Sunday, March 6, 2022

A Journalist's Goal

A journalist must avoid ego and hatred. Both vices block you from empathizing, then understanding all points of view. Until linguistic translations are seamless and historical facts uniform, a journalist's job is to tell stories with context, opening doors to the truth. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2022)

Friday, January 28, 2022

On Caitlin Flanagan: High Society Pulp

It’s impolite to malign skilled writers, particularly when they’ve done nothing wrong. When I say nothing wrong, I mean not one wrong breath taken, nor a hand raised at anything impersonal. For The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan, everything is personal, and the personal is worth sharing.

“I think I’ll head over to the kitchen and look out the window for a few minutes.” — Caitlin Flanagan, March 16, 2020

This would be absolutely true were Flanagan, daughter of an Ivy League professor, not a reminder of birthplace invoking fate, the kind of person only possible in America’s sheltered cul-de-sacs.

When I first heard Flanagan, she was exactly what I expected: a privileged schoolmarm who, deep down, believes in the Establishment but is rebellious enough on the surface to convince us otherwise. Indeed, Flanagan's greatest crime is becoming her circumstances’ diktat: an American-born white woman who makes fragility look alluring. (Think Marilyn Monroe with a dog, two degrees, and no scandal, unless buying a birth control pill qualifies.)

Take away Flanagan’s familial money, and she’d be more desperate than sexy, which is precisely why she’s popular--many people, some even non-whites, wonder the same about themselves. A flesh-and-blood reminder of “There but for the grace of God go I,” Flanagan’s made a career as social critic for the country club set and its aspirants. Good for her. Perhaps other writers have become beloved by doing nothing wrong and nothing remarkable, but Flanagan does it all with such empathy, it’s impossible not to admire her—preferably in print than in person. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (January 2022) 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Sweet and Sour Coffee

Like every coffee aficionado, I'm always trying to make the perfect cup of coffee. Yesterday, I formulated a blend I call “Sweet and Sour Coffee.” If you want to try it, instructions are below:

Using a stainless steel French Press, steep the following whole beans for five minutes (or longer, depending on the size of the French Press) in the following percentages:

40% Chiapas or Veracruz (Mexico, medium)
20% Sumatera (Indonesia, dark)
40% Andes or Cuzco (Peru, light)

Want more sour? Increase the percentages in favor of Sumatera.

Want more sweet? Increase the percentages in favor of Andes or Cuzco.

Making a perfect cup of coffee isn’t easy because water type, water temperature, steeping time, and whole bean quality can be unpredictable. Peru currently makes some of the best arabica light roasts, but just one bad season can cause country flavor profiles to change.

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (December 2021)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Declassified JFK Files: Soviets and Cubans, American Right Wing, or ???

Newly declassified JFK files do not appear to have new information; however, they do confirm existing suspicions. The CIA believed JFK’s assassination was the work of Soviets collaborating with Cuban intelligence. Some key points:

Lee Harvey Oswald “defected to USSR in Oct 1959.” Source: 104-10054-10296.

“OSWALD stated that he had been employed since 13 January 1960 in Belorussian radio and TV factory in Minsk where he worked as a metal worker... OSWALD was married... to Marina Nikolaevna PSAKOVA [sic]...”

Oswald apparently attempted “to kill General Walker early in April 1963” and identified with Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution as early as his Marine Corps service in El Toro, California. Source: 104-10086-10181.

Lydia Dimytruk and Alexander Kleinlerer were persons of interest. The CIA believed Soviets were actively targeting USA military personnel, particularly anyone undesirably or dishonorably discharged—just like Oswald. [Note: Edward Snowden also defected to Russia, but for different reasons. Though we’re taught the Cold War ended in 1991, apparently no one told the intelligence agencies.] 

Fidel Castro's Times-Picayune interview with Daniel Harker on September 9, 1963 delivered direct threats to JFK and RFK. 

Cuban intelligence was valuable because of Spanish-speaking abilities, which facilitated intelligence operations in Mexico City, Mexico. Oswald appears to have taken a Greyhound bus from Mexico City to Dallas, Texas on September 30, 1963, allowing three weeks’ preparation time. 

Chairman Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev “had some dark thoughts about the American Right Wing being behind this conspiracy... He said he did not believe that the American security services were this inept... [with respect to Jack Ruby shooting Lee Oswald].” “[His] attitude was one of complete skepticism as to the public version [of events.]”

