High Stakes in Syria: Recent History and a Russian Threat Loom Heavily Over Obama’s Head

Jan. 22, 2016

With the wounds still healing from what came to be regarded as a dragged out presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is no wonder that President Obama exercised extreme hesitation in entering the Syrian catastrophe that has seen around 250,000 deaths since it began in 2011. After four years of teetering, the humanitarian nightmare became too calamitous and the threat of ISIS elevated marginally on the worldwide stage. Obama could not avoid what seemed to be inevitable—US intervention. This intervention is far from haphazard, however. In his deployment of troops, Obama has been extremely judicious in each of his moves, as one misstep could lead to a complete deterioration of both the situation in the Middle East, as well as US-Russian relations. The latter of which poses a less immediate threat, yet could ultimately be more costly.

It is no secret that the United States and Russia, who refused to join the fifteen-nation coalition aimed at destroying ISIS and restoring peace, possess less than trusting relations, but the iciness between the nations is now being exhibited internationally, with Syria as the stage. Russian president Vladimir Putin has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since the onset of the crisis, despite his use of chemical weapons on his own citizens. In addition to the commercial interest Putin has in preserving Assad’s power, Putin views him as perhaps the last strong dictator of the Middle East, one free of Western influence. It is for this reason that 70% of all Russian air strikes in the area target anti-Assad rebels, a group that the US has spent vast amounts of resources on to support. Though the Kremlin maintains that its number one priority is the restoration of peace in Syria and the annihilation of ISIS, one anonymous US official has said, “We are not convinced of what the Russian intentions are.”

Indeed, with each move that Putin orders, the mystery that is Russia’s ultimate end game becomes increasingly unclear. On one hand, Russia has established an expanded air defense system in the northern region of the country, halting essentially all American air strikes on Assad’s army; yet on the other hand, Russia has joined the US in their support for Kurdish fighters, likely because the Kurds agreed to a nonaggression pact with Assad’s army, so there are no conflicts of interest on the Russian front. An anonymous senior Defense Department official criticized the Russians for, “trying to play both sides of the fence.” Their support for both President Assad, whose regime openly discriminates against the Kurds, and Kurdistan, whose efforts toward independence have routinely been squashed by Assad in the past, is a clear contradiction.

The only possible explanation for this equivocal Russian strategy is actually far simpler than Putin’s surreptitious regime would have you believe—no matter the outcome, Russia wants to emerge as the hero in Syria. Russia views this crisis as an opportunity to surpass the United States as the top dog in the international community. While ISIS poses as an immediate threat to the US and the rest of the world alike, if Russia is successful in becoming the dominant external force in the Middle East, it could lead to far more significant consequences in the long run. This would find Russia to be in a position to form the shape of the region for the next generation, which, if its present attitude is any indication of what it will be inclined to support down the line, would include more tyranny and government oppression of its peoples. In the past, Middle Eastern dictators have been relatively constrained in their global impact. Yet with a powerful nation such as Russia propping them up, future dictators would prove to be a more serious threat to the rest of the world.

It is for this reason that President Obama and his coalition cannot afford to fail in Syria. The president must act carefully yet forcefully, with both assertion and foresight. Very few people in the global landscape deny that ISIS and other executors of chaos in the Middle East ought to be stopped immediately. But the prospects of another elongated American intervention and Russia emerging from the situation as the primary influencer in the region both provide ample justification for a more balanced approach. It is up to Obama to lay out the framework for that balanced approach before it is too late.









The Trump Paradox: How Trump’s Policies Hurt His Supporters the Most

This article appeared in the fall 2016 edition of the Georgia Political Review. It can be found in PDF format on page 22 of the magazine.

In a scene that has grown to be ubiquitous in the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump rumbles his way through his famously unabashed stump speech in front of thousands of adherents to the Trump gospel. As Trump hits his most popular points—the deportation of all undocumented Hispanic immigrants and the restoration of “Americanism,” not “globalism”—the crowd erupts into cheers. Chants of “Build That Wall” and “Make America Great Again” provide the soundtrack for Trump’s rallies. However, the people chanting—many of whom reside in the South and the Midwest—will likely end up bearing the brunt of Trump’s proposed actions against undocumented immigrants and foreign trade.

A hallmark of Trump’s unprecedented campaign trail is his insistence on the construction of a wall that covers the length of the southern border and the deportation of all 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in America. The central defense Trump wields for these plans is that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from legal U.S. residents. This is particularly applicable to the agriculture industry, in which half of the workforce  lacks proper work authorization, according the U.S. Department of Labor. Why, Trump asks, should we allow millions of illegal immigrants to work our farms when there are capable American workers that could easily fill their places? There is a simple answer: Americans simply do not want these jobs.

