Tangents

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I learned a whole lot about the TV that my parents grew up on in a class I took this past semester, America in the 1970s. Even though we never mad e it to the 80s and the greatest series ever aired (“Cheers”), learning about the decade of “All in the Family” and “Happy Days” finally introduced me to shows that I’d heard of but never seen or taken much interest in. Besides Hawaii Five-O, of course, but only because my dad insisted that I experience some of the original in order to better understand the remake. Our class also briefly discussed news coverage during the decade. I read a bit about ABC’s coverage of the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich and then decided to check out a Wikipedia article on the subject. As is usually the case, that sent me off on an hour-long curiosity tangent. Wikipedia may not be the greatest source to cite on OU papers, but it sure is informative (and uniquely capable of sucking the reader into a never-ending adventure of clicking through links).

As I learned that day, the 1972 Summer Olympics played host to a tragic terrorist attack that successfully targeted the Israeli Olympic team and resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the squad. I had heard of the Munich Massacre before, but was shocked to read about how poorly the entire affair was managed. Germany received multiple credible warnings of a threat prior to the Olympics, even some that specified that an attack would be carried out by Palestinian terrorists, and yet the government took no precautions against it and then mounted a failed rescue attempt that got every hostage killed. Far too little, far too late. According to the reading, ABC’s coverage of the events helped the network gain significant credibility, which nowadays seems like a no-brainer – reporting on tragedies is easy and sure to generate views and ratings. Shameless plug – Bastille’s most recent album discusses our fascination with violence and tragedy on the 24 hour news cycle; both the music and message are top notch.

I also stumbled across the documentation of Mossad’s response to the Black September attack (Black September was the organization that carried out the attack). Those guys and gals do not mess around. Operation “Wrath of God” wasn’t just a revenge plot; it was a calculated, decades-long campaign to rack up a serious body count in a very public, yet deniable fashion. A few hours prior to each assassination, Mossad would deliver flowers and a note to the family of the target. “A reminder we do not forget or forgive.” Yikes.

And the Mountains Echoed

This semester I had the pleasure of leading an Honor’s College Reading Group with my friend Tram. It was my second reading group, and my first as a moderator, and it was amazing. Tram suggested that we read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, who is also responsible for the acclaimed novels The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I read and loved both of the aforementioned novels in high school, but I hadn’t had a chance to check out Hosseini’s third release, so I happily agreed to her selection. As it turned out, this was the perfect book club book (I’ll explain why) and we were joined by an incredible group of students as we delved into Hosseini’s masterpiece. For whatever reason, exclusively freshmen signed up for our group, but we took the opportunity to welcome the new Sooners with open arms and baked goods. Initially, Tram and I only planned to bring a treat on the first day that we met as a group, but they were so complementary that we ended up bringing food to every meeting. It was an expensive semester, but a good one for sure.

And the Mountains Echoed is a tale of love, loss, and redemption that spans generations and continents. The book consists of nine chapters, each of which is narrated by a different character from the story. The main characters, siblings Pari and Abdullah, are born in a remote village in Afghanistan and separated at a young age, perhaps out of necessity, but tragic nonetheless. This event serves as the impetus that keeps the tale moving, and is the glue that binds all of it together, even the seemingly random, tenuously related chapters. I was especially struck by the fact that the reader gets to live out the entire lives of many of the characters, from adolescence to death. That the journey of life could be so succinctly summarized in the 30 to 50 pages is, in my mind, a sobering reality. However, Hosseini manages to make every page leap with vivid color and beautiful prose, not to mention the captivating story that proved the greatest challenge for many members of our reading group – finding the strength to put the book down. I don’t want to give too much away, but And the Mountains Echoed is a must read for all and a perfect choice for any book club, because it is rife with motif and so very open to interpretation. The characters are compelling and at times, beyond frustrating. The settings are so well imagined and spotted across the globe, in such a way that you travel the world from the comfort of your seat. I don’t want to give too much away, but I thoroughly enjoyed this read and the companionship of our book club, and I would encourage everyone to partake in both.

Challenges Facing China’s New Leadership

As part of a series of IAS lectures on China this past semester, OU managed to bring Dr. Yukon Hwang to campus to explain the many challenges facing China’s new leadership. Dr. Hwang is China’s former representative to the World Bank and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He gave a riveting talk that revealed many of my misconceptions about China, particularly when it comes to the country’s seemingly robust economy. In reality, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader who is now regarded in kind with Mao Zedong, has a tough road ahead. He wants to modernize China and solidify its place at the forefront of the global powers, but this is much easier said than done.

