Blog Archive

Blog Archive – November, 2013

Nepal and democracy? Please Donít Disturb My Himalayan Holiday.

November 19, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

Do we need an ex-US president to observe today’s election in Nepal to make it noteworthy?  Or will violence attract outside attention?

Either way, international media has all but ignored Nepal’s aspirations as a republic. A major democratic struggle is underway in a nation needing its hard-won and gallant uprising, a revolution that started in 1990 and has been stumbling along since then, to become relevant to the Nepali people.

Dismissal of today’s zoo porn election is widespread among Nepal’s citizens. The same applies to our international community, it seems. Whereas Maldives Island with a voting population of just 240,000  received extraordinary global attention in recent days, Nepal’s 12 million voters are essentially overlooked. Could that be because the major contenders are Maoist or Marxist-linked parties? In what little news we have in the international press you’ll find excessive attention to Nepal’s Maoists in all their manifestations, while the real issues confronting this Asian nation of 27 million are largely ignored.

Especially Britain, India and the USA have essentially abandoned democratic aspirations there, first with the guerrilla war that led to the fall of a one party Hindu monarchy, then with multi-party elections that gave Maoists the leadership in two out of five governments since 2006.  (Britain and the USA armed the king in his ultimately unsuccessful fight against the insurgency, with possibly half of the estimated 13,000  Nepalese victims of the conflict killed by Nepal’s troops.)

To be sure, six years after they entered government, the nation’s leftist parties and their leaders have squandered political opportunities afforded by the rebel successes. The public is justified in its disappointments; many people I spoke to on my most recent visit to Nepal say they’ll not vote. Voters declare they are confused by the number of parties and disenchanted with new candidates as well as present leaders.

Public disgust may doubtless be behind some of the violence preceding today’s election. But more than squabbling parties are to blame for the languishing state of the country and the despondency of its people.

First let’s recall the extraordinary efforts that paved the way to this democracy. Starting in 1990, tens of thousands of Nepalese erupted in opposition to injustice and misrule. Costly protests led to important reforms: —multi parties, freedom of association, an open press. But those remarkable transformations left the nation with neither essential economic changes nor a constitution. A suffocating class system remained undisturbed, gender inequalities stood, the monarchy was still the final arbiter, and corruption continued.

The successful guerrilla insurgency led to a cease fire in 2006, the inclusion of Maoists in the political process, and, finally, astonishingly, the end of the 240 year old abusive (Hindu) monarchy. A republic was created and Nepal seemed to be destined for better things.

Those early accomplishments were never really welcomed by the very powers who champion democracy so vigorously elsewhere. Nor by their ally India who helps shape regional geopolitical strategy. India’s grip on its landlocked northern neighbor with its history of weak leadership and corruption is more frightening and oppressive than any left-leaning Nepali administration.

Western interests behave as if nothing changed through the early years of protest, the Maoist movement (it prevailed across rural Nepal) and the anti-monarchy push. Income from tourism was only marginally affected, allowing foreign trekkers to still satisfy their needs undisturbed by political turmoil. So could tens of thousands of NGOs (domestic and international) personnel based in Kathmandu. While they justify their existence with ideals of alleviating poverty and inequality, development agencies work against real revolution, they hold tightly to their privileges while turmoil swirls just outside their gated communities.

Nepal’s huge NGO community is less essential for change among the poor than to maintain a middle class; they offer the appearance of progress, they patronize businesses serving them, and they absorb educated Nepalese who cannot or do not depart for even more lucrative posts abroad.

The top heavy, often superfluous, and not very effective NGO establishments in Nepal may be a major barrier to effective governance as well. When Nepal’s  administration confronts a problem, NGO’s quickly arrive to address issues, even if they rarely facilitate solutions. Overdependence on NGOs and the role of these charities in fostering and maintaining corruption is part of the nation’s dysfunctional state. That is an issue which needs to be addressed by courageous and sober leadership.

Today’s election cannot offer any hope of basic economic reform. Underlying the impotence of the revolution is the absence of a constitution for this infant republic. Essentially Nepal has no government; it still awaits guidelines from a constitution. Today’s election is to elect 601 men and women, representatives not to parliament but to a Constituent Assembly. The last CA, in place for four years, failed. And no one I met in Nepal believes that a new body of 601 members can be effective.

Nepal needs brave, really inspiring leadership. If he or she appears-- and it won’t happen in an election, it will become a model for many struggling nations worldwide.

[ Nepal and democracy? Please Donít Disturb My Himalayan Holiday. ]

Comedy, Law and Journalism

November 15, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The experience of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef affirms what a precious and precarious thing freedom is. It also demonstrates what a powerful political tool comedy is.

Youssef rose to prominence as an satirical commentator following Egypt’s 2011 uprising when he lampooned the new president as well as the old dictator. Today he’s out of work on the order of Egypt’s military leadership, doubtless a sign of the extent of his influence—the satirist’s that is. Youssef’s success should disabuse us of the notion that you have to go to college and learn unbiased reporting to be an effective journalist.  

Many of my friends in the US, exasperated and insulted by our deteriorating 24/7 national news media, whether it’s the rightwing Fox Network or the left-leaning PBS, have eschewed those channels. They now tune into either ‘The Colbert Report’ or the Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ for intelligent news coverage. These programs are the new models for truth-to-power reporting. They are honest, relevant and professional. Notably, like Youssef, neither Colbert or Stewart studied journalism; Youssef was a medical doctor, Stewart a unremarkable graduate in science, and Colbert an acting student.

