ISIS: What’s In A Name?

Islamic State flag

Remember when Isis was just a Greek goddess? The goddess of – among other things – health and wisdom?

Not many people today would know the goddess, but there are few who don’t know ISIS. According to a new CNN/ORC poll, people in the U.S. consider ISIS a greater threat than Iran, Russia, North Korea, China – or probably even the economic woes of the earlier Isis’ native land.

In an effort to increase understanding of the situation, Celia Menczel of San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club Middle Eastern Affairs group recently assembled a panel of experts to discuss the issue in both human and political terms. Moderated by Media Analyst Dina Ibrahim, the program was titled The Islamic State. Panelists included Honorary Consul General of Turkey Bonnie Joy Kaslan; Kurdish human rights activist Karaman Mamand; University of California, Davis Professor Karima Bennoune, author of the irresistibly titled Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here; and Jordanian academic Maher Kalaj.

Panelists were invited to give a brief overview of their perspectives. This unfortunately was an impossible assignment; though several panelists made valiant attempts, it turns out that expert views and insights on the Islamic State simply cannot be condensed into ten minutes – if, indeed, a day. The issue is too vast, too complex, too fraught and too weighted with centuries of conflict.

But on one issue there was emphatic agreement: ISIS is not a state.

Kaslan led off her summary with that declaration, and concluded by stressing the importance of this distinction: ISIS, ISIL, SIC, IS, Da’ish is many things, but not a state. Among the many things it is? A terrorist organization; an amorphous group of men who commit unspeakable acts of violence and brutality; a sprawling movement that condones and conducts beheadings, kidnappings, mass executions of religious groups, absolute subjugation of women.

A state, most would argue, involves more than territorial control – which ISIS surely has, in constantly shifting areas – and more than the declaration of power. A state exhibits some degree of care and concern for its people – and the rest of humankind.

Many diverse elements of the troubling terrorist movement were illuminated by members of the distinguished panel, but this was perhaps the key:

Whatever ISIS is, it’s not Islamic to the vast majority of believers in Islam…… and hopefully it will never become a state.

Life: a sexually transmitted, fatal condition

sunset

Life is a sexually transmitted condition that is invariably fatal.

That well-phrased truth – often attributed to British author Neil Gaiman – led off a talk not long ago at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club by Atul Gawande, physician and author of, most recently, Being Mortal. Gawande’s message was all about being mortal, and facing that inevitable death in advance. In other words, if we mortals could please just admit our mortality – and talk about what we’d like our final days/weeks/months to look like – much good would result.

This writer has been on that soapbox for several decades.

Gawande and his interviewer, University of California San Francisco professor Alice Chen MD, spoke of the need for shared decision-making, shifting away from the paternalistic ‘doctor knows best: here’s what we’re going to do for you’ attitude to the physician giving information and involving the patient in making choices. But their decision-making would still put the doctor first and patient second. This writer respectfully disagrees.

Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande

In response to a question from the audience, Gawande agreed that “a patient with unbearable suffering should be given the option to hasten death.” But he followed this perfectly rational statement with an irrational comment: “every hastened death is a failure of the medical system.”

Give us a break.

The medical system needs, at some point, to confront this reality: Life… is invariably fatal. The medical system cannot forestall anyone’s death forever. The medical system cannot protect, absolutely, against unbearable suffering. Compassionate physicians across the U.S. are recognizing this fact, and increasingly backing the legalization of aid in dying for the mentally competent terminally ill.

Gawande, Chen and countless others are proponents of palliative care, an excellent, relatively new segment of care in this country. They would have us believe that palliative care is the be-all and end-all of end-of-life care, and they oppose the option of legal aid in dying. Palliative care, an option many choose, is a fine addition to healthcare. It can keep pain to a minimum and often insure comfort; as a last resort, palliative sedation can render the patient essentially unconscious for whatever hours or days remain until death comes.

But it is a cruel myth that palliative care, or even the best hospice care, can guarantee anyone will slip peacefully from good life to gentle death. Pain, indignity, discomfort and distress are part of the process; some of us don’t want much of that.

