Saturday, January 17, 2009

Gran Torino

Movies are so bad nowadays, it is hard to find one worth the price of the ticket. It was thus a welcome sight to learn that Clint Eastwood was coming to town with still another of his highly entertaining adventures.

Gran Torino, however, was a surprise. It far exceeds the boundaries of merely escapist entertainment. It has a simple story line that resonates into multiple layers of meaning.

The first layer is an entertaining Clint Eastwood story of personal courage when one man takes on the corrupt establishment, much like the westerns and detective stories that have made Eastwood so popular. Walt Kowalski is a retired, widowed automobile worker in bad health living in a changing neighborhood. What was once dominated by a mainly caucasian working class is now occupied by Asian and African Americans. The new establishment appears to be gangs that roam the street clashing for control of their territories. Walt is a tough guy, sort of a Dirty Harry after retirement. A marine war hero, he had killed at least thirteen “kooks” in the Korean War. He exudes toughness in his exterior, but he has never let go from the torment he suffered during his war experiences. The story focuses on how this tough and savvy warrior responds to the violence and intimidation visited upon him in his neighborhood. It is deftly told with a combination of suspense and humor that provides good entertainment.

A second story kicks in involving Walt’s fractured relationship with his children and grandchildren. We are spared the details of how that family had grown so distant. The children try to be good children, but they do not know how, because they do not know their father any more. The relationship is so deteriorated that we do not know where the fault lies. There is so much water over the dam that all generations are both the victims and the perpetrators of their broken relationships. I found myself profoundly sorry for every one involved. Thus the story becomes a good parable on the consequences of a breakdown of the nuclear family.

The third layer, however, makes the movie something special. Gran Torino is, in the final analysis, a morality tale. Walt is lonely, though he can not bring himself to admit it. His closest neighbors are Vietnamese who he consistently abuses with genuine bitterness. A young girl in the Vietnamese woman reaches out to him, and he finally melts. He becomes involved with her, her brother, her family and ultimately the entire Vietnamese community. In so doing, he learns that they are in danger of succumbing to destructive forces which can destroy their dreams.

I have to leave the story at this point. I hope that I have not spoiled it for you, because I did not realize until the movie was almost over that I had been sucked into a morality tale, and now you know. Suffice it to say that he had to reach into his own soul to save this family, and in so doing he came to understand the essence of life abundant.

The viewer must tolerate a bucket load of bad language. I am weary of gratuitous vulgarities, but the language in this case serves to fill out the landscape of the world Walt lives in. Moreover, I the swearing and vulgarity is a dramatic sign of Walt’s separation from God.

One final note. Clint Eastwood is amazing. This man is seventy eight years old with the grit and muscle to convince you that if chooses to take on a teenage thug, it would be no contest.

By the way, the Gran Torino is pretty nifty, too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Economic Sanctions Against Cuba

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post wrote an article last week, that I have been waiting to see for fifty years.

Robinson writes about Cuban-U.S. relations after fifty years of Castro rule. He complains about the “wrongheaded policies that have unwittingly helped shield Castro’s revolution from historical trends which long ago should have forced the regime to give way or at least compelled it to evolve.”

The policies to which he refers are laws and regulations forbidding trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba. It is clear that these policies have failed. Instead of either bringing down the Castro regime or forcing them to see the error of their ways, these sanctions have induced a despotic government to become more isolated and oppressive. He contrasts our Cuban policy with the rest of the communist world which “was always to push for more contact and exchange on the theory of exposure to the Western ideas, freedoms and prosperity would hasten communism’s demise. It worked.”

It will not be easy to reverse course. The primary reason for retaining the policy is to mollify the disillusioned and angry exiles living here who have an understandable hatred of the Cuban government. Ironically they were probably exiled in this country in part because of our policies that gave comfort to the hard liners of Cuba, who had a convenient scapegoat in the US to blame for whatever failures have surfaced in the Cuban economy.

Moreover, the policy has been costly to the U.S. economy, which has been denied the opportunity to participate in a potentially profitable relationship with a country a mere ninety miles away. The beauty of open trade is that both buyers and sellers profit from the bargain. Concomitantly, when trade is suspended, both countries suffer. Because of the embargo, we cannot buy Cuban cigars and they do not purchase our products ranging from tooth paste to automobiles to computers. The benefits from open markets is insidious and hard to see some times. We can immediately calculate costs resulting from a tax or a factory close down resulting from foreign competition. But the loss of jobs and profits cause by the closing of a market and the lost buying power obtained by the purchase of more expensive products is difficult to see. Therefore, the accumulated cost of the sanctions to our economy is staggering and unnoticed.

