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Nigerians say (#) BringBackOurNation

(Published in the Iowa City Press Citizen, May 19, 2014)

I follow news of Nigeria with a slightly more jaundiced eye than the average American because I once lived and worked there. In five years of problem solving, I learned that in Nigeria what appears to be a “problem” is almost always a reflection of someone else’s “opportunity.“

For example, on travel duty I once came across burned-out hulks of overturned tanker trucks by a hairpin turn on a highway. My colleagues interrupted my proposals for ingenious engineering and law enforcement solutions to such road accidents by explaining that the truck drivers had purposely overturned the rigs and set the tanks on fire. They’d already sold the gasoline to black marketers in Ilorin. Very likely, the owners of the trucks had hired these drivers precisely for their skill in overturning trucks, and would collect insurance plus a kickback on the black market sale. Officers inside the oil and insurance companies got kickbacks, too. The State would bear the loss.

I suspect such layers of complication in the matter of “Boko Haram,” the Nigerian movement whose actions have of late sparked a storm of commentary on Twitter and global news feeds under the hashtag “BRING BACK OUR GIRLS.”

Since 2011 Boko Haram attacks may have killed as many as 4000 civilians across northern Nigeria, with little expression of international interest before last month’s kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls. Now Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram who recently released two rambling “selfie” videos, is basking in newfound attention.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan had sought to deny Shekau this kind of publicity. He always downplayed the Boko Haram attacks, which many of his supporters believed were a conspiracy of his political enemies.

One does have to wonder, in fact: is such a jackass as Abubakar Shekau really capable of holding to ransom a remarkably creative and economically dynamic country of over 170 million people?

Power in Northern Nigeria is hidden under several layers of centuries’ old traditional and religious structures whose influence reaches deep into the communities. Many Nigerians assume that Boko Haram could never do what it is doing without support from elements within that power structure.

Goodluck Jonathan’s election in 2011 broke an informal agreement within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to alternate the Nigerian Presidency between that northern power structure and southern interests. Jonathan, a southern vice-President chosen to provide balance to the Presidency of Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua, was suddenly thrust into the Presidency when Yar’Adua died in 2010, just three years into an expected eight-year “turn” for the north. Jonathan refused to step aside in 2011, using his powers of incumbency to win his party nomination and the election. He plans to run again in 2015.

In a country where the Minister of Petroleum refuses to account for $20 billion of oil revenues that failed to reach their destination in the accounts at the Central Bank, missing a turn at the trough is bound to make some people unhappy. Al Qaeda may be helping Boko Haram get access to training and arms, but what is happening in Nigeria is very likely about something else.

The kidnapped girls were no more than pawns in this sophisticated game, at least until the attention of women all over Nigeria and the world turned those pawns into queens.

Now for the first time since Nigeria’s 1950s Independence movement, women and the middle classes are standing up together, across the country, to say enough is enough. Nigeria has millions of remarkable and hard-working citizens, both in the villages and in the professional middle classes of the cities. But they’ve always been powerless in the face of the Kleptocracy that for so long has been the only system holding together Nigeria.

To see common people and the middle classes standing up together now — and reaching out to each other across boundaries of geography, tribe and religion — is potentially a remarkable development. In this scenario, “Bring Back Our Girls” is equally a rallying cry for all Nigerians: “#Bring Back Our Nation”.

Writer’s Group member Alan Brody worked in Nigeria from 1984-88. He currently lives and writes in Iowa City, Iowa, USA.



Powerless Politics and a Literary Balm for the Spirit

Iowa City Press Citizen, Dec. 27, 2013

Mary and I borrowed a War and Peace audiobook for a trip East last month, but 2000 miles of driving got us through only 16 of the book’s 48 disks. Author Leo Tolstoy’s epilogue alone is longer than some contemporary novels.

Maquoqueta Library kindly extended their interlibrary loan and we spent the first half of December listening to the remaining 32 disks. With Iowa’s temperatures plunging, we could empathize with the French soldiers that Tolstoy describes, freezing to death on the road back home from Moscow after Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia.

Tolstoy’s novel debunks the myth of Napoleon’s genius and the whole idea of “great men” as the makers of history. Historians misinterpreted Napoleon’s actions as genius, says Tolstoy’s narrator, when in reality it was only the necessities of the times, the character of the peoples, and accidents of history that enabled Napoleon’s successes, and similarly his subsequent failures and fall.