Legal aid in dying, the option to choose at what point to let invariable fatality happen, is the only guarantee. It’s an option that we should all have.

Sailing as Metaphor

Sailing under Bay Bridge 4.11.15Life. Play it safe – or risk everything? Avoid conflict or seize the day?

At the end of a long-anticipated visit from across the country, this writer’s family – west coast grandmother, east coast son and daughter-in-law, granddaughters 11 and 13 – was invited to go sailing on San Francisco Bay with a close friend who owns (and carefully operates) a 36-foot sailboat. After showing us around – it sleeps seven, with almost all the comforts of home – our captain delivered a safety lecture, explaining things like where the life jackets are, and the way the boom can swing quite suddenly and one is advised to stay out of its way. He went into some detail about what to do if he fell overboard: a safety device attached to the stern contains rope and flotation collar, so all that’s required is to keep circling until the man overboard can grab the line. He then issued life jackets to the girls and offered them (this boat has life jackets for about a dozen) to the grownups. I declined, knowing full well that I would last about five minutes max in the chilly waters of the Bay; go figure.

Skip & Georg 4.11.15For the next several hours we had a glorious sail, under the Bay Bridge, around the back of Alcatraz, nearing Angel Island, swinging parallel to the Golden Gate and heading back to meander homeward along the city’s edge. Picnicking in the sunshine and taking advantage of spectacular photo ops. I had one scary moment on the turnaround; it’s been a long time since I last sailed. Almost home we were stopped by the bay patrol and told not to sail back below the bridge for 10 minutes or so. Once we were cleared they explained to boats waiting on either side that Vice President Biden had been driving across the bridge. All in all it was a glorious day. In looking back, though, it’s hard to miss the basic messages:

1) Let the kids explore the universe, but keep the life jackets on.

2) White caps and turbulence make things interesting, and are seldom fatal.

3) The vessel with more power is supposed to get out of the way.

4) You can circle around someone who’s sinking, but he has to grab the lifeline himself.

5) On the other hand, when the sinker is you, be grateful for those circling around.

6) When you think the world’s going to keel over, there is ballast that brings it back to steady.

7) Sometimes the vessel with more power claims the right-of-way. Chill.

8) Wear sunscreen, and bring extra layers.

9) Don’t miss the scenery while you’re looking at your camera phone.

10) Life’s a breeze.

 

Sailboat behind Alcatraz

 

 

Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate?

Bernie Sanders 3.30.15

Bernie Sanders, the feisty Vermont senator introduced as “Independent in every sense of the word” isn’t likely to change if he runs for President. And if he does run – a suggestion that brought the evening’s loudest applause during a recent appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California – it should not be dull.

Within the first several minutes of his talk Sanders had ticked off a list of reasons he might indeed be tempted to enter the presidential fray: “Income inequality, planetary challenges, growing disillusionment with the establishment, massive greed, reckless and illegal behavior on the part of Wall Street resulting in millions of people losing their jobs and homes, a corporate establishment that cares only about its own interest…

“The American middle class,” Sanders says, “has been disappearing for the last 40 years. Forty-five million Americans live in poverty. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 35 million are still uninsured. The U.S. is the only major country that does not guarantee healthcare as a right.”

Sanders deplores what he sees as a movement toward oligarchy, with a handful of very rich holding the reins of power. Within that handful are the Koch brothers. Citing their 1980s Libertarian campaign goals, Sanders lists a few expectations of what oligarchic control would bring: abolition of Medicare, Medicaid and the postal service, abandonment of all government welfare, abolition of the minimum wage…

Sanders’ rapid-fire listing of grim possibilities ahead, shared in both his prepared remarks and in the Q&A moderated by San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, had more than an occasional campaign-speech sound. “It would be a very sad state of affairs if Hillary (Rodham Clinton) ran without serious opposition,” he said. Nor does he have much enthusiasm for likely Republican candidate Jeb Bush. “There clearly is something wrong with the political system if we’re not seeing dozens and dozens of vibrant young leaders whose dad wasn’t president or whose husband wasn’t president.”

