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Archives for January 2011

The terror of trees

Matt Frei | 23:15 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011


cars.jpg At the State Department, they're scratching their heads trying to work out whether the events unfolding dramatically in Egypt amount to the slow burning fuse of Gdansk and Solidarity or the tumbling of the Berlin Wall. 1980 or 1989?

At the Treasury Department, they are pondering whether the jobless rate will continue to shrink, however gingerly. At the Pentagon, they fret about the latest set backs in Afghanistan.

But on Tilden Street, the Frei family worries about one thing only: Will the 45ft (13m) poplar tree weighed down by wet, sticky snow, snap and crush our house like a cheese cleaver? The Dogwood has already lost two of its bigger limbs. The garden is a graveyard of tree body parts. The neighbour's fir trees have bowed in total snow-induced submission over our power lines. They hang like Damocles swords over our existence.

They have the power over our power - do we freeze tonight and eat by candle light with all the dimness and none of the romance? Do we have to unpack the freezer, once again, and put the food for a family of six into ice boxes?

We have been there. Done that. Far too often. Last time it was a monsoon-like rainstorm. Before that it was a snow and ice storm. Then there was Hurricane Isabel. America is a big country with big weather. Fair enough. It happens to be one of its appeals. But big weather and flimsy power lines that dangle precariously over the capital's streets like drooping washing lines - that's an unpleasant combination.

Why can't they just put these power lines underground like they do in Hungary or Honduras or Belarus? Perhaps it's just too expensive for the power companies who are already charging us a fortune. It was very odd and not a little scary to drive home last night in my flimsy car past Metro buses stranded like beached whales, spinning police cars and trees so weighed down they were caressing the soft roof of my car.

The low point came just before I reached the Israeli Embassy, not far from our house. The neighbourhood had already been plunged into darkness by a power failure. Then I heard something that sounded like a championship belch. It wasn't me. Honest.

It was the enormous tree that toppled about a hundred yards in front me on a very busy road, narrowly missing cars, including mine, and the most heavily guarded embassy in Washington. The terror of trees.

Is this the Twitter revolution?

Matt Frei | 18:37 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011


egyptian protests

The Egyptian authorities have clearly decided to try to put the iron lid on the swelling unrest. No surprises there. They must know that when public anger gains momentum the nuance of measured reform - as promised by the interior minister - just doesn't work.

They already tried that on Monday by allowing some demonstrators to gather in order to let off steam. But as the crowds grow, feasting on decades of brewing discontent, the steam just expands. From the government's point of view, the best option is a crack down and diplomatic damage control in Washington.

The US State Department is watching all this nervously from the sidelines. The Obama administration vowed not to pursue President George W Bush's "freedom agenda". Now freedom has set its own agenda, catching this White House off guard. It too shouldn't be that surprised. Remember that it was Hillary Clinton who encouraged the use of social media for the purposes of gradual civic reform in the Middle East. Now the demonstrators are calling this the Facebook or Twitter revolution. Be careful what you wish for!

The events in North Africa are hardly gradual. Washington is caught between a desire to acknowledge (and encourage) the yearning for liberty while at the same time preventing any revolution from being exploited by Islamic fundamentalists.

Tunisia poses much less of a dilemma than Algeria or Egypt, where fundamentalist movements have been put down for decades. The administration has repeatedly urged President Hosni Mubarak to lift the 30-year-old emergency rule. So far he has ignored it. The consistent pummeling of the opposition has once again removed any viable alternatives from the stage and over the years Washington has done precious little to hold President Mubarak to account.

Wouldn't you love to read the diplomatic cables currently being penned. Where is Wikileaks when you really need it?

2011 could be the Middle East's 1989

Matt Frei | 20:12 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011



Yesterday, the Egyptian police gave out water bottles to thirsty demonstrators.

Today, facing a much larger demonstration, they used water cannon to disperse the crowds.

Teargas is wafting through an already polluted Cairo and there is much talk of a domino effect triggered by events in Tunisia.

Some of the protests seem to have been lit by the fuse of self-immolation, first in Tunisia, then Algeria and on Monday in Egypt.

And when North African leaders get onto their emergency conference call the similarities between their countries cannot have escaped them: Leaders whose stints on the throne are measured in decades not years (Col Gaddafi clocks up four next to Hosni Mubarak's three and a bit); price hikes; rising unemployment; a surplus of young educated men and women with little hope of gainful employment; rampant corruption; and the dead hand of political repression.

Add Facebook and al-Jazeera and it's hard to see how all this won't continue to rumble.

Take Egypt for example. Even if today's demonstrations are quashed and the demonstrators are cowed into retreat, who is to say that they won't descend onto the streets again when the 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak seeks another re-election in the autumn.

This story has lots of moving parts.

