Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama says no to pot legalization. Bummer, dude!

Way to harsh on my vibe, dude.
Party on, stoners!

Last Friday, President Obama held a televised live chat/town hall meeting in which he answered questions submitted by some 3.6 million viewers. One of the most popular submitted questions dealt with the idea of legalizing marijuana in order to allow the government to regulate and tax it, thereby increasing revenues.

Before anyone scoffs, let's have a look at some things.

First off, putting aside its legitimate medicinal value, can we agree that cannabis sativa is a relatively innocuous recreational drug?

Please, moralizers, spare me your shrill protestations to the contrary. Any argument about the "dangers" of marijuana are exposed as ridiculous when one considers the vast emotional wreckage and the ruinous financial expenditures that occur every year due to the consumption of alcohol in this country. Worried about drugs ruining people's lives? Bring back Prohibition! Ask any police officer responding to loud Friday night revelry which he would rather encounter. Drunks or stoners? There is no physical addiction associated with marijuana; there is no evidence to suggest any correlation between marijuana use and any serious health issues; nor has the oft-touted suggestion that it is a "gateway" drug ever been substantiated.

Now then...

When one considers the amount of money that state and federal goverment spends on enforcing antequated marijuana laws, including the raiding of medical marijuana clinics in California (courtesy of the insanely puritannical Attorney General John Ashcroft), the real crime would seem to be that uptight law enforcement officials feel the need to persecute stoners while other, more dastardly criminals continue to operate unhindered. (Torture authorizers, for example.)

In spite of the fact that many states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, and Oregon) have decriminalized marijuana, there were still nearly 900,000 persons arrested for cannabis violations throughout the US in 2007. That's the highest annual total ever recorded, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

So, considering all this, if, by changing our laws, we could obviate the need for law enforcement to spend time and money chasing after stoners, our public coffers would be saved a considerable amount of dough. According to Dr. Jon Gettman of Shepherd University, WV, writing in the Bulletin of Cannabis Reform, all levels of government (federal, state, and local) would save $12.9 billion per year by discontinuing enforcement of marijuana laws.

Further, government regulation and taxation could be a revenue source. Up to $32.7 billion annually.

Believe it or not, marijuana is the biggest cash crop in the entire United States, ranking ahead of wheat, soybeans, and even corn! Check this table, adapted from a table presented in Dr. Gettman's bulletin.

RankCropAverage Production
1Marijuana$35.8 billion
2Corn$23.3 billion
3Soybeans$17.6 billion
4Hay$12.2 billion
5Vegetables$11.1 billion
6Wheat$7.45 billion

So, marijuana generates nearly 50% more revenue than does corn, its nearest competitor. Nearly $36 billion worth of ganja produced in the United States per year. That's a lot of bong hits, eh? I don't know what the bong hits to shekels conversion rate is, but one has to imagine that it would be considerable.

Going back to President Obama's townhall meeting, alas, he wasn't exactly equivocal in his answer to the question. And I quote: "The answer is no, I don't think [legalization] is a good strategy to grow the economy."

Well, after all, despite the fact that most people recognize that marijuana is relatively harmless, the country is just not there yet. And given all the huge political battles that are looming on the President's horizon, I understand that he wouldn't want to give any ammunition to his adversaries who are right now desperately trying to find something with which to fight him. Besides, at the very least, the new Justice Department has announced that they will no longer conduct raids on medical marijuana clinics.

So give Obama some credit... he didn't avoid the question. That, in itself, is progress. And, really, in many places, including here in Portland, marijuana is de facto legal anyway.

Tasty nugs!
I have a friend who came home one night to find that her house was burglarized. Fearing that the burglars might still be in her home, she called the police to come investigate. An officer arrived and together they went through her residence. As they went room to room, my friend was terrified to see that she had left a bag of marijuana sitting on top of her bedroom dresser in plain sight. She couldn't hide it away with the officer right beside her, so she held her breath and hoped that he wouldn't notice it.

After a thorough inspection of the house, they found that the burglars had taken some beer out of the refrigerator and a little cash. "It was probably some teenage kids," the officer concluded. "But it's odd that they didn't take your pot."

He shrugged and told her to keep her door locked.

Friday, March 27, 2009

North Korean missile gambit

New toy for Pyongyang

World keeps gettin' crazier.

The news this morning is that two US warships, the USS McCain and the USS Chafee, are being deployed from their port station in southwestern Japan into the seas around the Korean peninsula. These two ships are destroyers with anti-missile capabilities; their deployment is in response to North Korea's recent announcement that it plans to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile sometime between April 4 and April 8. Experts speculate that the missile would have sufficient range to target points as far away as Alaska.

Rhetoric in the region is highly charged. Japan has stated that it will shoot down the missile if it crosses into Japanese air space. The North Koreans responded by saying they would consider such a move an "act of war." South Korea's Foreign Ministry threatened to go the UN Security Council if the test goes forward. Even Russia called on North Korea to cancel the test.

Secretary of State Clinton, speaking while on a state visit to Mexico, warned, "This provocative [missile test], in violation of the United Nations mandate, will not go unnoticed and there will be consequences." (Hillary is referring to a 2006 UN resolution banning missile tests.)

The Chinese, who are perhaps North Korea's only ally, have been noticeably silent.

The North Koreans claim that the missile test is for a planned communication satellite, and that they are within their rights. But of course, in light of Pyongyang's activity around a nuclear weapons program, other parties are skeptical (to say the least).

It is unclear what the North Koreans hope to gain with this test, beyond, of course, information on the viability of their rocket technology.

The forces and factions that operate within North Korea are, even in the best of times, opaque. But now, with rumors that Kim Jong-Il is in failing health, the degree of uncertainty is higher yet.

Talks with other regional powers (the so-called "Six Party Talks" instigated by Junior and Condi Rice) have faltered and this ploy could be an effort to force all parties back to the negotiating table. North Korea, its population in dire straits, needs food and fuel. And in the past, it has used belligerence to extort concessions out of its adversaries. But it would be exceedingly dangerous to assume that the North Koreans are bluffing.

