Adonis Diaries

Archive for March 8th, 2016

Revenge of the Simple:

How George W. Bush Gave Rise to Trump

By Matt Taibbi

To hear GOP insiders tell it, Doomsday is here. If Donald Trump scores huge on tonight and seizes control of the nomination in the Super Tuesday primaries, it will mark the beginning of the end of the Republican Party, and perhaps the presidency.

But Trump isn’t the beginning of the end. George W. Bush was.

The amazing anti-miracle of the Bush presidency is what makes today’s nightmare possible.

People forget what an extraordinary thing it was that Bush was president. Dubya wasn’t merely ignorant when compared with other politicians or other famous people. No, he would have stood out as dumb in just about any setting.

If you could somehow run simulations where Bush was repeatedly shipwrecked on a desert island with 20 other adults chosen at random, he would be the last person listened to by the group every single time.

He knew absolutely nothing about anything. He wouldn’t have been able to make fire, find water, build shelter or raise morale. It would have taken him days to get over the shock of no room service.

Bush went to the best schools but was totally ignorant of history, philosophy, science, geography, languages and the arts.

Asked by a child in South Carolina in 1999 what his favorite book had been growing up, Bush replied, “I can’t remember any specific books.”

Bush showed no interest in learning and angrily rejected the idea that a president ought to be able to think his way through problems.

As Mark Crispin Miller wrote in The Bush Dyslexicon, Bush’s main rhetorical tool was the tautology — i.e., saying the same thing, only twice.

“It’s very important for folks to understand that when there’s more trade, there’s more commerce” was a classic Bush formulation. “Our nation must come together to unite” was another.

One of my favorite tautologies was: “I understand that the unrest in the Middle East creates unrest throughout the region.”

Academics and political junkies alike giddily compiled these “Bushisms” along with others that were funny for different reasons (“I’m doing what I think what’s wrong,” for instance).

But Bush’s tautologies weren’t gaffes or verbal slips. They just represented the limits of his reasoning powers: A = A.

There are educational apps that use groups of images to teach two-year-olds to recognize that an orange is like an orange while a banana is a banana. Bush was stalled at that developmental moment. And we elected him president.

Bush’s eight years were like the reigns of a thousand overwhelmed congenital monarchs from centuries past. While the prince rode horses, romped with governesses and blew the national treasure on britches or hedge-mazes, the state was run by Svengalis and Rasputins who dealt with what Bush once derisively described as “what’s happening in the world.”

In Bush’s case he had Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove thinking out the problem of how to get re-elected, while Dick “Vice” Cheney, Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld and Andrew “Tangent Man” Card took care of the day-to-day affairs of the country (part of Card’s responsibilities involved telling Bush what was in the newspapers he refused to read).

It took hundreds of millions of dollars and huge armies of such behind-the-throne puppet-masters to twice (well, maybe twice) sell a voting majority on the delusion of George Bush, president.

Though people might quibble with the results, the scale of this as a purely political achievement was awesome and heroic, comparable to a moon landing or the splitting of the atom.

Guiding Bush the younger through eight years of public appearances was surely the greatest coaching job in history. It was like teaching a donkey to play the Waldstein Sonata. It’s breathtaking to think about now.

But one part of it backfired. Instead of using an actor like Reagan to sell policies to the public, the Svengalis behind Bush sold him as an authentic man of the people, the guy you’d want to have an O’Doul’s with.

Rove correctly guessed that a generation of watching TV and Hollywood movies left huge blocs of Americans convinced that people who read books, looked at paintings and cared about spelling were either serial killers or scheming to steal bearer bonds from the Nakatomi building. (Even knowing what a bearer bond is was villainous).

The hero in American culture, meanwhile, was always a moron with a big gun who learned everything he needed to know from cowboy movies.

The climax of pretty much every action movie from the mid-eighties on involved shotgunning the smarty-pants villain in the face before he could finish some fruity speech about whatever.

Rove sold Bush as that hero. He didn’t know anything, but dammit, he was sure about what he didn’t know.

He was John McClane, and Al Gore was Hans Gruber.

GOP flacks like Rove rallied the whole press corps around that narrative, to the point where anytime Gore tried to nail Bush down on a point of policy, pundits blasted him for being a smug know-it-all using wonk-ese to talk over our heads — as Cokie Roberts put it once, “this guy from Washington doing Washington-speak.”

This is like the scene from the increasingly prophetic Idiocracy where no one can understand Luke Wilson, a person of average intelligence rocketed 500 years into America’s idiot future, because whenever he tries to reason with people, they think he’s talking “like a fag.”

The Roves of the world used Bush’s simplicity to win the White House. Once they got there, they used the levers of power to pillage and scheme like every other gang of rapacious politicians ever. But the plan was never to make ignorance a political principle. It was just a ruse to win office.

Now the situation is the opposite.

Now GOP insiders are frantic at the prospect of an uncultured ignoramus winning the presidency. A group of major donors and GOP strategists even wrote out a memo outlining why a super PAC dedicated to stopping Trump was needed.

