Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Voter Registration Test

I'm glad I went to eat Mexican food tonight. Otherwise, I might've gone to vote next Tuesday without some vital items of information. Here are a few things I learned from the diners speaking loudly at the table next to us:

-Barack Obama's campaign is predicated on a lie. While Obama started his campaign calling himself black, new information found on the Internet (that always-infallible source) reveals that he's actually half white, 4 percent black and 46 percent "Arabic." And according to Chelsea Lately, a late-night satirical talk show host, Barack really wasn't raised by his mother, stepfather and then white grandparents. His Kenyan dad was around all the time.

-John McCain is going to immediately overturn Roe v. Wade when he comes into office because he's "against a woman's right to choose."

-We're all going to get drafted into the army to fight unjust wars.

-Why are we giving millions of dollars in aid to countries that don't have food? Why don't we give that rice to the people living under the bridge? And what about me? I only got $11 in my pocket and I gotta spend $5 of it on food tonight.

This conversation embodies all that's wrong with our democracy, where people are flush with information but have no desire to actually find out the truth. In this environment, people can find "facts" to justify any point of view without considering their source. The mainstream media is bad enough, but at least it has to show some discernment. When people start seriously citing late-night shows and obscure conspiracy Web sites in political conversations, it's time to fear the fact that these same folks have just as much say in choosing our leaders as we do.

Take the above quotations. I'm not a big Barack Obama fan, but I think we can at least give him the courtesy of getting his ethnicity right. Yes, his middle name is Hussein and he did spend time in Indonesia. But there's no doubt that his dad was black, whether his dad was from North Africa or West Africa. And how do you become 46 percent of an ethnicity anyway?

As far as his dad goes, I'm pretty sure Barack only saw him once after returning to the U.S. from Indonesia.

The abortion quote illustrates how a tidbit of truth can sometimes be twisted. Yes, McCain says he is staunchly pro-life, but he doesn't have the power himself to single-handedly overturn Roe v. Wade. The president does not interpret the law. Hopefully our friends at the adjacent table were referring the fact that the president will probably appoint tons of judges to lower federal courts and possibly the Supreme Court over his first term. While Obama has said his appointees would have to feel empathy for the little man, McCain says he's going to appoint folks based on credentials, not ideology. See this article for more...

President Bush recently announced troop reductions in Iraq. Certainly this is a better time to start drafting people than when we made the troop surge last year.

Oh, and the last quote. Why do we give aid to other countries? I guess we should hand over millions to people who have not taken advantage of the opportunity our country - the most prosperous on earth - has given them. Maybe we should hoard our affluence, keeping it within our borders and leaving millions of innocent victims of natural disasters to fend for themselves. See cyclone in Myanmar and earthquake in China.

I encountered these folks a week after listening to this Howard Stern segment where Obama backers voice their support for policies that are actually John McCain's and even agree that Sarah Palin will make a good pick as Obama's VP.

All this combined makes me wonder whether or not we should have a voter registration test, a quick quiz on the basics of the candidates' positions before being allowed to cast a ballot. I mean, that's the assumption behind having a voting age, right? That once we're 18, we have the ability to discern.

That skill was not evident around the dinner table tonight.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Key to the Battle

I've been lucky enough never to have to experience war firsthand. Because others sacrificed their lives, I've had the privilege of living in peace. And because our country remains prosperous and vigilant, I've never been called upon to carry the burden of freedom's defense.

But I was ready to enlist today, as the television confronted me with the precious gift that I've received from the brave soldiers who have protected the U.S. throughout our history. Ironically, I turned on the TV to watch football and waste my Saturday away like only spoiled Americans can do. While flipping channels, I came upon a Pearl Harbor documentary and couldn't take my eyes away.

After that was over, a Band of Brothers marathon kept me glued to my couch, its velvet upholstery making me feel like a pansy as the airborne infantry dropped into Normandy to take care of business. I stayed there for the next four hours, switching from football to battlefields with listless clicks of the remote.

I thought about how football - and other sports - are like harmless, silly little parodies of war in a nation so blessed with peace. Strong men fight it out on the battlefield while civilians watch and wave banners, hoping desperately for victory.

This is both sad and wonderful for our generation. It's sad that we're so starved of purpose that we've created and invested so much in these metaphoric battles, but it's amazing that our country is blessed enough that we have time and energy to devote to leisure.