A quick look at the chess board shows that, at least in military terms, North Korea is in a strong position. It's million-man army is positioned well within artillery range of Seoul and could reduce South Korea's capital to rubble in short order. The 27,000 US service personnel deployed in South Korea serve more as a tripwire than a real tactical obstacle to any serious military effort. South Korea's own military forces are considerable, strong, and well-trained, but dwarfed by their potential adversaries to the north.

Diplomatically, the North Koreans are effectively isolated. But they have been international pariahs for 50 years, so there is little leverage for other nations on that front. There is simply nothing more to take from them with respect to their international reputation. And the government has promoted a siege mentality to its people, inuring them to privation and hardship. (Anything for Dear Leader, the Glory of the People.)

Friendly, helpful North Korean service personnel

If the test goes forward, there is no telling what might happen. If Japan or the United States shoots the missile down, will North Korea make a move militarily? If there is no response to the test, will the North Koreans be encouraged to charge ahead, full blast (heh), with the nuclear weapons program?

The key, of course, is China. Only the Chinese seem to have any leverage at all with Pyongyang. I have to imagine that the phone lines between Washington and Beijing are humming away right now, with State Department officials imploring the Chinese to rein the North Koreans in. And China's own interests would seem to best be served by avoiding a crisis on their northeastern border between their client-state and their biggest trading partners. But Chinese motives are always obscure.

If we were to imagine the various nations in the international community as individuals, North Korea would be the crazy neighbor whose poorly-dressed kids are always hungry; the neighbor who threatens to kill your dog if it sets foot on his unkempt lawn. Well, lately that neighbor has been considering whether or not to buy an automatic assault rifle.

The sane folks in the neighborhood better figure out what they're going to do, if that happens.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Berlin (Pt. VI)

Note to readers: This is the sixth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part V here. For an alternate recounting of my Berlin experience, see Scotty and I: Burning down Berlin.

Brandenburg Tor
It's a long way from Stockholm to Berlin—in many ways.  Train from Stockholm to Malmö, boat from Malmö to Sassnitz, train from Sassnitz to Berlin. Twenty hours in all. Scotty (a drinker, he) and I hung over from partying with the Swedes, made our way through German customs. In fine German tradition, border guards neatly and firmly stamped our Eurail passes, the stamp falling completely within the designated lines, each character clear and legible. Jene verrückte Deutsch.

Every hotel in the city was booked for the Berlin Marathon.  Stressful, but I was getting used to it by now: the tired scramble to find accommodations in a strange city. Scotty (a drinker, he) and I pleaded with a hotel clerk to call around for us. He found us a cheap, dirty room in East Berlin, somewhere in that maze of unlit streets and alleyways where you got the feeling that, in the wrong circumstances, you could get into trouble if you weren't careful. But we were two strong young men, so no worries, eh?

Somewhere along the line...
Berlin at night. Since it was Scotty (a drinker, he) and I, we were well lit. A blur of sites:  laughing, carefree Germans, swilling beer and singing in their guttural tongue; cows (yes, cows!), iridescent blue, day-glow green, or red as sunset scaling a building; a drunken German leaping to his feet shouting, "Reisepässe! Reisepässe!" A thousand faces and voices from a thousand different countries, smiling, laughing. We tottered on the  knife-edge of madness, careless as truant schoolboys, flowing, riding the currents of the night with our hands in the air. "Gotta go back, Scotty," says I. Scotty's chin in his hand, cigarette between his fingers sending a thin stream of dull gray smoke trailing upward to be lost in the choking strata above our heads.  A woman, one of Scotty's people from Australia, sat next to us at the bar; a mere memory even then; faceless and formless from here to the grave. Scotty winks. "Cheers, mate. I'll see ya back there."

Back on the U-Bahn. Back to the room. Crash.


The next day started late. Breakfast downtown, there to be approached at our table by homeless gypsies begging for coins.  Berlin is not Stockholm or Oslo. There are beggars here. "Raus, raus," shouted the headwaiter, shooing them on.

Daytime Germans are very different from those of the night.  During the day, they are all business, in that uniquely Prussian way: stingy with their smiles, quick and purposeful in their step. These are a deliberate people, with a sense of their own greatness. Some might call it arrogance.

Checkpoint Charlie
Scotty (a drinker, he) and I went to the Checkpoint Charlie museum to hear tales of the sorry days when Berlin was divided like a big pie between conquerors: French, British, American, Russian.

We visited the impressive, newly reconstructed Reichstag. The Reichstag, symbol of a recently united Germany, rose from the rubble that was Berlin in 1945; up from out of the debris and wreckage left behind by Hitler and his minions as they fled this mortal plane, the Red Army soldiers hot on their heels. Five thousand Russians died in the advance from the Spree River to the Reichstag.  The scars from the war were still there:  bullet-pocked colonnades.

From the roof of the new government building we looked out on a forest of construction cranes, midwives of modern Berlin, the economic epicenter of the infant European Union.

Fragment of a wall between East and West
We saw the ruins of the SS dungeons and other reminders of the grim past, of the dangers that loom when a people in crisis unite and lend their strength and discipline to the cause of fanatics and demagogues.

A gray past... a brighter future?
These people do not flinch from history. They confront it. Daylight reveals everything in Berlin, exposes the consequences of that people's great folly all those years ago. Small wonder that nighttime brings the frantic, insane revelry, while battle scars are obscured. Temporarily put them aside, yes. But do not forget. No, never forget.

Scotty (a drinker, he) and I went to Brandenburg Tor that night, to drink and party. There was a Japanese glam rock group playing Beatles' cover tunes. Party on, you crazy Prussians. Du verrückte Deutsch.

Tomorrow, we leave for Prague!