“We want voters to imagine Donald Trump in the Big Chair in the Oval Office, with responsibilities for worldwide confrontation at his fingertips,” they wrote. Virginia Republican congressman Scott Ringell wrote an open letter to fellow Republicans arguing that a Trump presidency would be “reckless, embarrassing and ultimately dangerous.”

Hold on. It wasn’t scary to imagine George “Is our children learning?” Bush with the “responsibilities for worldwide confrontation” at his fingertips?

It wasn’t embarrassing to have a president represent the U.S. on the diplomatic stage who called people from Kosovo “Kosovians” and people from Greece “Grecians?”

It was way worse. Compared to Bush, Donald Trump is a Rutherford or an Einstein.

 In the same shipwreck scenario, Trump would have all sorts of ideas — all wrong, but at least he’d think of something, instead of staring at the sand waiting for a hotel phone to rise out of it.

Of course, Trump’s ignorance level, considering his Wharton education, is nearly as awesome as what Bush accomplished in spite of Yale.

In fact, unlike Bush, who had the decency to not even try to understand the news, Trump reads all sorts of crazy things and believes them all.

From theories about vaccines causing autism to conspiratorial questions about the pillow on Antonin Scalia’s face to Internet legends about Americans using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood to shoot Muslims, there isn’t any absurd idea Donald Trump isn’t willing to entertain, so long as it fits in with his worldview.

But Washington is freaking out about Trump in a way they never did about Bush. Why? Because Bush was their moron, while Trump is his own moron. That’s really what it comes down to.

And all of the Beltway’s hooting and hollering about how “embarrassing” and “dangerous” Trump is will fall on deaf ears, because as gullible as Americans can be, they’re smart enough to remember being told that it was OK to vote for George Bush, a man capable of losing at tic-tac-toe.

We’re about to enter a dark period in the history of the American experiment.

The Founding Fathers never imagined an electorate raised on Toddlers and Tiaras and Temptation Island.

Remember, just a few decades ago, shows like Married With Children and Roseanne were satirical parodies. Now the audience can’t even handle that much irony. A lot of American culture is just dumb slobs cheering on other dumb slobs.

It was inevitable, once we broke the seal with Bush, that our politics would become the same thing.

Madison and Jefferson never foresaw this situation. They knew there was danger of demagoguery, but they never imagined presidential candidates exchanging “mine’s bigger than yours” jokes or doing “let’s laugh at the disabled” routines.

There’s no map in the Constitution to tell us how to get out of where we’re going. All we can do now is hold on.

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In Saudi Arabia. A kingdom to Myself

I reached the port of Jizan in southwestern Saudi Arabia just in time to catch the speedboat. After buying my ticket and having my passport checked by a mustachioed police officer, I climbed into the small, closed cabin with a few other passengers, a box of vegetables, a green shag rug and a parakeet in a wire cage, and we set off for what I had been told was one of the most enchanting places in the kingdom.

Sabine Choucair shared this link

The husband takes us to Saudi Arabia on a touristic trip
Ben Hubbard I can’t wait smile emoticon shall we go this coming vacation ?!|By Ben Hubbard

My destination lay 28 miles off the coast: Farasan Island, the largest of a cluster of sunbaked sand and coral outcroppings in the Red Sea that are festooned with pristine beaches, prime dive sites, mangrove forests and historic relics dating back centuries.

The trip was my first lesson in what it means to travel in a country full of potential tourist sites that the government is ambivalent about letting foreigners see.

Most people reach the island aboard passenger ferries bequeathed to residents by the previous Saudi king. But I had missed the last trip, so I had to endure an hourlong, bone-shattering trip across the waves on a wooden bench in the speedboat

After we landed, I rolled my bag to the parking lot to find scores of dust-covered pickup trucks but not a taxi in sight, because, as I was later informed, the island doesn’t really have taxis. But before long, a student I had chatted with on the boat divined my predicament and delivered me to my hotel. His parakeet chirped the whole way.

In a region where countries like Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have invested to make tourism pillars of their economies, Saudi Arabia stands apart, and for good reason.

The country’s identity revolves around being the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest sites. Part of that heritage is adherence to a strict creed by which shops close throughout the day for prayer, women wear head-to-toe black gowns and are barred from driving or from socializing with unrelated men, alcohol is illegal and drug dealers and other criminals are beheaded in public squares.

That keeps the kingdom off the list of where most Westerners — and even many Saudis — want to spend spring break.

Saudi officials say they are not against visitors; more than 10 million expats reside in the kingdom and millions more Muslims come every year for religious visits. And on a personal level, Saudis can be disarmingly friendly and hospitable.

But as the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has long lived without tourism income and has seen little need to attract tourists who might make out on beaches or hold hands at the mall. (Or who may be women traveling alone.)

For now, the priority is encouraging Saudis to visit their own country. Tourist visas are not imminent, but for the intrepid tourist like me who gets in for other reasons (in my case a conference, as I report on the region) and follows the rules, there is the exhilaration of having awe-inspiring sites virtually to yourself.

“For those who like history, culture and nature, there is lots to do,” Salah Al-Bukhyyet, the commission’s vice president, said in an interview. “But here in Saudi, you won’t see people on the beach in bikinis.”

