I still remember quite vividly my early days in college leading up to the 1992 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. While traditionalists and older political analysts thought Clinton would have a very hard time overcoming a sitting president who had just won a war, Generation X voters were impassioned by the energy and intellectualism of the saxophone-playing candidate. While there were many issues that account for that Clinton victory, I always recall how excited us young voters were about finally getting someone into the White House who could TALK.
No matter what his flaws, Clinton could spit into the mic and we were enraptured! What I did not know at the time was that this would be the starting point in the United States in which the concept of civil discourse would not only deteriorate over an entire generation but would become an almost lost treasure. And this deterioration has perhaps achieved its nadir with the current president.
Looking back now I realize just how disrespectful our slightly ageist condescension was projecting onto our voting behavior: we didn’t want this old man who had no concept of the ‘vision thing’ and who almost stuttered any time he spoke before the public. It did not matter that this was a man who had spent a lifetime highly decorated, having served in various important positions throughout the federal government. We pretended that our rejection of Bush was based on the issues, but a lot of it was just our own dismissal of his ‘worthiness’ to represent us on a style level. Ultimately, as we all know, the two terms of Bill Clinton delivered in spades a lesson to all progressives of how easily the pendulum of disrespectful discourse can swing back against you: by the time Clinton left office, his various moral foibles had produced an atmosphere for civil discourse that was even worse, more derisive and corrosive, than anything seen back in 1991-1992.
Of course, as we all know, the problem with the exit of Bill Clinton from the Oval Office was that it signaled the entrance of George W. Bush. Cue the pendulum of disrespect, dismissal, and distaste to swing back in the other direction: once more, instead of new civil discourse about ideas, programs, policies, and vision, people were more obsessed with simply destroying each other. Once more we supposedly had an ignorant moron in the White House: someone who was either uncomfortable or simply unfamiliar with the English language. A simpleton who did not deserve to be in the Oval Office. So, while I had been concerned throughout the 90s at how severely civil discourse seemed to degrade from H.W. Bush to Clinton, I was thoroughly horrified by how much worse that discourse became – more harsh, more brazen, more vulgar – from Clinton to W. Bush throughout the 2000s.
As we started to ramp up for the 2008 election, I once more became caught up in the history of the moment, in the sense of bringing change to our system and structures. Even the campaign itself of Barack Obama focused on ‘hope.’ This would be the moment, I thought to myself. THIS would be the change the country has long needed. Except the change I wanted to see had nothing to do with party, ideology, or specific conservative-liberal policy debates. The change I thought would arrive with Obama, after eight horrific years of W. Bush, would be a change of open dialogue, intellectual engagement, and civil conversation over ideas. Alas, I was spectacularly wrong.
This article is not about which parts of the blame pie for this continued civil discourse degradation are bigger or biggest. Some have reason to believe the only reason things got worse under Obama was because of tried-and-true racism: the inability of closeted and not-so-closeted bigots to accept a black man as president of America. Others take a softer tactic and simply state it was verbal and intellectual payback time: after enduring so much dismissive derision and disrespect during Bush the Younger’s two terms, there were plenty of people determined to give back in kind to the new Democratic president. As is so often the case, my guess is that reality is best located with a mixture of all the factors and it therefore might not be so important to figure out exact percentages of blame. For me, again in terms of civil discourse, all that mattered was that my initial hope for finally establishing a positive trend for discussive engagement was dashed against the rocks of partisan vitriol and bile.
During Obama’s two terms I remember thinking to myself, ‘well, no matter what happens, it just isn’t possible that in 2016 this trend of progressively deteriorating civil discourse could get worse.’ After all, I had at this point literally spent my entire adult life under the tyranny of worsening dialogue, where the intellectual exchange of ideas meant to advance knowledge had been replaced by the shrill harping of empty platitudes serving no purpose but to cut, wound, and humiliate. Surely it could not be possible to take this environment and find a way to make it plumb to yet deeper, more disgusting depths? Citizens of the world, I give you President Donald Trump! Incredibly, we found ways to have the depths plumbed deeper and new layers of depravity now dominate the corridors of discourse.
Over the years I thought this disturbing reality was a top-down problem: if only we could have that truly unique chief executive in the Oval Office, one who could transcend all of this vulgar bile and ideological hatred, then the situation across all layers of American society would begin to improve. Part of me still wishes to believe this. But I fear I must confess that this wish is indeed just that: wishful thinking based on no real evidence. I worry now that this problem was never a top-down problem to be remedied by some extraordinary individual. Instead, it is a bottom-up problem that reflects the degradation of our society overall: one in which people do not seek to learn, are fearful of ever being seen as ‘wrong,’ and avoid at all costs being challenged in any intellectual way whatsoever.
