Monday, August 31, 2009

Obamaland

Having read the reports of recent polls indicating that a substantial number of Americans still do not believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States, including about 6% of Americans who believe that Obama was born in Hawaii but do not consider Hawaii to be part of the United States, I made the personal sacrifice of traveling to Hawaii to put this controversy to rest. Before going, I studied a map of the Pacific Ocean. This simple exercise should make it clear that any country seeking naval control over the Pacific would find it highly desirable, perhaps even essential, to hold Hawaii. The best way to maintain a naval base on Hawaii, of course, would be to make Hawaii part of your country. Clearly Hawaii is one of the most strategically important places in the entire world. I'm not sure why any American would consider it advantageous, at least to the defense interests of the United States, for Hawaii be a foreign country.

After considering the important geopolitical reasons why the United States would have wanted to make Hawaii a state, I next traveled to Pearl Harbor to verify the substantial presence of the United States Navy there, and to soak up some history lessons. This was my second visit to the Arizona memorial, and it is still a moving experience no matter how many times you visit. A new visitors' center is under construction, under the supervision of the National Parks Service, further evidence of United States government jurisdiction over the island of Oahu.

While my family was in Hawaii, we searched for signs of commemerations of the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's admittance into the union as the 50th state. Barack Obama is known to be 48 years old, which would suggest that he was born some time after the admittance of Hawaii to the union in 1959. Some might have found it suspicious, however, that the celebrations of the statehood anniversary were very restrained. We saw no parades or fireworks or other major demonstrations. We did hear about some anti-statehood demonstrations, though, which might have explained the low-key marking of the 50th anniversary. Apparently, there are some Hawaiian islanders who are still not reconciled to statehood.

Another day, I happened to meet my Congresswoman, Diane Watson, at of all places, the Polynesian Cultural Center. I cannot take this as definitive confirmation that Hawaii is part of the United States, however, as she herself told me that she was on the way back from a Congressional delegation's visit to China.

On the last day of our trip, we went on a scavenger hunt of some places where the president is alleged to have lived as a child and teenager. I found these sites through a very helpful website called Obama's Neighborhood, which has much better pictures than the ones I took. First stop was 6085 Kalaniana'ole Highway, where the baby Barack lived in 1961. You really can't see much of anything here, because of the gate, but I did verify that this address actually exists, and it is located in the United States of America.

Near the University of Hawaii we found an apartment building at 1427 Alexander Street, where Obama's grandparents lived from 1962 to 1963. While there, we ran into a Dutch couple armed with a guidebook of Obama sites in Hawaii, following a similar trek. I had a friendly chat with them, and they seemed to have no qualms about our president's authenticity. Then again, they were definitely not Americans.

We then visited the one really nice house Barack Obama is supposed to have lived in during his childhood, on 2234 University Ave., also near the University of Hawaii, located in the United States of America. My son posed in front of it. Two kids who may live in the house waved at us while we stood in the driveway taking pictures. Apparently they are used to tourists snapping pictures of their house, and don't seem to mind it.

Next, here I am standing in front of the apartment building on Beretania St., also located in the United States of America, where Barack Obama lived with his grandparents while he attended nearby Punahou prep school.

Finally, we looked up the apartment building on Poki Street, only a few blocks away, where Barack's mother lived with his half-sister Maya, from 1974 through 1976.

All in all, a fun and educational way to spend a morning in the great state of Hawaii.

(map from Pacific Rim Institute)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Zeitoun

Before reading the new book Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, I had thought of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina mainly as an example of monumental incompetence. But this book made me realize that the government was not merely incompetent. In some ways, it was brutally efficient.

Zeitoun tells the true story of a Syrian-American painting contractor who stayed behind during and after the hurricane, using an old canoe to help rescue people and feed stranded animals. He finds great meaning and purpose in these activities, which is probably what caused him to remain even after it became clear that he probably should finally leave New Orleans and re-join his family, who had evacuated before the hurricane hit. The nightmare that followed revealed that while Homeland Security was not doing a terribly effective job in picking up stranded victims, getting them to safety or caring for them in the Superdome, it managed to put together a pretty mean prison, based on the Guantanamo model, to incarcerate suspected looters and terrorists.

Sometimes it takes a simple story about one person to drive home much larger points. For example, that a military model may not be the most appropriate way to deal with a humanitarian crisis. For another example, that we should never put aside fundamental constitutional rights such as reasonable bail, and the right to counsel, even during a crisis. When the government ignores these rights, and assumes the power to lock people up indiscriminately and indefinitely, all of us have lost the most basic of freedoms that this country was founded to protect.

We need to record and remember these stories so that we can try to prevent these kinds of abuses from occurring again.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Hope in Burma?

Cheers to Senator Jim Webb for obtaining the release of American John Yettaw who was imprisoned for the crime of visiting Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Webb was granted a visit with Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as with ruling General Than Shwe, presumably because he has been in favor of a new policy of engagement with Burma.

Given that sanctions are not supported by such powerful trading partners with Burma as China, Russia and India, it would seem to make sense at least to raise the question of whether a different policy would work better. Certainly, any actions that draw more attention to this isolated country would appear desirable.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Afghanistan

I got an email from the Chairman of the California Democratic Party yesterday asking for support for legislation (HR 2404) requiring the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to Congress by the end of the year on the Administration's exit strategy. So I did a little research to try to find out what led to this idea. I wondered, has the Secretary of Defense refused to answer questions about the exit strategy for Afghanistan? Has he even been asked about this? Has the administration been uncooperative about its plans for Afghanistan? So far I have not seen anything that suggests that less antagonistic means of obtaining this information have been exhausted, or that they have been unproductive.

