Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pandemic imminent


The World Health Organization (WHO) this morning raised the alert level for the swine flu (H1N1 virus) outbreak to phase 5, its second-highest level. In a phrase: "Pandemic imminent."

The outbreak appears to have originated in or near Mexico City, where there have been at least 152 deaths thus far. It is worth noting that the deaths are reported to have been nominally-healthy individuals between the ages of 25 and 50. The working theory is that when the virus infects a body, the infected person's immune system reacts strongly. So strongly that it attacks and destroys healthy lung tissue as it fights off the virus. Subsequent infection then claims the victim. This theory offers an explanation as to why those people that would seem to be least at risk (those between the ages of 25 and 50, with robust immune systems) seem to be most adversely affected.

The virus is spreading with all the rapidity one would expect in this linked-up global civilization. As of this writing, there are 92 confirmed cases in eleven states in the US. That number will undoubtedly be obsolete by the time I finish writing this post. There are also reports of cases in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and across Europe and Asia.

The spread puts to rest any quaint notions promoted by health officials of the possibility of containment. They used to throw that term around back in the day, just a few years ago, when bird flu was the scare. It seemed like a pipe dream then, and it seems even more so now. The reality is that, in today's world of supersonic jet travel and a world population that is constantly in motion, there is no such thing as containment.

We're all in this together.

So, before things get really crazy (if they do get crazy... we'll have to wait and see), before this thing causes people to start panicking or finding someone to blame or looting grocery stores, I want to take a moment and recall the short life of a 2 year-old boy from Mexico who last week went with his family to Brownsville, Texas to visit relatives.

The name of this little boy is not public knowledge. But we can assume that he had people around him who loved him. We can assume that he was, like most two-year-olds, beautiful and innocent and mostly kind. We can assume that he had the potential to greatness that is inherent in all human beings. And we can assume that when he came down with flu symptoms, his family was worried sick. When he didn't respond to treatments, they flew him to Houston.

And there he died. An unnamed 2-year-old Mexican boy. The first swine flu fatality in the United States.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Arlen Specter gives the GOP a sock on the jaw


Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter landed a big left hook on the GOP yesterday. Faced with a primary challenge from ultra-right-wing Republican Representative Pat Toomey, Arlen pulled a fast one and switched over to the Democrats.

Ka-pow!

The Democratic caucus (including two independents) in the Senate now stands at 59 members with another likely seat pending. That would be the all-but-resolved Senate seat from Minnesota that was formerly held by Norm Coleman, but which now appears to be going to Al Franken.

59 + 1 = 60

That, my friends, is a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell never looked so much like a three-day corpse fished out of the river as he did yesterday, stammering that Specter's switch is a "threat to the country."

The Republicans can whine and snivel all they want, but the fact of the matter is that they've done this to themselves. Specter didn’t “hold the line” and adhere to each and every litmus test the Republicans set. In particular, many Republicans resented Specter's vote in favor of President Obama's stimulus package. Therefore, as a form of punishment, the more rabid elements of the GOP decided to challenge him in the primary. The challenger, Pat Toomey, had run against Specter in the Republican primary in 2004 and came within a single percentage point of beating him. The Pennsylvania GOP has, since that time, become even more conservative and strident, and polls showed Toomey with a 20-point lead amongst primary voters.

Looks like it backfired.

Toomey can win the GOP primary now, but it won't do him a damn bit of good in the general election, when Specter can draw on Democrats, which have a registration advantage of 1.2 million in Pennsylvania.

The entire Republican northeastern representation in both houses of Congress now stands at a grand total of three. Some 200,000 voters in Pennsylvania have switched from Republican to Democrat since 2004. A recent poll from the Washington Post showed that a mere 21% of voters nationwide identified themselves as Republicans. The only region where the GOP continues to show strength is the former Confederacy. It is becoming a rump, regional party of the Deep South.

So, I've got a question for those Republicans who insist that the reason they lost the last two elections is because they weren't conservative enough: You want more people to leave?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rockin' and rollin' in Pakistan


Pakistan, Pakistan. All the rage is about Pakistan.

Pervez Musharraf offers to "un-retire"

It's been roughly nine months since Pakistanis showed Pervez Musharraf the door and things haven't been going so well.

The new civilian government is proving ineffective at suppressing Taliban elements in the mountains bordering Afghanistan. Indeed, the Taliban's influence is growing to the point where it is now imposing Sharia law on swaths of territory formerly controlled by the government in Islamabad. The Pakistani military is reportedly "unhappy" about the way the government has handled the situation.

Musharraf said in an interview recently that he'd be willing to return to power, if asked. Pakistanis should not discard the offer out-of-hand.

Always willing to lend a hand
Musharraf is a fascinating, inscrutable individual. You don't get to the top of the jungle gym in Pakistan unless you know how to rumble, certainly. So no one should doubt that the man is capable and formidable. He made his bones in the Pakistani military, climbing all the way to the top of that formidable organization, then went on to seize power over the entire government in a bloodless coup back in 1999. Post 911, Musharraf played Junior like a fiddle, promising support in Junior's Global War on Terror in exchange for huge infusions of US military aid. Those dollars shored up Musharraf's support with the king-maker military and, at the same time, kept the dastardly Indians at bay. He's shown considerable skill in playing the Western media. (He even made an appearance on the Daily Show.)

But the superhuman political dexterity required to stay on top of the shifting sands of Pakistani politics proved to be beyond him. Indeed, it has so far proved to be beyond anyone.

Pakistan: Oh, very young

Pakistan itself has only been a nation since 1947. Birthed from the receding British Empire, Pakistan was formed as the mostly Muslim portion of what the British referred to as "India." It was a chaotic and violent birth. Territorial disputes with India set the two nations immediately at odds. The state of Kashmir is still contested, one of the world's military hot-spots. Pakistan has fought three bloody wars with India in the last 60 years, and both countries are packing nuclear heat.

