Thursday, December 28, 2006

Trucking Rules Are Eased

If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would not need to dream up Ralph Nickleby’s investment in the United Metropolitan Improved Hot Muffin and Crumpet Baking and Punctual Delivery Company with its proposed monopoly of “vast national importance,” for Dickens would already have Joseph M. Clapp and his cronies at the American Trucking Associations, who, like their brethren throughout American industry, have perfected the Bush-era technique of issuing seemingly rational justifications of their rapacious and utterly selfish practices such as, “without longer work hours, the industry would be forced to put more drivers with little experience behind the wheel.” These upstanding capitalists must have read their Dickens, who 168 years ago portrayed the justification of a royal muffin monopoly as urgently needed lest “the houses of the poor” remain “destitute of the slightest vestige of a muffin.”

Charles Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby), original year of publication: 1838.
The New York Times, "As Trucking Rules Are Eased, a Debate on Safety Intensifies" by Stephen Labaton (Ron Nixon contributing), 12/3/06 page 1.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Huis clos

In Iraq, Bush has created a problem with no solution.

I used to think the removal of American troops would defuse terrorist motivations, but I think back to the Gulf War, when H.W. Bush made his famous quick exit. A few weeks later, he had to go back in, shamed into setting up the no-fly zones by a worldwide outcry about the massacres of Kurds and Shiites.

Then I thought that the historical lesson we should be paying attention to was the Marshall Plan: pull the troops out and step up aid several times over. But then I thought of the oil; Iraq and the US claim the country is pumping 2.8 million barrels per day (oil analysts have it at more like 2.0 million barrels, but that’s still $40-50 billion a year). This is a country that ought to be able to pay for its own Marshall Plan and have plenty left over to help where it’s truly needed, like in Sudan.

So we are left with no choice but to keep on with the status quo. Perhaps we can leverage that; announce that we are never leaving. Or announce that we’re leaving in six months / one year / you-name-it while all the while knowing that we’ll ignore those deadlines when the time arrives.

I take it back. There is a solution: using the UN. There has to be a means of preventing barbarism from prevailing, but it has to be one that does not itself constitute a provocation. Made-to-order for a UN peacekeeping force.

But what a magnitude such a peacekeeping mission would be! Even if the Security Council, in the course of time, eventually becomes disposed to mount a mission that it would never have had to, were it not for one ignorant and conceited US president, the force would have to be in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing all previous peacekeeping efforts combined.

As Longstreet said (before releasing Pickett’s division for its doomed mission at Gettysburg), “But that’s Hancock up there, and he won’t run, so it’s mathematical after all.”

Friday, October 13, 2006

Ineffective Vote Suppression

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

5. Life and Death

Life and Death

Below the ruins of the great cathedral of Santiago in Antigua, once the center of Catholicism in all of Central America, we entered a series of catacombs. In the central chamber, bodies were laid to decompose. When the body was reduced to a skeleton, the bones would be removed to one of the adjoining ossuaries. Our guide pointed out holes in the end wall through which air could escape. These were placed beneath the steps of the side entrance of the cathedral, near the street, so that the smell of putrefaction would remind passers-by and those entering to worship of their mortality. .

Guatemala is a spectacularly beautiful country. Volcanoes, Sheer mountains. Great, crystalline blue and jade green lakes. Coffee fincas, where leafy shade trees protect the compact, shiny coffee bushes. Huge Mayan temples rearing their heads above rainforest where parrots and toucans scream and fly from branch to branch and troops of spider and howler monkeys play freely.

The traditional clothing worn by many of the Mayan women is also spectacular. The Maya love color, and weave vivid textiles on backstrap looms. Some are embroidered with beautiful birds and flowers.

The power of the cycle of life and death is everywhere before your eyes. The Mayans occupied the monumental city of Tikal for about 1800 years. At its height, the population of Tikal was about 200,000, and it is though that it was abandoned when persistant drought made it impossible for local agriculture to support the population. When you walk among the vast temples and buildings it is hard to imagine that even the memory of its existence had been lost. The burgeoning life of the tropical rainforest covered it with feet of soil and a jungle canopy. Eighteen hundred years of human civilization, simply erased. Such is the power of nature in Guatemala.

One of the most striking things about the country is the constant presence of Mayan culture. Not only in dress, but in decorative elements crafted into the facades of major churches and municipal buildings dating back almost to the conquest. In the ruins of the great cathedral in Antigua, apertures admit light to a crypt below where the main altar once stood, apertures placed in accord with the position of the sun at various times of the year. Did the church knowingly allow this, or was it incorporated by the Mayan workers without their knowledge? In Tikal, temples were placed in such a way that the shadows they threw intersected perfectly on the days of equinox or solstice. Today, the great cathedral has fallen, Tikal is abandoned, but Mayans still perform their sacred rites in the crypt below the altar.

We found it fascinating that the Spanish Conquistadores apparently encouraged this intertwining of Mayan religion and Catholicism. Their goal may well have be the conversion of the populace, but it seems to have resulted in the preservation of some of the ancient Mayan culture rather than its eradication. Imagine if the Europeans who conquered North America had woven elements of Native American religion and culture into their churches: both the buildings and the practices. How different might our society be today? This is not to say that Spanish rule was benign. There were massacres, almost all Mayan texts were burned, and perhaps even more damaging, there were great inequities in landholding and the institution of a kind of serfdom that persisted until recent years.

Here is a little background on the involvement of the US Government in Guatemala. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Guatemala had for the first time two reform-minded presidents who were actually elected by the populace: Arevalho and his successor Arbenz. Arevalho, a teacher, was a great admirer of Franklin Roosevelt and his Four Freedoms. Both attempted to institute land reform and other reform measures, such as doing away with the serf system that required rural people to work for landowners—including the Boston-based United Fruit Company, which was the largest landowner in the country—for free for several months each year. At that time, Guatemala was importing food because almost all of its arable land was owned by agribusinesses, which kept much of it lying fallow and the rest in export crops. Arbenz had a plan to buy some of the fallow land from large landowners using eminent domain, and distribute it to the people, who could farm it and raise food and support themselves. Arbenz offered United Fruit the amount that they claimed their land was worth for tax purposes: about $600,000. But United Fruit wanted $16 million. The head of United Fruit hired Edward Bernays, known as “the father of public relations,” who conducted a brilliant campaign to convince the US Congress and citizenry that the Arbenz government was riddled with communists. Henry Cabot Lodge made speeches to that effect in Congress, and even the New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Nation parrotted these distortions. Eventually, a CIA-backed force invaded Guatemala from Honduras, overthrew Arbenz, and installed the first in a long line of military or military-dominated rulers, setting in motion a civil war that would smolder and flare for decades and claim at least 200,000 lives.

