Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In... a... mon...astery?

This does not feel like the week for jeremiads on unconnected dots, or the President's laconic delivery of bad news. It seems as though only David Brooks has the class to leave those subjects to others. Well, admiring him though not necessarily always agreeing with him as I do, something else seemed to call for my attention. Note the presence of the word "call" in the previous sentence.

Applying to a Masters of Divinity program at a largely Methodist school--Duke--has led me to wonder about the reaction my experience as a postulant for a year in a Trappist monastery will receive. That year has had a disproportionate influence on my spiritual practice, though of course without an affinity for the contemplative life and tradition I would never have wound up there at all. How will someone with a year of Trappist formation fit in a Methodist environment--or any environment other than a Trappist monastery where, paradoxically, I did not feel I fit on one level even though on others I did?

I hope to avoid the "what were you running away from?" questions; resisting the temptation to ask the questioner what they run away from in their daily life might take superhuman discipline. Same goes for the social justice questions. Why does helping to care for one's brother monks not count as social justice; do we only perform good works if the people we help have a different skin color or a life sentence for murder or for running a Ponzi scheme?

Of all the Protestant denominations only Anglicanism, to my knowledge, continues to support the monastic life. The others have either never known monasticism, as with Methodism, or came into being at monasticism's expense, as with Lutheranism, itself founded by a former monk of the Order of St. Augustine, which managed to survive without him. This does not necessarily signal a fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. It simply speaks to the fact that the mystical voices either side of the Reformation divide speak different languages, with the occasional convergence--the Shakers for one--so occasional as to provide no real foothold for the one to recognize the other as treading the same path.

This works the other way, of course. I took a Reformation History class as an undergraduate. I wrote a good paper on Albrecht Duerer, Meister Eckhart and Heinrich Suso for that class, but otherwise loathed it, a response that cannot happen again. Martin Luther simply struck me as repulsive, and the other reformers even more so. Had I possessed the maturity to approach the issue honestly, I'd have admitted that Luther, like Augustine, touched lodes of self-disgust in myself that made both of them unbearable for me to read. I finished Augustine's Confessions for the first time about three years ago, shortly before entering the monastery, and then only by forced march.

Perhaps this gives me my bridge. We read the history of faith through the history of our own, hopefully not in an exercise of vendetta--Catholics seeing Episcopalians as descendants of a king and his confession that closed the monasteries and executed Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, or Sunnis seeing Shi'a as heretics, any Christian seeing Jews as the murderers of Christ, and Buddhists of competing traditions attacking each other on grounds alternately esoteric and jealous.

Monasticism, in other words, remains for Roman and Orthodox Catholics as a viable practice for contacting not only our relationship with the divine--Orthodox would put it in terms of becoming divine--but our history. Surely the Early Church, specifically the Desert Fathers, belong to all of us who go by the name of Christian? Luther spat at what those traditions had become, but need we lose their 4th and 5th c wisdom to a 16th c quarrel?

As I pointed out in one of my two required essays for Duke, I find it no accident that I've spent the last few months reading for my morning lectio divina (sacred reading) a book by a Spanish Franciscan mystic in a tradition of contemplative theory profoundly influenced by one of my early intellectual heroes, Desiderius Erasmus. Yes, the same Erasmus who waited in the view of some unforgivably long before attacking Luther, who basically ignored his clerical duties for most of his adult life, and whose works were placed on the Index of forbidden books within a generation of his death. What seems so profoundly Catholic, in other words, and in the country that perfected the Inquisition into an instrument of torture and execution, was so nearly not.

Our confessions have traveled different paths; it makes no sense to minimize that fact as a Jesuit church historian has tried to do. Give it up; we've come too far. If not, re-unification talks at the Vatican would have progressed much further than they have. It does make sense to point out, though, that we each have traditions that overlap; we simply tap into them differently or not at all. In that different tapping or refraining we need to recognize different ways of legitimately reaching back to or moving on from shared roots. If we can learn about community from Sufi gatherings, why we can we not learn about fellow Christians by understanding what survives of what we once shared and still do as heritage?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

peace on earth?

Peace: we all want it, some of us desperately. If somehow you have trouble imagining what such a desire looks like, consider the photos taken in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in Greg Mortenson's new book, Stones into Schools. Even the one with Angelina Jolie in her UNHCR role, her most important one. The problem with peace, of course, comes when we discuss how to achieve it. Which leads us to postulate number two.

Paradigms: we all invest in them, act according to them, see the world through their assumptions. As Shakespeare wrote of greatness, so with paradigms. We are born into some by inclination and gifts; some we achieve as the result of hard work and ambition, or even hard work and humility; and some we have thrust upon us by circumstance and the unmistakable evidence of reading and research--one hopes sufficiently wide while knowing full well otherwise. Cornel West likes to say that the problem with postmodernism is that there is so much to read.

On Christmas eve, the night of peace for Christians, this subject has particular aptness. Liberal/progressive orthodoxy--a timely notion--holds that we can only achieve peace through peaceful means. Thus spake Einstein, Gandhi and King, and who are any of us to gainsay that tradition? Greg Mortenson stands very firmly in that tradition. I have not read the new book yet; I received it as a Christmas present only this afternoon. I have read his argument for relying on regional shuras or councils, and heard him articulate his passionate belief in that approach in an interview with Rep. Mary Bono Decker. Paradigm one.

Paradigm two. We have just witnessed the remarkable occasion of a war president defending war as the path to peace while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. Squirm. Or not? Of Americans in Afghanistan, though the ambassador has serious qualms, while the former journalist and now apparently full-time military advisor Sarah Chayes does not. This paradigm argues that military power alone can eliminate or marginalize those elements who through destabilizing policies and campaigns most threaten the development of conditions that bode well for peace.

Idealism vs. realism; dogma vs. pragmatism. The Mortensons of the world would not want to hear it put that way. Mortenson himself has accomplished so much through peaceful means and by his gentle demeanor, which wins so much support as a tonic to the bluster of political and military personas, with both of which he has become quite familiar. Mortenson has to answer one question. Yes, he has produced one paradigm shift, of helped, in that some elements of the Taliban now accept the education of women, a very significant change. What about the Hekmatyars and Mullah Omars and the rest of the Islamicist subculture that won't? Do you win them over in a shura? The history of the last twenty years and then some suggests not.

I considered declaring myself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. World War II stopped me; its ugliness notwithstanding, its fundamental justice spoke very clearly to the at least occasional justice of war. I agreed with Joe Biden that we belonged in Bosnia when President Bush I didn't, and Bill Clinton that we belonged in Kosovo when we led a NATO interventino there. I disagreed, quietly, with all of my friends in graduate school, and I mean all of them, who opposed the first Gulf War. I don't care who your foreign friends are, if they're your friends for whatever distasteful reason and you've pledged, out of whatever ill-considered logic, to protect them and someone, even your lackey in the country next door who you badly misled about your likely response to his likely actions, invades them and they, for whatever lack of foresight on their part, lack the means to defend themselves, you defend them. Period.
Bush II was another story. We had no reason to invade Iraq. Period. I marched as I've never marched before or since against that war, the wrong war.

On September 11, 2001, I felt plunged into sadness, and saw a war looming before us unmistakably. I didn't want it, I didn't welcome it, I didn't lead any cheers in its favor. I simply didn't see how any president, even Al Gore, could have avoided such a war, and for that reason didn't oppose it. Eight years later, those who oppose Obama's escalation of the war forget something crucial. We took a powder on what we started in Afghanistan to invade Iraq. I would love to see Rumsfeld brought to trial, not so much or merely for war crimes in Iraq, as for treason for his incompetence in directing the war in Afghanistan. His incompetence in tying Gen. Franks' hands at Tora-Bora is obvious; treason because of the damage to the United States caused by his failure to the fight the fight that bore fighting in favor of one he made up whole cloth withe cowed collusion of the CIA and Colin Powell, inconceivably and just about unforgivably.

With all the complexities of Afghanistan--and Pakistan--including the likely fact that Osama bin Laden is across the border in Pakistan, President Obama has it right. One suspects he would like to say much in defense of this war that he cannot. He deserves this credit, as well: he sounds every bit the reluctant warrior, someone who would prefer not to drink from that particular cup, but must and therefore will. Peace, after all, is both a state and a process, something one lives and strives toward. The progressive paradigm would like to essentialize peace, but even in our daily lives we know better. Peace is a process. Mortenson would argue that you therefore give peaceful activity a chance; Obama would argue that the most peaceful thing you can do is dismember al Qaeda and reset the table in Afghanistan so the Mortensons can accomplish more. Reluctantly I fear he has the better argument; the one encouraging factor in all this is his own reluctance.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Qur'an Pass

Don't get out your atlas; it exists on no map. It speaks to to an existential divide that separates Westernized (more on that in a moment) secular society and the traditional Islamic world. Not all who have navigated that pass--Sarah Chayes and Greg Mortenson come immediately to mind, and others I have written about such as Jason Elliot and Rory Stewart--see the landscape on the other side in the same way. Though both Chayes and Mortenson have advised the U.S. military on how to deal with traditional society in Afghanistan, Mortenson finds President Obama's plan unnecessary. He would rely entirely on local shuras or councils of village headmen from a region. Chayes has long championed a vigorous military role, integrated with close contact with those same headmen and shuras.