The country has never had a particularly stable government, alternating between short-lived civilian governments and military juntas throughout. But, now, with other parties taking interest in her fate, Pakistan begins to resemble a very big, tottering domino that, if she falls, could set in motion a series of events that the world has not seen since the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.

Everybody wants to play

Asia is a big place, but there are a lot of very big fish in the pond. Pakistan is at the geographic convergence of many competing hegemonies.

The deadly rivalry with India is still simmering, of course. It could erupt at any time. When I was in Delhi back in 2001, the Indian Parliament was attacked by gunmen, a shootout ensued and people were killed. Then, there was the recent attack by gunmen in Mumbai that killed at least 101 people. In both these cases, although never proven, the gunmen were suspected of having ties to Pakistan.

But there is also Iran, to the west, which is emerging as a regional power in the post-Saddam vacuum. An unintended consequence of Junior's filthy war. Iran is growing in power and influence even as Pakistan totters.

China, to the east, has always had a certain contempt for India and is therefore an interested party. If India were to calculate that instability in Pakistan provided opportunity to settle some old scores, the Chinese, already dimly alarmed at India's economic and political emergence, would undoubtedly feel compelled to weigh in.

Of course, anything that concerns the Chinese also concerns the ever-suspicious Russians. And Russia has no love for the Taliban, having not only been defeated in her Afghanistan adventure in the '80s, but also having suffered barbaric terrorist attacks from Islamic radicals.

Then, there is the good, old USA and her client state Afghanistan. An unstable Pakistan, with large swaths of territory used as home base for the Taliban would seem intolerable from their perspective. Anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is strong (another gift of Junior's imbecilic foreign policy) and so any efforts the US makes in the region have a strong possibility to backfire.

Pervez for Prez

With Pakistan right in the middle of a mind-blowingly complex situation, it would behoove all parties involved to do what they can to facilitate stability. And, historically, stability in Pakistan means the Pakistani military.

Pity the poor Pakistanis who would undoubtedly view the rights and liberties enjoyed by Westerners as unattainable under the less-than-gentle hand of military dictators. But, in the interests of peace, perhaps a strict military government, with the backing of interested parties (which are virtually everyone) could provide some stability and stem the growing tide of Islamic radicalism represented by the Taliban.

You just gotta know the right people...
Pervez Musharraf has shown his ability to play off the various factions and maintain a degree of national unity. It might be best for all of us if he were back in power.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Influenza porcina nos amenaza


Nunca se sabe de donde el próximo peligro viene.

Ahora, las noticias esta llena de informes de un estallido de la influenza porcina. En inglés, se dice "It came out of the blue."

Actualmente, con toda la atención en la crisis económica, en la guerra en Pakistan que amenaza a crecer, en los cien primero días de la administración del Presidente Obama, en los "memorándumes de tormentos," parece que no hay aire para un otro asunto en la mensa publica.

Pero, el muerte se queda el rey.

Ya, hay informes que la influenza ha esparcido de Mexico, donde ha matado a ciento tres personas, a los EEUU, e Europa, y también a Nueva Zealand. Esto podría ser la pandemia que todos nosotros temimos cuando había palabras sobre el gripe de pájaro. Pero en vez de China, el origen es Mexico.

Las noticias dice que, en la ciudad de Mexico, las escuelas estan cerrados, y la gente lleba máscaras mientras en el público. Ya, el temor crece en los EEUU. Hipócrita republicano, Rick Perry, el gobernador de Tejas, que hizo un exposición contra el estímulo federal financia, ha pedido dinero para preparar. (¿Cuán rápidamente?)

Bien, el pensamiento de un estallido masivo y mortal aterroriza, ¿no? Dice que las muertes en Mexico tuvieron entre 25 y 50 años. Personas relativamente jóvenes y sanas.

¿Quién sabe donde vamos? Espero que pueda encarar el futuro con valor. ¿Al fin, lo que está más allí?

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Vienna (Pt. IX)

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

We arrived in Vienna in the early afternoon. Marissa (angry, suspicious), Anne Marie (passive, hostile) and I. Their constant bickering and complaining was taxing. Got lunch at a restaurant when we got off the train. Our server spoke English, but only just barely. Marissa and Anne Marie recited long, elaborate specifications with their order. "Mayonnaise on the side. No pickles. Do you have fries?" When the food arrived, guess what? I ate while they grumbled. Sigh.

Vienna near the Banhopf
We rode public transportation out to the hostel where we would stay and got sorted. We were quartered in a dorm room with four or five other women. I was the only male. In a certain light, not a bad situation, but for me in this particular situation, an anxious one. I feared that my snoring would disturb my roommates and especially the temperamental sisters. But the hostel was full. There was nowhere else to sleep. Nothing for it, but to drift off and hope for the best . . .
Anne Marie (passive, hostile), Marissa (angry, suspicious), and I
I awoke in the morning to find a room full of angry, tired women who let me know, with their icy stares that I had, in fact, snored loudly throughout the night. A very unpleasant experience made all the worse by the terse, bitchy manner in which the two sisters treated with me. Uncomfortable!

***
Near the Imperial Apartments
Vienna, the little Celtic settlement that sprang up some 500 years before Christ near the river that men would later name the Danube. A frontier post for Romans in their day, later, the seat of vast empires (Holy Roman, Austro-Hungarian). The high water mark for Mongolian incursions into Europe in the 1200's, and twice for the Ottomans in 1529 and 1683. Today, a beautiful city; a cultural hub for opera and classical music.