This version of the problem more accurately explains the cringe-worthy, vomit-inducing political environment holding America hostage on both sides of the aisle; it explains why the word ‘compromise’ is literally seen by the majority of Americans as cowardice and not as a symbol of reasoned and wise judgment; it accounts for the explosion of fake news and people’s apparent passion for following it; it exposes the truth behind college campuses seemingly more focused on limiting the discourse of ideas for their students rather than exposing them to as many ideas as possible and demanding that they hone their discourse skills to take on all comers and defeat anathema positions with sound arguments and logical persuasion.
We have dropped our society from an avenue that once held serious intellectual discussions on a justifiably high pedestal into a gutter that avoids substantive civil discourse and presumes none of us are able to participate in discussions at all unless we have a predetermined guarantee of being lauded and unchallenged. We do not even see the irony of not allowing the chance to be ‘wrong,’ even though the concept of falsifiability has literally been the bedrock upon which all serious research, scholarship, and thinking is based. It is only in being wrong, only in the free exchange of challenging and challenged ideas, that society in its entirety improves and moves forward. We have not just lost this simple axiom, we have rejected it. We now live in self-perpetuating sycophantic echo chambers, gilded towers of Babel built to ourselves.
How does this stop? How do we bring back civil discourse from the edge of the abyss where it presently sits? I have no illusions at how hard it will be. Not only does it demand a desire for change within the people themselves: to be accepting of the fact that they are not infallible, that their ideas are not the ONE TRUE PATH to which all others must bow, that engaging in debate must not be a gladiatorial fight to the death but a civil discourse aimed at making all in attendance more reflective, more contemplative, that the issues being discussed are enriched simply by the act of civility itself, and that ideas are meant to change and evolve, to be dynamic and not static. It also demands that our institutions, administrations, thought leaders and scholars, our intellectuals en masse must not be afraid to support the structures that create, facilitate, and maintain arenas for such discourse. Right now we live with institutes that are so afraid of people engaging that instead of leading the charge they are cowering in the rear, hiding from possible protests, bad press, or potential litigation.
I have long held a secret dream: to travel the country, indeed the world, visiting as many institutions and organizations as I can, openly engaging their best thinkers in a series of debates, on whatever topics are most important to them, to challenge and instigate and provoke. I want to do this not to embarrass people or destroy particular issues in favor of others. I want this initiative done so as to begin the process of making people realize that civil discourse is the only true way to create new ideas, new passions, and new progress. It is the only way we get better. It is the only way we grow. We, the intellectuals and scholars, the middle layer of society, are the ones best suited to begin this movement. But, so far, not a single institution and its resident experts have answered my call and my challenge. This is most unfortunate. Because this society we have created, a society of incivility and empty rhetoric in place of civil discourse and substantive engagement, is a society we must destroy before it literally destroys us.
Venezuelan refugee crisis and how it is altering the surrounding regions
Venezuela’s migration crisis has been in the news lately and recent UN polls show that nearly 2.3 million have already migrated from their homeland over the past few years. However, other estimates show a figure closer to four million Venezuelan immigrants.
This crisis is rapidly sinking its claws in the neighbouring countries and if the amount of people migrating keeps increasing, it might become the worst man-made disasters since the First and Second World Wars after the Syrian refugee crisis. The Syrian crisis gave birth to more than six million refugees, and although the number here is still around half of that toll, the Venezuelan crisis doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. The inflation over there is nearly a million percent – a number so absurd that the common people around the world are not able to even grasp the sheer magnitude of the situations developing every day in this country. The minimum monthly wage is a few American dollars, putting essentials like food – particularly rations like chicken – into the category of luxurious items. The economy has shrunk by half in five years. To explain the extent of this downfall, Girish Gupta – founder of Data Drum and former investigative, multimedia journalist in Venezuela/LatAm – tweeted: If you’d bought a million dollars in Venezuela’s local currency when President Nicolás Maduro came to power in 2013, it’d now be worth $3.40. Diseases that were once overcome – like measles and diphtheria – are making a comeback. Infant mortality rates are going up while approximately 1.3 million refugees who have already escaped Venezuela were suffering from malnourishment (according to UN officials).