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Obama pitches his plan

President Obama fired the opening salvo of the looming budget battle yesterday at a nationally televised press conference. There are a couple stark points to be made, right off the bat:
  1. In direct contrast to the "government is the problem" mantra that has been repeated ad nauseum by movement conservatives ever since their prune-headed Saint Ronald said it nearly 30 years ago, President Obama boldly asserted in his opening remarks that "...the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life."
  2. Not once did Obama mention "terrorism," "terror," nor, indeed, the meaningless and hyperbolic "Global War on Terror" that the previous administration used as a bludgeon to browbeat the American public into going along with its constitutional abuses.
Taken together, these two points make it obvious that President Obama is putting an end to the conservative political zeitgeist that has brought this country to the brink of financial ruin, destroyed our international reputation, and may yet lead to massive social upheaval. If anyone was wondering, the Reagan Revolution is over. Thank God!

Another possibility that is becoming ever more likely, is that this budget battle is going to be fought entirely within the Democratic party. The Republicans, having already shown their hand with excessive use of the filibuster, and by forcing their House caucus to hold the line down to the last and least in the vote on the stimulus earlier this year, can now be ignored by the administration. With poetic irony, the Republican "solidarity" serves only to empower the various factions of the Democrats by affording them more leverage in their negotiations with the White House.

The president's budget is breath-taking in its ambition. And it seems that the president is bypassing the usual communication channels and taking his message directly to the American people with his appearances on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, 60 Minutes, and even ESPN. This all occurred before last night's prime time press conference. His approval rating stands at ~61% and this is coming off the worst week of his presidency thus far, with the revelations about the AIG executive bonuses.

This seems to indicate that President Obama recognizes the need to strike while the iron is hot. He's got political capital; the Republicans are foundering; and the American public trusts him (for the time being, anyway).

So, he's going for it.

The GOP cannot offer effective opposition until they get their own house in order. Congressional Democrats are jockeying for position within their own party. That gives the president as much of a free hand as he is ever likely to get.

People can argue about whether or not his plans to rescue the economy, withdraw from Iraq, salvage the situation in Afghanistan, implement universal health care, begin a process for transitioning the nation to alternative energies, rebuild the infrastructure, and restructure and improve our education system will work. But we're in crisis and we either go with his plan or we do nothing and hope for the best.

I'll tell you... I wouldn't want that job.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Big Dick ain't so scary anymore

Rage on, beast! Rage on!

Of all the unlikely genealogical matches one might imagine, could there be any more strange than that which came to light with the discovery that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are actually cousins? Well, strange as it seems, it is true, according to an article in September 2008 in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Be that as it may, Cousin Dick is not letting any family sentiments get in the way of him spewing forth his hateful bile, delivered in his gravelly monotone, raging that cher cousin is all wrong about where he wants to take the country.

Big Dick, in his first television interview since fleeing his Washington, DC crypt, told CNN's John King that President Obama has made the United States more vulnerable. "Now he is making some choices that, in my mind, will, in fact, raise the risk to the American people of another attack," growled Dick.

President Obama has announced an end to waterboarding detainees during interrogations, required that CIA interrogators abide by rules put forth in the Army Field Manual, ordered the closure of secret intelligence interrogation sites, and ordered the (eventual) closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. That is quite a set of reversals from Big Dick's horror house vision, each of which must cause the waning life force in his dessicated cadaverous body to sputter and cough.

Further, Big Dick must have been positively nonplussed when President Obama had the temerity to actually respond.
I fundamentally disagree with Dick Cheney. Not surprisingly. You know, I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests. I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history. The facts don't bear him out. That attitude, that philosophy has done incredible damage to our image and position in the world. I mean, the fact of the matter is, after all these years, how many convictions actually came out of Guantanamo? How many terrorists have actually been brought to justice under the philosophy that is being promoted by Vice President Cheney? It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment. --President Obama, March 22nd, 2009, 60 Minutes
(Although President Obama's questions are most likely intended to be rhetorical, they have empirical answers: there have been 14 convictions of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility. Fourteen out of 245 detainees. More than half of the detainees have never been accused of committing hostile acts against the US or its allies, according to evaluations made by the Defense Department.)

This kind of insolence must surely make Big Dick apoplectic. A mere three months ago, no one would have had the stones to challenge him like this... not even Junior, who, like a sullen but defiant teenager, refused to issue a pardon for Scooter Libby, then locked himself in his office to avoid Big Dick's wrath.

But the times have changed for Big Dick. His visage just isn't daunting people like it used to, back in the day. Even the pipsqueak House Republicans have been wishing Big Dick would go back to his coffin.

“He became so unpopular while he was in the White House that it would probably be better for us politically if he wouldn’t be so public...But he has the right to speak out since he’s a private citizen," said Representative John Duncan, Junior (R-Tenn).

It must gall Big Dick terribly that he can't evoke terror from even a lowly House Republican anymore, let alone his upstart, greenhorn cousin. Well, rage on, Big Dick! Just like every other undead creature who has sold his soul to extend his power and influence, your fate is sealed: your remaining days on this material plane are to be consumed with impotent, tortuous rage.

Then you die.

Then it gets worse.

Monday, March 23, 2009

4 Great Novels

As much as I've resisted having to resort to these kinds of "Top 10 Best..." lists as a means of meeting my self-imposed requirement of keeping things moving on this blog, today I'm posting about 4 novels that have profoundly affected me in some way.

I can't say these are my 4 favorite novels; I couldn't possibly winnow my list down to a mere four, but these are definitely right in the thick of it. I recommend them all, for different reasons. Here they are, in no particular order:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Perhaps overshadowed by Tolstoy's other epic masterpiece, Anna Karenina, this novel is still held in reverence by all serious students of literature. The word "novel" seems insufficient to describe this work, when one considers its vastness, and the multitude of themes it puts forth. EM Forster called the book "life itself," and it is easy to see why. Tolstoy develops literally hundreds of characters across the entire spectrum of 19th century Russia, from Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander, to prominent members of the idle, pretentious Russian aristocracy, to the earthy and superstitious peasantry. The novel's two principle characters are Pierre Bezuhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, fast friends with two contending world views. Bezuhov, the good-natured and innocent idealist, believes in the innate goodness of humanity, even as he is exposed to the savagery of war. Bolkonsky, on the other hand, is nihilistic and dour, despite a seemingly idyllic marriage and an offered life of privilege. As these two men make their ways through life in Russia in the Napoleonic era, Tolstoy plumbs the depths of timeless questions about predestination and free will.