It comes as no surprise that they arrive at their conclusions from very different perspectives. Mortenson owes his life to a headman in Baltistan in Pakistani Kashmir, and has built schools there and across northern Pakistan and northeastern Afghanistan, especially for girls, ever since. No cooperation from headmen, no schools. Chayes has reported as a journalist, worked for an NGO, founded and run a cooperative, all predominantly in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, and--crucially--advised the military herself, which has led her now to Kabul. She has a complex understanding of a wide range of issues from the price of essential oils-grade rose petals relative to opium poppies, to how to bully warlords, even how to stop a Taliban raid with minimal personnel and limited firepower, the less likely to kill civilians. At a speech this year in Nebraska, which I just watched on youtube, she tells a story of an American battalion commander, a friend of hers and the father of a young family, who prayed with the family of children killed in a mortar attack he ordered when his forces requested it. After praying with him, the families of the dead children forgave him.

I find the most important element of that story not the battalion commander's demonstration to the villagers whose house his mortar rounds hit of the exact circumstances of his troops that night, or even the fact that when he realized he'd killed children he looked at the photos of his own kids on his desk, but that he prayed with them. I'd love to know what they prayed, or what the Afghans thought of how he prayed. Little of that likely mattered to them; it mattered that he prayed, that he knew how to pray, and that he humbled himself, battalion commander or no, to pray with them, thus eliminating the notion that either of them thought of the other as the enemy.

Jason Elliot gained a remarkable insight into the intersection of religion and politics in western Afghanistan when he spent a night with a group of Sufis at a major shrine outside Herat. He didn't so much pray with them as observe them in their remarkable rituals. He observed something just as remarkable; as the night wore on they received a steady influx of Taliban joining them very respectfully, after stacking their Kalashnikovs in the corner by the door. I know of no other journalist who has witnessed such a scene. Mortenson has prayed at mosques, and received correction on his miscues, but condemnation. Rory Stewart one might almost say prayed his way across central Afghanistan, though he certainly would not put it that way himself.

We in the west have no monopoly on secularism. The chants of Allah-u-Akbar stilled called from Tehran rooftops spring, for the most part, from political, not religious motivations; so believes an Iranian Facebook friend. The secularization of the Shah never entirely went away, and one suspects the same holds true for the formerly cosmopolitan city of Kabul.

As a former monastic postulant (the first step of the novitiate), one element of Islamic societies strikes me with particular force as these writers who have lived in it relate their experiences. An Islamic city, town, or village runs on a schedule very much like that of a Benedictine or even an Orthodox monastery, with collective prayer at set times of the day. A bell and a paging chime at a Benedictine or Trappist monastery, a bell alone at a Carthusian charterhouse (witness the movie Into Great Silence), a bell or a striking board at an Orthodox monastery such as those of nuns I visited in Romania, or a muezzin's call in the Islamic world, live or taped, amplified or no. All serve as summons to prayer.

Some monastic Christian orders--the Trappists, the Carthusians--tend to place their houses in the countryside. Benedictines do that, as well, but will also show up in or near cities. The less fully monastic orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans favor cities. In this they endorse the norm in Islamic society, the refusal to remove the practice of religion and religious community from society. Not that Islam sanctifies society, but it does insist on the visibility and audibility of the sacred within society. This does not Afghanistan or Iran or Pakistan nations of monks, but it does make nations of people ever aware of the presence of Islam, and not necessarily in a punitive mode. We live, in many parts of our country, almost embarrassed of such enmeshing of religion with daily life. We can conveniently hide behind the establishment clause here. There, we have to negotiate the Qur'an Pass.

A group of which I know ministers to Christians in Pakistan. I have very mixed feelings about this project. Pakistan does not tolerate non-Islamic faiths as does its neighbor India. We may find this abhorrent, and the Christians may indeed lead lives of terror. Surely helping them has merit. But the path to working with the Pakistanis or any other Islamic country does not consist in seeking out their oppressed minorities. It lies along the way of finding common cause, of demonstrating common commitment, among other things, to religious values, however different the values themselves. Crudely put, they think of us as heathen, infidels; we have to give the lie to some part of that misconception, as best we can, in terms they can understand, in those cases when "infidel" has more force than merely that of a label. Walking a fine line between aid and proselytizing does not seem best calculated to serve this aim.

My argument may sound more like Mortenson's, except that a soldier accomplished the feat of traversing the Qur'an Pass in Chayes' account, just as Mortenson himself has done it so often he need not do it anymore because of the acceptance he has gained and honors he has received. The Afghans need what security we can help provide; but it will help enormously if they can see that the security comes from men and women who can pray as well--even if if not quite as well--as shoot. Come to think of that errant mortar round, perhaps we can pray even better.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Codes of War

No, not encryption, but the coded language in which the principals discuss everything they do that pertains to war. The war in Afghanistan--itself a code for a conflict broader than the borders of that one country--offers a case in point, or rather a slew of them. The codes and the issues that occasion their use reveal something about the situation on the ground, and in many cases its greater seriousness than the White House and the Pentagon would like to admit--and they admit freely to its seriousness. Just not all of it.

Take one example. President Obama wants to see significant change in the attitudes of the Karzai government in Kabul. Secretary Gates reinforces that in a Senate hearing the day after the West Point speech by saying we will happily seek out partners in provincial governments if the Kabulis cannot deliver on the promises of Karzai's second inaugural address.

The code, though it will surprise nobody: the White House is having a hard time deciding whether Karzai's incompetence trumps his corruption, or the other way round. They want to encourage competent, upright, reliable provincial administrators to step up beyond the reach of recalcitrant Kabulis to rein in the provincials' cooperation. They have done it before, notably in the case of a governor of Kunar, during our Babylonian Captivity. Gates means to say that it will not happen again.

This problem goes deeper than what the President has said, and one presumes he knows it. If we call ourselves a melting pot of myriad peoples, the Afghans comprise a relatively small number of ethnic groups--four major ones and a few minor ones in border regions--"organized" to use far too strong a word by tribes, especially in the case of the Pashtuns. This organization, if you can call it that, explains the emergence of Hamid Karzai in the shura or council at Bonn that proposed a preliminary government after the overthrow of the Taliban, and his confirmation in the loya jirga or grand council that followed in Kabul. A Popolzai Pashtun, his father had led the Popolzai tribe, and the Popolzai have long had a prominent place or even pride of place in Pashtun affairs. He came in, one could say, as heir apparent on one very big assumption: that the Pashtuns had the best case for leading the country.

One of the great difficulties in governing Afghanistan lies in gaining inter-ethnic cooperation. Before the Taliban Kabul had a fairly cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups. Herein lies the irony the underlies and undermines, along with bad behavior, Karzai's government. He rules as the head of a minority group, but the largest of the bunch. The Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks, along with a few Kyrgyz and others, out number the Pashtuns as a group, but see their strength not in alliances, which they make and break like the rules in a billiards game at Mark Twain's house, but in pursuing their own regional agendas. Hence the Pashtun ascendancies of the Taliban and Karzai.

Our main difficulty there will derive from the very fluidity with which they understand themselves. The Pashtuns along the Durand Line that delineates the border with Pakistan laugh at its legal standing. They do not so much move back and forth between the two countries as move within what they take as the natural range of Pashtun territory. Obama's language at West Point became very vague on the issue of our pursuit of al Qaeda into safe havens by appropriate means. I have spoken to at least one Special Operations veteran who, without quite saying so, seemed to want me to infer that he had served not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. Code again. No one will say so, but if the Taliban ignores the Durand Line, it behooves us to do the same thing. What exactly will the Pakistanis do in protest?

One final point along the same lines, which will include a final cavil cum observation. CNN's coverage after the President's address featured Mike Ware and Wolf Blitzer looking at, in effect, a war map of Afghanistan. Their graphic artist had placed the national flags of all the NATO countries to represent the deployment positions of their troops. Mike Ware, an experienced British war correspondent, observed that all the Stars and Stripes sat in the south and east, and all the other flags in the north. We, the Canadians and the Brits, he strongly and dramatically asserted, have taken on all the "hot spots" while our allies have it easy elsewhere.

Two points. This characterization may (more or less) accurately reflect the situation now, but historically some of the bloodiest fighting has taken and may yet take place in the north, particularly the notoriously impregnable Panjshir Valley and Nuristan, and the northwestern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. This occasions a second and much broader point. The most interesting writing on Afghanistan that I have seen has come from a diplomat and journalists, but not from war correspondents per se, or at least not writing as war correspondents. Rory Stewart, Ahmed Rashid, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes, Jason Elliot eschew bomb-chasing--though Jason Elliot describes a colleague's days as consisting of little else, and Rashid got caught in a firefight while lunching in a garden in Dushanbe, Tajikistan--in favor of understanding the cultural melange we call Afghanistan.

The really useful writers want to understand the cultural complexities as well as the little rebellions, such as the so-called "sewing circles" Christina Lamb writes about that kept girls' education alive under the Taliban in the culturally rich Persian border city of Herat. Bomb-chasers and embedded reporters have a difficult and very dangerous job. I admire their guts. They are not the code-breakers, however, not the ones who will help us understand what, who, where, and how we must fight. We will do well not to take too seriously their reports from the field, or standing in front of fields of flags in the CNN studio in New York--they simply cannot step back far enough to get appropriate perspective. Their reports constitute part of the code. The military wants them where they allow them for a reason. The story, the important story, will almost always happen somewhere else, underneath the radar of the bomb-chasers, in the places and involving the personnel the code seeks to conceal.

We must hope for a day when we need no longer speak of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia in code. Inshallah, God willing, we will get there. For the sake of Afghanistan, let us fervently hope that we do.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving... Prime Minister Singh

Now, I have not throughly read the response in the press nor viewed that of the media punditocracy to the visit and recorded remarks of Prime Minister Singh of India, nor to the significance of the Obamas throwing their first state dinner not for a long-acknowledged friend but for the head of a state with which we have had an often difficult relationship. Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain purportedly felt miffed at not receiving such a dinner during his visit earlier this year. If he sulked then, how must he feel now?

