An Idiot Abroad

Greater Middle East
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“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Winston Churchill

My father recently sent me an on-line geographic quiz that required that I assign the names of countries to over 30 nations that make up the strategic region we broadly refer to as The Middle East.  The area remains a radioactive Jenga stack of oil rich nations stretching from arid Northern Africa, through the Southern and Northern Gulf States into a creche of red-headed newborns known as the ”Stans”.  Despite my time working and travelling across this area, I was surprised how confused I was over where everybody actually lives.

As a young adult, I suffered from the normal provincialism that afflicts many West Coast Americans.  I was disinterested in Europe’s Rubik’s Cube of nations that seemed like aging actresses – temperamental and well past their prime. My orientation to the shifting sands of Middle Eastern geo-politics was ancient maps of Mesopotamia, odd and even days for sitting in line for gasoline during the 70’s oil embargo and a strange production monopoly called OPEC which sounded like CHAOS, the evil organization bent on world anarchy in the TV show, “Get Smart”.  To me, everything beyond North America was a wasteland of sand, bananas and crumbling infrastructure.

The US seemed mired in perpetual Middle Eastern Peace Talks. When the Iran and the Shah fell, I asked my father why we had such a keen interest in what happened to this regime.  It was in our national interests, my father explained, to always have a hand in the Middle East. When my militant older brother scoffed at the notion that US had a right to interfere with the politics of another sovereign nation simply because it coveted its natural resources, my father quickly put him in his place. “Would you rather have the Russians or the Chinese calling the shots?  You’ll be paying $3 for a gallon of gas before you know it, mister.”

It was a time of Cold War, cartels and counter-espionage. The battle for the soul of the modern world was distilled to a point where one could either sip from the West’s grail shining with its thousand points of light or toss back a shot from the community based cup of socialism.

It all seemed so clear.  There were good guys and bad guys. The West extended invitations to enjoy liberty while Communism took away your right to decide. The world was not a colorful mural of elementary school book cultures and happy independent countries but a canvas to be fought over – – and ultimately covered by the brush stokes of red or white ideologies.

In college, I read Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, published in 1944, which reinforced the notion that any society that mistakenly yields to a vision of collectivism eventually degrades into totalitarianism.  Hayek’s thesis contended that any “vanguard“ form of socialistic or fascist government is eventually corrupted by its own power and never fully yields to society the self-governance it has promised to transition.  When there is a void of social and political power, it is not filled by utopian democracy but instead by absolute control. Hayek warned that citizens willing to cede personal liberties or greater dependence on entitlements provided by a larger, more prescriptive government led to the same end – serfdom.  Democracy was the fragile middle ground between bankrupt liberalism and suffocating fascism.

The danger of equipping an 18 year-old with Hayek is you create a libertarian with anarchist tendencies. In the mid eighties, it was a time of conservatism and I became an opinionated critic of our foreign policy in Central America and Monroe Doctrine unilateralism.  I was armed with a powerful arsenal of convenient academic views that I had gathered in earnest in class rooms, lectures and in left-wing coffee houses.

Years later, while living and working in Europe, I realized that I had become, what comedian Ricky Gervais coined, “an idiot abroad.”  My apologist views were simple on issues that remained highly complex.  I had never visited many of the nations of whom I had such devout opinions.  As I travelled the Middle East, I came to view these nations as ancient ceramics broken by two World Wars – – only to be haphazardly reconstructed across deep tribal fissures and religious fault lines.

In England, I met a post-colonial empire with a richer past than future. British history in the Middle East was embodied in the tumultuous 1800’s when colonialism sewed the seeds for WWI.  A great global land rush began for control of resource rich, weaker nations in strategic locations across the globe.  Britain, Spain, Russia, England, Japan, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Belgium, France and the US, all rationalized that these underdeveloped countries would benefit profoundly from Western culture, infrastructure and oversight.  In 1918, while the Ottoman Empire was receding from Europe, leaving pools of ethnic conflict and seeds of internecine war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist, and an impoverished Germany would witness the slow strangulation of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the national socialist party.

Most historians contend that while the Treaty of Versailles marked the end of the fighting of WWI, it only served as the mid-way point in a political and ideological war that dates back to the Crusades. The ideological war between Islam and the West inflamed with the birth of Israel and was fanned as communism and democracy waged a dozen proxy wars across the globe.  Many still argue that WWII did not really end until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In time, colonialism revealed its ugly underbelly.  In “King Leopold’s Ghost”, the world read about the crushing repression of Belgian colonialism as the tiny European nation raped the Congo of its rubber and respect, plunging the African nation into a darkness from which has still to recover. Many world powers ultimately fashioned the snare that would entrap their own feet. The French were bloodied in Tunisia and Algeria.  The British were driven from India and Palestine.  Russia became ensnared in Afghanistan and across the Balkans.  The US left 55,000 dead in Vietnam.  Western interests in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, South America and the Pacific Rim began to unravel as smaller protectorates sought self governance and strived to drive out their protectors.

