Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Why the Terrorists Could be Winning in Mumbai

Things had been going well for Islamic jihadist militant groups after 9/11.

Moderate and liberal Muslims worldwide - most of whom abhor the idea of terrorism - have long had legitimate grievances about the situations in Palestine, Iraq, and Kashmir. By successfully exploiting these issues while taking advantage of alienated Muslims' sentiments towards the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policies - including legislation such as the Patriot Act, which many American Muslims feel is discriminatory - terrorist groups were trying to get some of the more moderate Muslims over to their side.

And it often worked: the last eight years saw the worldwide burgeoning of homegrown terrorist cells (especially in Europe), the successful election of Hamas in Palestine, a competitive, well-funded and re-energized Hezbollah holding its own in its 2006 war with Israel, and an unshakeable (if now diluted) anti-US insurgency in Iraq that showcased nationalist Iraqis and al Qaeda fighting on the same side for the first time.

The goal that Islamists have always had is to create - and maintain - a clash of civilizations. To them, this is very much a war between Islam and the West, and this schism needs to be maintained. It's a little eerie to think that when George W. Bush told us that we could either be with him or against him, it may have been exactly what they wanted to hear.

Sure enough, as the Bush administration began its war in Iraq or broke unconditionally in favor of Israel, disillusioned Muslims - even the moderate, secular ones - found that they couldn't side with it. Amid the simplistic, black and white, this-way-or-that-way atmosphere that they were suspended in, they found that even their legitimate concerns - about legitimate issues - caused them to be lumped on the same side as the terrorists, who they couldn't side with either.

There was a reason why Osama bin Laden threw himself into 2004's US election. With John Kerry favored to win a few days before Election Day, bin Laden released a video that he knew would help play a role in re-electing George W. Bush.

Keeping Bush in power not only ensured that the alienation that moderate and liberal Muslims felt from the US government would stay intact, but - let's face it - it was one hell of a recruitment tool.

In declaring its support for John McCain this year across several websites, al Qaeda had hoped this would continue.

But it didn't.

Barack Obama's message resonated with billions worldwide. Not least among them were moderate and liberal Muslims who'd been in limbo during the Bush years. Obama's middle name didn't exactly hurt him here, but it was more than that: Obama seemed to have a sound understanding of the complexity of the geopolitical mileu that the war on terrorism is being waged in. His was the exact antithesis of the Bush approach. Fareed Zakaria said it best back in July:

"Obama rarely speaks in the moralistic tones of the current Bush administration. He doesn't divide the world into good and evil even when speaking about terrorism. He sees countries and even extremist groups as complex, motivated by power, greed and fear as much as by pure ideology. His interest in diplomacy seems motivated by the sense that one can probe, learn and possibly divide and influence countries and movements precisely because they are not monoliths. When speaking to me about Islamic extremism, for example, he repeatedly emphasized the diversity within the Islamic world, speaking of Arabs, Persians, Africans, Southeast Asians, Shiites and Sunnis, all of whom have their own interests and agendas."
Obama seemed to have the perspective that much of the world outside the United States - including most of the Muslim world - related to. With his election to the presidency, Islamic militant groups started to see millions of moderate Muslims begin to view the United States in a different light, joining Barack Obama's call for change instead of theirs.

In Iraq, al Qaeda had been given a front to fight the war it wanted, thanks to the Bush administration's knee-jerk response to 9/11. Bleeding the US military had been a stated goal of bin Laden, and now it was stretched thin - in two major wars. This didn't just help the al Qaeda folks in their jihad - it also strengthened the positions of countries like Iran, which was now able to both help finance and arm Hezbollah shockingly well in its 2006 war with Israel - and abet the Iraqi insurgency - virtually unhindered.

Now, as the newly elected US administration promises to shift its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan (a war that has never been opposed by Muslims even remotely as vehemently as the war in Iraq), Islamists are facing a problem.

Recently elected Pakistani president Asif Zardari has tacitly been approving US airstrikes on Pakistani soil. As relations with India warmed steadily, Zardari made some of the most conciliatory remarks towards India of any former Pakistani head of state. Last month, he referred to Kashmiri insurgents - for the first time - as "terrorists" instead of "freedom fighters". Then, after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he proposed a policy of nuclear non-proliferation between the two countries, ruling out first use of nuclear weapons in a potential conflict.

As much as Zardari's actions may have upset some in his own intelligence agency (the ISI) and Pakistan's military officials, they delighted the United States, for whom better India-Pakistan relations would translate into a reduction of Pakistani troops at its India border in favor of an increased presence at its border with Afghanistan.

Suddenly, there was a lot of love in the air, and that wasn't exactly helping the Islamist agenda. So they decided to throw a wrench into the whole thing last week by descending on Mumbai.


Could they be getting what they were aiming for?

At the street level, emotions are still running high in a city where moderate to liberal Hindus and Muslims have been able to coexist relatively peacefully. Now, there are signs of an emerging cleft between the two.

India has placed blame on Pakistan for the attacks, and no one can really blame them for thinking so. (Pakistan has long supported organizations like the banned-since-2002 chief suspect Lashkar-e-Toiba, and its intelligence and military establishments are known to contain terrorist sympathizers.) As India handed Pakistan a list of names of terrorism suspects to turn over, it also announced its plans to increase troop presence at its border with Pakistan in a show of strength.

Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Senator John McCain are visiting India this week to show solidarity, and probably to help ease the tension - a shift of Pakistan's focus from the Afghani to the Indian border doesn't exactly help the United States' interests in the region.

The perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks knew that well. We may not know for sure who they are, but it is pretty clear what they want - and so far they haven't had much reason to complain.

They want Pakistan and India to play the blame game. They want to effectively reverse the recent progress that has made in the countries’ relations. They want for Hindus in India to feel unsafe, and for Muslims to feel alienated. They want fresh lines of separation to be drawn. They want a shift in Pakistan's focus (and troops) towards India and away from Afghanistan. They want to inject fresh energy to keep their clash of civilizations alive.

They know they can't destroy their enemy, but they can handicap and fragment it, by manipulating its politics, targeting its economy, bleeding its military, and coaxing it into war.

We have all seen that happen with the United States in the last eight years, and it wasn't fun for anyone except those who instigated it.

If the world can't rise above it this time - and again takes the bait - who wins?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Election 2008: The Victory of Idealism Over Issues

My Libyan born Pakistani-Canadian brother who lives in the United States now shares his name with the American President.

As residents of the border city of Buffalo, New York, we frequently drive home into Canada, and on returning, US border officials will sometimes joke with him when they read the name on his passport.

"Hussain Rizvi. Hmmm. So, are you related to Saddam?" they chuckle.

Now he finally has a response.

"No, sir - I'm related to Barack Hussein Obama."

The optimism about America's new president-elect is still cautious and reserved. Will he be able to fix an economy in recession, two major wars, and the country's damaged alliances overseas? Will he bring the change he promised? The expectations are high, the tasks daunting, every word under scrutiny, and every action under a microscope.

In the short term, when it comes to policy issues, he'll likely make mistakes like any other president. He'll come through on some of his promises, and may not on others. He'll change his mind on some things. He'll be praised at times and criticized at others.

However, the long term implications of this election aren't as much about the world's issues as its ideals. Barack Obama hasn't just brought change and hope with him - he represents it. He is the living, breathing personification of what Gandhi was talking about when he said, "Be the change you want to see in this world." There are many firsts here, and being the first black president is only one of them.

Obama is the only son of a first-generation immigrant to be elected to the presidency in modern history. He is the product of an interracial marriage, which was illegal in many states until he was six years old. He is also the first anti-war candidate to be elected at a time of war.

As a black man with a last name that rhymes with Osama, the middle name Hussein, and less than two years as a junior US senator, Barack Obama went up against virtually impossible odds when he decided to run for president. He ran against the royal establishment of the Democratic party, the Clintons - not just one, but two of them, one being a wildly popular ex-president. He earned the endorsements of the both the brother and the daughter of President John F. Kennedy along the way. After defeating the Clintons, he ran against an a celebrated American war hero, John McCain - and won again. In doing so, he defeated not just his opponents, but a set of seemingly insurmountable odds that had statistically and historically been stacked against him.

He also defeated an ideology. Richmond, Virginia was the most permanent capital of the Confederacy. The state hadn't voted for a Democrat since 1964, when Obama was three years old. Neither had Indiana. For the first time in 44 years, Barack Obama turned both of those states blue. Although Obama is the first northern-state liberal to be elected to the presidency since Kennedy (Clinton, Carter, and Johnson were all from southern states), he is, unlike Kennedy, an almost entirely self-made man who did not come from a wealthy, politically well-connected family.

Even if Barack Obama was a white man, these achievements would be historic and monumental. He had to have known the odds and the enormity of his ambition, but he seems to have gone for it anyway, simply because, well, he thought he could.

