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Posts from the ‘Op-Ed’ Category

Democracy or Democrazy?

Election Day has come and gone but, once again  I have been  reminded of a point I merely hinted at in a prior post; the happy joyful illusion of our supposed total freedom and right of choice as Americans. The greatest example of this chimera was once again, right in front of our eyes in the Presidential race, which, from the writing of our constitution, has been based on a two party system. In essence, the White House is handed between “elephant” and “donkey” every four or eight years, redecorated on the qualms of the First Lady with the chairs in the Oval Office refitted to the comfort of the Chief in Command.

So, I have had to ask, do we really live in a democracy? To me, our democracy seems to be solely the jostling of money from the right hand to the left in order to see who will come out on top.

I argue that the U.S. is NOT a pure democracy in the core of the word:  “Democracy: a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives,” since it is money that creates a transparently lopsided playing field.  We use a unique interpretation of the word, which the majority of us seem quite content not to meddle with, and call our country the best democracy of the world.

In comparison to a vast majority of countries, we have amazing freedoms, electricity and hot running water, a good sanitation system, paved highways, public transportation, an economy that, while extremely weak, has not lost all credibility. We have a currency worth something and a passport that allows us entrance into most lands. We have foreign embassies that can protect us (usually!), and a strong military.  Now that we have established these points, one can understand why we, for hundreds and hundreds of years – and most likely the years to come — have not questioned our form of democracy. This leads me to ask,  how can we judge other forms of governorship if we don’t really live under total democracy?

As stated above, the U.S. largely provides its citizens with a sense of security, which, in part, explains why the American masses support their government in “democratizing” other countries. We want to be seen as the model and the leader and want other countries to follow us.  But, why should we try to impose our type of democracy on countries that are happy with their current situation.  As we are fine with our “democrazy,” let those other states have theirs as well.

Now to why I did  vote for one of the two parties, even though I think my vote is just enabling the “faux” democracy?  After railing on about not living in a true democracy why fall into the same pit whole? Why not vote for a third party or not vote at all? While I want that fairy tale ending, I am a realist when it comes to politics in my country. If I were to vote, for example, for the Green party, while I may have been considered a rebel exercising her hand at the system, I know I would not be changing anything.

One could argue, we have a two party race because of people with the same mentality as YOU (I am talking to myself here), but I disagree. As long as no laws are put in place, restricting big money endorsements in these two parties, red and blue will be our ONLY colors. While the parties have become more and more similar, like our blood which runs blue until coming in contact with oxygen and turning red and visa versa, the parties have come to exist on each others’ breath. I voted because I know our president will be, sadly, either  Republican or  Democrat.

And so, while not even close to perfect, I will continue to take advantage of my ability to vote and the many privileges that come along with my birth right in this country, and the illusions that my  “democrazy” provides.

Under Objective Eyes

One of the best things about being around someone that is not family, not of “the same cloth,” is that, if you allow yourself, this person enables you to see your surroundings objectively under new light.

While, for some, it may be painful to see their backyard in reveal, for me, the experience has been one of relief and clarity — my intuition has finally received some sort of back up support!

Now, to the meat (Certified Organic, of course): Every city, neighborhood or house has it’s own culture, unique norms and social constructs. The core of any such assemblage is created by the gradual solidification of a specific belief, often to the effect of the eventual exclusion of others. As of right now, my surroundings largely consist of liberal, highly educated, highly-travelled and well-off individuals.  And put simply, this group of people seem to have bought into the lure of the meme of Organic. To exemplify the extent to which an idea can take over unassumingly, I am going to talk about the community of Organic followers.

The idea of Organic has, in the last few years, become so common—thus so watered down, that it has lost its true meaning. It has been spun by the “socially conscious” into a belief, without them even realizing they are doing so.

I cannot tell you how many times the word, in its noun and adjective forms, comes up in conversation, most often when the topic is not even food. At a recent conference I attended, the word got dropped in almost all of the plenary sessions presented, and let me mention: this was a conference on IMPACT INVESTING!

How many times have I seen my own mother pick up health products, energy drinks, vitamins, oils and supplements JUST BECAUSE they are labeled Organic? Each week a new item comes up, organic garments are woven, new soaps are created and thus she feels, like many others in her community, that she must buy every new thing with that Organic CCOF label.  I have seen how, as the product is replaced by another Organic product, she too will buy that one, use it for a few months and then move onto the next Organic fad.

