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China & the US: Corruption, Progress, and Tragedy

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China doesn’t say it’s going to change. It doesn’t ask you to believe in it.  But it’s happening.

I’ve often written about this country’s extreme paradoxes, how I can never seem to decide if it’s righting its course or steadily eroding. China is fascinating and frightening. It’s grotesque and inspiring.

And now, China is our only hope.

It hurts to say. I feel unpatriotic, a traitor to my upbringing. The good ol’ US of A is meant to kick ass and take names, to lead. And yet, as inspired as I was by Barack Obama’s historic ascent to the presidency, I’m equally horrified by the impotency of his tenure and the implications of our collective behavior.

For what seems like months, in reality is years upon years, I’ve witnessed Washington quibble over plans for universal healthcare.

I just don’t get it. How is this so difficult?

And what now? You’re bringing assault rifles to speeches? Town hall fights? What is this madness?

Burning flags, gay marriage, prayer in the classroom. We spend months and months and months working on this in Congress, and pass nothing. But on big issues, big like Andre-the-Giant-standing-on-a-ladder-on-Mt. Everest-type issues, we revert to mind-numbing partisan hack jobs. We choose paralysis over politics. And worse, we citizens allow it.

Chinese know they cannot openly question their government. But in a country where we can, the best we can muster is crazy gun-totting homophobes carrying Bibles to town hall? Holy Baby Jesus.

As we bicker and point fingers and nod our heads to the lunacy of TV pundits, here’s what China is doing.

1. Cracking down on corruption at the highest levels.

October 1st is the 60th anniversary of the PRC. Chairman/President/His Holiness Hu Jintao is expected to announce major achievements in righting some of the massive wrongs of corruption over the last, well, forever in China.

“Every month for the past year, at least one cadre at the level of assistant minister or above has been nabbed for ‘economic crimes’ and allied felonies,” writes Willy Lam in a phenomenal piece on the anti-graft campaign. Long-standing party members and mafia frontmen are feeling the heat.

The crackdown recently nabbed Kang Rixin, head of China’s nuclear energy program, one of the most powerful 204 cadres in the country. It’s progress, mind you, not an end-all solution.  Corruption in China will continue. As Lam writes,

Doubts remain as to whether the Hu administration will go one step further and introduce institutional checks and balances, as well as allow scrutiny from the media and independent anti-graft agencies, to better eradicate the scourge of graft and related malfeasances.

But this much is known: if you want to skim off the top nowadays, you better have the skill set (or be Hu Jinatao’s son).

Here’s more. For the first time ever, China’s 10th meeting of the Standing Committee just passed a resolution declaring a commitment to fight climate change. Just words, yes. But this is the first time that the highest reaches of government have conceded climate change must be addressed. Some call it peanuts, I’ll call it progress.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of progress in China is that so much is left to be done and much of it is easily within in reach. Unlike the US, China has the ability to implement policy nationwide practically immediately. In other words, while the US jabs, China is throwing uppercuts. As Thomas Friedman writes,

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

That, the in-between-the-lines up there, used to belong almost solely to the United States. We called it Balls and Foresight. Now we have malls and foreclosures.

But it’s not the economy that worries me. I’m supremely confident Wall Street will find a way to make money off of others. That, to me, is a lock. They have plenty of time to find the next best method, because everyone is distracted by the nonsense that is now healthcare and tomorrow will be something else. Because as much as I want universal healthcare, I feel that half of my Congress is dead set on me not getting it.

So what I do care about is the environment. My ability to eat, drink, and breathe is very important. These three come before the health issues they may cause. And, as I said, progress is attainable here in China.

A new joint report by The Boston Consulting Group and The Natural Resources Defense Council reads,

If by 2015, the end of China’s 12th Five-Year Term, 5% of existing buildings and 60% of new buildings were to achieve levels of energy consumption 50% below those of comparable non-green buildings in similar climate zones, the subsequent annual energy savings would be 170 billion kWh electricity, equivalent to turning off all the lights in America for one month. CO2 emissions would be cut by 170 million tonnes.

