There’s no doubt that the events in the article occurred and is worthy of reporting. The NYT, however, has been near silent on the subject of the Kenyan elections, arguably the most important political event in the world in early 2013. After months of nothing, we get a picture of a near decapitated infant.
The 2008 Kenyan elections were an absolute disaster. Such a disaster, in fact, that the entire country is proactively wishing that the next one (scheduled in March) passes peacefully and without incident. I am, of course, skeptical that the elections will proceed entirely without incident as Kenyans universally insist, but I think it unlikely that there will be near the extent of bloodshed.
ICC court proceedings are constantly broadcast live in every eating establishment and bar in the country, likely as a grim reminder as to how bad things can be, but also as a deterrent to further violence. The festering remains of IDP camps on the sides of Kenyan highways are even more grim, particularly when one realizes that a few people are still living in them.
As the article says, Kenya is an oasis of development in a highly troubled region (it borders Somalia). In 2013, Nairobi is no different than Houston, TX. I’m not a fan of either, but it’s telling when I can go into a Nairobi supermarket and be offered free, processed food samples, just as I would at Meijer back home. It’s telling when I can buy real coffee (not instant) at a local Starbucks analogue. Granted, the rest of the country has a lot of catching up to do, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Andrew WK is a rock star, composer, motivational speaker, Taco Bell enthusiast, television host, inventor and (very) part-time painter based in NYC.
Andrew was a student of mine (I gave him an A- and got him grounded) when I was doing a volunteer teaching gig at Community High School in Ann Arbor, MI in 1994. We became acquainted, played in a couple of bands together, and later I put out a couple of his records on my BULB record label. Most important to me, however, is that he’s a good friend.
A couple of weeks ago, it was suddenly announced that Andrew would be serving as a “United States’ Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East.” Andrew would be travelling to the Kingdom of Bahrain on behalf of the US State Department, where he would be spreading his positive “Party” philosophy (the freak out, good time sort, not the divisive Democratic/Republican kind). Not more than 24 hours after I heard the announcement, however, news appeared stating that the entire trip had been cancelled. Many of us were scratching our heads, wondering if the entire thing was a stunt. Fans of AWK have been known to start and passionately spread odd rumors in the past.
However, several media outlets ran articles that included a transcript where a representative of State mentioned the trip and its subsequent cancellation. The State rep was quoted as saying “There may have been some preliminary conversations with him, but he will not be going to Bahrain on the U.S. government’s dime.” Andrew’s scheduled trip to represent the US was very real.
Bahrain is a particularly troubled place right now. Protests have rocked the tiny, oil-rich nation but the heavy handed monarchy has managed to brutally stifle much of it. Bahrain’s human rights record has been described as “dismal” by Human Rights Watch. Sending someone like Andrew, whose positive, self made image very much represents the ideals of liberal, free market democracy would actually be a perfect choice to represent the US in this difficult time.
Perplexed the whole thing, I decided to reach out to Andrew and get the full story. Andrew was kindly able to take some time out to answer some questions about the incident. First, I would like to thank Andrew. Here’s the interview:
A: We were cold called, but there had been some murmuring about me traveling abroad in some capacity for a few years. We first officially heard from the State Dept. on September 13th, 2011. That was when they wrote to us with an official invitation reading, “Department of State sponsored trip to Bahrain for motivational speech”.
FB: I’ve read that someone from Bahrain specifically made a request to the Embassy there.
A: We had never heard anything about the trip being requested by a citizen of Bahrain, but I had heard rumors from my managers that they were approached about an entertainment project with the U.S. government. We didn’t know what it was exactly until we got the official invitation. It was always presented as a government sponsored event to spread good will and cultural exchange between the U.S. and the middle east. The people who I work with and who help plan my career have always worked on ways to help further the cause of uniting different cultures and promoting the coming together of the human race. I’ve followed and embraced that spirit for a long time and definitely want to do right by them. This was a natural step in that larger effort. Western culture is very powerful.
FB: How far along was the planning?
A: The planning was a long process that went on for about 14 months. There were many levels of approval and clearance we had to go through on both the U.S. and Bahrainian sides. We just did what we were asked to do and completed all they requested with respect and cooperation. There were some background checks, but it seemed the State Dept. had already done a huge amount of research on me before hand. Most of the details were planned with my handlers and managers without my direct involvement. The plane tickets were booked for our trip to officially begin on December 1st, 2012. We coordinated the flights and travel details with the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain and left them completely in charge of all the on-location details.