China was once one of the world’s most egalitarian countries, but this is no longer the case. Instead, the country’s export trade has created vast inequalities that necessitate long term strategy and a shift towards an economy driven by consumption and services. They also struggle with a worsening debt crisis, growth slowdown, and rampant corruption. Nonetheless, most Americans and Europeans believe that China is the world’s leading economic power, when in fact the US still holds that title. Unfortunately, it is this false perception that drives much of America’s foreign policy with China, because we live in a country of majority rule. As it turns out, and this rocked my world, China is not responsible for our trade deficit and there is no correlation between US and Chinese trade balances. What’s more, the trade deficits of the two countries actually move in the same directions! We resent China and believe that we invest too much money in the People’s Republic, when in reality only 1.5% of our foreign direct investment goes to China. And this makes total sense, because our top exports to China (agriculture, planes, waste, semiconductors, and cars) do not need to be produced in China. Unfortunately for China, the aforementioned misconceptions have left many Americans with an unfounded negative opinion of China. I do not know how he will accomplish it, but I’m sure that Xi Jinping plans to tackle this sour tastes, and to right China’s economy in the process.

A Lonely Dictator’s Nuclear Ambition

I recently had the chance to hear from Dr. Joseph Fewsmith, who was invited to speak at OU by the department of International Studies. Fewsmith is a professor of Political Science at Boston University, where he specializes in Chinese domestic politics and foreign affairs. This particular talk concerned North Korea’s emerging nuclear program, a ramshackle operation that has had the rest of the world on edge for years. Dr. Fewsmith approached the situation from an angle that few media outlets or analysts have considered: there are myriad parallels between North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s nuclear program in the 1960s and 70s, and understanding those parallels can help us better understand the current dilemma and what the future may hold.

China and North Korea are joined at the hip. They do billions of dollars in trading every year, not to mention the intellectual property that passes between the two countries. However, they are not on equal footing, or even good terms. China is North Korea’s most crucial lifeline, and plays host to some 250,000 refugees from the dictatorship, by conservative estimates. As such, preventing the collapse of its volatile neighbor is of utmost concern to China, which is probably one of the reasons China stopped helping North Korea go nuclear many years ago. Rebuffed by the country that many around the world assume is primarily responsible for the trajectory of nuclear power in North Korea, Pyongyang instead turned to Egypt, which provided SCUD missiles from Russia that North Korea then reverse engineered to create their own ICBMs. Other requisite parts, like the centrifuges, came from Pakistan, and the fuel is actually produced in North Korea, contrary to popular belief. We know all of this, and yet still Western media perpetuates the myth that North Korea is incapable of going nuclear, which could be why their propaganda machine shares so many photos of their technology. They want us to believe them.

In comparing the nuclear programs of the two countries, it’s odd but not entirely unexpected that North Korea’s missile test haven’t advanced faster than China’s did a half century earlier. On one hand, North Korea has the benefit of scaling, computing, and fiber optics, but they are handicapped by isolation and the ruthless dictatorship’s intolerance of intellectuals. Our attitude towards the endeavors hasn’t changed a whole lot either; in both cases, we tend to be more concerned about ourselves than about the reality of the situation, which is that North Korea could very soon launch ICBM’s towards the US while we still debate over whether or not they’re capable of such a thing. However, there is the possibility that we could improve our relationship with the dictatorship, just as we’ve done with China. For that to happen, though, we must focus on finding common ground, rather than placing false hope in the notion that North Korea will eventually give up their nuclear weapons. Either way, I can’t see myself visiting any time soon.

A Genuine Conservative Tradition

I do my best to avoid living in an echo chamber. Naturally, I often find myself surrounded by like-minded people, but I believe that it is of critical importance that we intentionally expose ourselves to contradicting points of view. Accordingly, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Professor Rick Tepker, the Floyd & Irma Calvert Chair in Law and Liberty Professor of Law talk about the meaning and death of the genuine conservative tradition. Professor Tepker is the first OU law faculty to argue and win a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, an accomplishment that is inspiring to say the least. He gave a succinct history of what he considers to be the genuine conservative tradition, and discussed how the aforementioned school of thought has been more or less abandoned by many politicians who call themselves conservative.

