Monday, September 29, 2008

'Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka: a double standard?

As part or their training, introductory international relations students are asked to master contending theories that purport to explain how the ‘international system’ works. One of the most popular is ‘realism. Realists believe that international behaviors of nation-states can best be explained by a nation’s self-interest. Moral considerations enter into the picture, if at all, only to the degree that their are aligned with national self-interest. Realists pay particular attention to the self interest of ‘great powers’ because of the disproportionate influence they can exert.

Presently, Sri Lanka’s government is attempting to end the decades-long conflict with a separatist Tamil militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam through an aggressive military offensive. In the North, where fighting is fiercest, civilian casualties have grown. Since the LTTE view all Tamil civilians as allies in their struggle, protecting the rights of non combatants and avoiding civilian casualties are not priority concerns. Indeed civilians with deviationist views and those speaking out for some accommodation with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese dominated government have been targets of LTTE assassination squads. Several of my friends had been victims. As the Tigers suffer reverses on the battle field, they are stepping up bombings in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city. The effects on Sri Lanka’s tourist and foreign investment dependent economy have been devastating. Much of Colombo’s downtown area, as I wrote in a posting on my last visit, is a high security zone.

As civilian casualties mount, Sri Lankan’s government is being subjected to increasing pressure from western nations, especially the United States, regarding ‘human rights violations and civilian casualties.’ Withdrawal of preferential treatment for Sri Lankan goods under international trade regimes is being threatened. Many Sri Lankans I know, themselves strong supporters of human rights and not necessarily supporters of the present government, feel resentful.

I believe their resentment is justified, at least with respect the country whose policies I know best, my own. When it serves national security interests, the U.S., like other great powers does not hesitate to implement policies that can devastate civilian populations. The interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the most recent examples of many. Even at home, U.S. governments, and not the George W, Bush administration alone, can be quick to curtail human rights in the interests of [American] “national security.” Like good realists proponent argue [to domestic audiences at least] that national security must, in times of threat, be the overall policy and moral imperative.

I am not saying that this is necessarily wrong, only that I can understand Sri Lankan resentments. I can understand, too, why Sri Lanka’s government is now looking elsewhere for international allies - to China, Iran and Russia. To the internationally beleaguered leaders of the developing worlds most resilient democracy, this policy seems, no doubt “realistic.”

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reflections from inside the Business Class cocoon

“If you wanted to write a about a tropical island with political problems, why didn’t you pick Jamaica,” my wife once told me. Sri Lanka is nearly half way around to world and near the equator. Under the best of circumstances, one spends nearly twenty hours in the air, enroute. Total travel time is about 30 hours. Often I fly through London, braving London’s dysfunctional Heathrow airport because of the good connections to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines. As regular readers know, I can now afford to spring for a business class ticket on the London - Colombo - London leg.

This time, I decided that if I was to make the journey at all, I needed to be rested an alert during my Colombo stay. Quatar Airways provided a reasonably priced business class option and as good connections as one can now arrange when making the trip from Washington to Sri Lanka. In flight, I learned that the carrier has won awards for the best in flight service in five successive years. I might rate it a small peg below Singapore Airlines, on which I flew this summer, but the gap was small. Between these airlines and American Carriers such as Delta, American Airlines and the worst of the worst, United Airlines, the gap is a chasm.

Flying business class is a completely different travel experience. It demonstrates that good customer service is possible and that air carriers do know know to provide it. Cabins are roomy and, on newer aircraft, seats transform themselves into comfortable beds at the touch of a button. Meals are excellent and service is proactive. There are no long lines, no waits in crowded ‘lounges’ where the eye can find no relief from commercial blandishments.

In Quatar, I and my other and first/business class companions were immediately waved to a spacious bus. No standing or jostling here. We were only six passengers in a vehicle designed to hold more 30 or more. We were whisked to a separate building and escorted to a lounge that could only be described as cavernous. Seating was comfortable and the lighting subdued. Non a commercial blandishment in sight. When I arrived it was nearly empty. Now it is filling up as early arriving and transit passengers await flights to Muscat, Trivandrum, Johannesburg and Colombo. No alcohol served here, though it was available on the flight. (But, interestingly, no bottles were displayed, ‘in deference to the Holy Month of Ramidan” my attendant explained).

It would be easy to become addicted to this sort of thing, to become completely detached from a culture of travel where, in the name of ‘economy,’ passengers are often herded like cattle and, on many airlines - especially US airlines - treated with sullen indifference or even outright hostility. No doubt the staff hear platitudes about customer services from their bosses, but they are two overwhelmed, overworked, underpaid and stressed to pay attention.

Business class travelers are a bit like many political leaders. They have the power to effect change. They have voices that would be heard if they spoke out. But they rarely, if ever, experience what needs to be changed. Their senses are dulled to our planet’s pain and turbulence. Many simply stop caring.

,,, I must not succumb to this pathology.

