My True/Slant Blog Posts

From March of 2009 to July of 2010, I wrote more than 100 blog posts for True/, a news venture that featured select journalists, authors and pundits from around the United States. My blog was titled ‘Round the World We Go, and it featured postings on world affairs, politics, arts and culture, and other subjects that moved me. All of my posts are archived here. Many of the posts relied on original research or reporting. Many posts were linked by major online media. Among the blog’s high points:

Dick Cheney’s Literary Past: After reading that the former vice president was trying to land a big book deal,  I went to a library and read a tome he had written more than 20 years ago. Kings of the Hill was just awful. My posting provided evidence of Cheney’s bad writing and skewed thinking. Gawker featured the posting, turning it into one of my most popular.

Michael Jackson’s Grave Site: While visiting Los Angeles for an interview, I stopped by Michael Jackson’s grave site, located in a vast cemetery in the hills of L.A. This was just months after the pop star had died. I posted my report around midnight. Within minutes, hundreds of people across the Internet were reading my dispatch.

Iran in the Spotlight: In December of 2009, months after bloody protests had roiled Iran, I interviewed (via email) a photographer in Tehran about political graffiti that was popping up all around Iran’s capital. Thanks to a web site that kept track of the graffiti, I also posted images of the protest art. My posting was linked by many other web sites, becoming one of my most viewed.

Obama’s Nobel: Like most people, I was stunned to hear that President Obama had been awarded a Nobel Prize. Did he deserve it? Obama’s Republican detractors were unified in their derision, but I found a big hole in their opposition: Ronald Reagan would have applauded Obama’s honor. I explained why hours after reading about the Nobel. Newser picked up my posting, giving it a healthy spike in page views.

Prince of Persia: To me, a major movie about Persia — even ancient Persia — should feature a Persian actor, not Jake Gyllenhaal. That’s what I wrote — a view that (unbeknownst to me) was shared by other pundits in the days after “Prince of Persia” opened at the box office. Atlantic Wire, the Atlantic’s online site that spotlights commentators “leading the national dialogue,” noted and linked to my post, making it one of my most popular.

Palin Popular in San Francisco: Much to my surprise, Sarah Palin has a big fan base in liberal San Francisco.  I interviewed one of her fans for my posting on the subject. I also listed — by name — a sampling of her other fans. My piece was picked up by web sites around the United States, and it became my second-most-read posting.

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What just might happen if Obama loses in 2012

Newt Gingrich

Image of Newt Gingrich via Wikipedia

Less than four months from now, the mid-term elections will determine if the Democrats lose control of the Senate and their ability to set the national agenda. The November balloting will also lay the foundation for President Obama’s next two years in office – and his re-election campaign. Any number of scenarios  could undermine Obama in 2012. If (God forbid) a 9/11-style attack hits the United States that summer, or, say, the economy goes into a deep tailspin, then Obama will become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush. In Obama’s wake, the Republican Piranha who’ve been circling the White House since 2008 (Palin, Romney, et al.) will feast on the Democrats’ political carcass. Here are three scenarios:

** President Whitman: After narrowly beating Jerry Brown for the California governorship in 2010, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman gets drafted for the 2012 presidential campaign and reluctantly accepts – then steamrolls her way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Whitman’s appeal – the first woman Republican to head the ticket; her success in Silicon Valley; her (anti-Palinesque) ability to speak coherently about the economy, foreign affairs, and her vision for America – makes her the surprising choice for independents and conservative liberals who helped springboard Obama in 2008. Whitman’s running mate, Newt Gingrich, secures her standing among Conservatives, especially in the South, and – like Joe Biden in 2008 with Obama – he reassures a potentially jittery public that his ticket has the necessary experience.

** War in Iran: The Republicans’  ascension marks the return of chickenhawk diplomacy. Instead of the Obama administration’s reasoned approach to Iran, the new administration relies on all-or-nothing antagonism, leading to the third Gulf War in two decades. What ensues are thousands of new military deaths, a dangerously destabilized Middle East, and an oil crisis that shocks Western economies for years. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. tries to shepherd in a friendlier government, but now all three countries – connected geographically, religiously and historically – become the world’s leading front for insurgency against the United States.