Despite their vast idyllic coastlines, the Farasan Islands have not a single beachfront restaurant. And despite extensive coral reefs, no one rents scuba gear, unless you book far enough in advance for it to be brought from the mainland.

There is only one hotel on the water, the Coral Farasan Resort (400 riyals, about $107, a night), a boxy, two-star affair whose green hallway smelled faintly of sewage but whose simple rooms were clean. After checking in, I found its restaurant’s windows closed despite the balmy weather and a single man devouring a plate of fried chicken.

I wanted fish, so Mohammad Saigal, a local English teacher I had hired as a guide (1,000 riyals a day), drove me to the fish market, where we bought two fish as long as my forearm for 80 riyals and gave them to some men to grill. Back at the hotel there were no tables outside, so we walked to the end of a sandy pier, sat on the ground under the stars and ate with our hands. The fish were as tasty as I have ever had.

After dinner, I confronted one reality of traveling alone in Saudi Arabia: When the sun goes down, there isn’t much to do. Groups of men played loud rounds of cards in the lobby, and kids kicked a soccer ball on the grass outside. I went to bed early.

I woke early, too, to the sounds of large Saudi families mobilizing for the beach. So I took a run along the coast and within 10 minutes was alone on a sandy track near clear, blue water, with no signs of other humans but the occasional remains of campfires.

That afternoon, Mohammad and I hired a boat and a captain (250 riyals an hour) and looped around the back of the island, passing smaller coral isles along the way and spotting tall, stick-legged cranes fishing and gliding overhead.

We later entered an inlet with mangrove forests on both sides. Skinny green fish skipped in front of the boat, and we watched dozens of large pelicans nesting in the branches and unfurling their wings to take flight. The captain killed the engine, and all was silent but the waves and the squawking of the birds.

He also said he worried that no one was protecting the island, that the gazelles that used to be common had become rare, as had falcons and foxes.

“There is too much neglect,” he said.

We headed out to sea, where our captain dropped anchor and passed out fishing lines on plastic spools. We baited our hooks and dropped them from the sides of the boat.

“As soon as you feel the line jiggle, pull,” Mohammad said.

A moment later, I did, and reeled in a six-inch fish, pink with brown eyes. That was my sole catch, but in about 20 minutes, Mohammad and the captain caught three each, which they had grilled and gave me for dinner.

The next morning, I met two single American women in T-shirts and capri pants sitting in the sun at the hotel and asked them about their experiences traveling as foreign women.

They taught at an international school and said they had flown to Jizan and taken the ferry by themselves with no problems, although they had asked a male friend to drive them to the airport.

Their advice: Be open-minded about the culture and don’t judge, be prepared to cover up, respect gender rules and you will probably be surprised at how welcome you are.

“It is definitely very segregated, but the Saudi people are lovely, hospitable and kind,” one said.

And if you are lucky, they said, you’ll get invited to a party with Saudi women, with music, dancing, food and fashion, but no alcohol, tobacco or men.

“Just good clean fun,” one said.

Mohammad and I spent the day visiting sites around the island. At an old Ottoman fort, we found a group of out-of-work tour guides eating beans and fried dough on the steps. The site had been refurbished, but there was no information on its history, its windows had been shattered, and trash was everywhere.

We visited a one-room, private “maritime museum” full of curios from the sea, including dolphin skulls, shells, shark jaws, a massive sea tortoise preserved in lacquer, and a sword made from the nose of a sawfish that the museum owner had planned to give to King Abdullah before his death.


Saudi tourists at Mada’in Saleh. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

“Total neglect,” Mohammad said.

But it was still fun to scramble over the ruins sinking back in the date palms, with no sounds but the distant pounding of a resident building a new cinder block home.

I wanted to treat myself to a nice lunch before I returned to the mainland. As Mohammad had heard that another hotel had a new cook, we dropped by.

We were told that you have to order two hours in advance. So instead, I had tasty rice and chicken at a local joint full of laborers and bachelors (married men eat at home) where I was the only one using a spoon rather than my hands.

I took the ferry from the island and passed the much smoother trip dozing and watching children play tag in the aisles. As in much public space in Saudi Arabia, including Hardee’s and Starbucks, the passengers were divided, with single men on the left and families and single women on the right. But before I figured that out, I had sat in the ambiguous middle. No one seemed to care.

My next stop was a site seen by many as the showpiece of Saudi archaeology: Mada’in Saleh, or al-Hijr in Arabic, an ancient settlement of the Nabatean Empire that left its biggest traces about 2,000 years ago.

It was the Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage site and where the astronaut prince took Prince Charles when he visited the kingdom last year.

Visiting it should be easier than visiting Farasan, given the new airport nearby. There are currently four flights in and four out each week, so when I got a ticket, I assumed I was fine. But I soon discovered that the airplane holds more people than the town’s main hotel (the other one burned down a few years ago), which was fully booked, leaving me no place to stay. (I was later told about a tent camp out in the desert.)

Thankfully, getting around the kingdom is cheap and easy on Saudia, the national carrier, which serves more than two dozen domestic airports and plays prayers over the P.A. system before takeoff. So I changed my dates and flew to Medina, where I rented a car for a four-hour drive though a stunning desert to reach the expansive palm groves of Al-Ula, an oasis town.