It’s been proven. Beijing’s “Agenda 21 Building” applied existing technology and reduced energy consumption by 70%. According to Justin Fung, co-author of the report,

“What is not commonly understood is that building operational use accounts for around 25% of China’s total energy consumption… That is more energy than China’s cement, iron and steel sectors combined. And if you include energy used for manufacturing and transporting building materials and products, China’s buildings consume 30-40% of the country’s total energy.”

People like to say the United States is The Land Where Anything is Possible. Well, healthcare sure doesn’t seem to be. Does the shoe still fit?


Dongshan Dao: A Test in Tourism Development

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China never lacks for a crowd.

China never lacks for a crowd, even in little ol' Dongshan.

I first visited Dongshan a few months back.  This time was different.  My girlfriend and I were going together.  It was to be our cheap little get away.  I’ve been on the road most of the summer, so we needed some time just the two of us– or, more accurately, just the two of us in a new crowd of strangers.

We were beaching it.  Relaxing in our hotel room, on the balcony, overlooking a nice stretch of cove.  We wanted to rent a bike, pedal along the coastline.  If we had time, maybe we’d pay a local fisherman to ferry us out to a nearby island.  It was a plan, bulletproof; great idea.  Done.

By the end of the first afternoon in Dongshan, I was in the dumps.  Literally and figuratively.  I couldn’t remember why I had wanted to come back.  A partial list of Day 1’s lowlights:

1.  Hotel owner bumped the price of a room up.

2.  Someone took a poop on the stairs leading to a stretch of beach, haphazardly covering it up with not enough tissue.  This still boggles my mind, because the culprit must have squatted in plain sight in front of dozens and dozens of other people who would soon need to walk back up those same stairs.

3.  A funeral.  I’ve been to Dongshan twice and seen three funerals.  Yikes.  Friends and family all dress in white and carry the coffin or ashes, pictures, and flowers to a final resting place.  On the walk, one guy finished his bottle of water and threw it on the ground.  Two steps further and he passed a trash can.  It made me not feel bad for him, and that’s messed up.funeral pic

4.  The charred corpse of a dead dog– on the beach.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A barbeque gone horribly wrong?  At least tell me who the jerk is that decided the beach was a fitting spot to toss the remains to decompose?  (NOTE: This is the second dead dog I have seen lying out in the public in two trips to Dongshan.  That may be a Guinness Book record.  Two-for-two!)

5.  Seriously, does there even need to be a #5?  A charred dog?!  On the beach!  Come on!

There’s a lot of talk about developing Dongshan into one of China’s A-list tourist destinations.  There’s a billboard when you come into town proclaiming, “Welcome to Dongshan, an international tourism destination.”

Some spots are well worth the trip.

Some spots are well worth the trip.

But the only person in town that seems to buy that line is the local party chief.  I was on the balcony when I overheard my girlfriend giggling about something on television inside.  She told me she just saw a commercial where this guy comes on and says something to the extent of, “Beautiful Dongshan, one of China’s premiere getaways.  Where the streets and the beaches are clean…”

The owner of my hotel told me over tea that Dongshan had long suffered from corrupt politicians who pocketed development money and ran.  In their wake, along the huge stretches of coastline, lie massive hotel compounds.  Some are complete.  Some only partially.  Almost all are abandoned.  Courtyards and gardens are now just dumping grounds for waste atop the rubble left during the hasty retreat from construction.  Weeds are cracking the paved entrances.  Windows are smashed in.  The gates are rusted over.

Dongshan is rusted over.

With the right leadership and bright ideas, Dongshan could be resurrected.  It would take a decade, at least.  But this is the problem in China.  When a site is designated a potential tourist market, the government leaps to action.  All the wrong action.  They build massive six-lane highways into small towns.  They dole out beneficial loans and land prices to developers.  But never do they gentrify old neighborhoods, help give citizens clean drinking water, build new schools, or launch new public service campaigns.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Neighborhoods are a mix of decay and potential.

Whoever came up with the recipe for success in tourism has it like this:  One major highway (but no new bus station) + a massive, brand new police station built outside of town + a giant skyscraper government building in Soviet-era style + reliance on a bunch of outsiders to fund everything else = CHA-CHING!