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2021) 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Economics, Malaysia, and Economic Growth

Economics is broken because other than Hernando de Soto's work, it fails to account for politics and sociology. One of the field's most egregious mistakes is assuming protectionism always equals failure within a globalized trading paradigm--or that slower economic growth is necessarily inferior to faster growth. Post-WWII, debt within allied Western nations created an interdependent system facilitating common goals and knowledge transfers. Meanwhile, in formerly colonized countries, most residents remained poor during as well as after colonization, and the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 confirmed a distrust of Western finance. 

When judging formerly colonized countries like Malaysia, one must remember just how poor the natives were. According to Tun Dr. Mahathir, "The country's per capita income in 1957, the year of Independence, was less than USD350. Under British colonial rule more than 70% of the population lived below the poverty line... there were only about 100 university graduates in the whole country." If an Asian country associated Western influence with mismanagement--not an illogical conclusion after the Vietnam War--then it would prefer homegrown businesses over FDI, even if slower growth resulted. 

Why so much misunderstanding? When globalized trade focuses on things rather than people, cross-cultural understanding cannot succeed except on a superficial level. In a debt-soaked world, will the 22nd century be different?

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2021)

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Journalism, Judges, and Justice: a Neglected American Alliance

The United States, after losing propaganda wars against Russia and China post-Trump, appears to be doubling down on anti-democratic allegations while elevating Asian-Americans into visible positions of power. This hybrid strategy is too little, too late, and will do nothing to alter China's rise to superpower status. 

By now, American politicians and CEOs know their country's institutions are no longer export-ready without substantial advertising and trillions of dollars of government stimulus. To add ballast to the strategies above, they are consolidating media and using government lawyers to prosecute perceived enemies of the state. Such maneuvering, which attempts to combine a Soviet hammer with American marketing and banking expertise, will fail because it brings nothing new. 

No government, irrespective of the political party in power, is really interested in freedom of the press. All democratic governments are keen to control the media by using undemocratic means. -- Preetika Dwivedi

Six corporations already control most of what Americans see, but social media, streaming services, satellite radio, and podcasts represent challenges to crafting a united narrative. As media further consolidates, it can distract you on firmer financial footing, sidelining critical voices by drowning you in options. For example, the American journalist most resembling Edward R. Murrow or Dan Rather is British-born Mehdi Hasan, whom most Americans have never heard of; meanwhile, any American wishing to read America's most honest political commentary would need to turn to the opening letter of Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine. When a semi-mainstream pornographer is a country's most incisive native-born journalist, it is unclear how further media consolidation will assist the role of journalist as the legislature's unofficial fact-finder.

"[I]mperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government." -- Chief Justice Hughes, 299 U.S. 353, 365 (1937)

Regarding "lawfare," the current Democratic Party majority has failed to secure significant jail time against even one alleged bad actor. Republican Steve Bannon's indictment was dismissed. Republicans Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were pardoned. Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI but was pardoned. The list of pardoned and/or convicted military personnel is long and, the occupation of Afghanistan having lasted 20 years, includes members under both Democratic and Republican administrations. 

History may not be kind to Clint Allen Lorance, Robert Bales, Jeremy Morlock, Edward Gallagher, or Mathew Golsteyn, but they can always claim they were victims of a corrupt military hierarchy, thus casting doubt on America's justice system. Such doubt means the law, designed to punish the guilty and free the innocent, cannot be wholly trusted, which in turn means American lawyers and judges cannot be trusted or believed. Doubt and legal maneuvering are not new phenomena, but when they have appeared together, the first casualty has been the credibility of the legal branch. In a ternary system where the judiciary supervises the executive and the legislature, it is not difficult to predict rot from one branch spreading everywhere. This, again, is nothing new. The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial foreshadowed issues not only within the criminal justice system, but the entire legal branch, including police departments, just as the Rodney King beating foreshadowed George Floyd's manslaughter. (The result of the upcoming Theranos trial, where a blond-haired, blue-eyed CEO is claiming she was the victim of a brown-skinned svengali, will determine whether California's justice system is capable of reform or irrevocably corrupt.)