An unanticipated trip to Colombo

Last Wednesday night, I would not have expected that less than a week later, I would be sitting at Dulles airport, awaiting a late night flight to Colombo. But when I checked my accumulated email at the end of a long day, I received surprising and gratifying news. In my June visit to Sri Lanka, I initiated a collaboration with the Social Science Association of Sri Lanka to translate the concluding three chapters of Paradise Poisoned into Sinhala and Tamil. the two languages spoken by most Sri Lankans. Our plan was to complete the Sinhala translation first, followed by the Tamil. Our ambitious timetable envisioned completing the first volumes in time for the Colombo International book fair in late September. I was not optimistic. Though I offered to fly to Colombo for the launch of the Sinhala translation if it was ready, I had made no plans.

The message I received said that not one, both books would be ready for a launch on September 25th. I quickly wrote for a confirmation, which arrived the next morning. I immediately began to make plans for a very short visit - four days of travel for five days in Colombo.

When I coach students on how to get things done in an organization, I emphasize the importance of relationships based onshared experiences that contribute to mutual understanding, mutual respect, friendship and trust. My relationship with the Social Science Association of Sri Lanka’s Executive Director spans more than 20 years. Our friendship began when I taught at Colombo University. For planning this trip. I called upon a relationship with a Sri Lankan travel agent whom I have known nearly as long. Before moving to the US, she had been the History and Political Science Department secretary Colombo University. She was out for the day, but her colleague, too, knew we as a valued, considerate client of long standing. She spent more than an hour - perhaps several hours - researching options and calling me back to discuss them.. In the end, we settled on a Quatar Airline fight via Doha, which I am now awaiting.

Serendipitously, my Faculty Resident’s dinner in Anderson Hall last evening was Sri Lankan. I spent the afternoon shopping and then preparing a chicken ‘red” curry, two vegetarian curries, dhal and sambol. 32 students crowded in. They seemed to enjoy the meal and lively conversation. I told them that on Wednesday, I would be enjoying a similar meal in Colombo. They all wished me a pleasant and safe journey.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

'Beep, beep, beep,' the world is calling

One is unlikely to read about the 15-22 year age cohort without encountering the word ‘multitasking.’  When students are using their computers, they often have several ‘windows’ open simultaneously.  There may be additional intrusions from a cell phone call or text message.  The television, too, may be turned on, providing yet another stream of information, entertainment and commercial messages.  To goal of commercial messages, whether on television, website or cell phone is to intrude. If successful, they divert our attention, motivating us to to reach for our credit card, head for a fast food outlet, or satisfy previously unrealized needs with a trip to the mall.

In his book, How to Practice: A Guide to A Meaningful Life, the Dalai Lama proposes a very different lifestyle grounded in centuries old disciplines of Tibetan meditation.  The ultimate goal of Tibetan meditative practice is enlightenment, not for oneself but ‘for the sake of all sentient beings.’  The intermediate stage is to achieve ‘calm abiding of the mind’  or ‘one pointed concentration.’

A commitment to attain calm abiding is not to be undertaken lightly.  The Dalai Lama reports that he devotes several hours each day to his meditative practice, arising at 3:30 each morning to begin. He advises neophyte practitioners that they may be able to move to the next level of practice when they have been able to sustain calm abiding continuously for four hours.  One monk, who had attained this goal, told His Holiness that the task was more arduous than enduring torture in a Chinese Communist prison.

I have been seeking to follow Tibetan meditative practices for about a year.  I made this commitment after beginning to listen to audio books of the Dalai Lama’s writings on my iPod. On mornings when I have kept my resolve not to work too late, I arise at 5:30 and practice for an hour or more.  On days when my self-discipline has weakened, practice time  may be as little as 45 or even 30 minutes.  At the end of day, at 9 or 10 PM, when my body is exhausted and my mind cluttered, my resolve is rarely strong enough to end the day with an additional 30 to 60 minutes of practice.  The Dalai Lama counsels aspiring practitioners to be patient with themselves and not to abandon their resolve.  Attaining calm abiding, for a sustained period, may take years.  As I progress down a difficult path, with baby steps and backward stumbles, this is reassuring.

In the early morning, I sometimes forget to mute my Blackberry before beginning my practice.  On a typical day, I may receive more than 100 messages.  Since they come from all over the world, they arrive at any hour of the day.  “Beep, beep, beep, the world is calling,” says my Blackberry.  A year ago, I would have ‘just taken a quick look’ to see who was messaging me.  Now, I simply ignore the beeping or, if it becomes too intrusive, I switch my Blackberry to ‘mute.’

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

'Dear Colleague' personal note to AU faculty about sunday night dinners and wednesday afternoon tea

Some readers may know that periodically, no more than two or three times a semester, I write personal notes to all of AU’s 600 or more tenured, tenure track, temporary and adjunct (part time) faculty members.  Though my messages are distributed widely, I try to write them as if I were writing to each colleague individually.  In fact, I know most of AU’s faculty members by face if not by name.  For seven years, I have welcomed them at new faculty and adjunct faculty orientations.  Along with two Deans of Academic Affairs, I have hosted new tenure track faculty members at monthly lunches.  And I have had hundreds of formal and informal consultations on matters relating to teaching, research, the tenure process, AU’s culture and balancing the obligations of research, teaching and service.  In my role as faculty resident, I have also entertained many faculty members and administrators in my apartment.