Tepker summarizes conservatism as respect for the little guy, restraint, and a source of moderation and civic virtue. These buzzwords aren’t all that partisan upon initial inspection, but they have morphed into something entirely different nowadays. Conservatives are less likely now to be characterized by careful, conservative action, and more likely to be associated with anger, a skepticism of demonstrations, and quick execution of decisions. For example, President Trump called his initial executive order on immigration a “military operation,” which implies that we are directing a military operation against visitors to our country and citizens alike. Rather than cherishing public education as a Jeffersonian way to transfer knowledge, Professor Tepker contends that our conservative representatives are more likely to be skeptical of science and conventional wisdom, all the while cutting funding for education and implementing programs like school choice vouchers. Conservatism is no longer an adherence to the old and tried against the new and untried, as Abraham Lincoln once put it. But it is not too late to remind our conservative representatives that they aren’t living up to the adjective and school of thought with which they identify. And if that fails, the beauty of our political system is that anyone can give it the good college try.

An Independent Judiciary

During the series of lectures on democracy at the University of Oklahoma earlier this semester, I listened to Dr. Justin Wert, an Associate Professor of Political Science at OU, discuss the threats to judicial independence in the United States. I have always been fascinated by the American political system, in particular our ingenious system of checks and balances that has thus far reigned in any one branch of the federal government from amassing too much power. The independent judiciary is an integral component of our democratic system, but it has recently come under fire from the administration of Donald Trump.

Federal judgeships function very differently from many other roles in the government. For starters, federal judges are appointed, not elected. In addition, they are often appointed for life, a tenure that was designed to insulate the judiciary from the whims of the day, the influence of other branches, and the popular opinion that would be needed to be catered to if judges had to worry about being reelected. The process of lifetime appointments is hotly contested and not without its faults, but changing this key component of the Judicial Branch would likely require a Constitutional amendment, which is no small task. And as long as the head of the executive branch is calling the character of judges into question and casting doubt upon their decisions, it only makes sense to maintain as independent a judiciary as possible.

President Trump attacked Gonzalo Curiel, a judge in the District Court for the Southern District of California, because Judge Curiel presided over the suit against Trump University. President Trump falsely called the judge Mexican, when he was in fact born in Indiana, and then went on to say that “It is a disgrace. It is a rigged system … This court system, the judges in this court system, federal court. They ought to look into Judge Curiel because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace.” Luckily, Donald Trump had not yet been sworn in at the time and as such could take little recourse outside of hurling baseless insults, but the President has already faced challenges in the court since taking office and will undoubtedly continue to do so. For example, his “immigration ban” has been stayed by multiple courts across the country, prompting less than pleasant responses from the Commander in Chief. Fortunately, the courts are designed to lag behind new administrations, so as long as President Trump allows the established system of checks and balances to remain in operation and does not attack the credibility of the judicial branch, our country should be insulated from any brash decisions that go before the courts.

Into the Mainstream

I had the pleasure of attending Rienhard Heinisch’s enlightening lecture about the meteoric rise of various manifestations of populism in Europe. Dr. Heinisch is the head of the political science department at the University of Salzburg and is an esteemed scholar on the broad topic of populism. Populism, loosely defined, can be “a political style, a mobilization strategy, or a thin ideology or frame.” This definition is admittedly a bit of a catch-all, but there is both a responsible party and a decent reason why. The media perpetuated the use of this term, as it allowed for generalized reporting on the rise of this movement, which took root in France in the early 2000s and rapidly spread outwards to the rest of Europe. However, the so called populist candidates across Europe took starkly different approaches to winning over their constituents. As such, there is no such thing as a “European populist party.” Rather, populist candidates brand themselves as unique to their country and take on the established parties, such as the Greens and the Liberals, who they believe have failed in one way or another at serving their citizens. By building grassroots movements, occasionally with outside help, populist candidates have attracted extreme followings and shaken up the political realm through sheer force of will. Such candidates have come very close to winning major elections in Europe, which is all the more amazing when we look at their growth over the past fifteen years.

Populists, or political figures that as a general rule are fond of questioning the principles of liberal democracies and conduct themselves in a rather unorthodox manner (breaking taboos, discriminating against the political minority, or exhibiting nativist or nationalist tendencies, for example), were concentrated in a small amount of European countries in the early 2000s. Since then, the ideology has spread like wildfire to the far reaches of the continent and has taken on very different looks and found varying levels of success and resistance. Despite all of these inconsistencies, Dr. Heinisch attributes the success of the populist movement to widespread doubts about the legitimacy of the political system and, in some voting blocs, a fear of losing control, economic status, or national identity. Populist candidates excel when they can adapt to the ever-changing whims of voters, but as a result there is no solid populist agenda among the more successful variants. I suspect, however, that there are some entities that have firm agendas very high hopes for this movement. Russia, as an example, has been supporting populist parties like UKIP and the Front National monetarily and in the media. Oddly enough, this goes relatively unnoticed in Europe, whereas alleged Russian meddling in the US has come under very close scrutiny. Whether or not Europe’s fledgling ideologies survive the test of time, the gains that populist parties have made in the past decade cannot be overlooked.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