What I have seen so far has centered on the menu--largely vegetarian in respect of Mr. Singh's dietary habits--who came, whether by invitation or no, what Mrs. Obama wore and the fact that she used Indian-American designers and wore lots of bangles, who played as house musicians, and so forth. All very well, and I actually consider the fact that the First Lady wore bangles and dresses with a lot of cloth-of-silver thread important for the respect they suggest of traditional Indian clothing and fabrics. She might have respected Indian modesty by not going strapless agains the Indian First Lady's sari. But so far so good--I guess.

Except if that's all we have to say about this visit, this dinner, this guest, and most of all this timing, then we deserve the shrinking influence so many scholars and journalists attribute to the United States now and into the future. Some of what follows depends heavily on Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (Yale, 2000), an acclaimed account of the rise of the Taliban and the climate in which they developed. That would include the geopolitical climate. Enter India.

India? What about Pakistan, our supposed allies in our funding and their stage-managing the fight against the Soviets from 1979-89, and now? More pointedly, why India, and why all the talk about the Indian-American partnership as though between equals, less than a week before President Obama lays out his Afghanistan policy in a speech at West Point next Tuesday? Why, indeed.

If Gordon Brown probably has a sulk on, one can imagine chairs thrown at television screens in Islamabad, and the senior officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in apoplectic fits. You remember the ISI, the Taliban's chief handlers and enablers, who see the Taliban as the leading edge of a pan-Islamist movement. Unfortunately, the Taliban's Pakistan-encouraged extremism has scared everyone in the region and beyond. The Taliban take the Wahhabi movement within Sunni Islam to a bizarre fare-thee-well that even their longtime backer the Saudis, themselves the chief advocates and stewards of Wahhabism, found alarming. They voted with their checkbooks. This all gets us to the situation about ten years ago, before 9/11 and its aftermath.

Some things have changed. The geopolitics have not, except that the Pakistanis have made a half-hearted show of fighting their own Taliban movement--the word simply means "students," as in students at Islamic madrassas, some funded by Pakistan, some by the Saudis. They have attacked South Waziristan with great fanfare. The experts on the Afghan conflict think they need to but will not go after more dangerous groups in North Waziristan. In short, our very unreliable "friends" in Pakistan continue to do little to contain let alone turn the tide of this war, even as it threatens to erupt towards their heartland as much as across the Afghan border.

Once again, enter India. Pakistan's arch-enemy and the excuse for so long for Pakistan to keep their military pointed east toward their borders in Kashmir and Punjab and ignore the Pathan/Pashtun tribal areas along their western border with Afghanistan. But if you stop for a second and see Afghanistan as a problem that leaks across international borders, following both ethnic and sectarian relationships, you see a different picture, one Rashid saw ten years ago. Iran nearly invaded Afghanistan over the Taliban's massacre of the Hazara, a Shia ethnic minority. Turkmenistan stands, or stood, to make a great deal of money in a pipeline deal, but not through a country engulfed in civil war. Uzbekistan watched its ethnic compatriots massacred and at one point worried, with its neighbor Tajikistan, about a Taliban invasion of Central Asia. Even now some Taliban elements operate outside their normal range in northern Afghanistan. They could hardly succeed militarily, but could their warped vision of jihad--which primarily means interior spiritual struggle--have an influence the Tajiks and Uzbeks cannot control?

And India--at last. They have already felt the lash of the extremist whip wielded by Islamist militants bred in Pakistan. Witness Mumbai, witness infiltrations across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Of all the countries Afghanistan and Pakistan border, only China remains out of this, largely thanks to the spectacular wall of the Karakoram that guards its border with Pakistan, and the puny and remote fragment of border it shares with Afghanistan at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor.

So, a grand arc of countries, from Iran in the west, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and probably including even Russia in the north, through India in the east have interests in this conflict. Pakistan, of course, would like to keep it to themselves. That will not happen. And what better way to say that loudly and clearly in the language of diplomacy than by having the Indian prime minister to the first state dinner at a White House that clearly does not plan to give a lot of state dinners, if their first year says anything. Gordon Brown, get over it. Pakistan, take notice. We have other games to play than yours.

We can, of course, hide behind claims of all the other matters we have to discuss with the Indians, which of course we do. But if you think Singh and Obama didn't discuss the geopolitics beyond India's western and northern borders, think again. And if you don't think the Indians would love to have a role in humbling Pakistan in the region, then you really need to read up on your history. And if you think Obama will lose sleep worrying about what the Pakistanis will make of the visit, the dinner, and the timing, forget it. I'll bet he'll split his time the next few days among the West Point speech, enjoying Camp David or wherever he plans to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and getting in a couple rounds of golf. Pakistanis? Not on the agenda this week. Maybe next week...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Memo to the President

Mr. President:

Your election, as you know, both reversed and validated the intertwined histories of racism and the civil rights struggle in this country. Your election makes no sense, nor can one make sense of your presidency, without understanding that history. So, too, must an understanding of history inform your decision regarding whether or not to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, how many, and under the aegis of what mission.

The difficulty of defeating and holding Afghanistan often comes up in arguments against an increased deployment. History actually gives a rather ambiguous record on this score, since part of the tragedy of Afghanistan lies in its so often falling to invading armies, whether Persian, Hellenic, Mongol, Moghul, British, Soviet or American. All of those great powers struggled, and some had more success than others in holding onto their Afghan vassals. My point is probably obvious: we seek no such dominion over them. Kindly take those arguments with a large bag of Morton's salt.

Have we found it a tough place to fight? The mountains pose enormous challenges; just count the relics of Soviet armor in the Panjshir Valley of the Hindu Kush northeast of Kabul. Helmand and Arghand would make great terrain for tank warfare, except the Taliban have no tanks, just RPG's (rocket-propelled grenades, but you know that) and mines. We need more Dari and Pashto speakers, not more armament.

One other obstacle, though not altogether ignored, has gone under-reported. David Martin touched on it in his interview with Gen. McChrystal for CBS News' 60 Minutes. One could hardly not notice it. In a village in Helmand Province villagers wore loose-fitting pants and long shirts covering the knees, all for modesty, and either soft hats or turbans. Our troops, by contrast, wore uniforms sufficiently snug-fitting to appear immodest by Afghan standards. We've dishonored their culture--and our own--before we even open our mouths.

At one point in Martin's piece McChrystal waves his group of bodyguards away, and further away, to seem more approachable. I don't know how much that helps. The troops have so much obvious body armor on that can hardly look anything but terrifying to the average villager. We think of our uniforms as sensible, but stretched as the analogy will sound, so did the British when their red coats gave Afghan fighters the same juicy targets they gave our own militias in Vermont and the Carolinas.

Some cultural problems will take years--yes, sir, not months--to address. This one shouldn't. Presumably the Army and Marines have uniforms in a wide range of sizes. Instead of the expensive though perhaps preferable solution of redesigning the uniforms, reissue current uniforms two-to-three sizes larger than a given soldier ordinarily wears. They will discover the wonderful usefulness of the belt.

They do need at least one piece of clothing they now lack. Every Afghan male--and the women would do well to dress like men, which they do already, anyway--carries an item that combines the uses of shawl, blanket, and turban. If the Taliban can fight in them, why can't we? For all I know--and you would know this--the Special Forces may already dress this way. Surely we have uncut bolts of camouflage material in some garment factory somewhere that could be put to such a use. We don't need to dress as Afghans, as though we'd ever hope to blend, but merely with respect for Afghan norms and values.

One more thing on the McChrystal visit to Helmand, and then on to harder issues. I have read that Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea has become required reading for the military in Afghanistan. If that no longer holds true, it should once again. If it does, McChrystal needs to read it again. His approach to the villagers comes across as fantastically (quite literally, to the Afghans) American, and not in the complimentary sense of the word.

We value terseness, directness, informality, McChrystal apparently more than most. Businesslike to us means let's do business now and we can think about drinks later. Much as the Afghans would respect his abstemiousness--if they know about it, and it should be a priority that they do--he would accomplish so much more in his conversations with village leaders if he let them set the pace. Let them show him hospitality, a tradition of which they are proud. I suspect they find his fly-bys insulting.

His pace suggests arrogance, an unwillingness to spend time--the key word here--in their houses, drink at least one cup of tea, and listen while the village mullah takes the lead in the conversation. Let them find out about us, then we can find out about them. If that slows down his schedule on his days in the countryside, good. You know all about bubbles, sir, and he lives in one in Kabul, as he acknowledges to David Martin. He needs to learn how to be a guest before he can really accomplish anything else. And he needs to learn the meaning of it in Pashto and Dari, Helmand and Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Faizabad, if he can get into Faizabad without getting blown to smithereens.

Every writer I've read on Afghanistan speaks of the Afghans' hospitality and kindness. What the Afghans--a term that makes no sense to a Panjshiri, a Herati, a Hazara, or a Pahstun-- find incomprehensible about us is that we make such ungrateful guests. If loose uniforms and drinking tea have tried your patience, please stay with me here. I know we went there in 2001 to take down the Taliban and get bin Laden. They don't see it that way. However Brzezinski and Rumsfeld might have thought we camouflaged our contributions to the anti-Soviet jihad--which as you certainly know does not mean holy war, but merely struggle--the mujaheddin knew perfectly well the source of the money that bought their weapons.

To them our presence goes back to 1979, and our failure to help them rebuild after the collapse of the Communist regime counts to them as our reneging on an implied promise to help them rebuild. From 1992 to 2001 the warlords--Hekmatyar, Massoud, Dostem, and Omar--finished the destruction of the country Brezhnev had begun. Then we swoop in, dump more bombs, just like the Soviets, and help set up a provisional government in meetings in Bonn, a place of which most of them have never heard. We breathe a sigh of relief when the loya jirgha rubberstamps Karzai, an old associate from his days in the Mullahs Front of the men who later formed the Taliban, and for all intents and purposes we disappear again. And we wonder that they don't trust us.