Sure this is about the economy, about Iraq, health care, taxes, Social Security, immigration, and foreign policy. And at any other time, it wouldn't feel like anything could ever be more pressing than these issues, especially how they are all in crisis together at the same time.

But the impact of what happened on Tuesday stretches far beyond even what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the "fierce urgency of now." It goes beyond race and beyond policy issues. It's about overcoming improbable odds and going against the grain, shattering that "real world" myth, and redefining - or de-defining - reality.

This is a big win for that kind of stick-it-out-no-matter-what-they-say idealism, for being daring and not being afraid to question age-old established ideas and perceptions as long as your conscience tells you it's the right thing to do. And it's a very blatantly visible confirmation of all those cliches that don't seem so hollow anymore - that anything is possible and nothing is certain.

This is a return to the celebration of intelligence and education over ignorance and mediocrity; science, reason, and rationality over superstition and dogma; creativity and innovation over tradition; and hope and trust over fear.

My brother Hussain's circumstances aren't of his own making. My parents were professors with a penchant for traveling the world. I have never lived in the same country for more than nine years, and at thirty three, I have lived and gone to school in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, Canada, and the United States. Among the six members of my family, we have three different countries of birth.

I never really developed any emotional or patriotic affiliation to any one country or region. As a consequence, the ties I formed with the people and the places I've encountered aren't rooted in geography or culture, but in ideology.

Barack Obama was elected at least partly because almost everyone is able to see part of their own story in his story. This phenomenon isn't just restricted to the blue-collar worker who relates to his middle class roots, the Ivy League professor, or the first-generation immigrant. It permeates into a much more intricate demographic that includes the tiny group of us that are third-culture, identity-challenged, foreign non-foreigners like my brother and myself.

This is about how not having a cultural, geographic, religious, or racial identity is an identity in itself.

It's about defying categorization and shedding labels.

It's about how non-American does not always mean un-American.

Maybe the wars will end, maybe we'll all have jobs, and maybe not. For now, this isn't about what will happen, but what already has: this year has revealed an America and a world that has grown up, yet at the same time, regained its innocence.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Colin Powell and Ben Affleck Address the Muslim/Arab Issue

For a while, it felt like it was simply becoming okay to accept the answer to the "Barack Obama is a Muslim!" rumor by saying, admittedly correctly, that he's not, he's a Christian, and he has never been Muslim. Despite that, about 13% of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim.

Colin Powell, in one of the most well-thought out, articulate endorsements of any this year, finally made the distinction between the "correct" answer and the "right" answer to this question:

I'm also troubled by – not what Senator McCain says – but what members of the Party say, and it is permitted to be said: such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian; has always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?" The answer's "No, that's not America."

Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be President?

Yet, I have heard senior members of my own Party drop the suggestion he's Muslim and he might be associated with terrorists. This is not the way we should be doing it in America.

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery. And she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards – Purple Heart, Bronze Star; showed that he died in Iraq; gave his date of birth, date of death. He was twenty years old.

And then at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross. It didn't have a Star of David. It had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Karim Rashad Sultan Khan. And he was an American.

He was born in New Jersey, he was fourteen years old at the time of 9/11 and he waited until he could go serve his country and he gave his life.

Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way. And John McCain is as non-discriminatory as anyone I know. But I'm troubled about the fact that within the party we have these kinds of expressions.
A separate incident a little over a week ago at a McCain-Palin town-hall meeting featured a woman who told John McCain that she was afraid of an Obama's presidency because he's "an Arab".

This time, it was Ben Affleck who addressed it best on Friday's Real Time with Bill Maher (starting at 5:20 in the clip):
"...(John McCain) said, "No he's not an Arab, he's a good man."

What if someone said, "I heard he was a Jew..." and I said, "No, no, no, he's not a Jew, he's alright..."? 'Arab' and 'good person' are not antithetical to one another!

We've allowed this idea, denying the fact that Obama - who, yes, is not an Arab, nor is he a Muslim - (that) we've allowed that denial to turn into the acceptance of both of those things as a legitimate slur is really a problem.

Instead of standing up and saying these aren't slurs, these are categories of human beings, they're not slurs of people - no one in the media stood up and said that. And instead they just follow around Joe the Plumber, it's the same bullshit they do every fucking day over and over again."
Despite the fact that Obama is neither Muslim nor Arab, his historic campaign may give rise to a more balanced national dialogue not only on race, but on what has been another kind of bigotry - one that is novel and easily overlooked, but just as significant.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

John McCain Has Lost His Confidence

Let's face it - these debates aren't really debates - they're auditions.

A real "debate" would be a substantive discussion on the issues, and although we have seen that happen from time to time, it's only one of many components of the overall audition.

Everything from smiling into the camera to delivering sharp one-liners plays into the performance - and sometimes, depending on expectations, simply not screwing up is enough to make it through.

In the end, debates are won with confidence. No voter can have confidence in a candidate if a candidate doesn't have confidence in himself. And what we saw more than anything last night was a palpable display of John McCain's loss of confidence.

Sarah Palin went into last week's debate facing very low expectations; conversely, McCain went into last night's debate facing very high expectations.

He had been touting his townhall debate proposal all summer, and it was all but established that the townhall format favored him.

He had appeared erratic and impulsive during the economic crisis and needed to come across as stable and presidential.

He had appeared agitated and cynical during the first presidential debate, needed to show more optimism, and needed to connect with voters in the warm way that he did during his townhall meetings in the primary season.

He needed to follow through on his campaign's bizarre announcement that they will now focus on 'exposing' Obama's alleged deficiency in character, judgment, and patriotism.

He didn't do any of those things.

Instead, he reminded voters again and again of his record and experience, which have now been established as non-factors in this debate. The two most popular candidates in this election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, have the shortest records and the least experience.

He appeared agitated, cynical, and tired again, more so than in the first debate. He occasionally rambled. His few attempts at humor fell flat, making him appear sarcastic and passive-aggressive. It really is a testament to John McCain's honesty that he doesn't have a very good poker face, but in these debates/auditions, this has been a major handicap.

Finally, his decision not to bring up talking points like the alleged "terrorist" ties Obama has - as his campaign and running mate have been doing recently - showed inconsistency.

McCain had promised a feisty Tuesday night, and appears now to have backtracked on the nature of the attacks that his party's faithful were hoping to see. He built up those expectations for the Republican base all week, and then let them down, de-energizing them at a time where it is critical for him to maintain the fragile momentum and energy level the Republicans have finally gained in this fall.

McCain is trailing by more than 5 points in almost every aggregate poll, and he's down by over 100 votes in state-by-state electoral college polls. He walked into last night's debate looking like a man too aware of that - discouraged and exhausted, his confidence shattered.

To regain his footing, he needs his confidence back.

And it's not going to happen with the William Ayers association attacks or questions about Obama's patriotism. It's too late for McCain to define his opponent - everybody already knows Barack Obama by now, and opinions have already been formed.

Perhaps finding Osama bin Laden can save John McCain. Maybe if Sarah Palin is dropped and a new, equally explosive VP pick is announced a week before November 4, he could get his mojo back. But short of those kinds of scenarios, I've run out of ideas.

It's becoming very obvious that John McCain has too.

Monday, October 6, 2008

'Religulous' Speaks for a Large, Growing Silent Minority

When Sarah Palin was stumped by perfectly legitimate questions that she couldn't answer in two major network interviews, she deflected the blame onto the questioners.

This is a common dynamic that's part of human nature, and it seems at least partially to be what's driving the controversy being generated around Bill Maher's new comedy Religulous, which raked in $3.5 million on its opening weekend, cracking the top ten despite a limited release on only 502 screens nationwide.

Bill Maher, host of HBO's Real Time With Bill Maher, doesn't seem to have much of a problem with Jesus. He actually reminds some of his interview subjects, like the blinged out pastor Jeremiah Cummings, wearing lizard-skin shoes and gold bracelets, that Jesus would never have dressed or decorated himself that way. He asks a Vatican priest - on location - whether Jesus, known for his humility and modesty, would live in such opulence. He questions an ex-gay pastor about his mission to convert gay people to heterosexuality, when Jesus was never even known to address homosexuality.

What Maher does seem to have a problem with, though, is the increasing involvement of religion in politics, its self-proclaimed monopoly on morality, and its infiltration into everything from US foreign policy (complete with a W. quote) to science education in schools - illustrated adeptly with an immensely entertaining tour through a creationism museum in Kentucky showcasing animatronic human children and dinosaurs happily playing side by side.

The central focus of Maher's quest is to finally ask the questions that have always been taboo to ask, including the questions that many religious people are often afraid to ask themselves - and to do it with an element of lighthearted humor. He does this by questioning the unwavering certainty that his subjects have in their beliefs more than the beliefs themselves; his operating premise is, "I don't know, so how do you know?"

If you're expecting a serious discussion, debate, or detailed investigative analysis on the dynamics and intricacies of belief, this movie will probably leave you dissatisfied - it's constructed as a comedy, not a documentary.

