the divisions within denominations.

"I tend to feel very comfortable rubbing shoulders with folks at McLean Bible or Columbia Baptist . . . that are real orthodox, evangelical, biblical churches," said Truro's chief warden, or lay leader, Jim Oakes, referring to two Northern Virginia megachurches. "We share core beliefs. I think I would be more comfortable with them than with anyone I might run into at an Episcopal Diocesan Council meeting."

In some popular services, Truro and The Falls Church blend the traditional liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer with such megachurch touches as huge choirs, bass guitars and drums. Neither offers "smells and bells," the incense and chimes favored by "high church" Episcopal congregations. But some parishioners affectionately describe Truro as "McLean Bible with candles."
(McLean Bible is a non-denominational, evangelical megachurch in the Washington, D.C. suburb of McLean, Virginia.)

Reading this story makes me wonder, Who are the true innovators and interlopers here?

I've been a committed (baptised and confirmed) Episcopalian for the past thirty years, serving as a vestry member, Sunday School teacher, and lay eucharistic minister. Over the years, I've had occasion to attend Episcopal services at a variety of churches, mostly in the New York area, and found them all more or less familiar and congenial. The commonalities among them constitute what I think of as "my church," which I have been nourished by and which I love.

I have nothing against Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostalists, and I don't even object to people who speak in tongues. (I've never experienced it myself, and I think it's a little odd that people would pray for this "gift," since it doesn't seem to offer any spiritual or practical benefits--unlike the original episode of "speaking in tongues" in Acts 2, where God enabled the early Christians to preach in many languages so they could proselytize among the many foreigners in Jerusalem, not just to dramatize their religious fervor. But if people find this experience uplifting, so be it.)

However, I do think it's a bit much for these various types of Christian seekers to move into an Episcopal parish, introduce new beliefs and forms of worship, gradually increase their numbers until they constitute a majority, vote to hijack the parish from its original owners--and then claim to represent "traditional Episcopalianism."

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Monday, January 01, 2007

"Our Constitution Works"--Except When We Prevent It

When I wrote recently about Ford's pardon of Nixon, I got some criticism from certain members of Daily Kos who felt I was guilty of overstatement or distortion in saying that Ford's pardon of Nixon "violated the spirit of the Constitution and the express intentions of the founders."

I thought I was being careful in evoking "the spirit of the Constitution." The pardon admittedly could be justified by a narrow reading of the document, which does, after all, give the president a seemingly broad power to issue pardons. But when we read the Constitution in its totality, we see that the founders were deeply concerned about limiting the powers of the executive, holding government officials strictly accountable for their deeds in office, and ensuring that no one is above the law--all matters of the "spirit" of the Constitution that, I think, Ford's pardon violated.

Perhaps another way of getting at my point is via this insightful post by David Kurtz over at Talking Points Memo. Kurtz quotes historian Michael Beschloss describing how fortunate it was that Jerry Ford became vice president under Nixon (and, of course, president after Nixon's resignation). As Beschloss recalls, Nixon's first choice for the post was John Connally, who soon thereafter was indicated for perjury and obstruction of justice. Beschloss wonders how "faith in our system" would have survived yet another presidential scandal on the heels of Watergate.

It's true, of course, that a Connally presidency would have been a blot and a headache for America. But, as Kurtz points out,
the sort of faith in the system that Beschloss is talking about is a blind faith. The system per se didn't prevent such a turn of events. Happenstance (and the greater likelihood of Ford being confirmed as vice president) ultimately led to a Ford rather than a Connally presidency. If your faith in the system is predicated on something not happening that very well could have happened, and that could happen again, then that's not faith but wishful thinking. It's the same sort of fair-weather faith that leads to the rather incoherent argument that to try a President for a violation of the law would threaten the system of laws. What Beschloss credits as faith is actually fear.
I think Kurtz has it right. When Ford took office after Nixon's resignation, he referred to Americans' "faith in the system" when he said in his initial speech that "Our Constitution works." But "the system" can't refer to one or more fortunate occurrences that take place because of luck or because a particular office holder chooses to do the right thing. It refers to an entire structure of Constitutional processes that is designed to force action by responsible officials when serious crimes against the nation are committed.

Nixon's resignation did reflect the appropriate workings of "the system" because it took place only after the weight of evidence about Nixon's misdeeds, together with the hearings, deliberations, and votes of the House Judiciary Committee, had made his impeachment and conviction virtually inevitable. In other words, the structure of processes created by the founders to facilitate the exposure and punishment of crimes by high government officials was doing its job, and it was pressure from these processes that induced Nixon to quit.

By contrast, Ford's pardon of Nixon short-circuited the further workings of "the system." The Constitution specifies that those who have been impeached and convicted remain subject to criminal indictment and punishment. Ford's intervention prevented this second process from working itself out. (And we now know that Ford did this not merely to "heal" the nation but because of his close lifelong friendship with Nixon: "I didn't want my real friend to have the stigma.")

What Beschloss calls our "faith in the system"--the same belief that Ford himself invoked when he declared, "Our Constitution works"--is very much what I had in mind when I wrote (somewhat vaguely) about "the spirit of the Constitution." This faith, this spirit, is damaged when it appears that the workings of the system will be short-circuited on the arbitrary say-so of one or a few government officials whenever they deem it necessary.

And that faith is damaged further when citizens (at least those with longish memories) can't help noticing that the arbitrary rulings that stymie the workings of the law--from the Ford pardon to Bush's pardon of the Iran-Contra criminals to the Supreme Court's halting of the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore--always seem to benefit members of the same political party.

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