Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Obama: Bush's Worthy Successor

One of Barack Obama's, and every democratic candidate's, tactic during his run for Presidency was to tarnish John McCain as "Bush's third term". That was despite the fact that in many ways McCain differed from Bush and almost derailed Bush's run in 2000. It was a successful tactic. A bestseller arguing against McCain had as its cover a photo of McCain hugging Bush. Obama's highfalutin rhetoric assailed Bush as the primary reason for US being hated by many countries (Pew Global research shows the percentage of haters remain the same even now). In his inaugural address Obama scolded Bush administration for the false choices between security and values. Bush, seated a feet away, looked at the heavens dreamily. Into the 3rd year of his Presidency its a sweet irony that Obama mirrors Bush in areas of defense and security. Its a winning combination. The republicans cannot blame him for acting like a republican and the liberals will hold their noses and still vote for him because they would prefer a 'covert' republican than an overt republican.

Just after securing his nomination Obama, then senator, voted in favor of FISA that included provisions for wiretap etc. Washington Post editorial exulted that Obama having secured the nomination is now moving to the center. Who cared if he won the nomination caricaturing Clinton as not steadfast in values. As President he renewed the patriot act with drama by signing the act with an electronic pen from Europe. Liberals huffed and puffed in private.

Obama angered his base when he re-nominated Robert Gates as secretary of defense and retained General Petraeus in Iraq. Petraeus was a lighting rod for liberals for the Iraq surge strategy. Robert Gates is highly respected for his professionalism and when he retired recently Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in USA. None of which went down well with left wing.

Closing down Guantanamo was a big campaign promise. The attempt to close down Guantanamo ran into choppy waters in his own party and ground realities concerning the prisoners (no nation would accept them and many were hardened terrorists) made Obama to put that away. Coupled to that was the huge fiasco of getting to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, architect of 9/11 in a New York City civilian court. Critical portions of KSM's confessions were the result of water boarding which may not be admissible in a US court. Asked if the administration is ready to deal with the possibility tat KSM may walk out of a NYC court free due to tainted evidence Attorney General Eric Holder asserted "KSM will be judged guilty". Holder's assertion stood in contrast with the cornerstone of modern law, "innocent until proven guilty". Finally the plan was shelved. But such a political embarrassment needed a scapegoat. Obama helpfully scapegoated his counsel Gregory Craig. Craig, though a friend of Clintons, was one of the earliest endorsers of Obama. Maureen Dowd, the redoubtable liberal, wrote a column about how Obama has a tendency to sacrifice friends for his politics. Incidentally Craig later ended up as counsel for, hold your breath, Goldman Sachs.

Liberals carped endlessly how secretive the Bush administration was. Obama now makes Bush look more open and a paragon of transparency. When requests for information based on Freedom of Information act were made Bush had a rejection rate of 9.1%. Obama's administration has denied 15.9%.

During the campaign Obama said he would not tone down the drone attacks in Pakistan and that he would go into Pakistan if he knew for certain that Osama was hiding there. Hillary ridiculed him for saber rattling.Unmanned drone attacks that take out terrorist targets are a huge irritation in Pakistan and source of anger against US  for Pakistanis. Under Obama's watch the drone attacks have increased. There have been civilian deaths too. The killing of Osama, a questionably legal act (many legal scholars do say that US had a right  to do it) was the ultimate Bush like act.

If Bush had his Iraq surge Obama has the Afghan surge. The decision to send 100,000 troops was a tough sell to liberals who wanted to cut and run from Afghanistan, the 'graveyard of empires'.

The sweetest irony was Obama questioning the need to submit to Congress approval the US entanglement in Libya. In the aftermath of Vietnam Congress enacted the "War powers act" to curb Presidents from plunging the country into a war without Congressional oversight. No presidential candidate has accepted that rule in its entirety or spirit. The act stated that in the event of a war taken to protect US strategic interest or in self defense the President has to seek approval from Congress if the engagement goes beyond 60 days. Obama, the master orator and artificer of words, did what is pejoratively referred to as "Clintonian parsing". Obama claimed that US involvement in Libya did not fit the description of "war" and hence he did not need Congressional approval. Dropping bombs, spending money approx $10 million a day, sending US navy and drones all of that does not mean US is at war according to Obama.

