Note to John Kerry: Just Walk Away from Syria

Note to John Kerry: Any US role in the Syrian conflict will end badly.

A quote and two questions… The quote comes from Salim Idris, the self-styled chief of staff for Syrian opposition groups seeking to topple President Bashar Assad: “We don’t want food and drink, and we don’t want bandages. When we’re wounded, it’s time to die. The only thing we want is weapons.” He openly mocked President Obama, who has offered $60 million in non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. Now the questions: How many secretaries of state does it take to make up a collective train wreck? Will John Kerry be the next engineer to hurtle toward derailment? Let’s hope not. Step one in avoiding this is for President Obama to put the money back in the treasury. Step two is for Secretary of State Kerry to smile before the TV cameras after that is done and say things such as, “Syrians need to work out their destiny independently of Western interference.”

Alas, odds are long that either of these things will happen. It’s hard to resist several myths that persist despite all evidence to the contrary. The first of these is the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Assad is a bad man—make no mistake about that—but it is absolute conceit to think that his enemies are friends of the United States. It’s always very tempting to think we can make friends of enemies. It runs counter to two powerful national myths—the belief that the world lusts to become just like the United States, and the belief that America only wants to help the rest of the world.

America gets into trouble when it acts like the world wants what it has—including democracy. We want to believe, which is why the public is still bottle-fed fantasies of “Arab spring,” as if a thousand ballots are about to spring in the dessert and usher forth republicanism, equality, and human rights. Here’s the reality of the Middle East: it’s a quagmire becoming a nightmare. Democracy? Where? Egypt? Yemen? Libya? (How’d that Benghazi situation work out?) Yet American policymakers continue to act as if “progress” is being made toward “liberating” the peoples of the Middle East. It leads to absolute stupidity on occasion. Such as pretending that Saudi sheiks have a better human rights record than Bashar Assad; such as intelligent people tricked into thinking there may be moderates within Hezbollah with whom they can negotiate. (Reality: Hezbollah is a more dangerous terrorist group than Al-Qaida.) And don’t get me started on those who think that an independent Palestine would actually be a viable nation-state. (If Israel ever did close the borders the way it is accused of doing, Palestine would starve to death.)  The Middle East is where Sunnis kill Shiites, everyone hates the Kurds, non-Muslims are unwelcome, and anarchy prevails with such tenacity that some group you’ve never heard of this week is likely to control vast swaths of an erstwhile nation-state next week. A dispassionate observer might conclude that anti-Semitism is the only shared value in the region.

But forget Middle Eastern history; let’s examine our own. If we’ve learned little else in the last five decades we should see that the Marshall Plan—aid plus covert activity to weaken rebellions--may have worked in postwar Europe, but it sure doesn’t work in the Middle East. The United States hasn’t been very successful in nation-building for a very long time. It has, alas, been very successful at making bad situations worse. Think back to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The U.S. covertly aided a group of “freedom fighters” there called the Mujahedeen. They got rid of the Soviets alright, and then morphed into the Taliban. One of its leaders was a Saudi exile named Osama bin Laden who, of course, headed Al-Qaida. And didn’t Reagan, Clinton, and the two Bushes do a great job by playing Iran and Iraq off against each other. We gave Saddam Hussein weapons to help him against Iran—a sworn enemy since 1979, but a place in which the US has meddled since the Eisenhower years. Somehow, Reagan was actually stupid enough to think that if we sold weapons to Iran to help it fight the very Saddam to whom we had previously armed, Iran would be grateful enough to help secure the release of U.S. hostages held in Lebanon. Note to all future presidents: If a nation’s leaders refer to your nation as the “Great Satan,” gratitude is unlikely. Assistance is even less so.

It’s equally unlikely that anything happening in Syria these days will yield good results. Consider the comments of Mouaz al-Khatid, the man who desperately wants to take Assad’s place as Syria’s leader. He complains that the West worries more about “the length of the fighters’ beards” than of Assad’s massacres. And well it should. The very idea that supporting the lesser of two monsters somehow yields a purring kitten when the fighting stops, is foolish. The more probable result is that Syria’s new government will contain a radical Islamic majority contemptuous of the United States. Syria is on the path to theocracy, not democracy, and is better positioned to devolve to the 12th century than vault into the 21st. The only question is whether it becomes antagonistic to the U.S. with or without U.S. cash and weaponry. Syrians won’t love us; they’ll just be better armed. Note to John Kerry: Don’t be a chump like your predecessors. Just walk away, with your hand over your wallet.


Arcadia a Trippy Novel of the 60s and Beyond

Arcadia (2012)
Lauren Groff
Voice 978-1401341909
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Few groups have been as maligned, romanticized, or misunderstood as 1960s-era hippies. Were they the embodiment of narcissistic individualism, a collective nightmare, or the nation’s last shot at redemption? Did their demise mark the dawning of sanity, or was it a society-wide surrender to the logic of self interest, greed, and dehumanization? Do we call a world without collective dreams “realistic,” or “tragic?” In her second novel, Lauren Groff grapples with such questions in before and after snapshots. The first part of the book is set in an undisclosed section of New York, where idealistic young people are determined to make the world anew in a commune known as Arcadia. (Internal clues suggest she’s located Arcadia someplace near Ithaca, which would make sense, as Groff grew up in Cooperstown and the Finger Lakes region was a hotbed for communalism.) We witness the life and death of a community as it emerges from a small band of rugged idealists living for years in buses, impromptu shelters, and sheds to a large community that restores and dwells in a rambling mansion, has become self sufficient, and stands as a beacon for other dreamers: in both good ways and bad.