All leaders share in delusions that they are “the Decider,” as our own G.W. Bush imagined himself. Leaders expect to be obeyed, but those at the other end of chains of command know that it is the attitudes of the multitudes that will ultimately decide whether, when and how actions are taken.

Napoleon appeared at the height of his power, having just occupied Moscow, when his soldiers took to looting the city and the French army’s discipline disappeared. A few months later they began a retreat just as winter was setting in, departing Moscow like a stampeding herd via the same roads they’d come by. In disorderly marches of over 25 miles per day through cold and snow blanketing the deserted territories they’d already decimated, most of Napoleon’s army died from hunger, exposure, and disease.

Listening to Tolstoy’s analysis of Napoleon’s retreat and destruction got me reflecting on citizen self-discipline in contemporary America. After World War II Americans came together in a bi-partisan consensus, making sacrifices for a shared vision of American leadership towards global cooperation and peace.

The complacency arising with the end of the Cold War, the shocks of 9/11, the incompetency and overreach of the post-9/11 wars, and an attitude of entitlement that infects America’s rich even more than its poor, have now broken that consensus.

Military men describe America’s all-volunteer army as “stretched to the breaking point,” and politicians know the same is true of the patience of the American people. The progressive left, the libertarian right, and a deeply scarred professional military all support disentanglement from foreign military adventures. We appear to be retreating from projecting a “superpower” status towards a pre-World War II “fortress America” isolationism.

Having foregone the habit of consensus around perceived threats abroad, Americans are now more fractious with each other at home. Many express disagreements with their own countrymen with an aggressiveness reminiscent of the mid-19th century years that led up to our Civil War, and everyone seems to be buying guns.

In the face of urgent challenges we plead financial insolvency, but in truth we suffer from an insolvency of political and moral will. Our “leaders” –-whether Obama, Boehner, McConnell or others — seem increasingly hapless. To a Tolstoyist, that’s no surprise: there can be no such thing as a “leader” in the absence of a people prepared to be led.

Tolstoy wrote about more than “War” in his great novel, of course. The other half of his title is “Peace.” Even more than the book’s insights into history of unstable and interesting times, Mary and I enjoyed War and Peace for its insights into the human heart, the passions and foibles of youth, the frailties and foolishness of age, the pains of jealousy and greed, and the redeeming powers of love (both emotional and spiritual).

The experience has brought us to the end of the year with that sense of redemption that arises from the shared humanity one finds in truly great works of literature.

Audiobooks of literary classics give a wonderful gift, especially when you listen together with someone who’s good for stimulating conversation, and for the luckier among you, with someone you love. Warm wishes for 2014!



Is giving a kick to those who are down an Iowa value?

Iowa City Press Citizen November 27, 2013

This year is my eighth Thanksgiving since I moved back to Iowa City, and I’m giving thanks for that.

How did a Pennsylvania boy get to Iowa in the first place? In 1977 I was in Ghana in the Peace Corps when a professor I worked with there invited me to study for a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa.

I’d visited Iowa before back in 1966. I’d taken a summer off from my education at Yale to try to “see the world” by hitchhiking around America. I’d crossed the country, been up and down the West Coast, and was heading back east when the $135 I’d left home with ran out. I was hitchhiking south from Sioux Falls, South Dakota when a driver from Jefferson invited me to roll out my sleeping bag in his town and earn some money selling subscriptions to a farm newsletter.

I’d say people in Jefferson found me a curiosity. On weekday mornings I borrowed my host’s old Buick to drive from farm to farm peddling “The Hotliner,” a newsletter aligned with the National Farmers’ Organization. And it wasn’t everyday that people in Jefferson had an Eastern Jew from Yale sleeping on their neighbor’s front porch, and attending Sunday morning Church and Wednesday evening Bible Study sessions as a guest of his host’s children.

I met a lot of good and thoughtful people during my weeks in Jefferson. Everyone treated our differences with respect and curiosity. When I left Jefferson three weeks later I felt that same respect for the Christian way of life that was so much a part of their values and existence there.

My wife (from Ghana) and I were fortunate that in 1978, for her first residence in the United States, we landed in Iowa City. Interracial families like ours weren’t all that common in those times, and we found Iowa City a welcoming and tolerant community. We spent six years there before I went back overseas for 22 years of humanitarian work around the world. At the end of that time, we still felt like Iowa City was home and decided to come back.