And gas is cheap: 15 riyals to fill up my Hyundai. Though prices have increased recently, they are still very low..

Visitors need permission to visit Mada’in Saleh, something the hotel handled with a copy of my passport, along with finding me a guide named Tamir (800 riyals a day).

When we reached the site the next morning, it was completely empty. Large sandstone formations rose from the rolling expanse of sand.

About 2,000 years ago, the Nabateans had lived nearby and carved massive, elegant tombs into the rocks, adorning their entryways with statues of birds and images of flowers, faces and serpents.

Their doors lead to large rooms, some with separate tombs inside, others with long shelves carved into the rock. And while the facades are perfectly flat, the inside walls bear the marks of thousands of chisel blows. My wrists got sore just thinking about it.

I spent the morning happily wandering from tomb to tomb, snapping photos, marveling at the workmanship and wondering what the rest of the civilization had looked like. My guide was no help.

“I don’t know the history,” he said. “I just know where stuff is.”

The tombs are empty, mostly cleaned out by grave robbers long ago, and the plaques around the site lacked detail on the wider culture. Compared with sites in Egypt, it was pleasant to be left alone. There were no touts, no hawkers, no Bedouins offering camel rides, not even rangers to protect the sites.

But some of the tombs had bullet holes in their facades and many were covered with graffiti.

The inscription above the door to one tomb seemed to foresee that eventuality, warning that anyone who wrote on the tomb had to pay 3,000 harithis to someone named Thi al-Shira and the same amount to “our lord the king.”

On the facade, two recent visitors had spray-painted their names and written “Memories of Wednesday, 3/11/2011.”

After a few hours at the site, tomb fatigue set in.

“They all look the same after a while,” my guide said.

Then, as we approached another necropolis, I spotted a man in a burgundy cardigan, khakis and running shoes wielding a camera and scrambling excitedly from tomb to tomb. Another tourist!

He introduced himself as Tag Elkhazin, a 76-year-old semiretired mechanical engineer and a Canadian of Sudanese descent. A professed archaeology buff, he had been dreaming of seeing Saudi Arabia’s sites for years but had never been able to get in.

“I did my tribute to God and then decided to do my tribute to learning and knowledge,” he said with a grin.

He called the site “majestic” but said he was frustrated that Saudi Arabia had shown little interest in its pre-Islamic heritage.

“This is part of the history of the kingdom,” he said. “Saudi history did not start with Islam, with all due respect.”

I visited a few more tombs, but soon felt I had seen enough and decided to see what I could learn at the complex of small museums near the entrance.

Not much, apparently. The visitors’ center, the multimedia building, the Hejaz Railway Museum, the Syrian Pilgrim Road Museum and the Islamic fortress were all closed, even though, according to the hours posted by their doors, they should have been open.

“They are supposed to be open, but no one came to work today,” a guard said with a shrug.

The tourism commission may have a hard time persuading Saudis to visit such sites instead of going to the United Arab Emirates or Bahrain, neighboring countries with more relaxed social codes and attractions lacking in the kingdom, like movie theaters and bars.

And my Saudi friends were more interested in picnics in the desert, where young men like to cruise the dunes in their S.U.V.s.

But I had seen some local tourism earlier in my trip when some Saudi friends took me to the Ghada Festival in Unayzah, a local fair named after a desert shrub.

The tourism commission supports more than two dozen similar festivals across the kingdom, but they are hard to find out about if you don’t speak Arabic. Your best bet is to ask the locals, who will tell you what is happening nearby and maybe take you for a visit. Which is what happened to me.

We reached the fairgrounds midafternoon, and there were already hundreds of people there: men in long white robes, women in black gowns with only their eyes showing through face veils, and children wearing whatever they wanted.

The festival was a series of exhibits celebrating the area’s history. There were traditional markets where men made ropes from plant fibers and women sold embroidered clothing and wove rugs on traditional looms.

“This is what they fight with in Palestine,” one woman said, trying to sell me a woven sling.

Young Saudis are social media crazy, and the kingdom has some of the world’s highest usage rates of Twitter and YouTube. At one point, I stopped to snap a photo of some women baking honey-filled cookies in a big black oven and turned to see three Saudi girls aiming their camera phones at me and snapping away.

“Hey!” I said, and they giggled and scurried off, typing captions with their thumbs before sending my image into cyberspace. I decided to respond in kind and kept my phone at the ready to take pictures of anyone I caught taking pictures of me. I caught quite a few.

There were tents set aside for prayer, bonfires where we stopped for coffee and tea, and a kids’ area with games and music (voice only; no instruments). We even saw an itinerant clown, who sat in the back of a truck and made up a song about me for a small tip.

We visited an exhibit on traditional medicine showing bone setters, local diseases that had largely been eradicated and a mannequin giving birth standing up with a midwife on the ground in front of her.

Elsewhere, a family wearing traditional garb acted out scenes in front of an adobe house. A woman shook milk in a suspended metal container to churn butter, and a group of men chanted while digging a well.

Nearby, a gas-powered water pump chugged away, one of the first machines to reach the area powered by the same oil that had distanced most Saudis from the very life the festival sought to recall.