And if you're sensitive about your religious beliefs, you may find yourself offended at Bill Maher's methodology. He is definitely provocative in his questions, and because this is a comedy, he tries to get laughs, which he does successfully even when he comes across as glib and condescending.

The good news is, he covers all of the major Abrahamic religions, and even people of faith like critic Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times and Ebert and Roeper), who gave the film three and a half stars out of four, report taking some guilty pleasure in it:

"...I report faithfully that I laughed frequently. You may very well hate it, but at least you've been informed. Perhaps you could enjoy the material about other religions, and tune out when yours is being discussed. That's only human nature."
A lot of criticism has been directed at Maher for interviewing those considered aberrations and "kooks" instead of learned theologians. In some cases, this is true. His interview with Yisroel Dovid Weiss, the anti-Zionist rabbi who attended and spoke at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial conference in 2006, falls under this category. Others, with geneticist and Human Genome Project head Francis Collins, Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor, and Vatican astronomer and priest George Coyne - do not, yet some of them do come across as conflicted when they attempt to reconcile their faith with their own perceptions of modern reality.

And some of the "fringe" characters that Maher is accused of unnecessarily focusing on are actually significant, like Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda, who believes he is the second coming of Christ. Miranda, portrayed as one of the "kooks", is very entertaining until you learn that he has actually managed to amass a following of over 100,000 people who believe in his claim to divinity. This - in addition to his inherent, priceless comedic value - rightly earns him his place in the film.

Though he focuses primarily on Christianity, Maher also takes on Judaism and Islam. As someone who grew up in a Muslim environment, I can all but confirm his suspicion that Muslims generally tend to tout the "religion of peace" claim unequivocally in front of outsiders, while they remain very conflicted about it within. He interviews Aki Nawaz (aka Propa-Gandhi), the controversial UK rapper, as well as a more mainstream, moderate Muslim woman in Amsterdam, both of whom struggle to reconcile their faith and their ideals in response to his questions.

And that is the point of this film - to ask questions. In one of the earlier scenes, where Maher holds interviews in a small church for truck drivers, one of the truckers immediately says, "You start disputin' my God, and you've got a problem," to which Maher replies, "I'm only asking questions." The trucker walks out shortly afterwards.

Maher points out that non-religious people now constitute over 16% of the US population - a higher percentage than than blacks, Jews, or homosexuals. He provides a voice for this large, silent, fast-growing minority, encouraging them to speak up and reclaim their right to what is actually a completely legitimate alternative view of the world - a view that is just as moral, and based on at least equivalent values of reason, rationality, and consistency. This is the group that this film is directed to.

For those who feel that this film is disrespectful and dismissive of the faithful, remember: most widely followed religious texts have declared skeptics and nonbelievers to be morally bereft, lost, strayed souls that are potentially punishable by death and condemned to damnation and eternal hellfire.

In response, all Maher is offering on our behalf is a little film, a comedy which at the very least is laugh-out-loud hilarious - whether you're a believer or not.

No Post-Debate Bump for McCain-Palin

Frank Luntz and Bill O'Reilly predicted it wrong. There has been no poll bump for John McCain as a consequence of the VP debate.

Barack Obama's lead has actually widened in the first national polls conducted entirely after Sarah Palin and Joe Biden's vice presidential debate on Thursday, October 2.

For October 3-5, Hotline/FD shows a 6 point advantage (47-41%), Rasmussen an 8 point advantage (52-44%), and Gallup shows an 8 point advantage (50-42%), for Obama.

The Electoral College Map Obama leading by over 100 electoral votes, despite another 100 or votes still in the toss-up states.

Apparently, people were able to see through the Palin facade, despite the analysts and pundits largely declaring the debate a "tie". Karl Rove's campaign style, predicated on the assumption that the majority of people are gullible and can be taken advantage of, seems to have gone the way of trickle-down economics.

The McCain camp will now focus on Obama's alleged association with William Ayers - a last resort strategy - and deliberately target Obama's character, judgment, and patriotism. It's obvious why they feel the need to go down this route now.

I wonder if Bill O'Reilly has any more predictions.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Biden Helps Obama, and Palin Helps Palin

Going into the debate last night, it was pretty clear what the tasks for each vice presidential candidate would be.

Sarah Palin had to survive the ninety minutes and bounce back from the Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews, which she did.

Joe Biden had to win the debate, which he did.

The two major post-debate polls conducted on undecided voters by CNN and CBS showed that Joe Biden won the debate by a significant margin, but Sarah Palin exceeded expectations.

Normally, this would mean a boost for the Obama-Biden ticket, but it's not. Winning the debate isn't enough - primarily because these things aren't really debates. They're auditions, and the actual debate (which by definition would be a substantive discussion on the issues) was only one component of the audition last night.

Strategically, Joe Biden had to define John McCain as an out-of-touch non-maverick closely tied to the Bush administration. He accomplished this very effectively.

Palin needed to show that she was not as clueless and incoherent as she appeared in her Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson interviews.

She accomplished this partially.

She wasn't completely coherent - she would often ramble and repeat herself, and she did dodge questions, including a very relevant one on McCain's record on deregulation. When Biden pointed out that she didn't answer the question, she covered up semi-effectively by saying, "I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people."

She also wasn't completely clueless - she was able to hold her own, not stumble, take a few effective jabs at both Biden and Obama, and come up with some sort of answer, as tangential as it may be, to every question.

On style, Biden and Palin were both great, but Palin seemed to have the edge.

She was charming, delivered her attacks with a smile, and constantly looked and spoke into the camera. She was concise and clear, and warm and folksy. Her hockey-mom persona came through well. At one point, she sent a shout-out to a group of third graders who she said would get extra credit for watching the debate.

Her Washington-outsider persona also came through well, forming the basis of her single most effective one-liner against McCain: "Oh, yeah, it's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider. And someone just not used to the way you guys operate. Because here you voted for the war and now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, I was for it before I was against it or vice-versa."

Palin Benefits From Reverse Sexism.

Biden was coached to restrain himself and not attack her or appear like he's "beating up" on a woman. Again, he did this perfectly. He was gracious and gentleman-like, not even correcting her when she mistakenly called David McKiernan (the commanding general in Afghanistan), "McClellan". He allowed Palin to get away with a lot, rarely if ever criticising her, instead choosing to focus on McCain.

If Palin was a man, Joe Biden would most certainly have been more aggressive about the dodged questions and slipups, like Lloyd Bentsen was to Dan Quayle in 1988.

But Biden was careful and did the smart thing, recognizing that in some situations, Americans are still not ready to see a woman treated in exactly the same way as a man.

He was easy on her, playing the honor student to her cheerleader: anything semi-intelligent out of her was shockingly impressive, while anything short of brilliant out of him was less than expected.

The Aftermath.

In the end, things are most likely to stay the same. The Republican base will love Palin's performance, the Democratic base will love Biden's, and the undecided voters will again, as they have before, vote against the status quo if they feel that things are going badly.

Thankfully, though, the Palin sideshow is over and she has now been initiated. Last night's audition went without any major disasters or home runs, and the race is back on track. From here on, Palin may be wise to restrict her media exposure to short but frequent interviews that are not recorded and susceptible to operator-dependent editing, but carried live - which seems to be the format most suited to her.

But for now, it's back to McCain and Obama.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Deconstructing the Undecided

Undecided voters move in mysterious ways.

They are not a monolithic group, cannot be placed into a neat, predictable category, and have been key in pushing one or another candidate over the 50% mark in most recent presidential elections.

They can, however, be divided broadly into three groups, which may help us better understand what goes on in their oscillating minds.

Group 1 is made up of the people who are not particularly interested in politics or current events. They're not cable news watchers, newspaper-readers, don't understand much about the intricacies of the economy, and most likely belong to the 70% of Americans who don't have passports. This is the group that most of my friends belong to, who constantly switched the channel to shows like American Idol or Survivor during the primary election season - and considering how disheartening and petty politics can get sometimes, I was often tempted to join them.

However, this year, the election has been more entertaining and substantive than most reality shows.

Think about it: you start off with ten candidates on one side and eight on the other. These include, among others, a black man, a woman, a Latino, a senior citizen who was a former POW, a Mormon, a pro-choice 9/11 Republican mayor, a TV actor, and a pastor. Throw in race, gender, religion, ethnicity, and age, mix it all up, and then bring in the public to vote.

Every few weeks, someone gets voted off, with the factors determining the outcome ranging from lipstick and pigs to a potentially global economic meltdown. It's unpredictable, edgy, 24-7, and even the commercials (read: attack ads) play into the outcome.

However, as we near the season finale, those in Group 1 - who I would guess make up the largest population among the undecided demographic - are finding that the election has moved beyond its undeniable entertainment value and caught up with their personal lives, which are now being pummeled directly by financial losses, increasing mortgages, astronomical gas prices, and potential layoffs. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, having claimed thousands of American lives, while the weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden - the initially touted respective targets of these wars - remain as elusive as ever.