Sanders & Campos 3.30.15His own platform would likely have the overturning of Citizens United and movement toward publicly funded election as a primary plank, a change Sanders sees as necessary to restoring democracy to our democratic system. Sharing the top would be fixing income inequality, an injustice he terms obscene and grotesque. “Between 2013 and 2015,” he said, “the 14 wealthiest people – Gates, Kochs, Buffett – saw their wealth increase by $157 billion. Not what they’re worth; increase. That $157 billion is more wealth than is owned by the bottom 40 percent of the American people. One family, the Walton family, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent.” Sanders on income inequality is Sanders in a rage against injustice.

The senator also has solutions: make public colleges free, weatherize houses, invest in solar, build a national rail system. Overturn Citizens United.

“The issue is not what happens in Congress,” he says; “it’s what happens in the grassroots. You’re going to have to start listening to the working class, not just billionaire corporations. Mobilize young people to say ‘stop spending billions on the military, spend on education.’

“This stuff is not easy,” the possible-candidate adds. “These guys who have got it all want more.” And Sanders is quick to say that he has few friends on Wall Street, in corporate America or in the military-industrial complex. “But I have seven beautiful grandchildren,” he adds, “and I’ll be damned if they’re not going to live in a country we can be proud of.”

Which sounds a little like he may run for President.

The Human Face of Human Trafficking

chained wrists

Suppose, just for a moment, you are a 13-year-old girl who has been trafficked in America, the land of the free.

You’ve been brought to the U.S. – kidnapped, sold by your impoverished family, picked up from the streets of some land where girls have no value – and prostituted. Or more likely here, you’re a very unlucky American child victimized by traffickers. As a result of this tragic history, you are pregnant. Or, you survived God knows what only to become a 20-something victim of human trafficking – which now leaves you pregnant.

You should be forced to carry this pregnancy to term? Excuse me?

This is the human face of the human trafficking bill currently being held up in the Senate. Texas Senator John Cornyn’s “Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking” bill would “boost support for and protection of victims of human trafficking” – unless they happen to get pregnant. Once they become pregnant, that support and protection disappears. Tucked away within the multi-page piece of legislation is a stipulation that abortion could not be paid for with these funds.

It’s the old Hyde Amendment thing – the bill passed late in the 20th century that sent women’s reproductive rights straight back into the 19th century with the stipulation that never a federal dollar would be paid to help them end unwanted pregnancies.

Some young trafficking victims might still seek help, since there are now exceptions in cases of rape or incest. But the fact that the victim herself would bear the responsibility for proving the circumstances of her pregnancy is an insult added to egregious injury.

Human faces get lost in congressional rancor. Senators accuse one another of subterfuge and betrayal. Republicans accuse Democrats of one thing, Democrats accuse Republicans of another. Very little gets done. And in it all, the human faces disappear: faces of mere children who never had a break, of women of every age who deserve a life.

If they had voices, those faces might say, “Remember me?”

Russia-Ukraine Conflict in One Fast Hour

Foreign Affairs 101:

Ukraine_Majority_Language_Map_2001

Ukraine Majority Language Map

If it’s possible to condense the incomprehensibly complex Russia/Ukraine conflict into one coherent hour, Matthew Rojansky can do it. Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on the region, proved that in a recent presentation at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. A listener who blinked could miss a paragraph, but Rojansky’s fast-paced illustrated lecture had most of his audience too engaged to blink. What follows is an abbreviated summary of the presentation.

Yanukovich estate

Yanukovych Estate

For openers, Rojansky explained that Ukraine, under now-deposed leader Viktor Yanukovych, was “a society absolutely primed for revolt. A few years ago,” Rojansky said, “I moved to Kiev with my family, (finding) Yanukovych one of the most corrupt politicians in history – and that’s saying something.” Illustrating his point, Rojansky showed slides taken during his time in Kiev including views of some of Yanukovych’s perks: a heli-pad; a palace with gold, jewel-encrusted design, 3-lane bowling alley, billiard room, private floating pirate-themed restaurant reported to have cost a few billion dollars – a rather definitive picture of excess. Rojansky also mentioned the stuffed lion guarding a corridor leading to the nail salon and spa, and a collection of exotic cars and animals. It was not just personal excess, he said, “there was government corruption on a grand scale.”