Ringstrasse draws the circumference of the city's marble-sculpted heart. Every corner has its powdered wig Mozart passing out fliers for classical music concerts performed by the flood of musicians carried in on the hopes of attaining the Holy Grail: a seat with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

War memorial within Ringstrasse
We went to the Imperial Apartments, the lavish, palatial dwelling where the Hapsburgs plotted and planned and negotiated the Byzantine maze of European politics to the soothing sounds of chamber music performed by virtuosos. We wandered around the inner city and were astonished by dramatic sculptures, seemingly everywhere.
Dramatic Viennese sculpture
The Red Army brought much of the Wehrmacht to bay here in the waning days of the war. Austrians paid the price for foolishly signing on to Hitler's Anschluss. A terrible price. Open warfare in the streets. But the scars faded. Not like Big Brother Berlin, who is forever marred by Nazi transgressions.

That night, the sisters and I attended one of the myriad classical music concerts. The orchestra performed waltzes by Strauss, symphonies by Mozart. Awe-inspiring.

Music in Vienna
After the show, returned to the hostel. Unable to face the hostility, I begged the innkeeper to find me another room. "You're in luck," said he. "There is one dorm room that is empty so far. You may sleep there. But if anyone shows up, they will have to share your room."

I could ask for no more.

The room was quiet and dark and blissfully empty. But, just as my mind began to descend into dreamy confusion, I half-woke to hear others quietly entering, climbing into the beds around me, trying not to wake me. Nothing for it. Too tired to care. Snoring or no, I would sleep . . .
***
I awoke the next morning to smiling faces. My nocturnal compatriots were Chinese. When they saw I had awoken they smiled and waved. No hostility. Tolerance. I was gratified and indebted to them. Then, I noticed them signing one another . . . stone deaf . . . deaf as posts.  Ah, well. There are those who say it is folly to look a gift horse in the mouth . . ..

The bickering sisters, Marissa and Anne Marie, were off that morning to catch the train back to Prague and thence home to the USA. Farewell, sisters! Thanks for the company. But no, there is no need for us to exchange email addresses. I wish I could say it was good while it lasted, but . . .. Farewell!

Austrian Imperial War Museum
For me, a trip to the Austrian Imperial War Museum, there to see the WWII exhibit before meeting Fritz Tichy (polished, severe), an old email friend who lives in Vienna, for beer and noshes. Fritz and I talked politics, history, and philosophy. He spoke condescendingly of rednecks in America. I could not disagree. I was coming to realize that I identified more with cosmopolitan Europeans than with rural Americans. World citizen? Disillusioned expatriate? Lost Generation wanna-be? Not for me to answer. Not yet. But maybe somewhere on the road between here and home. Maybe.
Fritz Tichy
Fritz drove me to the train station. Back to Germany. This time to Munich. Baaden-München, I come.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lawyer up, Condi!

Ulp!
Bad news for Bushies!

A report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday states that Junior's confidante Condi Rice, approved the use of the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" that are the subject of so much furor. The report says that Condi, in her role as National Security Adviser, gave approval in 2002 to CIA Director George Tenet to use waterboarding and other "harsh" interrogation techniques.

This revelation appears to be in conflict with Condi's written testimony to the Committee in the fall of last year. She 'fessed up to attending some meetings of which she claimed she could not recall the details. But it is now established that, not only did she attend these meetings, she led them. Further, she did not mention that she had a direct role in approving the techniques.

They call that perjury.

And, remember that Tuesday, a legal adviser that worked for Condi, Philip Zelikow, stated that the administration not only ignored a memo he wrote dissenting from the legal opinions expressed in the "torture memos" authored by administration advisers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, it attempted to have it destroyed.

Listen to the rhetoric that is being thrown around on the cable news networks. Republicans like Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham are saying that there should be no prosecutions, that we need to find out what happened and move on. Meanwhile, Democrats like Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Patrick Leahy are not saying that there should be prosecutions. They're saying "Let's find out the facts. Let's see where it leads." If I'm reading this right, that means that they're on to something.

I have to imagine that Big Dick is starting to sweat. To his way of thinking, having Condi be the one in the cross hairs is a nightmare. She'll roll. She's not a soldier like Scooter Libby, willing to take one for the team. Condi was always more in to the glamor and the camera flashes. When things start getting really tough...

At this point, Attorney General Holder is almost compelled to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate this matter. A good prosecutor will know where to find the weak link in the chain. If it were me, Condi would be one of my first choices.

I have no doubt that some big names are making calls all over Washington to find Condi some legal counsel. They'll foist her off on some high-powered DC consiglierie like Bob Bennett who is an expert at making black seem white.

Still, Big Dick has got to be worried. He's never liked Condi and she never much liked him either. Besides, she ain't got no stones.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture memos: We've got us a ballgame!

Smoking gun memos
Wow! I'm taken aback at the furor that is erupting over potential investigations into the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation techniques." New developments, new data points are coming rapid fire from every corner of Washington: Congress, the Obama administration, the Justice Department, former Bush administration officials.

The frenzy of activity, and the tone of the statements all indicate that something Very Big TM is afoot.