And now the hard part. Sir, I respectfully disagree that our main mission in Afghanistan is to capture and disarm al Qaeda. That said, by all means send--or keep sending--Special Forces troops and Predator drones into Pakistan to accomplish that part of the goal, amd probably the less the Pakistanis know, the better. McChrystal may want more troops than you want to send him for political reasons, but this isn't a political conflict. Call it nation-building or whatever you want to call it, but this is a moral conflict that will play out in the political sphere. If we have any integrity as a nation, we stay in Afghanistan. We build schools and infrastructure, where and as they want it. We sit on Karzai and whoever wins the next election until they realize that we will not be gone on the next C-130. Then real change can happen, and we can begin to repay the debt we owe.

Karzai is angry at you right now for forcing him to negotiate an election runoff with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, before his former Foreign Minister decided to save face by pulling out and and calling for a boycott. As for Karzai's anger, good for him; let him stew in his own juices. If we're going to undo our mess, and the mess he and his friends in the mujaheddin made with more than a little help from the Soviets, we are quite willing to listen to the innocent; the guilty will have to prove themselves worthy of our trust all over again. You will note that I adhere to the perhaps unpopular theory that there exists such a thing as innocence in Afghanistan. Relative innocence, anyway.

More to the point, however, while we have to support civic institutions on all levels, from Kabul out to the countryside, the most important issue here is not your trust of Karzai or his of you--you're stuck with each other (isn't democracy great?). The most important issue is the mullah McChrystal met in Helmand. If he, and a critical mass of others like him in Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, even Faizabad, can see that we're trying very hard to change our spots, then and only then will we have the chance to pay the debt we've owed them for twenty years. Brzezinski and Rumsfeld may never have signed that promissory note, but it seemed clear to the Afghans that they had.

That has to be good enough for us, and that has to be our mission. Some in your administration won't like it; some loud voices in the Senate will hate it. Call London to speak with Jason Elliot, who wrote An Unexpected Light. See if he can arrange for you to visit Ali Khan in the upper Panjshir Valley. McChrystal will tell you not to go. Go. You'll need a Dari translator, probably Dari Tajik. (Ask Jason.) Drink some tea with Ali Khan and his neighbors. Listen to their stories of fighting, and of disappointed expectations. If part of you objects that the Afghans' unrealistic expectations are not our fault or concern, listen. See if you still feel that way afterwards. And whatever you do, don't wear your American flag lapel pin; in fact, don't wear anything with a lapel. Call Sarah Chayes--you remember The Punishment of Virtue and her interview(s) with Charlie Rose; she'd be happy to consult. If she can cross-dress as an Afghan boy (at 5' 9"), she can give you some pointers on how not to intimidate a medieval Afghan who can operate an RPG, courtesy of Zbig and Rummy.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fear and Courage and the Travel Book...

... by which I do not mean Rick Steeves, Fodor's, or The Lonely Planet, and definitely not Baedeker's (someone here must have read Forster). I mean the genre to which I have exhibited periodic episodes of addiction over the years. The cast of characters--Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Rory Stewart, Christina Lamb, Sarah Chayes--comes from a much more colorful background and couldn't give a hoot whether people follow their tracks. In many cases they would prefer for a variety of reasons including safety that people go somewhere else altogether. Unfortunately, their writing has so fixated people on particular places that they become obsessions, which have a tendency of winning out over common sense in the end. If I start posting from Kabul or the Wakhan Corridor, you will know what happened.

After all, travel literature has a fundamentally escapist underpinning. Theroux left London to get away from a very painful divorce. Traveling with his portable kayak through Melanesia from a beginning in New Zealand and Australia seemed likely to readjust his perspective. Chatwin lived a notoriously impulsive live open to everything from bisexuality to Greek Orthodox monasticism with a little African post-colonialism and Australian Aboriginalism thrown in for good or ill. Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush ties Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania for best or at least most sarcastic title. Newby left London with a friend who'd flown in from Rio de Janeiro and wound up in Nuristan, challenged for remoteness in Afghaistan perhaps only by the Wakhan Corridor.

Then come the writers--don't worry, I have no intention of cataloguing the types of travel books, just the ones that have appealed to me--drawn by war or its aftermath. These bear some correspondences to the first group, pun intended, since most of them have worked as journalists at one point or another, though none wrote their books as journalism. Rory Stewart, a former diplomat, harkens back to Newby's diplomat companion; more obviously, his book tells the tale of a very long walk in the western Hindu Kush. He encountered enough danger, including getting shot at by a petty warlord and nearly freezing to death, that the warning of Ismail Khan, the very substantial warlord of Herat, that he not take on the trip and certainly not in winter, looked prophetic or at least shrewd in retrospect.

Lamb and Chayes take diametrically opposed approaches. Lamb moves around the country, between Herat and Kabul; Chayes, after a hair-raising ride in from Quetta, Pakistan, spends most of her time in Kandahar, with the odd run to Kabul, Boston, or Washington. The little people interest Lamb as much as the major players. She titled her book The Sewing Circles of Herat after the underground schools that bucked the Taliban's prohibition of women's education, not Ismail Khan and the Fall and Rise of Medieval Afghanistan. Chayes has an instinct for power paired with not just a nose for but an insistence on integrity. She fixes her book in orbit around the Police Commissioner of Kandahar and follows his subsequent career in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, until his assassination, probably by the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) or their Afghan pawns.

Which brings up perhaps my most important point. Chayes' book The Punishment of Virtue, a play on the name of the Taliban's morality ministry--The Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Punishment of Vice--may not strike some as a travel book at all. When she gets to Kandahar she looks around, as a good travel writer should, but then she moves in, which a travel writer definitely shouldn't. She met the Police Commissioner then, because he didn't think she should move in, either. The single most important thing she does in the book, it gives her a perspective into the life of her hosts that among the other writers mentioned here possibly only Stewart and Chatwin (The Songlines, about Aboriginal central Australia) approach. Like Stewart, she does it in the face of considerable danger.

I promised myself not to write another post on Afghanistan this soon, and in a sense i have only partially broken my promise to myself. I know that nobody will design a radical new course at Duke around the insight that we read travel literature to liberate ourselves from the entrapment of familiarity. That and $2.75 or whatever... Nor does the element of danger hurt an author's sales, necessarily. I do think, though, the people who actually had the courage to do what titillates us both fascinate and frighten us. Fascinate, because of their audacity; frighten, because of our lack of it. We read their books because we know we will never do what they did, or suspect we will not.

In the end, it takes a certain skill on the part of the authors to make sure that we still find them sympathetic by the end of the book. At the end of The Happy Isles of Oceania Theroux, who has risked sounding a bit spoiled while lounging at a Hawaiian golf resort, knows enough not to stop there. The book concludes with Theroux and a local guide paddling with spinner dolphins off the Na' Pali coast of Kauai, than which a more glorious conclusion to a travel book I cannot imagine.

Rory Stewart, on the other hand, closes The Places in Between in tears over the death of his canine companion on the trek, Babur, as a result of misplaced kindness in Pakistan the night before the dog was to fly to his new home in Scotland. After an account in which he had spent a great deal of time revealing as little of himself to some of his hosts along the way as possible, that revelation to us came as both a confirmation of what we had been permitted to see and a glimpse into the fragility of the seam between there and here, the possible and the impossible.

Roland Barthes wrote that "we read because we forget." Perhaps we read travel books because we recognize our fear and want to experience courage, if only vicariously, in a place that resembles our own as little as possible.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Why I'm not Watching the World Series, Game 1

Well, for one thing, I give myself a deadline for finishing a new post of Wednesday midnight every week, which I've only missed once--last week. The time is now 9:58. So I have some work to do in the next two hours. I may turn on i-Tunes and listen to some 15th- or 16th c. music, but the World Series would definitely hijack my attention at worst, or dilute it at best. Why are they cheering? What did A-Drug do now?

That last epithet may sound mean-spirited, and one really can't gainsay that charge very well. And yet my use of it speaks to another reason I have the television off this evening, as most evenings lately. I'll tell you the one program I do watch in a moment. You may have guessed by the time we reach the moment of revelation, but perhaps not. How else to create suspense?

The World Series for me involves memory, a rather profound cluster of memories. I have, for some reason, a very clear memory of the Pirates and the Yankees, Yogi Berra and Bill Mazerowski. I had the tv to myself and found it very exciting, this in the days before I had learned to hate the Yankees. Even this does not explain my not having the World Series on tonight.

The cluster of memories involves the summer 0f 1967 (by which time I did hate the Yankees). Some of those memories, most of them, in fact, took place far from Fenway Park; I don't even remember the game I saw there that summer (or was it the next?) Some of the fondest involve not a tv but any of a number of radios. One of my most important took place on a beach where we went on Cape Cod every summer. My father brought a transistor down to the beach to listen while the Red Sox played an afternoon game at Fenway, an hour-and-a-half away by car. The Sox were in a wild four-way pennant race, and had shown signs of fading. Lately, though, they had, as my father would say, "started playing some baseball."

I don't remember what they did that day, but I remember a tremendous sense of sharing with my parents, sitting on the sand gathered around the radio, my father fiddling with reception every now and again, losing it altogether once and getting it back a few minutes later. I remember my sister getting interested as the season wore on, she realized Jim Lonborg, their ace, was really cute, and that they had a legitimate but fragile shot at the pennant. I do know Tony Conigliaro's career effectively ended with a fastball too far up and way too inside while we were at the beach. Mr. Mooney, a high school principal I thought of virtually as a grandfather and who rented a cottage a couple of blocks from ours, attended that game with his real grandson. He told us of the sickening sound. Conigliaro's demise had a great deal to do with the imposition of the batting helmet.