Yesterday, Tunisia's army chief ominously said that the country could not tolerate a power vacuum. So far, the army has been watching lizard-like from the side. That could change very suddenly.

In usually docile Jordan, the Hashemite monarchy is being attacked - in part - for the Western attributes that make the regime so popular here in Washington.

Another known unknown is what role Islamic fundamentalists will play in countries like Algeria and Egypt where they have been pummelled for decades.

And finally there's Washington.

First, the administration needs to make up its mind whether these developments should be supported or whether they will just open the door to messy, unforseen consequences. Secondly, it is ironic that the spark of freedom was not lit, as once intended, by free elections in Iraq, but by price hikes in a tourist paradise called Tunisia.

The best thing the US can do is stay out of the way and watch. It's all up for grabs: 2011 could still become the Middle East's 1989.

US status anxiety over rising China

Matt Frei | 16:51 UK time, Monday, 17 January 2011


China is getting under the skin of the world's only superpower in a way that the Soviet Union didn't during the Cold War or Japan in the 1980s, when it threatened to gobble up corporate America.

Students at Duke University

China's remarkable rise has paralleled America's own relative decline. So when Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week, he'll find his hosts suffering from status anxiety. The nation long driven by manifest destiny is ill at ease with itself, uncertain - perhaps for the first time in its history - that its best days are still ahead.

China's latest great leap forward is in education. Students from Shanghai scored stunning results last month in international tests, easily topping the world in maths, science and reading. Where was America? Languishing more than 20 places below in each category - the US education secretary says it is a "wake-up call".

So we visited one of America's elite universities to test the mood. Duke is dubbed the 'Harvard of the South' (although here they prefer to call Harvard the 'Duke of the North'). It's a global centre of excellence, umbilically attached to North Carolina's technology triangle that attracts international students and faculty, particularly from China. From academics to athletics - the men's basketball team is ranked one of the best - the place is imbued with the self-belief, some would say arrogance, which for so long underpinned the US in its undisputed title as the world's top dog.

We put together a team of Duke's best and brightest - including three Chinese-born students - to discuss America's place in the globalised world. We showed them a slick and controversial advert aired during the recent congressional election campaign by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste. Set 20 years in the future, a Chinese professor is lecturing students about the fall of the American Empire. Reckless spending led to crushing debt, he explains, before adding: "Of course we owned most of their debt so now they work for us." The message: America, be scared of China.

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Jack Zhang, who was born in China but grew up in Pennsylvania, was dismayed by the confrontational take.
"It portrays it as a zero-sum game and that somehow Communist China is just the mortal enemy of the US and that the way forward is through competition of some sort. I think that's the wrong approach."
Sharon Mei, who runs an "Understanding China" house course with Jack, said the advert played on fear.
"What I was most hurt by was when they had the audience of young people and everyone was yelling in a hostile and malicious manner - these are the people on the other side of the world who will take us over if we don't do something about it."

She believes ignorance about China and the Chinese fuels suspicion.

"It's the way people perceive China - that on a moral level that they're not someone we want to be a superpower."

Helen Cai, a freshman who was born in China but recently became a US citizen, says the fear is not rational.

"I don't think Chinese people are aware of this kind of power, that they are portrayed in this kind of light in America."

Jack agrees that Americans seem more convinced by China's growing supremacy than the Chinese do. He quotes a recent survey by a Chinese newspaper in which 80% of Chinese respondents said China was not yet a superpower, while 87% of Americans believed it was already.

Romeen Sheth lives in Atlanta but his family is from that other emerging economic powerhouse, India. He takes a provocative stance on the future of the US, contrasting China and India's annual economic growth of 8-10% a year with the American economy "flat-lining" at about 1.5% to 2% a year.

"If we continue on the trajectory we're at right now I think America could soon find itself in a position of global insignificance."

The US has always benefited from an influx of immigrants and ideas. But now, he says, many Chinese and Indian students and workers are struggling to get green cards and visas allowing them to stay.

"So what we're doing is giving US-acquired information and we're sending it back to India and China. So America is the first empire that is giving away its strategic weapons almost. In an information-age society knowledge is a strategic weapon."

Will Brody, a native of North Carolina, is still confident about America's role. "I still think the US will be a superpower far in the future," he says, pointing out that it remains the global trend-setter on everything from technology and social networking to politics and foreign policy.

Helen Cai says economic expansion is not the only way to measure a country's success. Americans put far more value on abstract ideas like liberty and freedom than the Chinese do, she says.

Jack Zhang argues that these values are what make America great. Yet democracy - particularly one as divided and dysfunctional as America's today - can be a handicap when it comes to global competition.

"I don't think it's so much America has become complacent in its power or prosperity, it's just their political institutions cause difficulties. China has an authoritarian, one-party state, so can afford to pursue economic policies that might not make everyone happy."