This past semester I joined an Honors College Reading Group led by Jesse Coker, Landon Wright, and Dean Ray. Over a ten week period, we worked our way through Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a formidable 700 page treatise on global wealth inequality by Thomas Piketty. The title pays tribute to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital; accordingly, Piketty draws from Marx’s vein of thought but brings a modern approach to the controversial subject. Like Marx, the French intellectual warns against the dangers of wealth accumulation among a minority, but he does so in such a way that even readers with little to no economics experience can comprehend his arguments, despite the massive data sets utilized and cited. For the many members of our sizeable book club who did not have a background in the subject material, this proved quite beneficial.

Our eclectic collection of mostly undergrad students, dotted with a few graduate students and faculty, attempted to discuss a chapter or two each week, but often ended up on spiraling tangents resulting from the wide breadth of interests present in the room. And in some of the denser portions of the book, going off topic allowed us to skirt the drier statistics in favor of discussions that tied into current events, such as the election or the healthcare debate. After all, Piketty’s central argument is simple enough to be applied to many aspects of our day to day lives. If the average rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, Piketty contends that the divide between the rich, or those who control capital, and poor, those who have only their labor, will grow. We had plenty of time to discuss the nuances of this seemingly straightforward relationship, and quickly realized that the reality is far more complicated than a simple equation.

The topic of wealth inequality is both hotly debated and carefully skirted, but it is an important conversation that should be part of the national narrative. According to the author, there is no natural check on the growth of inequality. This gap is objectively problematic – as the world’s resources are concentrated in ever-increasing quantities in the hands of an elite few, so too is the power. However, there have been events in the past century that checked the growth of inequality for a period of time: namely, the World Wars. But I believe that we can address this issue without devolving into war, if leaders are willing to address the subject head on and make it a priority. And that starts with us.

The End

This is it. In twenty-four hours I’ll be on the same train I am as I write, but heading in the opposite direction, towards Rome. And in forty-eight hours I’ll be in a Delta jet somewhere above the Atlantic, en route to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I’ve been noting every occasion that I do something for the last time: last night walk back to the monastery, last lunch at Mariano’s, last Netflix night on the beanbags in the movie room with my classmates turned friends. But I’m so thankful for the mere fact that I have so much to miss about my time in Arezzo, because that says volumes about how much this semester has meant to me. Besides, come January the things that I would miss the most will be back in Norman, in my classes, and every once in a while, at my dining table. After four incredible, exhausting, life-changing months in Italy, I’m going home. I’m bringing much more than pictures and stories and cheap souvenirs back to Atlanta; I’ll have a multitude of new friendships, a new appreciation for cultures that I’d only ever read about and seen on TV, and a vastly enhanced perspective in tow as well.

The intangibles gained from four months abroad far outnumber the tangibles, and are certainly more difficult to put into words, but I’ll do my best because I firmly believe that the experiences and lessons from my semester studying in Italy far outweigh the material. Arezzo fridge magnets and Italian leather belts from a local craftsman will surely spark flashbacks of cheering on the Porta del Foro rider at the Saracino jousts alongside my professors and watching the sunset illuminate the Tuscan countryside and mountains in an orange-gold hue from the monastery’s tower. I never went to a rugby match, but wearing the scarf bought on the streets of Dublin commemorating the bout between Ireland and Australia (which Ireland won) will send me back to the rowdy singing emanating from every door in the Temple Bar district. Recollections like these already put a smile on my face, even now as the finality of my leaving starts to sink in. Not that I’m saying goodbye to Arezzo forever – I plan on being back as soon as I can afford it and have someone to show it off to, but until then the countless memories that will undoubtedly be triggered by reading headlines about Europe on my Facebook page or scrolling through the thousands of photos on my phone will have to suffice.

I chose to attend the University of Oklahoma, a fourteen hour drive from my home in Atlanta, because I wanted to become more self-reliant and resourceful. Apparently that wasn’t enough, so I flew to a country where simply ordering food or meeting new people required concentration and plenty of hand gestures to make up for what my Italian language skills lack. On top of that, I was an ocean away from the entire world I knew prior to this adventure, and spent many weekends taking some perplexing combination of trains, planes, and buses all over Europe to experience as many other cultures as possible. I’ve never felt more independent in my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I learned to make every day count, but to also take breaks when needed and always pace myself – traveling is both exhilarating and exhausting. When you only have thirty-six hours in Frankfurt, a city you might never visit again, efficiency is key. Granted, some days, regardless of where you are, you’re not going to feel like taking on the world with a minute by minute itinerary in hand, and that’s okay. But when an opportunity like spending four months in Italy arises, I vote carpe diem.