A quick overview of some of the developments:
  • As I wrote yesterday, a report published in Newsweek stated that Attorney General Holder is considering appointing a special prosecutor to investigate whether crimes were committed in the development of the Bush administration's so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."
  • President Obama said yesterday that, while he is focused on "looking forward," any decision concerning investigations into the matter will fall under the authority of Holder and the Justice Department.
  • On the Rachel Maddow Show, last night, Philip Zelikow, a lawyer for the State Department in the Bush administration, stated that, in response to the legal opinions rendered by White House advisers John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the "torture memos," Zelikow wrote an opinion stating that he found the memos to be legally faulty. He circulated his differing opinion in the White House with the knowledge that it might be ignored. But the Bush White House not only ignored his memo, according to Zelikow, the administration attempted to find and destroy all copies! That's a cover-up, people.
  • Senators Patrick Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Russ Feingold, Carl Levin, and Diane Feinstein have all been suggesting that investigations and prosecutions are on the way. Congress can (and should) investigate the matter independent of the Justice Department. And the Republicans are so weakened that they can do little to stop it.
  • Former members of the Bush administration are all over the airwaves. And they sound frantic. Karl Rove, Ari Fleischer, and Big Dick, himself, have all been on the cable news shows dissembling, obfuscating, stuttering and stammering. But the defenses they put forth are inconsistent.
  • Recall that it is now known that the CIA destroyed 92 videotapes of these "harsh" interrogations, acting against the express orders of then-CIA Director Porter Goss.
  • And, now, the money quote:
    "There was constant pressure on the intelligence agencies and the interrogators to do whatever it took to get that information out of the detainees, especially the few high-value ones we had, and when people kept coming up empty, they were told by Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people to push harder.

    "Cheney's and Rumsfeld's people were told repeatedly, by CIA...and by others, that there wasn't any reliable intelligence that pointed to operational ties between bin Laden and Saddam, and that no such ties were likely because the two were fundamentally enemies, not allies"...
    --Major Charles Burney, in response to questions from Army investigators in 2006
    Get that? The people who pushed for the illegal Iraq invasion, were so determined to establish a link between al Qaeda and Iraq that they authorized torture to get detainees to confess it. Just as the Spanish Inquisitors tortured people to get them to admit they were in league with the Devil.
Things are happening so fast right now that there is simply no telling what is going to happen. The political implications are enormous. If you listen very closely, you'll hear that already, Republicans in congress are starting to distance themselves from the Bush administration on this issue.

In my opinion, President Obama is playing it very shrewdly by keeping as far away from it as possible. There's no need for the president to get further involved. The ball has started rolling now and it's going to go where it goes.

Let's pause for a minute, here, and remember why this is such a big deal. Assume, for a moment, that the detainees who were subjected to these techniques were, in fact, terrorists who had knowledge of future attacks. Further, for the time being, let's put aside the opinions of professional military and law enforcement interrogators and Senator John McCain which hold that torture is ineffective and produces unreliable information. Working from these two, very shaky assumptions, can we justify torture as a legal and acceptable means of protecting ourselves?

In a particularly telling exchange on Anderson Cooper's 360, Paul Begala pointed out to Ari Fleischer that in the aftermath of WWII, the United States tried, convicted, and put to death officers of the Imperial Japanese Army for water-boarding American prisoners. Ari Fleischer, for once in his life, had no response. Watch it. It's amazing.

video

Junior said repeatedly that "We do not torture." Let's find out if he was telling the truth.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fingers crossed: Holder weighing special prosecutor

Sic 'em!
My, my, my! The day when the beast is brought to bay may actually come!

Late last week, the Obama administration released certain Bush Justice Department memos that relate, in all their appalling detail, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" that CIA operatives could use to obtain information from terrorist suspects. In one word: torture.

The release of the memos, which apparently was the result of an impassioned debate within the White House, has caused a ruckus all over Washington. For the millions of Americans who have all along suspected that the Bush administration consisted of warped and amoral creatures lusting for power, these memos provide yet more legal and legitimate grounds for investigation and prosecution.

But only Sunday, two days ago, Rahm Emanuel threw cold water on the idea of prosecutions when he appeared on This Week with George Stephanopoulous. And President Obama has been saying, consistently, that his inclination is to "look forward."

Now, Newsweek reports that Attorney General Eric Holder might have ideas of his own. Among the many interesting tidbits in reporters Michael Isikoff's and Evan Thomas' latest contribution, "The Lawyer and the Caterpillar," is this:
Senior Justice Department lawyers and other advisers, who declined to be identified discussing a sensitive subject, say Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has discussed naming a senior prosecutor or outside counsel to review whether CIA interrogators exceeded legal boundaries--and whether Bush administration officials broke the law by giving the CIA permission to torture in the first place. --Newsweek, April 18, 2009
This is big.

Remember when Eric Holder was first nominated for the Attorney General post? Some Republican senators expressed concern about Holder's ability to be an independent Attorney General, and not just a "yes-man" for the Obama administration. Well, let it be known that Republican senators were given fair warning to be careful what they wished for.

It seems that Holder is, in fact, exercizing his independence in a big way. Unlike his lapdog predecessor, Michael Mukasey, who made a public statement recently, condemning the release of the torture memos, Holder doesn't seem to be making his decisions according to what he thinks the president wants. (Someone should remind Mukasey that he's no longer working for the Bush administration. He doesn't have to suck up to the boss anymore.) The important point to remember, which is mentioned in the Newsweek article, is that the president does not have the power to determine whether or not there is an investigation. The Attorney General can appoint a special prosecutor on his own.

Members of the former Bush administration are clearly rattled. Big Dick let Sean Hannity pitch him some softballs the other day so that he could once again perform his song-and-dance to try and paint any forthcoming prosecutions as witch hunts. Congress has started talking about impeaching a Bush appointee to the federal bench, Jay Bybee, who authored the memos. Senator Patrick Leahy is still pontificating about the need for a Truth Commission.

And, one has to wonder if President Obama is playing it cool by publicly expressing reluctance for investigation and prosecution, all the while encouraging Holder to move forward. That way, the president can preserve his image as a magnanimous, even-handed leader and still sate the bloodlust of the leftwing of his supporters. It would be a shrewd move and he's a politician, after all.