He points out that China's vast population means its government has to confront tough choices on behalf of the country. And it's not easy for Chinese people either. The sheer numbers mean individuals face intense pressure and competition if they want to be part of the economic miracle.

Jack devotes much of his time to improving understanding between the two countries and cultures that he loves. But I ask him to imagine a world where China and America are at each other's throats and he had to decide which side to back. What would he do?

It has clearly crossed his mind because he answers instantly.
"What worries me more is which side will call me out as being a traitor or a spy. That's the kind of world I don't ever want to live in and I hope we won't come to that because nationalism on both sides puts people, especially people like me, in an awkward and awful place."
Matt Frei got a very different perspective from people in Lenoir, North Carolina. Thousands of jobs have been lost there in recent years after furniture factories shut down and moved operations to China. You can see his full Newsnight film here.

Remaining polite amid chaos of Arizona shootings

Matt Frei | 19:31 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


Licoln.jpgI spent some time yesterday talking to the eminent Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about the uncivil nature of political discourse in the US - the topic du jour since the tragedy in Tucson at the weekend. Mr Holzer, like others with a historical perspective, pointed out that the vitriol of recent years is polite parlour talk compared to the poisonous period before the Civil War, when lawmakers in Congress frequently drew guns on each other.

One of the most violent incidents occurred when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina took issue with Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts after he delivered a fiery speech against slavery.

Mr Brooks beat Mr Sumner so hard with his cane that it broke over the senator's head. The desk where Mr Sumner was sitting was smashed to pieces. All this occurred not in a back alley but on the floor of the Senate. It should be pointed out, however, that Mr Brooks waited to begin his onslaught until all the ladies had left the vicinity. Today, this act of chivalry - if that's the right word - would be as unlikely as the beating itself.

The subject of slavery inflamed tempers like no other, of course. Mr Lincoln received bags full of threatening, hateful letters, all of which he apparently read himself. In one of the notes, the correspondent's wish to see the president get killed is preceded by the desire to place "spiders in his dumplings".

Considering how Mr Lincoln's life was eventually ended, these letters are particularly chilling. So, yes, if one takes the long view back, we live in relatively polite times - although, arguably, that is setting the bar very low indeed.

Even though it would be wrong and unfair to draw a direct line between the shooter's murderous excess and strident politicians like Sarah Palin, what we have learned this week is that words have consequences, especially when they follow an extreme action.

Obama.jpgMs Palin's words about "blood libels", delivered in a quasi-presidential setting, framed on one side by an American flag, probably fuelled doubts about her rhetorical range and her ability to be presidential.

The president kept it personal and poignant. He reined in the attack dogs on all sides and called for a more civil, gentle tone. The tragedy has allowed him to play the role of consoler-in-chief with conviction.

Former President George W Bush did it before him after 9/11, Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma bombing and Ronald Reagan after the Shuttle disaster. But it will probably take more than a tragedy and a speech to change the flavour of Washington politics.

Arizona shooting raises question over gun laws

Matt Frei | 21:10 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011


Most of the discussion since the Tucson shooting has focused on the question of whether America's toxic and bitter political discourse could have influenced, inspired or even incited a young man to gun down a cross-section of society that included a veteran judge, a nine-year-old model student who was keen to see democracy at work, a young congressional staffer, engaged to get married, and a congresswoman, who was chosen to read out a portion of the First Amendment at Wednesday's historic opening of Congress. This is the passage about the right to assemble peacefully.

Most of the victims were hit randomly. But they could barely have been more poignant. In the post-massacre debate, many fingers have pointed at Sarah Palin and the cross-hair emblems on her electoral map of congressional candidates to be targeted with ballots, not bullets. There has been much talk about the gun-toting lingo of "lock and load" in the political discourse. The left has pointed an albeit indirect finger of blame at the fear and loathing whipped up on Fox TV and talk radio. The right has accused the left of confusing a loony loner with mainstream conservative politics.

Much of the language is indeed unpleasant and jars with what is usually a very polite country. And, yes, it would probably be better if the cross hairs, which have been temporarily removed from Palin's website, were subject to the permanent delete button.

But surely - and forgive me for being blindingly obvious here - the elephant in the room is the astonishing ease with which a 22-year-old man whose behaviour had caused alarm in his community college, had question marks over his mental stability and who lingered in the darker recesses of the web, was allowed to walk into a shop and buy a gun. And not just any old gun. But a Glock semi-automatic, a weapon designed arguably only for hunting humans.

On some issues, like alcohol consumption and drugs, America is - on the whole - strictly suspicious of the individual's ability to be behave sensibly. But when it comes to lethal weapons, this country is astonishingly permissive and trusting. We are told over and over again that it's the person that kills, not the gun. In the case of Jared Lee Loughner and his semi-automatic Glock, that is clearly nonsense.

