Saturday, February 27, 2016

Lawrence in Arabia, a book review

                        This book by Scott Anderson, (copy write 2013 by Random House) is one of the most  fascinating biographies you could ever hope to read.  It is a commonplace today that most of the messy state of affairs in the Middle East today owes to the absurd political arrangements  drawn up by the European powers at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI.  Those of us who've seen David lean's classic movie, "Lawrence of Arabia"  were given some idea what these disastrous decisions were.  But we were left in limbo as to why France and England made the decisions they did, and what alternatives might have been available. 
            But  Anderson's meticulously researched book goes into a little more detail.  This biography also corrects some misapprehensions in other parts of the saga of T.E. Lawrence.  In the movie, we are given the impression that Lawrence arrives in Egypt as a complete newcomer to the desert.    Actually, by the outbreak of war, Lawrence had already spent a couple years in the Arabian desert as an archaeologist.  And in the last few months before the war, he was working for British intelligence,  using his archaeology wanderings as a cover while making military maps of the region.  By the time the war started, he probably knew the desert and its people and their languages better than any Englishman.  In fact,  at the war's outset, he was ordered by Lord Kitchener himself not to enlist in the Army----because they would need him as a civilian analyst in the Egypt office of British Intelligence.  Later, for reasons of protocol, it was decided that he should be an officer, so he was given a uniform and told that commission papers would be drawn up.  
            But T. E. Lawrence was not the only young foreigner  wandering around the Syrian and  Arabian desserts before the war.   There was Wm. Yale, an American oil man working for Standard Oil.  And there was Curt Prufer, a German language expert attached to the German embassy in Cairo, who would later become a spy.   And there was Aaron Aaronsohn,  an agriculture expert at a Zionist settlement in Palestine.   All of these outsiders had met before the war, and their paths would cross and re-cross several times  over the next several years.  Anderson's book not only gives a detailed biography for Lawrence's own career throughout the war,  but follows the trajectory of each one of these four young men for several years, and in so doing, allows us to see the war from multiple perspectives.  This allows us to see what happened and why, and see it in ways that would not have been obvious to any one of the players at the time.  
            T.E. Lawrence was a unique figure in history;  there is really no one quite like him.  And Anderson begins his bio with a couple chapters on Lawrence's childhood to give us an idea as to how became what he was.   Beside the insights we gain about Lawrence himself, Anderson shows us the British WWI General Staff in all its breathtaking incompetence.  (The events at Gallipoli beggar the imagination.) The movie let us know that besides fighting the Turks and quelling the squabbles of rival Arab tribes, Lawrence had to continually battle his own military
high command and even the British Diplomatic Corp----a task he did not enjoy at all.   But Anderson  shows that  although he did not at all enjoy this activity---he was pretty good at it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Confessions of an Iowa Caucus Participant

Well, the caucuses are over and the mainstream media are calling it a tie.  Both sides are claiming victory, but Bernie's claim has more credibility.  When Bernie came to Iowa, Hillary was 50 points ahead, had more money than God, and had the public backing of every establishment Democrat.  To come from behind and force a tie is quite a victory.  And when you consider that Hillary's stock has gone nowhere but down since October, while Bernie's has only gone up, it's clear that if the caucuses had come a few week later he would have won decisively. The mood is quite jubilant among Bernie supporters.   Keep in mind that although many of Hillary's supporters, (mostly middle-aged women)  are supporting her just because she is female, I don't think any Democrats oppose her for that reason.
  Every Bernie Sanders Democrat I know, (myself included) was an Elizabeth Warren supporter before becoming a Sanders supporter. We only signed onto Bernie's campaign when we failed to persuade Elizabeth to run. Gender has nothing to do with it. And, unlike our Republican friends, we do not actually dislike Hillary. Actually, she is a cool headed, intelligent woman, who shows considerable grace under fire. ( I remember during the Bill Clinton sex scandal she was on TV, and asked how she felt about it. She said, "Bill was always a hard dog to keep on the porch. I knew that when I married him." ) Hey, that is a cool lady. But many of us feel that Clinton is so totally entangled with the present corrupt system that she couldn't really change the things that urgently need to be changed. The fact that she gets almost all her funding from billionaires illustrates this point. But Bernie comes to the game free of all these strings. He refuses pac money, and is financed by small contributions from over 2 million individual voters. Nobody owns Bernie. Young people are particularly attracted to Bernie, because they agree with him on two points: 1. Wall street is completely out of control, and this is wrecking our economy. 2. Congress is completely dysfunctional, because of the influence of the tons of money flooding into the campaign finance system, and this is wrecking our democracy. If you are over 50, you may assume that as bad as it is, the final collapse probably won't  happen in your lifetime. If you're under 40, you may not be so optimistic. But here is the real news from the Iowa Democratic Caucuses last night: To participate, you have to be a registered Democrat. If you're not, you have to fill out a form that registers you as such. Guess what? We ran out of forms. And so did all of the other caucus sites. The state party, in its wildest optimism, failed to anticipate the surge of interest from young people entering the process. Bernie said he wants a revolution and he's getting one. My wife  and I had a strange experience at the caucuses last night.  There were two Democratic precincts caucusing in the same room last night.  Our group moved out into the hallway to get away from the noise and confusion of the other group.  The other group, a more populous region, had 200 members, to award 7 delegates. We had only 5 people show up to elect one delegate.  (Last time we had 24).     One of our problems is that our area has no young people.  They have all fledged and flown, just like our daughter.   We had no young people----just me and my wife and two middle aged women who backed Hillary and a middle aged man who also did.  So our one delegate went to Hillary.   Interestingly, when it came to elect the actual delegate,  one of the women works for the county election office and can't become a party official.  And the other two Hillary supporters both work Saturday.  The county convention is on Saturday.   So my wife and I had to accept the job of going to the convention as Hillary supporters.  One of us will be the delegate and one will be the alternate  We will be honor bound to support Hillary for the first two ballots.  This is weird, but not unusual.   I don't think this would work in New Jersey, but it works in Iowa.  ("I could not love Bernie half so much, loved I not honor more.")