Group 2, on the other hand, comprises the genuine independents. This group is much smaller, and consists of voters who are well-informed and well-read on the issues. They are reasonable, thinking individuals who, like anyone blessed with the faculty of genuinely independent thought, cannot align themselves completely with either party. They may be fiscally conservative and socially liberal at the same time, or vice versa. They are not easily swayed by campaign-constructed talking points or media-sponsored sideshows. They may be looking at third party candidates, or if forced to choose between the two major parties, at who they feel represents the lesser of the two "evils".

Group 3 should really be called the "pseudo-undecided". These are the "non-pro-this-but-definitely-anti-that" voters: they're the ones that will say, for instance, "Yes, I am voting this year, I don't know who I'm voting for, but it's definitely not Obama." Many of them identify themselves as independents in polls and place themselves in the undecided column when they probably shouldn't - they constitute a whole different component of the margin of error.

For all three groups, though, it has now become virtually impossible not to pay attention, because more than ever in recent history, the result of this election will ultimately play a significant role in the livelihood of almost all voters and their families.

Can we predict which way they'll swing?

Well, we'll need to break it down first. Group 3 is not a truly undecided group, so they can be ignored.

However, Groups 1 and 2 share a common denominator:

If things are going badly, they're likely to vote against the status quo.

And if things are going well, they can go either way or not vote at all.

This year, things are clearly not going well, and it's down to the final two contestants. The running mates have been chosen, coloring the mix, with everything from the Tina Fey factor to a probable $700 billion dollar economic bailout playing significant roles.

Watching Obama and McCain go at it for the first time last week, I was surprised when the pundits and political analysts said that there was "nothing new" brought up in the debate. For most of the undecideds who had just tuned into the election - specially those in Group 1 - everything was new.

The political junkie analyst who has been following the campaign for almost two years now may find it hard to believe that there are many recently tuned in voters who have never heard of General Petraeus - but I watched the debate with a few of them, and they are all registered to vote.

It shouldn't have been surprising that Obama gained more ground afterwards. For all of the knowledge and expertise that McCain demonstrated on foreign policy, Obama still managed to sound more confident, more optimistic, and connect better with swing voters by tying everything to the economy - from how the $10 billion a month spent in Iraq could be spent on health care, education, and infrastructure at home, to how the $700 billion a year spent on foreign oil could be invested in clean and renewable energy resource development, creating more jobs and providing wallet relief for drivers right here in the United States.

This election has now become personal enough and serious enough to transcend race, gender, age, lipstick on pigs, and the Couric-Palin sideshow. Judging from the significant leads that Obama has picked up in key swing state polls this week, it's more than safe to say that the undecideds are now tuned in - and listening.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Patriarchy's New Poster Woman

Phyllis Schlafly was probably the most prominent poster woman for patriarchal conservatives in the 1970s - a conservative anti-feminist activist who, despite being a successful lawyer, newsletter editor and all-round career woman, maintained avidly that women should be full-time wives and mothers. She was perceived by many progressive women and men alike as a woman who wanted to strip other women of all of the opportunities and benefits that she had availed and enjoyed for herself.

Now we have Sarah Palin, who John McCain picked as his vice presidential running mate in a brilliant political move that energized and consolidated his party's base in a way that he was unable to until the Republican convention early this month.

One goal of the move was to pull disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters still reeling from the Democratic primaries into McCain's fold. Interestingly, though, the surge in support for the McCain-Palin ticket came more from men than women, by nine percentage points.

Palin ran primarily on the basis of being a 'values' candidate, a hockey mom and the mother of five children - the youngest of which has Down Syndrome - to the extent that a significant portion of her convention speech revolved around her family. She put her family out there, made them the nucleus of her candidacy, and then somehow placed them off limits, allowing them immunity from any kind of criticism or scrutiny.

She did not do any interviews or answer any questions from the press, and anyone who criticized her was charged with being sexist or condescending, including Charlie Gibson, who has conducted her first and only major network interview so far.

Instead of picking legitimately qualified conservative women like Senior Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas, McCain chose to run with Sarah Palin - or Phyllis Schlafly Version 2.0.

For female Clinton supporters still wondering about whether they should vote for McCain-Palin because there is now a woman on the ticket (that would be about 17% of Hillary Clinton supporters), consider the following:

Palin is running with John McCain, the candidate who opposed the Fair Pay Act of 2007, which deals with equal pay for equal work for women. He didn't show up for the vote. The bill was defeated in 2008 by the Republicans who cited high lawsuit potential as their rationale for turning it down. Even more startling were McCain's comments on the issue:

"They need the education and training, particularly since more and more women are heads of their households, as much or more than anybody else..."

McCain felt - think about this for a minute - that women need more education and training to be able to claim equal pay for equal work.

Second, John McCain voted - twice - against the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), passed in 1994 under Bill Clinton. Under the VAWA, states receive critical funding for their their sexual assault and domestic violence prevention and treatment programs. The act requires that states that receive funding be banned from charging rape victims for their own rape kits for evidence collection. Palin's home state of Alaska adhered to this in 2000, under Tony Knowles, who was governor at the time.

But before that, as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska in the 1990s, Sarah Palin actually cut funding for sexual assault victims, requiring them to pay for their own rape kits - which can cost up to $1500 - either themselves or through their insurance companies.

The Fair Pay Act was co-sponsored by Barack Obama, as was the Paycheck Fairness Act.

The VAWA was authored by none other than Democratic VP candidate Joe Biden, called a champion for women by the National Organization for Women (NOW). His selection as Obama's running mate triggered NOW to endorse the Democratic ticket, instead of the Republican ticket with Palin on it.

It is wholly convenient for McCain to have a poster woman like Sarah Palin to hide behind, giving his pro-women facade legitimacy, and it has worked so far.

Yes, families should be off limits, but a candidate's policy decisions should not. Palin's teenage daughter's unwed pregnancy should not be a press target, but her stringent support of abstinence-only sex education, which leads to increased unwanted teenage pregnancies, should.

Hopefully, in Sarah Palin's October 2 debate with Joe Biden, women's issues such as equal pay, domestic violence, and sexual assault prevention and treatment will figure as prominently in the dialogue as foreign policy. Hearing the woman on the Republican ticket defend John McCain's positions on these issues could potentially be a significant gamechanger.

In December 2006, Jews and non-Jews around the world watched as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held the now famous International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust in Tehran, Iran. Applauding in the audience was New York Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss (pictured at left with Ahmadinejad), whose parents were Hungarian Jewish immigrant holocaust survivors. He also spoke at the conference.

The presence and supportive participation of Weiss and other Jewish rabbis, scholars, and writers gave Ahmadinejad's conference legitimacy, blatantly implying, "You can't dismiss our argument now because we've got some of your guys on our side." For the Gotcha!-conservatives getting ready to pounce, the analogy here lies in the dynamic.

Yes, Palin is a little like Weiss here, and the legitimacy she gives to the conservatives' abysmal record on women's issues is dangerous. For a presidential candidate with that kind of record to hide behind a poster woman like Palin may be good political strategy, specially in a year where Hillary Clinton's candidacy shattered historical barriers for women. But it's unlikely to last long.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Rocking the Paralympics

The 2008 Paralympics began Saturday, September 6 in Beijing, China. First staged in 1948 alongside the Olympic Games in London for injured war veterans, the Paralympics have now evolved into an official quadrennial event alongside the Olympics that is open to all athletes with physical and mental disabilities ranging from spinal cord injuries to cerebral palsy.

On the occasion of this year's games, I want to share with you my brother Zameer's debut music video, Win or Defeat, below. In a recent interview with Ontario's Mississauga News, Zameer explained, "The goal of my video is to help drive home the message that everyone who works hard to pursue a dream is a star... At the end of it all, it doesn’t matter whether society deems you successful or not. It’s all up to you. This song is especially dedicated to people that don’t receive due recognition for following their dreams. We need to change our ideas of success. I don't understand why the Paralympic Games do not receive as much recognition and support as the Olympic Games, even though the athletes work just as hard and have the same ambitions."

The song is currently in rotation on Canada's MuchMoreMusic, and was produced by Grammy-winning producer Steve Thompson, who produced Blues Traveler's Four, Korn's Follow the Leader, and also mixed Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, in addition to major records by Metallica and Soundgarden, among others.

The video is directed by Toronto director Marc Andre Debruyne, and features Canada's Paralympic sled hockey gold medalist Bradley Bowden, who was born with sacral agenesis.

The games end on September 17. To stream this year's Paralympics online, please visit UniversalSports.com. I have posted a complete schedule of the coverage below.

