Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: January 2009

Mr. O Goes to Washington

Here in Ireland, there is sometimes an apostrophe after the O, just to remind everyone that one of Mr. Obama’s ancestors was a fellow named Fulmoth Kearney from a small town in Offaly called Moneygall. During the inaugural festivities, one of the popular songs was “There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama,” which is still out there on You Tube somewhere. Yes, he is one of us. Then again, there are a lot of people in Kenya and Hawai’i who can say the same. And people in Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Sudan, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, France, Germany, Italy, and Latin America have inklings he might be one of them, too. Time will tell.

For now the euphoria seems pretty global, which may be as much a reflection on the previous U.S. administration as an expression of hope in a darkened world. Pundits are claiming that the worldwide economic slowdown imperils much if not most of Obama’s campaign pledges, as well. Perhaps so. But his immediate actions to open negotiations with beleaguered Palestinians, shut down the infamous concentration camp at Guantánamo, repudiate extraordinary rendition and the de facto torturing of foreign nationals suspected of terrorism, not to say his appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East peace-maker, indicate that this man may be a true promise-keeper.

More than that, he may be a peacemaker himself. The economic meltdown is another matter. As much as the triggering event may have been the subprime mortgage debacle in the US, the collapse of banking systems around the world indicates that the rot was much wider and went far deeper. For more than twenty years greed, graft, and corruption, abetted by deregulation, have been slowly eroding the foundations of commerce, industry, investment management, and property development throughout the northern hemisphere. The title of one best-seller said it all: Greed is Good. That sentiment was as true of Ireland as anywhere else.

The warning signals were there for anyone to see who was paying attention. Remember Enron? One semi-prophetic voice was that of the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Rodrigo de Rato. In an address at Wharton College in March, 2007, de Rato identified dodgy subprime mortgage markets in the U.S. as one of the three risky developments that could eventually disrupt the global economy. Regrettably, de Rato’s vision was short: he also affirmed that world economic foundations remained strong and growth would continue for at least five years at the current rate of 5%.

The house of cards began to collapse within six months.

Few political leaders in history have faced the enormity of problems Mr. Obama inherited on January 20, 2009. If his first three days in office are any indicator of what is to come, the world may well be justified in expressing the hope that he is truly “one of us.”

“I am W: Destroyer of Worlds” or Why the World Awaits Obama

Hanging chads
Kathleen Harris
Dick Cheney
Donald Rumsfeld
Karl Rove
John Ashcroft
Wanted: Dead or Alive
Freedom Fries
The Patriot Act
Homeland Security
WMD in Iraq
Shock and Awe
“Mission Accomplished”
Colin Powell
Alberto Gonzales
Harriet Mier
Extraordinary Rendition
Abu Graib
Dick Cheney
Kenny Boy
“Is our children learning yet?”
Global climate change
Roadmap to Peace
Global economic meltdown
Lehman Brothers
Polar bears and wolves
Dick Cheney
The ten trillion dollar price tag

Blinkless in Gaza

My first lesson in state terrorism came at the hands of the saintly sisters who taught me in grammar school, where policy dictated that when a pupil guilty of some infraction failed to self-incriminate, the entire classroom would be detained after school until the cowardly culprit either fessed up or was ratted on by someone.  Snitches were very scarce, however, and collective if passive resistance usually won our release after a half-hour of repeated imprecations.


What my classmates and I gained from such experiences was an instinct for fairness and an abiding resentment toward certain authority figures, notably nuns and teachers.  Of course, they were only following orders.  But so was Adolf Eichmann.  (I think most of us outgrew our suspicion of teaching sisters, but from what I can tell, not our sense of fairness.)


Today, as the horrendous corporate punishment of the captive Palestinians of Gaza continues under the well-heeled militarism of the Israeli government, the ethical disproportion is as disturbing as the perceived imbalance of power, which is clearly reflected in the casualty figures.  The Palestinian death toll now approaches the 1,000 mark, a third of them dead children.  Over 4,000 people have been wounded.  By contrast, thirteen Israelis have been killed, almost all of them soldiers, at least three of whom died from “friendly fire” blunders.


Israel’s response to the virtually unanimous UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire was to escalate the scope of battle.  Hamas, too, rejected the resolution and continues to fire rockets into Israel every day, usually without harm.  Neither side is willing to blink first, lest the enemy claim victory.  It is increasingly clear, however, that the only way out is a mutual and simultaneous cease-fire.  But this would amount to at least a moral defeat for Ehud Olmert’s double objective – to eliminate the rocket attacks on southern Israel and to eradicate Hamas’ ability to acquire more weapons.  That the invasion has so far failed to accomplish either must be seriously humiliating.  Olmert can either escalate the violence even further, expecting eventually to wear Hamas down.  Or he might agree to a cease-fire if only to save face.  At this point, he seems determined to escalate.  And so the slaughter continues.


Israel now stands accused of denying Palestinians rights, freedoms, and protections guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions – among them security, freedom of movement, access to food and drink, fundamental health care, education and cultural enjoyment.  Physically, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have gone for months without electricity, clean drinking water, and sewage facilities.  The apparently unprovoked and lethal Israeli attack on the UN school in Jabaliya has been described as a war crime.  And not the only one.


Over the weekend, many tens of thousands of war protestors jammed the streets of capitals from Europe to Indonesia, denouncing Israel’s draconian tactics in the Gaza strip.  Here in Ireland, parliamentarians from across the political spectrum have urged the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.  Counter-demonstrations have been miniscule.


