Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Art of Compromise

It is apparent that the health care bill that will pass (if it does) will not be in a form that any self-respecting progressive liberal will like. There will be no public option, there are massive concessions to the health insurance industry, and the process has given perks and benefits to single states at the cost of all American taxpayers. But if it does pass, it will be worth it.

The most important goal that we all must remember is the extension of health insurance coverage to those who presently cannot afford it. Thirty million men, women, and children will now have health care coverage that would not had this bill not have gone through. In addition, passage of this bill means that the public option will be added to our health care system eventually, it just won't be as soon as people expected.

When President Clinton passed the federal budget during his administration, it was a very hard-fought battle, with concessions made on both sides. The GOP got to pass legislation giving tax breaks to those who really didn't need it, angering many tax-and-spend liberals (of whom I can sympathize with). But the end result was what is now known as a "super-bull" market, with innovations that led us into the 21st Century. My argument is not that I support tax breaks for the wealthy, but that for government to apply its helpful energies (and yes, I believe that's not a contradictory statement) to the people, it is important that those wheels be greased. If that grease comes from letting go of things we really want in order to reach the magical number of 60, then it must be done. It's ugly, but that's politics.

And thirty million men, women, and children will now have affordable coverage that didn't before.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How we honor the fallen

As some of you may know, one of my additional duties at Dover Air Force Base is that of an Honor Guardsman. My participation as a member of the Honor Guard has been limited to a handful of ceremonies, mostly that of retirements and changes-of-command. I look forward to each time I get to put on my ceremonials and taps, beast (i.e.: hard slap) my inoperative M-1 rifle in unison as we present arms for the national anthem, and stand motionless for as long as the ceremony lasts. I've come to appreciate those who can sing the national anthem with efficiency and clarity, and I get annoyed when a singer tries to "soul it up," and add notes to an already inspiring song. When I am in those ceremonials, I know that I am presenting myself as the image of the United States Air Force in particular, and the Armed Forces in general.

When I was in training for the Honor Guard, I participated in one our most solemn duties: the reception and transfer of the flag-draped transfer cases of our fallen troops. As a trainee, I hadn't yet learned the commands and procedures for carrying the cases from the aircraft to the lift and finally to be loaded in the mortuary's van, so I, along with my fellow trainees, were positioned on the aircraft to deliver our slow, simultaneous, three-second salutes.

We watched as four cases were deplaned, one at a time. As we saluted time and again, the lack of media coverage became more and more apparent to me. I understood why the ban on the media was in place -- why subject these images to ridicule and disrespect? But not only were there no cameras in place, but family members were not allowed on the flight line as these cases were transferred. So, I kept asking myself, for whom are we doing this?

I asked that question to my instructor later on. He said that we were doing that so that the fallen would know that we were treating their remains with respect. I didn't really think much of that answer, because pretending to know what the dead find respectful is presumptuous at best. In addition, don't we all take an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?" Doesn't that Constitution include the protection of a free press?

Let me be clear. I am a very liberal person. I believe in the free press and am against censorship. I believe that gays should be allowed to marry and should not be afraid to serve openly in our military. I believe in civil liberties and the freedom to criticize our elected officials. These are the main reasons I enlisted, and why I feel so strongly about preserving the Constitution. And it pains me to no end when the images of these ceremonies are politicized on both sides. I understand, even sympathize with those on the right who wanted to keep the media ban in place, because I get disgusted by the arguments from anti-war protesters on the left. The disgust does not come from any difference in political ideology, but from a very clear disconnect between the politics of war and the simple humanity of a fallen troop.

It's easy to find fault with right-wing partisans who hide behind those of us in uniform, lest anti-war protesters be validated be validated by the publication of the images that display the horrible price that an unjust war asks for. But some left-wing partisans have no better arguments. Those who say that these images should be published to show the price we pay may have a legitimate argument, but their argument is not about the ceremony, but about their own political agenda. It's no longer about the sacrifice that an American has made, but about sticking it to Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld. The outrage over our invasion in Iraq has clouded the judgments of those on the left so much so that they feel more strongly against Paul Wolfowitz than they feel sympathy for parents who have just lost their child.