Here is a ‘Dear Colleague’ note that I wrote inviting faculty to my bi-weekly sunday night dinners, and to a new tradition I am seeking to establish, Wednesday Afternoon Tea in the faculty resident’s apartment.

Dear Colleagues, 

As many of you know, I prepare and serve a number of ‘Faculty Resident’s Dinners’ for students on Sunday evenings during the academic year.  Anderson Hall’s first floor  ‘Style Lounge’ is the venue.  I know that neither the day nor the time - 8 PM - are ideal for those of you with children, but faculty, partners and mannerly children are most welcome.  Please let us know you are coming by calling me or  emailing  

There is also a new Faculty Resident event, Wednesday Afternoon Tea, from 4:30 until 5:30 in my 101 Anderson Hall apartment.  Afternoon tea is a popular custom at some residential colleges in both England and the US.  I thought it  would be an appealing addition to the AU residential life calendar and it is proving to be so.  Please feel free to drop by for tea, coffee and conversation.

Here is the dinner schedule and menus for the remainder of the fall semester.  There are always several vegetarian options.  Typically one is very similar to the non vegetarian main course dish being served.

September 21. Sri Lankan chicken and vegetable curries with accompaniments

October 5. Moroccan lamb with couscous.

October 26.  Paella, Philippine, style

November 9.  Sri Lankan lamb and vegetable curries with accompaniments.

December 7.  Traditional English dinner, standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding

I hope the beginning of the semester going well,  Do stop by for tea or dinner if your schedule permits.


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Monday, September 08, 2008

Wisdom about marriage and raising children from Captain Fatty Goodlander

Those of you listen to NPR’s sunday morning, ‘Weekend Edition’ will be familiar with the remarkable saga of Captain Fatty Goodlander.  According to the broadcast and a wealth of other web materials, he has lived at sea on a relatively small sailing yacht for 48 years.  Many of these have been shared with his wife Carolyn and they have raised at least one child, a daughter.  She recently completed graduate school and is now married.

I wondered how Fatty and Carolyn could live happily in the close proximity for so many years.  During a segment, two weeks ago, he provided his prescription.  “We look for an opportunity to something nice for each other each day.”  Not a bad guideline for any marriage.

On yesterday morning’s program, Captain Fatty described his daughter’s urban lifestyle, noting how different it was from the one he and Carolyn had chosen.  “If you raise children to have their opinions, you must expect them to have opinions that are different from yours,” he observed.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

'Faculty Resident's Tea' and a personal reflection on Alaskans I have known

My assistants and I are hoping to start a new tradition in Anderson Hall, the Faculty Resident’s Tea.  The idea came Bob O’Hara’s fine newsletter, The Collegiate Way.  Bob’s newsletter serves as a network hub for faculty members committed to the ideal of “Collegiate Living” in the tradition of Oxford and Cambridge, in England.  The best exemplar of collegiate living in the US is Yale University, where students affiliate with a tradition-rich named college as  first year students.  They retain that affiliation through graduation and, often,  for many years afterwards.  AU has taken positive steps in the direction of building student-faculty bridges, outside of the classroom, however they are only first steps on a long journey.

I raised the issue of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin at the end of this first tea-hour, with five young women guests.  It was near the end of an animated, wide-ranging conversation.  I am almost always impressed with AU students’ views on serious political questions and this discussion was no exception.  Some guests were Republican leaning, others democratic leaning and there was one independent.  They reported on favorable and unfavorable news stories had heard.  They expressed sympathy - and empathy - for the circumstances of Governor Paliin’s eldest daughter. The admitted, candidly, that they knew little about her and would need more information before reaching a judgment. 

After bidding my guests farewell, I spent nearly an hour, over dinner and chores, listening to news stories and commentaries about Governor Palin.  Unlike my students, most commentators, political leaders and political spokespersons claimed to have made up their mind. They had  shifted to the mode of partisan argument, pro or con, black or white.  What my students had to offer seemed far more candid, thoughtful and interesting.

I have only visited Alaska twice - for brief periods while on active duty as a naval officer.  But I have worked professionally with two Alaskans, for fairly extended periods.  What impressed me most about both was that they seemed comfortable with who they were, held points of view that defied stereotyping and were supremely self assured.  What I have seen of Governor Palin, so far, is very reminiscent of my two colleagues.

I have learned to be cautious about jumping to conclusions where Alaskans are concerned.  Like my student guests,  I intend to keep listening and seeking to learn from what I hear throughout the remainder of the campaign.  The Republican Vice Presidential nominee is entitled to this consideration, I believe.  Because she is an Alaskan, I think she would approve of a decision to shun stereotypic platitudes and make up my own mind.

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