04 March 2008


Sorry to continue with yet more politics, and yet more apologizing for politics, but I want to put here my answer to a very good question that Beth posed in the comments on the last post. You are forewarned to skip along (again) if the whole reason you're reading knitting blogs is to avoid politics. (It's getting harder every day, isn't it? Sorry!)

Although - quick! - before you leave, I want to announce that I just got to the raglan decreases on my fair isle 101 sweater! yay! It's finally going fast. Okay - you can go now.

Before getting to Beth's question, here's a bit of funny - remember I mentioned the lunatic-zombie-undead candidate in the Russian elections, Zhirinovsky? For those who don't know what he's like, this is him:

Okay, so, in the comments on the last post, Beth asked this:

I talked to my sister about my waffling and she said she was kind of getting used to the idea of Obama being president until she saw him in Somali dress. She is quite angry about it. She was in the military and a photographer at the time of the huge war. She went in and had to photograph the dead Red Cross Workers who the Somalis killed. She told me that blew it for him. If he would have chosen any other tribe or African ethnic dress she wouldn't have been so offended...but she is so mad she was yelling at me.
Any comments?
You know I just want more links, right?

Excellent question. Far better than the simple-minded "but he looks like a muslim! maybe it's a secret conspiracy!" crap that the media is running with like a bunch of hamsters. But I have to say that I know almost nothing about Kenyan/African politics. I do know that Obama's father was Kenyan, and he has family there today, and since I trust him, I also trust him to know more about the realities there than I do, but that's not really a good enough answer for anyone who doesn't already have reasons to trust Obama, obviously. So I'll do the best I can to explain his reasoning about other cases that resemble the Somali issue (which is what makes me trust his judgment), and hope that it's useful. I emailed this to Beth, then realized that it might be useful to others, so here it is.

He talks to bad guys. He believes in talking to bad guys. He does it for a purpose, and it's not to show support in any way for guys who do bad things. It's because he believes that, in some cases, talking and making small gestures toward the bad guys can be just what's needed to put us in the position we need to be where we can STOP them. If you just say, "you're evil (or the "Axis of Evil") and I won't have anything to do with you," your opponent then has no reason to do anything at all other than to say, effectively "f--- you back" - you have just removed any incentive they had to even pretend to play nice. We go from dealing with someone who may be basically evil, but who is trying to be taken seriously, to dealing with someone who has nothing left to lose. See what I mean? If, on the other hand, you make a very small gesture of actually talking to, and getting to know, "the enemy" - even trying on their outfits for example - you put that enemy in the position of owing you something. Of owing you respect, and favors in return. Of simply having to listen to what you have to say. And it's all done on a public platform, with public accountability. Sure, they may renege on the deal, but if so you're in no worse a position than you were before, except that you also understand them better, and knowledge is power. The other strategy (which is Bush's, and McCain's), leaves you *certainly* in a worse strategic position than you were before, and without any more knowledge than you had going in. Logically speaking, it's a no-brainer.

Also, there's nothing inherently evil about Somali dress. Or even Somalis as a people, though many of them have done irredeemably evil things. To me, it's like the Serbs, about whom I know a lot more. As far as I'm concerned, there were a lot of Serbs who essentially acted like Nazis, and I have zero, I mean zero, sympathy for the evil bastards. My blood pressure goes up just hearing the word "Serb." But I know there's more to is, because of my field of study and having a lot of friends who work specifically in former Yugoslavia, I know some context about that situation that tells me the Serbs are, despite my feelings, worth talking to. First, Milosovic was, personally, the puppet-master behind most of the evil. I think pretty much anyone is capable of evil acts if they are truly desperate enough, if they have absolutely nothing to lose, and if someone is evil enough to whip them into a fury with lies and misdirection. Declaring all those "little" people who carried out the deeds evil - while true - doesn't change the situation (and doesn't change the fact that not all Serbs, by any stretch of the imagination, did these things, to the degree that calling the perpetrators "Serbs" just isn't right). What *does* change the situation is removing the evil leader with his lies and misdirection *and* altering conditions on the ground so that the regular people carrying out this evil do have other choices, and do have something to lose (for example, the new boundaries being drawn now are really not fair to Serbs, and not helping the situation), and so that regular people who have *not* become part of the evil don't get forced into a corner where joining in or supporting the evil is the only option they have left, because they're being treated as though they already have joined in. That's Obama's strategy for these kinds of situations in a nutshell, as I understand it. But the other part of it is that, if we're going to make Serbs (or Somalis) stop doing evil things, we have to stop saying "you're evil people - so evil I won't wear your traditional dress." We have to make intelligent distinctions between superficialities associated with evil, and actual evil. The act of killing, of raping, is evil. Clothing and non-violent, peaceful tribal traditions are not. If you lump it all together and say it's all evil, you give those people no choices, no alternatives, and nothing to lose (and every emotional reason to hit back at you, since you've just dismissed a people and their entire history wholesale based on the discrete actions of some of them). If you say, "you are a good people, with good traditions, but some of you have nonetheless chosen to do something evil, here in this time and place, and that choice is unacceptable" then you give them space in which to back up, and change. And you give the people within that population who are not supporting the worst acts an incentive and the political opportunity to take the lead.

A lot of Obama's thinking on this is in common with that of Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man with an incredible track record, through the UN, of actually making a positive difference in places where no one else could. Samantha Power, one of Obama's foreign policy advisors, wrote a biography of him (he was killed in Iraq). I put these links in a previous post, too, but there's an article about her and her book here. And extended interviews where she explains exactly the policy thinking I summarized above, here.