On a patch of sand, a teacher and a group of children with wooden pallets recreated a traditional Koranic school. As the sun set, they marched through the festival, chanting “Hafiz! Hafiz!” to celebrate a student who had memorized the Quran.

As they passed, a young boy ran up to me, smiled and asked, “How are you?”

Saudi Arabia turns on Lebanon for its unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude after decades of largesse

After pouring billions into rebuilding the country following successive Israeli invasions and air raids, the Saudis find that they cannot prevent the Shia from expressing their fury at Riyadh

If you drive from Sunni Muslim Sidon to Shia Muslim southern Lebanon, you can travel from Saudi Arabia to Iran in 10 minutes.

Sidon – like Lebanon’s other great Sunni majority city, Tripoli – has always basked in the favour of the Saudi monarchy. (How that? What Sidon got for example from the Saudi kingdom?)

The south, with its mass of Hezbollah fighters – armed and paid for by Tehran, its “martyr” photographs plastered across the walls of every village – has long been a lung through which Saudi Arabia’s Iranian enemies breathe. (you mean the allies of Israel and the enemies of Israel?)

But now Saudi Arabia, blundering into the civil war in Yemen and threatening to send its overpaid but poorly trained soldiers into Syria, has turned with a vengeance on Lebanon for its unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude after decades of Saudi largesse.

(What kinds of largess, again? The people never got a dime, if any money were lavished)

After repeatedly promising to spend £3.2bn on new French weapons for the well-trained but hopelessly under-armed Lebanese army, Saudi Arabia has suddenly declined to fund the project – which was eagerly supported by the US and, for greedier reasons, by Paris.

Along with other Gulf states, Riyadh has told its citizens not to visit Lebanon or – if they are already there – to leave. Saudi Airlines is supposedly going to halt all flights to Beirut. Lebanon, according to the Saudis, is a centre of “terror”.

What prompted all this spite was a ferocious attack on the House of Saud by Hezbollah’s chairman, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose battalions are fighting and dying alongside the regular Syrian army in Syria and killing the Islamist Al Qaeda rebels and those of ISIS who share a Sunni Wahabi salafist faith with the Saudis.

After pouring billions into Lebanon for decades – rebuilding the country after successive Israeli invasions and air raids – the Saudis find that they cannot prevent the Shia, whose government representatives include Hezbollah party members (just 2 ), from expressing their fury at Riyadh, especially after the Kingdom chopped the head off the popular and learned Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

(Not accurate: Nasr Allah lambasted the Saudi Kingdom 2 days after the launching of pre-emptive war in Yemen. And never desisted and promised to keep challenging the wrongdoing and brutalities of the Saudi Kingdom))

Why, the Saudis say, did Lebanon not even join in the chorus of condemnation against Iran when Saudi diplomats were assaulted in Tehran? (Lebanon condemned the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in many occasions)

The Saudis will probably regret this assault.

Pulling Lebanon’s financial magic carpet away opens the country up to other “friends”, not least Iran which, according to the latest Beirut reports, would be happy to fund the Lebanese army to the tune of £7bn – providing, of course, the newly purchased weapons come from Tehran, and not from Paris.

The Americans and the British, desperate to prop up the secular Lebanese army with enough weapons to protect the country from Isis – which briefly took over the north-eastern Lebanese town of Ersal and still holds nine Lebanese soldiers captive – are pleading with the Saudis to keep their original £3.2bn promise.

But this latest crisis since the last greatest crisis in the drama of Lebanon – which currently has no president and no proper functioning parliament and not even a rubbish collection – is not without its own unique comedy.

Saudis will find no problem in abandoning Saudi Airlines’s lacklustre hospitality en route to Beirut in favour of the infinitely more luxurious aircraft of Emirates Airlines.

And warnings of “terror” are not going to stop Saudis desperate for the fleshpots of the Levant from travelling to Beirut once the temperatures boil up in the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah.

The nightclubs and high-class sex workers of Lebanon will not fall victim to the aggressive politics of the Kingdom’s young and newly powerful princes. And then there is the case of “Prince Captagon”, the Saudi royal family member still in a Lebanese prison for allegedly trying to smuggle tons of drugs on to his private jet at Beirut airport last year.

The moment he was arrested, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon called up the Lebanese foreign minister and haughtily announced that his immediate release was a “political” imperative. (Mind you that traders in drugs are punished by death, except the royal family members)

The Sunni Lebanese Future Movement’s leader and former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, is a Saudi citizen – as was his assassinated ex-prime minister father Rafiq – and is now quite taken aback by the wilful actions of a nation to which he has always given as much allegiance as he has to Lebanon.

The Future Movement, it seems, did not try hard enough to ameliorate Lebanon’s official criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Arab League and should have prevented Hezbollah from destabilising Yemen and Bahrain – even though there is no physical proof that either Hezbollah or Iran have actually been involved in the Yemeni war or the Shia revolt against the Bahraini autarchy, where a Sunni king rules over a Shia majority.

Needless to say, the Sunnis of Tripoli are issuing proclamations of their undying gratitude to the Saudi royal family for the ceaseless flow of dollars which has smothered them in years gone by. (Is Fisk being ironic in his superlatives of largess?)

Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah’s Shariah Council, insisted that it was the Saudis who should apologise to Lebanon which “has always been on the side of the Arab nation”.

The country, he said – and this was a prim way of alluding to the Saudis’ abiding interest in the sleazier side of Lebanon’s entertainment industry – was “not a farm for the al-Saud family and others”. But the Hezbollah have their own sniffy way of reacting to insults.

“Spontaneous” Shia protest demonstrations  were held in the southern suburbs of Beirut when a local television station lampooned the unassailable Sayyed Nasrallah. A cartoon had depicted the Hezbollah leader proclaiming his total and absolute denial of all Iranian influence – until a hand marked “Iran” appeared from the left-hand side of the screen, at which point the cartoon Nasrallah slobbered all over it.

The truth is that the Saudis are publicly praised and secretly reviled across the Muslim Middle East because they are very rich and most of their fellow Arabs, comparatively, are very poor. (Not accurate: it is Not the money, but the way the Saudi Kingdom consider all others as slaves to their orders and policies)

Generous the Saudis have been – propping up their favourite political causes, constantly repairing Lebanon, building hideous new mosques in Bosnia and spending in the casinos of Europe – but open-minded they are Not.

No wonder some in Beirut are asking whether, crushed by the collapse of oil prices, the cost of its Yemeni adventure and facing a lake of poverty among its own people, (even before the collapse of oil prices), Saudi Arabia isn’t simply running out of money.

In which case, a newly desanctioned Iran would be happy to take the monarchy’s place as the financial saviour of Lebanon – as well as play the new policeman of the Middle East, courtesy of the US.

Strange, isn’t it, that the name “Israel” hasn’t once popped up in this saga?

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo’s, from Michael Benson’s book Cosmigraphics. Click image for more.

 In the eye of the hurricane: USA is the nation that can do more harm and is doing the most harm to humanity around the world

James Baldwin’s Rare Conversation on Forgiveness and the Difference Between Guilt and Responsibility

“We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.”

NOTE: This is the first installment in a multi-part series covering Mead and Baldwin’s historic conversation.

Part 2 focuses on identity, race, and the immigrant experience;

part 3 on changing one’s destiny;

part 4 on reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.

On the evening of August 25, 1970, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) and James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation about such enduring concerns as identity, power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination.

By that point, Baldwin, 46 and living in Paris, was arguably the world’s most famous living poet, and an enormously influential voice in the civil rights dialogue.

Mead, who was about to turn 70, had become the world’s first celebrity academic — a visionary anthropologist with groundbreaking field experience under her belt, who lectured at some of the best cultural institutions and had a popular advice column in Redbook magazine.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

They talked for seven and a half hours of brilliance and bravery over the course of the weekend, bringing to the dialogue the perfect balance of similarity and difference to make it immensely simulating and deeply respectful.

On the one hand, as a white woman and black man in the first half of the twentieth century, they had come of age through experiences worlds apart.

On the other, they had worlds in common as intellectual titans, avid antidotes to the era’s cultural stereotypes, queer people half a century before marriage equality, and unflinching celebrators of the human spirit.

Besides being a remarkable and prescient piece of the cultural record, their conversation, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), is also a bittersweet testament to one of the recurring themes in their dialogue — our tendency to sideline the past as impertinent to the present, only to rediscover how central it is in understanding the driving forces of our world and harnessing them toward a better future.

This forgotten treasure, which I dusted off shortly after Ferguson and the Eric Gardner tragedy, instantly stopped my breath with its extraordinary timeliness — the ideas with which these two remarkable minds tussled in 1970 had emerged, unsolved and unresolved, to haunt and taunt us four decades later with urgency that can no longer be evaded or denied.

Although some of what is said is so succinctly brilliant that it encapsulates the essence of the issue — at one point, Baldwin remarks: “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we are still each other’s only hope.” — this is nonetheless a conversation so complex, so dimensional, so wide-ranging, that to synthesize it in a single article or highlight a single dominant theme would be to instantly flatten it and strip it of power.

Instead, I am going to do something I’ve never done in nearly a decade of Brain Pickings — explore this immensely valuable cultural artifact in a multi-part series examining a specific viewpoint from this zoetrope of genius in each installment, beginning with Mead and Baldwin’s tapestry of perspectives on forgiveness, the difference between guilt and responsibility, and the role of the past in understanding the present and building a more dignified future.

As they bring up their shared heartbreak over the bombing in Birmingham that killed four black girls at Sunday school a month after Martin Luther King’s famous letter on justice and nonviolent resistance, Mead and Baldwin arrive at one of the most profound ongoing threads of this long conversation — the question of guilt, responsibility, and the crucial difference between the two in assuring a constructive rather than destructive path forward:

MEAD: There are different ways of looking at guilt. In the Eastern Orthodox faith, everybody shares the guilt of creatureliness and the guilt for anything they ever thought. Now, the Western Northern-European position and the North American position on the whole is that you’re guilty for things that you did yourself and not for things that other people did.

