Wet and Quickly Drying – An Explanation of the Year’s Changes, A Proposal for Next Steps

As featured on the Huffington Post:

The life we know hasn’t changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.

If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year’s change is far from marginal – it’s palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip – and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals – but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia – issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.

This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we – Americans – watched as they – million of others – decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.

TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Meltdown,” asserting that we’ve had no choice but to “idly watch things completely fall apart.” Indeed, we’ve borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we’ve seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?

But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.

Those who speak the language of faith – who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief – need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return,” explains the book’s narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life – and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, “the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away.”

For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or “reason” – who understand the world as a series of systems and rules – will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman’s terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.

A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father’s account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. “If you don’t like the weather,”she would say, “just wait a minute.”

Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what – I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly – happens next?

When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.

Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.

Let us usher out the year that crushed the world’s conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we – American observers of the sweeping changes – embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.

We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.

Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.

The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.

“Don’t Say Hate” – What to Do When Nothing Can be Done

Somewhere, sometime, someone advised only to speak when it improves upon the silence. I generally try to abide by that rule. In fact, now seems like a particularly easy time to do so. Though much is happening in the world right now, from the bloody streets of Tripoli to the waxed-down halls of the Capitol, almost all of it is out of our control – out of anyone’s control.

In Libya, the tireless efforts of rebels who had seemed – just a day ago – to be close to shattering Ghadafi’s regime appear to have been quelled. What can Washington do besides watch? Perhaps more than we know – but for those of us who don’t serve inside the Pentagon and are merely afforded the internet’s transient knowledge, we are impotent. There are no fundraisers to be held, no petitions to be signed.

On February 26, I wrote:

“Time will kill Ghadafi – but the ever reverberating impact of international military action will kill many, many more.”

I was wrong. Almost six months – and perhaps an unquantifiable amount of lives – later, it is clear to me that the United States, in a responsible, cogent, and well-regulated manner, with a pre-determined, efficient, and time-lined exit strategy, should have intervened militarily in Libya. But what can we do now?

During this period of political upheaval and violent downpour, despair pervades and enmity is rampant. But there is one, simple thing we can do. It doesn’t affect foreign policy and it involves no retroactive military stratagem. It is, however, a pearl of wisdom.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting with my eight-year-old campers around a long, crowded table of camp food; the kind of food that you eat because it’s there, not because you had a choice. As we sat down and the kids began rummaging through bowls of pasta like a stray cat claws through a pile of garbage, I became slightly disheartened by the meal. I turned to my co-counselor, tired and irritated, and said, “Ugh, Danny, I hate this food.”

Just then, my youngest camper, Nathan, shifted his head up from his grimy plate. His lips smeared in tomato sauce, Nathan looked me directly in the eye, as though I had done him a personal offense.

Don’t say hate.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s not nice.”

His message was a juvenile and simple one; but often, in the hustle and bustle of the complexities of the everyday news cycle, the simplest messages are the most poignant. Our power over the rest of the world (especially during times like these) is limited. Our power over foreign dictators is none. Our power over our own words is immense.

Try not “hating” anything or anyone for one day. See what happens. Who knows – maybe the word you choose to substitute it with will improve upon the silence.

A Spicy Situation – Obama’s Libya Wisdom

When I was two years old, and my parents and I had been living in Manhattan for about a year, we had a visit from some out-of-town relatives. Because it was a special occasion, my mom and dad dressed me up and took me out to a fancy sushi restaurant with our visitors. I probably ate some pasta or soy beans while my parents and their guests ordered the more sophisticated yellowtail rolls and tempura.

Late into the evening, I – situated in my highchair – spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Resting on my dad’s empty plate was a tiny cup of what I assumed could only be a bit green play-dough. Of course, being the ambitious toddler I was, I took the mysterious green goo, rolled it into a ball with my fingers, and stuck it in my mouth. Several hours of screaming ensued and ample tears were shed as a result of the inhuman amount of wasabi that I’d just consumed.

Before you jump to conclusions, let me quell your “what the hell is this kid talking about?”-esque concerns. The moral of the story is that, needless to say, I stayed away from wasabi for a long time after that. To this day, I still avoid spicy food in almost every form.

Imposed regime change is America’s wasabi. Assessing the extent of this country’s military responsibility in Libya is no more complicated than a toddler’s unfortunate run-in with spicy food. The lesson is evident: nine years ago, a dictator was oppressing his people, our military became heavily involved, and we never really left. The President is making use of his hindsight. He is at odds with the idea of being an accomplice to history’s repetitions.

Blanketing the world with democracy is not the prerogative of the United States. It is not our job – nor should it be – to paint the Middle East red, white, and blue. Our forefathers came here as an extension of an empire and proceeded to break the imperial grip. The President is historically and analytically correct in believing that regime change comes not out of the the bombshells of a fighter jet, but from the power of human organization and assembly.

