NOTES FROM THE DISTRICT
June 18, 2006
Sorry for the long delay in writing. I was out of commission for about three months looking for and then furnishing a house. Incredible how much work (and cash) that takes, even using Craig's List. But I found a great place in a perfect location with a nice housemate, and we've finally got it fitted out and feeling like home. It's on the third floor of a townhouse with a skylight at 13th and W, two blocks from a tree-lined park perfect for soccer, two blocks from a Metro, two blocks from one of the best coffee houses in town, and walking distance to all the hip neighborhoods.
Now that that's done, my time has been taken up pretty well with playing soccer, watching World Cup games, going out with friends, going to events and performances, and working on various writing projects.
Watching the World Cup in America is very strange. Whereas Italian or Mexican or even British announcers get carried away with the emotion and beauty of the game, American announcers are like, "Oh, look at that, Bob. Some foreign guy just kicked a ball. Now give us a call at Verizon wireless for 88 cents a minute to pick tonight's player of the match. The winner will receive a Staples gift certificate and a three-month supply of Diet Dr. Pepper."
The apex of sportscaster bad taste came during the Iran v. Mexico game. One of the American announcers said, "We're here in Nuremburg, near so many reminders of Hitler's atrocities. Given how the leader of Eye-ran feels about those dark times, I wonder if these Eye-ranian players are as chilled as we are." Right, Bob. "These Iranian players I know nothing about must be a bunch of racists!" Sounds like you're the expert.
I try to find Europeans to watch games with and channels with Mexican sportscasters. I really enjoy watching cute Italians passionately screaming at televisions in bars. Just something about it.
Last week I saw Giselle by the Kirov Ballet, next week I will see Sleeping Beauty by the Royal Ballet, and the week after that I have tickets for Spamalot. I hadn't seen a ballet since 2000, and my favorite then was an unbelievable performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi Theater that got about 14 curtain calls, no exaggeration. They finally had to kick the audience out of the theater. It will be nice to relive that.
There were some unforgettable cultural performances in Ramallah, but I find it hard to imagine ballerinas and knights with coconuts going through border interrogations and checkpoints. It's nice sometimes to live in a rich and free country in a happening city and have a bit of disposable income.
Today I had brunch at the Woodley Park Marriott sponsored by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). It's sort of a David to AIPAC's Goliath, but it appears to be gaining momentum while AIPAC is alienating Americans and Israelis with its espionage against the U.S. government and reckless, uninformed, uncompromising stances that are more right-wing than Israel's. It's still the Goliath in town, and will be for quite a while, but it appears to have passed its golden age. The Walt-Mearsheimer "Israel Lobby" paper didn't help them any.
I met a young Syrian-American lawyer who works at the ADC and grew up in West Virginia. I asked what it was like as an Arab growing up in Whitechristiansburg, and he said he loved it for the most part, and the way he responded to kids calling him "Saddam" and a terrorist and whatnot was to run for and eventually win the class presidency.
The keynote speaker at the brunch was Afif Safiyeh, the Representative to America for the Palestine Liberation Organization. (He would be the Ambassador if Palestine were a state, and supporters of Palestinian statehood unofficially call him Ambassador anyway.) The first thing he said was that he had no ambition to be an ambassador to a foreign country; rather his highest ambition was simply to have citizenship in the nation of Palestine, the homeland of his birth.
He's a Catholic member of the secular Fateh party (Abbas, who is both head of the PLO and President of Palestine, is his boss), and he said the new legislation being drafted by a freshman Representative from Austin, TX (at the behest of AIPAC), to punish Palestinian Muslims for oppressing Palestinian Christians was farcical, given that it is Israelis driving Christians out of the Holy Land with violence and economic siege and denying them access to their holy sites, not fellow Palestinians. He was also categorically against Palestinian violence; he said if you want to beat Mike Tyson, play him at tennis or poker or golf, anything but boxing. Similarly, if you are a tiny powerless stateless nation up against Israel, which has the world's fourth most powerful military, a military confrontation is the best way to lose.