** Hillary Re-Emerges: Free from her role in Team Obama, Hillary Clinton writes her second memoir and takes a teaching position at Columbia University. In both her class and new book, she talks of the irony that her groundbreaking 2008 campaign paved the way for U.S. voters to accept . . . a Meg Whitman presidency. Mulling a run in 2016, Clinton starts a bipartisan think-tank, which launches her into a new phase of political respectability. Eventually, she and Bill get their own CNN talk-show, which becomes the highest-rated political talk show on cable.

As for Obama, he walks away with his head held high, his historic presidency less than his supporters wanted but more than his detractors thought possible. For the most part, America survived and thrived under Obama’s watch, but it still wasn’t enough to keep him in high office.

Hmmm. Prognostication is easier said than done. Other scenarios would put Obama in the White House through 2016, when Hillary, Meg and others would challenge for the open seat that all politicians seem to crave, even if (hello Jeb Bush) they can’t bring themselves to admit it.

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The Muslim cleric who condemned 9/11: A recollection of Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah

Prominent Lebanese Shiite Muslim spiritual gui...

Image by AFP via @daylife

Two months after 9/11, I was in a Beirut hotel when my telephone rang. It was Hezbollah calling. I had given them my room number earlier in the week, and they were finally contacting me, to arrange an interview with their organization. Through a separate contact, I also set up a talk with a cleric who was considered Hezbollah’s former spiritual leader, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. Fadlallah, who died today in Beirut, was once targeted for assassination, reportedly with the approval of the CIA, in a massive bombing that killed scores of people coming from religious services. To secure my interview with Fadlallah, his officials asked me to fax them my CV and an editor’s letter from San Francisco that vouched for my assignment in Lebanon.

“Take care of yourself, Jonathan,” my paper’s administrative assistant told me on the phone from San Francisco. Worried about my safety, this assistant had probably seen the 1999 Hollywood film “The Insider,” which has journalist Lowell Bergman blindfolded by gun-toting militants as he’s shepherded to an interview with Fadlallah. Lebanon’s bloody civil war, and more recent violence in Beirut, also foreshadowed possible danger, but Fadlallah was emblematic of a side of the Middle East that’s often absent from Western media: Moderate Islam. I wasn’t blindfolded when I entered Fadlallah’s compound in south Beirut. (The director of “The Insider” fabricated Bergman’s cloistering for dramatic effect.) Instead, I was led into a large room with high ceilings on the second floor, which had Rembrandt-like paintings of famous Shia leaders, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Opulent chandeliers, an ivory-painted interior, and freshly shellacked hardwood floors gave the room the feel of a meeting place for dignitaries. Fadlallah was a Grand Ayatollah who wore a black turban that signified his descent from the Muslim prophet Muhammad. He entered the room, sat on a chair next to an interpreter, and invited me to ask anything I wanted for 30 minutes. The scene was unforgettable, and so were Fadlallah’s answers.

“If the United States comes back and maintains the rights of the populations around the world, then we would be friends with the Americans, because Islam asks us to be friends of all the world,” he told me.

Fadlallah said Muslims, Jews, and Christians could get along in the modern world, but in that interview, he also said there were caveats to achieving peace – that Israel needed to relinquish land it had taken in the 1967 war, that Washington needed to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the United States’ foray into Afghanistan would backfire.

“I think the way that America is conducting itself in its war against terrorism will turn the world into chaos,” Fadlallah told me, adding that bombing of Afghanistan “will lead people to form revolutionary groups unrelated to each other, and they will all attack America. Then we’ll have a very hard time controlling them.”

The “we” in this case included Fadlallah, who was deeply critical of the 9/11 hijackers and their killing of civilians. “Who speaks for moderate Islam” is a question that is asked repeatedly around the world. For many people, the answer led them to Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah.