As we watch the wild-fire of social protest sweep through the Middle East and North Africa, many of us are filled with a mixture of dread, elation and anticipation.  As each nation’s army serves either as a vanguard for a transitional government or a hammer to shatter rising resistance, many are uncertain how to distinguish between protecting our interests and indulging the drum beat for democracy.

As protesters rush head long into the center of Manama, Bahrain, there is a growing angst building across a world that runs on fossil fuel and has keen interest in a region that has delivered as much stability as the San Andreas Fault. Each day is now filled with inspired Berlin Wall moments and at the same time, trepidation as firebrand clerics and moderates compete for the hearts and minds of a population where 50% are under 20-years-old.

2011 is the year of living dangerously and we are not sure what to make of it. Some credit former President George W Bush with threading the first fragile filament of democracy through Iraq so that it might illuminate a region shadowed by the permanent twilight of autocratic and fundamentalist regimes. Detractors of the war in Iraq draw no comparisons and feel these protests are a natural result of human social evolution.  They argue that any sustainable change – whether personal or collective – arises from within and does not normally come about as a result of outside influences attempting to be a catalyst for change.  Still others argue that certain regions will always need despots ‘lest they fracture into sectarian violence and civil war.  So, how can one tell a good despot from a bad one? Is it the shoes?

Broken nations, like the proverbial fish, rot first from the head. Broken nations begin with broken governments. Most of the world’s 6.9B people want the same thing – peace, economic opportunity, freedom and legal certainty.  For this idiot – now at home, I am uncertain whether one can achieve the underpinnings to support a free society without some form of democratic government.  However, in the process of allowing for majority rule, one must always be prepared for alternative forms of government – coalitions, theocracies and even forms of socialism. The strictly American part of my brain wants the best of all scenarios – democratic allies whose economic and global aspirations mute their more fundamentalist minorities. The social activist part of my brain wants to support the process however it plays out.

Some find it hard to condemn Yemen, Libya and Iran’s violent reactions to protesters while condoning Qatar’s, Bahrain’s and possibly Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia’s future hard-line responses to those who seek to end decades of autocracy, oligopoly, monarchy or theocracy. Does the preservation of national interests afford a nation the justification for interfering with the politics of another nation? Is nation-building only work when the nation is constructed in your own image? Do some of us just need to grow up and face the facts that the oil-addicted West must always have a hand in this part of the world?

After all these years, I remain, faithfully, an idiot.  I am always left with more questions.  While some have come to see the world through a black and white lens,  my sunglasses only see shades of  gray. One can only imagine what it must be like to be our President.  All eyes are watching and the answers are about as clear as a viscous pool of oil.

And A River Runs Through It

Icicles at Partnachklamm, Garmisch Partenkirch...
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Don’t knock the weather; nine-tenths of the people couldn’t start a conversation if it didn’t change once in a while. ~Kin Hubbard

I have a home that rests on the neck of a gentle slope in the deep New England winter woods.  It’s length faces north while its soft shoulders fall to the east and west.  A master bedroom window stands as a sentinel spying to the southwest across a fenced garden and a rectangle of boxwoods. Inside, an east/west beige wall separates the master from a living room that is warmed by soft, winter light. The wall stretches from a pinewood floor to an arching sapphire blue ceiling – and a river runs through it.

The Eskimo People have over fifty terms to describe “snow”. I am now fairly certain that thirty of them are curse words.  The past thirty days have conspired to entomb my entire world in a brittle, frozen coffin of ice.  My   holiday Dickens village needs to be updated to include new figurines of elderly who have fallen on skate rink sidewalks, roof ice and water removal men and unwitting commuters whose shoes have been eaten away by the leprosy of winter sidewalk salt.

As a native Californian, my eighth New England winter has been an arctic blast of humiliating reality.  When I first considered relocating to rural life, I envisioned low rock walls, ponds and Thoreau self-sufficiency. Instead I was forced to dig wells, manage septic tanks and depend on a fragile 220V kite string of electrical line. I recall Fairfield County friends lamenting to us that global warming had robbed Connecticut of its Currier and Ives winters and left in its wake a mild province of wintry mix nights and endless springtime mud.

On February 1st, while my basement ceiling was leaching water through the taped edges of its drywall edifice, I began to understand why northern longitude cultures have the highest suicide rate.  At the exact moment that a three-foot ice dam was redirecting snow melt under my roof shingles, through the attic, down my living room wall, through the ceiling to create a new tributary of the Rowayton River, I was worrying more of an oncoming Ice Age than a hot, flat and crowded world.

It is in these rare times of Man versus Wild, I am reminded that I am the useless descendent of a more self-reliant and practical line of survivalists and self-sufficient laborers.  I hail from a generation molded out of Play Dough, not forged from rich metal alloy. I can barely replace a smoke alarm battery. I am a member of a soft palmed, latter stage service-based Boomer Generation with a penchant for outsourcing everything — including manual and menial labor. When catastrophe strikes, I keep dialing until I can get through to someone who knows what the hell is going on at my house.