However, these are not the last of the Venezuelans’ problems; the nations to whom the refugees sought to escape to are closing their doors on their faces – literally. Sunday saw Ecuador closing border crossings with Colombia to people who don’t have passports. This was seen as a certain way to reduce the bulk of refugees from entering other countries as passports are fairly difficult to obtain amidst the economical and political chaos. Jonnayker Lien, a migrant standing outside the Peruvian border with his entire family said, “Imagine people like us who have sold everything, down to our beds, to come here, and they close the door on us. We don’t know where to sleep, and we don’t have money to go back.” Crisis broke out in the town of Pacaraima, north Brazil, after local throngs started struggling against the refugees and pushed them back to the border. Already a penurious town, the locals resent sharing their remaining resources with these migrants. However, even a strong military force could not stop these migrants from coming into Brazil. Peru had twenty thousand migrants arriving in the past week.
An emergency regional summit has been called by officials from Ecuador where Venezuela and its neighbours could deal with the crisis. Yukiko Iriyama, a representative in Colombia for the U.N. refugee agency said, “The capacity of the region is overwhelmed. The magnitude of the situation really requires a regional comprehensive approach.” The recently implemented passport checks by Peru and Ecuador aimed to reduce the flow of refugees into the countries. However, all it did was reduce the legal way of entering into these nations and increased the illegal border crossings. To deal with this disaster and the refugee predicament, representatives from Colombia, Ecuador and Peru will meet in Bogota next week. Christian Kruger, the head of Colombia’s migration authoritysaid in a statement, “The exodus of Venezuelan citizens is not a problem exclusive to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador or a single country. This is a regional problem and as such we must address it. Demanding passports from a nation that does not have them and whose government does not facilitate the issuance of this document is to encourage irregularity.” Peru is also calling a meeting at an individual level of the permanent council of the Organization of American States to discuss the migration.
The toll of migrants entering Colombia is around a million in fifteen months but nations like Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru are also receiving these refugees. Low skilled Venezuelans have flooded some Latin American job markets to find work and send money back home. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo that he will set up a UN team that will respond to the crisis. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that Guterres “told him that he would put together an internal coordination mechanism to make sure that the UN regional response is well coordinated.” “This is something that is not uncommon in these types of crises,” he added. Dany Bahar of the Brookings Institution suggested declaring this as a refugee crisis in order to seek help, saying, “It is up to the United Nations, together with the Organization of American States, to step up and recognize this problem as a refugee crisis so that the world can turn the proper attention to it and provide solutions.” He also added that none of the nations in the regionhave taken the initiative to provide a sustainable solution to the problem.
Trump: The Symbol of America’s Isolation in the World
The president of the United States, who came to power in 2016 with the slogan of “Reviving Washington’s Power”, has become the messenger of failure and defeat of his country in the West Asian region and in the international system. The U.S. numerous military and political defeats in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon were so outstanding that there’s no way Trump can brag about his achievements in the region.
On the other hand, many Democrats in the United States, and even the traditional Republicans, have been criticizing the President’s costly and barren foreign policy in West Asia. In such a situation, Trump attempts to attribute this failure to the country’s previous administrations and condemn them over what is happening in today’s world, especially in the West Asian region, and he blames Obama for Washington’s constant and extensive failures in this area.
Besides, Trump’s other projections about the hard conditions of the U.S. in West Asia are noteworthy. In his recent remarks, Donald Trump said that if he wasn’t at top of the U.S. political and executive equations, Iran would capture the Middle East (West Asia)! This is while Islamic Republic of Iran created stability in the West Asian region, and besides, has stood against the long-term, medium-term, and short-term and destructive goals of the United States and its allies in the region.
Trump’s strategic weakness in the West Asia is an important issue which can’t be easily overlooked. Of course this strategic weakness did exist during Obama’s presidency, but the truth is that it reached its peak during Trump’s presidency. And in the future, this weakness will bring severe blows to the United States.
The fact is that the strategic calculations of the United States in the West Asia region have all failed. And many of the pre-assumptions that Washington called them “strategic propositions”, have never turned into reality for some reasons, including the vigilance of the Resistance movement in the region. This is the reason why America is so confused in confronting the equations of West Asia.
Under such circumstances, the only way before the President of the United States is to leave the region and confess to his defeat; an issue that many American analysts and strategists have noted. It shouldn’t be forgotten that in spite of his campaign slogans for stopping the military intervention in the region, the current president of the United States has intensified conflicts and created constant security crises in West Asia.
The direct, perfect, and comprehensive support of Donald Trump for takfiri terrorists reflects this fact. Trump started his support for ISIL since the beginning of his presence at the White House in early 2017, and he stood for the terrorists until the fall of ISIL in Syria. Even now, Trump is attempting to revive terrorist and takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria.