In Arizona, the political debate has been particularly heated. But this is also a state where students and teachers are allowed to carry concealed weapons to class. Ironically, this is a freedom which Representative Gabrielle Giffords favoured. The inflamed passions of American politics are unpleasant. But the ability of some deeply troubled individuals to purchase lethal weapons must surely cause alarm. However this aspect of the tragedy has been little debated since the weekend, which to many outside America is frankly baffling.

Are Boehner's tears a turn-off?

Matt Frei | 16:56 UK time, Friday, 7 January 2011


What is behind the new speaker's tears? An uncontrollable urge to well up at the mere mention or thought of the American Dream? A marshmallow heart prone to bouts of nostalgia? An onion hidden in his jacket pocket to soften the hard image of the "Party of No"?


According to a science reporter for the New York Times, who cites new research from the Weizmann Institute in Israel, women's tears contain a chemical that is designed to disarm the sexual desire of men. It is the body's way of saying: "Not tonight!". It is the natural anti Viagra.

This probably does not explain John Boehner's tears, although the Weizmann Institute promises more research, this time on men. But I wouldn't be surprised if those tears from such high office will be used to great effect to keep the Tea Party in line, or to mollify his opponents on the other side of the aisle.

If things get really fractious in Republican ranks expect a cry-off between Boehner and Fox News host Glenn Beck, the two tear duct gladiators. I know we live in tough times but there does seem to be an unusual tendency to cry in public. Is this quivering lower lip the hallmark of a confident man or another sign of our creeping decadence? Discuss.

Is this the end of days?

Matt Frei | 21:10 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011


In Arkansas and Louisiana, birds have been falling dead or dying out of the sky in their thousands. Dead fish have littered the Arkansas River. Australia is drowning in biblical floods. And the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, only teared up twice today as he prepared to take the oath of the speaker's office. Something isn't quite right. Some websites have predicted that the End of Days will happen before the end of January. Others are looking at complex conspiracies involving - inevitably - Mossad, BP and Opus Dei.

Personally, I think it's all a vast right-wing coincidence. In this world of flux and fury I am, however, certain of one thing: that the new speaker will offer some much-needed light relief in this dreary world. Whatever your political views, it must be almost impossible to dislike a man who has 11 siblings, learned how to make dirty martinis in his father's bar before he was 12, still likes to smoke cigarettes and has a seemingly fake tan that has earned him the nickname Agent Orange.

I know John Boehner has the Tea Party Taliban breathing down his neck, scores to settle with Democrats and a mission to render Barack Obama a one-term president. And yes, he has chosen a gavel big enough to slay an ox. But he is at heart a congenial, sentimental fellow.

Mr Boehner has also been around long enough to learn from history. He came to congress in 1991 and experienced the Republican hubris that followed a few years later. He may end up using that large gavel more against the restless ranks in his own party than the Democrats.

He has previously said that in working in his father's bar as a young man he became adept at dealing with unsavoury customers. That skill may prove useful in the nascent Congress. And if all fails and the communications between Capitol Hill and the White House break down, then Boehner and Obama can still do what men have done for ages: share a furtive ciggy behind the White House tool shed and make nice.

Today, I spoke to Congressman Tom Cole of Oklahoma about the party's plans for their new power.

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Trench warfare on Capitol Hill

Matt Frei | 16:00 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011


The Republicans have set up their victor's camp on Capitol Hill. Their bonfires are filling the icy air of Washington, where discarded Christmas trees lie beached on pavements waiting for the garbage trucks. The season of goodwill is over. The long trench war between Congress and the White House, that will surely dominate 2011, is about to begin.

Republicans have already introduced legislation to repeal Mr Obama's signature achievement of 2010, health care reform. The vote will pass in the House but fizzle in the Senate, where the Democrats still retain the upper hand. It would in any case have been vetoed by the president. It is a gesture of defiance, a legislative two fingers.

Boosted by an unusually productive lame duck session of Congress - in which he managed to get three pieces of legislation passed - Mr Obama is unlikely to feel cowed. He ended a miserable year on a high, preaching the virtues of bipartisanship, knowing full well what lies ahead. He has also just spent almost two weeks being caressed by the Hawaiian surf. That's bound to boost anyone's mood. His smile is broad and Republicans are determined to turn it into a pout. It is after all their stated mission to make sure this president only serves for one term.

As the battle commences and the gloves come off, Republicans are in danger of fighting last year's war. The economy is looking marginally better. It strikes me that Americans, still a pretty optimistic lot - despite everything - compared to us Europeans, are exhausted after a year of relentless sniping. Judging from the swelling number of independents, a huge chunk of this country is open to new ideas about what government should and should not do - ideas that go beyond the tribal boundaries of Democrats and Republicans.

It is time to look back at history, see what worked and what didn't work, and think outside boxes that are getting pitifully small. David Brooks makes the point in today's New York Times. Happy New Year!

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