I remember squeezing in a trip to get cider with my sister and then watching the "impossible dream," as the announcer Ken coleman dubbed it, play out the last day of the season. They had to win the last two games against Harmon Killebrew and the front-running Twins, and then wait for the White Sox, I think, and the Tigers to lose. Lonborg was brilliant, one domino fell, then the Angels of all teams--still a new and not very good franchise--beat the Tigers in Detroit as early evening set in on the East Coast. The Red Sox had made it to the World Series.

Then came the awful realization that they would play the St. Louis Cardinals. Not awful because of the Cardinals' prodigious talent. The Red Sox took them to seven games, and had the home field. Awful because my favorite team had to face my favorite National League team. My favorite group of players had to play my single favorite player in baseball, the tenacious right-hander Bob Gibson. That same Bob Gibson whose inspirational autobiography I'd read. He who took possession of the record number of strikeouts in a World Series game against my Red Sox, as my seventh-grade music class, pre-empted for once, watched in deepening horror. Gibson allowed two runs in game seven, on a quirky inside-the-park only-in-Fenway home run by George Scott, a beloved, porcine first baseman who would never make it in this steroid world.

I had no idea adults considered Gibson all-but-too aggressive as a pitcher. I heard the accolades; the criticisms remained too subtle to overcome hero-worship. We considered Ken Harrelson "colorful" then; I wonder what writers would do to him now. Which brings us back to A-Drug. No doubt kids in New York, New Jersey, northeastern Pennsylvania--where there are very few Phillies fans--and southwestern Connecticut find his talent mesmerizing, his accomplishments galvanizing, and his timing breathtaking at times. Let them have that; let them have Jeter's brilliance and neither know nor care about the off-field stuff. They deserve those memories, high-fiving their mom after a particularly timely home run. They'll have those moments for as long as they have a memory.

None of that can have the same charge for me anymore. Sure, Curt Schilling's bleeding tendon impressed me, but I know too much about his politics. Besides, once they ceased to rely entirely on their farm system they ceased to be the old Red Sox, Tom Yawkey's Red Sox, and became Theo Epstein's Red Sox, a not altogether different thing than George Steinbrenner's Yankees. Pardon my Anglo-Saxon, but yuck.

Memory may deceive, but its value lies in its very purity, even if the things remembered lack such purity. I didn't see the viciousness in Bob Gibson, just the speed, the grace, the efficiency, the intensity. It didn't matter that George Scott weighed too much, he was a gentle soul from Alabama who knew how to reach the Green Monster, the famed left-field wall. Memory certainly has access to pain, and a great deal of it, but athletics offer those of us brought up on them a refuge for sharing. The griefs take on a particular pain over time, or they blur willfully; the joys take on a particular shine, exaggerated or no does not matter.

My favorite tv show? A combination of grittiness, violence, humanity, even eccentricity, brilliance, and passion organized around a complicated but decent man dedicated to the simple but difficult principle of the Marines, "Semper Fi." If you need me to tell you the name of the show--N.C.I.S. (Naval Criminal Investigation Service)--you watch less tv than I do.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowing Something about Your Enemy--and your Friends

A recent acquaintance who knows of my fascination with the Afghan conflict--really the Afghan-Pakistani conflict, for several reasons not entirely relevant here--has begun emailing me articles on the subject from The New York Times. He sent me a disturbing one yesterday. A delegation of U.S. diplomats headed by Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently visited Pakistan, ostensibly to discuss trade. Holbrooke spoke as encouragingly as he could, while trying to say as little as possible. The reason: Congress may make the kind of exchange he wants to encourage so difficult as to become meaningless.

Meantime, a State Dept. official had an even more disturbing conversation, this one with a journalist known to oppose Pakistan's alliance with the U.S., its tolerance of Predator, C.I.A., and Special Forces operations in their country, and our war on al Qaeda and the Taliban. His general characterization of his frame of mind regarding us and of people who agree with him: "We hate you."

His view may represent the thinking (or feeling) of well less than half of Pakistanis. Still, it struck me as disturbing that we have even among the educated classes and the mainstream press such visceral enemies. This led me to pose a question. In formulating a military strategy and designing tactics to achieve its goals, one basic teaching applies to any and every combat theater: know your enemy. Intelligence estimates, the reading of history and memoirs or textbooks (Patton's reading of Rommel comes to mind), all serve this end. It reassures me, for one, that Gen. Stanley McChrystal devours not only intelligence reports but also history.

So, my question (and if it seems a bit pedantic, I taught for eleven years plus two in graduate school, so get over it): how much do Americans know about not so much our enemy, not to mention our friends, but something more basic than that--where we're fighting, and where our fight goes on quietly or by proxy? A very rough and entirely unrepresentative sample of my fellow workers today revealed a disturbing answer: not much, nor did it seem particularly to disturb them.

So, for what it's worth, I offer you a pop quiz on Afghanistan and Pakistan, based on my own reading over the last couple of months. This will not reflect expert knowledge, merely what an admittedly obsessive general reader has picked up from non-scholarly memoirs and journalistic writing, plus more than a little studying of maps. It is entirely possible (in fact likely) that an error or more will creep in unintentionally. Feel encouraged to find any such, and even correct them. Final hint: feel entirely free to cheat without shame. This quiz, if it accomplishes nothing else, will hopefully teach you a little bit of what you don't know about these two countries at the intersection of central and south Asia--which suggests as good a place to start as any.

1. Name the countries that bound Afghanistan and Pakistan (hint: two countries share a border with each of them).

2. Name four important cities in each country ("important" having a slightly different connotation than "major," and "cities" used somewhat loosely).

3. Name the conflicting religious groups in each country ("Moslem" will not do as an answer).

4. Name four provinces (Afghanistan) or states or territories (Pakistan) in each country.

5. Name the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

6. Name the two major languages in Afghanistan and the principal language of Pakistan.

7. Name our three major military opponents in Afghanistan (confession: the Pakistani Taliban insurgency remains a bit beyond my range).

8. Name the major mountain ranges in Afghanistan and Pakistan (extra points for one that defines part of Afghanistan's northeastern border; points deducted for "Himalayas," even though the major range in northern Pakistan forms their western reaches).

9. Name the principal ethnic groups of the countries (bragging rights if you can name impoverished and neglected ethnic minorities).

10. Name the book that has taught you the most about each country (even if you've only read one book, as is more or less the case with me for Pakistan, though many books on Afghanistan have necessary interludes or starting-points there).

My uncribbed answers, for what they're worth:

1. Afghanistan: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan; Pakistan: Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India.

2. Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat (also Jalalabad); Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore (also Quetta, important by location rather than size--probably more important than Lahore right now, certainly strategically).

3. Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi; largely Sunnis among themselves, including the Wahhabism imported by "the Arabs," i.e. bin Laden, et al. in al Qaeda, and their financial backers in Saudi Arabia responsible for the building boom of fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan that has benefitted the Taliban; Shi'a in northwest.

4. Kandahar, Arghand, Hazarajat, Kunar; North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Beluchistan, Northwest Frontier.

5. Hamid Karzai (pending election runoff with Abdullah Abdullah); Ali al Anzari (not confident here--the widower of Benazir Bhutto).

6. Pashto and Farsi (Persian spoken in two strains in the west and the northeast); Urdu (also remote areas such as Baltistan harbor obscure languages such as Balti--my Greg Mortenson is showing).

7. Mullah Omar; Commandhan Dostum (still alive?); Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (perhaps the most violent and extreme of the three, for all our focus on Omar and his Taliban).

8. Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram.

9. Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek; Punjabi, Sindhi (from Sindh, Bhutto's home and base in south--shaky answer)

10. Tie, partly because one author goes south and the other straight through the middle: Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue, and Rory Stewart, The Places in Between; Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, probably the one book on this region that people have read who have read no others.

Grade: who cares? We're all more aware of what we know and don't know. The issue I still haven't sorted out: what exactly we do about it, except keep reading. In my case, that means a so far wonderful book by Christina Lamb, The Sewing Circles of Herat, available in the Chapel Hill, NC library as soon as I finish it and a few other titles.

Finding Our Souls in Our Selves

The soul: picturing it as a swaddled newborn doesn't quite work for us as it did for el Greco. We've mapped a great deal if not all of the brain and have yet to find it. We cannot confirm that it consists of anything material, and have no scientifically verifiable means of explaining how we come to have one. Some would insist that we don't, that what we call "soul," to the extent we perceive one in ourselves, merely stands in for vain hopes of immortality or our most fundamental sense of our humanity.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mountains: They Are, Indeed, There

Way back in the 1920s, some uninspired British journalist asked George Mallory probably the most pedestrian question one could put to a mountaineer. Why did he want to climb a massive piece of rock in the Sagarmatha Zone along the Tibetan-Nepalese border in the eastern Himalayas we know as Mt. Everest (phrasing mine, thanks to Wikipedia)? "Because it's there," Mallory allegedly replied, in one of the most famous ask-a-stupid question-get-a-disingenuous-answer exchanges in the history of mountaineering.

And yet the fact that he--or a journalist putting words in his mouth--could give that response speaks to something that we know for a certainty about Mallory when he gave that answer. We have somewhat less certainty now. Conrad Anker's 1999 discovery of Mallory's remains at about 27,000 feet on the Tibetan route to the summit underscores the evidence of failure on a third try, at least failure to get down the mountain. Though he may have climbed the mountain on that final atempt, he never came down to the people who live in its ever-present shadow, having done something they never in their wildest dreams aspired to do. They go as high as the ibex, one of their major sources of protein, and no higher--unless paid to do so by climbing expeditions. Some of them fear dishonoring the mountain. Hold that thought.