Everywhere here one is reminded that the very land is unstable, that life and death are close. Every day, from the windows of the chicken bus as it lumbers over the mountain, we see a patchwork of tiny cornfields on undulating slopes of 45 degrees or more. Clearly these are fields that must be tended by hand. Often the fields end abruptly with a drop of 20 feet or so where the land, eroded by the rainy season, suddenly gave way. “Was someone hoeing when it happened?” one of the volunteers wonders aloud. Driving through the mountains to Panajachel, on the shore of Lake Atitlan, I see what look to my northern New England eyes like ski trails etched on the precipitous slopes. Suddenly I realize that they are not ski runs, but the trails of landslides. Later, the long term Camino Seguro volunteer who is our guide on this trip will tell me about taking a group of donors to the site of a town in the region after Hurricane Stanley last year. The rains triggered a massive landslide that engulfed the town, burying 600 of its inhabitants under 12 feet of mud and rock as they slept. He told me about how a man, explaining that they stood on the mass grave of his family, began to cry, how he cried too, and so did the donors.

We visit the town of Santiago Atitlan, one of the largest in the Mayan Highlands. Here hundreds died in La Violencia, the civil war. About 130,000 Guatemalans are believed to have been killed just in the years 1980 through 83, when Ronald Reagan’s administration restored funding and support for the right-wing government in its allegedly anti-Marxist efforts. Throughout the country, mayors, teachers, clergy, professors, trade unionists, students, agrarian reformers--in short, anyone who represented a potential threat to the power structure—were tortured and murdered. In Santiago, people disappeared and were never seen again. Sometimes their tortured and mutilated bodies were found and buried.

Santiago is built on a slope rising from Atitlan, an enormous, crystalline blue crater lake surrounded by dramatic volcanic mountains. At the top of the hill stands a 500-year-old church. To the right, as you enter, is a shrine to an American priest, Father Stanley Rother of Oklahoma. The local people have created a display that explains who Stanley Rother was, what his did, how he died, and how they felt about him. Because they found his name difficult to pronounce, and because they loved him, they gave him a Mayan name: Apla’s.

What were the crimes that earned Stanley Rother a place on the death list? (Yes, our government’s allies actually did keep death lists.) He supported the poor. He encouraged Guatemalans to become lay readers and teachers in his church. He taught people to read. He built a small hospital. He was warned, and fled the country for a while, but he felt compelled to return to his flock. “The shepherd cannot run” was how he put it. He paid with his life. Our tax dollars helped to murder him, and thousands more. Stanley Rother’s body was returned to Oklahoma for burial, but at the request of his parishioners, his heart lies buried beneath his church in Santiago.

Caught between the two sides in the civil war, the Mayans in isolated mountain villages bore the brunt of this campaign. At least 90% of the atrocities were committed by the US-backed and trained government forces and right-wing death squads, who carried out a scorched earth policy aimed at denying local support to the guerrillas. Many highland villages were destroyed and the people buried in mass graves.

Some people fleeing this violence came to Guatemala City, where they and successive generations live and work in the garbage dump. Camino Seguro represents the best hope that many of them have for rising from this squalor, poverty, and indignity.

As an American, knowing what had been done there in our name, with our money, I felt deeply ashamed before I went. I wondered if people would see us and think only of blame. What I found was that people seemed to concentrate on appreciating what we were there to do. It is complicated for them too. One man, the owner of our home away from home, the Café No Se, told me that one of his Guatemalan friends was a torturer during the war. Nothing is simple. Yes, there are some people who are clear instigators of evil, but there are also common people caught up in a struggle and simply trying to survive as best they can.

We cannot change the past, but I believe we can and must do these things: we must acknowledge the truth of the past, we must do something to help build a better future, we must be aware of what is being done in our name and with our resources, and perhaps most difficult of all, we must take responsibility for trying to stop it when it is wrong.

4. Fredy's Story

Fredy’s Story

I tell Fredy that we live in Maine. He’s only been there for one day, but he knows it’s cold in the winter. He worked in North Dakota for another project one winter, and finally asked to be reassigned because he couldn’t take it anymore.

Fredy tells me that he spent 14 months in Cambridge, Massachusetts many years ago. “What were you doing there?” I ask, expecting to hear that he was a student, or maybe working. “Hiding,” he says. .

I was not a victim or a hero, he says. I came from a poor family with nine children. When I was young, I was a professional soccer player. (Not any more, he adds. Now I’m too old. He laughs. Fredy is a about 40, a good-humored, articulate, and charming guy. He works for Safe Passage, before that for other projects helping the poor of his country.) Because of this, I had a little extra money. I had the idea of going to the Mayan Highlands to help people out. This was the early eighties. Bad idea, I say. Bad idea, he agrees.

I went with friends. There were five of us. We went into some villages and started helping people fix their floors and roofs and such things. After a couple of weeks, some soldiers came looking for us. They said, “You aren’t Indios. This isn’t your business. You should leave.” While this was happening, one of my friends was talking with the youngest of the soldiers. I don’t know what they said, but suddenly the boy shot him right here. Fredy pats the middle of his chest, just below his throat. He was just nineteen years old, studying to be an engineer. Dead.

We got to Santiago Atitlan. While we were there, another of my friends disappeared. We never saw him again. There were three of us left. We all left the country. I lived in Cambridge, and then in California, and in other places for years. Finally, I came back. My two other friends, one lives on Long Island, in New York. The other lives in Switzerland.

The boy who killed my friend was probably from a poor family. Even boys from the highland villages joined the Army. At that time, the Army would pay a family 350Q if their son joined up. That was a lot of money to them. So some poor families with many children would send their sons.

Life, death, economics again.