Why do we love war stories enough to create games that mimic them? I think it's because as we follow the characters through their crises, we see how the prospect of death reveals the simplicity of life. Soldiers facing their end value things like milkshakes, as one Pearl Harbor survivor said, or a peaceful plot of land, as a Band of Brothers character put it.

We also see how being embroiled in epic conflicts helps soldiers gain a firm sense of purpose in their roles. Each soldier depends on his group, and each mission is critical to the overall war strategy.

Although our lives aren't filled with mortars and hand grenades, the Christian life seems, at least metaphorically, very similar. We are to live with a singular purpose on one mission for our King, carried out with the help of our brothers in arms. We don't always see the fruits of our missions, but we trust our commander that our effort is a worthy part of a grand victory scheme.

In Band of Brothers, one elite paratrooper becomes petrified with fear as soon as he hits the drop zone. When battle starts to rage, he ducks into a hole, screaming and covering his ears while bullets whiz by. Then he remembers the advice of one of his fellow soldiers: We're all scared, but if you consider yourself already dead, you'll have the strength to fight without the influence of fear.

The key that helped the fearful soldier fight is the key to the battle of our lives. When we turned to Jesus, we counted our old selves dead. We need not fear the fight or the scars we may receive in the battle. The war is won and our fates sealed in him. We are wrapped up in his story. If we follow his objectives, we will receive the glory of the kingdom he is building.

Photo: WWII Memorial in Washington. Copyright Trevor Williams 2007.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

My interview with Louvre Director Henri Loyrette

I'm not too artsy, but even I got excited when I was told I'd be able interview the top official from arguably the greatest museum in the world about his interaction with Atlanta's High Museum of Art. See the video below. The article will be posted on GlobalAtlanta's Web site later today.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Other Side

Last year I blogged about how interesting it has been for me to watch diplomats at work. I've interviewed about 20 ambassadors in the past year. Their lives are full-throttle, but even on camera, they're always sharp, fresh and ready to answer tough questions from the perspective of their countries.

Last week, I interviewed Brazil's ambassador to the U.S., and he was as poised as I expected. Today, I listened as the French ambassador to the U.S. spoke about France's objectives in its last three months as head of the European Union. Some tough questions about the global financial crisis came from the crowd, but Pierre Vimont handled them in stride, showing an impressive breadth of knowledge.

I think I admire diplomats because I'm unsure I will ever attain their level of professionalism and intelligence, but today was a big stride for me. For a few moments, I shared the stage with Mr. Vimont in front of a luncheon crowd of about 150 people.

With a small cheat sheet in hand to make sure I didn't melt down, I commended Mr. Vimont for his support for Atlanta and presented him with the copy of a special report that GlobalAtlanta recently completed about the partnership between the Louvre and the High Museum of Art. It was a small gesture and probably seemed mundane for the folks in the crowd. For me, it was an affirmation that I could hold my own on the other side of the camera.

Watch the short video below and let me know how I did.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Jesus or Cola?

As I pulled into the drive-thru at McDonald's today, I thought about whether or not I should buy a soft drink to wash down my other selections from the dollar menu. The conversation in my head went something like this:

A Coke with my double cheeseburger would be awesome, but I've already had a cola today, and if I just get water, I'll get out of here wasting less cash and saving more calories.

I love Coca-Cola, and although I try not to make impulse buys, sometimes I fiend for a swig of the caramel-colored nectar in the late afternoon. Like a cheap addict, I've resorted to collecting Coke caps and cartons from recycling bins and trash cans for the reward points. Eight caps scores a free 20-ounce Coke, which means that I can save $1.50 when my next binge hits.

As I drove up to the window to pick up my water, I thought about how absurd it is that we spend money on cola when restaurants offer water for free. Packed with high fructose corn syrup, acids and food coloring, Coke isn't great for your teeth, and it doesn't do much for your body either. Water, on the other hand is the basic element we need to stay alive. It makes up 70 percent of our bodies and has zero calories.

Compared side by side on these factors, water seems the easy favorite. The spoiler in the equation is that little thing called taste. Although water is a necessity, it's also bland. Coke is sweet. With short-term pleasure as its goal, the part of the brain that thinks about the long-term impact shuts down.

Sometimes Jesus is like water to me. He's the necessity. He's pure. And He's free. You'd think he'd be the easy choice. But I often turn away from him and choose the saccharine substitutes the world offers, even digging through the trash of sin to finance a fix when there's a faucet pouring with life just inside my front door.

Photo: Old World of Coke building at Underground Atlanta. Copyright Trevor Williams 2004.