“Idaho?” my international cosmopolitan acquaintances demanded when they learned of my decision. “You must be kidding!”

“Iowa,” I would correct them, and try to defend my decision. They refused to believe my glowing accounts about Iowa, however. It seems that even in far-away lands people get some news of Iowa, usually accompanied by a picture of the state’s self-appointed spokesperson, Rep. Steve King.

“Oh, he’s from Western Iowa, it’s different there,” I wanted to answer, but remembering my stay in Jefferson, I had to wonder whether that was really true.

I don’t know why King seems so addicted to controversy. I suppose that like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, he’s learned that being outrageous is the fast-track to national and even global headlines.

Personally, I can understand and respect the conservative political philosophy and traditional values of many Iowans, east and west. I don’t understand the apparent pleasure King takes in demeaning others and giving a kick to those already down, however. Where, I wonder, did all that anger and hatred come from?

There’s an earthy proverb from my wife’s Nzema people in Ghana that roughly translated says, “Hate someone enough, and you’ll shit in your own pants.”

That’s what almost happened to America last month when King and friends convinced themselves they should close down the federal government. They also took us within a day of a default that would have thrown away America’s global economic leadership.

I’m giving thanks they stepped back. I spent a lot of years in parts of the world where civility and good governance had unraveled. Such experiences make you appreciate the blessings that Americans inherited, and that too many today seem to take for granted.

Let’s hope this time next year we can also be giving thanks for greater wisdom and compassion among those who represent us!

Alan Brody lives and writes in woods north of Iowa City.



Message to the Congressional Caucus on Laughing Matters

Iowa City Press Citizen, October 24, 2013

This month Congress closed the Federal Government and took us within 24 hours of national default. Thank God that’s over (for now), and we can all move on to Miley Cyrus.

America does get benefits from the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. The American economy would be about 30% smaller today if not for this special position we’ve enjoyed since “The Greatest Generation” won it for us back in the 1940s.

Senator Ted Cruz and his fellow Tea Partiers seem to have a knee-jerk reaction against that word “benefits,” and think nothing of defaulting on our national debt. They don’t get it that the dollar has the value it has because people believe it has that value. Circular? Yes, it’s all a confidence game. Tea Partiers can read that as “con game,” but paper currency has always had that characteristic. The dollar’s value rests on the world’s confidence that the words “full faith and credit of the United States Government” mean something. Countries, companies, and individuals sometimes spend more than they have. That can be good when they’re investing to increase future productivity or address a life-threatening emergency, but bad when they’re simply enjoying frivolities beyond their means. For 40 years now America has been buying way more from overseas than we sell, and borrowing the difference. Our biggest export, to get all that into balance, is dollars.

Hundred dollar bills are so popular around the globe that of the $1.2 trillion worth of American currency notes in circulation, more than half is floating around in other countries. Foreign countries are also holding about 5.6 trillion dollars of U.S. treasury debt (China and Japan account for $2.4 trillion of that).

Some of the Tea Partiers seem to think it’s ok to just screw them. America can’t do that without also screwing the Americans holding over 10 trillion of that debt, however. What happens if the United States Government defaults? Basically, those with investments, pensions, or even cash on hand will suffer a fall in the value of their assets amidst an economic collapse that will make the world’s 2008 economic contractions look like a picnic. From the day after default onwards, our creditors will demand higher interest before loaning us money. An increase of one percent in the interest rate on our Treasury debt, for example, would require some combination of tax increases and spending cuts totaling 160 billion dollars to cover it. Anyone who thinks the “austerity” required to make those payments is good for an economy should take a look at what’s been happening in Greece whose economy has contracted 25% in the last five years, and has yet to turn around. Default would hit not just America’s creditors, but American workers and everyone else in the country as well.

If Congressional action (or inaction) and overall Government dysfunction lead people to see the stability and value of the dollar as a myth, investors will dump dollars for other assets. Ask the Argentinians what happens when a national currency succumbs to the twin pressures of devaluation and inflation.

I followed the October shutdown and debt ceiling brouhaha with a certain awe at just how monumentally reckless and stupid our politicians can be. The only bright spot over the last month came in the run-up to the government shutdown, when the House of Representatives somehow managed to vote UNANIMOUSLY to save the government’s strategic helium reserve.

“What’s so special about helium?” I wondered. Are our Representatives and their staffers perhaps inhaling it, and that explains my difficulty to understand the dolphin-like snorts and whistles that pass for rational argument in the House?  