3. El Mirador

El Mirador

Back in the car, we are driven to El Mirador. This is a cemetery of white mausoleums. As we drive by rows of conventional rectangular structures, we suddenly come upon a pyramid, probably 20 or 30 feet high, easily four times the size of the tin shanties that shelter families of 6 or 7 in the neighborhoods outside. A uniformed security guard armed with a shotgun stands at attention in front. This magnificent structure—and the man with a shotgun—guard the remains of the Gallo family. Until recently, the Gallo beer company had held a nationwide monopoly on beer production, and as a result the family is immensely wealthy. Is it too obvious to point out that even in death the Gallo family is housed and cared for better than the living poor?

As we reach the edge of the cemetery, the reason for our visit becomes clear. .
We get out of the van and walk to the edge of a bluff. We overlook an immense ravine—a valley, really. The vista is immense. This is the source of the pervasive sweetish stink of rotting garbage that fills the air, and mixes with the characteristic Guatemalan stench of diesel fumes and burning into a polluted soup that is the air we breathe in Guatemala City. Later, I will find that when I hold one of the children on my lap this smell, often mixed with stale urine, fills my nostrils. This is the Guatemala City garbage dump Far below, tiny figures chase toy trucks as they drive in, striving to get the first crack at burrowing through the load of refuse in search of treasure: a glass or plastic bottle, a sheet of tin roofing without too many holes, a not-too-badly broken chair or table, or perhaps even some not-too-rotten food. Sometimes they find money or jewelry. Sometimes they find dead bodies. A tiny toy earth mover lumbers up and down, pushing the garbage further out and down, slowly but surely filling the valley with garbage.

In the newspaper one day, there is an article about how the effluvia that washes out of the dump is polluting other neighborhoods in the city. This seems to be an issue of increasing concern. There is no mention of the shantytowns that are actually built on top of the dump, or of the people who make their living there.

Suddenly I realize that the trees edging the bluff upon which we stand are filled with hundreds of vultures. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, more flap and stalk about down in the dump, competing with the humans for garbage.

I have never seen a vulture before. The sight of the enormous, black, hooded birds perched among the mausoleums is unimaginably Gothic. It’s a scene straight out of an Edmund Gorey illustration, except that here there is no humorous ironic distance. This is real. Almost anywhere you go in that part of the city, you can see a circling column of black dots, vultures wheeling in the sky over the dump. You orient yourself by it. Here we are. There is the dump.

As we return to the van, we pass a place where the cemetery is eroding down into the valley, and the slope is strewn with bits of anonymous junk. Here, we learn, is where they dispose of funerary deadbeats. Elsewhere in the cemetery there are public burial walls with slots for coffins for those who cannot afford a private mausolem. If your relatives fail to pay the fee of 350Q every other year, the cemetery owner will remove your coffin from its slot and shove it down this slope toward the dump. Like the cats, dogs, and occasional murder victim, your body will be eternally joined with the decomposing remains of Guatemala City.
Is there some reason why people aren’t cremated instead, I ask? The gas for cremation costs 10,000 Q, Fredy answers. It’s a matter of economics and dignity, he says. Almost everything is.

2. The Social Work Tour

The Social Work Tour

Monday morning in our second week in Guatemala, we are driven to the neighborhood in Guatemala City where Camino Seguro works by Oscar and Fredy. Accompanied by the Camino Seguro social worker, we walk down a street of small, squalid cinderblock houses, where people look at us incuriously. They are undoubtedly accustomed to seeing the foreigners who come to Camino Seguro pick their way gingerly down their smelly, garbage-strewn street. This place looks pretty bad. A youngish man, probably drunk, lies on the curb. His face is dotted with buzzing flies that he doesn’t seem to have the energy to brush away. He has a lot in common with the miserable-looking, mangy, scarred dogs that lie in the meager shade next to the houses.

But suddenly we come to the end of the cinderblock row, and the real shantytown lies before us. The cinderblock row we just left looks immeasurably better in comparison. Strings of huts made entirely from pieces of salvaged tin roofing wind up and down alleys among small rises and dips, the alleys little more than narrow concrete gutters, maybe three feet wide. Since it is the rainy season, the alleys are washed by occasional downpours, so it doesn’t smell as bad as it probably does in the dry season. There are no windows, and the doors are hung with a ragged piece of cloth. The tin roofs bake in the sun. There is no apparent running water, although there are electrical hookups. They steal the electricity, says Fredy. There seems to be no plumbing at all. What they do with human waste one can only imagine. Every now and then we’ll pass an outcropping of dirt. The dirt is layered with the shredded ghosts of plastic bags, and you realize that all of this is built on top of the dump. The toxins and methane that exude from the ground they live on account for the high rate of asthma, upper respiratory infection, and cancer among the dump workers and their families.

We stop to greet an affable grey-haired couple, who say hola and want to shake hands. Doing so with a smile is a major act of will. Even I, who am not a clean freak by any means, have to fight the urge to whip out a Wet Wipe immediately afterwards. As they talk with the social worker, Fredy tells us in an undertone that they are habitual drunks, who several years ago took their son to the hospital in an emergency and forgot to go back for him. By the time they showed up, a couple of months later, the hospital had placed him in an orphanage. It took them quite a while to get him back.

Each shack, maybe 6 feet by 12 feet at most, houses families of 5 or more. Usually, everyone sleeps on one rancid mattress. There is no way to keep clean here. The smell of rotting garbage and cooking fires is pervasive. Sick-looking dogs are everywhere.

None of the people we visit today give us permission to enter their home. That’s okay. I can imagine.
How can people maintain any dignity and self-respect living in a place like this? How can a mother care for her children? How can they hope to be integrated into the rest of Guatemalan society? I understand what drove Hanley Denning to create Camino Seguro. I marvel at the resilience of the people who find the strength to take advantage of the hope for a better life that it offers.

1. Antigua


Antigua Guatemala is a lovely little city, about a mile square, cupped in a valley ringed by extinct and active volcanoes. In the 500 or so years since it was founded by Spanish Conquistadores, it has been partially destroyed several times by earthquakes. Now, no structure in the city can be taller than two stories. Most are one.