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Sad but true: Americans know little about the war in Afghanistan


Image by The U.S. Army via Flickr

June was another brutal month in Afghanistan. More than 100 soldiers lost their lives. Scores of Afghan civilians were killed. A country that has seen war and bloodshed for almost 10 years is still no closer to peace, despite billions of U.S. and international dollars that have poured in to rebuild Afghanistan. To add “insult to injury,” as it were, millions of Americans still have little idea of the war’s history, complexities, and even why U.S. troops are there. Think about it: For a majority of Americans, Afghanistan is an abstract mess – a geographical footnote to their lives; a place that comes alive when a U.S. general is sacked but otherwise is muddled, confusing and (here’s the worst part) uninteresting.

Here’s how I know this: A poll taken by the Angus Reid survey firm asked Americans, “Do you feel that you have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is all about?” Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said, “No, I do not.” Fifty-one percent. The same survey found that (no surprise) a third of all Americans aren’t sure how the war will end up. These survey results, released two weeks ago, say as much about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal, the elevation of General David Petraeus, and the continued debate in Washington about how to defeat the Taliban. The ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan includes how uninformed people are of the tragedy there.

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The house that genocide built: Why Rwanda is still worth worrying about

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda

Image of Paul Kagame via Wikipedia

Somalia. Sudan. Iraq. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Haiti. North Korea. Lebanon. Iran. All these countries top Rwanda in the latest Failed States Index. (In 2009, Rwanda was ranked No. 49.) All these countries have long eclipsed Rwanda for the world’s attention. The 1994 genocide that decimated Rwanda happened a generation ago, but the country is still a nation in turmoil – evident by two big news events of the past week: Rwanda’s arrest and release of a U.S. lawyer, who was accused of denying the country’s official facts on the mass killings; and Rwanda’s alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on a former Rwandan general, who was living in South Africa.

The general will reportedly survive his critical injuries. And the lawyer is free to return to the United States. Both cases, though, highlight Rwanda’s ongoing instability. The country has made giant strides since the murders of 800,000 men, women and children, but critics have voiced doubts about Rwanda’s progress, and about Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who was a central figure in stopping the 1994 genocide but is now accused of quashing dissent. I interviewed Kagame in 2005, at a university event in California that was protested by Africans holding signs like, “Paul Kagame is a criminal.” The demonstrators – Africans now living in the United States – called Kagame a hypocrite for overseeing Rwandan military control of a neighboring portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Like other countries involved in the Congo war, Rwanda stole millions of dollars in minerals. A United Nations report said Kagame and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had virtually turned into the “godfathers of the illegal exploitation of natural resources and the continuation of the conflict in the DRC.”

In Rwanda, Kagame has stifled opposition through “divisionism” laws that essentially require Rwandans to repeat the government’s accepted version of the 1994 genocide, which minimizes Tutsi atrocities. Kagame is Tutsi. Presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who believes that all Rwandan war crimes should be investigated, has been put under house arrest in the lead-up to new elections in August. Human Rights Watch has criticized Kagame’s crackdown on opposition candidates, and its undermining of Human Rights Watch’s work in Rwanda.

“The Rwandan government often accuses its critics of ‘divisionism’ or ‘genocide ideology,’ vaguely defined offenses to punish the spreading of ideas that encourage ethnic animosity between the country’s Tutsi and Hutu populations and the expression of any ideas that could lead to genocide,” the organization wrote late last year. “Largely aimed at the Hutu population, such offenses permit, among other measures, the government to send away children of any age to rehabilitation centers for up to one year—including for the teasing of classmates—and for parents and teachers to face sentences of 15 to 25 years for the child’s conduct. The government has repeatedly accused the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other media outlets, as well as Human Rights Watch, of promoting genocide ideology; accusations these organizations deny.”

Kagame’s government denies these charges of intimidation, but its finger-pointing at the media is another sign of the back-sliding that Rwanda has taken. Just like in 1994, Rwanda is in the news for all the wrong reasons. And just like in 1994, the world should be paying close attention. Otherwise, Rwanda may move even higher in the Failed States Index, vaulting past countries that offer their own grim lessons in instability, dysfunction, and violent upheavals.