But the publication of these images is necessary if we are to honor the sacrifice that these men and women have made. We bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution when we are not afraid to publish how far we are willing to sacrifice for that document and its ideals; however, we need to balance out the public's need for information with the family's need for privacy, which is why I am relieved about the Obama Administration's and Secretary Gates' decision to lift the ban on media coverage with the provision of family approval.

Ceremonies are performances, some more solemn than others. It may seem callous or dismissive to refer to a burial as a performance and an Honor Guardsman as an actor, so we have euphemisms. Instead of "staying in character," we say we "maintain our military bearing." Instead of "choreography" or "blocking," we say "movement execution." Instead of "beats," we have "counts." Instead of "rehearsal," we say "drill." But every performance needs an audience; without an audience, the performance becomes almost worthless. Let us show how we honor the fallen, and let us always remember that no matter how you feel about the war or our government, that no matter whose body is in that transfer case or coffin, that body held the life of an American son or daughter. For these solemn moments, let the outrage take a breather and think not about partisanship, but about our children, our siblings, our spouses, and our parents. Let us be thankful for the families we still have, because a family in Dover or Arlington has just become smaller.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hello, Governor Jindal

Governor Jindal, my name is Omar. I, too, am the Gen-X son of immigrants who considers himself an American. My parents saw poverty in their home nations before immigrating to the United States. My Filipina mother was a baby during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Her oldest sister had told me of the necessity of keeping a low profile around the Japanese troops lest she catch the eye of a soldier looking for a comfort woman. My aunt also told me that the Japanese had used their Manila home as a garrison headquarters, which makes me appreciate the Third Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that much more.

The start of your response to President Obama’s speech seemed bipartisan enough, calling for Republicans to not only support the President and Democrats during times of agreement, but to also offer up better ideas when disagreeing with Democrats. Then your speech went south and turned into a problem that has been plaguing conservatives for quite some time: the notion the government, any government, is bad government. Your example as evidence: the lack of proper government response at the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. That’s where you lost all credibility, all the more so because you are the governor of the state most affected by the storm and the government inaction.

Governor Jindal, it was precisely the conservative notion of limited federal government that allowed the mess of Hurricane Katrina to perpetuate. It was the reluctance of President Bush to let the state and city fend for itself that prevented the swift recovery of New Orleans. It was the lack of regulation and oversight that prevented FEMA from acting in a responsible way when the federal government did eventually step in and attempt to do its job. Yes, the hurricanes caused the destruction, but it wasn’t government that failed at the recovery; it was bad government.

You then proceeded to criticize the wasteful nature of Washington politicians, a criticism often spouted from the very Republican hypocrites who are doing the actual wasting. You point to silly programs such as “$300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a ‘magnetic levitation’ line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring…’” Governor, if you knew what you were talking about, you would realize that the funds for new government cars are actually for battery-powered vehicles that are now being used on military bases that save money on gasoline; that keeping track of volcanoes is not a frivolous expense. Governor, you and I may have been children when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1981, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and cannot happen again. As far as the mag-lev train? The $8 billion set aside for high-speed rail projects is to be spent at the discretion of the Secretary of Transportation, a Republican. In addition, the proposed mag-lev line from Anaheim to Las Vegas (supported by the Republican governors of both California and Nevada) is not part of the Recovery Act.. Governor, do you even know what a mag-lev train is? If you did, then maybe you would support its inclusion.

Governor, your opposition to government-run health care is an understandable one. No one wants the government to supersede an individual’s decision over his or her health care. But that is precisely what HMOs are doing right now. Families are suffering from longer wait times, higher co-pays, and shoddier service, because HMOs are cutting costs by not only not hiring more physicians and staff, but also by not purchasing more equipment. A typical visit to an HMO may end up costing a family $100 in co-pays and medications, not to mention lost work time, all in the effort to keep medicine privatized.