Both the federal and state governments have recently passed laws that seek to crack down on illegal immigration. Arizona’s stringent law that enables state law enforcement to stop anyone reasonably suspected of being an illegal alien became the inspiration for similar bills that passed the Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina legislatures. After implementation, such laws have been successful in decreasing the number of undocumented residents in these states. In Georgia, for example, thousands of illegal Hispanic immigrants left the state in the months following the passage of House Bill 87 in 2011. As an unintended consequence, the next year a University of Georgia (UGA) study found that the state incurred a $140 million agricultural loss due to a lack of labor. Without undocumented workers to harvest them, Georgia crops literally rotted in the fields, leading to huge economic setbacks for the Peach State

With much of the agricultural workforce fleeing the state’s rigid laws that put them in imminent danger of deportation, Georgia saw a dramatic decline in its staple industry, which contributes approximately $74 billion to the state’s economy. According to the UGA study commissioned by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, in the year after HB 87 was implemented, Georgia farmers were about 40 percent short of the labor needed to harvest the previous year’s crops.

Georgia is not unique in this diminished agricultural production. A study prepared by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform concluded that the entire country’s agricultural output dropped $1.4 billion in 2012—the year after many of these laws targeting illegal immigration were passed. If President Trump indeed follows through with shipping off all undocumented migrants living in America, he will be depriving what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has assessed to be an $835 billion industry of much of its workforce. While the toll of this action would be felt by the whole nation, the states that rely most heavily on agriculture for their economies will be disproportionately harmed. Ironically, five out of the top ten agricultural states in America (Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Indiana) are firmly leaning toward Trump, and one (North Carolina) is considered a battleground state. Demographically speaking, white rural voters in particular are the ones both most likely to rely on agriculture for income and most inclined to vote for Trump. While Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric may appeal to this demographic, if these people vote for him they could be risking the evisceration of one of their most important industries.

Another one of Trump’s greatest hits is his pronounced distrust of other countries with regard to trade. Trump’s campaign is bent on restoring a rendition of “Americanism” that is fundamentally inconsistent with foreign trade. Whether it be China, South Korea, or Mexico, Trump’s penchant to claim that the United States is being cheated by other nations has roused many within the working class. However, more international companies are bringing business to America than ever before, and it’s paying off. Foreign direct investment in the U.S. has been steadily rising over the past two decades, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that investment has increased every year since 2008. Close to $3 trillion is invested in the U.S. by foreign entities each year, and over 10 million jobs in the United States are tied to foreign trade, and both figures only appear to be rising. If Trump’s proposed trade isolationism comes to fruition, this economic growth would be stalled, and it would be Southern white working class Americans—some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—that would be hurt the most.

In the 1970s and 80s, states across the South decided to shift the focus of their economies away from home-grown manufacturing jobs. While these jobs still serve as the core of the Rust Belt’s economy, the South decided to instead rely on free trade for economic growth and sought out foreign investment in their economies. Since then, Southern states have been ahead of the rest of the country in attracting foreign businesses to create new jobs for the middle class. Today, they make up seven out of the top ten states that receive the most foreign investment (Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama) and have reaped significant benefits. And within these states, it is the white working class that is most dependent on these internationally-tied jobs. Yet, it is precisely these people that are leaning most heavily towards Trump.

In 2014 alone, Georgia received $1.1 billion in foreign investment—third most in the country—and created 6,348 new jobs as a result, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. In recent years Governor Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly have worked hard to create a business-friendly environment that has attracted international companies such as Kia, Mercedes-Benz, and Caesarstone. But economic retrograde for these states seems likely under Trump. And while Trump places blame on “disastrous” trade deals such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for shipping American jobs overseas, such agreements have allowed the U.S. to become the most dominant economic force in the world.

Trump’s supporters see merit in his straight-talk style, anti-establishment sentiment, and ostensible business savvy. However, many of these qualities have nothing to do with Trump’s policies, and putting his policies under scrutiny reveals that their consequences would jeopardize the economic welfare of the people likely to vote for him. Ridding the nation of undocumented immigrants would leave farmers with a severe labor shortage. Closing ports to foreign investment would wipe out 35 years’ worth of economic progress. Both of these policies would have tangible effects detrimental to many of Trump’s most loyal supporters. So when Southerners and Midwesterners hit the polls this November, they ought not think about the abstract messages to which they subscribe, but instead contemplate the actual impact of their votes on their wallets.