A: We had our last planning phone call on Wednesday, November 21st, 2012. That’s when our State Dept. contact went over the final schedule and explained that I should officially announce the trip to the public. He explained what language to use and the overall tone of the trip and the ideals we would be promoting. I never actually met anyone in person from the State Dept. Everything was done either on the telephone or the computer. In 2003, I had been given a private tour of the White House by an ex-Secret Service official who was very passionate about my work and music. It’s possible that he was the one of the folks that first helped introduce the State Dept. to my work as a motivational speaker. Otherwise, I don’t know how they picked me specifically. That’s been really perplexing, but I didn’t think about it too much at first. I was just so excited to be asked. But once they canceled everything, I obviously have been trying to figure out what this whole thing is really about.
FB: Did State set up an itinerary?
A: Yes. We were sent the official itinerary by the State Dept. at approximately 6am on Monday, November 26th, 2012. The plans for the trip had always been based around lectures and motivational speeches at local schools. There was never a public concert planned, although we had plans to “jam” with some of the local musicians in Bahrain at a rehearsal space and music store. The main bulk of the trip was to be spent focused on positive interactions with the young people of Manama, the capital city. I planned on talking about positive thinking, making the most of one’s life, embracing freedom, and using partying to help forget your troubles. The State Department gave me overall guidelines, but were also very open to allowing me creative control when it came to how I would present our ideals and how I would present myself. They were always very familiar with what I do – that’s why they came to us in the first place – and they were certainly made even more familiar with me during the lengthy year-plus process of planning and clearance.
At about 11am on the same day we were sent the official itinerary, our State Department contact called us in a panic with the news that his “higher ups” canceled the entire trip for unknown reasons. Apparently it went far up the chain and a lot of people were getting in trouble, even to the point of being fired over this project.
A: It was explained to me that there was a passionate rock and metal scene in Bahrain. I had heard similar reports from others about there being lots of loud music fans in the more liberal parts of the Middle East. I was planning on playing some drums and keyboard and just making up songs or playing songs that we all could learn together. It was all very open to spontaneity. However, the State Dept. also made it very clear that the musical parts of the trip were secondary to the speaking engagements. It was always explained to me that the main goal was for me to help foster a positive impression of the U.S. in the minds of students and the people of Bahrain at large.
FB: How did it all start to fall apart? What happened?
A: It all happened very fast. Everything was good to go up until that Monday morning, after we received the itinerary. In that window of time between 6am and 12 noon, something happened and it has still yet to be explained what exactly it was, beyond that “higher up” State Dept. officials had changed their mind and now decided I was not an appropriate person to represent the U.S. as a Cultural Ambassador. It’s still not clear why they had this change of heart at the last second after they had invited me and spent a year carefully planning my trip. We had flights booked and the trip was less than a week away.
Some have said it was canceled because we announced the trip to the public, but I was encouraged to announce the trip by the State Dept. directly. The whole idea of my Cultural Ambassadorship was to generate public interest and excitement about the meeting of our two cultures. It was never meant to be a secret event – that would have defeated the entire point.
In the days since the cancellation, I’ve received inside tips that there was a passionate debate in the State Dept. about my going at the last second. It’s possible that someone outside of the State Dept. who wasn’t aware of the trip initially became incensed that they weren’t informed before. Apparently some of these unknown higher-up officials were on my side and others were deeply offended by the idea of me going. It would still be nice to learn exactly what happened and who specifically pulled the plug. I’m not taking it personally. For all I know, they could be protecting my own safety. Maybe there were threats, related or unrelated to the trip. It’s definitely confusing and kind of feels like a dream – like there was some other aspects to this project that maybe we didn’t understand or weren’t told about. I’m still as much in the dark as anyone.
FB: Bahrain is a pretty troubled place right now. I’m surprised that State was willing to send anyone over there. Did you have any reservations about going? We know from your live shows that you aren’t concerned about personal safety, of course. It could be suggested that the US would be supporting a repressive state, which some people might have trouble with. Was this ever in the conversation?
A: In the months leading up to the trip, I’ve learned a lot more about the complicated situation in Bahrain. I was definitely looking forward to getting an in-person view of what’s been going on and get a clearer impression of their land and their issues. Since I was going there to spread positivity on behalf of the U.S., it’s definitely been interesting and also concerning that I may have been used as some sort of pawn in a larger game to distract from the potentially bad situations. My handlers insisted that I would be safe and that the U.S. and Bahrain had a good relationship. I was going in the name of supporting that relationship and was expected to support a positive view of both countries.