Hats off to the American Civil Liberties Union (of which I am a proud member) for suing to have the memos released under the Freedom of Information Act. Keep your eyes on this story, folks. There will be much more to come.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Obama's rail line plan


Last Thursday, President Obama unveiled a plan to develop, as part of the stimulus package, high-speed passenger rail lines in various parts of the country.

I applaud the president's acknowledgment that we must rethink our mass transit system. The wasteful and unsustainable Happy Motoring paradigm that has been with us since the 1950s will not be economically feasible in the very near future, given that, in the long term, oil prices are not going anywhere but up. And the passenger airline network, a lavish and environmentally-destructive extravagance, is slowly but surely dying of the twin cancers of rising fuel prices and shrinking business and family travel budgets.

Certainly, the development of an efficient, safe, and convenient transportation system is needed. So, while I applaud the initiative, generally and in concept, there are a few aspects of the plan that give me pause.

First of all, why "high-speed?" We already have a (neglected) rail system in this country that used to be the envy of the world. The tracks are already laid and the routes established. Wouldn't it be a smarter investment to improve what is already there? Make it safe and efficient?

Is the "high-speed" aspect intended to broaden the appeal of the project in the eyes of the American public? That is, have Americans become so insufferably full of our own sense of entitlement that the president fears we might turn our noses up at the idea of a regular, old passenger rail system?

If so, I think President Obama is underestimating the American public. God knows it is easy to justify that line of thinking, especially in light of the 2000 and 2004 elections. But things have changed. Americans, I believe, are looking at the world in the cold light of day and realizing that the live-for-today orgy is over.

Also, if we want to get serious about developing a functional passenger rail system, a mere $8 billion (which is the amount President Obama has pegged for the initiative) is but a drop in the proverbial bucket. Even if we were to simply revamp and improve our existing rail lines a measly $8 billion doesn't seem likely to cover much beyond the initial purchase of some plans and equipment. Especially when one considers that the Department of Agriculture spends some $20 billion dollars on something called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. (I am not denigrating that or any other program... I'm merely trying to point out that $8 billion isn't a lot of dough, in terms of the federal budget.)

On the whole, though, I think this is a good step toward reinforcing the growing public realization that we can never go back to the days of Happy Motoring, of American extravagance, of devil-be-damned consumption.

One of the proposed rail lines would run from Eugene, Oregon north to Vancouver, British Columbia and all the lines would be connected by existing passenger rail lines. So, if it all comes to fruition, it might someday be possible to hop on a train and ride the rails all around the continent: an American version of the Eurail system. For a traveler like me, that sounds like heaven.

If everything works out just right, the rail system might be getting underway just about the time I retire. I can envision a great retirement adventure: hopping on the train in Portland, swinging up to Vancouver, heading east to the Great Lakes, across to Philadelphia, thence to Washington, DC, down through Dixie, back across the Great Plains and then homeward.

See the whole continent without having to drive! Doesn't that sound fantastic? But, at this point, it's just a dream.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Texas Governor Rick Perry threatens secession

"Wish I was in the land of cotton..."
"We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that? But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot." --Governor Rick Perry, April 15, 2009
The above quote was uttered by Texas Governor Rick Perry while speaking at one of the tea-bagging rallies drummed up by Fox News and the Republican scream machine.

The crowd at the event was in fine fettle.  Frequently, as the various speakers railed there were shouts of "Secede!" There was cheering. There was frantic waving of American flags. (Ignore the irony, people. The folks at these events aren't known for their deductive capabilities.)

Governor Perry is giving voice to the outrage that Fox News viewers have been convinced they feel over the direction President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress are taking the nation. Ostensibly, they are outraged over the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the (admittedly huge) federal deficits and debt that will be wracked up by the Obama agenda.

A couple things...

First of all, I don't think that these fake patriots, these rigid-thought rednecks, are really all that fired up over budgetary problems or new taxes on the very robber barons who damn near ruined our financial system. They were silent as meek little lambs when Junior blew the Clinton surplus out of the water. And very few of them will pay a penny more in taxes under the Obama plan.

What they are actually pissed off about is that they lost the election. Their views, their beliefs were rejected by the voting public. They are being shunted aside, ignored while the country pushes forward. That, I can understand. I felt the same way back in 2003 when Junior Bush pushed for and then launched the illegal invasion of Iraq over the protests of myself and millions of others. It's even worse for them, though. Junior never had as many people behind him as do Obama and the Democrats. Tough break, fake patriots. Eat it.

Secondly, Governor Perry really ought to give some serious thought to whether or not he wants to continue with this line of rhetoric. Maybe someone can remind him that Texas actually did secede from the Union in 1861. Ken Burns made an excellent television documentary that can help educate the governor as to how it turned out last time. But aside from that, advocating secession and war upon the United States falls into a category of behavior that lawyers call "treason." Strict constitutional constructionists might also note that the punishment for treason is an old favorite of Texans... namely, death.

I've been to Texas, and I must say, the people down there are a genuinely friendly bunch of folks. I really do like them a lot. But I sure wouldn't mind if hucksters and fools like Tom Delay, Kay Bailey Hutchison, John Cornyn, Phil Gramm, and Junior were forever removed from our national consciousness. In fact, if it weren't for the price that I know African-Americans, gays, Hispanics and other minorities that live in the Old South would pay, I'm not sure I'd cry too hard if the Confederacy were to split off and go its own way.

It ain't gonna happen. The fake patriots are frightened and bewildered now that they've been so thoroughly disgraced and humiliated. But, when it comes right down to it, they'll go back to munching Popeye's Chicken and watching NASCAR on the teevee.