Obama and the democrats justifiably criticized Bush for his record number of 'signing statements'. 'Signing statements' are those where a President while a signing a bill into law takes exception to certain portions of the bill and says he will not enforce those parts as head of the executive. Bush used it willy nilly. Of course just as President Obama flip flopped on many that he promised as candidate he did so on this issue too. What is worse his signing statement was to object to protecting whistle blowers amongst Federal Employees. The reason he gave was classic Bush, 'to protect secrets'.

When it comes to spending Obama outdoes Bush in profligacy. The only advantage here is that that is typical of a tax-and-spend liberal so his base has no problems with it. Bush had to contend with the ire of conservatives who scolded him for his unfunded wars and spending.

Bush was ridiculed for his penchant to vacation. Michael Moore lampooned Bush's vacationing in his documentary, in reality it was more fiction, Fahrenheit 9/11. Obama's vacation make Bush look more studious. A worthy successor indeed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Isaac Newton's Fan Club

Couple of weeks back I was in Washington DC visiting the world famous 'Library of Congress'. The LoC owes its existence to Thomas Jefferson. That Jefferson was one of the founding father's of America is America's fortune. Intellects like Jefferson are in a league of their own. Browsing through the gift shop I leafed through a 'Modern Library' edition of Jefferson's writings. As luck would have it I chanced upon a letter  (written in 1789) wherein Jefferson is asking his friend for portraits "three greatest men that have ever lived". The men are Francis Bacon, John Locke and Isaac Newton.

Will Durant's "Story of Philosophy" has a very interesting anecdote in Voltaire's life. Voltaire exiled from France was living in England. Durant writes "Bacon's name was still in the air, John Locke had written a masterpiece of psychological analysis and Newton had just died". Voltaire recounts an argument he witnessed. A group of men were arguing as to "who was the greatest man - Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane or Cromwell. Some one answered that without doubt it was Isaac Newton. And rightly: for it is to him who masters our minds by the force of truth, and not to those who enslave them by violence, that we owe our reverence". Voltaire had attended Newton's funeral. Voltaire then proceeded to study Newton avidly and later worked to spread Newton's theories in France.

Studying Newton is no mean feat. Newton, like the intelligentsia of that period, wrote his magnum opus 'Principia Mathematica' in chaste Latin. The text was dense and abstruse by design to "avoid being baited by smatterers". Rebuffing those who wanted explanation for his theory on gravity Newton had responded "hypothesis non fingo" (I dont frame hypothesis).

Newton had many not so nice sides to him. He quarreled with Robert Hooke and most infamously tried to dupe Leibniz of his credit for formulating Calculus. Even Newton's famous quote, cited for humility, "If I've seen farther it is by standing on the shoulder of giants, is thought of as maligning Hooke. Hooke was short and a hunchback. Newton, the supposedly rational scientist, wasted many years dabbling in alchemy. But as Durant says of Voltaire, these faults were secondary and were not of his essence.

Its amazing that an American politician would idolize an English scientist (along with two English philosophers) 63 years later in a letter. As much as it speaks of the men themselves it also testifies to Jefferson's intellect to search for such high wisdom in an age when acquiring such knowledge exacted a premium from the seeker. Living in an age when knowledge and facts could be summoned at fingertips we lose the ability to appreciate such seekers. Confession, I googled several times to write this to get exact quotes.

William Wordsworth had celebrated Newton in his poem "Prelude" (written circa 1799, nearly 70 years after Newton's death):

The antechapel where the statue stood
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
The marble index of a mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

Newton was interred in Westminster Abbey where Kings and Queens were buried. The poet Alexander Pope wrote the verses for Newton's epitaph:

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night;
God said "Let Newton be" and all was light

Seeing that letter by Jefferson reminded me of how Newton was feted by poets and philosophers. In an  age when politicians and conquerors with armies were the ones to be celebrated Newton heralded the age of an intellectual celebrity. Its a road in which so many were to walk and in the 20th century give our own scientific celebrity Albert Einstein.

Tocqueville to H1B's: Allure of America

The July 4th celebrations just wound down across America from 'sea to shining sea'. I watched the fireworks at Lake George, NY on July 2nd. Today the telecast from NYC and DC was spell binding. Just as John Adams had wished Americans celebrated July 4th with pomp and fireworks. Incidentally FeTNA, an umbrella organization of the numerous Tamil associations across US, held its annual celebration, as usual, around July 4th. Without getting into the merits of what they celebrate, the fact to be appreciated is that such celebrations by ethnic communities is a beautiful American character. I've often listened to immigrants jeeringly say "after all this is a country of immigrants". The subtext is a certain haughtiness that America lacks history or 'native' culture. Nothing quite gets my goat as that comment.