Once, the Spanish ruled all of Central America from Antigua. Its square mile contained 42 churches, as well as convents and monasteries. Every major order had a presence there. When a lone bell is rung on Sunday morning at San Francisco, once of the few churches now standing and in use, one can imagine how the Sunday morning air was once rent by a cacophony of bells from those 42 churches within a square mile.

After one of the more devastating earthquakes, the government packed up and moved to a new Guatemala City, where they thought they would be safer. The churches and cathedral were stripped of their most elaborate interior decorations. Those who stayed behind abandoned the ruined churches, or moved their services into the portions left standing. In the ruins of the great Cathedral of Santiago, you can see where they built walls that redefined the space to exclude the ruins of the once-great nave, the side chapels, and the shady cloisters.

Antigua became a charming backwater. The once-vibrant Mayan colors of the cathedral and the oldest buildings were gradually covered with whitewash. The cobblestone streets remained unpaved. The great houses of the wealthy, with their lush interior patios, fountains, and shady colonnades, each occupying a quarter of a block were gradually broken up into smaller units.

Antigua presents a charming, yet subtly mysterious face to the world. As you walk down its cobblestone streets in the early morning, the stucco façade on both sides is seamless, punctuated by heavily shuttered windows protected by ornamental yet effective wrought iron grilles, or sets of doors, some narrow, some large enough to admit a carriage—or nowadays, a car. These doors present a metaphor that is almost too obvious to use: in the right of each set of carriage doors is set a smaller door, wide enough only to admit a person. In that smaller door is a yet smaller panel at face height that can be opened to talk through. In that small panel is a peephole. To gain entrance, one must pass the peephole, the panel, the door.

You can tell where one property ends and another begins sometimes only when the color changes. The colors are beautiful: peach, ochre, lavender, cream, pink, pale yellow. The high sidewalks are so narrow that two people must sometimes adjust their shoulders to pass, and often someone must step down into the street. Here and there are remnants of decorative paving stones or patterns pressed into the concrete in the 1920s. In many places the sidewalk is crumbling. The curbs can be a foot or more high, and in some places there is a single stone placed as a step to help you up. The way is broken by inclines that admit cars to interior courtyards. Walking is a mindful act in Antigua

Behind those shuttered facades lies the private life of Antigua. Bougainvillea or some other gorgeous flowering vine that I can’t identify creeps over the wall from an interior patio. Charming little domes and turrets peep above the roof. The tops of trees can be glimpsed here and there.

There are tiendas, bakeries, lavanderias, language schools, and internet cafés everywhere, although they very rarely post such a thing as hours of business. Later in the morning, perhaps by 10 o’clock, some of the narrow, unmarked doors on the side streets will be set open to reveal a small shop in the shadowy interior. Nearer the Park Central, wide doors will be thrown open to reveal interior courtyards surrounded by shops selling textiles and jewelry and art, internet cafes, and restaurants.
One would expect Antigua to be quiet, and on the side streets it can be. But on the main streets, such as the Septima Calle Oriente where we live, the noise is deafening. Chicken buses begin roaring by at four o’clock in the morning, spewing clouds of black exhaust and honking their horns with apparently random abandon, as the ayudante shouts, “Guate, Guate, Guate!” and my bedroom shakes. When a bus stops to pick up passengers, the driver of a car behind it will often begin futilely blasting his horn in frustration. Tuk-tuk drivers gun their lawnmower-sized engines and bang and rattle over the cobbles. Walking to our bus stop on the other side of town, we have to shout to be heard. A few times I lose it and scream “Shut UP!” at a blaring bus or particularly obnoxious driver, but no one can hear me. At any time, but particularly at night, there are outbreaks of what sounds like gunfire, but is only someone setting off a handful of bombas. For some people, apparently, there just isn’t enough noise.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Hate Groups Are Infiltrating the Military, Group Asserts

Dear Rummie:

Morris Dees’ Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documents skinhead recruiting is on the rise, but Rumsfeld has no comment. That's not good enough. Citizens have a right to know. What happened to Perry's zero-tolerance policy? Are you just hoping to lie your way through this one, too? Or is it a "national security breach" that SPLC spilled the beans on your new see-no-evil policy?

Some samples of what SPLC found YOUR soldiers writing:

"Light infantry is your branch of choice because the coming race war and the ethnic cleansing to follow will be very much an infantryman's war," he wrote. "It will be house-to-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood until your town or city is cleared and the alien races are driven into the countryside where they can be hunted down and 'cleansed.' "

He concluded: "As a professional soldier, my goal is to fill the ranks of the United States Army with skinheads. As street brawlers, you will be useless in the coming race war. As trained infantrymen, you will join the ranks of the Aryan warrior brotherhood."

That’s from Steven Barry, formerly one of YOUR Special Forces officers.

"There are others among you in the forces," another participant wrote. "You are never alone."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do red state maps prove anything?

Does the 2004 election prove that the country is primarily red? An interesting twist on the usual red-blue maps is available at Maps and Cartograms of the 2004 Presidential Election. The authors note that the followoing purely state map is misleading:

If you make a map that takes population into account, you get the following:

And if you take counties and percentages into account, and shade colors from red to blue by the percentage votes, you come up with a truly complex conclusion of where we stand on red v. blue:

What are the views of all of those purple counties?

Food for thought.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dubai Travelogue

And now for something different: Richard's trip to the Middle East!

After a delicious salmon dinner in a Kennedy Airport restaurant with a surprisingly chic feel to it, I located the discreet entrance to the business-class lounge used by Emirates Airlines, Aer Lingus and others, where I indulged in wine-and-cheese largesse until my business associate arrived, not long before boarding the airline’s wide-body Airbus.

Once airborne, I forced down the evening light meal, secure in the knowledge that the bathroom was only a few steps away from my aisle seat. After determining that the seat-to-seat phone was out of order (my companion being seated at the far end of the cabin, beyond the bathrooms), I focused on understanding the articulating motorized chair. The personal video apparatus kept tempting my attention, but eventually I got the footrest to extend enough to straighten my legs. I said a silent thank-you and wondered what I would have done back in coach class, with my recently-arthritic left knee jammed up against the back of the seat next forward for thirteen hours (fourteen on the return). I decided I would have had to be sedated.