For a short while, they actually believed that they had ascended to political dominance, and that they would remain there, perhaps in perpetuity. But the national elections of 2006 and 2008 shattered that illusion. And now, they're reduced to spouting inflammatory rhetoric that would be laughable were it not so hateful.

Remember your history lessons, folks. In the early years of the Civil War, after Manassas, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, it seemed to many that the Confederacy might succeed in its rebellion. But then came Gettysburg... in the end, everyone comes to know Gettysburg.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Despair claims Indian farmers


The Belfast Telegraph reported yesterday that over 1,500 farmers in the state of Chattisgarh, India, committed suicide after being driven into debt by crop failure and drought.

What can or should we read into the fact that some 1,500 human beings in one particular area of the globe decided that their only course of action was to drastically change their existential status? What does it mean?

Just about one year ago, stories cropped up everywhere about food riots all over the world. (You can read what I had to say about it here.)

Could this rash of suicides in an agricultural area of India be yet another indication that something larger is afoot? Have we entered some historic era in the chronicle of our species? Perhaps, even, the Final Chapter?

It is not clear from the article whether the suicides were some kind of en masse outcry, some tragic joining of anguished voices, or if they were the result of 1,500 individuals succumbing to despair.

Either way, people everywhere should take note. In this new, interconnected world, this "global" economy, there is no longer anywhere on the face of the planet that is "far away." Everything that happens, happens next door.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Budapest (Pt. VIII)

Note to readers: This is the eighth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part VII here. For an alternate recounting of my Budapest experience, see Budapest memories.

The train from Prague to Budapest passed through Slovakia.  At the Slovakian border the train stopped so border guards could come on board and check papers. I was sitting all alone in a riding compartment, strumming my guitar when they came to check me. Two young men, smart in their uniforms, holstered pistols at their sides. They checked my passport then sat on the seat across from me. One of them, who spoke a little English, nodded curtly. "Yes," he said, indicating my guitar.

So I played a tune for them: long-haired near-vagrant American, nervously strumming Jethro Tull tunes for Slovakian border guards while the train rolled through Bratislava. Here was the material for some aspiring Milan Kundera, some brilliant, tormented Slavic novelist. Alas, there were but the three of us to bear witness. The guards got off the train when we made the border with Hungary.

***
Author, Heidi, Corina, Ron, commencing walking tour of Budapest
I was supposed to meet Rikki that day; she was attending the Central European University. Rikki (brilliant, ambitious), the one-time fiancée of kind-hearted Will back home. I had met Rikki at the wedding of Andre and Vicky, where she sang folk songs as we sat around the campfire at Horning's Hideout.

But communications were tenuous from the Eurail network, and so, when I arrived in Budapest in the late night, I was on my own for the evening. I followed Australians Heidi, Corina, and Ron, whom I’d met on the train, to a local hostel and got a bed in one of the dorm rooms.

Hero's Square
Next day, first day of October, I signed up for a walking tour of Budapest.

Started in Heroes’ Square where there are statues of the seven Magyar founders of Hungary, the Magyars; those nomadic horsemen from the Urals who came west to escape the wars raging between the Bulgars and the Pechenegs. Some of the Magyars veered north and settled in what is now Finland. Some went into the Carpathians and founded Hungary in the vacuum left by the ebbing tide of the Roman Empire.

Roman detritus in downtown Budapest
Romans had been here in Budapest. Romans left remnants of their mighty empire scattered all across the mass of Europe, from Portugal to Britain to Hungary. Besides the ruins, the knowledge, the technology.  Whatever else may be said of Rome’s cruel legacy, she imparted civilization with certain endowments.  In the world today, it must be said that the empire endures. Oh, yes. It endures.

King Coloman stands in Hero's Square
A long line of kings immortalized in Heroes’ Square, including King Coloman, who by the measure of the day, might be called a feminist. Quoth he: De strigis vero quae non sunt, nulla amplius quaestio fiat (As for the matter of witches, there is no such thing, therefore no further investigations or trials are to be held). No more nonsense about witches. No more women burned or tortured. Good for you, King Coloman.

All these kings came before the Hapsburgs. The Hapsburgs, with their low-slung jaws and their hemophilia, the result of too few limbs on the genealogical tree, founded the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of a common desire to fend off invading Ottomans.  In the end they too gave way to the destruction of war in the early 20th century. Germans and Russians rolled through at various times, nearly leveling Budapest in the process. Today, it is all different.
Csaba and author
Our guide was Csaba (CHA-bah) (knowledgeable, friendly), a veritable giant, probably 6' 10" tall.. He spoke perfect English. And like nearly every Hungarian I met, he was humble and self-effacing. Our tour group followed him all through Budapest, across the (decidedly not blue) Danube, up into Buda Castle. I learned much from him.

***

Later that day I met Rikki in Heroes’ Square. Such a thrill to see someone from home in my far flung travels. Rikki! I spotted her as she emerged from the Metro platform. We ran to each other, laughing.

Rikki (right) and friends at Central European University
She took me to her dorm room at the university. She'd arranged to have a cot for me to sleep on, and a breakfast in the cafeteria. Four US dollars per night. Wonderful to see you, my dear. She introduced me to students from all over Europe, but mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia. These were very impressive individuals. They spoke English better than many Americans. They delved into the abstract, into philosophy, religion, and politics with ease. Intellectuals, students. If these people are the future, things might turn out all right.

***
Seeing Budapest
The next two days, with Rikki's room as my base camp, I explored Budapest in more detail. Many sights to see.
"The Hunt" in Buda Castle
As I meandered through the streets, I saw Marissa and Anne Marie, two American sisters whom I had met back in Prague. Marissa (angry, suspicious) and Anne Marie (passive, hostile). Not travel companions that I would choose necessarily, but in the absence of alternatives, persons with whom to share the experience.