Today, all three satirists are arguably the most influential people in the business. If you need more examples of the demise of standard journalism education, look at what lawyers can do in the media. The best example is in the work of Glen Greenwald of The Guardian, know today for his brave and energetic reporting on revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and continuing efforts to see the leaks receive wide distribution. Greenwald is one of many fine writers, former lawyers, working in journalism today.

Another less well known graduate in law is standup comic Dean Obeidallah. I know Dean from his launching of the Arab Comedy Festival in New York a decade ago. After viewing his performances there, I invited him (along with Maysoon Zayid) to host a monthly edition of RadioTahrir. Dean told me how, in those early days, he left his law office at 6 ini the eveing, grabbed a bite and then set out for any local stand-up venue in Manhattan where he could tell jokes to anyone willing to listen. (Audiences were sometimes pretty thin, he admits.) He kept at it, and at it, and at it. Finally, together with the international success of the comedy festival, he is now a journalist, satirizing or not, who’s taken seriously, and in demand.

About 2005, while still producing for us at RadioTahrir, Obeidallah began writing Op-ed pieces for the then new online paper The Huffington Post. Nowadays, increasingly I hear him in conversation with popular and widely syndicated radio host Geraldo Rivera. (Yes, my liberal friends, I really do listen to Geraldo.) And I read Dean’s columns on CNN where our dean of comedy is also a frequent live guest.

While it seems that Obeidallah mostly appears presenting the beleaguered ‘other point of view’ about bias against Arabs and Muslims (ABC’s 20/20, PBS, and—not unexpected since this was his main comedy theme—today, he’s evolved.  He takes on the right, the left, political leaders, and the media itself—and all with an engaging smile. If he can always see the funny side of things, Dean will survive long after schools of political scientists, and the politicians themselves fade.

Every community needs articulate, energetic spokespersons—especially journalists. So consider this: instead of spending up to $60,000. a year for a degree from an crowded US school of journalism, consider Dean’s career path. Fellow comedian Amer Zahr did. He too started as a lawyer, and after years on the stand-up comedy stage, now writes a regular column. Think about it.

Oh yes, and Dean has a new film—‘The Muslims are Coming!’

Comments welcome: 

[ Comedy, Law and Journalism ]

Voting in an Off-Election Year

November 05, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz


Later today I’ll drag myself to my nearby polling station, not reluctantly but somewhat mindlessly. I admit it: I don’t know the names of political candidates or their party affiliation in today’s election. Who will I vote for?

So why bother? It’s a state of mind I probably share with most other voting age Americans today.

These 2013 polls are not even called ‘mid-term elections’. Those happen next year when congressional and senate seats are contested. They’re immensely important because they decide which party holds the majority in Congress; this in turn will determine the potential of the presidency, also who’ll chair the influential US congressional committees. As we see in the current administration, although Democrats hold a slim senate majority, most reforms proposed by the president are blocked in the House of Representatives. Confronted by an unfriendly majority Republican Congress, Obama’s power has been hugely diminished throughout his tenure. Any chance to correct this comes only next year, when American media do their job to inform and prepare us on various national races, at least the close ones, and when some major controversies are hotly debated

But what about today’s election? Since it’s not a ‘president-creating’ event, we voters hear little about it. (Forget about world citizens usually enchanted by US elections.) Today’s contests are local, or town, elections; today we pick our community administrators and vote on referendums having to do with our environment, our taxes, our employment programs. You may have heard about New York City’s mayoral battle, and the races for two governorships—in Virginia and New Jersey. But I don’t reside in any of those places. Today, I can only vote for my local council, judge, and our rural equivalent of mayor. Ho hum.

First, in many regions of this state (and perhaps across the country) a lot of those names on the ballot are unopposed. Yes, only one candidate; thus no real choice for us voters. Second, our local media—regional newspapers, community radio and TV stations--devote little attention to these races. So finding out about candidates calls for a major personal effort-- for me, at least. The few  banners posted on trees and lawns around town listing names—Helen Lee, Tom Sush, Andrea Reynosa, e.g., don’t indicate their political party. To find that I need to peruse a special (finely printed) listing in a local paper. Or I wait until I arrive in the polling station. (One notice I read carries the Democratic Party logo, but a rider says ‘paid for by the candidate’—hmm, what do I make of that? This ad, for Reynosa, says she stands for 3 P’s—Protect, Preserve, and Promote. Not very helpful. Besides, she’s running for Tusten Town Council and I can’t vote there, whatever I may think of her cryptic 3 P agenda.)

Maybe I should take a rain check and wait for a real election. Problem is: I believe in local governance and its role in our democracy.

The municipality is where things are done, or not done, that directly affect my daily life. Here’s where property and school taxes are levied; here’s where roads are maintained, power lines repaired, school standards are checked, where our library is funded, where construction codes are monitored, where police are posted, where our town court and fire department are, and where the budget for community health and welfare services is decided.

Our Town Supervisor (local mayor) and her Councilmen and women may receive only part-time salaries of as little as $15,000. Yet they decide the allocation of budgets of half a million dollars and more. They do the work that maintains the roads and electric lines, rain or shine, keeps schools running and controls crime.

It’s my Town Council’s initiative that may win state and federal grants for major local projects-- grants that boost employment, support the arts, build social centers, repair roads and streams, supplement school educational programs, allocate funds for the needy. In effect, it is these almost anonymous women and men to whom I owe my safety, my opportunities and the quality of day-to-day life I enjoy-- through our winter storms, at my free library and parkland, and in the pure water I drink.

Excuse me. I better get to the polls before closing time.

Comments welcome


[ Voting in an Off-Election Year ]

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