Friday, October 03, 2008

A View of Tensions in Xinjiang

The New York Times recently released an article that calls into question the veracity of China's claims of a "terrorist" attack by Muslim Uighurs that killed 16 officers in the northwestern province of Xinjiang on the eve of the big Olympic party.

The Chinese government said at the time that Uighur terrorists drove a truck into a formation of officers as they were out for their early morning run. The two assailants, the reports said, then hurled explosives and attacked officers with knives. I'll let you read the article if interested in the details, but the gist of it is that three eyewitnesses watching from a hotel window told the Times a strikingly different account of the events that unfolded.

I'm not saying that the Uighurs had nothing to do with the attack, but the new accounts leave just enough room for doubt. The Chinese government has proven in its dealings with the Dalai Lama that it's not prolific at PR battles, but I think the authorities are astute enough to know that if they link the words "Islam" and "terrorism," they can get support from Americans who don't understand the nuances of the situation.

But Xinjiang is a tense place full of nuances and bubbling over with ethnic tensions . I know from experience. I was there two years ago, near the border with Kazakhstan. I was kicked out of one town for failing to register with the police while staying with a Mongol family. After that, two friends and I were sent on a road trip that bounced us between four or five different cities. Along the way, we were questioned by officers in every single city.

Because it's such a sensitive area - closer to Kabul, Afghanistan, than Beijing - the authorities are skittish about foreigners roaming around Xinjiang. Only select hotels are allowed to house "overseas guests." These are delineated by gold plaques that usually hang behind the front desk - "Fixed Hotel for Overseas Guests," they say.

I had an interesting experience the first time I tried to check into a hotel in the province, in a city where Uighur independence movements were active during the 1940s. The hotel attendant asked if we were from Kazakhstan. When we said no, we were Americans, they told us to find other lodging arrangements. At that point I knew we were in for a wild ride.

During one of our many interrogations, we were asked - politely, mind you - whether we could speak Russian or if any of us served in the U.S. armed forces. Thankfully, we could all truthfully say no.

I say all this not act like a cool secret agent. We were just backpacking. But our experiences underscore the sensitivity in the region and why Beijing might be apt to exaggerate a terror threat to legitimize its crackdowns on dissidents.

Every Uighur we met was nice and helpful. Many of them are sick of the Han Chinese immigrating into their homeland and starting new developments. You can't really blame the common Chinese folks, who are just looking for economic opportunity and feel like they're helping the region. But some Uighurs don't feel like they should be subjected by force to the Chinese brand of prosperity.

The city of Jinghe is a perfect example. A crossroads town between the provincial capital of Urumqi and the large city of Yining, we stopped there for lunch to break up a long bus ride. The entire center of town was dug up to make way for runaway development, and new storefronts had sprouted up everywhere.

We didn't interview Uighurs, but on the way into town we saw cemeteries with the Islamic crescent moons topping the grave markers. To the outsider's eye, it seemed that this had been Uighur country just a few years before.

Caption: Brad and I don the touristy attire of Mongol kings.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Don't Forget the Price

The Price of Freedom from Chuck Holton on Vimeo.

I've been connected in strange and tangential ways to the military all my life. My mother works as a dental hygienist on Ft. Benning, the largest infantry base in the world, near my hometown of Columbus, Ga.

My ex-step-dad's (told you this was tangential) father is a Korean War and Vietnam veteran.

More recently, I've become really close friends with two former Army Rangers, and I've gained a mentor who flew helicopters during Vietnam and is never at a loss for wartime metaphor when he's discussing his life and journey of faith. (Here's where this gets tricky).

One of the Ranger guys used to run a coffee business that gives a portion of its proceeds to organizations that help the troops on the ground in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. He then passed the business off to my new mentor, who now has involved me in the company.

As I'm mulling aspects of the business, particularly a new opportunity that's opened up with a completely different guy in Afghanistan, I get this video in an e-mail from the other former Ranger. His name is Chuck Holton, and he's an author and journalist who's been to Afghanistan once and Iraq multiple times. The video he shot reminds us to never forget the price our heroes pay in these difficult wars. And it reminds us that we should never stand for candidates using their sacrifice as a political football during the election season.

To support the troops by buying and drinking Ranger Coffee, click here.

For Chuck's "Boots on the Ground" blog on the sobering reality as well as the positive side of America's efforts in the Middle East, click here. Or visit his personal blog, which focuses on faith, military issues, travel and lifestyle design.

For your own side-splitting good, PLEASE watch this video Chuck shot of a real Afghan bachelor party during a recent trip.