By the fall of 2013, Ukranian citizens were tiring of this. A peaceful protest known as the Euromaidan began in the square Rojansky and his family could see from their apartment window. “It was surreal.” Public sentiment favored closer connections to Europe, Rojansky said, but Yanukovych instead signed an agreement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Thus began the increasing protests fueled largely by social media, with help for the needs of Euromaidan solicited via constant Facebook postings.

Matthew Rojansky

Matthew Rojansky at the Commonwealth Club 3.6.15

Initially, Rojansky explained, the movement was not political. But also thanks to social media – Twitter users began receiving messages letting them know they were registered as protesters – things quickly changed. And on January 16, 2014, the dictatorship laws were passed: No protests, no groups, no gatherings. The movement against abstract corruption became ‘Yanukovych Must Go.’ Things came to a crisis when someone gave the order to fire and all-out shooting began. Despite the European Union intervening to broker a deal in late February, Yanukovych escaped – with boxcars of treasure – though leaving behind the exotic animals still being cared for on his former palatial estate outside Kiev.

Soon came the time of “the little green men” in Crimea, a significant chunk of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Rojanksy explained that there have always been Russians in Crimea; the little green men wore Russian military garb minus the insignia, carried Russian weaponry, but Putin at the time denied they were sent by Russia.

Donetsk airport

Donetsk Airport

By May of 2014, Rojansky said, regions of Ukraine that are heavily Russian-speaking began to hold referenda to break away – not to become independent, but to become part of Russia. Things accelerated significantly with the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane in July, 2014, and the ground war began. “This was not World War II,” Rojanksy explained, but guerilla warfare with terror tactics, firing on civilian buildings, the destruction of the once-beautiful Donetsk airport. “This is insane stuff.”

As to what Mr. Putin wants out of all this? Rojansky listed three main points;

1 – Domestic politics are life-or-death. If the idea that when regular people take to the streets life gets better catches on, Russians might say “What about us?”

2 – Putin has a major image issue. He’s the tsar. He is never wrong. There’s God, and then there’s the Tsar.

3 – Geopolitics are important. If Russia and Crimea get together, Putin’s bargaining power is greater.

Rojanksky characterizes Ukraine as being between a rock and a Russian hard place. The hard place is boosted by the fact that half the people in Ukraine speak Russian, and many more watch Russian TV with its decidedly nationalist fervor.

For now, Rojansky says the wise course is “Don’t show up giving out cookies. Get observers on the ground as fast as possible, and eyes on the ground on the borders. Watch to see if sanctions are working.

And in the very long term: “Ukraine matters. We have to help Ukraine defeat corruption. Things we can do include letting Ukrainians come here, and knowing about the region.” In the end:

“There are no easy answers.”

Disclaimer: This writer knows as little about Russia and Ukraine as a few long-ago college courses and one unforgettable trip from Moscow to St. Petersberg might suggest. But listening to Matthew Rojansky’s take on the current situation is enough to convince one to pay attention.

 

 

 

Dying in the Fix-It Society

Buddhist teacher/lecturer Frank Ostaseski spoke recently to the Bay Area Network of End-of-Life Care on the subject of compassion – something Ostaseski preaches, teaches and practices himself. Co-founder, in 1987, of the Zen Hospice Project, the first Buddhist hospice in the U.S., Ostaseski currently heads the Metta Institute, created to provide education and training on spirituality in dying.Buddha

Buddhism, Ostaseski said, holds that life is supported by two wings, compassion and wisdom, and neither is at its best without the other. His audience, made up of physicians, hospice workers and others involved with end-of-life care, was in interested agreement with the renowned speaker as he expanded on the theme. But this writer, also in agreement, found one side remark particularly pertinent to today’s end-of-life issues.