Some of what’s been most confusing about this is wondering how it’s connected to earlier projects we’ve been a part of, and if I was chosen for reasons that aren’t as obvious, or weren’t openly explained to me. Kim Kardashian had been scheduled to visit Bahrain the same weekend we were there. She wasn’t formally sent by the U.S., but she was there to promote an American milkshake company. Apparently there were protests to her visit and some controversy in advance to her arrival. Some have speculated that maybe the State Dept. canceled my official Ambassador trip because it coincided with her unofficial visit. Of course, she has every right to visit with or without government sponsorship on our side, but it would be unusual to think of the State Dept. not wanting me to be there at the same time as her.
A: In the past week, we’ve received an incredible outpouring of support, especially from folks in Bahrain and the Middle East that had been looking forward to this trip. It’s been really moving and has definitely motivated us to find a way to go there with or without the support of my own country. We’re working on it. I’ve never been to the Middle East and really want to go.
FB: I could only find information on one other Cultural Ambassador, and that was Kareem Abdul Jabbar. How does it feel to almost have been in a club with the famous star of the seminal cinematic work, “Airplane“?
A: Kareem Abdul Jabbar is amazing and I’ve always loved him – his basketball legacy, and his work as an entertainer are awesome examples of America at its best. It’s been a real privilege to even imagine sharing some sort of place with him and other ambassadors in the history of U.S. culture. It seems like these are opportunities for us to show the world what this country can offer and to help unite more people together in the spirit of freedom and a shared global purpose.
FB: It’s great to have talked to you again after so many years. Were you OK after Hurricane Sandy? Did you eat any sand?
A: It’s wonderful to talk with you too, Pete! We were OK during Sandy, thank you. I always eat a bit of sand every few days, just for the earthy taste and texture. I’ve loved dirt eating since I was about 6 years old. I strongly recommend people try it at least once in their life. Party Hard Forever and stay strong!
PARTY HARD FOREVER
The UN is set to decide on whether to give Palestine non-member observer status at the UN and it looks like the request will be approved. This is a far cry from full blown statehood, but a step in the right direction.
The US, Britain and Israel, of course, oppose the measure. The United States plays a difficult balancing game with Israel, one of the US’s largest investors, and certainly, convinced it knows best, enjoys guiding the conversation. However, the strategy of bullish America unilaterally providing solutions to the world’s problems is becoming ever more difficult to implement.
Recognition by the UN for Palestinian sovereignty would be vastly beneficial to both the United States and Israel and here’s why:
1. Israel’s repressive system of apartheid presents a deep moral challenge for democratic bastions like the United States (not that we haven’t had apartheid). Though the Americans happily bury their head in the sand when it comes to this reality, it is deeply difficult to have conversations on global human rights, when Gazan kids are deprived of a future. Palestinian statehood, even if only recognized symbolically, would at least begin to soften this deep moral dilemma.
2. Israel suffers as a result of Palestine’s continued marginalization. It may be difficult for them to admit, but it’s true. Like South Africa’s apartheid government, Israel stands to lose a lot through the continued repression of the Palestinian people. It spends vast sums of money and energy repressing Palestine that could be better used for economic development and wild things like schools and health care. Partnerships can be mutually beneficial. Worse yet, Israel suffers as a religious state. Judaism was not built on the violent suppression of enemies.
3. Equals can have conversations based on mutual respect. Equals have the ability to compromise. Though, Palestine and the Israel/British/US alliance will hardly ever be equals on the strict sense of the word, a recognition of Palestinian independence by the other countries in the UN would put the full force of nearly 90% of humanity behind them. Palestine is a tiny swath of land with a tiny population, but with the world behind them, they are the most populace place on the planet. If strength comes in numbers, then the powers that be will have little choice but to listen.
4. Strong adversaries sometimes become great friends. Nowhere is this more apparent than in China/US relations. Though the two powers have deep differences, the truth is that they have much to offer one another, and much to lose if things go wrong. This was the rationale in building up former enemies such as Japan and Germany post World War II.
The Americans should know that the balance of power and the guarantee of the a political voice are stabilizing factors. In fact, they should know this better than anyone. The empowerment of the weak is a key tenet of the American Constitution. No where is this more apparent than the First Amendment, which guaranteed a political voice, and the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which sought to take away the state’s monopoly on violence by guaranteeing citizens the right to fight back, if necessary.** Notice that India and Pakistan, being able to obliterate each other, are much more likely to work out their differences than before they had nuclear weapons (though I’m not recommending increased nuclear proliferation).