When first I read this book, back in my senior year of college, I was profoundly affected. Tolstoy's genius made me a disciple. For years, afterward, I held that book up and said to the world "This is the truth. Tolstoy's laid it out in black and white for anyone who has the guts to read it." Well, although I have since found other authors who are, perhaps, Tolstoy's equal and I would no longer call myself a disciple, my reverence for Tolstoy hasn't abated. There is truth here, people.

Grendel, John Gardner

Gardner's novella, Grendel, is the legendary Nordic myth of Beowulf told from the perspective of the antagonist: a humanoid monster named Grendel. Gardner uses Grendel to examine all of the cherished ideals of humanity: honor, fealty, love, beauty. Poor, tormented Grendel desperately wants to believe in these things, but, having watched as humanity has gone about the business of conquering the earth and itself in the most barbaric of ways, finds that he cannot. And so he undertakes to make war upon these ideals. He torments King Hrothgar and the Danes, ridiculing them, murdering them, mocking them. By exposing the ugly realities behind the thin veneers that we humans put forth, Grendel hopes to make us better, to perhaps cause us to become that which we pretend to be.

Some have called John Gardner an acquired taste. But when I discovered him, shortly after his untimely death in 1982, I was hooked immediately. I burned through everything I could get my hands on, including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogs, Freddy's Book, Mickelson's Ghosts, and The King's Indian. In a sense, John Gardner was himself Grendel. His bold (and sometimes scathing) criticism of other major literary giants including Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and John Updike, served the same function as did Grendel's torment of the Danes. He prodded at the art of literature ruthlessly, hoping to make it better.

JR, William Gaddis

William Gaddis' second novel, JR, is a satire, both hilarious and horrifying. On a school field trip, the novel's protagonist, JR, an aspiring tween-aged entrepreneur, is exposed to the workings of the highest levels of cut-throat corporatism. While those around him, his teachers and friends, fumble through the everyday disasters of life in the Reagan era, JR, using a pay-telephone and a single share of stock, eventually cobbles together a vast financial empire. His monster creation epitomizes the worst excesses of capitalism: above-the-law exploitation of the less fortunate, amorality, worth measured in dollars. Events start to spin out of control as JR, following the examples set by captains of finance and industry, beats them at their own game, and draws the world ever closer to global war and financial ruin. Given the events of today, the novel seems prophetic.

In Gaddis' signature style, the novel is written almost entirely through dialog. JR is brilliant as satire and social commentary. Gaddis is less recognized than other satirists (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Jonathan Swift) but he's as good as any of those. I'd wager that Gaddis will some day be recognized as one of our time's great authors. Unfortunately, it will be posthumous, since he passed away in 1998.

100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez's ground-breaking work is often cited as exemplary of the magical realism literary movement, presenting the magical as mundane while at the same time depicting events associated with the world we know as supernatural or mystical. In the lost backwoods of a fictional South American village, Macondo, the Buendía family wanders through a world where time is ambiguous, where horror and beauty are one and the same. Themes of incest, insanity, and predestination run through this captivating work that has spawned an entire genre of modern literature.

Márquez is widely recognized as one of our time's greatest writers. It is a fair bet to imagine that in some future, his name will be placed alongside those of Tolstoy, Melville, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. The book spoke to me in so many ways, none of which can I readily articulate. Nonetheless, Márquez's wisdom and humanity are so deep that I must imagine any reader will find something in this book that will resonate.

Well, there they are, folks. Like I said, this is not a complete list of my favorite novels. But long about October or November, when the Portland rains set in again, you might consider curling up with one of these great books for those long, wet winter nights.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Whatever happened to my grandparents' GOP?

Governor Tom McCall
My grandparents, Bob and Gertrude Metzger, were lifelong Republicans. One of my earliest memories is of my mom and dad engaging Grandpa in a political discussion. It was 1968 and my parents were supporting Hubert Humphrey for president, but my grandparents were voting for Richard Nixon. I was too young to understand the arguments that were being put forth on each side, but I remember Dad making his case and Grandpa replying "If Nixon wins, it'll be different. If Nixon wins, it'll be different."

Of course, by 1974, Grandma and Grandpa both regretted their votes for Nixon and regarded him as a dishonest and corrupt man. When I was around 16 years old, I read Nixon's book, Six Crises, and I remember asking Grandma about something in it. I don't remember my question, but I remember how Grandma answered: "I think everything that man [Nixon] says is lies." They never forgave him.

And, even though I don't think either of them voted for another Republican in the last 10 years of their respective lives, they remained Republicans to the end of their days.

But it was a different party, back then. One of Oregon's most revered governors was a Republican named Tom McCall. Governor McCall served two terms, occupying the governor's mansion from 1967 to 1975. He was one of our most progressive governors, as well. He helped enact Oregon's ground-breaking Bottle Bill, pushed for and attained public ownership of the beaches along our incomparable Oregon coast, and oversaw the decriminalization of marijuana in the state.

And Governor McCall was hardly an aberration within the Republican party. Before the Reagan era gave birth to the modern "conservative" (read: authoritarian) movement, the party had plenty of moderates. Need examples? How about President Eisenhower? Or President Ford? Does anyone honestly think either of these men, with his progressive policies, would win a single primary were he to attempt to get the nomination in today's Republican party? (Eisenhower enlarged Social Security; Ford signed the Helsinki Accords to initiate détente with the Soviet Union.)

In today's GOP, Tom McCall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Gerald Ford would be booed off the stage. Recall how John McCain, a far more conservative politician than any of these men, was roundly booed at some reactionary political conference because his stand on immigration didn't meet with the accepted party line.