The Floozies Deliver an Indefinable Dance Party

Listening to a Floozies song for the first time is simultaneously flummoxing and alluring. Snippets of seemingly mismatched robotic noises join together to form an unexpectedly fluid electro-funk experience that will leave you either appalled or dancing. Every member of the stuffed Georgia Theatre crowd last Friday night was left with the latter. And they did not stop until the show did.

The tone was set by a dreamy Chet Porter opening performance. Porter succeeded in delivering the crowd to the headliners in an imaginative state with stoked curiosity. Once The Floozies graced the stage that curiosity served the audience well. Throughout the show, the Matt and Mark Hill, brothers from Lawrence, Kan., traveled down every musical avenue imaginable but relied mostly on electronic funk. Delving into classic rock, hip-hop, jazz, and indie, the brothers consistently surprised the audience with where their songs were heading. The crowd’s tremendous joy was surpassed only by front man Matt’s, as he watched the flooded venue groove together with a smile on his face that lasted the duration of the show. He even burst out into laughter occasionally as he observed the crowd react with delight to an unexpected hook or a beat unlike anything heard before.

Too often at electronic music shows, the performer, who is typically stuck behind a MacBook on a table, does not match the energy of the music itself. The genre that lends itself to the most vibrant songs is usually presented by the least engaged performers. The Floozies overcame this inhibitor by wielding real instruments in conjunction with their DJ booth setup—Matt on the guitar and vocals, Mark on the drums. Though neither Hill spoke directly to the crowd much, the duo was engaged with the audience and garnered more respect for their undeniable musical prowess.

The Floozies fed off of the crowd’s energy and interacted with it. For example, when the band walked off the stage after its hour and a half long set and the audience roared for an encore and, for some unknown reason, spontaneously commenced an Atlanta Braves “tomahawk chop.” When the brothers finally submitted to the crowd’s demand and returned to the stage, they matched the chop with their own funky rendition of it, sending the place into elation.

The visual effects created another sensory element to the show. The colorful light beams were projected from behind the performers, illuminating the crowd. These lasers were supplemented by the aura of the glowsticks wielded by the attendees most observant of the EDM (electronic dance music) faith. Indeed, for these ravers EDM is a religion, and lights are their form of worship. The less devout within the audience, which included many people old enough to be their parents, were not deterred from partaking in the practice as well.

While each song was distinct in its influences and, in some cases, genre, many blended together. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to tell when one song ended another began. Despite this ambiguity, the group’s most well known song “Sunroof Cadillac” stood out from the rest. An attempt at describing its rhythm may be rendered less effectual than me trying to read a Chinese novel. Yet I can undoubtedly say that its hyper-upbeat and unpredictable sound brought the Theatre’s energy to a peak, prompting each attendee to dance.

Perhaps what was so unique about The Floozies’ performance was its departure from the known. With no clear category into which their music fits, no detectable direction each song will go, and no identifiable source for each noise emitted, the listener is left with much to imagine. And at this show, this imagination manifested itself in the form of the weekend’s best dance party in Athens.

Rushdie’s Dreamy Atheist Manifesto

The life of Salman Rushdie is one worth engraving in a novel. The acclaimed author is a staunch “reasonablist” who has made a living by weaving magical elements into the world with which we are familiar in a way that highlights some of the absurdities of it. When he did so with his 1988 book Satanic Verses, he ended up with a fatwa being issued against him, as the Iranian Ayatollah called for Rushdie’s assassination because the book was said to have blasphemed the Qur’an. The fatwa still stands today, but Rushdie has held true to his beliefs.

In his latest work, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie imagines our world in a state of strangeness that lasts the titular duration of time. In this period, the gate that connects the human world to that of the fantastical jinn (think Genie from Aladdin) is opened, allowing the supernatural beings to deprive the Earth of reason through magical acts. In one case, a graphic novelist’s monstrous illustration comes to life and terrorizes his home. In another, a gardener named Mr. Geronimo wakes up one morning to find that his feet no longer touched the ground and he began to levitate higher and higher each day. This period of strangeness results in four evil jinn, the Grand Ifrits, descending upon the human world in hopes of conquering it and enslaving mankind. It is up to Dunia, the lightning princess jinia who has a soft spot for humans, to halt the Ifrits’ plans.

Nothing in this novel makes sense. There are inexplicable acts of magic, an utter lack of grammatical order (sentences will often meander for paragraphs or even pages at a time), and constant references to sex (which Rushdie makes about three times a page). But it is precisely this chaos that allows Rushdie to assert his position of realism, and atheism, in an alluring way. The stories and language within this novel blend melodically to create a chaotic world. One that makes you appreciate our comparatively orderly one.