(The West must be wracked with enormous guilt for their current pre-emptive wars and colonial occupations if they desist pounding on the concept that past is past)


BALDWIN: The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren’t going to ask me my name before they pull the trigger. I’m part of this society and I’m in exactly the same situation as anybody else — any other black person — in it.

If I don’t know that, then I’m fairly self-deluded… What I’m trying to get at is the question of responsibility. I didn’t drop the bomb [that killed four black school girls in Birmingham]. And I never lynched anybody. Yet I am responsible not for what has happened but for what can happen.

MEAD: Yes, that’s different. I think the responsibility for what can happen, which in a sense is good guilt — which is sort of a nonsensical term —

BALDWIN: Yes, but I know what you mean. It’s useful guilt.

MEAD: Responsibility. It is saying I am going to make an effort to have things changed. But to take the responsibility for something that was done by others —

BALDWIN: Well, you can’t do that.

Mead illustrates the perils of confusing responsibility and guilt with an exquisite example from her own life as a mother, from the time in the mid-1940s when she was heading a university initiative to foster cross-racial and cross-ethnic relationships:

MEAD: I was walking across the Wellesley campus with my four-year-old, who was climbing pine trees instead of keeping up with me.

I said, “You come down out of that pine tree. You don’t have to eat pine needles like an Indian.”

So she came down and she asked, “Why do the Indians have to eat pine needles?” I said, “To get their Vitamin C, because they don’t have any oranges.” She asked, “Why don’t they have any oranges?”

Then I made a perfectly clear technical error; I said, “Because the white man took their land away from them.” She looked at me and she said, “Am I white?” I said, “Yes, you are white.” But I didn’t took their land away from them, and I don’t like it to be tooken!” she shouted.

Now if I had said, “The early settlers took their land away,” she would have said, “Am I an early settler?” But I had made a blanket racial category: the white man. It was a noble sentiment, but it was still racial sentiment.

With an eye to this demand for responsibility in the present rather than guilt over the past, the conversation once again reveals its contemporary poignancy:

MEAD: The kids say — and they’re pretty clear about it — that the future is now. It’s no use predicting about the year 2000.


MEAD: It’s what we do this week that matters.

BALDWIN: Exactly.

MEAD: That’s the only thing there is; there isn’t any other time.

They revisit the subject of guilt, with its perilous religious roots, and the complexities of forgiveness in discussing the crime of slavery:

BALDWIN: I, at the risk of being entirely romantic, think that is the crime which is spoken in the Bible, the sin against the Holy Ghost which cannot be forgiven. And if that is true —

MEAD: Then we’ve nowhere to go.

BALDWIN: No, we have atonement.

MEAD: Not for the sin against the Holy Ghost.


MEAD: I mean, after all, you were once a theologian.

BALDWIN: I was once a preacher, yes indeed.

MEAD: And the point about the sin against the Holy Ghost is that —

BALDWIN: It is that it cannot be forgiven. (Which need further explanation of what the Holy Ghost is meant to mean)

MEAD: So if you state a crime impossible of forgiveness you’ve doomed everyone.


Look, there have been millions of crimes committed against humanity. Millions! Now, why is one crime more important than another?

BALDWIN: No, my point precisely is that one crime is not more important than another and that all crimes must be atoned for. (by politicians and war mongers to start with)

MEAD: All right, all crimes… But when you talk about atonement you’re talking about people who weren’t born when this was committed.

BALDWIN: No, I mean the recognition of where one finds one’s self in time or history or now. I mean the recognition. After all, I’m not guiltless, either. I sold my brothers for my sisters —


MEAD: I will not accept any guilt for what anybody else did. I will accept guilt for what I did myself.


BALDWIN: We both have produced, all of us have produced, a system of reality which we cannot in any way whatever control; what we call history is perhaps a way of avoiding responsibility for what has happened, is happening, in time.

(History of atonement should be written. History of reparation. History of nations admitting guilt and responsibilities)

This is a conversation underpinned by a profound baseline mutual respect and punctuated by wonderfully sweet in-the-moment manifestations of it — Mead and Baldwin frequently repeat each other’s words in a gesture of validation, and even bicker amicably about not letting the other be too self-effacing (“If I’m bright at all, and that’s debatable,” Baldwin says in one aside,

And Mead quickly interjects, “It’s not very debatable.” “It’s very debatable to me,” Baldwin counters. “Well, permit somebody else to do the debating,” she quips affably.)

But they have no reservations about voicing, if courteously, ideological disagreement — which is what makes the conversation so rich, stimulating, and full of wisdom.

One of the most moving instances of this dynamic emerges when they return to their divergent views on guilt and responsibility, only to discover under the surface divergence profound common ground:

MEAD: Did you bomb those little girls in Birmingham?

BALDWIN: I’m responsible for it. I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Why are you responsible? Didn’t you try to stop it? Hadn’t you been working?

BALDWIN: It doesn’t make any difference what one’s tried.

MEAD: Of course it makes a difference what one’s tried.

BALDWIN: No, not really.

MEAD: This is the fundamental difference. You are talking like a member of the Russian Orthodox Church… “We are all guilty. Because some man suffers, we are all murderers.”

BALDWIN: No, no, no. We are all responsible.

MEAD: Look, you are not responsible.

