As one of the more positive consequences of the Arab Spring, voters in Egypt and Morocco have recently exercised their right to vote. This was especially so in Egypt, where people waited in line for hours. The "chaotic celebration of democracy" saw polling hours extended because of the unexpected large number of enthusiastic voters. Long deprived of any form of empowerment, people formed lines of up to three kilometers outside voting areas with the massive turnout expected to see over 70% of eligible people participating.
"Politics is the art of the possible" is a famous quotation attributed to the Prussian Otto Von Bismarck. Instead of standing steadfast on one's position, politicians are supposed to make deals which include compromises; they are supposed to be experts at getting things done instead of just arguing or shouting at those who hold different positions.
The other evening at the University of Geneva a large audience was privileged to listen to several speakers who demonstrated what politics should be. Yossi Belin from Israel and Yasser Abed Rabbo from Palestine, the driving forces behind the Geneva Initiative, spoke as one voice of what a future peace might look like in the Middle East.
After 18 years of negotiation, Russia is set to become a member of the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.). The world's 11th largest economy will be joining over 150 countries in the primary global institution dealing with the rules of trade between states. Three questions come to mind: 1) What took so long? 2) What changed? 3) Is this important?
Membership in the W.T.O. is determined by member countries. As a member-driven organization, the W.T.O. is based on consensus with any member state having veto power over new members. While there were several internal stumbling blocks concerning Russia's agricultural and tariff structure, the major hurdle was a positive vote from Georgia. Relations between Georgia and Russia have been strained for years. With Georgia's accession to the W.T.O. in 2000 and the armed conflict between the two countries in August 2008, Georgia's position became the last obstacle for Russian admission.
The boxing champion Joe Frazier died this week. The youngest of 12 children, the son of poor rural farmers in South Carolina, he persevered to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and held various versions of the heavyweight title from 1968 to 1973. But, he is best remembered as the competitor and foe of Muhammad Ali. Their two major confrontations - the Fight of the Century in 1971 in Madison Square Garden and the Thrilla in Manila in 1975 - were legendary fights, the second considered by experts as one of the greatest fights in history.
Frazier-Ali was more than just a sporting event. Ali, who had refused military service to protest the war in Vietnam and converted to Islam, taunted the blue collar Frazier as an Uncle Tom, the Great White Hope of the Establishment. Their fights were brutal. After the first battle in New York, the victorious Frazier spent three weeks in the hospital. In the Manila fight, Frazier was so battered that his trainer threw in the towel before the last round; his fighter had one eye completely shut. Frazier never responded to Ali's ridicule, but the divisive politicization of the 1960's permeated their relationship. They represented two radically separated poles in the United States. Frazier-Ali was not Federer-Nadal.
It was before their first fight that I met Muhammad Ali. Because he had refused military service, he was banned from boxing. Very few people know that during that suspension period he appeared in a Broadway musical called Buck White. I was teaching elementary school in Harlem in 1969 and arranged for my class to attend a preview. What a surprise! First, Ali sang several songs with a high, almost feminine voice. Second, he invited us backstage during the intermission and could not have been more pleasant to me and encouraging to the students about studying and school. The show only ran for seven performances, but one month later on January 18, 1970, Ali sang two of the songs from the show on the popular Ed Sullivan Show.
One song he sang, "We Came in Chains," was about how African-Americans were brought to the United States as slaves. The entire class enjoyed the song. At the end of the school year, I was responsible for preparing the students for an end of year production. Several of the students suggested we use the song. I hesitated for several reasons, but they insisted. One of the problems was copyright. I was able to contact Ali, who was most gracious in allowing us to use the song for the final assembly. At the June ceremony, the entire class of 32 came onto the stage carrying a long rope above their heads symbolizing chains and slavery. When the music started and they began singing, the entire audience rose to their feet to cheer. What a moment!
Ali and Frazier never reconciled their differences. After Frazier's death, Ali issued a statement saying that "The world has lost a great champion. My sympathy goes out to this family and loved ones." Suffering from Parkinson's disease, Ali has gained the sympathy and the respect of the American people. He lit the flame at the opening of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He went from being found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison to being names Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. His anti-war, Nation of Islam period has faded into history. But here is one person who has a different memory of the Champ. The death of Frazier brought back Ali's soft voice singing "We Came in Chains". Joe Frazier was a warrior, just like Ali. But it is the voice of Ali singing that remains in my memory, not the brutality of their two legendary fights.
November 10, 2011
Dreams are an important part of our lives. One does not have to study Freud to understand the role dreams play, especially in terms of aspirations. Hope is a fundamental element for all humans. We dream, we hope for something better in the future. My particular dream is to win Wimbledon; every year I wait for my invitation, every year I prepare my victory speech. I even have two photos doctored of me with the Wimbledon trophy. I was teary eyed when I received them as a present. I hope, I dream.
California has been the setting for millions of dreams, such as the Donner Party’s heroic effort to go over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1846. Sun and surf, oil and agriculture, something for everyone who couldn’t make it somewhere else. A new start, a new Eldorado. From the discovery of gold on the property of Swiss pioneer John Sutter to Levi Strauss’ selling tent material from Nimes as jeans (deNimes became denim) to Silicon Valley and all those who began start ups in garages to become millionaires, California has come to symbolize dreams and their realization. As the Mamas & the Papas sang in the euphoria of the 1960’s, “California dreamin’ is becoming a reality”.
A recent trip to Northern California confirmed California in all its glory. Gorgeous sunshine, not the cold, bleak haze of Geneva during the winter; eating fresh fish at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey by the docks, eyeing the luxury yachts, looking at whales and otters frolicking in the pristine water. What a life!
Until, just a brief moment with the Mayor of Salinas, a medium size city next to Monterey. Salinas is an agricultural center which produces 80% of lettuce grown in the US, the town of John Steinbeck and the cult movie East of Eden with James Dean. Amid all the sunshine and dreamin’, I couldn’t resist asking the mayor what was his major problem. He launched into a monologue about the role of gangs in the area; gangs who not only deal in drugs and human trafficking, but gangs which have become omnipresent in all aspects of the community’s life, even recruiting young members in primary schools. Many of the gangs come from Latin America and are tied into drug lords in Mexico, he explained. We talked about his efforts at prevention, but it was obvious that he was overwhelmed by the size of the problem. The California dream was not only for those who had become millionaires in Silicon Valley. Gang lords had also seen California as a land of opportunity.