It’s disturbing.  The people in Dongshan are woefully uneducated. I asked my girlfriend, what do these people think when they dump their trash on a beach or walk past a putrid pile of rubbish on the street?  Nothing, she said.  They don’t even know to think about it.  It doesn’t even register.

The entire community still relies on fishing for sustenance.  At night, you can see the blips of lights aboard fishing vessels on the horizon.  Fifty years ago, they needn’t venture out that far.  The catches they do bring back they dry everywhere.  E-ver-y-where.  Some homes in the old district have no rooves, but rather a grid of planks to dry squid and small fish.  The smell is ubiquitous in most sections of town.


And then the trash.  You lose count of how many people, local people, you see littering on the street each day.  Rusting, 50-gallon blue barrels are placed randomly on streets.  More wrappers and fish bones and soda bottles and toilet paper seem to never make it than those that do.  The stench will make your eyes water.  Five yards away, a pair of 10-year-old boys are squatting on the curb, smoking cigarettes.

To top it all off, people just aren’t that friendly.  The owner of the hotel we stayed in, this was the third time we have rented out one of his rooms (first time coming together), and he jacked the price up and refused to negotiate.  I paid more in the beautiful armpit of Dongshan, 100rmb/night, then I paid almost anywhere else I stayed throughout the much more beuatiful tourist spots of Yunnan, Sichuan, Zhejiang, and Beijing this summer.

Those plans to rent bikes or a scooter?  No.  That was the answer we got from everyone.  E-ver-y-one.  No one rents bikes in Dongshan, they told us.  Well how many bikes do you own?, we asked.  Two.  What about using one of those?  No.  Are you going anywhere today?  No.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

Don't get me wrong, some parts of the trip were fantastic.

We eventually found one young woman working at a small restaurant who was willing to let us use her old bike, for a 300rmb deposit and 25rmb for the afternoon.  But at least she let us use it!

At one point, I thought, wow, maybe I should come here and open a bike rental shop.  Maybe I could even invest in a small little dingy to take people around to the islands.  It would be cool, living on the beach, running a rental shop.  Give it a few years, wait for the tourism to pick up.  Then, I realized what the hell I was talking about?  Dongshan!  Come on, who was I kidding?  It felt like we were the only two tourists in town.  No one is coming.  Not now, and not anytime soon.

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

Is the sun setting on Dongshan's chances for development?

With the way the local people desecrate their own beautiful beaches, fail to make any effort in being friendly towards visitors, and show no hope of changing the habits in their children, Dongshan will remain buried under the rubble of a once promising tourism town.  Wasted.  Rotting.  Rusting.

When in Dongshan, Don’t Miss This!

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Dongshan Dao (东山岛) is about a three-hour bus ride from Xiamen.  A few months back, a friend had mentioned he heard it was a decent place to visit on a day trip.  People said it was “like Xiamen 30 years ago.”  And, what can I say, I am a sucker for time travel.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Squid drying along the seashore.

Dongshan is primarily famed for its beaches and fresh seafood.  But there’s one quick thing I have to mention: the supposed can’t-miss attraction, Fengdongshi (风动石)– in my brutal translation, Stone Moving in the Wind.

This chunk of earth came with some hype!  People in town were telling me all sorts of tall tales.

Millions upon millions of years, that’s how long they say this rock has been wobbling atop its eroded seaside podium.

A local guy I met eating at a restaurant told me the stone balances on less than 10 square centimeters of surface contact.

Another shopkeeper told me a dozen American soldiers had come during WWII and tried to push it off (actually very believable), but failed.

What they like to call "The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth."
What they like to call “The Most Miraculous Stone on the Earth.”

Look upon this stone, ye mighty, and quiver.

On my first trip to Dongshan, after trying for about an hour to sneak into the garden grounds through the labrynth of surrounding alleyways, I resigned myself to paying the 35 rmb to see this cultural behemoth.

Let.  Down.

10 centimeters???  More like a solid, solid 5 square meters.  That sucker was firmly in place.