BALDWIN: That blood is also on my hands.

MEAD: Why?

BALDWIN: Because I didn’t stop it.

MEAD: Is the blood of somebody who is dying in Burma today on your hands?

BALDWIN: Yes, yes.

MEAD: Because you didn’t stop that? That’s what I mean by the Russian Orthodox position, that all of us are guilty of all that has been done or thought —


MEAD: And I will not accept it. I will not.

BALDWIN: “For whom the bell tolls.” … It means everybody’s suffering is mine.

MEAD: Everybody’s suffering is mine but not everybody’s murdering, and that is a very different point. I would accept everybody’s sufferings. I do not distinguish for one moment whether my child is in danger or a child in Central Asia.

But I will not accept responsibility for what other people do because I happen to belong to that nation or that race or that religion. I do not believe in guilt by association.

BALDWIN: But, Margaret, I have to accept it. I have to accept it because I am a black man in the world and I am not only in America… I have a green passport and I am an American citizen, and the crimes of this Republic, whether or not I am guilty of them, I am responsible for.

MEAD: But you see, I think there is a difference. I am glad I am an American because I think we can do more harm than any other country on this earth at the moment, so I would rather be inside the country that could do the most harm. (Awesome sentence)

BALDWIN: In the eye of the hurricane.

MEAD: In the eye of the hurricane, because I think I may be able to do more good there.


We are responsible for that. That we are responsible for those unborn children, black, white, yellow, red-green, as the Seventh-Day Adventists say — all of them. We agree completely on that.

Now, is it necessary at this moment in history … for someone who is black to take a different stance in relation to the past although we take the same stance in relation to the future?

Now it may be. You see, the question I was raising earlier is that maybe in order to act one has to take a different stance.

BALDWIN: … Now, a thousand years from now it will not matter; that is perfectly true. A thousand years ago it was worse; that is perfectly true. I am not responsible for that. I am responsible for now.

MEAD: Now.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s; found in Cartographies of Time. (Click image for more.)

Reflecting on “that peculiar chemistry which we call time,” Baldwin stresses “the necessity of the long view” — something triply necessary today, amid our epidemic of short-termism — and considers the relationship between the past and the present in making sense of responsibility:

BALDWIN: A man’s life doesn’t encompass even half a thousand years. And whether or not I like it, I am responsible for something which is happening now and fight as hard as I can for the life of everybody on this planet now.


MEAD: The more one wants to be an activist the narrower the time is.

BALDWIN: Precisely! Precisely!

MEAD: What the kids say … if you cut out all the past —

BALDWIN: You can’t.


They are acting in the past. They don’t know it. It takes a long time to realize that there is a past… It takes a long time to understand anything at all about what we call the past — and begin to be liberated from it.

Those kids are romantic, not even revolutionaries. At least not yet. They don’t know what revolution entails.

They think everything is happening in the present. They think they are the present. They think that nothing ever happened before in the whole history of the world.

They return to this dance between past and present a few hours later:

BALDWIN: We are responsible —

MEAD: For the future. For the present and the future.

BALDWIN: If we don’t manage the present there will be no future.

As someone who thinks a great deal about the interplay of hope and cynicism, I was particularly moved by Baldwin’s de facto disclaimer to the whole question of demanding responsibility from others:

BALDWIN: A great deal of what I say just leaves me open, I suppose, to a vast amount of misunderstanding. A great deal of what I say is based on an assumption which I hold and don’t always state.

You know my fury about people is based precisely on the fact that I consider them to be responsible, moral creatures who so often do not act that way. But I am not surprised when they do.

I am not that wretched a pessimist, and I wouldn’t sound the way I sound if I did not expect what I expect from human beings, if I didn’t have some ultimate faith and love, faith in them and love for them.

You see, I am a human being too, and I have no right to stand in judgment of the world as though I am not a part of it. What I am demanding of other people is what I am demanding of myself. (Proper communication is based on sharing the correct pieces of intelligence that are always secretive or manipulated)

The enactment of this moral optimism, Baldwin argues and Mead agrees, is in the hands of the future generations — those generations to which, half a century later, you and I belong — which lends their conversation extraordinary poignancy:

BALDWIN: The world is scarcely habitable for the conscious young… There is a tremendous national, global, moral waste.

MEAD: I know.

BALDWIN: And the question is, How can it be arrested? That’s the enormous question. Look, you and I both are whatever we have become, and whatever happens to us now doesn’t really matter. We’re done.

It’s a matter of the curtain coming down eventually. But what should we do about the children?

We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.

MEAD: That’s right.

BALDWIN: What shall we do? How shall we begin it? How can it be accomplished? How can one invest others with some hope?

MEAD: Then we come to a point where I would say it matters to know where we came from. That it matters to know the long, long road that we’ve come through. And this is the thing that gives me hope we can go further.

(That is why people like best storytelling)

A Rap on Race is spectacular and pause-giving in its entirety — the kind of perspective-normalizing read that reminds us both how far we’ve come and how much further we have yet to go, equipping us with that delicate balance of outrage and hope that translates into the very moral courage necessary for building a more just and noble world.

Complement it with Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society and Mead on the root of racism.






March 2016

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