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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

October 9, 2009

On Oct. 8th, the McCormick Freedom Project presented a sit down with Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The program was moderated by Elizabeth Brackett from PBS’s NewsHour. Secretary Albright’s new book Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box has just been published and she was in town making several appearances to speak about it. This particular event, however, seemed to be more about discussing and answering questions posed by the moderator and the audience than just speaking to the topic of her book.

Oct. 8, 2009 Chicago Cultural Center - Madeleine AlbrightI have seen her speak one other time at the Chicago Council for Global Affairs in 2008 when Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership was published, and found her very captivating both times, but the setting of this event was much more informal and intimate and I felt like I got a much broader view of the incredible woman that she is. We also got to see a little more of the humorous side of her.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Secretary Albright immigrated to the United States when she was only eleven. She is well beloved in her home country, but when asked by Ms. Brackett about the suggestion from the former Czech president that she should run for the presidency, Secretary Albright responded that she would never give up her US citizenship. She spoke very passionately about how her view of democracy is influenced by her childhood, and that coming to the US was the most important thing to ever happen to her. In her mind, she said, democracy and freedom are the same, but there are different kinds of democracy; we all want the right to self-determination, but our ideas of what that should be differ.

When speaking about Iraq, Ms. Brackett asked if her analysis of the war was the same now as when she wrote Memo to the President. Her response was yes, she still felt that it was one of our greatest disasters in foreign policy and that it hurt our image and it hurt democracy because democracy cannot be imposed. She mentioned the National Democratic Institute, for which she is the Chairman of the Board of Directors, and the work that they do on a couple of different occasions.

On Afghanistan she spoke more about our long history there rather than directly to the question of whether we should increase troops, but she did say that the question is not black and white, get out or stay. She does feel that if we are going to increase the troop numbers then the people are owed a discussion.

When the topic turned to her new book she told the story of how after the Gulf War there was a poem published that called her an “unparalleled serpent” and so she started wearing a snake pin. From there it evolved into wearing pins that fit the day and the mood. During peace talks she would wear a dove. Sometimes she would wear balloons if she was hopeful, which turned to turtles because the process was so slow, which turned to crabs because she was irritated at everyone. When asked about the fly pin that she was wearing that day she said that it was because she “was not a fly-by-night friend of Chicago.”

An audience member asked her what she would wear to meet President Ahmadinejad and she replied that she has a pin (though it is currently in a museum), designed by Bill Cohen’s wife, of a dove and an eagle. And of course she would also wear a green suit.

She had so much to say that I wish that I could write it all here, but let me just say that if you have a chance to hear her speak in the future – take advantage. She is a charming, poised, and accomplished woman who loves, as she apparently shared with Ms. Brackett before stepping up to the stage, to make complicated foreign policy issues make sense. And she is very good at it.

Moon Festival

October 6, 2009

Lanterns

Having spent a lot of time in Chinatown in the past I was kind of surprised to discover a festival taking place there that I had never heard of, the Moon Festival. And as I began to look into it, I found out that it is actually the second most important festival of the year in China. Again with the mystery of why I had not heard of it, but from what I gathered this festival is much more personal than the Chinese New Year celebrations.

The celebration is a harvest festival that takes place around the end of September or early October (the date is determined by the Chinese calendar not the Gregorian) and includes worship to Chang O who rose to the moon with her rabbit and is said to be seen dancing there on the day of the Moon Festival. Celebration in the home country usually includes dinner with the entire family, moon cakes, and paper lanterns lit everywhere. In a children’s book written by Ching Yeung Russell, in which she recounts her childhood memories of the Moon Festival, she describes the smells of moon cakes being baked in the stores and parading through the town with her friends after dinner carrying lit lanterns and making noise. For more information on the festival and pictures of moon cakes you can visit the Wikipedia entry.

New date pasted overHere the public celebration was held in the Chicago Chinatown Square. When I first saw the banners up the date was for Sept. 26th, though when we actually made the trip down that day (after double checking it online) we found that the festival had actually been moved to the next day (see picture of banner with date posted over). I am sure if I spoke Chinese I might have caught the change, but as I am handicapped in that manner there was no choice but to just come back later.

We did take advantage of the situation however and went to a local bakery and bought a couple of moon cakes; one with red bean and yolk and one with lotus seed. Both were beautifully decorated and very dense. I preferred the lotus seed, but overall I ended up letting my husband eat them.