I was at the Library of Congress and was thrilled to walk through the cavernous halls. The roof was replete with quotes from western literature, names of giants in every discipline were engraved on pillars. Goethe, Faust, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Newton, Linnaeus etc find mention. Of course one could scoff at this and say "after all, America, with its recent history lacks the tradition of having such geniuses as its 'sons of soil'". Far from it. I see this celebration of geniuses from every imaginable corner as America's own is the quintessential American character. America has named satellites after S.Chandrasekhar (Nobel laureate) and Kalpana Chawla (died in Shuttle disaster). Both immigrants. No other country in the world, to my knowledge, says if you have a PhD you will be labelled as "National Essential Worker" and gives a permanent residency within 6 months. No other country in the world gives children of immigrants, legal and illegal, citizenship by virtue of being born in USA.

If I say "given a chance most of the world would emigrate here" many would consider it repulsive. US has a lottery scheme of allotting 55,000 green card on a lottery basis for ensuring 'diversity'. Last year the number of applicants were 15 MILLION. In recent years a small percentage of Indians return to India, for many reasons of their own. Yet the inflow continues unabated. But for the shameful green card mess more Indians would eagerly apply for H1B's.

The allure of America is not only in recent years. This country has drawn immigrants for nearly 300 years in wave after wave and has forged its own character that is quite unique and could be unhesitatingly called "American Culture".

Alexis de Tocqueville , French visitor, wanted to study America and write about. His masterly commentary "Democracy in America" (Pub 1835) is still read with interest for 180 years. Born just after the French revolution Tocqueville was enamored by the country across the Atlantic. He created an excuse to come to America, to study Prison systems in America, and wrote his book after a year of going around America. Tocqueville wrote a book that was largely laudatory about America but very much alive to America's original sin, slavery.

Many have visited the famed Smithsonian museums in Washington DC. How many would know that they were established by a British Scientist who bequeathed his wealth to create an institution in America, not his own England. For 150+ years that institution has lived true to goals of its founder and we benefit from it.

Given the propensity of today's intellectuals to rant against America it is easily forgotten that it was to America that intellectuals, fleeing Nazism and fascism and later communism, came. America cheerfully hugged Albert Einstein and the many Jewish scientists who fled Hitler. While this is mostly well known little is known of literary intellectuals who fled and found a home in Los Angeles. Economist recently reviewed a biography of Heinrich Mann, brother of Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann. Both Mann's had fled Nazi Germany. German literary giants, like Bertolt Brecht along with Mann, created a movement in US for 'Exile Literature' .

The other most famous exile was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who fled the Gulags of USSR. Safely ensconced in picturesque Vermont he scolded America for its consumerism. It is to USA that Nabokov too came. He later taught in Cornell University.

Andrew Grove, legendary CEO of Intel, escaped Nazis first and then the Communists. Grove's immigration from Hungary is the stuff of magical lore. Grove, said of his 20 years in Hungary, "by the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazi's 'final solution', the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army....". Grove arrived in USA in 1957, as the wiki entry says, "with little money and unable to speak English". The rest of Grove's story is, as the cliche goes, 'history'.

No other social program of India has lifted so many thousands of family into prosperity as the American H1B program. The thousands who came to US came, mostly, with a few hundred dollars and two suitcases. Of those two suitcases only one would carry clothes, the other would be for utensils, Indian spices, cooking notes etc. With this spartan possession many of those who came have stayed, become citizens, raised families, created wealth for themselves and for their families and for America too. America has welcomed and hugged H1B's. Many H1B's, like many other immigrants, do not appreciate the deeper intellectual traditions of this great country nor do they make efforts to school themselves in the history of USA. Visiting Smithsonian's and reading a smattering most immigrants do not even know one tenth of America. Many do not even give credence to what made America the super power that it is today. The genius of America, unlike European countries, is in allowing the immigrants to take their own times across generations to assimilate. As always the first generation tries to hold on to vestiges of what they know and cherish of 'back home'. The subsequent generations assimilate without hassles and contribute to the quintessential "American Dream".

Whether its the millions applying for lottery or scientists and literature giants fleeing persecution or the educated thousands who come searching for greener pastures America has an allure for many a human being across the globe.

Culture is not just some fabled ancient literature or the ability to claim antiquity. Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet adorns the Statue of Liberty, wrote acidly "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp". That America makes it possible for so many to come, earn, live freely, and pursue their happiness is the best form of culture.

This July 4 I'd like to celebrate the idea of America.