Ostaseski spoke of a severe heart attack he suffered not long ago, and of the wisdom gained from that experience. It was insight on critical illness “from the other side of the sheets.” During his hospitalization most visitors, even longtime friends with credentials in compassion, said the wrong things. “They were always saying, ‘It’ll be better tomorrow, Frank,’ when I wanted to talk about what was going on that very moment.” Additionally, Ostaseski found that nurses and doctors “interacted with monitors far more than with the patient.” What could well have been an end-of-life situation was, in short, lacking in compassion and wisdom both.

“Hospitals are fix-it places,” Ostaseski remarked.

We may have gotten fixated on being a fix-it society. Whatever the problem, a chemical or technological answer, in the fix-it society, is instantly sought. We fix brain injuries, once-fatal diseases, missing limbs, and more. But can we let someone who is terminally ill quietly die? Seldom. More often than not we keep trying to fix her with extended interventions, futile and expensive treatments or hospital stays that make dying a horror.

Ostaseski and others are working hard to help people find meaning in their final days, focusing on palliative care. Some, including this writer, are working hard to make medical aid in dying a legal option available across the U.S. ALL of us want a peaceful and compassionate death.

The_flame_of_wisdom

The flame of wisdom

 

The personal bottom line, yours and mine, is this: eventually we die. If the focus can be shifted away from constantly trying to extend our days, we can fix the final days that lead, one way or another, to the mysterious, inevitable, unpredictable, un-fixable but quite natural end. All it takes is a little compassion, and a lot of wisdom.

Walk, Text, Crash: the Orwellian future

Park.ukThe man coming toward me in the park, maybe 500 yards up the path, was walking a large, mixed-breed black-and-white dog. He (the man, that is) was bearded and graying, nattily dressed in black pants, a red plaid sports shirt and gray sweater.

Just ahead of me, walking in the same direction as I, was a younger man dressed in sweat pants and jacket and holding the end of a leash attached to a tan Labrador retriever.

Both men were totally absorbed in texting.

It was a slow-motion episode exquisitely orchestrated for a YouTube video, if only I had been quick enough with my cellphone; as it was, I could only watch, fascinated and wordless. They collided at full speed, one cellphone clattering onto the asphalt and one leash dropped. But there were no apparent casualties. The dogs, at least, had sense enough to have steered themselves safely onto the grass where they were sniffing each other with unconcerned abandon. I smiled politely and kept going.

The episode underlined the hazards of texting while walking, which can surely be as dangerous as texting while doing almost anything else. Almost: there are no available statistics on the adverse effects of texting while having sex, which seems popular in some demographics.

Not long ago, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton wrote a piece in which he shared a New Year’s resolution to quit texting while walking.

“The realization that I may have a problem (along with a lot of other people),” Bilton wrote, “hit me smack in the face, literally, a few weeks ago when I was strolling through Kennedy International Airport, avoiding obstacles with my peripheral vision as I clambered out a text message. Without any warning (as I couldn’t actually see), I was involved in a head-on collision with another man who was also texting while walking.”

Most walking-zombie texters do survive, as Bilton did, with only bruised egos or minimal damage, but that’s not always the case. An Ohio State University study links “distracted walking” to the dramatic increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Equally dismal, for the future of the planet, is how texting while walking may alter human interaction, whether texters live or die with their devices. One report, an interview with Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo, suggests an Orwellian solution to texting/walking hazards: a cellphone app that shows the landscape ahead, so that texters can text interminably, and see where they’re going without ever looking up.

Is there life beyond a 2 ½ x 5 inch screen?

The Shame of Abortion?

scarlet A“Help us protect the unborn, and save women from the shame of abortion” read the invitation.

It was an invitation to a fundraising event – this writer is on a strange variety of mailing lists – for a pregnancy crisis clinic. A friend who works at the clinic, and whom I respect although our opinions about abortion are poles apart, told me they never pressure or deceive women who come to the clinic. “We just explain that we don’t counsel on abortion,” she says. The fundraiser invitation sounds decidedly less compassionate.

The Shame word tears at my soul.

Thirteen-year-old Natasha, brutalized by more than one relative, is given another chance at childhood through an early abortion at a Planned Parenthood clinic. On top of all the trauma she has borne, she is supposed to feel shame?