Mallory died in 1924. He had tried previously in two expeditions in the early 1920s. A photo exists of his final expedition gathered in camp looking like a slightly ratty version of an Edwardian men's club. Mallory wields a pipe, just the thing for one's lungs at extreme altitude. They might as well be in the Alps for all their awareness of the meaning of those mountains to the Tibetans and the Sherpas, a Tibetan people who live on the Nepalese side of the mountain.

In 1953 two men finally attained the summit of Chomolungma, the Tibetan word for Everest (an English surveyor's choice). The bee-keeper Edmund Hillary of New Zealand did his best to make sure that his Nepalese climbing partner Tenzing Norgay Sherpa got the credit he deserved. He also decided he would work to improve the lives of the Sherpa people in the Khumbu district around the base of Everest and its several impressive neighbors.

He has built schools, medical clinics, and two airstrips for emergency evacuations. He reckons it more important than the climb. Some mountaineers have followed him in this vocation; many have not. Some go back repeatedly to reclimb Everest for various reasons, financial among them; Hillary came back for other, more substantial reasons, dispensing what money could buy for a people he'd come to love.

Fast forward. The book "Three Cups of Tea" has achieved a lot more attention than one would expect for a book about a climber who failed in his one shot at K2 (the second mountain surveyed in the Karakoram in Pakistan's North-West Territories by the British and the most technical climb among the 8,000 meter peaks of the Himalayas). Nursed back to health by people into whose lives he literally wandered, Greg Mortenson came back to help the people who helped him, building schools and at least one bridge.

How charming or even quixotic this seemed outside the climbing community, but not within it. And how ironic that the project, which has persisted, takes on an iconic significance now as we fight the products of radical Islamic madrassas--schools--in Pakistan and Afghanistan, precisely where Greg Mortenson builds his schools. Unlike the madrassas, most of Mortenson's schools are for girls. So deeply has Mortenson assimilated himself to the cultures of the Karakoram and Hindu Kush that his book has become required reading for the U.S. Army forces and officers engaged in the Afghan conflict.

As for honoring and/or dishonoring mountains, it matters a great deal that we understand such notions. And it particularly matters that we avoid patronizing cultures in which mountains receive veneration either as gods or as the haunts of gods. For one thing, in doing so we would patronize our own cultural roots. Think of Olympus or Sinai. As a professor I taught for in graduate school would say, think of all the mountains on or near which western civilizations have built. And think of all the buildings designed as mountains, beginning with the Pyramids and continuing through Gothic Cathedrals and the skyscrapers of Manhattan and Dubai.

We worship height. It challenges our puniness, so why should we not? And why should we not both envy and help those who live in permanent proximity to its greatest natural manifestation? Why should we think we can drop in and out every now and then at our whim, and leave the people living there, who understand the place better than we ever will, to their own materially impoverished but culturally rich devices?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Language as Culture as Power

I have discovered facebook. This does not make me feel like Columbus or, more legendarily, St. Brendan the Navigator; alas, more like Johnny-come-lately. Every now and then one of my correspondents will make clear that my approach to the language of the medium suggests my failure to understand how it's done these days. Split infinitives, for instance. Yes, the Oxford English Dictionary now accepts them as proper English, but I don't have to split them myself. And if I prefer to use grammatically correct if somewhat old-fashioned word order, nothing prevents me from doing so, not even the squawking of a friend who worries himself about such things.

This sort of rhetorical dissonance pales, however, compared to some of the more serious aspects of language that arise on facebook. An episode that occurred this afternoon on a thread that includes a multi-national group of participants interested in Iran, the treatment of women, Obama's health care proposal--whatever pops off youtube or CNN that generates a discussion--offers a case in point. The Onion ran a piece today that hilariously satirized the "death panels" attack of the right wing on President Obama's health care proposal--hilariously if, and only if, one understood it as satire, in the first place, and recognized the references to the recent remarks of Sarah Palin and others. If not, "I don't get it," very understandably (but not understandingly) wrote an Iranian expatriate who for security purposes prefers to reveal where she lives only to her facebook friends, not to people who pop up randomly in threads.

This may not seem serious. I wrote a post to explain the piece, and all seems well. I find another phenomenon more disturbing. facebook has proved a tremendous source of both information--sometimes--and useful opinion on events in Iran. Mousavi's organization, and his wife's, have gotten fairly good about translating their posts. Others have not always had the resources to do so. And once a thread develops off a given post, anyone who doesn't read Farsi, transliterated or no, runs into a brick wall. Automated translation exists, of course, and has more or less success navigating the quicksands of idiomatic usage, depending on whose account one reads. Not everyone has access to it, and certainly not for the real-time fluency of a facebook thread.

The very fact that facebook--twitter appeals far less to me-- has shrunk the world to the degree it has, of course, counts for a great deal in itself. One could accuse those of us who want to understand everyone they encounter in cyberspace of pickiness in the extreme. And yet, when a thread consists of bilingual Iranians and those who speak English but not Farsi, the possibility exists of a learning experience. As soon as the Iranians turn inward among themselves to Farsi, even if for good reasons, they've separated themselves from us and us from them. At times it feels like a power move. Of course, one could argue from their perspective that we assert our power in our ability to expect that as many people speak English as a second or third language as do, allowing us to get away with not speaking other languages. I am not monolinguistic, but the conversations that interest me on the web right now are in Persian, not Italian; at some point soon I'll start trying to find threads on Afghanistan, where the problem will show up all over again in Dari (the Afghan dialect of Farsi), Pashto and Urdu.

Some problems have reasonably easy solutions. This one doesn't, for the time being. But I hope discussing it as something more than a commonplace annoyance highlights the importance of breaking through the ways in which we rely on culture, language among them, to assert power, whether of the present or of a distant but psychologically present past. I have learned so much from my Iranian and Persophile friends on facebook--that the memory of the Mongol invasion informs Ahmadinejad's approach to Obama, for starters--that I want to eliminate anything that prevents me from learning and communicating more--for instance, that their paranoia about Obama misses the fact that we tend to see Ahmadinejad as a Hitler figure. I'm getting a Koran and a Persian textbook, but don't want to miss anything while I master them.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Kindness: no more dead than God; but who'd think so?

Given the demonization that regularly passes for news reporting lately, coupled with a sort of amnesia for anything that happened more than two weeks ago--though somehow we get our memory back at about six months--one would think Iran has become a nation of nuclear engineers trying to game the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency), the UN, and the rest of us. If one focuses solely on the coterie around Pres. Ahmadinejad, as the press has done, that might almost seem a reasonable deduction.

June, anyone? Remember Mir Hossain Mousavi and the Green Movement? I bring him up for two reasons. The first in a sense challenges the question of whether the press has over-focused on Ahmadinejad, because during his campaign Mousavi specifically claimed the right of Iran to have a nuclear program. One wants very much to know how much, if any, daylight separates the two, or indeed the country as a whole, on the matter of the nuclear program, especially the secret site at Qom. My Iranian Facebook friends seem to think that we spend too much time thinking about it, and that national pride entitles them to it. Weaponization? One wants to see bombs first before believing our charges, or considering them a reasonable subject for discussion.

That kind of attitude--waiting for the horses to leave the barn before worrying about whether it might catch fire--should disturb us all, and help us understand the limits of understanding between Iranians and the world at large. And yet, they do have one point we need to answer better than we currently do, as Pres. Obama knows and has sought to change--we have an awful lot of bombs. In fact, the Iranians in Geneva tomorrow will face diplomats representing collectively the majority of the world's nuclear arsenal. Obama and Russia's Medvedev have spoken about eliminating nuclear weapons, but Iran's team in Geneva might fairly wonder when that will happen and why they should take such talk seriously.

The second reason has to do with something he said in a meeting with reformist parliamentarians, posted today on his Facebook page. In paraphrase--the English of the translation has a few rough edges--he applauds the development of kindness in recent social relations in Iran. He seems to mean kindness among the members of the Green Movement. Without good Farsi, one finds it hard to know for certain.

And here we have a telling parallel between Iranian and American politics, at least internally. The rhetoric of hate abounds everywhere. Not too long ago the same Facebook friend declared Mousavi irrelevant, and presumably still feels that way. Mousavi may have invented this outpouring of kindness for political purposes. Tom Friedman wrote a piece this morning warning that our culture of political hatred reminds him frighteningly of Israel before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And yet we have a president who ran his campaign and runs his administration with the firm conviction that hope matters.

Mousavi seems to mean that the Greens have redirected at least some of their energy from attacking Ahmadinejad to the degree his police state permits, and focusing on the more immediate demands of living humanely. It's a message Obama has repeated constantly, most poignantly in his Philadelphia speech on race. One has good reason to doubt how differently a Mousavi regime would handle nuclear negotiations--perhaps they would have started months ago. The fact that two politicians in two such different societies--but two men for whom their religious faith matters centrally--place such emphasis on our dealing with each other humanely suggests that we may have more to say, one culture to another, than we think.

This argument, of course, has one major problem. Ahmadinejad sent the diplomats to Geneva for tomorrow's meeting,

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Wisdoms of the Deserts

We think we know what we mean by the word "desert." We have grown up with images of the Sahara and the Arabian peninsula--dunes, camels, oases, Bedouins, mirages--as our ur-desert, the original, the essence of what we mean by the term. While, like most cliches, this one has some basis in fact, it also has the dangerous effect of trying to hide our fear of the vast and wild and barren under a veneer of banality. We have to get over it--the fear and the too-frequent recourse to banality--or we will doom ourselves to a series of politico-military misadventures in which our inability to understand a desert mentality will cripple from the outset any chance we have of success, whatever we mean by that most malleable of military markers.

