Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Solving the impossible

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld used to say that the best solution to an intractable problem, was to create a bigger problem. That didn't work out very well for him, or the Country. In fact, fully 5 percent of all conflicts end in a stalemate - not just the big ones that we read about every day, but also disputes and arguments in our everyday lives. How do we get beyond this, or do we? Dr. Peter Coleman of Columbia University, in his new work The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts argues that there are very real ways to break through even some of the most heated and critical issues of the day.

My conversation with Dr. Peter T. Coleman:


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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Andrew Sullivan brilliantly explains why Barack is a man of hope and Bibi a man of fear

Rick Hertzberg offers us a graceful, if pessimistic, guide. Money quote:
The President wants to make peace and presumably knows that it won’t happen without a huge and politically brutal American effort. Such an effort would probably provoke the Israel lobby (a better name for which would be the Likud lobby) into an all-out fight against his reĆ«lection. Netanyahu may not be personally and psychologically capable of making the necessary concessions. In any case he couldn’t make them without bringing down his own government, which relies on the extreme revanchist right for its survival, and forming a new coalition with opposition parties like the center-left/center-right Kadima. The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, though probably a precondition for an eventual settlement, makes it harder for the Palestinian side to make their own necessary concessions, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, this week’s mass marches along the borders suggest that the Arab Spring has finally come knocking at Israel’s door.
It has indeed been a remarkable week, and as the blog has shown, one that took me by surprise. I saw nothing that new in the president's speech on Israel-Palestine - just a minimal request directed to both sides based on a settlement everyone knows is the only equitable one, and that has been the cornerstone of US policy for a very long time. But the rank hysteria that immediately sprang from Jerusalem and quickly enveloped the far-right-wing-media-industrial-complex, revealed far more plainly than before that the gulf between Israel and the rest of the world is simply vast.
It appears that the maximum Netanyahu would allow in any two state solution are some kind of autonomous bantustans in the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli military and security forces and buffered at the Jordan border with IDF troops. Forget about Jerusalem and the right of return. If this is Israel's bottom line, there will be no peace, and there should be no peace, because of the rank injustice of this non-solution. More to the point, Netanyahu is no longer on the Israeli fringe. As we've tried to document in our series of posts "An Epidemic Of Not Watching", there is very solid and wide support in Israel for such a maximalist position, and in America, this is what most of the American Jewish Establishment has fatefully backed. 
What strikes me is the visceral and emotional power behind the AIPAC line, displayed in Netanyahu's contemptuous, disgraceful, desperate public dressing down of the American president in the White House. Just observe the tone of Netanyahu's voice, and the Cheney-like determination to impose his will on the world, regardless of anyone else, and certainly without the slightest concern for his ally's wider foreign policy and security needs. It seems clear to me that he believes that an American president, backed by the Quartet, must simply bow toward Israel's own needs, as he perceives them, rather than the other way round. Has Netanyahu ever asked, one wonders, what he could actually do to help Obama, president of Israel's oldest, and strongest ally in an era of enormous social and political change? That, it seems, is not how this alliance works. Moroever, an alliance in which one party is acting in direct conflict with the needs and goals of the other is an unstable one. Yes, there are unshakeable, powerful bonds between the two countries, and rightly so. But emotional bonds are not enough if, in the end, core national interests collide - and no compromise is possible.
The logic of this seems rather dark to me.
Netanyahu's current position means that the US is supposed to sacrifice its broader goals of reconciliation with an emergent democratic Arab world, potentially jeopardize its relations with a democratic Egypt, isolate itself from every other ally, and identify the US permanently with a state that, in its current configuration and with its current behavior, deepens and inflames the global conflict with Jihadist Islam. Netanyahu, in other words, wants the US to clasp itself to Israel's total distrust of every Arab state and population in an era where it is vital for the US to do exactly the opposite.
And it is absurd not to notice Obama's even-handedness. It's clear he won't legitimize Hamas until Hamas legitimizes itself by acknowledging Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and dropping its virulent, violent anti-Semitism. He rebuked Abbas for going the UN route. Like any US president, he is committed to Israel's security and is, indeed, vital to it. But all he asks is a good faith attempt by the Israelis to acknowledge that their future state has to be based on the 1967 lines with landswaps. Indefensible? Says who? With a regional monopoly of over a hundred nuclear warheads and the best intelligence and military in its neigborhood, and a vibrant economy, Israel is not vulnerable. And in so far as it may be vulnerable - to Iran's nuclear gambit - its government is alienating the indispensable ally in this deserved quest for security.  This is panic and paranoia, not reason and self-interest.
And no one seems to appreciate Obama's political courage in all this. Obama seems to understand that an equitable two-state solution is a key crucible for the change he is seeking with respect to the Muslim world, the minimum necessary to advance US interests in the region and against Jihadism abroad. With each month in office, he has pursued this, through humiliation after humiliation from the Israelis, who are openly trying to lobby the press, media, political parties and Congress to isolate this president and destroy his vision for peace and the historic and generational potential his presidency still promises. To achieve this, he has to face down the apocalyptic Christianist right, the entire FNC-RNC media machine, a sizable chunk of his party's financial base, and the US Congress. And yet on he pushes - civilly, rationally, patiently.
This really is a titanic struggle between fear and hope. What has changed since Gaza is the context. The Arab Spring has, in my view, made fear more dangerous and hope more necessary. The democratic spring - from Tehran to Tunis - is the opposite force to the logic of the dead-end Gaza war, as to the mindset of Assad and Qaddafi.
If Israelis refuse to rise to this occasion, however fraught with risk, then they will cede moral authority, even more than they already have, to those they are still seeking to control. And if they persist in this, they risk bringing about the very existential conflict they say they fear so much. It is the task of a true ally to tell this truth. And to persevere.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Khan Academy transforms education