Rot is particularly apt to spread where students lack proper civics and history instruction, and Americans who study the My Lai massacre are not taught the following facts: 1) twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader, was convicted; 2) the "day after the verdict, Nixon ordered Calley released from the post stockade and placed under house arrest in the Fort Benning bachelor officer quarters. Appeals would eventually reduce his punishment to time served." 

Why didn't President Nixon pardon Calley outright? The public--including a majority of whom voted--wouldn't have tolerated it, and their political engagement allowed Congress to use impeachment to drive Nixon out of the political arena. In contrast, when a divided Congress impeached Trump, few Americans cared because Trump was already out of office. (Politics may be a show, but it must contain some substance to maintain viewership.) 

Understanding events between Nixon and Biden requires remembering what happened between the American War of Aggression against Vietnam and twenty years of Afghan occupation: the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay. There, too, justice and judges were feckless. Iraq War criminal Charles Graner served six and a half years of his ten year sentence. Lynndie England, Graner's co-conspirator, served only eighteen months of her three year sentence. As of July 2021, Guantanamo Bay is still open, despite former President Obama's pledge to close it. After the Mahmudiyah rape and killings, justice prevailed against Steven Dale Green, James P. Barker, Paul E. Cortez, Jesse V. Spielman, Bryan L. Howard, and Anthony W. Yribe, which made it all the more disheartening to see political and judicial integrity retreat again during the Afghan occupation. In stable countries, the scales of justice ought not to wobble so much. 

Now would be a good time for Americans to re-evaluate why political parties exist. It is not only to elevate intellectuals onto public platforms so they can compete with others under transparent rules that advance the nation. Ideally, politics is played by people who first and foremost prevent corruption within government itself, thereby gaining credibility to regulate the private sector, including criminals. Without such credibility, China's one-party system will succeed against the more complex, more variegated American system of checks and balances for obvious reasons: more variety is inferior when it allows more rather than less corruption, and when it renders corruption harder to root out. 

When the United States lacked global political competition, its political negligence was understandable. Today, America's political negligence is perplexing as well as unforgivable. After all, every empire eventually expires, but whether systemic corruption is part of its history is entirely up to its people and its politicians. Perhaps, in the end, not all empires are doomed to fail--just ones that make a mockery of their judges and journalists. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat, active member of International Federation of Journalists as of date of publication (July 2021)

Bonus: The war crimes mentioned above are by no means an  exhaustive list. According to CNN, 

"In testimony at an Article 32 hearing -- the military's version of a grand jury or preliminary hearing -- [Colonel] West said the [Iraqi] policeman... was not cooperating with interrogators, so he watched four of his soldiers from the 220th Field Artillery Battalion beat the detainee on the head and body. West said he also threatened to kill [the policeman]. 

Military prosecutors say West followed up on that threat by taking the suspect outside, put him on the ground near a weapons clearing barrel and fired his 9 mm pistol into the barrel. Apparently not knowing where West's gun was aimed, [the Iraqi policeman] cracked and gave information..." 

However, the policeman, Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, "said in an interview that he did not [provide any valuable information], because he knew nothing." According to the NYT, "Hamoodi said that he was not sure what he told the Americans, but that it was meaningless information induced by fear and pain." 

"At least one man named by Mr. Hamoodi was taken into custody... and his home was searched. No plans for attacks on Americans or weapons were found. Colonel West testified that he did not know whether 'any corroboration' of a plot was ever found, adding: 'At the time I had to base my decision on the intelligence I received. It's possible that I was wrong about Mr. Hamoodi.'" (Source: NY Times, THE STRUGGLE FOR IRAQ: INTERROGATIONS; How Colonel Risked His Career By Menacing Detainee and Lost, May 27, 2004, by Deborah Sontag) 

95 members of Congress signed a letter to the secretary of the Army supporting the colonel. West was fined 5,000 dollars. He became a Florida Representative and is now Chair of the Texas Republican Party.

"There was a looming sense of doom in America, a perception that established politics had failed. Many pundits had said that--after being motivated and defined for 30 years by the Communist threat--Americans seriously needed to find a new enemy." -- Mark Lawson, The Battle for Room Service (1993) 

After candidate Ross Perot's popularity, the "unnerving burden on President [Bill] Clinton was to restore democratic equilibrium--and confidence in the conventional ballot box--or America might yet be the territory for a populist, anti-political, sinister Mr. Fixit." -- 
Mark Lawson, The Battle for Room Service (1993)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

African-Americans and the Military: a Predestined Relationship?