We came back the next day for the festivities and arrived in time to see the Lion Dance from the train and the ‘Feast for 1000 Elders’ finish up. There was a large stage set up in the square with paper lanterns hung everywhere. At the side there was a place where you could make your own lantern and have something (which I did not understand) written in calligraphy.

Solo singer onstageAfter quickly stopping at Joy Yee’s for some bubble tea we settled down in one of the seats left open by the departing elders and watched the show. It was all in Chinese so we did not understand any of it, but we enjoyed watching the different dances, singers, and martial artists. (Pictures of the entire event are on my Flickr Photostream)

I had hoped to see the light ceremony that was listed on the program I managed to pick up, but they did not seem to be actually following the lineup as it was printed, so when they approached the Dumpling eating contest we decided to call it a night.

Unfortunately because it was a cloudy night the moon made a very weak appearance, but overall it was a beautiful event on a lovely fall evening. There were a lot of families out enjoying the festivities and it made for a very relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. Next year Moon Festival is definitely on the to-do list.

In the last hours before the IOC decision

October 2, 2009

Late last night (or early this morning in Copenhagen) President Obama addressed the IOC in the final bid to bring the Chicago 2016 Olympics here to Chicago. He spoke passionately about Chicago, opting to appeal to the committee based on our spirit not just our technical or financial merit. His words spoke directly to the heart of how I see this city.

And then I came to Chicago, and on those Chicago streets I have worked along side men and women who are black and white, latino and asian, people of every class, and nationality, and religion. I came to discover that Chicago is that most American of American cities, but one where citizens from more than 130 nations inhabit a rich tapestry of distinctive neighborhoods. Each one of those neighborhoods from Greektown to the Ukrainian Village, from Devon, to Pilsen, to Washington Park has its own unique character, its own unique history, its songs, its language, but each is also part of our city. One city. A city where I finally found a home. Chicago is a place where we strive to celebrate what makes us different just as we celebrate what we have in common.

Leading up to the final bids today I spent last evening volunteering for the International Visitors Center of Chicago at their Olympic Dreams event held at the National Hellenic Museum in Greektown. It was attended, as all their events are, by a large sampling of people from all over the world; those who are now Chicago residents and those who are visiting. They were also joined by athletes both local and Olympian, and a large group of news outlets.

Everyone was looking forward to today’s decision. Everyone was hopeful.

But despite the final outcome of the decision (and that is also why I write this before the vote) it is that spirit, that community, that is truly inspiring. Instead of pointing out the difficulties and all the errors that could be made, isn’t it the very essence of the American spirit to ask whether there is anything we can’t accomplish when we put our minds to it and work together?

Pursuit of Knowledge

September 30, 2009

I have been percolating the idea for this blog for awhile. There are plenty of people writing about international politics, plenty of people who have something to say about international food. And while I have strong opinions (and cravings) on both subjects (and I am sure I will touch on both areas in my writing) that was not how I wanted to focus my thoughts.

I recently read a book called The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo. A very thorough book which uses examples of successes and failures in the video gaming industry, venture capitalism, global health initiatives, and many other areas, in order to discuss the changing landscape of international politics and the need for revolutionary thinking as we approach new issues that just cannot be solved by the same formulas and policies that have been successful in the past. He makes the argument that we need more empathy in our decision-making, even when dealing with an issue where empathy and understanding are detestable to us. In the end, he says that “what matters is beginning to explore the idea that we can do unthinkably decent things with our lives, from starting schools to leaping into that ‘caring economy’ Unger described to investing years of our lives to understand cultures different from our own” and it is from a similar thought that my pursuit of knowledge stems.

If you are like me, then economics will keep you from jet setting to Zimbabwe to really understand the culture, but even if you are not, it is still not likely that you will be able to jump from one country to the next on an indefinite basis. But here in Chicago we have an amazing amount of resources available to us. It is possible to spend today at Chinatown’s Moon Festival and tomorrow exploring the work of Spanish comic book artists, and the day after that absorbing the words of heads of state or foreign ministers.

It is that diversity and availability that I hope to take advantage of and to share. At times what I write might just be fun, at others it might be intellectually challenging, but I hope that it will always be educational and contribute to an ever growing dialogue on our expanding and increasingly complicated world.