Despite the fantastical elements, the Earth portrayed within the novel is unquestionably our own. Rushdie imagines how we would react to a cast of giant supernatural beings terrorizing the order of our society and how we would cope with that fear. He uses the evil jinnis’ plague of curses and the ensuing war between them and Dunia to demonstrate his unreserved skepticism of religion.

The novel can be more accurately described as an atheist manifesto, an assault on religion and what Rushdie perceives to be the fallacy of faith. The evil jinn who seek to conquer the world realize that they can justify nearly any action, no matter how violent, in the name of religion. This is certainly not meant to be a subtle message, as Rushdie is not one to avert controversy. If he were, he would not have a bounty on his head. But like his characters in this book, Rushdie has been condemned to a life of fear by those who wield religion as a weapon. So the skepticism is understandable.

A shortcoming of the novel is the disproportionate time spent philosophizing to developing characters. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days reads more like an ancient classic fable than a modern novel. Written as homage to the 1,001 nights of stories in the Arab classic Arabian Nights, this is very much on purpose. The nature of the novel should not however excuse the shortage of fully fleshed out characters. We are given a fascinating and dreamy story, but the characters within in it (with the exception of Dunia, the princess) are simply flat, behaving with predictability and not complexity. Rushdie instead fills the space with stream-of-conscious thoughts on life’s most perplexing questions—chiefly love, truth, and faith. In this space, Rushdie does achieve the book’s intention of evoking (or provoking) the reader’s deepest thoughts on the values that comprise our souls.

Rushdie is an extraordinary writer who has lived an extraordinary life. This novel is a product of both of these aspects of his life, as he articulates in a trancing manner his resentment for unreason, something on which religion is based. What Rushdie relies on most to communicate his message and to tell his story is absurdity. The absurdity of the jinnia’s malicious supernatural actions and the absurdity of a world with no order illustrate what Rushdie understands to be the greatest absurdity of all—religion. Whether one agrees with its assertions or not, it is clear that the story of this novel is the story of Rushdie’s life. And what a story it is.

Cali N Tito’s Provides an Escape

Wednesday, November 9th was a day my friend Andrew and I needed to get away. Still feeling the aftershock of the previous night’s seismic events, we agreed that we needed to find respite from the chaos seeping through every channel of America. Plane tickets to a Latin American country were a little expensive, plus we both had to attend classes the next day. So we settled for Cali N Tito’s. And what a great respite it was.

When you first enter the parking lot (not even the restaurant itself) of the Lumpkin Street Cali N Tito’s, you are instantly teleported hundreds of miles south to a coastal locale with residents who know how to have a good time. By no means is this place fancy, but it is charming and authentic. The tattered and wobbly picnic tables are not optimal, but you’re willing to overlook it in the name of atmosphere. The outdoor dining area features palm trees rooting out from the pebble sand that layers the entire area, and even a rowboat.

Inside, which is where we had to sit to escape the cold, is only half covered and feels more like a shack alongside a beach. Colorful stringed lights and a collection of seemingly random decorations (like a four foot tall knight’s armor) serve to both provide flair to the restaurant and remind you not to take things too seriously.

Andrew and I ordered our meals at the cashier bar just in front of the lively and multicultural kitchen. I went for the Cubano milanesa, a unique take on your average Cuban sandwich, with a side of camote (Camo-tay), or fried sweet potatoes. He requested, at the server’s recommendation, Tito’s Fish Burrito. Just about everything on the menu is under $8 so, fortunately, we both had enough cash on us to afford our meals, as they don’t accept cards. We neglected to take advantage of the restaurant’s BYOB policy. Though we certainly could have used a few (or a lot of) beers after last night.

Perhaps sometimes you must sacrifice comfort in order to achieve authenticity. We had to switch to a table that was closer to one of the maybe three heaters in the place. But this was not enough to ruin the visit.

Nonetheless, we received our food in a timely manner and were impressed with its presentation and generous portions. My sandwich was sliced into large halves stacked on top of one another and garnished with purple cabbage and herbs. The roll was stuffed with breaded chicken, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, avocado, cilantro, and jalapeno. It was served with a side of “Special Pink Sauce,” which I did not use sparingly. The flavors all combined beautifully into a tangy, hearty, and spicy taste. The camote was equivalent to homemade sweet potato chips served with a chipotle sauce that brought the entire meal together.