I watched the movie Munich earlier this year, about the Israeli reprisal assassinations for the Munich killings. The movie hit me hard, and seeing the Ambassador speak reminded me of it. The hit squad killed several PLO leaders, some of them not at all unlike the charming, polylingual Ambassador Safiyeh, some no less pragmatic and peaceable, some who had nothing to do with Munich. The father of a friend of mine came very close to being killed in the Beirut operation depicted in the film. He happened to have left an evening party a bit before the assassins (including Ehud "Generous Offer" Barak) got there and killed everyone, including guests.
At the table next to mine sat Ralph Nader, the sort of parallel universe anti-particle to George W. Bush: whereas Bush is an American pretending to try to promote democracy in the Middle East, Nader is an Arab who is actually trying to promote democracy in America. Nader's parents are Lebanese, and I bought one of his Mom's cook books (infused with stories, sayings, and political discussions), and he signed it for me and we chatted briefly. He asked where I was from and I said Oklahoma. He said, "Hm. Tough place for third-party candidates." I though, mm, yeah, probably best just to skip that one...
I also got a few words with Ambassador Safiyeh and took his business card.
My work is still pretty cool, and I've been having some good discussions and debates with thoughtful people. Occasionally someone will hear my position on things and, before hearing my arguments, inform me that I am naive, not objective, or that I simply have no idea what I'm talking about -- usually people who have never stepped foot in the Middle East. I always think, hm, I've lived in the Arab world for a year and a half. And whence your apparent expertise? The O'Reilly Factor? It's funny how wedded people get to the stories they're told.
But most people are genuinely interested in hearing another perspective on things, one which is sadly, blindingly lacking, particularly in the defense community. I gave a presentation at Stanford recently about my time in Palestine, and I hope to give a version of it again at my office soon.
You'd think the defense community would have the highest incentive to pursue useful and credible information. Individuals definitely do, but institutionally, it's like there's a moratorium on truth. It's genuinely scary. The general sense among many well-informed people I've talked to is that they just fire or ignore anyone who doesn't stick to the party line.
I feel like I'm learning a lot about what motivates people, both the decision makers and the people under them, to do what they do. I still have a huge amount to learn, though. It's hard to get a straight answer out of people who have an incentive not to engage in real, rational debate. It's not like physics. Al Gore can be "correct" about global warming all day. Yet while 0% of peer-reviewed scientific articles dispute that CO2 contributes significantly to global warming and humans contribute significantly to CO2, 53% of newspaper articles act like it's some big controversy in the scientific community.
(If you haven't seen Al Gore's chilling movie, An Inconvenient Truth, I recommend it. There's a brief bit of unbecoming hagiographizing at the beginning, but after that it's quite good, and terrifying.)
Rational debate has a lot less place in politics than I had hoped, especially these days. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, "reality" has a well-known liberal bias. And a lot of powerful people have plenty of methods, both sophisticated and embarrassingly low-brow, to avoid it. It's a bizarre game.
(If you haven't seen Colbert roasting Bush and the acquiescent press at the White House Correspondents Dinner, please do. It's good for the heart.)
What is particularly interesting to me is whether the people who steadfastly refuse to listen to competent experts and analysts are genuinely fooling themselves with their irrational rhetoric and apologist Ivory Tower sophistry (Kristol, Kagan, I'm looking at you) or whether they are just that cynical and opportunist. Could it be that the most generous assumption I can make about the ruling party of my government is that they're monstrously incompetent, and the ones below them just following orders or leaving? Or... is there something I'm missing? Could it be that Dick and George and Rummy have it figured out, and the entire rest of the world are the ones who are somehow missing the point?
Did Cortez really believe he was doing God a favor by killing the Aztecs and taking their gold? Did the king? The soldiers? The priests? What about colonial Britain? Slave traders? I'm reading Guns, Germs and Steel and a history of Iraq right now, and I just finished Uncle Tom's Cabin. All are illuminating to the present circumstances in various ways. Ambassador Safiyeh ended his speech with, "When I was studying at university, I was impressed by what Hegel said. He said, 'The one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history.' Let us prove Hegel wrong."
Today was the first oven-hot day in DC. Until now it's been gorgeous. It's really a pretty city, and as time goes by I am appreciating it more and more. I haven't visited the pandas yet or taken a walk along the river or gone to a single museum. Maybe I'll have time by the time it's cooled down a bit in the fall.