I do not follow Robinson enough to identify whether he has jumped into the free trade debate consistently. If so, he has plenty fodder to work with. What about Iran and Korea? We have shut down the availability of our markets to them, and I see no evidence that our policies have had the least positive effect on their conduct.

We are at a cross roads in Venezuela, which has the potential for the same meltdown in our response to at tin horn dictator who is, frankly, too big for his britches. Then there is Columbia. Obama has indicated that he opposes the treaty opening up the Columbia markets. Hopefully his opposition is only campaign rhetoric, because of union opposition to the treaty. If Columbia is cut back, they will continue to trade with us, but the primary product may well be cocaine smuggled into the country, and the primary beneficiaries will be the cartels and their criminal counterparts in this country.

Time and again, when our foreign policymakers choose what is euphemistically called a “diplomatic” option, they trot out the time disgraced economic sanctions. Maybe they should look at the Cuba experience before they jump into another morass.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Legacy of W as President

It is time to reflect on the legacy of George W. Bush. He originally promised to reach across the aisle to all parties to work for the common good. If unity was to be the mantra of his administration, he failed miserably. The brief consensus after 9/11 was permanently erased by the Iraq war. Now his legacy will be defined by the ultimate consequences of the war he started.

W certainly made some monumental mistakes. His sabre rattling “axis of evil” State of the Union speech in January 2002 irretrievably placed the US in a hostile, almost warlike, stance against Iraq, Iran, and Korea. This country had neither the resources nor the political will take on those three regimes simultaneously in addition to much unfinished business in Afghanistan. In the end he chose to invade Iraq, which proved to be all this country was prepared to handle. Reagan’s strength was his ability to use power. Every one knew that when he made a threat, he was prepared to carry it out. Even the most powerful country in the world is weakened when it expends much of its energy and resources on a war that does not produce the expected results.

Second, he, or at least Cheney, claimed that the Iraqis would welcome the US in open arms because of the tyranny of Sadam. W should have talked to his father who made the same mistake in Somalia. The fact is that people fight with unrestrained determination on their own soil . I know of no example where a foreign power sought to dislodge a domestic government and did not meet the fierce resistance of the people. There may be some, but I cannot recall.

Third, he thought he could turn Iraq into a western style democracy, reversing thousands of years of nomadic culture which operate under paradigms quite opposed to democracy. Other colonial powers had tried and failed to westernize the Middle East. He thought he could do better, and he fought a war with an unrealistic goal.

All that being said, do we conclude that W was the worst president in American History, as Senator Harry Reed proudly declares? Not so fast. Opponents of the War blandly seem to assume that the Middle East would somehow have muddled along quite nicely without the American intervention. W should be measured by a comparison of where we are with where we would have been if the Iraq War had never happened. This involves a lot of speculation, but there are clues worth looking at.

In the first place, if America had known the day after 9/11 that there would be no further terrorist attacks on its soil for the next seven years, we would have been inclined to canonize W. Now that this has been accomplished, the feat is pooh poohed. With all the bumbling, W put the terrorists on the defensive, and at least they are trying to infiltrate Iraq rather than New Jersey.

Moreover, W has turned over to Obama a vastly improved military and intelligence community adept in combating terrorism. With all the talk about how W is disliked in Europe, I get the impression that the European military and intelligence communities work very closely with us to repel terrorist threats. and that the coordinated efforts of the western democracies is a formidable force that has been highly deterrent against the terrorists.

Furthermore, we can assume that Sadam would still be alive doing his thing. He obviously had imperialistic ambitions. He had already engaged in a bloody eight year war with Iran and invaded Kuwait. He had an aggressive missile development program, which evidenced a desire to dominate the Middle East militarily. His destabilization potential was immense.

I do not believe that history will fully excuse W from some of his mistakes. Nevertheless, there is a good possibility that when future generations will that his administration responded well to the changes in military goals and strategies needed to counteract terrorism. If so, many of his miscues will not loom as large as being characterized by his contemporary critics.