And so, we three became a bickering, contentious clique.  Walking around Budapest, the two sisters sneered a lot, and made unfavorable comparisons between Budapest and back home in America.

World War I memorial in Buda Castle
In search of a late night drink we happened upon what we thought was a strip-tease bar, La Dolce Vita, somewhere in the shadowy part of town. Greeted at the door by a massive Ukrainian, who demanded a cover fee in order for us to enter. We had been long wandering the streets looking for a drink, so we agreed.

We entered a dark, dirty place, with young women dressed in lingerie, slouching around a stage, smoking cigarettes. No music, no activity. We were the only patrons.

We sat, waiting for something to happen. But the music never started. Eventually, two of the scantily clad young women came to our table. "May we sit?" they asked. Anne Marie, Marissa and I . . . all a little confused. "Uh, sure," said I.

They wanted to sit by me. About this time dawn broke: this was no simple strip-tease bar. We had inadvertently strayed into a house of ill repute! The unspoken realization passed between us, coupled with the question: "How do we get out of here?"

Awkward, pointless conversation passed back and forth. Our "companions" dangled out suggestive comments, hints at fun to be had, all directed at me, the sole male of our company.

Eventually, a skinny, sharp-featured Russian came out from behind the bar. He preferred the direct approach. "Are you going to buy these ladies a drink?" he demanded.

"Uh . . . I don't know . . .." I stammered.

"The wine is $250 per bottle," he said.

"Uh, how about beer?" I asked.

"The ladies only drink wine."

"We can just go," suggested Marissa.

"There is no problem if you have no money," said the Russian. He nodded in the direction of the massive Ukrainian. "Yuri can go with you to the cash machine."

"Dade, let's just go," implored Marissa.

A tense moment passed. Then, the Russian relented. He stepped back a half step. "Go then," he said. We cut out of there faster than a possum at a redneck barbecue.

Scene in Budapest
"That's enough for tonight, eh?" I said as we hastened away, glancing back over our shoulders. "Let's go to the baths tomorrow."

There are public baths in Budapest, mineral hot springs, smelling of sulfur. The Hungarians go there to relax and partake of the medicinal benefits said to be gained through sitting in those stinky waters.

And there went Marissa, Anne Marie, and I. Rented a swimsuit for the experience and was mortified when they handed me skimpy Speedo briefs. But all the Hungarians were in bikinis and Speedos, regardless of body type. No photos of that event survive . . .. You're welcome.

***
More Budapest
Next morning, it was off to Vienna. Another leg of the journey complete. I bade a wistful farewell to kind and lovely Rikki as I set out for the train station, there to meet Marissa (angry, suspicious) and Anne Marie (passive, hostile), who would accompany me into Austria.

"You're putting a wonderful face on your country," said Rikki as we parted. Thanks for that, Rikki.

I thought about her remark as I rode the Metro to the train station. Somewhere along the way, perhaps it was as Scotty (a drinker, he) and I rode the ferry from Malmö to Sassnitz, certain titillating questions had been popping up in my mind: what have I learned on this trip? How am I being changed by it? What will life be like when I go home? Indeed, who am I?

No answers. Just questions. No destination, just the journey. The next stage is Vienna.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Christian Right on the run


Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low'r'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. --Richard the Third
Rejoice, progressives!

The shrill, bleating fundamentalist sheep, the mindless masochistic horde, the hideous yahoos of the Christian Right are on the run. They are not vanquished; they never will be. But, for the time being, they are contained within their backwoods Bible Belt. They have retreated to their revivalist tents, pitched out in some clearing in the bayou, there to babble in Tongues, eyes rolling, mouths frothing, while charlatans and witch doctors lay hands on them, healing them of their psychosomatic illnesses, and stealing away with their nubile and ignorant young daughters.

Michael Spencer has an excellent piece on the collapse of the evangelical movement in the Christian Science Monitor. You can read it here.

Right-wing evangelist James Dobson was positively morose in his recent resignation remarks to Focus on the Family, the organization which he founded to promote "Christian" values in American public life. Quoth he: "We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged... Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles."

For once, I agree with him (at least, on that last part).

If one examines the big issues that conservative Christians have been ranting about for the last 20-some years, one can easily see that they have achieved none of their stated goals.
  • Abortion - Even with seven of the nine current Supreme Court Justices having been appointed by Republican presidents, Christian conservatives have been unable to formulate a successful legal argument to nullify the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that overturned all state and federal laws outlawing abortion.

  • Gay rights - There was some talk, at the high-water mark of Republican power, of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Now, gay marriage is legal in four states. Polls show that people under the age of 30 believe that gays should have the right to marry. I've said it before, but it is worth repeating: Gay marriage will one day be a reality in all parts of the country. It's inevitable. Right now, we're just in transition.
There are other issues that further illustrate the point: prayer in public schools, the teaching of "creationism" as legitimate science, displaying Christian religious teachings on public property. The Christian Right has been defeated soundly on all of these issues. And with the public, the White House, and the Congress all seeming to trend more toward the secular, it seems doubtful that what William Gaddis called the "Christian Recovery for America's People" (it's an acronym!) will be making any great strides in the near future.

So, for the time being, progressives and other open-minded people (including non-religious conservatives) can enjoy a moment of blissful silence in the void left by the Gospel-spewing ignoramuses that only 4 short years ago seemed to be on top of the political world. Betrayed by their corrupted and immoral leaders, they are now left scratching their chins, bemused and befuddled, wondering where it all went wrong.