The most valuable of the many things I collected during the flight, besides a lot more calories from what seemed like three more meals – but the wine was flowing and I tend to lose count at three glasses (or was it four?) and so also at three meals – was the elegant white canvass toilet bag (and another one on the return). Six months later, I am still using the after-shave, cologne and several other items. (But not the razor – it had an old single-edge disposable cartridge which scraped from the first. Makes me wonder if Emirates has been slowly doling out the kits from some gargantuan purchase order of the 1960s.)

English was the primary language, though Arabic took precedence in signage (with French nowhere to be seen). The crew made its announcements, such as of meals and toilet kits, in English (recorded safety announcements began with Arabic and included several other languages after English). By their accents, the crew were not native English speakers. I wondered whether the preference for English stemmed from the period of British hegemony (before gaining independence in 1971, the Emirates’ were the Trucial States, a protectorate of the Crown) or whether it simply reflected English as the “world” language. (John McPhee would have tracked down the answer rather than make guesses.)

Our midnight arrival at Dubai International Airport saved us from immediately being subjected to the full light of the desert sun. On the gangway between the plane’s exit door and the long exit ramp, the midnight air felt warm and soft, reminding me of my two years in Liberia (or at least of my fonder memories of tropical breezes wafting through my little house by the ocean).

The surprising humidity continued inside the terminal, where we breezed through customs without purchasing visas and without inspection of our carry-on bags. Some of this should be attributed to our business-class tickets (reportedly costing four thousand dollars, though I did not pay the freight and so cannot speak with authority). Also, I am told that during daylight hours the terminal is jammed. The inspectors spoke to us in English, and seemed happy to see our US passports.

At our hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road (the main drag, only recently upgraded to multi-lane, divided-highway status), a letter from management, handed over with our card-keys, wished us “a memorable stay during the Holy Month of Ramadan” and then detailed the procedures concerning acceptable modes of dress and venues for eating, drinking and smoking (also don’t chew gum in public).

Certain areas, curtained off between sunrise and sunset, were reserved for off-limits activities (though none permitted consumption of alcohol during daylight hours) so that non-Muslims would not be forced to forego their meals until sundown for nearly thirty days running. Despite these warnings, one morning I absent mindedly donned my accustomed baseball cap prior to my workout (it clamps down my headphones and covers my balding pate) and had to be asked to remove it when I emerged from the locker room into the health club.

In the evenings, nightlife resumes; indeed, I am told and have read that during Ramadan nightlife takes on an extra savor and energy. Dubai’s great malls (new ones being built all the time) open up at sundown and stay open past midnight. The flood of shoppers is remarkably reminiscent of Herald Square in December. Not surprisingly considering that the daylight hours are supposed to be a time of fasting, the evenings also bring peak activity to the restaurant trade. Bars for the most part remain closed, which has resulted in a trend to do one’s drinking in restaurants that have liquor licenses (most of which are attached to the large hotels, which have justified the licensing on the basis of the tourist trade that is so vital to them).

In my hotel, one of the city’s larger luxury high-rise establishments, the Western-style sports bar was open, as well as the hotel’s several restaurants. I do not know how this was justified, although there is always the excuse that, like most sports bars, copious amounts of nachos and other munchies are downed every hour. What remained shuttered 24/7 throughout the Holy Month was the hotel’s piano bar. Even though Dubai has relaxed much of the restrictive character of Ramadan, the combination of alcohol with live entertainment still crosses the line of being deemed unseemly, even in a tourist establishment.

But there was another exception to the Ramadan restrictions. This was an establishment called “Cyclone, The Club,” which, judging by my cover-charge receipt (sixty dirhams, about sixteen dollars) is a part of a larger local entertainment firm called Al Nasr Leisureland. Cyclone was, needless to say, ready, willing and able to do business as a bar throughout Ramadan. On the evening of my appearance there, we had completed a lengthy post-sundown dinner with enough drinking to make us tell our host we’d like to see “something different.” When we arrived, we were told that the club had just opened for the evening, and it was implied that it would be open all night.

To get in, not only was there the cover charge but also a walk through a regular airport-style metal detector and a frisking by bouncers with what looked and felt (going up and down my legs) like nightsticks. (They also used one of the handheld metal-detector wands.) Opening the front doors of the two-storey building brought us into a long, narrow lobby with two sets of saloon doors, one on the right and one on the left.

We chose the right-hand doors and swung through in the time-honored style. Coming in behind my two hosts, I let the door swing back behind me then looked up and my jaw dropped. Slightly to my right was a long, U-shaped bar surrounded by what seemed like dozens of blondes in tube tops about whom I could hear my local host, a transplanted Brit, explaining, “Russians on the right.”

To my left, a few steps farther than the Russians but not many, was another U-shaped bar, this one surrounded by a like number of women in the requisite tube tops (the scantiest allowable mode of dress?), except that these women’s ancestry was plainly Asian. Hence, my host continued, “Asians on the left.”

While my Texas host (himself a transplanted Canadian) and I were recovering, three of the left-hand crowd took the bull by the horns (perhaps it was still early in the evening for the Russians) and stepped over close to us, smiling broadly. Squaring off, the taller one faced me and got out the words, “How are you?” in halting English.

Because of the usual bar noise, I couldn’t hear our British friend’s conversation at all and could carry on with Alan (not his real name) only when he and his partner sidled in close to me and mine (and then only by slowly piecing together the conversation for each of the girls). When Alan turned toward the bar for another round, his self-nominated escort would concentrate on me, giving me two to deal with, and in those moments I learned a bit more about her. (The beers were thirty dirhams, so we nursed them, but bouncer-like employees circulated among us, leaning over to check our bottles and offering to get us another when we were approaching halfway through.) Most of the time (we are talking about a half-hour max), I had to make conversation with my volunteer, piecing together the meanings and trying to check her for understanding.

My escort had arrived in Dubai six weeks before from Beijing and was Mongolian. (Alan’s comrade hailed from Taiwan and was a month in-country.) My partner, whose name was very clear to me for at least a week after I got back to the States but is now lost in the vagaries of memory, claimed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. I tried to establish whether she was Mongolian by nationality as well as by descent, and I think it came out that her parents’ village was on the Chinese side of the border (Inner Mongolia). I asked about the Great Wall but am not sure she understood to what I was referring. The name of her village sounded like the old Mongol capital Karakorum, but she did not understand about that, either.