Or the couple with a developing fetus they desperately wanted and loved, who decide to terminate the pregnancy later in its term to spare their baby a brief life of terrible suffering. In addition to their deep sorrow, anguish and grief, they should be ashamed?

Or the countless young women in circumstances similar to my own: after choosing to end an unwanted pregnancy for widely varying, compelling, always unique, deeply personal reasons because we are rational women in control of our own bodies – we need a shameful scarlet ‘A’ tattooed on our foreheads?

Words matter.

LIES 5 (2)

The banners proclaiming “Abortion Hurts Women” – posted by groups that seek to end legal abortion – testify to this fact: The posters work, but the words lie. Abortion is in truth far safer than childbirth. It does not hurt women, it protects women. The words are not true. But they work in exactly the same way that the shame word works.

Some words, even when they lie, go straight to the emotions. Emotional appeals become tools to generate support for political positions which hurt women. They should shame those who seek to deprive women of dignity, health and autonomy.

‘Shame’, ‘hurt’ – the emotional trigger words are being used to turn the clock back to the dark ages when women had no voice, no power, no control of their own lives.

As one who has been hurt, not by abortion but by powerlessness, and who strenuously objects to shaming, I declined the invitation.

Women deserve better.

 

Lunar New Year: Hedging One’s Bets

lunar new year

The Lunar New Year, Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram, is at hand. In honor of the occasion my acupuncturist — this traditionalist writer is an absolute convert to acupuncture – offered a special gift, in the form of instructions about how to start the year in the most auspicious way.

A good start is halfway to success, according to an old Chinese proverb quoted atop the instruction sheet.

“Both the timing and direction of your initial exit from wherever you are on February 19th, 2015 are of utmost importance,” reads the instruction sheet. We are admonished to make our initial exit between 5 AM and 7 AM, or between 11 AM and 1 PM. “To welcome good luck, walk in the South West direction. To invite divine help and wealth-spirit, walk in the West direction. Please do not have initial exit facing the South direction…”

Well, here’s the problem. The only exit from the building in which I live faces south. Walking in a southwest, direction, furthermore, will take me straight into the Post Street traffic, not a good way to start any year. I’m unlikely to get moving early enough to be headed out by 7 AM, and if I wait until 11 there will be meetings missed.

None of this is to disrespect the Lunar New Year.

Depending on which part of the Lunar-calendar-observant world you live in, festivals, rites and customs (such as the above) abound. My current favorite, passed along by a State Department friend newly arrived in Hanoi, is this one: “Vietnamese tradition,” she writes, “holds that, a week before the Lunar New Year, each person should release a live carp into the lake. The Kitchen God then rides the carp to Heaven, and reports to the King of Heaven about whether the people in that person’s family have been ‘naughty or nice.’ The King of Heaven either rewards or punishes the family, based on the Kitchen God’s yearly report.” The tradition strikes my diplomat-wife friend as “A little bit eastern, a little bit Christmas-y and a little bit smelly.” But definitely good for anyone fishing for carp – and unworried about pulling in one with a Kitchen God riding on its back.

Like the eastern mysteries of exit times and feng shui, western religions have plenty of their own.

Soon after studying the instructions about starting the Year of the Goat, I went to a Sunday morning Presbyterian church service about the transfiguration of Jesus. (Transfiguration comes right before Lent, if you’re following these lines of thought.) For serious-but-still-questioning Christians such as this writer, the transfiguration ranks right up there with the resurrection and the ascension. Disputed and discussed from every corner of Christendom (certainly including poor, avowedly neutral Wikipedia), these are central to the faith – and you want to believe, because the faith has such good, basic stuff about how to live in the world – but still. Most Christian beliefs require little more than loving justice, mercy and one’s fellow creatures and working to advance them all. But around holidays we do get pretty zany about Santa and the Easter Bunny; so stockings are hung and eggs are hidden — just in case.

Which brings the story back to personal behavior up to and on February 19. This sideline observer will pass on the carp thing, but my New Year’s Day plan is to exit the building sideways, facing west.

 

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