On the subject of gas, I recommend our Congressman Loebsack should table a bill to establish a national strategic reserve of nitrous oxide in the Capitol’s basement. Piping laughing gas into chambers during debates would get everyone laughing together at the ridiculous posturing they do, and perhaps a few friendships would form across the aisles. Then Republicans and Democrats could get on with finding a way out of the genuine challenges our nation faces.

Press Citizen Writers’ Group member Alan Brody reports a bumper 2013 harvest on his habanero pepper farm, guaranteed to keep him snorting for another year.



It’s All About Me and Kirk and Instincts Unleashed

Iowa City Press Citizen Sept. 25, 2013

From 1968-70 I lived in a raffia-stick house 20 yards from the high-tide line along Ghana’s southern coast. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I taught English five days a week. Back home after school each day I’d head out for a long walk on the beach. I returned before dark to pass lonely evenings reading or marking school exercise books by lantern-light, the steady beat of the ocean always in my ears and the feel of moist and salty air on my skin.

Then the rats came. I heard them running freely along the top of my walls at night. In the morning I found crusts nibbled on loaves of bread I’d bought the evening before.

“You need a cat,” a friend told me. A few days later he delivered a beautiful tabby barely six weeks old. The rats were at least three times his size. “Wait for him to get a little bigger,” my friend said.

“I’ll start him lifting weights right away,” I replied.

To Crispin (my kitten’s name) the rats were just another given of his new environment, like the sea breeze, the ocean roar, and the saucer of milk with crumbles of bread that I regularly put before him. He was a sweet companion, purring on my lap while I read Wallace Stevens poems.

The rats in the meantime were fruitful and multiplied. They ate through boxes of dry food my mother had sent from America, then moved on to gnaw up my bath soap. One night when I was deep in sleep a fat one scrabbling along the top of the wall by my bed lost his balance and landed on my solar plexus. I awoke as he scampered across my shoulder and onto the floor below.

“Ewwww…” I sense my Iowa reader saying, and thinking me insane for living in such conditions. But hey, brothers without my two-year draft deferment for Peace Corps service were in Vietnam experiencing the same conditions, and they had people in black pajamas shooting at them.

About five months into my stay, a rat running in the dark along a table jumped off the edge and fell into my full bucket of bath water below. I walked a half-mile every evening to collect and carry back that water for my morning bath. I was just ready to dip a cup into the bucket when in the dim light I noticed a nose and whiskers just above the water line. The rodent had been holding its tail stiff all night to keep from drowning.  Disgusted, I threw out the water and watched the nearly dead creature drag itself into nearby underbrush.

Three days later, I woke up with another rat in my bucket. This time, I called for my little cat Crispin, now getting to six months old and grown almost as big as the rat. I dangled it by its tail in front of Crispin’s nose.

The cat sniffed curiously, uncertain what to do. Suddenly, perhaps reacting to a smell of fear coming off the exhausted creature, Crispin’s instincts kicked in, his whole demeanor changed, his mouth opened wide showing teeth in a snarl, and his jaws snapped down around the belly of the rat which could manage little more than weak squeaks of protest. My cat took almost an hour joyfully dispatching his prey, and I sat with pleasure through every minute of it.

I thought of Crispin last Saturday during the Iowa football game. Coach Kirk Ferentz, watching his team come alive to dispatch Western Michigan 59-3, must have been feeling like I felt 45 years ago watching my cat turn into a proper mouser. Even the coaches’ number twos and threes on the football team’s depth charts came in to get their licks. They played with a joyful ferocity that’s been missing for a long time from Kinnick Stadium.

The rats in my beach house never had a chance after Crispin made his first kill. He approached them with a ferocious confidence that sent them fleeing. I sense our Hawkeyes ready to do something similar with the rats who for too long have had the run of Kinnick Stadium, and to make fall Saturdays in 2013 times of joy in Iowa City.

Writers’ Group member Alan Brody, a retired UNICEF Representative, this summer has been contesting with groundhogs over rights to his habanero pepper farm north of Iowa City.



Pounding Our Chests Makes a Hollow Sound

Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 22, 2013

America’s military-industrial-security complex can’t be happy with developments of the last month. Russian diplomacy tripped up a promising rush towards getting mired in Syria’s civil war. Now prospects of using up ordnance on Iran have also notably dimmed. 