As the minutes passed, she began touching my arm and my midsection while describing herself as an expert in Mongolian massage. Feeling myself inexorably being backed into the proverbial corner, and knowing the way these things ended from encounters deep in the past with the much more aggressive women in Liberian bars, I quietly asked Alan for cab fare. He said, “Yeah, I’m not staying much longer myself,” and handed me a hundred dirhams. (Alan bankrolled me in everything I did in Dubai, it being understood the trip was on his company tab.) I slipped the bill in my pocket, feeling sure that, because of the language barrier, my attentive companion had no idea of my plans for it. Then I waited for her to smile, smiled back and said goodnight, using her name, then patting her hand and at the same time turning for the door a few steps behind me, not stopping until I was out in the night air. A taxi roared up and soon I was back in my sanctuary at the hotel.

Some of my questions to her concerned how she had come to leave her village and go to Beijing and how thence to Dubai. She seemed to be saying that something had happened to her village; her parents had had to move. (Shades of the rural land grabs that are a hot issue in China?) Of Beijing, she said there were no jobs. This may seem incredible, but I judged her age to be about twenty, and Beijing may not have been welcoming to a twenty-year-old female without much education (and possibly without much grasp of Mandarin). In fact, for her, being very pretty, and much in need of accommodation, all roads in Beijing may have seemed to lead to the brothels. In that light, Dubai, probably described in terms of all the new people arriving all the time (which is true) and all the money that’s building whole new neighborhoods (also true; they seem to build whole business districts at a time and boast that twenty percent of the world’s high-capacity construction cranes are engaged on Dubai projects), could very well have been made to seem a place of true possibility that contrasted mightily with the realities of Beijing.

The question is, and this question did not really sink home to me until afterward, what compromises did she and Alan’s girl from Taiwan and the dozens of Russians have to make in coming to Dubai? In entering through the security gate, inside the cordon of truncheons, was I in effect entering a prison? What if I had wanted to avail myself of her? Would I have taken her with me in the taxi, or, as seems likely, been escorted through a door at the back of the bar and shown to a room?

As against this, it is interesting that both girls were so recently arrived in Dubai. Could it be an indication that such arrivals are quickly paired off, departing the likes of the Cyclone for a life with a member of the Emirate’s largely immigrant work force, also newly arrived but with a reliable construction job?

The prison-like character of the nightspot would seem to argue against this, but, to push further down a speculative trail, there is some evidence, though very slight, that may indicate there’s yet something in this matching-up idea. The evidence, stamped right onto the aforementioned admission receipt (that I keep pinned to the wall next to my desk here at home), is the words, in Arabic and English, “Department of Tourism Commerce Marketing… Entertainment Control.” Could it be that Dubai imposes some kind of time limit on the proprietors of places like the Cyclone, after which each woman brought into the Emirate must be released? The time limit might be long enough for the proprietors to recover – from the women’s services – the cost of the recruiter middlemen (and their sources, going all the way back to Beijing and Taipei and dozens of other cities), plus, of course, a healthy profit.

Having tossed out all these guesses, it seems only right to add, once again, that John McPhee would have gotten answers rather than settle for guesses.

Perhaps that can be the next direction of this travelogue. I can do a little homework on the international female slavery market and try to find out if Dubai has a mercenary but still somewhat humanized way of dealing with it.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Class Rank: It hurts.

RE: Schools Avoid Class Ranking, Vexing Colleges (in The New York Times, March 5, 2006)

This article, featuring several pompous college admissions officers, was followed up by the publication of five letters to the editor -- including my own.

Do Class Rankings Help or Hurt? (5 Letters)

Two of the other letter writers, one a high-school teacher, were emphatically in agreement with my POV (NO to ranking). One, a college dean, offered an apologetic defense. And one, a certain Kevin Dayton of Roseville, California, was himself a valedictorian and has "no doubts and no regrets that the ranking helped distinguish me from 'the total child' of other applicants."

Interestingly, I believe I stood face to face with Mr. Dayton, on opposing sides at a political rally almost fifteen years ago (unbeknowst to Mr. Dayton). Here's how that works out:

First, how did I figure this out? Google, of course. Intensely curious about Mr. Dayton because of his in-your-face response on the class rank issue, I succeeded in unearthing that he is a "Fellow" of the "Pacific Research Institute" (read, the Pacific Right-Wing Propaganda Mill) of Sansome Street in San Francisco. In fact, even though his regular employment is as Vice President of Government Relations for the Golden Gate Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, he is "PRI's" Senior Fellow in Labor Union Studies (!!).

Still not satisfied, I unearthed Mr. Dayton's bio on the PRI site, which pegged him as a Yale grad, placing him in Connecticut, my former home state. Then, what do I read but that, during 1992-94, he was Legislative Assistant to Republican Congressman Gary Franks of Connecticut.

What's the significance of this? In 1992, I was quite active in the campaign against Franks. So active, that one Saturday in my home town of Wilton, I showed up at a Franks rally in the local supermarket parking lot, ostensibly to campaign for an opposing candidate, but really much more intent on being a spoiler for the Franks rally (much as I used to sit on home plate in our backyard baseball games when I didn't get my way).

I had been asked by my candidate to bring my camcorder, and, having filmed our candidate's counter-rally, parading round the parking lot, I found myself finished with my task, still holding my campaign sign, and directly opposite Gary Franks, who was propounding to the locals. I still had my camcorder, and I was standing about five feet from Franks, so I turned it on him, and he stared back into the lens, not knowing what to make of it. (An early instance of a private citizen using video to document the doings of the other side?)

Anyway, Franks was standing next to an aide, and -- this is where my memory is just not going to help me, for I have no mental picture of Franks' assistant -- couldn't that just possibly have been the Connecticut-based Dayton, who went on to become Franks' legislative assistant?

Such a satisfying search result (for me, anyway): once a jerk (working for Franks), always a jerk (sticking his class rank in our faces). And doubly confirmed by his cushy jobs: getting paid both by contractors and to opine on "Labor Union Studies."