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In Iran and around the world, Neda Agha-Soltan lives on in unforgettable documentary

Neda Agha-Soltan

Image via Wikipedia

She apparently kept teddy bears in her bedroom, even at age 27, but as a teenager, Neda Agha-Soltan rebelled against the Iranian government’s strict dress codes, unafraid to tell authority figures, “no.” Neda Agha-Soltan could be paradoxical. Small details about the Iranian woman are what make the HBO documentary, “For Neda,” so gut-wrenching. Agha-Soltan was shot to death a year ago in what became a defining moment in the Iranian protest movement that still seeks to reform Tehran’s system of government. Did Agha-Soltan die in vain?

That’s a question that “For Neda” asks with a sense of urgency. Agha-Soltan’s family in Tehran is still trying to make sense of the tragedy, which snuffed out a person who was so in love with the future. Agha-Soltan’s family risked their lives to talk before the documentary’s cameras. An Iranian journalist, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, who now lives in Britain, risked his life to return to Tehran and film the family. A year after her death, Agha-Soltan is inspiring people, and having an impact on strangers and loved ones alike.

The Iranian government tried to block “For Neda” from being shown in Iran, but HBO and the filmmakers have arranged it to be viewed on YouTube. I saw the documentary a few hours ago. You can see it yourself below. “For Neda” is a gripping narrative – one of the most elucidating films ever made on Iran. It situates Agha-Soltan’s life into the Iranian Revolution’s historic crackdown on women’s rights. In the days before she died, Agha-Soltan was confronted in the street by three Basiji women who – representing an absolutist view – warned her to stay home. “Dear, please don’t come out so beautiful,” they told her, according to the documentary. “Basiji target beautiful girls, and they will shoot you.”

Looking back, the admonition is eerie and chilling. “For Neda” connects the dots in a way that is unforgettable, tear-inducing, anger-inducing, and inspiring – all at the same time.

[youtubevid id=”F48SinuEHIk”]
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How soccer-phobic Americans can learn to love the World Cup

2010 FIFA World Cup logo

Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday’s U.S.-England soccer match-up was just a few minutes old when an American viewer made a grand pronouncement: The tie game was a royal bore. “A waste of 90 minutes,” declared Dennis Cao. “I might as well have not watched in the first place since the end result did not advance either team. I will probably not watch another match of soccer for a long while.”

Cao’s comments were predictable – and unnecessary. The same arguments are regurgitated by soccer-phobic Americans every time the World Cup arrives: Soccer has too little scoring; soccer “action” (players running up and down the field) is monotonous; ties in soccer are totally unsatisfying. In short, this argument goes, who gives a s-h-*-t about soccer?

The short answer: Tens of millions around the world, including a large percentage of Americans who attend Major League Soccer games, who shepherd their children to soccer games (that’s me), who see in soccer the reflections of other sports and cultural activities that Americans otherwise love. Here are five simple ways that more Americans can appreciate the World Cup:

(5) Think of every shot as an achievement. The final U.S.-England score was 1-1, but both squads took at least a dozen shots (the U.S. 12, England 18). Just maneuvering into proximity to the goal is an accomplishment. Kicking the ball at the goalie is an accomplishment almost worth celebrating – the equivalent of getting a runner to third base in baseball. In Major League Baseball, fans go wild when their team gets that close to home. In the NFL, too, cheers erupt when a team edges toward a touchdown. This close-to-scoring precipice happened 30 times in yesterday’s England-U.S. game. Not bad. Not bad at all.

(4) Appreciate the running and soccer-handling that takes place. The running that World Cup players undertake is a testament to their intense athletic ability. Ditto the way they control the ball with their feet. Unlike, say, NFL players, who may sprint for just a few seconds, soccer players are in constant motion, racing whole stretches of a field to get where they want to go – all the while battling defenders trying to undermine their progress. Soccer players are arguably the best athletes on the planet. Without question, their sprinting is full of drama and style – as good as anything on Broadway.

(3) Consider the World Cup as a Presidential election. Like a race for the White House, the World Cup only happens every four years. Both start with a long list of contenders. Both weed out those contenders in match-ups that test the contestants’ durability and smarts. The contenders have spent lifetimes to even get into a position to win big. Their time on stage is intense and revealing. It has to be with so much at stake.