And, yes, like every other sucker, of course I tried to push it off.  Come on, imagine the glory if I pulled off a sword-in-the-stone task like that!

I am not sure I buy the line about the most impressive rock in the world, but I was slightly fascinated.  I enjoyed sitting back and watching all the little children come up and try to push it off.  It reminded me of the task they have in front of them: pushing China into the future.

Pick a door, any door.
Pick a door, any door.
Where is that pesky Minotaur?
Where is that pesky Minotaur?

Rule of Thumb:  When in China, if locals tell you something or some place is phenomenal, prepare yourself for an 80% chance of let down.  If they tell you that very few people go someplace and that it may be dangerous, you’re looking at a 80% chance of satisfaction.

A Look at Asia, Tourism and Tension

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My cousin recently ventured into Burma, after we parted ways in Vietnam.  He later told me the contrast between the two was nearly indescribable.  On the one hand, you have Vietnam, rolling in new money and racing ahead at reckless speeds.  On the other, Burma, idle and eroding, sinking into dictatorship and economic stagnation.

It had me thinking of the Asian countries I have visited in the past two years, in comparison to each other, and in comparison to some of the places I have been in Africa.  It’s a unique system of development in this corner of the world, one very dependent on its geography.  There’s massive China.  South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all followed similar paths, straight down to Singapore.  Then there’s the peninsula with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, all lead by Thailand in regional power and leadership.  The island nations, they have their own type of development, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc.

Common to them all is the boon of tourism.  Unlike Africa, people think of Asia as a “safe” place.  It’s long been part of the backpacker circuit, and has been further pushed and developed in the last 20 years than ever before.  The situation is slightly different in China and Japan, who are welcoming more tourists but also sending out an all-time high as well.  Meanwhile, the peninsula and the island nations are facing a huge influx of transient visitors, some relying greatly on their financial input.

Often, upon returning from trips, I have written of the downside of tourism.  Primarily, the 3 P’s: pollution, poverty, and prostitution.  I think I should expand on the notion of prostitution, because it is not just young women being forced into intimate interactions, but entire populations.  There is a cultural prostitution, a sense that everything is for sale in these places, and it is tragic.  The more tourist flood in, the more enormous cameras dangle from necks, the more tour buses, stupid guides with little flags, groups with matching hats, youth just in search of a party, elederly in search of 5-star hotels… its enough to make me sick.  It’s enough to make entire nations sick.

Here are two articles that I think point out the contrast in what has become the search for “authentic” places.  The first discusses how Luang Prabang, a sleepy city in the center of Laos I visited just over a year and a half ago, is dealing with a record number of tourists streaming into its quiet streets.  The second article talks about Myanmar and the situation there, in which a society is being “preserved” to such an throttling extent that it is now starving itself to death.  It’s two ends of the extreme.  And after reading the article on Myanmar, thinking of my cousin, I realize that soon enough that country will open its gates to the floods of foreign visitors and let the rainfall of cash wash away any seeds of culture still in the land.

Lastly, I wanted to follow up on my premise that China has silently regained sole superpower status on our globe.   The article is a wake up call, but I think we, especially the U.S., have hit the snooze button a few too many times to reverse course now.  A U.S. government spokesperson recently spoke of silent diplomacy being used against China.  Ha!  What a crock of shit!  Our soft and hard power are being shown to be exactly what they are, weak.  Our moral legitimacy is in peril, our thirst for war has lost us allies, and with our economy in the toilet, our nation has become a clinger, desperately holding on to resources and the last clutches of geopolitical hegemony as they slip through its grip.

Obama Says We’re Bitter, I Say He’s Damn Right

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Apparently the big campaign trail news is a co-sponsored, bipartisan “attack” on a piece of Barack’s speech in San Fran the other day.  According to the NY Times, it went like this:

At the fund-raiser in San Francisco last Sunday, Mr. Obama outlined challenges facing his presidential candidacy in the coming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana, particularly persuading white working-class voters who, he said, fell through the cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Mr. Obama said…

McCain and Clinton responded calling him “out of touch” with “small town America.” Is that insinuating these two D.C. knuckleheads are down with the git-down on Main Street? Please! “That’s rich,” Obama retorted, perhaps unaware of his pun.