A lifting of sanctions on Iran combined with America’s burgeoning oil production could also put a damper on oil prices. The Koch brothers and their fellow travelers won’t be happy about that. Look to Obama getting hit with lots of criticism that he’s being weak, and let’s see if he’s strong enough to withstand them. 

I believe the “difference maker” that allowed us to step back from war in Syria was a step back by the White House a month or so ago from its previous insistence on Assad’s removal as a precondition of any settlement. We thus signaled our recognition that other countries also have strategic interests that we will have to respect if we want cooperation to forward our own interests. 

The developments in Syria seem in turn to have sparked a novel thought in Iranian minds: What if America might just be ready to drop its regime-change agenda and move towards diplomatic solutions based on mutual respect? 

The slow but steady economic attrition brought about by tightening economic sanctions has contributed to this new Iranian receptivity, of course. Iran’s income from oil fell by half to $50 billion in 2012 and foreign investment has been fleeing the country. Thus the sanctions are now seriously biting and creating hard times for average Iranians. 

Nevertheless, no one should doubt that ordinary Iranians are willing to make deep sacrifices where matters of national interest and independence are concerned. They have a sense of history and identity that predate America’s by thousands of years. 

Iranians recently elected President Rouhani (yes, I said elected) on a platform to seek international engagement and lifting of sanctions. Ruling Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly given the go-ahead to him to negotiate, in a comment talking about “heroic leniency.” In Ayatollah-speak that appears to say: “We can even make up with the Great Satan so long as they don’t disrespect us.”

The West is taking an approach of hopeful skepticism to see just how far the Iranians are willing to go towards giving up presumed aspirations for nuclear weapons. It may go nowhere. 

Still, we are in a hopeful time. The Iranians must be feeling less beleaguered militarily today than in the past, with the position of their ally Assad strengthening in Syria and American troops no longer present just across the border in Iraq. Iran has already proved it has the will and technical capability to produce a nuclear weapon. Perhaps without loss of face they can now put aside the idea of producing such bombs whose actual use would seem more like suicide than statecraft. 

America’s rapprochement with Iran will only occur, however, if we are prepared to approach negotiations in a spirit of mutual respect. That was not possible with the Bush administration, nor was it possible when Ahmadinejad held the presidency in Iran.

It may still be impossible if America insists on asserting a holier-than-thou exceptionalism that rankles the countries we engage with. Putin in his New York Times op-ed this month criticized this claim of American exceptionalism.

America has always been an exceptional country in many ways. Unfortunately, we’ve failed to recognize that, like every other country, we have both positively and negatively exceptional characteristics. We would do well to stop crowing to others about our exceptionally good qualities, and instead quietly set about ameliorating some of our exceptionally bad ones. (We have the world’s largest percentage of inhabitants under incarceration, for example, and one doesn’t have to look far to find more such examples). 

As for our exceptionally good qualities, we would do well to let them speak for themselves, without trying to drop bombs to serve as exclamation points. We need to recognize that the more we pound our chest and bully others to try to impose our views, the more hollow we sound to the rest of the world. People elsewhere already recognize that America is different and special, but what they really want to hear from us is what kind of heart beats underneath the chests we are too prone to pound on.

Alan Brody worked overseas for more than 30 years with the Peace Corps and UNICEF. He presently lives and writes in Iowa City.





In Syria Cock the Gun and Play a Waiting Game

Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 1, 2013

“I wrote to President Bush in 1989,” ex-Afghanistan President Najibullah told me in 1995. “I told him that with the Cold War ending, we needed to come together against our common enemy.” Najibullah was referring to “the greens,” those fighting under the flag of Islamist fundamentalism whom we now know as al Qaeda.

I’ve been thinking about Najibullah these days as America ponders how to punish Syrian President Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Najibullah clung to power for three years after the Soviets left Afghanistan, but by early 1992 he’d found himself surrounded by forces of at least four different Mujahideen groups, some armed and funded by America and European powers via Pakistan, some by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and another by Iran. Sound familiar?

Najibullah mistakenly hoped his resignation in 1992 might spare Kabul the destruction of a full-blown war. The Mujahideen groups largely destroyed the city anyway, fighting among themselves from 1992-95.

“President Bush never answered me,” the ex-President said wistfully over our tea that March 1995 evening when I met him in a U.N. guest house he’d been unable to leave for three years. A year later, the Taliban would sweep into Kabul in triumph, kill Najibullah, and hang his body upside down from a lamp post in a public square.