Since John Dewey laid out the predicate for broad scale societal education, at the turn of the last century, things have remained pretty much the same. Sure we’ve tinkered around the edges, scaled up and done some experimentation. But today it truly does seem we are simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

In a world where the collected wisdom of mankind is a mouse click away, where the disparity in leaning ability and style is wider than ever and where the need for education has never been clearer, we really do need a whole to paradigm.

Sal Khan, a Harvard and MIT graduate and former Hedge Fund analyst, may very well be the man who is the progenitor of that paradigm shift. Sal Khan is the founder, administrator and the faculty of the Khan Academy. An online resource that is educating over 2 million students a month.

My conversation with Sal Khan:


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Monday, May 16, 2011

Our search for safety, our loss of liberty.

Benjamin Franklin said that "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." In the war on drugs and war on terror we seem to have forgotten this. Like the frog in boiling water, we seem to have become desensitized as free speech, privacy and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures have been eroded. The Patriot Act not withstanding, we can do something about. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Shipler in his new work, The Rights of the People: How Our Search for Safety Invades Our Liberties makes a clarion call for our attention.

My conversation with David Shipler:
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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Accidental Sportswriter


The legendary Howard Cosell once said of sports, that it was "the toy department of human life." In fact, it is perhaps our most powerful metaphor for life. A world of courage, pain, competition, sometimes meritocracy, celebrity and yes...often corruption and disrepute. What better way to understand the world, than to have spent the past six decades covering the ever changing and evolving wide world of sports? That is exactly what Robert Lipsye has done. By virtue of his perch at the New York Times, Robert Lipsyte has had a front row seat at the smorgasbord of heroes and contenders that have entertained, amazed and disappointed us for the past 50 years. His expansive and time transforming memoir Accidental Sportswriter is just out.


My conversation with Robert Lipsyte:


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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rethinking Global Poverty

Scott Fitzgerald said that the rich are different. But what about the poor? Beyond the common denominator of poverty, are there aspects of a life of poverty that we just don’t understand? Does poverty itself create a different world view that accounts for the fundamental failure of so many well meaning anti-poverty programs? Moreover, even after our experience tells us otherwise, why do we continue to look for a magic bullet that will suddenly eradicate poverty and transform the developing world? The bottom line, is that we need to carefully and honestly measure results and realize that success it is a process that is often a slow and painful. No one working in the international development field today is as wise on these issues as Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee.

Esther Duflo is a leading development economist known for her work in applying impact evaluation, and controlled trials and other field experiments to identify which development interventions actually work. She is the Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at the MIT and co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab. She is a MacArther fellow and recognized by The Economist, Fortune and Foreign Policy magazine as one of most influential young leaders of our time.