While buying and “living Organic” is not the worst agenda a group can have, it has made me realize how easily subconscious waves can be spread without ever being seen or processed as such by the entity in focus.

It is fascinating to see hypotheses regurgitated over and over again in this pin pointed group, and to see how do’s become norms and norms because absolutes. And as consolidation of an idea occurs, the confidence in that label morphs into the shunning of those who do not comply with the “rules.”

I agree that health is important, nutrition and exercise are key but, pouring Vanilla CoffeeMate creamer into my guest’s hot mug, instead of the Organic alternative, is not going to kill; it will just shave off a bit of the majority’s untouchability so coveted.

“Creating” the Orient: Reflection on Part I of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”

 

This summer, while studying Arabic in Beirut, the name “Edward Said” kept popping up continuously and so, as soon as I got back to the states I had to pick up his renowned book: “Orientalism”. His writing, it so turned out, responded to many of my longstanding questions and concerns. Through the telling of the past, Said has given me a much more thorough understanding of the complex relationship between East and West and where we thus stand today.

I must acknowledge that I dislike writing on the many diverse peoples, cultures and states of the Middle East using the over-bearing words “Orient” and “East” and “Middle East”, and likewise “West,” since they are all relative. But, the reality is that the many lands of olives, dabke, hieroglyphics and Arabic are encapsulated in these “umbrella terms.” Pardon me.

In reading “Orientalism,” my understanding of present Western attitudes of superiority towards the East have increased tremendously.  It is astounding to retrospectively observe the West’s historic position in molding this area of the world. As Said puts it: “It is Europe that articulates the Orient; this articulation is the prerogative, not of a puppet master, but of a genuine creator…”

From 1815 to 1914 Europe controlled 85% of the earth but as we will see, “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism.”

Orientalism, as a field of study, is quite expansive and to make it palpable for a European audience, scholar d’Herbolet wrote Le Biblioteque Orientale (1697), which organized information on the Orient alphabetically and helped spread the belief in the acute differences of the Oriental in comparison to the European.  Orientalism is therefore: “Knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, study, judgment, discipline, or governing.”

With help from colonial encounters in the East, the 18th century saw the relationship between East and West grow in complexity. Scholars of the Orient, who most often used other Western scholars to validate their hypotheses, were able to capitalize on the military expansion of European territories and thus systematically increased awareness of the Orient in Europe on THEIR own Orientalist terms.

For example, the definition of the Prophet Mohammad,  in d’Herbolet’s Biblioteque, reads: “C’est le femeux imposteur Mohamet, Auteur et Fondateur de u hérésie, qui a pris le nom de religion.” Since d’Herbolet was considered an expert on the Orient, Mohammad thus becomes a figure of “heresy” in the minds of European readers. The Italian poet Dante Alighieri even brings up Mohammad in his Inferno.  In fact, “Maometto” turns up in the 8th of the 9 circles of Hell.  That Dante talks about Islam in this way shows that the Orientalist vision is “by no means confined to the professional scholar, but rather the common possession of all who have thought about the Orient in the West.” We are seen how by increasing vilification of the Orient Europeans are able to create their own perceived reality. “d’Herbolet’s character of Mohamet is an image” writes Said and just adds to the theatrical characteristic of the portraral of the Orient to the West. Thus, all that is produced by the Orientalists creates, in all it’s falsities, “the very reality they appear to describe.”

“Since one cannot ontologically obliterate the Orient (as d’Herbolet and Dante perhaps realized), one does have the means to capture it, treat it, describe it, improve it, radically alter it,” wrote Said. And today, sadly, it still seems that the West is fighting, both literally and metaphorically, to sculpt the expansive East. In the eyes of many Americans, and certainly by Westerner policies in general, the people, countries and cultures of the lands south and east of Europe are still viewed as something that needs to be tinkered with and changed to fit the Westerner’s (the Orientalist’s?) agenda. So, I ask, have we really moved that far from our ancestral past practices of “Orientalizing the Orient”?

Can Public Companies REALLY become Benefit Corporations?