The fish burrito was fresh and brimming. It contained lettuce, cheese, red onions, cilantro, chipotle sauce, valentina sauce, and, finally, plantains. The sweetness of the plantains blended with the spiciness of the chipotle sauce and complemented the tilapia exquisitely. I couldn’t help but drench it in the pink sauce too. In fact the pink sauce was so tasty that I couldn’t help but ask a server what was in it. He replied with a smile that it was just ketchup, mayonnaise, and peppers. What I thought to be a secret Cuban delicacy could in fact be easily made at a well-equipped fast food restaurant condiment station. I wasn’t disappointed by this realization, but rather thought it was quite fitting. Just like this sauce, Cali N Tito’s has you think, if only for an hour, that it is something so authentic that you must be in Latin America somewhere. But in reality, you are still back at home, overlooking a BP gas station.

My experience at Cali N Tito’s, though not my first, was a delightful one. It is a melting pot of culinary and cultural creativity. Its ability to transport its patrons to a far away island is unique from any restaurant in Athens. In uncertain times, sometimes we just need a break from it all and go somewhere exotic. Cali N Tito’s allowed me to do that. And gave me one great meal while doing so.

Luke Cage Breaks Free from Comic Book Norms

What is most striking about Marvel’s newest installment to its parallel universe, Luke Cage, is not the title character’s mega strength or invincible skin, but rather the show’s ability to address sensitive political and social issues. But the mega strength and invincible skin are also pretty damn striking. And finally, in episode four, “Step in the Arena,” we learn how Luke gained his abilities and the significance of them.

Watching this Netflix series does not feel like a typical superhero narrative. There is no alien or robotic antagonist bent on the main hero’s destruction. Instead, Luke is tasked with stopping a corrupt clubowner, Cottonmouth, who is obsessed with gaining absolute power over the show’s setting, the streets of Harlem. Unlike the mainstream guys like Superman or Captain America, Luke, played with a simultaneously grand and grounded demeanor by Mike Colter, is far from an infallible character. This is made even clearer in this episode as we are taken back to Luke’s stint in Seagate prison, where he was set to do 90 years before he broke out. But where the show departs most drastically from any other superhero show or movie that I have seen is its all black cast that serves as a stark and refreshing contrast to Marvel’s otherwise whitewashed universe.

Nearly all of episode four takes the form of a flashback to Luke’s prison days. In it, we see Luke reluctantly make a friend with a fellow convict, Squabbles (Craig Mums Grant). After Luke initially refuses their request that he fight in an underground fight club, the corrupt prison guards, led by the sadistic Rackham, threaten to hurt or even kill Squabbles if he does not participate. Meanwhile, Luke and the kind-hearted prison therapist, Reva Connors (Parisa Fitz-Henley), are falling for each other in predictable comic book fashion. After Luke grows increasingly knowledgeable of Seagate’s widespread corruption, the guards take precautionary measures and beat Luke almost to death. It is this nearly fatal moment that gives way to Luke’s extraordinary abilities.

The origin of Luke’s powers—a science experiment gone wrong—is not a new one. In fact, it seems every superhero is either the product of a similar Frankenstein procedure or was inexplicably born with special abilities. But showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker knows this. So instead of focusing on how Luke became the superhero he is in the show’s present, he concentrates on telling the story of how Luke became the man he is. This is done by painting Luke’s realization of powers as the beginning of his “liberation” from slavery and the all-white prison guard brigade that served effectively as his slaveowners. Finally at this moment, Luke learns he can break from the shackles that society has placed on him throughout his life. Finally he learns, “No one can cage a man that truly wants to be free.”

The show is unafraid of delving into deep issues typically left untouched by superhero stories. The division between black and white is apparent and reflects our real-life superhero-less society. But the line between good and evil is not so clear. Both Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, portrayed with perturbing composure by Mahershala Ali, and Luke want the same thing—a prosperous Harlem community. Cottonmouth wishes to achieve this by working in cahoots with local government officials, funding community projects with dirty money, and any other means necessary. Luke’s intention, while somewhat ambiguous at this point, is to simply bring about peace in the crime-laden neighborhood. But both men share an undying desire for self-determination, something they were both denied for most of their lives. As black men bound to the relentless confines of Harlem, both Luke and Cottonmouth lost nearly every person they loved at the hands of violence. And with each death, another glimmer of hope met its demise.

What sets Luke Cage apart from other superhero narratives is its courage to provide commentary on racial inequality through the lens of an indestructible hero whose abilities do not even grant him an escape from prejudices. With explicit violence and unfiltered language, the show exhibits a side of Harlem with which a largely white Marvel audience may not feel comfortable. But it is exactly this audience, of which I, admittedly, am a part, who ought to be exposed to the reality of injustice in our country the most. For this reason, I consider Luke Cage’s greatest feat not to be his miraculous strength or impenetrable skin, but rather his ability to address true societal problems in a manner accessible to even the Marvel fan farthest removed from his situation.