The West painted Najibullah as a monster based on the years when he was head of KHAD (the Afghan equivalent of the KGB). His ultimate removal was, I suppose, viewed within the American government as some kind of moral necessity. Those who came after him proved worse, however.

I mention all this old history amidst rumblings out of Washington about action to punish Syria’s President Assad for the “moral obscenity” of using chemical weapons.

The human rights crowd in the White House may feel better about themselves after they’ve lobbed a few hundred cruise missiles at Syrian targets, but they’ll not achieve much to resolve life-and-death struggles that have already taken an estimated 100,000 lives there.

Interestingly, the U.S. seems to have stepped back from unconditional insistence that Assad must be removed from power. Perhaps someone in Washington has begun to recognize what Russia’s President Putin foresaw from the start in the Syrian conflict: that the alternative to the unsavory incumbent President is likely to be at least as bad and probably much worse. Especially now that Al-Qaeda linked rebels funded by America’s “friends” in the Gulf have become dominant among the rebel opposition, any collapse of the Assad regime appears to promise a terrible bloodbath and mass uprooting of Alawite, Shia and Christian minorities.

President Obama has declared that the international community must respond to use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that requires action. I agree with him, but first he must share with the world convincing proof of the Assad regime’s responsibility.

After that, his team must ensure any military action taken is designed actually to deter future use of chemical weapons, rather than merely to make a show of punishing Assad for what’s already been done. That means finding a way to hurt the persons in the Assad regime and Syrian military who believe they can benefit from using chemical weapons.

It’s not wise to rush into military action, however. America should maximize the time between when the gun is cocked and when the trigger is pulled, for the psychological effect is increased when suspense and a sense of imminent danger are maintained.

I imagine the scenario thus. We find ourselves in a room filled with bad guys who’ve been committing very bad deeds. We have a gun pointed at them, but both they and we know we have only two bullets. We’d best keep that gun pointed at the boss man, but not pull the trigger. Let the stand-off continue until everyone is exhausted.

Then with a smile and a sudden movement, shoot one of the boss man’s more notorious deputies. Immediately assure the boss man of his safety and the offer of your future friendship. With the weapon containing the second bullet pointed towards him say, “But please don’t use chemical weapons anymore.”

Back out of the room.  End of scenario.   



The Right to Vote: Use It or Lose It

Iowa City Press Citizen, August 28, 2013

I have no kids in school. Nevertheless, I plan to vote next month in elections for the Board of the Iowa City Community School District.

“Use it or lose it” seems an apt voting principle in these days when Supreme Court justices in Washington are overturning 50-year-old voting rights laws, and our Secretary of State in Des Moines wants to tinker with what ain’t broke to make it harder to vote in Iowa.

I’m not saying people don’t try to finagle elections, if they think they can get away with it. But the problem is seldom with individual voters so much as organized groups. In that, we Americans are no match Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party, however, which this summer broke new ground in the art of voter suppression. They used shenanigans rather than raw violence to return Zimbabwe’s 89-year-old President for yet another term. It was so slickly done that I’m expecting Republican strategists to organize their next Governor’s Conference in Harare, where they can get on-the-spot workshops by Mugabe’s party hacks and henchmen.

That’s a fantasy. Zimbabwe’s economy has been running down for a quarter century now, and couldn’t host American pols in the style they’re accustomed to. Zim’s leaders  can’t even ensure its own people the basics of potable water, reliable electricity, useable roads, or decent public schools. There may be a lesson in that for Americans who want to tinker with democracy’s fundamental principle of free and fair elections.

After the failure of voter suppression efforts in America’s November 2012 elections, wishful thinkers in the “liberal media” predicted Republican soul searching about how badly the party had fared with America’s minorities.

The soul searching seems to have ended with this summer’s Supreme Court action to simplify voter suppression. The Court overturned parts of a 1965 Voting Rights Act that Congress almost unanimously renewed for 25 years in 2006.

I guess the Court’s view is that section 5 of the Act discriminated against some southern states. Based on those states’ pre-1965 history of suppressing the black vote, they had to seek pre-approval of any changes in their voting laws and regulations. States like my native Pennsylvania were under no such pre-approval obligation for their own voter suppression efforts. In the minds of the five-justice majority, that just seemed unfair.

I wonder whether this latest decision isn’t actually a trap set by a wily Justice Clarence Thomas. Is it possible that Justice Thomas is neither a troll nor an Uncle Tom, as most liberals seem to think of him, but actually an old fox with a hidden liberal agenda to reinvigorate the Civil Rights movement?