While everyone should be concerned about the continued involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, given that country's long history as the place where the plans of great empires have come to ruin, my concern is more about the most effective process for raising those concerns. Is it really necessary, so early in the Obama administration, to adopt an adversarial relationship between Congress and the White House in order to develop a sensible policy toward Afghanistan? Here is a place where there is broad, bi-partisan agreement on the importance of creating a more stable country, keeping the Taliban out of power if possible, and eliminating bases for Al-Qaeda. There is also broad, bi-partisan appreciation of the dangers of sinking into the Afghan quagmire as the Soviets and prior empires did. There is also general agreement that the United States is not trying to extend its empire to Afghanistan, only to try to do some good in that country. We have a very difficult, but important, mission there, and we ought to be able to have a civilized debate about how to accomplish it. Does it further that debate to issue demands and ultimatums from Congress to the administration, or are there more constructive ways of formulating appropriate policy?

It seems that some Democrats in Congress still think of themselves as the party out of power, and are ready to treat the Obama administration the way they treated the Bush administration, as a hostile entity not to be trusted. Or maybe Democrats are just naturally fractious and divided, and are ready to re-live their glory days as the party that destroyed itself over Vietnam in the 1960's, or as the party that could not get anything done in the next installment of their glory days during the Carter administration in the 1970's, or perhaps as the party that had such trouble defining itself during the Clinton administration in the 1990's that it subsequently lost both Congress and the White House. The Obama administration promised to use the political process in a more constructive way than these past Democratic failures. Will Democrats in Congress learn to work as a team so that they do not repeat them?

Will Rogers famously said, "I am not a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat!" Is it foolish to hope that Democrats could learn to be a bit more organized? If they could avoid destructive political infighting, they might actually get health care reform passed this year, and they might be able to conduct a sensible foreign policy without marching in the streets.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Obama's Principles

As health insurance reform legislation makes its painful way through Congress, President Obama is being attacked from both the left and the right. The right is vilifying him for destroying the American free enterprise system, and the left is outraged that he is making deals with drug companies, and compromising cherished liberal principles to gain the favor of Blue Dog Democrats. All of this criticism seems a bit unfair, because none of the bills coming out of the various committees are really "his" bill. The President has tried to accommodate a range of views within the Congress so as to put together a bill that can command a majority. He has had to back down from ideas that he prefers (such as limiting tax deductions as a means of funding the bill) because some of those ideas will not pass. Perhaps that is the very reason he is being attacked. Both passionate supporters as well as opponents of fundamental health care reform would seem to prefer having the President identify more strongly with some specific version of this proposed legislation, and all sides are frustrated with the Administration's continued willingness to compromise.

All this reminded me of hearing recently that one of my former law professors was very disenchanted with Obama during the campaign last year. For the most part, the faculty at the University of Chicago was very supportive of Obama's campaign, but I heard that this one professor did not respect Obama because in his view, Obama had no principles. Now this professor happens to be a guy with very idiosyncratic views of the law, someone who has created an entire mental construct of how the law ought to operate, without regard to whether such a system could actually be put into practice, without regard to economic efficiency, and without regard to whether the results might actually seem fair to most people. Instead this professor had dreamed up an ideal model of a legal system that could only work in his mind, or be taught at law school, and had little relationship with reality.

Barack Obama is the opposite. I believe he does have ideals and principles, but he is entirely grounded in what will work in reality. He doesn't seem to have much use for principles that can't be put into practice. Obama's campaign was never so much about specific policy proposals, as it was about a more inclusive type of politics that aims to accommodate the needs and desires of people on all portions of the political spectrum. Because of that, Obama infuriates doctrinaire idealists on both the right and the left. Critics on the left who believe passionately that single payer is the answer to everything wrong with our health care system can't stand the fact that the Administration gave up on single payer, and might even be willing to compromise on a public option. In their view it would be better to have no reform at all than a reform that sacrifices these principles. Critics on the right who want a more market-based solution are frustrated at the moving target that the Administration is presenting, and are forced to label any reform that is being proposed as socialistic. They too would seem to prefer the status quo to anything being proposed by a Democratic administration and Congress.

We know from the Clinton health care experience that a President who appears too wedded to a proposal that has not sufficiently been attuned to the needs of Congress will not be able to get anything done. The danger for Obama is that if he goes too far in the other direction, being willing to sign his name to anything that can make it through the Congress, he risks being labeled as someone who does not have the passion to fight for what he believes in. That seems to be why he has taken to the stump again, recognizing that he needs to show some fire and commitment to some essential features of the health care reform proposals.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

John Hughes Tribute

Who knew that John Hughes had so much to say about town hall meetings and other current events?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Laughter is the best medicine.

Secretary of State Clinton demonstrates the proper response whenever someone says the words: "John Bolton."

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cheers to Senator Kit Bond



While taking the opportunity to chide hypocritical Democrats for opposing Republican judicial appointments on ideological grounds, Senator Kit Bond puts the hypocrites in his own party to shame with his acknowledgment of Judge Sotomayor's sterling qualifications for the Supreme Court, as well as his acknowledgment that "elections have consequences."

I could try to start an argument about whether Republicans or Democrats have been worse in opposing judges they disagree with, but in keeping with the always-positive tone of this blog, I'll simply applaud Senator Bond's remarks today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Hope in North Korea

This news perked me up from reading about tea-baggers disrupting town meetings and Kenyan birth certificates and nonsense like that. After years of deteriorating relations with North Korea there are signs that they might be again interested in emerging from the wilderness of international isolation. The first sign of that is the release of the two American journalists held since March. Hats off to ex-President Clinton acting as the distinguished unofficial emissary from the United States on a "private" mission perhaps arranged in part by his wife, the Secretary of State.

Oh yes, and Happy Birthday to President Barack Obama (and Helen Thomas!) (and coincidentally to my sister also)!