(2) Soak up the players’ and teams’ storylines. England is battling a history of falling short. The United States has never won a World Cup. This was part of the backdrop to yesterday’s game. So, too, is the story of the U.S. goalie, Tim Howard, who has Tourette’s Syndrome. The New Yorker just had a big article on Howard and the U.S. squad, giving readers more reason to watch yesterday’s game and see how Howard – one of America’s highest-paid soccer players – fared against the favored English. Howard made a series of memorable saves. His medical history is unlike that of any current pro athlete in America.

(1) Revel in the world uniting for a good cause. Never mind the fighting that occurs among soccer fans (a fact that my True/Slant colleague Ethan Epstein pointed out this week). In the World Cup, nations vie against each other without economics at stake, without militaries at stake, without political power at stake. When Iran played the United States in 1998, it led – briefly, it turned out – to closer relations between the two countries. “Soccer diplomacy,” it was called.

World  Cup games are so much more than wins, losses and ties. When more Americans realize that, soccer will find a much greater foothold in this country.

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Despite flotilla deaths, peace in the Holy Land is still in view

A handshake between Hussein I of Jordan and Yi...

Image of King Hussein, Bill Clinton, and Yitzhak Rabin via Wikipedia

They floated along Israel’s coastline, then came ashore – and when members of the PLO’s Fatah faction were through, more than 20 Israelis (including children) had been killed. Days later, Israeli troops entered Lebanon in what the New York Times called a “retaliatory raid.” It was March of 1978, and peace in the Holy Land never seemed so far away. Except that six months later, Israel and Egypt signed a historic accord that heralded a new era in Arab-Israeli relations. And then, the next year, more killings of Israelis and Palestinians, and more revenge killings. The Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982 signified how low the Arab-Israeli conflict could get – and yet, a decade later, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were shaking hands on a new agreement for peace.

It doesn’t seem possible now, but Arab-Israeli peace is still a distinct possibility in the year ahead, despite the finger-pointing after Monday’s horrific flotilla fiasco. George Mitchell, President Obama’s special Middle East envoy, is scheduled to meet today and tomorrow with Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Peace is the Holy Land is a priority for the Obama administration, just as it is for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who are urging their support for a two-state solution through the OneVoice movement. It’s not all darkness in the Middle East, even though it seems that way now.

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Dennis Hopper’s drug issues are spotlighted high up in his obit. Is that necessary?

Dennis Hopper

Image of Dennis Hopper via Wikipedia

What was it like to live in the 1940s and ‘50s? You can get clues by watching TV shows like “Leave It To Beaver,” or you can read old newspapers from the period and see how celebrities were covered in life and death. Celebrities’ personal lives were often completely missing from their obituaries. For example, when W.C. Fields died in 1946, the New York Times’ obituary had nothing – absolutely nothing – on his alcohol problem. Five years earlier, Life magazine practically made light of Fields’ drinking, showing the comedian/actor with a drink of pineapple and rum. Hit and miss. In the 1940 and ‘50s, the public was often unaware of famous people’s personal lives – whether it was drinking or womanizing or anything else.

Today, all bets are off. Dennis Hopper, the great actor who passed away earlier today, is defined in the third paragraph of the New York Times’ obit by his relationship to drugs and alcohol. Actor Gary Coleman, who died last night, received the same treatment by the New York Times. Here’s the lead sentence of Coleman’s obit:

Gary Coleman, the former child star of the hit television series “Diff’rent Strokes,” who dealt with a well-publicized string of financial and personal difficulties after the show ended, died on Friday in Provo, Utah.

One can argue whether it’s a sign of progress that, upon a star’s demise, the media exhumes the behind-the-scenes details of their personal lives. Needless to say, the Internet is full of innuendo, gossip, and trashy items about celebrities. (Fields’ Wikipedia entry has a whole section on his alcohol issues.) But the fact that the New York Times – a paper with a more distinguished reputation than, say, – also trafficks in these sideshow facts is worthy of debate. The zeitgeist? It’s there in the obits of the paper of record. In the media food chain, there’s now no place to hide for a star of any kind. Their foibles – even in death – will be on display for all to see and ponder.

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