Here's the video:

Live coverage on UniversalSports.com:

Date, time (ET) Event
Sat 9/6 8am Opening ceremony
Sun 9/7 5am Swimming
Mon 9/8 5am Swimming
Tue 9/9 5am Track & field
Wed 9/10 5am Swimming
Thu 9/11 5am Swimming 830am Men’s basketball (USA vs. Australia)
Fri 9/12 5am Track & field 930am Women’s basketball (quarterfinal)
Sat 9/13 5am Track & field 10am Women’s basketball (semifinal)
Sun 9/14 5am Track & field 1030am Men’s basketball (semifinal)
Mon 9/15 5am Swimming 930am Women’s basketball (final)
Tue 9/16 8am Rugby (final)
Wed 9/17 8am Closing ceremony

Monday, September 1, 2008

Another Palin Pregnancy and James Dobson's Prayers

Sarah Palin announced today that her seventeen year old daughter Bristol is five months pregnant, will be keeping the baby, and marrying Levi, the baby's father. I'm not sure how the Christian right will respond to this, but it seems as if it's okay. The sin of fornication - is trumped by (i) not using birth control; and (ii) the decision to keep the baby. That's 2 to 1 in favor of God. It's unfortunate that the personal life of a teenage girl who desperately needs her privacy right now will be in the media spotlight and a political target, but this is not about judgment of the child, but the inconsistency of the parent, similar to Dick Cheney's support and participation in a blatantly anti-gay rights government despite his daughter's open lesbian relationship. Whether it's made a political issue or not, it will still play significantly in the minds of voters.

Either way, the Obama camp has refrained from attacking either mother or daughter on anything so far, and are focusing on McCain. In the spirit of staying above the fray, Obama has put out the following statement:

"I have said before and I will repeat again: People's families are off limits. And people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know my mother had me when she was 18 and how a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn’t be a topic of our politics."

Second, evangelist James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family (who recently let go about his reservations about John McCain and decided to embrace his candidacy after his choice of Sarah Pralin last week), backed Focus on the Family's Stuart Shepard as Shepard asked millions of evangelical Christians to pray for rain "of Biblical proportions" during Barack Obama's historic open air speech at Invesco Field in Denver last week. "I'm talking 'umbrella-ain't-going-to-help-you' rain," the pastor cried, standing in front of Invesco Field himself in a YouTube video.

As Hurricane Gustav continues to devastate the Gulf today, it seems as if God heard Shepard and James Dobson's prayers a few days too late. God seems instead to have gone after the Republican convention instead. Today, on the first day of the Republican National Convention, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal have canceled their appearances and the McCain camp has been forced to make drastic adjustments to the tone and agenda of the convention.

I haven't been able to figure out yet whether this will be good for McCain or not. But it doesn't seem as if God has chosen McCain like he chose George W. Bush.

Friday, August 29, 2008

It's A Girl! And That's Pretty Much It!

There has to be an upside to this. Let me think.

Okay, by picking 44 year old, two-year Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain now has all three electoral votes in Alaska squarely in his column...

Oh wait, they already were in his column. Never mind.

Okay, Idaho, then. Palin's home state: four electoral votes, now with McCain!

But wait, he already had them too. So no battleground state advantage here.

Maybe it's the 3 am phone call? When the phone at the White House rings at 3 am, we would want, um, Sarah Palin to answer the phone?

Okay, so it's clearly not that. Despite how McCain's been saying Obama's not capable of receiving that phone call, slamming him for being too young and inexperienced, Obama, 46, still has at least two years in age and eight years in government experience over Palin.

Because of his "lack of experience," Obama was not fit to be Commander-in-Chief, the Republicans said.

Well, Sarah Palin has been governor of Alaska for one year and nine months. Since December 2006.

But Palin's only going to be the vice presidential candidate, right? It's not like she's running for the Commander-in-Chief post! The only way that could conceivably happen is if something happens to McCain while he's president. Fat chance of that. At age 72 with multiple recurrences of melanoma?

Look, I don't want McCain to die, and I don't want myself to die either. But I am aware of that possibility, which is why I have life insurance. John McCain's insurance payout for the United States in case something happens to him now comes in the form of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska.

She's conservative. She's pro-life, she likes hunting and fishing, she supports offshore drilling, and she's a fiscal conservative. No significant difference there from Pawlenty, Crist, or even Romney, who did flip-flop on abortion, but as the former governor of a significant state, an economy expert, and the son of a very popular former Michigan governor, would have put that state into play and filled two very significant vacuums.

So why did he pick her? Family values? No. She can't beat Biden's story there.

Evangelical/Christian right appeal? Huckabee or Pawlenty would've brought that and much more.

Why? It's not the electoral votes she's bringing, it's not her experience, she doesn't trump anyone else significantly in the conservatism, values, or faith realm, and she's not putting any battleground or other states in play. So what is it?

Could it be just because she's a woman? Could this be reverse sexism?

Does McCain seriously think that all of those disgruntled Hillary voters will now flock to him for choosing a woman just because she's a woman?

What does that say about John McCain's judgment that when he does decide to choose a female candidate, it's not someone with an established record like Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, but a former Miss Alaska pageant winner who, even though she has an admirable resume, is clearly not as qualified to be vice president as many of the more experienced women in the Republican party who really have something solid to offer?

Even Cindy McCain is more qualified to be vice president than Sarah Palin. John McCain's pick makes both George H. W. Bush's Dan Quayle pick and George W. Bush's Harriet Miers pick (for the Supreme Court) look good.

Okay, look, I'm only shaken here because I lost a few bets on this one. And I'm not going to bet on this (because John McCain has clearly lost his mind), but here's a prediction: like Harriet Miers, we may see Palin reject the nomination at some point, citing a noble reason like needing to spend time with her children or Alaska needing her, while McCain regretfully "accepts" her resignation and taps someone more reasonable like Mr. Romney, Mr. Pawlenty, or Ms. Hutchison for the vacant post.

Let's hope that happens before Sarah Palin - otherwise a very impressive, successful, and attractive person - has to go up against Joe Biden in October's VP debate in St. Louis. I have a feeling that may not go well for her.

And if I'm wrong about my prediction, everyone who was sold on Obama's speech last night can take heart in the fact that he will now almost certainly be the next President of the United States.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

How Joe Biden's Pros - and Cons - Help Obama

Where Does McCain Go From Here?

They'll soon be calling it the O-Biden or the Joe-Bama ticket. Either way, Barack Obama has decided to live on the edge a little, and nab Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate.

The pros are obvious and widely known - Biden complements Obama and fills in his perceived gaps as a presidential candidate:

Foreign policy. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden made a trip to Georgia at the request of the country's president last week, and also traveled to Pakistan in February this year to oversee its landmark elections - both regions are fragile at the moment and sure to be prominent foci in the foreign policy debate from here through November. This makes Biden a legitimate, credible challenge to the people in the McCain campaign, who often pound on Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience. To top it off, Biden's son Beau, currently Delaware's Attorney General, will be stationed in Iraq in October - another factor that can put him on equal footing with McCain, whose son Jimmy has also been serving there.

Working class/blue collar white Americans. A persistent challenge for Barack Obama, who despite his modest middle-class background, can't seem to lure this demographic into his column the way Hillary Clinton did in the primaries. Biden was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where Clinton's grandparents were from, and Pennsylvania is a key battleground state that Obama lost to Clinton earlier in the year. Biden is renowned there and across the country as the regular guy - a lunch-bucket, working class Democrat.

Women. Something very significant that I haven't yet heard much about today - Biden has been instrumental in the fight against domestic violence, a leading issue for women. In 1994, along with what has become known as the Biden Crime Law, Joe Biden also authored the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), with avid support from the National Organization for Women (NOW), who heralded it as the "greatest breakthrough in civil rights for women in nearly two decades." The VAWA led to billions of dollars in funding for measures to combat gender-based crime, which dropped significantly since its passing and continue to do so. Biden's record here is important because it can potentially bring a large number of disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters who are now looking at voting for McCain (or not voting at all) back into the fold. As recently as today, NOW has praised Obama's pick, and even Geraldine Ferraro, a close friend of Clinton who was visibly and vocally disillusioned by Obama's winning the Democratic nomination, said today that his selection demonstrated his ability to exercise "good judgment".

Character and Faith. In recent years, this factor has become almost central to American voters, evidenced by the massive coverage given to televangelist Rick Warren's interviews with the two candidates at the Saddleback Church "Faith Forum" last week. Not only is Biden a Catholic (a key swing voter group that has so far been leaning heavily towards McCain), but he has a remarkable history of working through the tragedy of losing his wife and baby daughter in a car accident shortly after his election to the Senate at age twenty nine. Taking his inaugural oath at the hospital, Biden raised his sons - both of whom were critically injured in the accident but eventually made complete recoveries - as a single dad until he remarried five years later. To this day, as he did then, he commutes an hour and a half to Washington daily from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. This doesn't say patriotism as directly as McCain's POW experience in Vietnam, but does demonstrate the same strength of character and perseverance that will appeal to "values" voters.