This is EXACTLY why we need Obama in the White House. His rivals live in an idealized world where everyone pulls the wool over their eyes and tries to go to sleep. There’s a bogeyman in America’s closet, and it’s about time people come to terms with what we fear.

Bitter? Hell yes, I am bitter. I am from a working-class family, with a father who owns his own fledgling company, a Mom who works too much OT, a step-dad who works multiple jobs, a 21 year old sister working nearly full-time to help pay her way through college, and a 16-year-old sister working part-time for spending money after school and on weekends… that’s what Bush calls “uniquely American.” My whole family is sick and tired of politicians who don’t have a clue, who cut taxes on the rich thinking it’s going to trickle down Main Street. It doesn’t.

One of my favorite lines from Obama came before the South Carolina primary where, to paraphrase, he said something like, “I was pounding the pavement as a community organizer when you were busy sitting on the board at Wal-Mart, Hillary, trying to figure out how to ship our jobs overseas!”

Oh Lordy, the audacity, to borrow another campaign buzzword, of two candidates who think they are in tune with the realities of the middle class! Is this the same McCain who has no problem leaving sons and daughters of the lower classes burning in the desert of our immorality in Iraq? The same McCain married to a millionaire? Is this the same Clinton who reported a family income of $109 million dollars last year? Is that in touch with my family? Hell no.

I try not to be a defeatist or a pessimist, but it is this backward thinking by these status-quo preaching politicians that has our country sitting atop the sinkhole of eternity. Stay in Iraq, Johnboy? And pay for that how? With our awesome economy being buoyed up by those doubly-awesome tax cuts you are so proud of? Keep borrowing from China? Hope it buys another TRILLION dollars of our debt? That’s a great way to maintain any miniscule inkling of geopolitical strength, when we are begging and groveling to the world’s new authoritarian superpower.

Does this rant sound bitter? It should. That’s exactly what I am. I met an American woman working as a bartender in a hostel on Baobob beach in Mozambique in 2004. She told me she had become so disenchanted with the direction of her country that she was boycotting living there while Bush was in office. A week before, he had won reelection, and she said she was too stubborn to head back now.

I’m not praising her for fleeing the US. I praise her for being aware. Clinton and McCain can keep pounding the pulpit in the US, telling everyone everything is ok, that there is nothing to fear about our economy, our war on terror, our education, our healthcare, our dependency on oil, our expansionist military regime, our debt, our obese gluttony of what we hold as our country’s entitlements… sure. Keep telling us that’s normal, that’s the way it oughta be. Me and my friend in Mozambique, we’ll keep waiting.

Written by Miles

April 12, 2008 at 6:12 am

The Dilemma: Tibet Before, China Now

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My own personal dilemma at work has partially handicapped my own thought process.   I realized this recently.  When confronted with something weighing heavily in one direction, the natural reaction is to instinctively pull in the other, seeking balance.  But issues rarely find that equilibrium.

Every time protesters interrupt the Olympic torch relay, an irrepressible smirk slides its way across face.   It’s not about spiting China, and maybe not even about Tibet.  It’s about the action, about people taking action.  It’s inspiring.  And I cannot help being amazed and intrigued by the reactions of my Chinese colleagues as they find out how the world is welcoming their torch (as a news organization, we are allowed to pipe in BBC news for footage purposes).

At the same time, this seemingly rewarding feeling shames me.  Many of my friends here in Shanghai are very proud of their country hosting the Olympics.  They should be.  This country has come a long way in a short time, not citing tactics, to arrive as a major world power… arguably THE world power.  Patriotism, often manipulated into nationalism, is an inevitable result of a nation which believes in a 5,000 year history of glorious facts and fables.  The Olympics symbolize China’s return to its rightful reign, in their minds.