If this sounds like McChrystal-redux, as in Gen. Stanley McChrystal's not-quite classified status of mission report to the White House and Pentagon that someone leaked to Bob Woodward ofThe Washington Post over the weekend, don't stop here. McChrystal clearly understands that the longer Afghans perceive his forces as isolated in bases, disengaged from the population, the more they look like centuries of occupiers have looked, dug into encampments or fortresses. Afghanistan and Afghans have a very good record in dealing with occupiers, and I don't mean showing them hospitality. I mean showing them the door.

I find this interesting. Sure, they fight well, know the terrain, can tap resources too meagre for those from non-desert civilizations to find survivable, and don't have to manage supply lines halfway around the planet, in our case. Still, I don't think that quite explains the issue. We didn't go there to fight the Afghan people; we went to fight al-Qaeda and their allies the Taliban, both roundly disliked by a majority of the population. That should have made us welcome, one would think.

We forgot something, though. They have no model for foreign troops coming in force as anything but imperial occupiers. We had a lot of work to do to overcome that hard-wired expectation, and we didn't do it. We expected them to accept us as friends after we'd helped them twenty years ago and then left them to the untender unmercies of the Taliban. Suddenly al Qaeda bombs us with commercial aircraft and we expect cooperation? And then we blame them as unreliable when they double-deal with us at Tora-Bora? Come again?

Hospitality and welcome: two notions central to desert life, whether the Christian desert fathers of Egypt or the denizens of the barren expanses of the Afghan countryside, mountains or plains. Think about it. You live in a very remote place where you see very few people. Suddenly someone emerges at your door. Out of religious--Christian or Muslim--or merely pragmatic motivations--who ever heard of pulling a trigger or committing rape on a full stomach?--one invites the stranger in and produces a meal as generous as one's means permit, and often moreso. I fear our troops haven't poked their heads in at enough doors in Afghanistan, whether in remote stretches or in cities. Military culture tells them to go kill bad guys; it needs to start concentrating their energies on making friends with the good guys. And don't immediately ask for help finding the Taliban before the pilau has cooled.

Some would object by alluding to another desert trope: mirages. They argue that one simply cannot find any good guys in Afghanistan. I haven't lived there, but many who have would beg to differ. Those who can't find the good guys haven't paid enough attention to the culture to know how to look. Back to the desert fathers. The emptiness of the desert, the tendency of the desert to absorb our voices without bouncing anything back, leads us to fall prey to the steady chatter in our minds, which leads us quickly to what both monastic Christianity and Buddhism refer to as illusion. The Sufis, who appealed so strongly to the Afghan heart, would certainly agree.

I have found the notion of war in Afghanistan troubling from the very beginning, from about 12:15 on 9/11, 2001, sitting in a college chapel, of all places, listening to the vengeful blood-lust of colleagues and students, even my friend the chaplain. I felt then I could never ratify another war. If we fail in Afghanistan, we leave the Afghans to a desert stripped of illusion. Right now the three insurgent groups vying for control are all Islamist extremists with both conflicting and overlapping interests and territories; the government, stripped by the incompetence and corruption of the Karzai brothers and threatened by the none-too delicate surgeon's hands of Dr. Abdullah-Abdullah, might as well not exist. One cannot imagine their surviving our exit in their current state.

I know President Obama has little stomach for propping up a Karzai government, nor should he. Don't mistake Afghanistan for Iran, let alone Iraq. Mousavi would have had real credibility in Iran; al-Maliki, a Shi'a, represents the largest ethnic group in Iraq. Abdullah, a Tajik, presents a real stretch as president of a nation dominated by Pashtuns, Karzai's ethnic group.

I have one thought for the president to consider before he starts buttoning this back down into a Predator-launched missile campaign against bin Laden, whom Obama will no doubt argue gave us a reason to go the Hindu Kush in the first place. True enough, Mr. President, but have no illusions about the wrecked lives you will leave behind, the unspeakable distortion of Shari'a law that will ensue--that has already begun to function as a shadow justice system in the south, according to Woodward and others--if we scale back our war to a laughably circumscribed CIA remote-control effort. Surely we owe the Afghans more than that after bombing their houses to hell and back getting rid of the Taliban. Cut and run now, and we merely double-down on the immoral mistake of the Bush administration when their minds wandered to Iraq.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

War, Myth, and Imagination

You may know the name Saira Shah from her documentary Beneath the Veil, her record of the daily lives of Afghan women under the Taliban.  In her book The Storyteller's Daughter (Knopf, 2003), she makes the point that she had first felt driven to cover Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation from the vantage points of Peshawar and the so-called "tribal areas" for a personal reason.  She grew up in England in a formerly landed, aristocratic Afghan family that lost their Afghan estate overlooking Kabul during WW II.  Her grandfather and father, both gifted Sufi storytellers, had woven a mythic Afghanistan for her in words, so powerfully that she need to climb to Paghman to confirm its reality as an actual place with evidence of the mosaics and orchards they had described to her.  The myth, and the family connection, gave her the motivation to slog through the mountains of the Hindu Kush and endure the surreal world of spies in Peshawar, somewhat protected by the presence of her extended family.  

She needed to see that Afghanistan existed, as corroboration of the myths, even if only in hindsight, as with her family's ruined estates.  At least her elders hadn't made it all up out of whole Afghan cloth.  At the same time, she admits that her pursuit and questioning of the myth blinded her to the meaning of the extremist factionalism emerging literally under nose.  Her view of Afghanistan had about it the myopia of a personal quest.  

Most myths can overpower reality, often with devastating consequences.  The British, driven by a misguided notion of cultural archaeology, a kind of nineteenth-century Aryanism, and the seductive ideology of orientalism, all grafted to imperial pretensions on a vast scale, made as much a mess of the Middle East and Central and South Asia as one can possibly imagine, and did little if at all better in Africa.  We continue to pay the price for their arbitrarily drawn borders in Israel, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, just to name the most currently explosive.
Despite the wreckage, the British imperial myth, until it gave out under its own weight after WW II, sustained their Asian and African adventurism.  Myths can produce a maddening perseverance.

That said, we don't have much of a track-record when it comes to perseverance in wars overseas.  We have gotten into some we had no business joining--Vietnam and the Second Gulf War for starters, certainly the Spanish-American War--but we have arguably avoided some that the cause of justice required us to enter, or enter earlier than we did--Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur.  We show signs of nervousness in Afghanistan, as soon as our withdrawal from Iraq puts it back on the front page and Gen. McChrystal and Admiral Mullen suggest they probably need more troops.

One could argue this caution about foreign involvements shows us admirably free of the imperial pretensions of other great powers historically--the British, the Russians, Alexamder the GReat, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane the Great, the Romans, even the Japanese, Nazi Germany and the Soviets under Stalin and his successors until Gorbachev.  Fair enough.  We have had a series of myths, though, principal among them the moral imperative of democracy.  It has a serious flaw, however, in that, allied with the anti-myth of Communism or just on its own, it can get us into wars where we don't belong.  

More dangerously, right now we have another myth, the war on terror.  Our military has not always had a brilliant track record on understanding how to fight the war in front of them rather than the last one.  They have made some egregious mistakes in Afghanistan, and shown some signs of correcting at least some of those mistakes.  Sarah Chayes' The Punishment of Virtue (Penguin, 2006) makes that case clearly for the early phases of the war.  Chayes' book tells a cautionary tale we must all consider, even if it comes from one of the few journalists who has covered the war in Afghanistan and found herself transformed into, as one of the American troops based outside Kandahar puts it with some astonishment, "a hawk."

In a sense she tells a variation on the story Saira Shah tells.  By now we know what Shah discovered, that we had a war between factions of fundamentalists running parallel to the anti-Soviet conflict, than which it turned out by far the more important.  We think we've gone to fight bin Laden, but even if we win that battle, possibly by forcing the Pakistanis to come clean and start helping us, we risk losing the war if we don't leave behind an Afghanistan where people can make a living, trust their government, and have no reason to trust the Taliban and grow poppies.

The myth of democracy fails us at crucial times, not because of our over-reliance on mythology.  Human societies need myths as part of their fabric, their way of understanding the world.  It fails us because another myth has penetrated our consciousness too shallowly.  It motivates a journalist-turned NGO founder such as Sarah Chayes:  the ability and need to imagine another culture than one's own without judging it.  In our obsession with accomplishing missions, we so often botch or nearly botch them precisely because the culture in which the the military objectives exists has other priorities.  We don't find them interesting, because they don't mirror ours.  As Saira Shah realized at the ruins of her family's Paghman estate, we have to accept reality, however crumbling, and take some relief from the fact that we have someting more at hand than a mere myth.  In Afghanistan, or anywhere, we have lives to protect, cultures to protect.  At times we screw that up with the best of them, but we've done it right, too.  We have to learn to find Afghanistan as interesting as we finally found Europe in WW II.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Stop Making Sense:" The (De)meaning of Partisanship

Partisan:  a word which comes to English from the Lombard dialects and Tuscan in two slightly different forms, "partezan" and "partigiano" via the Latin pars, partem, or part.  It first means the member of a faction, which takes on a different sense than it has for us when one considers that the same word, in  16th-17th c French, referred to a pike-like weapon on a shaft.   By the late 17th c it means something like our guerilla fighter, then (re-?)acquires a political sense in the 19th c (Source:  The word morphs back into warfare in World War II as the name for the Italian fighters of the Resistance, and to politics again, as all of us know who have paid any attention this summer.  Faction, in Renaissance texts, always implies deceit, and a grave risk to social order.  In other words, partisanship amounts to warfare, with or without lethal weapons.