Tongue. Biden may be better at "straight talk" than McCain himself. Politically, he has shown an affinity for going on the attack, and can competently shoot back the kind of one-liner soundbites that the Republican attack machine is so good at (and Democrats aren't). Obama has visibly shown a weakness and discomfort with this aspect of politics, and with Biden at his side, he is free to stay on the high road and leave the sparring to Biden.

What's interesting about this pick is that even Biden's weaknesses can work in Obama's favor.

As politically incorrect as they may seem, Biden's most famous gaffes - including the one about Obama being the first "mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean...", or the one seemingly acknowledging the stereotype of East Indians working at 7-11s and Dunkin Donuts - are, unfortunately, something that a lot of Americans relate to, specifically in the so-called "working class" demographic that Barack Obama has had so much trouble with. (I know I'm going to get blasted for saying that, but it's true.) The fact that Biden even walks into a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts from time to time paints a striking contrast between him and the arugula-eating Obama or the seven-mansion-owning, married-into-a-$100-million-beer-fortune McCain.

Biden's second potential weakness is his support for the resolution to go to war with Iraq, Obama's opposition to which may arguably be the single most important reason he's the Democratic nominee today.

In response to the McCain campaign's allegations against Obama, accusing him of being an arrogant egotistical messiah, complete with television ads sarcastically referring to him as "The One", the Obama campaign seems ready to spin the selection of Joe Biden as proof that Obama is not only aware of his weaknesses, but also willing and able to surround himself with people who complement those weaknesses instead of with sycophantic yes-men, the kind George W. Bush is widely thought to have a fondness for. This may help resolve the discrepancy in Obama's and Biden's Iraq war votes. The fact that Biden suggested sending more troops to Iraq well before McCain began actively promoting the Surge - his core claim to fame - may give him further street cred.

As a longtime friend of Joe Biden (who possesses many of the qualities that he has criticized Obama for being deficient in), John McCain will find it difficult to criticize him. Where does he go from here?

Well, a lot of his chances at winning the presidency may now depend on his own vice presidential pick.

Among the three candidates on both tickets so far, the foreign policy aspect, the patriotism factor, and the decades-of-experience factor are all now relatively balanced. So is the need to appeal to the working class/blue-collar voters who want a candidate that shares their values. With Biden's admirable record on women's issues, the Obama-Biden ticket also has many of those disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters thinking about coming back. So now, the McCain camp's idea of selecting a woman as his running mate has also been bumped down the priority list.

There are two areas that still need to be addressed:

1. A lack of executive experience: McCain, Obama, and Biden are all senators and have never actually governed. The last sitting senator to be elected president was John F. Kennedy. Both Bushes, Bill Clinton, Reagan, Carter, and Ford were governors.

2. The economy: This is the main concern for most Americans this year. There is no candidate on either ticket so far that has any sort of commanding expertise on the issue of the economy.

For John McCain, the only candidate that can potentially fill both of these holes is Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts and a famously successful businessman whose credentials in both of these areas helped propel him to the runner-up position in the Republican primaries.

There are already signs that Romney is in serious consideration as the Republicans' VP pick. This includes the very public touting by the McCain campaign of Tom Ridge (governor, Pennsylvania) and Joe Lieberman (ex-Democrat and current independent Senator, Connecticut) as potential VP candidates - both of whom are pro-choice - met by the anger of many Republican base voters who already look at John McCain as a closeted liberal.

Romney, on the other hand, was initially pro-choice, and later switched to a pro-life position. If presented as a candidate de novo, this prominent flip-flop may have angered the Republican base just as much. But coming after the Ridge/Lieberman scare, Romney's selection may be seen as a welcome relief, thanks to relativity. (Well, a psycho-social extrapolation of it, anyhow.)

As for how to attack the Obama-Biden ticket, I wish I had some suggestions. But, if we're in the "His middle name is Hussein! Oh no!" vein, the insertion of the acronym for the National Liberal Alliance (NLA) right in the middle of Joe Biden's last name would cause the ticket to read:

"Obama-BiNLAden '08".

I can like, totally feel Karl Rove's eyes lighting up right now. Unfortunately, Karl, there's no such thing as the National Liberal Alliance. Yet.

Gotcha, bitch.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Identities

The struggle for belonging and social acceptance has always been a balancing act: conforming enough to be an accepted member of a group, yet being just unique enough to differentiate yourself from others so that you can be appreciated as an individual without risking that acceptance.

And as the world gets smaller and different cultures mix in ways they haven't before, it's getting harder and harder to pull this off.

So how do we form our sense of identity, and what are the identifiers that constitute that sense? To me, it seems that these identifiers can be lumped into two broad categories - "inborn" identifiers and "acquired" identifiers.

Inborn identifiers include factors such as race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, and gender - these are "unearned" attributes that we usually have at birth, that nobody can take away from us. The majority of us keep them for the course of our lives.

But as most of us evolve and develop, we begin to formulate an acquired identity - shaped by "earned" identifiers such as choice of profession, personal philosophy, wealth, social status, parental/marital status, and the lessons learned from consequences of personal life decisions.

Adolescence is probably the time during which this transitional interface is most visibly manifested - there isn't too much to work from on the inside at that age/stage in life, so most of us embellish ourselves externally to distinguish ourselves, through fashion, hair, piercings, makeup, and so on. The rebellion is cautious: a fragile balance between being different - but not too different to risk becoming an outcast. Being an outlier is still okay, as long as you're within the fringes of the bell curve.

From this point on, many of us continue to evolve, to develop ourselves on the inside, gain an education, form perspectives on our lives and the world through what we see and learn from our experiences, earn a definitive social and financial status in our communities by working hard and making decisions, settle into our professions, and become parents, philanthropists, journalists, artists, engineers, businesspeople, physicians; as we do, our need to cling to our inborn identifiers becomes less urgent.

For those who are not adequately able to formulate that secondary, acquired sense of self, or - importantly - who are stripped of the opportunities or resources to do so, falling back on using inborn identifiers to define themselves is convenient, and very easy: these attributes are always there, and you don't have to work for them.

This is why pride - based on our inborn identities - is so dangerous.

Proud to be American. Proud to be black. Proud to be a Muslim. Patriotism. Nationalism. All of these notions are based on taking immense pride in things you didn't achieve, you didn't work for, and you didn't earn - part of what George Carlin called "false patriotism" in his last performance. These things were always there, since birth. And precisely for that reason, they are the easiest ones to fall back on when you feel like you've been shut out.

There is nothing wrong with feeling fortunate to be born in a Hindu family, or feeling grateful for being American - those sentiments at least still retain a sense of humility. But pride comes from the ego, and when undeserved and unearned, pride can kill - differences over inborn identifiers such as race, religion, and nationality have resulted in most of the crimes, wars, and genocides in history.

"Homegrown terrorism" in Europe, for instance - facilitated by several English speaking, second-generation immigrant jihadists born and raised in Europe - is a consequence mostly of disenfranchised young people who have failed - or haven't had the opportunities and resources - to construct an acquired identity for themselves in one or more spheres of achievement in their lives. So they have fallen back on things like religion and ethnicity. Although their ultimate goal is different, what drives these neo-jihadists is the same phenomenon that drives the blue collar, red-state voters who continue to elect and re-elect politicians, to their own economic disadvantage, because of race-based or religion-based fears about issues such as gay marriage or embryonic stem cell research.

To me, it seems that a person's acquired identity develops and evolves primarily depending on three factors: (i) age, (ii) education, and (iii) socioeconomic status.

Evidencing this is the fact that most of the people who define themselves by way of these identifiers, such as jihadists, are (i) young, (ii) not very well-educated, and (iii) socially or economically disenfranchised.

Some of them get where they are because of bad decisions they have made.

But others - most of them, I believe - get there because they haven't had the opportunities and resources to move beyond their "socioeconomic adolescence" to develop their own evolved, acquired identities.

To combat factors (i), (ii), and (iii), youth empowerment, anti-poverty measures, and massive investment in education are the way to go, not bombs and sanctions, which only increase poverty and disenfranchisement, further curtailing opportunities and resources for education and socioeconomic security.

I was born in Pakistan, lived in North Africa for half a decade, then England for a little less than a year, then Saudi Arabia for eleven years where I went to an American school, then to college and university in Pakistan and Canada, and now, for the last four years, I have been living in the United States. Having no real geographical roots - or many, depending on how you look at it - I have seen that wherever in the world I've been, crimes have almost uniformly been associated with some racial/ethnic groups more than others, and wars almost always appear to be across ethnic or religious lines. Yet, factors like economics and level of education are the common denominator across the board: the main impediments to allowing the individuals in these factions to evolve beyond a blind adherence to their inborn identifiers.