And while I have greatly enjoyed watching the Republicans being beaten and humiliated at the national polls, I recognize that it is ultimately destructive. It's like scratching a poison oak rash. It feels so good at the time, but it only prolongs the problem.

This country needs a strong two-party system. (Arguably a parliamentary system, with multiple parties would be even better!) But with the Republican party defining itself in such restrictive terms, to the point that even their own past leaders would no longer be welcome in their ranks, they isolate and alienate themselves.

Today's GOP
Well, if the trend continues, eventually the GOP will die. The Democratic party will then fracture into its component factions and form new parties. Nothing wrong with any of that. It's happened before with the Whigs and the Know-Nothings and the Bull Moose party.

But I wonder: is the Republican party of my grandparents gone forever?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Senator Bayh wants to be a player, too!

Evan Bayh: Sure, he's a schmuck. But at least he knows it.

Will Rogers, the political satirist, once quipped: " I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat." Well, this week, we were once again reminded of the wisdom of that remark.

On Wednesday, March 18, Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) announced that he had formed a coalition of "moderate" Democrats in the Senate which he named the "Moderate Dems Working Group." This group of senators is 14 Democrats plus icky Joe Lieberman (I-CT). The list of constituent members of this group is a veritable Who's Who* of Democrats who were always among the very first to bow to the Karl Rove lash back in the bad ol' days of Junior Bush, plus some incoming freshmen.

Senator Bayh's motivation, hidden, of course, behind expressions of a desire to promote "fiscally sustainable policies" is to get as much leverage as possible out of the Democratic majority in the Senate.

Here's how it works: For President Obama to get anything at all passed, he will need 60 votes. The Republicans have already demonstrated that, robbed of everything else, they will readily wield the once-obscure filibuster to block the President's agenda, if they can. That means, in addition to finding a Republican crossover vote, Obama will need to hold together all 58 (or 59, if Al Franken finally gets seated) Democrats/Independents in order to invoke cloture and end debate.

Unless factions are organized, the administration and the Democratic leadership in the Senate (Senator Harry Reid, Senator Dick Durbin, et alia) can work on senators independently to get their 60 votes. They can approach each senator independently and apply pressure in the time-honored manner: making promises, cutting deals, whatever.

By organizing his so-called "Moderate Dems Working Group," Senator Bayh establishes himself as a leader of a faction within the Senate. Now, Harry Reid or Rahm Emanuel will have to come to Bayh, as the spokesman of this faction, to make their deals.

There are a couple things here to consider.
  • Firstly, this is good news in the sense that it further isolates the Republicans. Now, any incentive the administration had to deal with the GOP as a voting block is lessened. Instead of trying to win over a block of GOP votes, the administration can continue to pick off those one to three GOP senators it needs to get the agenda passed.

  • Secondly, Bayh is gambling. If he can hold his group together and force alterations to the President's or the Democratic Leadership's agenda, he will have raised his influence in the Senate. If, however, his group lacks discipline and does not vote as a solid block, he comes out looking like a jack-ass.

  • Lastly, President Obama has put forth an ambitious agenda. He's going to need every single one of the Democrats to get it passed. In a sense, Bayh has made the President's job a little easier. Dealing with a bloc of 15 senators (a bloc of 15 senators, mind you, that will always want to appear to be cooperative --at least, in public) will be much easier than trying to get 15 individuals on board. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Rahm Emanuel is, even now, working on Bayh, tempting him with some deal to make Emanuel's job a little easier. Bayh could, in effect, become another Democratic whip.
Hardball politics, people.

Well, it's the Senate, after all. You better be able to stand in there even when the pitch comes chin-high and inside.

Some liberal bloggers are positively sputtering with rage over what they perceive as a lack of solidarity within the Democratic caucus. But I don't see it that way. To me, Bayh's move reveals a new reality in the Senate. And that is this: it belongs to the Democratic Party now. The Republicans are as close to irrelevant as is possible.

Bayh's move shows a confidence, not only in the Democrats current grip on the Senate, but in their prospects of holding on to it in the future.

Politics in the US Senate is a fascinating game of cut-throat. I'll enjoy watching it all play out.

Just like the old days...

* Besides Evan Bayh and Joe Lieberman, the other senators in the group are:

Tom Carper - Delaware
Blanche Lincoln - Arkansas
Mark Udall and Michael Bennet - Colorado
Mark Begich - Alaska
Kay Hagan - North Carolina
Herb Kohl - Wisconsin
Mary Landrieu - Louisiana
Claire McCaskill - Missouri
Ben Nelson - Nebraska
Bill Nelson - Florida
Jeanne Shaheen - New Hampshire
Mark Warner - Virginia

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stockholm - Gävle - Stockholm (Pt. V)

Note to readers: This is the fifth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part IV here.

Stockholm, the city built on the archipelago that rises out of the shallow westward-pointing finger of the Baltic Sea. Bustling, progressive Stockholm with all those clear-skinned, strong-boned Swedes, just bursting with health.  Even the drunks and the smokers. Even the 70-some year-old homosexual who made a crude pass at me while I was sitting on a bench outside the train station waiting for Nelson to purchase his ticket so he could go on to Helsinki.

As I was watching all the Swedes go in and out of the station this leering old gentlemen approached me. He must have known I was American. He asked in perfect English, "Have you a light?”

"Certainly," said I, accommodating him. No Ugly American syndrome from me. Overcome redneck stigma with friendliness and generosity.

He bent to the flame, drew. A cherry appeared on the end of his cigarette. He looked up at me from under his snow white eyebrows. "I'm gay, you know," he said, leering.

"How nice for you," I said. "Not me."

"But you don't mind if I talk this way?"

I shrugged. He took that for encouragement.

"Sometimes," he said, "I like a nice hard--"

"I told you I'm not gay," said I.

Nelson came out just then, and we set off to find a hostel. The old man stared after us as we climbed the stairs to the commuter train.

The hostel was a boat moored in the harbor. The main deck was a dining room with a bar and lots of young people getting drunk and laughing. The narrow companionway led below decks to a cramped cabin that Nelson (youthful idealist) and I shared.  Drop off the packs. Let's go see Stockholm.