While 21st century corporations serve the purpose of profit maximization, this was not always their sole function. In the 19th century, corporations served the public, not solely the pocket. Benefit Corporations (B Corps) are a response to the increasingly polarized world of business in which money is made on one side of the spectrum and social and environmental conservation and awareness is on the other. B Corps demonstrate that there doesn’t need to be such a dichotomy. B Corp legislation, which has been signed into law in California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Virginia, gives protection to corporations who actively endorse sustainability on all levels. As the 2012 annual report of B Lab, the non-profit that certifies B Corps, states, “Business, the most powerful man-made force on the planet, must create value for society, not just for shareholders. Systemic challenges require systemic solutions and the B Corporation movement offers a concrete, positive, market-based, and scalable systemic solution.” B Corp legislation encourages companies to get back on the public benefit ship, one that has deviated from its historic course. B Lab, in certification, offers a path to social benefit citizenship.

       B Corp legislation was introduced just four years ago but B Lab has already certified 533 companies nationally. However, the majority of those are small scale businesses and, as of yet, there are no public B Corporations.   Patagonia is one of the biggest B Corps and demonstrates that companies of great size CAN become certified. But, as we can see, there are not that many companies that are willing to sacrifice profit for a social and environmental good. Thus, the biggest challenge seems to be getting people to care, which in turn forces businesses to have to care. However, this involves a norm shift that will take years. Andrew Greenblatt, assistant at the B Lab New York city office, remarks on the time frame needed to B Corps to be the accepted norm: “It’s going to take time for that to get organized, but 10 to 20 years from now this will be the standard way of doing business. And if you’re not a benefit corporation people are going to ask why not.” We can see this slow change in standards through the increase in demand for organic food, the drop in price in solar panels, among other products. Image Power GreenBrands even found that 72% of Americans believe it is important to “buy from green companies.” Still, this norm shift has not ventured out much from the (reasonably)  stable economic hubs like the Bay Area, Portland, New York city, Chicago etc.  We will not see widespread systematic changes in business until the understood role of the economy moves to encompass long term benefit, not just short term return.

While the number of B Corps is not that high B Lab has certified businesses in 60 industries, ranging from banks to law firms to engineering companies. This demonstrates that B Corps are limitless in regards to arenas of business. But, as of now, there are no publicly traded Benefit Corporations. In A Scorecard for Companies with A Conscience in the New York Times, Op-Ed writer Tina Rosenberg explains: “For various reasons, including the difficulty of convincing thousands of small investors to agree to the legal revisions, there are no B Corps that are publicly traded companies.”

All B Lab certified companies will be awarded this insignia. Now, I am always on the look out for this mark!

One aspect of certification and legislation that had not been clear, until meeting with the San Francisco B Lab office, is that a company can become B Lab certified WITHOUT becoming a legal Benefit Corporation. In essence, a company in Kenya, or Lebanon or Kentucky could be assessed upon B Lab criteria and awarded certification. B Lab certification is a global insignia that indicates a company’s social and environmental integrity. Therefore, certified B Lab public companies do NOT have to worry about a potential lawsuit from a stakeholder (on the premise that the corporation isn’t doing enough for the general public good, as is the case if they are legally a B Corp). However, public companies could still face scrutiny from stakeholders if profit is lower due to meeting B Lab criteria.  Business, ethics, life is in constant search for a balanced homeostatic environment and public companies vying for certification and B Corp status are those whose vital pull is toward sustainability.

Public companies wanting to become B Corps, not just B Lab certified, are waiting to see how the law will play out if a disgruntled shareholder does sue on the basis of the premises mentioned above.  Once there is case law, public companies will feel protected from such actions and more willing to adopt the revolutionary new B Corp bylaws. Adelante!

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On a personal note, I visited with B Lab at The Hub in San Francisco and was so impressed by their knowledge and understanding of all the complexities which go along with becoming a publically traded B Corp. They were not at all pushy in trying to “sell” their product—B Lab certification—and their attitude really made me want to go on a sort of B Lab crusade and encourage others to at least take the FREE self assessment on their website and see if your company is really doing everything for a global benefit! I truly believe that B Lab non-profit, and those that become certified, are going to change the pH of the whole world of business!

Our Constitutional Rights Going Out The Window Again?