It can be said that this idea is narrow and naive.  Yet, I have often pointed out the similarities in the way in which we Americans are taught to perceive our national identity.  We constantly hearken back to our own glorious periods of history, primarily the Revolutionary War and World War II– the Founding Fathers and the Greatest Generation.  We rarely discuss, let alone teach, let alone review, our past actions in those times or between.  We ignore realist justifications for our involvements, rather choosing to recognize the idealism and rhetoric of our actions.  Are we so different?  Is China a bastard nation for holding its own notions of Manifest Destiny?

And it must be realized that Tibet is given the benefit of the doubt with the foreign press.  Rarely do you hear the other side’s description of life in Tibet before China took control of the region in the 1950s.  Tibet’s feudal empire was ruled by religion, something I find repulsive in all forms.  I believe people should be free to choose and follow their own religions, sure.  But to rule by them is wrong.  Too often the world excuses backward ways of life as a certain people’s culture.  I just don’t buy that.  Freedom is choice.  Culture is too often a tool of repression, granting a mandate to megalomaniacs who defend their actions as a culture others fail to understand.

There is plenty I do not understand about Chinese culture.  Yet, as an American, their stubborn pride is not that surprising.  I chuckled when one colleague commented (in Chinese thinking I didn’t understand), “These are foreigners protesting in London?  Not even Chinese?  What the hell do they know about our affairs?”  This coming from a citizen in a nation that systematically denies access to balanced, timely information!  Ha!   Then I saw BBC footage of a cute young Chinese lady in London saying she was proud of her country and didn’t understand why people couldn’t celebrate China’s progress.  Achk!  It’s all a paradox of pride and shame, fact and fiction, progress and policy, reform and repression… can there be balance?  How?

Patriotism and Pariahs

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A coworker recently told me that when he was younger he thought all young teenagers in the U.S. had closets full of top designer clothes.  “One hundred pairs of jeans,” he told me.  “A thousand t-shirts.  And suits, even kids, I thought they all had suits.”

For my colleague, the U.S. was a collage of American Pie movies… well maybe a bit before those.  His main conduit was Hollywood, and that became his prism.  Today, the filters have changed.  Hollywood may no longer be our largest podium of American idealism, but the stage has remained.  Our closets are not full of suits.  They are full of costumes.

The most popular of which most certainly is the Uncle Sam mask.  Not too many can actually wear the whole suit, because they can’t slide out of it fast enough if they start to feel the heat.  But surely everyone is a patriot these days.  It has long been a badge of merit.  Yes, yes, we are all patriots.  But not soldiers.  No, those aren’t the kind of patriots we care about.  We don’t care about our veterans enough to fund their hospitals.  We don’t care about our children enough to get recruiters out of high-school hallways and the ears of 17-year-olds.  We don’t seem to mind the sacrifice of all our troops doing involuntary return tours, or our reservists being called up.

Nah, those people aren’t our patriots.  Our patriots are those who know the values of our Founding Fathers like they just spoke to them at lunch.  They are our political pundits, broadcasting broad sweeps of criticism, plucking the hart-strings of our true stay-at-home patriots.  Those, yeah, we love those patriots.  You know, the patriots with the yellow ribbon bumper sticker on their Ford Excursion.  The patriots who shop to support our war on terror.  The patriots who don’t hold passports and want border fences.

It’s all about ego, God, and inalienable control.  Acting to secure those interests outweighs the balance of right and wrong for most of these American patriots.  Primarily, it is ego.  Americans are not willing to concede that we are no longer the world’s sole superpower.  We are not willing to concede the fact that our children need to be educated about other cultures.  We are not willing to concede that our lack of understanding how the world works is dragging us under.

Instead, we would rather attack decorated war veterans as traitors.  We would rather ignore the pleas of 23 million peaceful people asking for their democracy to have a seat at the U.N. (beside such beauties as North Korea and Syria).  We would rather sit back and wait for underdeveloped nations to formulate a brilliant solution for global climate change than take the lead.

We talk a big game at this geopolitical card table.  But other players have stopped listening.  Tell someone to respect human rights?  Tell someone not to invade their neighbor?  Tell someone to disarm?

Andre Gide wrote, “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”  It’s time to analyze the sincerity of our patriotism.

Written by Miles

April 6, 2008 at 5:04 pm