Hamas is hardly guiltless in causing the desperate plight of Palestinian civilians.  But control, based on overwhelming military superiority, lies with Israel, subsidized and protected by the United States.  Surely Israel has a right as well as an obligation to defend its citizens.  But who will defend the Palestinian civilians?  Who will protect the guiltless children?


Olmert’s Silk Gloves

When Ehud Olmert toured Beersheba last Thursday, he announced with solemn assurance that “We have not declared war on the residents of Gaza.  I reiterate that we will treat the population with silk gloves but will apply an iron fist to Hamas.” 


I suppose he expected the people of Gaza to feel grateful for leniency today when Israeli tanks and artillery opened fire on three UN Schools, and now refugee shelters, in Khan Younis, Gaza City, and the Jabaliya refugee camp, where more than 40 civilians were killed according to latest estimates.  Of course it is difficult to get accurate figures because the Israelis will not permit foreign journalists into Gaza.  So when army spokesperson Major Avital Leibowitz informs the world that Israeli soldiers had been fired on from within the school precincts and that two Hamas terrorists were among the four dozen dead women, children, and other civilians, we can either believe her or not.  The question is why should we believe her?  It was Major Leibowitz who like Tzipi Livni assured the world a week ago that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”  Truth has become a major casualty of this war in particular.  As have children and other noncombatants.


When I was in Iraq in 2001, people still referred to the heartless air attack on Baghdad the week before Christmas in 1998, as “the Lewinsky bombing.”  There’s nothing like a little war to get voters’ minds focused.  Or unfocused.  Coincidentally, national elections are just ahead in Israel.  It may not come as a great surprise that Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, and Ehud Barack, the defense minister, are both vying to replace Ehud Olmert as prime minister.  Mr. Olmert himself, you might remember, has been under investigation for over three years with regard to bribery and corruption.


It only gets stranger as it gets bloodier.

Alternatives to War

Ehud Olmert defended his unleashing of the dogs of war against virtually defenseless Palestinians by saying he “had no alternative.”  Actually, he could have considered lifting the embargo, allowing food and medicine into the Gaza, opening the borders, tearing down that wall, dismantling 20 years of Israeli illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, and restoring land illegally seized from the Palestinian people.  For starters, anyway.


It must have been cold comfort for a million and a half Palestinians whose average income is about $2.75 a day and have little food, and no electricity or workable sewage plants to learn from Tzipi Livni that “there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”  She’s certainly right in one respect: the real humanitarian crisis is in Tel Aviv.

The First Casualty is Truth

As if cued by President Bush’s nationwide address today, Israel has sent ground forces into Gaza against the pleas of the Arab League, the United Nations, the European Union, and the Pope, among other international agencies and world leaders.  As with the fraudulent claim that Saddam Hussein had caches of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq which justified his 2003 war, Bush’s statement was erected on the pretentious scaffolding of a lie – that Hamas came to power in a coup.  George W. Bush came to power in a judicial coup.  Hamas in fact came to power in January 2006, when in a general legislative election it defeated its main rival Fatah, the party of the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas.  Since then, Hamas has attempted to govern Gaza while resisting the efforts of Abbas to wrest control away, defying the United States, and mounting largely futile rocket attacks against southern Israel.  It is worth noting that more Israelis have died since the current military strikes began than before.  So poorly executed are these defiant but haphazard launches that with them Hamas has killed almost as many Palestinians as Israelis.


Without doubt Hamas’ sporadic rocket attacks and other gestures of defiance are terrorist tactics if, like the stones slung at Israeli tanks by Palestinian teenagers, effectively more symbolic than destructive.  But the massively disproportionate air and now ground offensive by Israel is state terrorism at its most blatant, as it marshals sophisticated and powerful weaponry (U.S.-made and U.S.-financed) against a defenseless civilian population caught in the crossfire between massive military might and an increasingly desperate rebel force.  Terrorism comes in many guises.


Ironically, perhaps the nearest historical precedent for this Goliath-versus-David contest seems to be the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, with its pattern of encirclement, confinement, starvation, and the eventual eradication of a civilian population and a handful of increasingly desperate resistance fighters.  Perhaps not.  Hopefully not.  In this instance, for one thing, fifteen thousand Hamas fighters stand ready to defend their homes and land.  One way or the other, in the sad twilight of his presidency, George Bush has at last abandoned any pretense of the even-handedness he promoted as the Roadmap to Peace on June 24, 2003.



Happy New Year!

“Aren’t we supposed to be saving the world?  I don’t want to rush anybody, of course.”


As my New Year’s gift, let me recommend reading (or re-reading) Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time (London: Corgi, 2002).  It is not just a vastly funny and profound meditation on the nature of time and history, not to mention human fallibility, but also a good study of ministry – good ministry and bad ministry and ministry gone strangely awry. 


It isn’t necessary to understand the plot to get the point.  And if you haven’t read any of Pratchett’s other Discworld books, you probably won’t understand much of the plot anyway.  It’s a little like the Bible in that respect.


Superficially, Thief of Time is about the quest of the mystic sage and street sweeper Lu-Tze and his apprentice Lobsang Ludd to save the universe from the forces of darkness.  If you detect echoes here of the Way of Lo-Tze and the Tao Te Xing, you would not be far from the Kingdom.  Or at least from the Taoist and Zen perspective that seemingly inspires the story.  Let me warn you, however, that beneath the comic surface lurks an insidiously Christian view of the world.  Pratchett is a spiritual cousin of C. S. Lewis and much, much funnier.


Sample dialogue:


          “You can’t think about just one person while you’re saving the world.  You have to be a cold, calculating bastard.” 

“That sounded as if you are quoting somebody,” said Unity. “Who said that?”

“Some total idiot.” (p. 335)


Back to the future, folks!