Tableing at Occidental College to ask our Senators co-sponsor The Due Process Guarantee Act

Eleven long years after the preventative detention policy was implemented under President Bush, the United States is once more enacting unconstitutional legislation that infringes on our civil liberties. The annual National Defense Authorization Act, passed this past December 2011, allows the government to detain innocent Americans indefinitely if it suspects they are involved in terror-related activities. This could be the reality unless the Due Process Guarantee Act (DPGA) is passed, a bill currently in consideration by the Congress and sponsored by Senator Feinstein and Congressman Geramendi. Even though you may think you are not be an explicit target of the new provisions, the NDAA threatens the natural rights of all Americans in taking away the right to a fair trial. I ask,  wasn’t this country  founded on the basis of freedom and justice for all?

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a bill passed annually by Congress and signed by the president to provide the military with a budget. Often, it includes additional language surrounding military and defense policy, but in the most recent NDAA signed by President Obama, legislators have added new provisions stating that all individuals can be detained indefinitely, without a due process guaranteed, if under suspicion of terrorist links.

This country has witnessed similar events in the not-too-distant past. The internment of Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbor attacks, as well as the blacklisting of suspected communists in the 1950s give light to instances in which the government suspended the constitutional right for a due process. In the aftermath of 9/11, federal and state legislatures enacted similar laws that threatened immigrant communities, justifying their policies on the basis that the country was in a state of national emergency. Never having been charged with a crime, 2,870 Muslim immigrants were detained during that time, and many were not released until months later. A decade after 9/11, the government is still passing laws aiming to prevent terrorism, laws which invariably revert to discrimination against the Muslim community. Their passage is most striking considering how they contradict both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of our Constitution.

After recognizing the NDAA’s clear breaches of the Constitution and discrepancies, Senator Feinstein and Congressman Garamendi responded by proposing the Due Process Guarantee Act (DPGA) in January 2012, which would amend the NDAA to ensure a fair hearing and trial process for all American citizens. The bill currently has 63 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 26 in the Senate, crossing party lines and agendas. It has been endorsed by the likes of Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky and Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York.

The NDAA expands the power of the government to detain Americans without being charged with a crime, which will disproportionately affect minority groups inside the United States, just as the PATRIOT Act’s racialized surveillance policies affected the African-American and Hispanic communities. Under the PATRIOT Act, the government expanded its wiretapping and surveillance programs aimed at both demographics, as well as the Muslim and Arab immigrant community. The FBI and police departments across the country could take advantage of the indefinite detention provision under the NDAA to detain Americans without due process, simply by claiming a link to domestic terrorism.

Organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) have rightfully taken interest in the Due Process Guarantee Act, as the Muslim community fears that without protections, they will be extremely vulnerable to state-sanctioned discrimination and unwarranted detention. The Council advocates for not only the passage of the DPGA, but also proposes a revision to the DPGA to include due process for all individuals both inside the U.S. and as they travel overseas. MPAC, as well as other advocates of the Due Process Guarantee Act, are pressuring Congresswomen Judy Chu to push the bill through committee. She sits on the coveted committee currently holding the DGPA bill hostage–the House Judiciary Committee.

While President Obama has said that he would not enforce many of the most reprehensible elements of the new NDAA, his commitments have not been written into law, nor do they represent anything more than a politician’s oral pledge. His personal assurances bind neither himself nor future presidents, and all people should be alarmed. In the practice of American foreign policy, diplomats and politicians often preach democracy and due process. But ironically, it might be said that back home, America is hardly a model for those very same virtues.

Note: A version of this article was published in the Occidental Weekly, April 2nd edition. This article was co-written by myself and the wonderful Dina Yazdani of http://theglobalconsciousness.wordpress.com/ Check out her insightful blog on Middle Eastern political complexities!

What We Don’t Know

On September 11th 2001, I was 9 years old and in third grade. My parents’ whispers and worried faces were all that affected me that day. I did not know that my life, our world, would be forever changed; wars would commence, scrutiny of all things and people who had dark eyes, dark hair and looked Arab would begin and, the word Allah would not be considered another name for God, like Dios, but a synonym for terror. When the Iraq war began in March, 2002, I was only “against” the U.S. occupation because my mother attended peace protests and placed a peace sticker on her car. I was both too young to study 9/11 as history or to remember the newspaper articles written during that time. As I study the current situation of the world, this has always been a span of time that lacked clarity. This year I embarked on a path to understand why there was a war in Iraq after 9/11, and what is happening now in that ancient Arab state. I picked up Anthony Shadid’s book, Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War, not knowing of his renown. His writing helped me synthesize the standard facts with Iraqi voices and realities. His insight sheds light on the subtle nuances that only a speaker of Arabic could unveil.