One could hardly miss the presence of partisanship in the House Chamber when President Obama delivered his address on health care tonight.  I could hardly deny it in myself.  The partial government option he offered will disappoint many on the left, but since it addresses me I feel quite happy with it.  The Republican congressmen (yes, men) waving copies of a bill they'd written that apparently either didn't clear committee or gain consideration gave particularly childish evidence of partisanship in the hall.  

The grim demeanors of Lindsey Graham as he rubbed his hands in tension and John Boehner as he wore his perpetual scowl--except when Obama endorsed the Republican idea of malpractice reform, at which the Republican senators looked like fans (from the word fanatic...) at a football game when their team has finally scored deep into the fourth quarter, finally giving them something to cheer--suggested an odd combination of anxiety, pugnacity, and, yes, partisanship.  

Let's not leave out the Democrats.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have forgotten her pompoms, but she hardly need them, seeming to beat everyone except perhaps her former colleague from New York Chuck Schumer to their feet when the president made a particularly powerful point.  Interestingly, at one point he just kept going through the cheers with a stinging series of assertions.  

As for Obama, for all his genuine overtures to the other side, including adopting an idea of John McCain's, the stakes of this speech came through most clearly at two junctures.  One can imagine Mitch McConnell taking umbrage when the president announced that the time for playing games is over, but it struck just the right note of a president who has tolerated about as much as he intends to tolerate.  I found it telling that well into the speech, at a pitched moment, he used a phrase familiar to all of his who voted for him last year:  "not this time, not now."  I watched for its reappearance, but it didn't come.

The signature moment for partisanship--why can't we just talk about the tribute to Ted Kennedy?--came when a lone Republican Congressman tried to call Obama a liar until Democrats drowned him out with boos.  It provided the lowest point of the evening, the clearest evidence that the extremism of the summer is disturbingly alive and well.

It also reminds us of the true threat of partisanship.  We all have the right to urge our cases, but what exactly do we mean when we say we will fight for our beliefs?  Partisanship is now, as it always has been, an expression of group loyalties.  It also represents the opposite of civility and, to a degree, citizenship, when it places the views of the few over and against those of the many.  Exactly what I did when I applauded the truncated version of the public option, not to mention when I wanted to scream at the set as the Republican response began.  

Obama used the phrase "disagree without being disagreeable" in his stump speech last year.  It speaks to the importance of civility, to listening.  Not to screaming, or waving unconsidered bills in the air, or lying to older people about death panels and Medicare.  Civility--as I get older, I respect it more and more.  It stands in tension with partisanship, but ought not be fundamentally incompatible with it.  We'll see how many Republicans want to let Obama make sense and give us what we all--not just what I, or you--need from health care reform.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Art History May Say about Political Perspective

My second year in the Williams College/Clark Art Institute Graduate Program in the History of Art we had as a visiting occupant of the Clark Chair a feisty, diminutive, brilliant, skirt-chasing polio survivor, the Englishman and retired Chair of the Art History Department at Bryn Mawr College,  Charles Mitchell.  Prof. Mitchell stood about 5'4," maybe 5'6" with his one good hand raised in the air to make a rhetorical point, as he often did.  He tended to accompany those points, especially emphatic negatives, with a shrill glissando through the entire tessitura of his rather sharp tenor voice.  Those brief but piercing performances had an unmistakably breathtaking--literally--effect on his audiences, as he well knew.  

He first put on such a performance for us in his seminar on Raphael in the second or third class of the semester.  I recall my colleagues beginning to champ at the bit for us to get on with Raphael after Mitchell's rather extended preliminaries to begin the term, including his insistence that we pick the topic of our seminar papers before doing anything else.  So this particular class meeting began with a combined sigh of relief and ratcheting up of our powers of concentration.  Mitchell had finally put up a slide of a painting, fancy that.

It quickly became clear that he had an agenda that both included and went well beyond the particular painting he had on the screen.  He asked us to describe it.  In a seminar of about six or seven students, three of us had a strong background in the Italian Renaissance, and two of us continued our studies in the Renaissance after Williams.  We took the bait first, using the picture as a scrim on which to project all our knowledge of Renaissance studio practice, iconography, and perspective--for the angels Raphael had reversed his cartoon, a drawing enlarged by a craftsman to the scale of the painting itself, to get two angels from one drawing, even though scripture makes no mention of angels at the Crucifixion, the subject of this painting.  That sort of thing; I don't remember whether we got to the scriptural question or not.

And suddenly he'd had enough.  "NNNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooo," in Oxonian inflection (he had his Ph. D in philosophy from Oxford and had picked up art history teaching in London at the Warburg).  None of us in that room will ever forget it; one of my classmates does a brilliant imitation of it, despite his baritone voice and Texas twang.  Mitchell wanted us not to forget it.  He wanted to shock us into remembering something crucial.

What, after all, had we done the last ten minutes or however long he gave us to hang ourselves?We had named the subject and produced some details of how Raphael made the picture and whether his making corresponded to the primary literary sources; we may even have gotten into later medieval tradition.  All well and good, but none necessary and certainly not sufficient (Occam's razor), the sort of thing one does with a picture after doing the one necessary--and to some, though not to Mitchell, sufficient--thing:  looking at, taking in, and describing the whole picture.  He wanted us to strip away the title and the names, not even allowing us the shorthand of "cross," insisting instead on "two beams of wood set at ninety degrees to each other, the horizontal about ninety percent of the way up the vertical," and so on, until we'd sufficiently reminded ourselves of the building-blocks of the image that we could never take any of them for granted as we moved into questions of iconography, patronage, or whatever we subjected images to in our seminar papers.  

That moment had a profound influence on me.  I admired the tenacity not just of the rhetorical intervention but of the intellectual persistence that lay behind it.  Mitchell always had a flair for the theatrical and even manipulative.  It annoyed most of my classmates, who saw the skirt-chasing long before I did.  He angled two of us into working on slices of a project he'd had in mind for a long time; I'd started out with a very different topic which he quickly whisked away like a gnat.  He made me feel he had a much more important idea, and me feel flattered that he wanted me to work on it.  It became the greatest learning experience of my academic life, except perhaps for Ph. D. orals some years later.  

While researching my seminar paper for Mitchell I had a series of conversations with him, one over scotch at his rented home, one in seminar as I presented my paper.  He began to pick it apart, and I responded aggressively and with evidence in perhaps the best argument I've ever had with a professor, both on the level of intensity and in the matter of my having done my homework well enough to have answers to his objections.  That moment, too, had a great influence, though an unfortunate afterglow.  I never worked with anyone thereafter willing to challenge me and to suffer challenge to that degree.  He didn't suffer it, he thrived on it, sought it out, cherished it, grabbed it the way one grabs the air to applaud a brilliant performance in an opera, a courageous put-out at home plate, a speech that makes a kind of sense you haven't heard in a generation.  I think a British education explains part of the exuberant aggressiveness, and the combativeness required to survive polio and World War II at once, but that does not explain all of it.

I have digressed longer than I meant to do, but we've neared the point.  Mitchell's big project concerned his suspicion, confirmed by no documentary sources per se, that a series of papal commissions from the rooms on which my Texan friend and I worked--he had one room, I had all four--which Raphael and his assistants painted under the direction of three successive popes, culminating decades later in the placement of an ancient monolith in St. Peter's Square, constituted essentially one collective and unitary commission.  Their subject:  the achievement, elaboration, and sacred condoning of papal power.  

Get past the different painters and their various styles, even within Raphael's own shop, ignore the difference between stone and fresco.  Consider what they all had to say, what they all represented, that they could have said and represented other things in the century of the Reformation, though their emphasis of papal power has an almost obvious--too obvious, some would say, debunking the unitary commission theory--relevance in light of the threat to Rome of Luther, Calvin, and their Protestant brethren.  Go beyond the small-bore objections, the sort of material I used against him and still find it tempting to marshal.  See the small, but move through it to the larger perspective.  Only then will you see the issue--any issue--well enough to understand it.

Now we're there.  Thinking nostalgically this morning while walking my dog Abby about how much I've given up in leaving academia and perhaps given up on--this the influence of the Kennedy eulogies this weekend--it suddenly occurred to me that Mitchell's method offers a metaphor for what has happened and needs to happen in the health care reform debate in Washington.  All involved need to cast aside their ideological screens that prevent them from seeing the issues in all their stark clarity--the nearly naked young man with brown hair attached to two beams of wood, apparently by nails at the hands and feet, etc.--work through the detail-slogging their staffs have done for them, as generations of us did for Mitchell, and arrive at the large picture.  Health care reform, as many have noted, encompasses the term of a number of presidents.  Obama can lay claim only to a resolve to address a larger piece of the problem than anyone else had the historic opportunity, some degree of consensus, to battle in the halls of Congress and the forum of public opinion.

We have small minds on both sides of this issue.  Those crying "socialized medicine" need to shut up and see what socialized medicine has accomplished, and to admit that Obama and the Congress have set their sights on more modest change.  Those screaming about the president's willingness to negotiate on such things as the "public option," i.e. socialized medicine, need to take a strong-tasting medicine called "the possible."  Left and right, we've lost civility, as so many noted by implication in the Kennedy eulogies, and we've lost perspective.  

Go ahead, have vigorous debate.  Get your facts in order.  Know the problem.  See it in the small and then stand on those building-blocks to see it large.   Then hammer it out.  Yell at each other, if necessary, but with civility, for the salutary effect of forcing each other closer to the solution.  I only wish that at some point, if and as this debate veers off course, we had Charlie Mitchell to walk into the committee rooms and the House chamber and the well of the Senate, to grab a microphone from a stunned senator, and give them all one last, piercing, grating, salutary "NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooooooooo."