Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Making Sunni and Shiite stick? Myth, facts and memory.

Over the weekend I heard a great On the Media radio show that was a perfect showcase of sticky versus unsticky ideas. (I am a huge fan Made to Stick. This new book has really helped me reframe the way I look at communication, which has always fascinated me.)

I think we Americans have finally gotten the idea that it is relevant and necessary to learn the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as we try to understand their factional conflicts. On the Media presented a fairly detailed analysis of this issue, featuring Dr. Vali Nasr, an undisputed expert on the topic, who has briefed President Bush on the religious divide. Unfortunately, two days later, I cannot remember a single word of what he said. I think I don't have enough of a frame of reference to understand the conflict when it is presented abstractly. Yes, I have read that Shiites and Sunnis are different denominations of Islam who disagree about the true inheritors of the Prophet Muhammad's wisdom. But what does that mean in modern terms? (Just read this Wikipedia entry explaining Shia Islam and see if you come away understanding what it says.)

I don't even need this to be translated into American terms, such as "it's like the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism" (which it may or may not be like at all). I do need it explained concretely, with the modern-day implications made clear.

It's not just that I was driving or not paying attention when I listened to Dr. Vali Nasr, because a later segment of On the Media was incredibly sticky. It was a perfect showcase of unmemorable and memorable stories side by side. Remember hearing about the stories of Vietnam Veterans being spit on when they returned home? Sociologist Jerry Lembcke investigated this story and reports that it is more myth than truth. He could not find any contemporary reports of Vietnam Vet spitting incidents; rather, the stories started "popping up like mushrooms" in the 1980's (see for example, Rambo). Lembcke himself is a Vietnam Veteran, and he has written an entire book on this issue called Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.

Lembecke's analysis of the relevance of this myth was startling. The story goes back at least as far as WWI when returning German soldiers were supposedly spit upon. This created a face-saving "betrayal narrative" for the military, by blaming a lost war on unsupportive citizens back home.

Does this sound familiar, as President Bush warns us that dissent "emboldens" the enemy? Fox News showcased Iraq veteran Corporal Joshua Sparling, who claims he was spit on at a recent anti-war protest. (See YouTube clip.) Questions abound regarding the facts of this incident and original reporting by the New York Times, but in the meantime Cpl. Sparling is reigniting the entire storyline and debate brought on by this myth. It is notable that Sparling was part of an organized counter-protest and has made something of a career of confronting anti-war protesters and reporting that he has been harassed as a veteran.

This story is memorable and sticky (with apologies for the unintentional pun), but does it really matter? Sociologist Lembecke asserts that spitting stories in World War I Germany were the beginning of "stab in the back" legend explaining why Germany lost. This was a factor that led to the scapegoating of Jews, their eventual genocide, and the second World War. Never underestimate the impact of a powerful cultural myth.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Divided loyalties and EMILY's List

I just can't get behind Hillary Clinton. I have never gotten a sense of who she is as a leader. I've seen her speak in person and she is clearly smart, but uninspiring. Her lack of charisma is all the more evident next to Bill.

The deal-breaker for me is not really Bill Clinton, but George Bush. I have voted in 5 Presidential elections in my lifetime, and the winners have been Bush-Clinton-Clinton-Bush-Bush. I am not willing to go there again with either of these families. That may be unfair to Hillary as an individual, but too bad. I don't want to see anyone named Clinton, Bush or Gore in the White House. For better or for worse, and we've sure had enough of worse lately, after 20 years it is definitely time to move forward with some new blood in our top leadership.

I am enthusiastically supporting John Edwards for President, and I'll talk more about that in a separate post. I mention it because it relates to my strange Hillary Clinton moment this week. I've committed to Edwards and I have started working for him. In the past I have also been an unwavering EMILY's List supporter. But as soon as Hillary declared, EMILY's List announced their full-throttle endorsement and intention to work on her behalf.

This makes sense that this old-girls'-network has mobilized behind Clinton, but I am feeling betrayed nonetheless. I just renewed my EMILY's List membership, which I would not have done if I had thought about my contribution going toward Hillary. I am very interested in supporting EMILY's List for House and Senate candidates, but I think the Presidential race should be a separate decision. I worry for EMILY's List that they will lose supporters for this very reason. I have met only a handful of Democrats, women or men, who are enthusiastic about electing Hillary Clinton. This holds true among my friends and acquaintances who are liberal Boomer women, the group you would think would fully embrace Hillary's candidacy.

My husband had a great suggestion for EMILY's List: a "D'OH" earmark for "Democrats other than Hillary." This was a fantastic unintentional pun on Michael's part, given that EMILY is an acronym for "Early Money Is Like Yeast." Get it, yeast, dough, D'OH!

For the record, I am not sure how any individual contribution to Emily's List would or would not make it directly to Hillary's coffer--probably not directly, but EMILY's List President Ellen Malcolm made it clear that her organization will be with Hillary "every step of the way."

Most Washington pundits seem to think it's a foregone conclusion that Hillary will secure the nomination, but I don't see the base of everyday people mobilizing. This will be a long election season, which I think is actually a good thing in terms of choosing a leader (though it may be bad for governing the country during an endless campaign cycle). I hope that the long seasons will at least give candidates a chance to connect with voters rather than letting the media and inside-the-beltway pundits anoint our next leader.

Monday, January 22, 2007

DINO Joe Lieberman

I almost crashed my car while listening to Joe Lieberman's NPR interview on Friday. Lieberman is hardly even a DINO, he is a former Democrat. In fact, he sounded like a Republican ventriloquist dummy in his support of Bush's escalation.

He echoed Bush's idea that those oppose the escalation need to "come up with a better plan" which accepts Bush's premise that victory in Iraq is still possible. He said "How Iraq ends will have a direct affect of American security" in regard to the so-called war on terror. [An unfortunate choice of phrasing--I hope he meant to say, "how the Iraq War ends"....]

I really started to swerve toward the guardrail when Lieberman said, "There is a worry here. These extremists and terrorists cannot defeat us on the battlefield, but they can break our national will, and if they do, the consequences will be the same."

Lieberman is now firmly in Bush territory. Remember back in October, "President Bush said terrorists will win if Democrats win and impose their policies on Iraq, as he and Vice President Cheney escalated their rhetoric Monday in an effort to turn out Republican voters in next week's midterm elections." (Washington Post, 10/31/2006)

There is no good option in Iraq, only tragic choices between bad and worse. But I believe it is our continue Imperialism there that will fuel terrorism more than anything else. I have not heard any native Iraqis say that they believe that escalating the war will bring peace or security. We need to leave.

Christiane Amanpour investigates the radicalization of British Muslims in her new CNN: Special Invesstigations Unit report, "The War Within." I am kicking myself for missing the broadcast over the weekend, but you can read Amanpour's "Behind the Scenes Interview" on CNN.com