And in places where educated and financially secure people coexist together, such as the university where I work, people who would be killing each other in other parts of the world - Pakistanis and Indians, conservative Muslims and atheists, Palestinians and Israelis, Mel Gibson and Steven Spielberg (okay, that was unfair - sorry, Mel) - somehow get by on a bloodless, gunless, academic form of debate and discussion that, though often heated and passionate, can be civilly conducted over coffee.

How nice would it be to construct a social, political, and economic global environment where others across the world are able to avail the same opportunities and resources that these people have had, making both Lenin and Lennon happy? Imagine.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Where Headscarves Meet Strippers

In April 2007, Dr. Muriel Walker, a non-Muslim professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario attempted to organize an event to show solidarity with Muslim women at the campus, inviting non-Muslim women on campus to wear the traditional Islamic headscarf - the hijab - for a day. To her horror, this attempt at interfaith unity resulted in the spray-painting of anti-Muslim graffiti on her office door, declaring her a "raghead lover" among other things.

Jonathan Kay, blogger for Canada's NationalPost.com, posted his reaction to the event, condemning it as most reasonable people would - but also expressing his disapproval of Walker's intent to celebrate the wearing of the hijab:

"The problem is that the Hijab is not a politically neutral symbol of religious or ethnic identity, such as, say, a crucifix necklace, a yarmulke, or a Scottish kilt. Like the shaved heads and wigs that many married ultra-orthodox Jewish women endure, the Hijab signifies a coerced strain of social conservatism that symbolizes the lower status - or, at least, the institutinalized subservience - of women within a society. In some societies (not ours, yet) Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are beaten or imprisoned by religious thugs who see female modesty as a state-enforcable duty. Ms. Walker's blog suggests she sees the hijab as a purely aesthetic/cultural/religious symbol. But I think she's wrong: Her "Hijab Day" was arguably a celebration of that which is repressive and anti-feminist in Islam."
This prompted a response from a Muslim woman who defended the hijab, not so much directly, but instead by way of condemning the sexual objectification of women in Western culture:
"As a Muslim woman, I find your lack of understanding of the hijab offensively ignorant... If you want to talk about institutionalized subservience, open your eyes to mainstream media, and look at the way women's bodies are constantly exploited as if they're commodities to be sold. Fashion dictates that dressing like a stripper is en vogue, while engaging in as much intellectual discourse as Jessica Simpson, makes a girl more likeable. Watch 15 minutes of an MTV music video and tell me that women are truly liberated and not just succumbing to media pressures constructed largely by a male dominated industry, to degrade themselves and sell their sexuality for commercial purposes. Please, don't tell me that Hijab, which serves to demonstrate modesty, is a tool for oppression when in our society you have men salivating over the PUSSYcat dolls, the latter being everything that the women's liberation movement has worked so hard for."
Even though I don't identify or align myself with any specific religion, I was born and raised in a moderate to liberal Muslim family, the female (and male) members of which - nuclear and extended - are all accomplished, professional, and independent, but show very distinct, palpable, sometimes conflicting variability in their approaches to reconciling their faith and cultural sensibilities with their social progressivism; this includes frequent wavering on issues ranging from hijab to arranged marriage to traditional gender roles.

But, like both Jonathan Kay and the articulate commenter on his blog, there is a "splitting" tendency to their arguments, where one side is declared completely good and the other declared completely bad - and it doesn't always have to be that way.

I have, on occasions like this, found myself agreeing with both Kay's and his disagreeing commenter's viewpoint: to me, the traditional hijabi (headscarf-wearer) and the Western exotic dancer appear to be opposite sides of the same coin.

The tradition of hijab is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by placing the responsibility of curbing male lust primarily upon women.

Similarly, the modern stripper is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by catering to that lust.

Both are designed to sustain the dynamics of a male-dominated society.

Both maintain the status of women as sexual objects - whether it's by having them covered from head to toe, or exposed from head to toe - depending on whether the men in the surrounding environment want to curtail their seemingly uncontrollable sexual urges or exercise them. Hijab, so to speak, seems to be the objectification of women just the same - but in reverse.

Finally, both are not only insulting to women, but also to men, perpetuating the stereotypical notion that men have virtually no self-control over their testicular physiology, no discretionary sense, and no self-respect. I've heard men and women - including both hijabis and strippers - say, "That's just how men are..." innumerable times, setting a dangerous precedent potentially allowing boys and men to get away with pretty much anything, as they often do, while girls and women think of them as insatiable horndogs.

My dissociation with the faith that I was born into was primarily because of the status accorded to women in most religions.

I've often engaged in conversations with feminists, Muslim and non-Muslim, who believe strongly in the idea of being vocal and unabashed in their opposition to a patriarchal societal system, even if it offends conservative traditionalists. I believe that feminism benefits both women, men, and society in general, and I agree with them.

However, when I am critical of their religion, many of the same women view it as offensive or blasphemous, when from my standpoint, I am only doing the same thing they are: being vocal and unabashed in my opposition to a patriarchal societal system, even if it offends conservative traditionalists. In this case, though, they are playing that role themselves.

That said, many women who choose to be exotic dancers or wear the hijab do so out of choice, pleasure, and in many cases, for liberation. So I do understand that like anything else, this is about insight - and a mindset. In the end, feminism, masculinism, and humanism are about the same thing - autonomy, individual choice, and equality. I am not opposed to a woman's choice to wear the hijab. Nor am I opposed to exotic dancing - female or male. Both choices should be respected. The danger is in the notions that surround these phenomena: that women are sexual objects that need to be covered or exposed depending - in both cases - on the state of a man's lust, and that a man's lust is somehow well beyond his control more than a woman's is.

I would like to hope that Dr. Walker will be hosting an event in the near future inviting all the women on campus to dress as exotic dancers for a day - better yet, encourage the men to do the same - let 'em know what it's like. It would certainly increase attendance.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Tim Russert, 1950-2008

My dad died a little over seven years ago on a Friday the 13th, just like Tim Russert died on Friday the 13th today.

It was around four years later that Tim Russert's book Wisdom of Our Fathers came out. I remember reading through it over four days; I remember how hard it was to put down. It was such an invaluable comfort, even years after my loss, that helped me work through it and put so many things in perspective.

Everyone knows that Tim Russert was an intellectual giant, a pioneer, a standard-setter, civilized, fair, and classy. He also came across as an idealist, like an enthusiastic kid who never tired of the excitement that his passion brought him.

But it's Fathers Day Sunday, and the main reason I felt so compelled to write this is the deep connection I felt with what Russert wrote in that book as a human being, not just a political journalist.

Here's one of my favorite parts in the book, on his son Luke's high school graduation:

"When Luke was graduating from high school, his class asked me to give the commencement address. It was a great honor, but this was the most difficult speech of my life: I had to say something meaningful and inspiring without in any way embarrassing my son. I spoke from the heart and gave the class a kind of blessing: “May you always love your own children as much as your parents love you, as much as Maureen and I love our Luke.” I must have passed the test, because when I finished speaking, the class rose to its feet in appreciation — led by Luke.

Then, one by one, the students came up to receive their diplomas. When it was Luke’s turn, the headmaster motioned for me to take over for a moment. Neither Luke nor I had been prepared for this possibility, and again I wondered how he would react. To my delight, when I gave him the diploma, I received a rib-crushing bear hug from my six-foot-two baby boy. I actually had to say, “Luke, enough. Put me down!” His classmates laughed. It was funny, but there was more in that embrace than humor.

The graduating seniors received their yearbooks that day, and each student had been given a full page to reflect on his high school career. That night, when I got into bed, I began flipping through Luke's copy. His page began with expressions of gratitude. “Dad,” said the first one, “you're the driving force behind it all, and my best friend in the world. Thanks for always having my back. I love you.”

Now if you had asked me to identify a specific moment when I had Luke's back, I couldn't point to one. He was reminding me that tender moments are the ultimate wisdom — whether it's the mutual love and respect that two parents share, a supportive word, or one of the many little comments and gestures of daily life that are more powerful than any lecture. Small moments accumulate and last a lifetime and, what's more, they get carried on into the next generation.

I lay back, smiled, and closed my misty eyes. The pillow had never seemed so soft."

Fathers Day is never an easy day for me, but this weekend, the loss is hitting a little harder. My heart goes out to Luke Russert.

If you're still thinking about what to give your dads on Sunday, go out and get Tim Russert's book. I wish I'd been able to do the same.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Why Jim Webb Should Not Be Barack Obama's Vice Presidential Pick

Here it is, the link to the notorious article penned by Virginia Senator (and favored VP candidate) Jim Webb in The Washingtonian in November 1979:

Jim Webb: Women Can't Fight

"Lest I be understood too quickly, I should say that I believe most of what has happened over the past decade in the name of sexual equality has been good. It is good to see women doctors and lawyers and executives. I can visualize a woman President. If I were British, I would have supported Margaret Thatcher. But no benefit to anyone can come from women serving in combat...