Gimme a Break

Thanksgiving Break was a reprieve from the typical OU in Arezzo weekend travel itinerary that has us speeding through a city at a mile a minute. In contrast, the break provided me with a ten day block and a whole lot of Europe to see. I settled on a combination of England, Spain, and Ireland, in that order. That adds up to four plane flights, mostly with Ryanair, and a plethora of taxis and trains. I don’t mind traveling because I can usually make up some of the sleep missed when trying to squeeze every minute possible out of our destinations, but it’s also important to be attentive, as exhausting as that can be. Nonetheless, missing a connection in an itinerary can be a costly mistake, as some of my friends discovered in London. Luckily, by virtue of actually having a more substantial amount of time at each destination, I didn’t feel like I needed to rush through all the sights, so I generally had enough energy at the end of our time in each city to safely make it to the next one. Thanksgiving break was a wonderful balance of adventure and relaxation and went a long way towards broadening my horizons and improving my resourcefulness.

Thursday after class I left Arezzo on my own and made my way to Rome for an evening flight to London. I didn’t leave much time for transfers and whatnot so I narrowly made it to the airport in time, but in no time I was passing over South England’s countless illuminated soccer fields. From Gatwick Airport I took a series of trains to Reading, a medium sized college town about an hour west of London. Reading isn’t exactly a popular tourist destination, but my good friend Adam is a student at Reading University and I couldn’t spend four months in Europe without stopping by his stomping grounds. Adam and I met early last year at practice for Oklahoma’s ultimate frisbee team. He was an exchange student studying meteorology at OU for the year and we became the best of friends after taking an impromptu roadtrip to Chicago over OU-Texas weekend. I hadn’t seen him since sending him off at Atlanta’s airport in May and I was beyond excited to see his cheery face at the train station and spend a few days with him. Over the weekend, Adam introduced me to his friends, showed me around Reading, and took me on day trips to Windsor and Oxford. England was exactly how I’d imagined: drizzling and overcast the entire time, but nonetheless lovely. We spent Monday night at a hostel in London before my Tuesday flight to Barcelona, said tough goodbyes on the London Underground, and made plans to meet again when one of us wins the lottery.

I then flew to Barcelona to meet Logan, William, and Duncan, three of my friends from OU in Arezzo. The four of us tooled around Barcelona for three days and some change, largely without any plan or sense of direction. This method is my personal favorite and it worked exceptionally well; Duncan and I wandered under the path of a cable car and followed it all the way to its origin, and of course we had to ride it. Barcelona was full of wonders like this and is easy one of my favorite places in Europe. From the top of Park Guell you get a view that a camera simply cannot capture; the city stretches farther than the eye can see until it meets the ocean or mountains, and the skyline is dotted by a curious egg shaped skyscraper and the swirling, abstract spires of the famed cathedral. We dined on tapas and paella and Wok to Walk and ate like kings for a fraction of the price. Frankly, I’d need another week or two to truly discover Barcelona, but it’s at the top of my list for future adventures. After three days that passed far too quickly, we flew to Dublin to meet up with Chuck (Elizabeth).

Unfortunately, Dublin was the victim of our exhaustion after so many long days on the figurative road. We were much too tired to give the capital of Ireland the attention it deserved, but I’m certain it’s a much more invigorating city that I’m giving it credit for. That being said, we still saw the Dublin Castle and learned a lot about the Irish’s fight for independence from England. We toured the Guinness Factory, which was a thrilling experience in a very well done self-guided explanation of the company’s inner workings. Not to mention the fact that it ended at a bar on top of the factory with a great view and a free pint. Guinness is the pride of Ireland and a staple in the Temple Bar District, which was the liveliest daily celebration I’ve ever seen. We sang along with patrons and revelers of all ages and had a grand time. The break ended just before we reached the point of being too wiped out to enjoy it, and we flew back to Italy bright and early Sunday morning. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, which we celebrated our own way in Spain, I’m so very thankful for Adam, Logan, William, Duncan, Chuck, and everyone else at OU in Arezzo who travelled with me over the break and during the semester, because no matter how enticing the destination, the people you’re with or the ones you meet along the way are truly the best parts of any adventure.