Governor, I recognize your love for this country, but I’m disappointed you do not recognize that your pride in its accomplishments does not catch the whole picture. You said that America was “the nation that cast off the scourge of slavery, overcame the Great Depression, prevailed in two World Wars, won the struggle for civil rights, defeated the Soviet menace, and responded with determined courage to the attacks of September 11, 2001.” Governor, what you do not seem to recall was that we were the last enlightened nation to cast off the institution of slavery, and that it took another century after the Emancipation Proclamation to guarantee civil rights for all races. By that time, communist Cuba had more equality than Louisiana. You bring up 9/11, not remembering that the world had responded with courage and sympathy with us, until they scorned us when we invaded Iraq. And we are still paying for it, 8 years later. Governor, you said that “the American spirit has triumphed over almost every form of adversity known to man, and the American spirit will triumph again.” I believe that as well, but you have to recognize that the American spirit triumphed over adversity in spite of social conservatives.

Governor Jindal, on a more personal note, your election to the governorship of Louisiana could be an inspiration for all children of immigrants to this great country were it not for the fact that you changed your name in order to hopefully better assimilate in the United States. You went with the name “Bobby” instead of “Piyush” because it was more American, and it is telling – you wanted to fit in. I understand. I can relate. I hated my Arab name growing up. I felt second-class, different, all because of my foreign name. But now, thanks to men and women of all different races in this nation, from Denzel, to Kanye, to Barack, to Ming-Na, I’m not ashamed of my name anymore. I certainly hope you aren’t either.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The (George) Will of the People (Part II)

Usually, George Will offers his conservative viewpoints with a bit of evidence to back them up. Unfortunately, today's column offered no evidence.

First of all, in the politics of fear, this column was quite two-faced. Will accuses Obama of trolling out fearmongering, and then Will concludes his article by comparing the nation to Napoleon's troops at Waterloo. Nothing more calming than a comparison to Waterloo. Let's mention Little Bighorn while we're at it.

The seeming failure of bipartisanship (as if the first 100 days of a new presidency are the only times where a government can demonstrate bipartisanship) was caused by a failure of the losing side to offer up anything new to the table. Tax cuts are said to be stimulative -- in 1981, 2001, etc. What proponents of tax cuts forget is the recessions that soon followed (Black Monday, anyone?). What proponents of tax cuts also forget is that massive deficit spending has been proven to recover a failing ecomony. And no, I'm not talking about the New Deal.

The debate about how effective the New Deal was to pulling us out of the Great Depression continues, but all can agree that it was World War II that got us out of it completely. And what happened? Massive borrowing, massive deficit spending, raised taxes, businesses in support of government jobs, full employment, a draft, and food and materiel rationing. It was government intervention at such a grand scale, and this intervention pulled us out of the Depression. And New Deal opponents seem to forget that it was the same president who presided over the New Deal as who presided over World War II.

And afterwards, what did we do? We experienced the biggest economic boom of the time with the most massive public works project in the 20th century outside of the war effort: the building of our nation's interstate system.

The role of government to secure the rights that all men (who are created equal) are inalienably endowed with is considered one of the self-evident truths of the Founding Fathers. And when it doesn't work, we have to alter or abolish it. That's what voters did in 2006 and 2008.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The (George) Will of the People

In today's Washington Post, conservative columnist George Will wrote about California Attorney-General Jerry Brown's appeal to the California judiciary that the results of Proposition 8 were unconstitutional. Will is derisive of the obvious paradox that a constitutional amendment being declared unconstitutional, and any principled person dedicated to the government being decided by the people would find Jerry Brown's argument ludicrous.

And here lies the problem for progressives. If a socially unjust law is overturned by the people, then the circumstances demonstrate democracy at its finest; however, if the majority of voters enact a provision that would deny people equality, progressives look to the courts to legislate in their favor. Conservatives cry double-standard, and are left angered that their will and their vote have not counted for anything. Frustration and resentment builds amongst all in both sides.

In our American government, we learn that only the legislative branch makes law. If the executive passes an act that supercedes deliberative legislation, or if the judiciary overturns a piece of legislation, the executive and judicial branches are seen as overstepping their bounds. Yet throughout American history, there have been numerous instances of both the executive and judicial branches doing exactly that, for better or worse. Perhaps the most notorious case of judicial bigotry was the Dred Scott case.