...There is a place for women in our military, but not in combat. And their presence at institutions dedicated to the preparation of men for combat command is poisoning that preparation. By attempting to sexually sterilize the Naval Academy environment in the name of equality, this country has sterilized the whole process of combat leadership training, and our military forces are doomed to suffer the consequences."
Okay, here's the case for Webb: he is a decorated war hero. He has won the Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He worked as Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He was a Republican until 2006. He is now a Democrat.

The advantage he brings to the Democratic ticket has three parts: (i) he virtually neutralizes John McCain's war hero status; (ii) as a former Republican who worked under Reagan, he can potentially have a lot of crossover and centrist appeal; and (iii) he puts Virginia - a key swing state this year - into play for the Democrats.

And to give him the benefit of the doubt, the article is from 1979. It's clear that his political and personal perspective have changed and evolved dramatically since then, evidenced by his going to the extent of switching parties. Also, the article was written more in the spirit of chivalry than sexism; although they can be virtually synonymous, the line between the two was much more definitive three decades ago, and has blurred significantly since then.

Yes, it was 29 years ago. Yes, he may have changed his mind. Yes, he did offer that half-assed disclaimer up there in the first paragraph of the excerpt. And yes, in almost every other way, he is a near-perfect VP choice.

But this is not the year for him. This has been a historic year for women. Hillary Clinton, in her graciousness when she conceded, became a hero in her own right even as she lost the nomination. Read the transcript of her landmark speech here.

Hillary Clinton got almost as many votes (or more, if you count Michigan where Obama's name wasn't on the ballot) as Barack Obama. She has millions of supporters, many of them women who had years of struggle and a strong personal, political, and emotional investment in her candidacy.

Inviting Jim Webb onto the Democratic ticket this year will potentially alienate this essential component of the party's base. It will not help to heal the schism left from a bitterly fought primary season. Already, many (sometimes too) vocal Clinton supporters have been (rightly) screaming sexism and (wrongly) pointing fingers at Obama - and he risks legitimizing their argument by picking Webb as his running mate.

It's not the smart thing to do politically. But more importantly, it is not the right thing to do, period. It is not conscientious, unless Webb really goes out of his way to reach out to women across the country and rescind his outrageous proposition about women in combat.

For now, though, that article is not going away.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Politicization of Feminism: Why Geraldine Ferraro is Not Good for Women

A few weeks ago, when asked by Detroit reporter Peggy Agar how he plans to help American autoworkers, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama replied, "Hold on one second, sweetie, we'll do a press avail, thanks."

This has now been immortalized as the "Sweetie-gate" scandal, and admittedly, it was disturbing. I couldn't understand how Barack Obama, a man with a remarkably accomplished mother (whom Hawaii Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie once called "the original feminist"), a strong independent grandmother, an equally accomplished and successful wife, and two young daughters, turned out to be such a closeted sexist.

My concerns cleared a little when I went down to the cafeteria at my hospital where I have lunch every day and know pretty much all of the cashiers. As she does every day, the friendliest one (who I always try to go to) said, "Thanks, honey!" as she handed me my change. I realized that in the four years that I've worked there, I have also been called "sugar", "darlin'", "sweetheart", "love" - and one of our secretaries even calls me "babe" fairly often.

They are all women. And I am a man (pending just one more karyotype test - pray for me). I don't particularly think of myself as sexually attractive. To be honest, I have several unappetizing stretch marks on my ass. But I've gotten every term of endearment there is. Specially when I've traveled in the South.

So I had lunch, quietly wondering if I should be offended. I thought of the details, the minutia: this was about a man saying it to a woman in a professional environment; women say it to other women too, not only to men; but men don't call other men sweetie! Then the counter-arguments: men do call each other bro, pal, man, amigo, and dude in the same spirit - the difference in semantics isn't necessarily a difference in intent based on the receptive gender, is it? And how do you define "professional" anyway? Does cafeteria interaction between cashier and other employees qualify?

Shortly after this story broke, I realized I wasn't the only one poring over this incredible outing of a major presidential candidate's overt misogyny and disrespect of women, which he had managed to hide so well over the years.

There was also Geraldine Ferraro, the first female vice presidential candidate in American history, addressing the Sweetie-gate scandal on Fox News (watch 3 minutes and 20 seconds in), and talking to Meredith Viera on NBC's Today Show about how sexist Barack Obama's campaign has been (see clip below).

She mentioned "several" campaign incidents, notably when during a stump speech, Obama, in a gesture demonstrating how he deals with "dirty" Washington politics, brushed imaginary dirt off his shoulders, in this clip.

Ferraro interpreted this as "diminishing" Clinton, alleging that it was sexist and offensive.


Sitting by her was NBC and Air America's brilliant Rachel Maddow, a feminist in her own right, visibly stunned. She civilly attempted to counter Ferraro when she accused all of the candidates in the December 2007 Democratic primary debate of "ganging up" on Hillary Clinton. (Note: Yes, Clinton was running against seven men who she was beating handily in the polls; as any male or female frontrunner would be, she was attacked by her trailing competitors.)

Watch Maddow's response to Ferraro's examples 4 minutes and 50 seconds into the video:

At one point in this clip, Ferraro even refers to Obama as a "typical man" (2 minutes and 20 seconds in).

Ferraro, one of Hillary Clinton's most respected campaign advisors, was dropped from the campaign in March 2008 for the controversy she caused by alleging that Barack Obama has the stature he has in the country because he's black. She further defended her comments afterwards, alleging discrimination against her because she's white.


First, I think Geraldine Ferraro deserves an enormous amount of respect not only for being the first female vice presidential candidate in US history, but for her record as a civil rights activist and her work as ambassador for the UN Commission on Human Rights during Bill Clinton's presidency.

Second, I agree that there has been an extraordinary amount of sexism in this campaign. I do think that a lot of the opposition to Hillary Clinton is because she is Hillary Clinton. But I do think, unfortunately, that a significant proportion of that opposition has been because she is a woman.

As I referenced in a previous post, this Rebecca Traister Salon piece is an excellent analysis of this pretty disturbing aspect of the primary race. I also think Geraldine Ferraro makes an excellent point in the Today Show interview (clip above) when she talks about the disgusting "Iron My Shirt" incident (click here to watch) that Clinton was subjected to during one of her speeches earlier this year. She is right - the incident would have garnered significantly more media attention and sympathy if it was racist in nature. I agree with her that sexism is somehow more easily accepted in society than racism.

But the reason people will pay less attention to Geraldine Ferraro's valid points is because she peppers them amid so many unrelatable, invalid ones. The "Iron My Shirt" incident is an example of the very serious, horrific kind of misogyny that can form a basis for discussion and education - it would be hard to imagine any reasonable woman or man not being able to feel the blatant offense in it.

But lumping it in during the same seven minute stretch with the shoulder-brushing incident and Sweetie-gate trivializes it. It turns people's minds off from the big picture by virtually invalidating it.

Unfortunately, "feminist" has become a bad word over the last two decades, just as (for the sake of analogy) "Muslim" has become a bad word in around the same time. In the same way that the word "Muslim" is now associated with the image of bearded, turbaned, uneducated terrorists, the word "feminist" has come to be associated with angry, man-hating, bra-burning, extremist women. This is simply because both of these movements have been politicized to ridiculous, unchecked levels by the infiltration and subsequent rise of radical, agenda-driven loudmouths who have hijacked them.

And Geraldine Ferraro is not doing a whole lot to help that. Sadly, she is perpetuating it. By focusing on 'Gotcha!' type pseudo-sexism, she is not only alienating men who, like Barack Obama, are very obviously not sexist yet are being accused of it; she is also alienating girls, boys, men, and women around the world who can't relate to her views. She is distancing women like Rachel Maddow, who emphatically expressed her disagreement with Ferraro in the Viera interview, and is probably, in almost all aspects, the perfect example of what the modern woman (or man, for that matter) today should be like. The only legitimate issue mentioned in that interview - the "Iron My Shirt" incident - was virtually overlooked and buried under the pseudo-gotcha stuff.

The feminist movement has to be taken back from those using it for political motive. The very word "feminist" needs to go back to its association with women like Abigail Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, the pre-2008 Hillary Clinton, and more recently, Rebecca Walker and Maddow herself.

Finally, saying as Ferraro did that she may not vote for Obama "if" Clinton doesn't get the nomination means that she - still an influence and role model for so many women that believe in and live her values - is willing to lead her supporters to elect John McCain, directly, or indirectly by not voting.

She would prefer to withdraw her support from a candidate that has grown up among strong, independent, educated, accomplished women, who supports and understands their issues - and instead opt for a party that is anti-women's reproductive rights, anti-family friendly policies (like modifying the Family and Medical Leave Act, for instance), is associated with countless extremist sexist religious "leaders", and prefers tax cuts for CEOs to those for single mothers.


I guess she does have a point. McCain has never simulated brushing anything (anyone?) off his shoulders - and who can imagine a conservative calling a woman sweetie? Right?

Click here to see where else people are politicizing the feminist cause!