But they'll be back. Even now, no doubt, there is some barefoot, wild-eyed Mason Tarwater bellowing his outrage about sinful cities, some Elmer Gantry sonorously invoking scripture, railing against the Legion of the Damned.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Tribe of Ross

Tribe of Ross, 1967

My sister, Chae (SHAY), will graduate from high school later this spring. Chae is the daughter of my father's widow (and third wife), Tami. Chae is planning to attend George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon later this year, and so came here from her home in Minden, Nevada, with little brother Seth in tow, to tour the campus.

Chae and Seth together make up the third "litter" of kids that were produced by my father, Ross Cariaga. Dad had three wives over the course of his life, and produced offspring with each. It started with me, in 1962, and culminated with Seth in 1997. That's 35 years of siring children. No meager feat, eh?

Each of us-- myself, Eric, Paige, Mia, Calee, Chae and Seth --can all be said to have our genesis in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where Dad lived for the last nearly 40 years of his life. None of us live there now. We're scattered up and down the Pacific coast, from the Seattle Metro area down through western Nevada. But we remain a close-knit family... part of Dad's legacy, I suppose. We all gathered at my house this last weekend, with our respective families, for a little get-together.

Tribe of Ross, 2009
It takes a lot to get a word in edgewise when we're all together, but fortunately we've been blessed with friends and family that can hold their own. There are Paige's husband, Tim, and son, Torin; and Mia's husband, Kyle, and son, Gino. There are Calee's wife, Sarah, and best friend, Chris, who has been around so long that he's part of the family. And, of course, there is Maty.

The eternal yin-yang equilibrium of human life was never so emphatically demonstrated as it was with Dad. At least, in my experience. He was a man that could win over anyone with his charm, his generosity, his genuine interest in people. He was also a man that could terrify and intimidate. He was loved by those whom he befriended; he was feared by those who landed on his "bad side." He never forgot a kindness or a slight.

All of his children inherited his charisma, to one degree or another. We're a boisterous lot. We're friendly; we're tolerant; we smile a lot. I like to think we're charming. But we're also hot-headed, and maybe sometimes a little too quick to take offense. In short, we're passionate people.

I always feel rejuvenated after our get-togethers. We get along tremendously. There is a lot of love and support all around.

I know that Ross, always present in spirit, approves.

Ross with Paige and me, 1966

Friday, April 10, 2009

Anniversary of a 2000-year-old lynching


Today is Good Friday; the nominal anniversary of the Crucifixion of Christ some 1,976 years ago. Although no one knows for certain, Biblical scholars speculate that the crucifixion occurred on a Friday based on details of the Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus. The time of year has never been firmly established, as far as I know. Some suspect that the Catholic Church chose springtime so as to make the Easter holiday roughly coincide with the Pagan celebration of the Spring Equinox. The Church, after all, was trying to convert a skeptical bunch of druids and oak-tree huggers.

Be all that as it may, let's not spend time arguing about the specifics, eh? Let's just roll with the idea that today, Good Friday, is the anniversary. So, today was the day that the Roman guards dragged poor Jesus out of his dungeon and nailed him up. It was the end of a bad week.

On the previous Sunday, Palm Sunday, Jesus, his twelve apostles, and their entourage rode into Jerusalem so Jesus could get a wider audience for his message. Today's equivalent, I suppose, would be to land a gig on Letterman or Leno. Jesus' message was a simple message which I hesitate to characterize. Let's go with this: God is accessible to everyone. No need for intermediaries and arcane rituals. He is there; He can speak to us all.

But to the Jewish powers-that-were, the Pharisees and Priests of the Jewish orthodoxy, Jesus was an uneducated hillbilly, a mob orator come down from the hills to stir up trouble. He claimed that they were hypocrites, more interested in promoting their own agendas than serving their people or their God. He lambasted them, riled up the common folk against them, scorned them publicly.

The Romans, for their part, had no dog in the fight. It was all one to them. Let the Jews sacrifice goats on altars, burn incense, and mumble their incantations. Or, if that wasn't what they wanted, throw it all away and follow this charismatic upstart from out in the sticks. So long as everybody continued to "render unto Caesar" there wouldn't be a problem.

Well, the Jewish mucky-mucks decided that Jesus was getting too big for his britches. So, they secretly approached one of Jesus' inner circle, Judas Iscariot, and cut a deal. They bribed him to lead them to the place where Jesus and the gang were hanging out on Thursday night: barbecuing, drinking a little wine. There, they arrested him on some trumped up charges and dragged him before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, however, didn't want to get involved in the brouhaha and refused to render judgment, deferring to the Jewish king of Galilee. So they took the shackled Jesus away to Herod's place where he endured a quick (and no doubt, "fair") trial which was wrapped up in short order. Guilty as charged.

Back to Pilate, who began to sense that the Jews had their blood-lust up and didn't want to stand in the way, possibly instigating riots. Wouldn't look good in the reports back to Rome. Reluctantly, he authorized the execution.

The next day was Friday... what is today called Good Friday...

When it was all over, they took down the broken corpse and stowed it away. On Sunday, Easter Sunday, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' entourage, went to prepare the body for entombment and had a bit of a shock...


So, that, in a very rough nutshell, is what happened on that week one-thousand nine-hundred seventy-six years ago, according to Christian tradition. Whatever the literal truth, that series of events caused titanic movements in the sea of humanity.

The Christians claim that Jesus was "the Christ;" the Jews claim he was an impostor; the Muslims split the difference, claiming he was a high, holy prophet, but not the son of God.

I don't claim to know. As I've stated before, the literal truth of the story is, for me, not so important as the moral lessons that are derived from it. And so, I'll sign off today with some of the words Jesus was alleged to have spoken as he died.
  • “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” --Matthew 27:46
  • “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” --Luke 23:34
  • “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” --Luke 23:46
  • "It is accomplished" --John 19:30