But keep in mind that the use of the words "notorious" and "bigotry" are only used through the lens of present-day social mores. So now, let us ask ourselves these questions:

What does it mean to be American? Is it to be a supporter of representative government and democracy? A supporter of capitalism? Does it mean wanting to be the biggest and the strongest and the best? To whom or what do we look to determine what is truly American? George Washington? George Will? George Bush? George Stephanopolous? The Declaration of Independence? The Constitution of the United States?

Throughout the world, there is one word that is at the heart of what it means to be American: freedom. America may have been late to abolish slavery, but the Emancipation Proclamation was seen to be the embodiment of the American ideal. When blacks could not go to schools of their choice, Brown v. Board of Education overturned the legal segregation policies of Plessy v. Ferguson. FDR integrated the Defense Department. Harry Truman integrated the United States Armed Forces. When that was not enough, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discrimination. And none of these events happened with the consent of the legislation. They were all executive or judicial decisions.

Before the Civil War, popular sovereignty was used to determine whether a territory would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. One man argued against that. It is ironic that a man who would later on declare that government of the people, by the people, for the people would argue against popular sovereignty, something supposedly by the people. But Abraham Lincoln understood the fundamentals of what was expressed in both the Declaration and the Constitution: that it is a self-evident truth that government is necessary to secure the blessings of life and freedom, not prohibit it. When citizens are deprived freedom and equality, it is the responsibility of government to ensure that those rights are upheld.

It would behoove George Will to pay attention to the history that he claims to admire.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Islamophobia 2009

And so the New Year begins with an all-too-familiar case of Islamophobia as nine Muslims are removed from an AirTran flight for making innocuous comments about the safest place on an aircraft.

The outrage at this eviction is tempered by the equivocation of the victims themselves. One of them, Atif Ifran, told CNN that he was “impressed with the professionalism” of the FBI agents who questioned him, a tribute to whatever sensitivity program of interrogation that the CIA waterboarders never received. From the airline that kicked them off? No apology, and no help with getting them to their destination besides refunding their tickets.

When I was a child, my family and I would travel often. I must have been 10 years old when my family became a victim of profiling. My father was forced to open our luggage at the ticket counter so they could rifle through our clothes and our underwear that we had spent so much time packing the night before. I watched helplessly as my father protested this treatment, and I felt embarrassed; I was not embarrassed at having our bags searched, but at the way my father was upset at the authority of the baggage-checkers. I knew that Arabs had been hijacking aircraft, and I felt that they were only doing the right thing.

Year after year, whenever my father and I traveled, I would witness his ordeal as he would be singled out of the scanning line and have to take off his shoes. And I came to accept that this would eventually be my fate as well. I learned to keep my mouth shut at customs lest I say the wrong thing, and let my father do the talking. As I grew older, I came to accept myself as a sort of second-class citizen in the airport. I became accustomed to getting “randomly screened.” It was a matter of procedure that my bags would be the ones searched through, delaying my return home from the airport. I knew well enough to wear shoes that could be put on and taken off with ease.

So after 9/11, traveling didn’t change as much for me as it did for everyone else. I would shake my head sadly as I watched person after person go through the same embarrassing rituals that my father and I went through. I saw women wearing shoes that had too many straps break down and cry when they weren’t moving fast enough. I saw airport security men and women adopt the “I-have-the-worst-job-in-the-world-and-I-get-to-do-it-all-over-again-tomorrow” stare. And I saw businessmen in suits with looks of outrage on their face as they opened up their briefcases. I even had strangers (not realizing my Arab heritage) vent to me while waiting to board the flight about their difficult times with security. And I thought, why are you all so pissy? I go through this all the time! It never occurred to me that no one deserved to be treated this way until after I joined the military.