5. The arguments for even small steps toward Palestinian statehood are even more apparent when one notes the long impasse between the US and weak and marginalized states like North Korea and Iran. Suppressing these states does the world no favors. Unfortunately, like Gaza, the only bargaining chip these states have is the potential to commit random and unpredictable violence. Fully engaging with them might temper the necessity for killing people.
In short, granting Palestinian pseudo-statehood in the UN is a step in the right direction, no matter how small. I have the feeling that some within the US Government, and even Israel, might agree. A full return to the 1967 borders with a shared Jerusalem and freedom of movement would, or course, be preferable, but we’ll take what we can get, a little bit at a time.
** Of course, the founding fathers had no appreciation for how far and how fast military technology would grow, nor of the US’s impending social problems. For the record, I am pro tight regulations on weapons, but this essential philosophy behind the Second Amendment as a guarantee of democratic principles can’t be ignored. Liberals, of course, never get this. I’m no conservative, but I do understand their rationale, sometimes.
The balance of power and insured peace through the mutual and equal potential to hurt one another is, of course, the root of libertarian arguments for increased gun ownership. It’s interesting that we don’t apply the same principles when talking about poor countries.
I think not. I’ve just returned from a meeting of malaria researchers in Basel, Switzerland. The meetings were excellent. It is rare to have such a wide showing of malaria experts in one place, talking about nothing but malaria.
The meeting was notable for what was included, namely excellent presentations on vaccine development, subsidies to increase access to medications, malaria elimination programs in less than talked about parts of the globe (Bhutan, Turkmenistan, PNG), and the paucity of research on Plasmodium vivax.
The meeting was also notable for what it did not include, namely global economic determinants of malaria.
To me, malaria is 100% a disease of poverty. Where poverty is low, malaria is low. This is true globally, as well as within still malarious countries. The graph to the right shows the relationship of country level GDP with the estimated number of malaria cases per 100,000 in 2006. Though accurate data on the true number of cases is difficult to obtain for developing countries for a host of reasons, the trend should be clear. More money equals less malaria.
Is this because on better funding for malaria programs? After all, wealthier countries are able to put more resources into prevention, mosquito control, and treatment. Sure, I think this is partially the case. It has to be said, however, that malaria was eliminated from the United States without modern medicines and insecticide treated bednets, cornerstones of current malaria control strategies. Though DDT was instrumental in helping to control malaria transmitting mosquitoes in the US, the truth is, the bugs are still here.
Malaria deaths around the world are down. It is also the case that worldwide development is up. The economies of developing countries are improving, record numbers of people are moving out of entrenched poverty and, while within country inequality is increasing, global inequality is decreasing. Personally, I think the relationship between development and malaria is no accident at all.
What strikes me, is that this topic was hardly mentioned last week. I brought it up a couple of times, but, unfortunately, scientists are hesitant to move out of their comfort zone, and wish to give it little thought. Talk of politics or economics produces blank looks in scientists trained in microbiology or entomology. I’m sure its the same on the other end. Certainly, the current research is important, helpful, relevant and should be continued. However, I don’t think that we, as scientists, should stick our heads in the sand and willfully ignore the bigger picture.
Malaria will be eliminated not through fancy pharmaceuticals and ever improved bednets, but through the increase in access to employment, market economies and remunerative opportunities. Malaria will be eliminated through the elimination of entrenched poverty, the expansion of free education, reductions in gender inequities and improved nutrition. In my opinion, these were the true factors which led to the elimination of malaria from the US, Europe, Japan. Granted, there are climatic differences between those countries and sub-Saharan Africa, but P. vivax, a cold weather malaria, was also fully eliminated.
People I spoke with sort of waved their hands and acted as if there is nothing we can do about these global and economic problems. I disagree, of course. Policy makers look to scientists for answers (though they make ignore what they don’t like). Endless bednet trials that only marginally expand on previous research do not do much to ameliorate the structural factors which keep people in poverty. Research which explores those big picture factors, however, could have vast benefits.
I have been following the recent row between China and Japan over a small set of islands north of Taiwan. While most of the rhetoric publicly available from the Chinese side is pretty standard nationalistic nonsense (“Kill all Japanese!”), the following was an intriguing twist.
The sign reads:
No medical insurance, no social security, yet the Diaoyu Islands must be in your heart.
Even if the government does not take care of the elderly, we should recover the Diaoyu Islands.
No property rights, no human rights, but [our nation] contends for the sovereign rights of the Diaoyu Islands.
[We] can’t buy a home, can’t build a tomb, but we contest every inch of ground with the Japanese.
It made me think of similar nonsense at home, but clearly their situation is much worse. Senseless violence over territory and blind ideology is pretty useless if a country can’t even take care of its own people.