Immaculate Stockholm
What a city!  More like a movie set. Clean, chic, colorful. No litter, no beggars. A maze of pedestrian walkways wound between parks and malls. It was September, and the weather was warm even though it was cloudy.  An intermittent drizzle made us glad we had our jackets. I'm from Portland, Nelson; I don't even notice it.
In the harbor
Stockholm is perhaps not New York. Neither is she Paris, nor London. But she is still cosmopolitan, still hip, stylish, mod. Everyone speaks English, perfectly. Everyone behaves within the confines of acceptable, socially responsible behavior. No litter, no beggars, no poverty. Socialist Utopia.

Au revoir, Nelson
But only a single night in Stockholm for me. I had arranged to travel north, to Gävle on the morrow to meet an old friend. So, at long last, it was time for Nelson (youthful idealist) and I to part ways.  We traveled together for 8 days . . . all the way from Arnhem to Stockholm. By now we were fast friends. Off to Helsinki for him, and thence to the Baltic states; going back to see the old country. That was where his people came from, even though they lived in Brazil now. Lithuanian blood flowed in his veins.

Au revoir, Nelson (youthful idealist).  Keep fighting the good fight, my friend. We may meet again.  If not, we both know that we've made a friend for life.

In the morning, I caught the train to Gävle.

Patrik Manlig
Patrik Manlig (good-hearted Swede) recognized me as soon as I got off the train. We'd never actually met before. We were email friends who shared a passion for the WWII board game, Advanced Squad Leader. "There aren't too many people who come here with a guitar and a traveler's backpack," he explained. "Come, I'll show you around."

Gävle is more of a town than a city. Also clean and safe. However Patrik and his girlfriend, Ingela, lived in the bad part of town:  bad by Swedish standards. "What makes it bad, Patrik?" I ask. Says he, "There was a murder here last year."

I smiled, wryly.  I'd lost track of the number of murders there had been in Portland that year. God love those Swedes. Upset about a single murder. Socialist Utopia.

Gävle waterfront
We walked around Gävle. He showed me the sights, told me the stories. The Russians had come here once, during the Great Northern War that was fought from 1718 to 1721. They ransacked the place. But that was a long time ago. The Swedes gave up on their imperial ambitions. Life is too short.

Now, if you're a Swede and you have the grades, you go to college courtesy of the state. Health care is provided for everyone. "We would be ashamed if we didn't take care of our people," said Patrik.  Socialist Utopia.
Ingela and Patrik
Nice place, Gävle. Real insights into Swedish life. Patrik and Ingela, tucked away in their idyllic corner of the world. Such a pleasure and honor to meet you both, to accept your hospitality. Tack, Patrik, you good-hearted Swede. Tack, Ingela.
Hej då. Back to Stockholm for me.


Back to the hostel on the boat in the harbor. Good scene.

By now, I was fully into the travel groove:  used to living out of a backpack; used to catching trains and buses even in places where I didn't know the language; used to finding ways to communicate and learning the international trans-language terminology. I took a moment that morning to relax on the pier next to the hostel. The sun was shining.  The little reflected diamonds twinkled off the water, stabbing at my eyes. The wind blew my hair away from my face. I've done it. I've scaled the mountain of doubt. I am an international traveler.
Stockhom harbor, again
Then it was time to go see the Vasa museum; time to go see King Gustav Vasa's super weapon in his fight against the Poles during the Thirty Years War.  That warship, the Vasa, was going to win it all for him, for Gustav. 

Well, King Gustav, maybe you were a little too terrifying. The shipwrights built your warship, all right. They built a monstrosity with two gun decks and 72 twenty-four pound cannons.  Nothing like her had ever split the waves. But, they knew she was top-heavy. They tested it by running 30 men back and forth across the top-deck to simulate the roll of the waves before they launched her. They knew, but they were afraid to tell you, King Gustav. You were an impatient man, after all.

So, on August 10, 1628, she cast off to go out and fight the Poles. But she never made it out of the harbor. Down she went, with some 50 souls. Her masts were so tall that, even with her hull resting on the harbor floor, they stood above the waterline, marking the place where Gustav's naval ambitions came to naught. Too bad, Gustav. But Sweden wasn't really meant for empire.  No need to get tangled up in all those messy European politics, eh?

Three hundred years later Anders Franzén found her there. Still sound structurally, because the water is too cold for shipworms to survive and eat her planks. He raised her up and brought her to shore and made today's museum. So maybe she's not the legacy you would have written for yourself, Gustav, but she sure is something.

Some people (Catholic propagandists, no doubt) say Gustav's grandfather, the original Gustav, had cut a deal with the Devil himself; and that was how he kicked the Danes out of Sweden. That was how he and his kinsman, tall, silent Lärs-Goren, and his sometime ally, treacherous Bishop Brask, had convinced the miners in the north to rebel, to rally behind him and seize control and found the kingdom of Sweden. But that was all in the past. Let bygones be bygones.

Sun sets on Stockholm harbor
From the Vasa museum to Skansen.  Skansen is the open-air museum and zoo that depicts life in Sweden throughout the ages with demonstrations of traditional crafts:  shoemakers, glass blowers and tanners.

Annie Lennox was playing that night, but I didn't go. Too tired. There was an anti-Nazi rally scheduled in town. Some Swedish hicks out in the countryside were coming to the city to preach their Fascist gospel and the people in Stockholm planned to show up to shout them down. It got ugly (at least, by Swedish standards). The police used tear gas. I slept right through the whole thing.

Somewhere along the line I met Scotty (a drinker, he) from Australia. Scotty was on his walkabout through Europe before going back to Australia to get married and become a chef, fully trained in l'ecole du cuisine francais. He was on his way to Berlin, and so was I. Let's go together, then, eh?