I can explain the thinking another way, in domestic policy terms. Obama was in the Illinois legislature when that whole death penalty debacle happened. You probably remember, when DNA tests showed that 13 people on death row were innocent, and the governor put a moratorium on executions. What to do? The stalemate between equally uncompromising pro- and anti-death penalty people has been going on forever without changing a thing. The Chicago police absolutely refused to admit to any fault in their methods, and were adamant that anything that hindered their ability to do their jobs meant making people less safe. We want to be safe, and we certainly are dependent on the police. But none of us wants to see innocent people put to death by mistake, obviously. What Obama did was (a) recognize that the police had a point - that both sides had a point, and (b) talk to the cops. He literally went and smoked cigars and played poker with the cops (similar, in my mind, to trying on the Somali outfit), and listened, really listened, to their concerns. And, eventually, he explained to them his concerns. And he changed their minds. By acknowledging that they had a real need (to have their work respected and not essentially hindered), and by not treating them like monsters (even though I'm pretty sure a few of them probably did some monstrous things if that many innocent people did end up on death row), he was able to give them space in which they could honorably and confidently make the rational choice. He introduced a bill to have all interrogations in capital cases videotaped, and it passed UNANIMOUSLY.

His policy towards the situation in Kosovo is similar -- he knows damn well what the Serbians have done. But he also knows that life has become so desperate in many parts of former Yugoslavia that it's pretty much dog-eat-dog, and standing up and saying "you're a bunch of dogs! I won't talk to you anymore" isn't going to help. Instead, he's advocating doing what we can to improve conditions for everybody (offering a better alternative than violence), while insisting on independence for Kosovo* and international inspections (to minimize the practical opportunities for violence). He's giving the evildoers space in which to act differently, instead of just calling them evil, slapping them, and hoping they'll change, or go away.

To be honest, I get incredibly frustrated with the superficiality of judging someone's policy based on something like what they're wearing (whether a tribal outfit, or a lapel pin). You have to judge the reasoning of real actions, and policy, and to do that, you have to acquire some knowledge of the context. And you have to make meaningful distinctions instead of generalizations, qualifications instead of leaping to conclusions. For example: yes, patriotism is good, and presidential candidates should both feel it and exhibit those feelings openly. BUT - is a lapel pin the best or only way of exhibiting those feelings? How about actually living, moment to moment and word for word, the values of our Constitution? How about hammering out legislation and getting support for legislation that makes life better and safer for Americans instead of lining one's own pockets? Yes, you can do all that and wear a lapel pin too. But what if you see people wearing lapel pins yet denigrating our Constitution and lining their pockets at the expense of the safety of Americans? Isn't, in that case, the most patriotic thing to do to make a statement to the effect that patriotism should run a lot deeper than a lapel pin? Sometimes choosing not to wear a lapel pin can be a *statement of patriotism* (also a matter of practicality - do we honestly expect people to walk around with a flag, a yellow ribbon, a red ribbon, and a pink ribbon, all at the same time? If someone doesn't walk around with all of that, do we assume they're not only unpatriotic, but also troop-hating, pro-HIV, and pro-breast cancer??)

Of course, all of us regular people have real jobs and real lives and we don't normally have time to investigate every one of these issues. That's why there's this profession called journalism - those people are paid to do this for us, so we can be reliably informed by taking only an hour or two of our day to catch up on news. But they're not doing it. They're transcribing whatever they've been told without questioning it, they're reporting what sells instead of what's important, they're deliberately simplifying difficult issues so that we think we're getting more than we're really getting. It's unconscionable. But until it changes, my only strategy is to avoid the mainstream media outlets and get as much information from people who cite their sources and explain their reasoning at length as we possibly can. That's what I do, but I'm lucky that I have the time for it right now.

*Personally, I have very mixed feelings about independence for Kosovo. I think Kosovo needs international recognition and support, but I don't think constantly re-drawing borders helps. It's BS. It's always been BS. Eastern European history is a nightmare because of this idea that re-drawing borders can somehow resolve substantive conflict. But, right now, there doesn't seem to be another political option. I'm hopeful that Obama in the White House might have the power to explore other, more productive strategies, but it's all unknowable at this point. Except that with any *other* US President, nothing will change in our policy at all.

THIS JUST IN: I don't understand why this is apparently being reported only on Canadian TV, not in the US, and why it all happened right on the eve of the Ohio primary. But watch here to see how the whole Canada-NAFTA thing was manufactured out of thin air to make Obama look bad so that Hillary can take Ohio and stay in the race. I'm sure it'll get cleared up - but too late to make a difference in Ohio. As far as who's behind the lovely timing - take your pick. Funny how well Hillary's working with the Republicans lately.


jill said...

Amen, sister. Amen.

Here's to nuance and understanding.

Marianne said...

Very Well written, Very Well said, and yes... what Jill wrote also :^)

Lisa said...

Dear Kate,

I have to point you to this article after laughing out loud:

'Supporters of both candidates, please listen closely. For the good of the Party -- no, for the good of the Nation! -- [...] No more blogging. No more reading TPM. No more arguing at the watercooler, or at the happy hour after work at TGIF's. Find a hobby -- knitting is really getting popular these days!'


I only point you to it because it's funny they tell us to knit. :) (Really, I'm really not trying to tell you what to write on your blog, I have been reading your blog for a while and am interested by all the topics you've taken on so far.)

KcM said...

Slightly off-topic, but I thought it interesting that the Luo tribe in Kenya (from where Obama's family hails) is prObama, while the rival Kikuyu tribe is rooting for Clinton.


aknitter said...

Thanks for sharing this post with the world, very facinating to read! I enjoyed it very much. :)

Yana Olson said...

Sometimes choosing not to wear a lapel pin can be a statement of patriotism.. yes i agree with that....!!

lapel pins