Ours is a demographic that throws its backs out while sitting at desks, sneezing or putting on socks. After a childhood indentured to Silent Generation Sergeants who dealt out punitive chores and “because you live here” hard labor, many of us rebelled and purposely atrophied our fledgling do-it-yourself muscles. In doing so, we revived the handyman industry.  We secretly loathe household crises as they reveal our limitations. Despite a garage filled with power tools and promise, we simply cannot “ git ‘er done.” In a rare moment of reverse discrimination, women expect men to intuitively know how to battle Mother nature.  We are expected to vanquish the monsters of leaks, creaks and cracks.  “You are a guy – you are supposed to know how to fix stuff.” Ok, you are a woman, where is my chicken cordon bleu and my chocolate souffle? For God’s sake I got a C+ in wood shop!

I glance up at a seething frozen mass the size of the Khombu Ice Fall.  My wife suggests that I grab the ladder and chip away at the twelve-foot serpent of blue-gray glacier.  I would rather french kiss a cannibal than risk assaulting this Hillary Step of ice. “Sure. Just grab me the flame thrower from the basement.“ For a nanosecond, she believes me to be in earnest. She catches herself, briefly breaking eye contact with this icy sword of Damocles, smirking at my eye roll and crooked, half smile. Yes, I am a modern day disappointment.

I long to drill holes in these ice jams, insert M80 quarter sticks of dynamite and blow up the whole mess.  I secretly want to stand on the home’s prominent cupola – – hands on my hips, head back and project a deep manly laugh to the neighborhood as I display by snow-free roof.. Instead I skulk inside pacing – waiting like an expectant father for the snow removal guy with his legion of strong backs and canary yellow snow shovel attached to his 12 cylinder, 400hp truck.

Later in the day, insult is heaped upon injury.  In a haunted mansion moment, our electricity begins to flicker in perpetual brown out.  With only 120V powering our home, we have no heat, water or appliances. Yet, half power is just enough to preclude our expensive generator from kicking in.  We are in a twilight purgatory. I stare at the tangled guts of a fuse box.  “ My wife yells downstairs, asking me if I checked the circuit breaker.” I lie and shout back “of course!” I am too embarrassed to admit to having no clue where the breaker rests on this circuit board of confusion. I shake my head. How ironic that I should have a river in my walls but no water from my faucets.

I am stuck in a bad Ingmar Bergman film.  The stark white landscape, the nihilistic monotony of slate gray days and the slow erosion of our sanity from delays, disruptions and the creaking weight of 3 feet of ice and snow squatting on our home like a fat man, has me perpetually uneasy.

In the last 30 days my entire property has transformed into the Lake Placid Olympics complex.  To the east, there is an exciting luge run where one can buckle into one of three multi-ton automotive sleds and course out of control down a 30 degree pitch of ice hill.  The passengers often scream but are hard to hear over the drone of the nearby generator and industrial drying equipment perpetually blowing air into my now broken walls. The front yard is a world-class skating rink. I must now hire a phalanx of workers to clear my roof, chisel ice, open up walls, replace saturated insulation, aerate narrow spaces and dry out the soaked carpet and wood flooring.

Massive eight foot icicles hang like dragon’s fangs from fragile drains. Ice dams have formed between gabled windows and along the edges of the roof. They loom – sapphire blue clots that are pushing my home toward cardiac arrest. As is often the case, I leave it to my spouse to administer CPR and sneak away earlier than normal to an office with running water, adults and electricity.

We are not alone in our winter distress.  It has been a thankless month in Fairfield County.  After sending my spouse flowers for supervising a lifetime’s worth of repairs, I made dinner reservations. It was my fatted calf offering to my life partner and an Old Testament God who had chosen to test us with a biblical trifecta of ice storms, snow days and power outages.

At dinner, we run into some Kathy and Kevin. Kevin has also sent flowers and is now treating his better half to an evening out.  Kathy related the bitter epiphany of her week as she sat outside on battered knees chiseling frozen poopsicles that were conspicuously placed like Easter Island statues across a deck of snow.  As her children and animals watched her from a warm inside with blank, insouciant stares, she had her moment of clarity. “I have a freaking MBA and I am out here in a snow storm chipping dog poop out of ice with a screwdriver. I kept wondering, ‘where exactly did my train leave its tracks’?” She went on to describe an all too familiar set of January indignities – – a frigorific month of logistical chaos, icy roads and a house full of snow day teens that seemed to believe life was someone else’s responsibility.

It is a familiar prologue. In the southwest corner of her home, a warm, inviting living room looks across a southern frozen front lawn.  Yet its brow is furrowed.  The ceiling is clearly sagging under the weight of winter.  There is a narrow corridor between the roofline – a crawl space that rests above this popular common room – – and a river runs through it.