And now, just in case The Times takes away the link (above), here's the text of my letter (for the text of the article, which The Times has already archived, you're going to have try your library... or your library's database... or buy it from Times "Select"):

To the Editor:

The demand by parents and high schools to look at the "total child" seems legitimate; colleges are looking at class rank because they are relying on grade point average, which seems illegitimate.

Comparing grades across schools is too fraught with pitfalls to be rescued by the addition of class rank. College admissions personnel, extending even to the Ivy League, behave like a secret society; they might as well be interpreting animal entrails to decide who shall walk their hallowed halls.

That they behave this way is understandable; they lack the resources necessary to assess the totality of their applicants' qualifications.

But the answer is not to devote more resources to the admissions process; the answer is to open up higher education to all who truly have the ambition for it.

Stop concentrating resources in elite institutions that (with questionable accuracy) award admission to those whom they deem deserving.

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Me., March 5, 2006

Sunday, February 26, 2006

As goes Harvard, so goes the Nation?

How the Liberal Arts Got That Way

And, therefore, reason to hope that the present cycle of reaction will eventually come to an end?

Mr. Pearl wishes to explain the resignation of Summers by comparing it to the University’s pre-Civil War ferment. His comparison seems a bit strained, but the course of events from the 1830s to 1869 (the election of Charles William Eliot) is a fascinating story of liberalization followed by repression and culminating in the collapse of reactionary resistance.

Perhaps it is foolish to generalize from a nineteenth-century college campus to a twenty-first century megastate, but I offer the thought in hopes of injecting a note of optimism to offset my previous expressions of pessimism about the fate of our country.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Minimum wage -- scare tactics

Re: Wage talk more than minimum by Edward D. Murphy, and

Minimum wage hike wouldn't have a big impact on MaineAs such, it's probably not worth sending this anti-business message.

I don’t have time to show up and wait on you at your Editorial Board hearings, either here in Cumberland or at your Portland offices, but I do care and most strenuously OBJECT to the shallow, sloppy work that Edward Murphy and John Porter did in today’s minimum-wage coverage and associated editorial, which belies the banner across your building trumpeting your perennial status as “New England’s Newspaper of the Year.” (You look more like a small-town gossip sheet to me.)

Your reporter (Murphy), failed to conduct even a rudimentary investigation of the true nature of the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), the supposed “think tank” that testified against the wage hike. EPI is in reality the creation of a restaurant-hotel-alcohol-tobacco lobbyist. (See footnote (1), below.) I looked through the list of minimum-wage studies on the EPI site. They look like they’re coming from academicians – then I remembered David Card and Andrew Krueger, the Princeton University economists whose studies showing no job loss from a moderate increase in the minimum wage have been reviewed and accepted by hundreds of economists. Neither Card’s nor Krueger’s name appears on the EPI site. That EPI is a smokescreen is built into its very name, chosen to confuse (reporters like Murphy) by its resemblance to the Economic Policies Institute, which supports increasing the minimum wage. The EPI site also includes a great deal of character assassination of Acorn, a grass-roots organization that represents the lowest-paid workers.

Your editorial page editor (Porter) is willing to set aside justice for fear of damaging an image of our state that’s he’s bought into at the behest of vested interests. The fallacy that he offers us, equivalent to “don’t make waves,” is, for an editorial page, just plain childish. But it’s a tipoff that the people Porter listens to are the state’s movers and shakers, especially those nearby the Press-Herald’s offices in the financial district. Porter probably lunches with corporate lawyers and bankers, maybe even hobnobs with them in his home community. As a result, when it comes time to make a tough call, he parrots their line. (Or maybe he just reads Murphy’s reporting and, like Murphy, starts taking at face value what EPI and like-minded “think tanks” have provided for the consumption of expedient thinkers such as himself.)

Let’s take an example of one way in which Porter’s reasoning could be extended: billboards. When I drive across Maine, I don’t have to look at billboards, and I’m thankful. I’m thankful because I get to see all that Maine has to offer, unsullied, and also because there’s a message in the billboards’ absence. It’s a sense of what’s just and a proper sense of priorities. I’m also thankful because, when I visit Michigan or Florida or Texas, there’s a billboard in every direction. I never get to see what those states have to offer, and I get a message about where their priorities are. Porter has been listening to people whine about how our state supposedly discourages business (never mind about the businesses that have been encouraged to locate in Santa Fe, New Mexico or San Francisco, California, because both of them have higher-than-national minimum wages, and never mind, right here in Maine, that there are plenty of people who visit, buy second homes, spend money on guides/antiques/hotels/restaurants because of a sense that the state is pristine that they get when they drive across it) for so long that it wouldn’t be beyond reason to see him come out in favor of allowing free rein to billboard advertising in the name of “improving” Maine’s business image. As with billboards, so with the Governor’s Dirigo health-care effort, environmental protection, and a host of other considerations, all for fear of sending an “anti-business” message.

In conclusion, I think you would do well to get rid of both Murphy and Porter and take me in their stead. That would save you money, plus you would get the job done right.

(1) From Source Watch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy: (
“The Employment Policies Institute is one of several front groups created by Berman & Co., a Washington, DC public affairs firm owned by Rick Berman, who lobbies for the restaurant, hotel, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries. EPI, registered as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, has been widely quoted in news stories regarding minimum wage issues, and although a few of those stories have correctly described it as a "think tank financed by business," most stories fail to provide any identification that would enable readers to identify the vested interests behind its pronouncements. Instead, it is usually described exactly the way it describes itself, as a "non-profit research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment growth" that "focuses on issues that affect entry-level employment." In reality, EPI's mission is to keep the minimum wage low so Berman's clients can continue to pay their workers as little as possible.
EPI also owns the internet domain names to ( and (, a website that attempts to portray the idea of a living wage for workers as some kind of insidious conspiracy. "Living wage activists want nothing less than a national living wage," it warns (as though there is something wrong with paying employees enough that they can afford to eat and pay rent).”

Monday, February 06, 2006

VARSITY. The principal team representing a... school in sports competitions.

Dear Editor, Portland Press-Herald:

Isn't it time for this newspaper to rethink the kind of message it's sending in its sports section?