Katrina and I... forever unrequited.
The train to Berlin left at midnight. "Let's hit the pub first," says Scotty (a drinker, he). "Why not?" says I. It was there that I learned about Swedish women, about how they will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they like you.  That's where Katrina gave me the eye. Flattering, yes. I gave her a big kiss on the neck. But, alas, alas, the train is leaving for Berlin my dear. The road is calling and I must away. I'm an international traveler, after all.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Seth Cariaga is twelve!

Today is the birthday of my youngest brother, Seth. He's 12 years old today.

Seth was born in Klamath Falls, Oregon and lived in the house that my dad built on the shores of Klamath Lake. Seth inherited much of Dad's charisma and charm; Seth's smile and overall good nature make it nearly impossible to deny him anything. Heaven help the girls at school!

Seth is an avid gamer and an excellent snow-boarder with natural athletic talent. He's also active in the Boy Scouts and loves to camp. At the age of 11, he became a published author, penning "My Super Terrible Bad Day," dedicated to his nephew Torin. It's a humorous story about the disasters that plague an eleven-year-old's life; the story conveys an overall optimism that is most refreshing in these dark economic times.

Seth was only 4 years old when my father passed in 2001. Last summer, when he came to Portland for a visit, I asked him if he remembered Dad. "No," he said. But when he saw how I was saddened by his answer, he tried to soften it. "Well, a little bit," he offered. He's a sweet boy, after all.

At the risk of sounding cliché, I find it bittersweet to see him growing up so fast. Already, he's outgrown the old stories I used to tell him when his childhood imagination found things like rhinoceroses living in the basement to be plausible. "Tweens" have already discarded the romantic notion of a magical world where anything is possible. Alas, alas. Nonetheless, even as Seth approaches manhood, I'll always have those memories of the little boy that used to laugh at all my childish jokes and foolish stories.

Anyway, here's wishing Seth a happy birthday with many more to come. The entire Cariaga clan feels blessed to have him. He's a good boy.

Monday, March 16, 2009

La guerra en la frontera

Soldados en una lucha mortal

Guerra. No hay otra palabra para describir la condición que exista en la frontera entre EEUU y Mexico.

En el año pasado, ha habido más de 6000 muertes violentas en Mexico mientras cárteles de drogas luchan para dominio. ¡Seis miles! Es más que el suma de muertes de combate de EEUU en 6 años en Iraq. Y el salvajismo es horrible. Decapitaciónes, tormentos, secuestros. Inocentes agarrados entre facciones opuestas.

El gobierno de Mexico, dirigido por Presidente Felipe Calderon, envió algunos 45000 soldados a través de la tierra para combatir los criminales. Hay rumores, negados por Calderon, que el gobierno no puede afirmar control sobre areas grandes de la país.

La administración de Obama esta considerando si o no enviar a soldades de la Guardia Nacional a proteger la frontera en caso la violencia esparca al norte... una militarización de la frontera.

Una razón primaria para la poder de los cárteles es la cantidad de dinero implicado. Las estimaciones varían, pero el comercio de drogas sea tanto como de $50 miles de millones cada año. Verdaderamente, Forbes Revista valora Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman como uno de los hombres más ricos de mundo.

La situación es ahora aparente. Mientras xenófobos chillaban de indocumentados que vienen a EEUU para cosechar lechuga y cebollas, el dinero pasaba al sur. Cuando hay tanto dinero implicado, no hay una esperanza a parar el flujo.

Hasta que los ciudadanos de EEUU paren usar la cocaína y la heroína, o quizás, hasta que los leyes cambian en alguna manera, la guerra continuará.

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

By all means, Objectivists, go Galt!

Oh, please... oh,!
Who is John Galt?

Anyone familiar with Ayn Rand's most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, which outlined in all its appalling detail, the pseudo-philosophy known as "Objectivism," will know the meaning of that query.

Here's how Wikipedia summarizes the book:
The theme of Atlas Shrugged is the role of the mind in man's life and, consequently, presentation of a new morality: the morality of rational self-interest.

The main crux of the book surrounds the decision of the "men of the mind" to go on strike, refusing to contribute their inventions, art, business leadership, scientific research, or new ideas of any kind to the rest of the world. Each man of ability eventually reasons (or is convinced) that society hampers him with unnecessary, burdensome regulations and undervalues his contributions to the world, confiscating the profits and sullying the reputations he has rightfully earned. The peaceful cohesiveness of the world begins to disintegrate as each of these men of ability slowly disappears and society loses those individuals whose mental effort allows it to continue functioning.

Got that? Civilization's "men of the mind," the "Atlases" who are holding up the world with their heroic genius, decide to no longer contribute to society because of the burden imposed on them by "regulation." They disappear to form their own secret nation-state, hidden in the Rocky Mountains, where they create an Objectivist paradise, free of society's "moochers" and "looters." Their leader is John Galt, an inventor who begins the movement as an act of protest when his employer, the Twentieth Century Motor Works, decides to run its factory as a collectivist endeavor.

I read this book back in the early '90s, thirty-some years after its publication. I remember being horrified at the twisted contempt that Ayn Rand seemed to express for what many people deem to be virtues: altruism, charity, even familial love.

But Rand spawned a movement, of sorts. The Objectivists, those who adhere to her philosophy, include some rather famous names: former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and Wall Street Journal reporter John Fund.

Well, some Objectivists out there are coming to the conclusion that, in order to battle the "socialist" tilt of President Obama and his policies, they must "go Galt." By which, I assume they mean that they should cease contributing to society, withdraw, retire. From there, they would presumably sit back and watch civilization, bereft of its movers and shakers, crumble. Radical right-wing harpy Michelle Malkin even wrote a column about the phenomenon.

Ayn Rand
US Representative John Campbell (R-CA) repeated this ominous warning to the Washington Independent: “Just this weekend, I had a guy come up to me in my district and tell me that he was losing his interest in the business he’d run for years because the president wanted to punish him for his success. I think people are reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’ again because they’re trying to understand what happens to people of accomplishment, and people of talent and energy, when a government turns against them. That’s what appears to be happening right now.” Gee, Congressman, was his name John Galt?