When I’m slumped on my bed, clicking the “refresh” button on my MacBook’s internet browser time and again, I see the horrific images: I watch the bodies pile in Tripoli, terrified children hide under houses in Benghazi. I watch the flames emanate from a Tunisian twenty-something’s t-shirt, and see the smudged tears trickle down the bloody face of a would-be martyr in Tehran. But strength is derived from meticulous consistency. The lead-up to this conflict has been eerily similar to that of Iraq’s, so it is wise to weigh our actions based on past mistakes rather than to foolishly cross our fingers and hope that this time is different.

Our responsibility to the people of Libya is to be their watchdog, to shield them from imminent death, and to remain vigilant and attentive until their anxieties have faded. “But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake,” said Obama tonight. He’s right. Because he knows that America has tried the wasabi – and he knows that we didn’t like it the first time around.

A Watchful Eye, Not a Loaded Gun – America’s Role in Libya

Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that military action in Libya is still on the table.

It shouldn’t be.

America need not and must not act as an imperialist regime. It must be a global humanitarian guardian. Mothers and sons alike are being shot dead in the streets. Children are afraid to go to sleep for fear that they will not wake up. Men who try to document the terror are being discreetly disposed of. And it is painful and irrational to try to put a price on human life.

But when George W. Bush brought us into Iraq, I was seven years old. Now I’m sixteen, and we still haven’t left. If that is not a frightening and persuasive factor in the fight against fighting, then I don’t know what is. Time will kill Ghadafi – but the ever reverberating impact of international military action will kill many, many more.

We are responsible for keeping a watchful eye on the rest of the world. We are responsible for cutting off Ghadafi’s cash flow and crippling his iron grip. We are responsible for setting in motion international humanitarian efforts. We are responsible for helping Libyans end the violence. But the United States simply cannot impede militarily upon sovereign Libyan land.

In 2006, when Barack Obama was a United States senator, he delivered a speech. During the speech, he spoke about precisely this issue – but took a drastically different stance than the one he seems to be mulling over now. If I had a direct line to the oval office, I’d implore him to take some advice from – ironically – himself.

“We should be more modest in our belief that we can impose democracy on a country through military force. In the past, it has been movements for freedom from within tyrannical regimes that have led to flourishing democracies; movements that continue today. This doesn’t mean abandoning our values and ideals; wherever we can, it’s in our interest to help foster democracy through the diplomatic and economic resources at our disposal. But even as we provide such help, we should be clear that the institutions of democracy – free markets, a free press, a strong civil society – cannot be built overnight, and they cannot be built at the end of a barrel of a gun.”

When a man set himself on fire in Tunisia a few months ago, sparks flew across a continent. From those sparks came flames, and from those flames, an inextinguishable wildfire of deliverance.

We no longer live on playground where the world’s most powerful can kick their legs up and watch in amusement as their ‘children’ run amok – flailing their arms in a bustle of absolute mayhem. The powder keg has exploded. This is the age of human empowerment.

In order to sustain and prolong the streak of emancipation that has swept the globe over the past few months, we must not act on impulse, or even out of empathetic rage. It is, admittedly, a challenging balance to maintain, but the United States must remain both an ally of democracy and a staunch opponent of force.

There Goes Democracy – What Happens Next?

In the heat of protest, the heavy weight of demand overrides reality. The incongruity of wants and desires outweigh what is within the realm of possibility. The whole event becomes more about the amount of protesters and signs than it does about who the protesters are, or what the signs say.

In Egypt, the medium — to invoke philosopher Marshall McLuhan — has become the message. The outside world — along with its mainstream media — has tried to align its own voice with that of the collective “protesters” in Egypt. And there lies the problem.

The booming voices of world leaders and media personalities call for us to do the “right” thing — the thing that is (or seems) most just, most righteous, or most revolutionary. But what happens when the “right” thing to do is not the pragmatic thing to do? Or when the sundry “right” choices contradict each other? We’re left with a paradox.

We want free elections, but we don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power. We want democracy, but we don’t want Mubarak to be voted out of office — we want him out now. We want civil democracy, but we also want to support the hoards of radical protesters who have, in essence, put Egypt’s day-to-day life on hold. It seems that the line between democracy and vigilante ousting is a fine one.

Is it up to the proverbial “we” to decide, though? Last time the United States chose to take out a foreign autocrat, we were left with two wars and six thousand fewer Americans. We do have responsibilities: to advocate for the silenced people of Egypt and other oppressed peoples around the world, to voice our own opinions about democracy and freedom, and certainly to be an international watchdog. That being said, it is not our place to aid in vigilante justice.

We want to act as the means. But to what end? If democracy blankets Egypt, free elections will be held; and it’s likely that the decidedly “wrong,” more oppressive party would take over — and there goes democracy. If the United States or the western world involves itself in the minutia of Egypt’s transition, then Egypt’s so-called “freedom” will be regulated by and dependent upon an entirely separate entity — and there goes democracy. If free elections are held, but the UN oversees them, and the “wrong” party wins election, then the UN — a body who has never been known to do anything immoral, right? — may affect the results — and there goes democracy.

While the world celebrates and excites over new beginnings and clean slates, I worry. At this point in a piece, I usually offer a solution to the problem I’m discussing. Today, I don’t have one. It’s a paradox, a fine line to tread, and a unstable question to which there is no definitive answer.