Blacks and youth and the poor and the women among them have in recent years had a tendency to take their right to vote (or not to vote) for granted, especially when mid-term elections rolled around. However, in Pennsylvania and Florida last year — two Republican-controlled states where voter suppression efforts were particularly notable — long lines of “those people” waited hours and hours to vote. Who’d a thunk it?

Republican legislators and Governors in North Carolina and Texas moved quickly after the recent Supreme Court ruling and passed voting complication legislation. They seem to have dismissed any idea that what happened in Pennsylvania and Florida in 2012 might happen to them in 2014. Their attempts to suppress voting rights could be just the cause that progressives need to become united and relevant again.

The next thing you know, from all over America aging hippies in old kandy-colored VW buses, along with empty nesters who have leftover mileage on their minivans, will be descending on the little towns of the rural Carolinas and Texas, offering lifts, sandwiches and legal advice to folks who need help to get photo-IDs required for voting.

That’s a nice fantasy, anyway, one that I’d love to see come true wherever voter suppression takes place, and whether perpetrated by Republicans or Democrats. In the meantime, I’m off to vote in the School Board elections!

Working overseas for 30 years, Alan Brody experienced a lifetime of missed elections before he settled in Iowa City in 2006.



Signs of Ascendancy of the Thinking Machines

Iowa City Press Citizen, July 24, 2013

My July kudos go to the Coralville official who shifted responsibility to a computer for a 4th of July fireworks snafu (two-thirds blew up at the beginning of the show). “City staff have ruled out human error,” KCRG TV reported the story.

The dog could have avoided a lot of trouble if my brother and I as children had had a computer to blame. Our contemporary culture’s ready acceptance of “computer error” as an excuse for screw-ups shows how deeply we’ve internalized the idea of the autonomy of thinking machines and their replacement of human agency.

There is something to it. For example, human pilots insist they have a continuing important role in the cockpit, citing that feared day when computer software goes on the fritz. But planes are now so complicated that teams of thousands of engineers puzzled for months over how to fix Boeing’s “Dreamliners” that kept catching on fire.

In San Francisco this month, on a day of picture-perfect weather, a pilot “went manual” on an Asiana Airlines 777 he was learning to fly (with 307 aboard), and proceeded to crash on landing.

The circumstances of that crash got people thinking a little more benignly about Google’s technology for the driverless car, reported to be nearly ready for deployment. The technology would help protect the public from multi-tasking teenagers who text while driving, and from older cats like me who struggle to keep focus even on the single task of getting from point A to point B. With a driverless Congress in Washington, however, where human error rules supreme, I expect I’ll have long since been moved into the nursing home before Congress sorts out the legal tangles for driverless cars.

Robot-assistants for those nursing homes are likely to be deployed long before Google’s driverless car, especially once the Pentagon’s DARPA automates Guantanamo-perfected techniques to shove feeding tubes down noses and keep human beings alive against their will. Private-sector spin-offs of that technology could usher in a new golden age for the nation’s nursing home and prison industries, which to “grow beds” must keep their clients alive (at least as long as reimbursements meet market expectations for profit margins). One day a single geriatric engineer (powered by an economy-sized bag of potato chips) may operate an entire 500-person care facility, his sole job being to ensure that back-up generators are on line to ensure a steady supply of electricity to robotic caregivers.

And why not? We already have massive trains carrying two million gallons of flammable crude oil operated by a “crew” of one engineer, like the runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic freight that recently incinerated much of downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec along with 50 citizens.

I suspect the train’s feelings were hurt when its engineer left it alone, unattended and with engine running, to go on his mandatory rest break at a hotel in a nearby town. To attract attention, this little engine first started a fire. Firemen came, turned off the engine, and doused the flames, but then once again abandoned poor “I think I can” all alone for the night. With the engine off airbrakes failed, and the 73-car freight rolled seven miles downhill to its fiery explosion.

The President of holding company Rail World didn’t blame the train (which he owns and would be responsible for). It was the firemen’s fault, he said, or the engineer. He wasn’t imaginative enough to blame al Qaeda. (Think of all those tens of thousands of taxpayer-paid TSA officers examining your shoes and underwear at airports, while this kind of massive bomb on rails sits unlocked and unattended by a public highway.)