Screenshot from The Americanization of Emily (1964), starring Julie Andrews 

The United States preys on young black men. The pattern--where the civilian government's negligence is used to promote the military as savior--is devastating: 

1. Continue racial and religious segregation across American cities, assuring areas with the progeny of former slaves will have fewer economic opportunities than others; 

2. Fund K-12 education through local taxes or complex state formulas, thereby guaranteeing comparatively less funding for racially segregated areas and less attraction for top teachers due to longer travel times and inferior student quality; 

3. In non-segregated areas, promote legal immigration, especially of immigrants holding degrees in engineering, math, and science; 

[Note: all American STEM hubs have substantial immigrant populations, which attract venture capital.] 

Venture-backed companies outperformed the overall economy in terms of creating jobs and growing revenue... In recent decades, venture capital has played an instrumental role in creating high-tech, high-growth industries such as information technology, biotechnology, semiconductors and online retailing... -- IHS Insight, "Venture Impact" (2009) 

On real estate, in particular, if I had one piece of advice--go where the creative and technology types are, because those are the markets where there will be the most economic activity... Tech is driving so much of the growth in this global economy. -- Blackstone Group Inc. President Jon Gray (Bloomberg News, June 11, 2021) 

4. In segregated areas lacking viable educational, economic, and extracurricular opportunities, watch as the environment promotes short-term thinking and thus less long-term family creation, which impacts inter-generational wealth creation and transfer; 

5. As single motherhood increases in more racially segregated neighborhoods, blame everything except vestiges of Christian and Catholic-led chattel slavery and the de jure, then de facto segregation resulting from it;

6. When K-12 graduates from more segregated neighborhoods are comparatively less prepared for college and professional growth, watch as they are either coddled and advanced or treated equally and failed unless exceptional; 

7.  When non-K-12 graduates mature, watch as they confront a formal labor market without significant advancement opportunities and an informal labor market with comparatively superior opportunities; 

Seeing dead bodies and machine guns, that is what I remember most from my childhood in the South Side of Chicago. Drive-by shootings. It was the biggest black ghetto in the worst depression. There was nothing but gangsters around us and I wanted to be one, too. -- Quincy Jones (2010)

8. For both recent graduates and non-graduates in segregated American neighborhoods, watch as well-funded military recruitment centers offer a way out of the inferior formal job market and the superior but riskier informal job market; 

[Fact: Quincy Jones, Malcolm X, Mark Twain, and James Lipton all worked for pimps or as pimps/mecs, proving the draw of the informal labor market in recessionary or exclusionary times.] 

9. Watch as well-funded, finely-tuned military propaganda convinces deliberately under-prepared young adults to join an organization that gives them opportunities they lacked in their first 18 years of life--as long as they follow orders; 

I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. -- Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam" (1967) 

10.  Watch as the United States military, through negligence, fear, and funding, replaces the father figure in the African-American community. 

And so it goes. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2021)

Dedicated to Dr. Vincent Harding and Veterans of Hope

Bonus: American mainstream religion lost moral authority as military spending became unaccountable and all-encompassing at the same time lawyers perfected tax shelters. The lure of low-cost debt in an age of increased tax resistance was bound to reduce civilian government's efficacy, but the impact on communities, especially segregated ones, was perhaps more profound than anticipated. Without civilian government offering principled leadership or effective service, American women reasonably sought community in religious structures while their men reasonably joined the cult of the military. 

Bonus: "Negroes have always held the hope that if they really demonstrate they are great soldiers and if they really fight for America and help save American democracy, then when they come back home, American will treat them better. This has not been the case... for the Negro GI, military service still represents a means of escape from the oppressive ghettos of the rural South and the urban North. He often sees the Army as an avenue for educational opportunities and job training. He sees in the military uniform a symbol of dignity that has long been denied him by society. The tragedy in this is that military serve is probably the only possible escape for most young Negro men... They know that life in the city ghetto or life in the rural South almost certainly means jail or death or humiliation. And so, by comparison, military service is really the lesser risk." -- Martin Luther King, Jr., Playboy Magazine, January 1969, pp. 236, published posthumously