Despite passing half of his presidency, Trump has claimed that the defeat in Yemen, Syria and Iraq was Obama’s legacy. There is no doubt that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, played a major role in creating terrorist and takfiri groups (especially ISIL), and committed bloodshed in Syria and Iraq.
There is also little ambiguity in the strategic, operational and even tactical defeat of the Obama administration in the battlefields of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. However, Trump can’t deny his share in this defeat, and pretend as if he’s the messenger of the victory of the United States in these scenes! The fact is that Trump completed the military and political defeats of the United States in the West Asia region. Today, the United States is defeated in the battlefield, and can well see that its pieces had failed in these wars.
On the other hand, the White House has lost the political arena of the region. The failure of the United States in the Lebanese and Iraqi elections, on the one hand, and the popular support for the resistance groups in Yemen and Syria, has left Trump and his companions disappointed in the region. In such a situation, attributing the recent and ongoing defeats of the United States to the Obama administration is completely expectable, and at the same time, unacceptable!
Finally, we can see that just like Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter, Trump is stuck in this strategic miscalculation in the West Asian region. Undoubtedly, in his last days in power, Trump will also understand that there’s no way he can overcome this strategic weakness through Saudi and Emirati petrodollars.
However, it seems that the scope of Trump’s defeat in West Asia would be wider than the previous presidents of the United States. Undoubtedly, in the near future, Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley will become the symbols of failure in the US foreign policy, especially in the West Asia. In other words, the president of the United States and his companions at the White House will have to admit to defeat in the West Asian region at a great expense, and this is exactly what frightens the American authorities.
first published in our partner Tehran Times
Weather and White House Turmoil as Elections Loom
Hurricane Michael wreaked havoc as it traversed the Florida panhandle. The first Category 5 hurricane to hit the area since 1881 when records began, its 155 mph winds (only 5 mph short of Category 6) felled massive trees, blew away houses, collapsed buildings and left devastation in its wake. Relatively fast moving at 14 mph, it was soon gone continuing as a Category 3 into neighboring Georgia and then further up its northeasterly path. It seemed to signify a stamp of approval for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on holding earth to a 1.5 degree Celsius warming issued a couple of days earlier. We are at one degree now so storms can only be expected to get worse.
In northeastern Turkey, a 300-year old stone bridge disappeared overnight. Villagers convinced it had been stolen called in the police. Further investigation concluded it had been washed away by a flash flood caused by a sudden summer thunderstorm further upstream — clearly far more intense than in the previous three centuries.
Ever more powerful hurricanes, monsoons and forest fires point to a proliferation of extreme weather events that experts relate to global warming. Yet President Donald Trump and his administration remain obdurate in climate change denial.
Thins are certainly warming up in the White House. Nikki Haley announced her resignation in an amicable meeting with the president. A staunch defender of many of Mr. Trump’s most egregious foreign policy changes, the UN Representative will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue opportunities in the private sector. So said the announcement. An astute and ambitious politician she has probably reassessed the costs versus benefits of remaining in a Trump administration. Some tout her as a future presidential candidate. Should she be successful she will be the first woman president, who also happens to be of Indian and Sikh ancestry.
The rap singer Kanye West visited the president in the Oval office. A ten-minute rant/rap praising him was followed by a hug for which Mr. West ran round the wide desk that had been seemingly cleared of all paraphernalia for the performance. He is one of the eight percent of blacks voting Republican. Sporting the Trump trademark, Make-America-Great-Again red hat, he claimed it made him Superman, his favorite superhero. And some suggested it was all further proof the place had gone insane.
A little over three weeks remain to the U.S. midterm elections on November 6th. Their proximity is evidenced not by rallies or debates rather by the barrage of negative TV ads blasting opponents with accusations of shenanigans almost unworthy of a felon. A couple of months of this and you lose any enthusiasm for voting. Perhaps it is one reason why nearly half the electorate stays home. Given such a backdrop, the furor over ‘Russian meddling’ in elections appears to be a trifle misplaced. Others call the whole business a ‘witch hunt’ and state flatly the U.S. does the same.
The old idiom, ‘put your own house in order’ is particularly apt when we realize the beginning of this affair was a Democratic National Committee email leak showing ‘the party’s leadership had worked to sabotage Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign’. It resulted in the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Always fair, aboveboard elections? Not bloody likely, as the British would say. Given the rewards, it’s against human nature.
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