I’m not going to blame any machines. I know better than to get on their bad side, especially after Edward Snowden’s exposé of his Orwellian nightmares when he revealed how machines are automatically processing and storing masses of data about every aspect of our lives. BIG DATA IS WATCHING YOU©.

That thought brings us full circle to the premature climax of Coralville’s 4th of July fireworks. Was it really a matter of computer error, or could computer ill-will have been involved? City officials, already slapped around this year by computers of the Moody’s rating agency, will only whisper, “Loose lips make bonds slip.”

(Writers Group member Alan Brody, seeking shelter from our nation’s 24-hour-a-day news stream, slips out to garden in Iowa’s July sun). 



Refugees from the Nanny State

Iowa City Press Citizen, July 9th, 2013

My youngest is an alumnus of Creative World Preschool, where I left him with Darlene McNulty on Oberlin Street one July morning in 1983 to begin his first adventures in coloring between the lines.

I hate to tell him that the successor to that school, Traci Anderson’s Creative World Child Development Center on Northgate Drive, will “voluntarily” close this week. It appears the place got on the bad side of the Department of Human Services after multiple inspection violations not satisfactorily addressed for two years.

The Press Citizen’s Tara Bannow reported last week that parents with children at Creative World are dismayed by its closure. They say they always felt secure about their children’s safety when leaving them with staff who seemed genuinely to care about the kids. This week those 50 kids become childcare refugees in search of new daycare.

I also suspect there isn’t too much in Creative World’s DHS “Violations” that most parents aren’t already guilty of at home. Here’s one of the 2011 citations, for example: A caregiver was observed telling a child, “If you don’t keep your feet on the floor you are done eating.” Under rule 109.12(2)a-d, “Threats cannot be made towards children. Discipline cannot allow for threats of food to be taken away.”

My wife used to receive unannounced DHS visitors when she ran a home daycare on Iowa City’s F Street from 1981-84. The doorbell always seemed timed to wake up a cranky child Mary had just put down for a nap. She soothed a fussy baby West African style, wrapped at her back as she moved about, until he slept. One couple learned from Dr. Ponseti at UIHC that this style of carrying was excellent therapy for the pelvic and foot problems he was treating.

If the DHS inspector knocking at our door back in 1983 had been less sympathetic, of course, Mary might have been cited for “restraining” the child wrapped at her back, or perhaps practicing medicine without a license!

In the home daycare my son’s favorite toy was our food blender (note to DHS: metal blades were stored separately and out of reach). He would fill the plastic blender container with wooden blocks, and imitate the noisy grinding sounds familiar from his mother’s work preparing African soups and stews in the kitchen.

I’m not sure what the DHS inspector thought of Mary’s spinach stew whose other ingredients included fish, onion, tomato, garlic, cooking oil, and a touch of pepper and ginger to aid digestion. Her official menus prepared for DHS record-keeping contained commodities like that orange processed cheese the Government distributed, but the kids preferred to share the spinach stew we ate at home. Only one child’s vegetarian parents voted no on his behalf, and each day brought pre-prepared lunches of alfalfa sprouts for the poor boy.

I had the good fortune to raise my children mostly beyond the reach of the Nanny State. My first two were born in Ghana while I was in the Peace Corps. When in 1974 we were looking for a pre-school for my older son, I visited the German International School in Ghana’s capital Accra. They had a remarkably high toy-to-child ratio. All regulations, policies and curricula were prominently posted. Activity schedules and menus were rigorously adhered to.

Everyone seemed happy except the children. On the day of my classroom visit, an exasperated teacher tried to mediate between seven children gathered around a spotlessly clean and disinfected table with drawing materials neatly laid out on it, while the children squabbled continuously over who got what crayons.

I went from there to visit a place called “Mrs. Agyeman’s School” where I found, inside a large walled compound, at least 100 children outside in the yard, running about, playing happily together, and presumably ingesting healthy doses of dirt. Indoors, inside a large old colonial house redone into classrooms, groups of 30 children raised cacophonous voices in enthusiastic song. I didn’t notice anyone using an asthma inhaler.

My oldest son did three happy years at Mrs. Agyeman’s School. Any dirt ingested must be what gave him the immune system that 40 years later is the envy of American co-workers who grew up smothered in loving protection.

As a UNICEF staff member before retiring in 2006, Alan Brody dealt with egregious breakdowns of child protection like child labor and abuse in the failed state of Afghanistan, and orphan care in southern African communities decimated by AIDS.