Arcadia is, depending on one’s point of view, either a countercultural Woodstock-like utopia where drugs, music, casual sex, veganism, and personhood flourish, or a Brueghel-like hell of poverty, immorality, and foolishness. Among the many questions: Is it the sort of place where kids should grow up? The commune’s unofficial leader is Handy, a somewhat older gadabout, rock musician, poet, and homespun philosopher who may be a tribal elder, or might be a passive-aggressive egomaniac and charlatan that parasitically sucks sustenance and esteem from others. But the book really centers on “Bit,” the diminutive son of ponytailed carpenter Abe and his bourgeois-turned-earth mother partner Hannah. Bit—as in a “just a little bit of a hippie”—grows up wild and free on the commune. It’s the only life he knows, and things such as meat or encountering an old woman living in the woods throw him for a loop. As he begins to grow older, he’s really thrown for a loop by Helle, the daughter of Handy and one of his two wives, Astrid.  Like many things in the book, it’s not always clear if Bit is enjoying a golden childhood free of the hang-ups that damage a lot of kids, or is being set up for failure on a grand scale. And that’s really the question that looms over the entire commune.

Neil Young recently pondered whether 60s ideals were just “a dream/Only a dream/And it’s fading now/Fading away…Just a memory without anywhere to stay.” Groff begins her story sometime in the late 1960s and propels it forward to the year 2018. That’s plenty of time for utopian dreams to unfold, to sour, to morph, and for people to die or move on. It’s time for Bit to develop an independent self, go to college, have relationships, and build a life as a photographer and professor off the commune. And which self will be happier, the one traipsing through the trippy world of Arcadia, or the one bumped and bruised by life in the mainstream? What is this thing we call “reality,” and should we desire it? In essence, Arcadia asks the eternal question of whether we should live in the moment, wallow in regret for paths not taken, show disdain for the present, hope for the future, or seek a return to some sort of metaphorical womb.

There is great speculation as what Groff—who was born in 1978, long after the heyday of communal life--used as Arcadia’s role model. Several critics cite California’s Hog Farm (which remains extant), but to me Arcadia seems a mash between the daily survival struggles of Montague Farms in western Massachusetts and the agitprop politics of the Bread and Puppet community in Glover, Vermont. Another open question is whether Groff’s relative youth betrays her. Arcadia is an odd book stylistically.  She has clearly done some research on communes, but the sections on Arcadia occasionally sound mildly condescending—as if she was familiar with the ideals behind communes, but can’t quite grasp the fervor with which some believed in them. Give Groff credit, though, for vivid descriptions of the land, living conditions, daily routines, and the stark contrasts she draws between communing with nature and being collectively slapped by the same forces.

Still, the book’s tone changes dramatically during the post-commune years. Groff not only understands this period better, she writes about it with an elegance that is sometimes lacking in the first half of the book. This is unexpected, as one might expect the odors of home-baked bread to come off better on the page than descriptions of grab-and-go shopping for prepackaged goods at a convenience mart. Or maybe we should expect this. Neil Young also famously snapped back at a concert critic who complained that his music was redundant with the terse, “It’s all the same song.”  Maybe Groff’s point is that who we are is who we’ve been. Toward the end of the book Bit returns to what’s left of Arcadia and learns unanticipated lessons. Is it the dream finally finding someplace to stay? If you’re Lauren Groff, the smartest thing you can do is leave the question open-ended.—Rob Weir    


Gravity Light Uses Dirt to Illumine the Darkness

Problem: How does one bring light into the darkness? I don’t mean metaphorically (as in religion or philosophy); I mean literally.

We Westerners are spoiled. Who thinks about the miracle that occurs every time a switch is flipped and a room is bathed in light? We take electricity so much for granted that it generally escapes notice that satellite photos from space reveal that much of the world lives in darkness akin to that known by the human race when it was in its infancy. It’s not that hard to generate electricity if–and it’s a big if–you have two things: an adequate fuel supply and a network to deliver the electro-juice you squeeze from that fuel. Wood fires (or dried dung in much of the world) are romantic for Westerners sitting around campfires and den fireplaces, but walk six feet away from these and see the darkness. Or fill lanterns with kerosene like our ancestors did. Breathe in the toxicity.

So how does one deliver low-cost electricity to parts of the world in which fossil fuels and wood are scarce and expensive? How does one light up a room if the switch isn’t attached to wires connected to a grid that’s linked to a generator? How does one make light affordable for those with few resources? So few, in fact, that batteries are prohibitively expensive? (There are also environmental disposal hazards.) Is dirt-cheap cheap enough? Martin Riddiford thinks so.

He’s a cofounder of London-based GravityLight and his firm has come up with a product that’s where high tech meets low tech. Think of an old-style grandfather’s clock, the sort that works when chained weights are drawn up to the side of the clock and then left to ascend on their own weight. As the weights fall, they turn gears and the clock keeps time. The problem, of course, is figuring out how to make a light that’s significantly smaller than the average grandfather’s clock! Here’s where high tech comes in. We can now machine-grind very small gears and we can miniaturize dynamos. GravityLight’s very bright idea is to gear a small light and attach it to a rip-proof poly bag. One fills the bag with about 20 pounds of dirt, winches it clock-style to the bottom of the light, and lets gravity do its thing. One light plus one dirt bag provides 30 minutes of light before the bag has to be hoisted anew. The cost? Under $10 for the unit and free ever after.  

I’ll happily donate money for these to be sent around the world. If this isn’t a how-cool-is-this moment, what is?