The idea that the rest of us, those of us who believe in the communal spirit of humanity, the very essence of what allowed our species to survive through its desperate hunter-gatherer stage of development, would somehow suffer as a result of all these rugged individualists suddenly removing themselves from our midst... frankly, I find it laughable.

Firstly, the thought that the most reactionary and whiny of conservative luminaries might voluntarily remove themselves from the public debate sounds like a dream come true. By all means, Objectivists, get out of the way!

But more than that, the Objectivist philosophy seems fatally flawed, does it not?

In the days before there even was a civilization, when human beings were organized in tribes and small bands, exile from the tribe was a death sentence. Back in the day, all those would-be Libertarians that set off on their own because they didn't want to share the strawberries they found by the riverbank were the ones that got eaten by the grizzly bears and the saber-toothed tigers. Human beings survived through mutual cooperation, and by protecting the weak and vulnerable in their midst.

Well, we've come a long way from our roots as scavengers on the Serengeti, to be sure. And I certainly won't argue that there aren't some stark indications that we might be approaching the End of the LineTM. But, I'll tell you this: if we are going to continue on as a species, we'll do it the way we always have... through community and mutual cooperation.

So, who, indeed, is John Galt?

Answer: Nobody we need to worry about.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flam fjord - Goteborg (Pt. IV)

Note to readers: This is the fourth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part III here.

The train from Bergen wound through ancient glacial scars to Flam fjord. Jorge (smooth, image-conscious), Nelson (youthful idealist), and I caught the boat that would take us from Voss to Flam. We cruised along the smooth as glass water that lay between vast rock walls.  They rose on either side of the water, nearly to the clouds, crowned by evergreens like sparse, spiny hairs.

Flam fjord
We stood on the deck and ate oranges and stared at the solemn, noble landscape that had been ground out by the retreating ice. We caught glimpses of seals swimming beside us. But they were wary, shy, and not playful.

Ancient Vikings came here as the ice receded. From here they built their longboats, forged their axes and set out to plunder Celts and Saxons and Britons. They say the ice will come back some day.

Solitude in Flam
At Flam, a cold cabin served as our quarters; shared with a studious Korean medical student. We hiked upriver to an ancient church and crossed the chattering water by way of a precarious swinging bridge. A long hike surrounded by sub-Arctic beauty. Picturesque, serene Flam, nestled in her fjord. Peace to you, Flam. Peace to these dormant Vikings in their cold, beautiful home.


Next day, it was back on the train. Nelson (youthful idealist) had caught the eye of a Swedish beauty in Bergen who offered to show us around her hometown in Sweden, so we were off to Goteborg. Genuine curiosity, you understand . . . not just Nelson's libidinous aspirations. (Well, he was from Brazil, yes?)

Granite Vikings
But first, a layover in Oslo.  Oslo, again. We had time to kill so we went to see Vigeland Park with its hundreds of sculptures depicting human beings being human. Each one of those sculptures modeled in clay by Gustav Vigeland, before being carved from granite or cast in bronze by his apprentices.  Gustav Vigeland spent the last 20 years of his life working for his country, capturing the essence of the human experience as seen by these evolved Vikings in this land only recently freed (geologically speaking) from the tyrannous grip of glacial ice.
Monolith in Vigeland Park
We grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant where we had to leave our packs by the door.  This made us anxious because we hadn't fully learned yet that Scandinavians don't steal from each other.  We couldn't understand that in Norway there is no needy underclass that must steal to survive. We were Americans from Brazil and the United States, yes?

Eventually, we made our way back to the train station and caught the train to Goteborg.  We taught Spanish and English words to some Norwegian children as we rode. Bye-bye, Norway. Hello, Sweden.

What to say about Goteborg? The Goteborg Book Fair was going full tilt when we got there. All the hotels were booked solid. But we won the sympathy of an accommodating hotel clerk who put three cots in the hotel bar and let us sleep there.  We dropped off our packs and headed out into the warm night to get a good look at all those beautiful Swedish women. "Be careful," the hotel clerk warned. "You're apt to meet a lot of drunken Swedes."

Well, he was right on that score. We entered their vast underground shopping mall where there were a dozen drunken Swedes with a single guitar, belting out boisterous sea chanties. Sounded like chanties to me, anyway. All good fun, those drunken Swedes.

We joined in the general revelry. At least Jorge (smooth, image-conscious) and I did. Nelson (youthful idealist) was too noble to get drunk. But he had a good time too: there were plenty of beautiful and friendly Swedish women, even though we never did find the girl he had met back in Bergen.

Next day we wandered around Goteborg nursing hangovers. Well, Jorge and I did. Nelson, burdened already by his unyielding morality, was spared the additional onus of a hangover.

No need for guilt, madam.
Goteborg: a clean, bustling city, safe, with good food and nice people. I sat on a park bench and talked with a Swedish woman who told me about Swedish guilt carried over from the bad old days when the Nazis had run over Sweden's sister nations, Denmark and Norway. Sweden mostly stayed out of the savagery and blood-letting.  Good-hearted Swedes still carry around guilt for not throwing themselves in front of the German blitzkrieg to be mauled or enslaved alongside their Scandinavian brethren. I understand the guilt, but no admonishment from me. No, those were frightening times.

The plan was to leave Goteborg that night for Stockholm. But we missed the train.  So, it was back to the hotel with us, to once more beg the favor of the kindly hotel clerk. One more night in the hotel bar.

Jorge, Nelson, et moi. One more day in Goteborg.
Next day:  another day of Goteborg, which we all felt was more than we wanted. Nice place, but the feet were itching. When you've got the urge to go, you gotta go. You know? So we were at the train station well ahead of departure time.

It was time to say goodbye to Jorge (smooth, image-conscious). He was off to Amsterdam to meet a friend from the States. I was learning by then, how traveling with a person can bring you close. Jorge was a good friend in less than a week. A handshake. A hug. Never to be seen again. Goodbye, Jorge. Fare thee well.

Nelson and I, on the train again. Stockholm, here we come.

To be continued...