So, can you equivocate racial profiling? Rather than unequivocally say no, I would like to offer these tips to paranoid travelers:

1) If you’re at the airport, and you see a Middle-Eastern man with a beard wearing Muslim clothing, don’t worry. Chances are he’s not going to do anything else to draw more attention to himself.
2) There have been more disruptions on aircraft caused by intoxicated people. Since most Muslims don’t drink, you’re more likely to have a smoother flight with Muslims onboard than not.
3) If you are selectively screened by airport security, remember that unless you’re a minority, be thankful that you probably won’t have to go through things like this every day. Minorities, unfortunately, do.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Us versus Them in Gaza

In 2004, a documentary called “Control Room” was released, chronicling the Al-Jazeera coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq. One of the men featured in this movie was a Marine lieutenant named Josh Rushing. He was a relatively low-level press officer from CENTCOM assigned to handle the foreign news agencies’ questions about CENTCOM matters. During the documentary, Lt. Rushing recalls how disgusted he had felt when watching images of injured and dead Americans. He then recalls how his earlier reaction to even more horrifying images of injured Iraqi children did not affect him as much. He felt ashamed of his double-standard, saying that, “it upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before,” adding, “It makes me hate war, but it doesn't make me believe that we're in a world that can live without war yet.”

It is human nature to flock to a common cause. Us versus them, in other words. We see it all the time, everyday. Your department at work is better than the others. Your company is better than the competition. Your sports team, family, city, state, nation, etc. We all group together to find commonality in ourselves. So when something bad happens to our side, it feels much worse than if something equally bad happened to the other side. It’s human nature.

For example, take the Virginia Tech shootings. In all, 33 people were killed, including the gunman. Compare that to the hundreds killed in Iraq bombings, the thousands of children killed in the Chinese earthquakes, and the scores killed in the Mumbai massacre, and 33 doesn’t seem like a lot. But we don’t feel the same way about the Iraqi hundreds the same way we feel about the students of Virginia Tech because the Iraqis weren’t Americans. The loss of life at Virginia Tech means more to Americans than loss of the Iraqis, the Chinese, and the Indians. It’s just human nature.

What’s the point of all this?

At the end of this year, fighting has erupted once again in Gaza. The cease-fire was broken by Hamas, by their continuous rocket attacks; Israel has retaliated with continuous bombardment. So far, as of this writing, over 350 Palestinians have been killed, and Israeli deaths are in the single digits. Yet even with the high disparity between death tolls, American political and general opinion is in full support of the Israeli bombardment. As one Washington Post columnist asks, “What Reasonable Alternative Did Israel Have?

Before this question can be answered, others need to be asked first:
1) What is life like for an average Palestinian?
2) Who does more for this Palestinian: Hamas or Israel?

These questions are crucial to understanding why Hamas and groups like it have so much support. They have support for the same reason men like John Gotti had support: Hamas, like John Gotti, supported the people. Groups like Hamas are well-funded, and not all those funds go to weapons purchases. They provide health care, schools, and basic necessities to help people live a dignified life. Hamas may be a terrorist organization that needs to be eliminated, but they are not the ones who have killed Palestinians.

One might ask, “But what about the life on an average Israeli?” It’s a fair question, but it’s a question that has many more answers than the previous questions I posed. We here in America know more about the plight of an Israeli than we do about the life of a Palestinian. As such, we care more about Israeli citizens than we do about Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese, and yes, Iraqis. The death toll in the current conflict suggests that the life of an Israeli is worth more than the life of a Palestinian. To assuage guilt, we can justify the disproportional death toll by claiming that while the Israeli casualties are innocents, the Palestinian dead and injured are all Hamas or Hamas supporters and deserve it.

Regardless of Israel’s response, it was Hamas who broke the cease-fire by firing rockets into Israel. It would be irrational to think that those rockets were meant for any other reason than to kill Israelis, and Israel has every right to defend itself. But at the end of the day, we end up with thousands on one side dead and injured, and a minuscule fraction of that on the other side.

So, what to do? Here’s my suggestion, and it’s a risky one. Israel should treat the Palestinians in Gaza better than Hamas treats them. If Hamas gives them clothing and food, then Israel should give them better clothing and more food. If Hamas gives the citizens in Gaza the semblance of dignity, then Israel should treat Gazans with even more dignity. Because until one life is seen as equal to another, there will be no end to this conflict.