Despite widespread worries about student achievement and endless debates about school funding, the sports section, in columns like "Athletes of the Week" goes right on in its little world of pretend-professional sports. Couldn't you at least recast this column? Let the jock-writers go on with their business of touting teeny sports heroes/heroines, but add, right alongside, "Scholars of the Week"?????? (And I DON'T mean "scholar athletes" -- have your real writers get out there and uncover heroes in all the other walks of student life: scientific inquiry, the arts, public service…) GIVE KIDS WHO AREN'T VARSITY FIRST-STRINGERS SOMETHING TO BE PROUD OF, SOMETHING TO ASPIRE TO !!!

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Maine

Friday, February 03, 2006

Climate Expert Muzzled

Date:      Sun, 29 Jan 2006 11:56:41 -0800 (PST)
From:     "Richard Wolfe" <>
Subject:     Climate expert muzzled

In which Goddard Institute Director Dr. James Hansen finds himself dogged by people who (1) don't want to hear about global warming and (2) are careful never to put anything in writing.


The question is, what hole did “recently appointed” public affairs officer George Deutsch crawl out of, and did someone get the axe to make way for him? This man is obviously nothing more than still another of the Administration’s enforcers, and the press ought to be investigating the circumstances of his appointment. Isn’t the real crime here the peopling of our civil service with apparatchiks devoid of any connection to the agency they serve, functioning for all practical purposes like Kremlin “political officers” under the old Soviet regime?

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Maine

Monday, January 30, 2006

Richard's New Republican Connection!

With the coming of another year in the annals of the Amerikan body politic, there appeared in my mailbox a missive entitled National Republican Congressional Committee Every Member Canvass. I dutifully completed the survey, and images of the filled-in document are included in this post. You may wish to amuse yourself by perusing my responses*, but for me, it is significant that I received the survey at all. Apparently, Dennis Hastert (author of the survey's lengthy -- and nasty -- cover letter) and company don't have such a sophisticated database after all (or they want us to think they don't). I'm so relieved that my numerous letters to the editor, which, as I hope everyone knows by now, are tracked to screen for people with an opposing point of view so that they can be blocked from attending the President's public appearances, haven't made it into Hastert's database.

Taking stock of the package as a whole -- attack letter plus slanted survey -- it comes off to me as amateurish cant, replete with errors of grammar and diction. (Intentional errors? To comfort The Base?). And yet, the letter contains one statistic, one unarguable fact, that chills my heart: "233". That's the number of House seats in Republican hands, 54% of the 435 total, a much firmer majority than in the 2004 Electoral College result. True, what I am saying amounts to nothing more than an unnecessary restatement of the status quo, but the House is a proportional representation legislative body and so proportionally, "they" have got hold of 54% to our 46%. And to me, that's scary.

A very charming Republican former business associate of mine, encountering me by chance recently at the gas pump, noted that he had seen my letter to the editor on the Alito nomination, and commented that, though he believed the government should not interfere in a woman's decision to end a pregnancy, "that's not where the country's at now." Now do you see why I'm afraid?

*Double-click on the image to see it at a legible size.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Courage to Oppose... Alito

TO: Hon. Olympia Snowe, Senior Senator from Maine
Hon. Susan Collins, Junior Senator from Maine

RE: The Alito Nomination

You are presented with still another dilemma (assuming you still count yourself a moderate, and still believe in a woman's right to choose). What will you do, toe the line, or muster your courage?

In Leon Uris’ Mila 18, his novel about the Jewish inner circle in the Warsaw Ghetto, co-protagonist Paul Bronsky, after speaking out in the presence of brutal Nazi violence against a defenseless elderly colleague, finds himself paralyzed by fear. He longs for a way to preserve his erstwhile courage in a box, ready to be taken out and used, the next time the beatings begin. He ends up a collaborator.

Is that you, driven by fear into collaboration with what you oppose? If you vote for Alito, Roberts may stop him from overturning Roe v. Wade, but Roberts didn't make any promises about parental consent. You may find yourself returning home to a Maine in which teenage girls die rather than tell their parents. Is that what you want? Do you have the courage to oppose it?

Richard Wolfe
Cumberland, Maine

Monday, December 19, 2005

Spying on citizens

I cannot understand how it can be countenanced that Bush is simply going to continue listening in on whoever he wants to without a court order.

What do I mean when I say that “I cannot understand?”

I mean it makes me really, really angry. How angry? Well, here’s RudePundit’s take on last Saturday’s radio address, and it pretty much says it all as far as I’m concerned.

And what do I mean when I say that it “can be countenanced?”

I mean that if being a citizen is something that one takes seriously, then defiant lawbreaking on the part of a president cannot be allowed to pass without action, and if no action is forthcoming from our representatives, then a citizen just has to take action her/himself.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Are Japan's schools really better?

Date:      Fri, 25 Nov 2005 07:49:27 -0800 (PST)
From:     "Richard Wolfe" <>
Subject:     re Are Japan's Schools Really Better? (7 Letters)

Dear Editor:
re Are Japan's Schools Really Better? (7 Letters)

Seven letters but not one that answered the question. My answer: no.

US schools are better. Why? Brent Staples’ arguments
are part of a decades-old, knee-jerk litany that he and every other talking head uses so much it seems like an MP-3 player on repeat. Excuse me, but I was hearing the exact same thing in 1972 when I graduated from high school. How is it that technologically and in terms of Nobel Prizes we remain at the top of the heap, still the world leader in industry after industry, still the leaders in space exploration, and the originators of the Internet to boot? C’mon! Something else is going on that makes the test-score comparison a meaningless diversion. I suspect it has to do with local autonomy as opposed to national standardization, but there may also be a sense in which our system is somewhat more open to late achievers (doesn’t make as much use of high-stakes tests that close off educational avenues). And one more thing: stop bashing our teachers. During the 1990s, Japan’s Education Ministry began to encourage emulation of US teachers’ more experiential approach: could they have concluded that their students’ high test scores weren’t doing the country any good? Instead of bashing our teachers for their methods or the state of their content-area mastery, how about doubling their numbers? Then that hard-to-manage 26-student class would be 13 students, a size that’s quite amenable to the new, individualized approach known as differentiated instruction.

Richard Wolfe
43 Blanchard Road
Cumberland, Maine 04021