Like a resident of Thulayah, “a lush-oasis like town about a ninety minute drive north from Baghdad” who noted the message painted on an American Humvee, “We Remember 9/11,” I have always been perplexed about the connection between the attack on New York and the American war in Iraq. Through the study of articles, books and conversations I have come to the conclusion that without 9/11 the U.S. public would never have allowed for the invasion of the country.  Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom played into the emotions of fearful Americans who saw great benefits in spreading western ideals, ideas of democracy and freedom in the Middle East. Shadid writes on his surprise that the word freedom is infrequently used by Iraqis, “Time and time again, I am struck by how seldom I hear the word hurriyah, ‘freedom,’ in conversation about politics in the Arab world. It does appear, but often in translation or in self-conscious comparisons to the west, where the word is omnipresent. Much more common among Arabs is the word adil, ‘justice,’ a concept that frames attitudes from Israel to Iraq.” Shadid exposes the disconnect between American intentions and Iraqi desires. As the two do not align, it seems to me that the United States had no prior knowledge of Iraqi sentiment and therefore should not have interfered in a country where concepts, common to us, were not held with the same regard.

On May 22nd when the U.N.  Security Council voted 14-0, with Syria abstaining, on a bill that gave the U.S. formal rights and power as the occupying authority in Iraq, the Americans did not understand the repercussions of being the occupier in an Arab country where the word occupation, ihtilal, means something different from our western definition. “For many Americans, even Europeans, the term ‘occupation’ probably evokes the aftermath of World War II and an American-led vision of cooperation with like-minded people forging a common destiny. But for Iraqis, and most Arabs, the term, seared into the collective memory, brings to mind Israel’s record in the Middle East. Some recall Lebanon and the Israeli occupation that endured there, in one fashion or another, from 1978 until May 2000, when the last Israeli soldiers departed from the Fatima Gate on the Israeli-Lebanese border. More spectacularly, the term calls to mind the region’s most incendiary issue: Palestine.” Approaching the situation with totally dissimilar views about a foreign presence on Iraqi soil, how could the U.S. ever come out on top? We see now that America definitely has not, and in playing the role of occupier the military has created even more strife.  Throughout the book, many Iraqi’s repeated that at least Saddam was one of them, though ruthless as he was. At least their former ruler knew the culture, the norms, and the religious differences. At least Saddam knew the soil and the heart of Iraq.

Another central divergence between the Iraqi and American perspective relates to sense of time. Iraqis and Americans measure progress and improvement in different ways. For an Iraqi, a time in which they remembered having power throughout most of the day was a better time than when they were completely left in the literal dark under American occupation. For the Americans, the comparison began when Saddam fell. L. Paul Bremer, the American Consul in Iraq, wrote, “Day by day, conditions in Iraq continue to improve, freedom becomes more and more entrenched.”  Amal, a poor Iraqi middle school student wrote the contrary and concise Iraqi view in her diary, “What are we going to do with democracy when we don’t have anything? What do we do with freedom?” (343) The reality, for many under the Americans, was a life lacking electricity and running water, a lack of jobs for those who did not speak English, and thus hungry mouths of children to feed at home. The idea of freedom does not mean anything if the basic necessities are not met. As Amal’s mother put it, “It’s like we’re part of a play on a stage.” Due to the diverse interpretations and translations of words, from English to Arabic and back, and with a deficiency of able translators, how could the war have ever brought peace and human understanding? At the most basic level words did not carry the same meanings.

At the end of Night Draws Near, Shadid writes about Baghdad, “The city I knew would always be ghamida.” And as such, I ask, if it would always be mysterious and unknown to a journalist of his caliber, who had spent a lifetime in the region and country, why would the United State and NATO, who lack those qualities, ever think they could have  success in a land so foreign?

Anthony Shadid passed away February 16th, 2012 Syria, of an asthma attack provoked by smugglers’ horses. But he has left behind a book that will help build understanding and, as history, we may hopefully take pause before the repeated and thoughtless exercise of power.

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