Abhijit Banerjee is the Ford Foundation international professor of economics at MIT, also a co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab.   Duflo and Banerjee's research has led them to identify wholly new aspects of the behavior of poor people, their needs, and the way that aid or financial investment can affect their lives. They are co-authors of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.

My conversation with Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee:


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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wal-Mart's Green Revolution...really!

Imagine if the world's largest retailer, a company long reviled by many, became the poster child for sustainability and a trailblazer in the field of green business? That is exactly what Wal-Mart has done. It's a little bit shocking, but for the last five years, Wal-Mart has evolved into a model in the green revolution and in fact, could set the stage for the transformation of business in the 21st century. How did this happen? It is real or just a PR stunt and can it continue? These and many other questions are answered by Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes in his new work Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart's Green Revolution

My conversation with Edward Humes:
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Wizard of Lies

Much has been made of all the greed that led to the crash of 2008. Much anger has been directed at bankers and investment bankers. Clearly many did engage in highly speculative behavior and skirted grey areas of the investment business. But one man redefined greed.and manipulation on Wall Street. If it was a time of cutting corners, then Bernie Madoff went off the road.

Madoff may have been a crook, but he didn't exist in a vacuum. His behavior reflected the extreme temper of the times on a Wall Street -  a place he helped shape and that he intimately understood. He was not, as  financial journalist Diana Henriques has said, not inhumanly monstrous, but rather monstrously human.

My conversation with New York Times senior financial writer Diana Henriques about her book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the death of Trust.



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The World As It Is

I think we can all agree that the the American experiment is in decline. Our politics and our public institutions are broken and we have no idea how to fix them. Corporations have eviscerated most of the traditional liberal institutions that have served us.

In there place we've established a kind of oligarchic system which has intensified class divide in America. As a result, a proliferation of fear, ignorance and anger have become the primary symptoms. It has given rise to a new breed of pseudo patriotic rhetoric that, not unlike celebrity culture, leads to the very destruction of that which it reveres. In Yeats’s words, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

In spite of it all, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, thinks there is some cause for hope, if that hope is coupled with new forms of resistance and civil disobedience. Hedgers one of our great "moral voices" and the author of  Death of the Liberal Class now offers a gut punching critique of our world as it is, in his new work The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress


My conversation with Chris Hedges

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Singular Woman

In yesterdays NY Times, David Brooks had an insightful column about how individuals matter. He reminded us that while we have a tendency to see history as driven by deep historical forces,  sometimes it is just driven by completely inexplicable individuals, who combine qualities you would think could never go together. In some ways we could make this case about Barack Obama, but perhaps more importantly we can make it about his mother, Ann Dunham.  A woman truly ahead of her time. She defined and defied the boundaries of single motherhood and she made her own decisions. She had great success, yet no plan. She made lists of what she wanted to accomplish, yet seemed to improvise every step of  her life. She had her own ideas of what it meant to be a good mother and it certainly gave her a good son.  She was in the title of Janny Scott's brilliant new biography of her, A Singular Woman.

My conversation with for New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Janny Scott:


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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

GOOGLE THIS

Google is something we use everyday. Yet it's inner workings, both as a corporation and its products are often shrouded in more mystery then Osama Bin Laden's previous whereabouts. Yet the company and its products have become not only ubiquitous, but the catalyst that really allowed the Internet to explode and in so doing, changed the world. At the apogee of the industrial age it was said that "what's good for General Motors was good for the country." Now, well into the information age, is it safe to say that what’s good for Google is good for the country? Well, that depends....What it depends on, is the subject of Steven Levy's up close and personal look  In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.

My conversation with Steven Levy:

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Bin Laden - Lost and Found!

Back in February, I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit. At that time Scheuer made the case that Bin Laden was still relevant and that the US and its allies needed to continue to stay focused on pursing Bin Laden. Now that effort has been successful. Bin Laden is gone. Yet a story in today's New York Times states that Al Qaeda is unlikely to be handicapped by the killing of Bin Laden who, the Times says, has been long removed from managing terrorist operations and whose popularity in the Muslim world has plummeted. So is this effort, no matter how successful, only symbolic and how will it impact a Middle East in revolutionary transition?

To try and address all of this I once again spoke to Michael Scheuer. He was the chief of the CIA's Bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and remained a counter-terrorism analyst until 2004. Most recently he wrote Osama Bin Laden

My conversation with Michael Scheuer:


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