Thursday, August 4, 2011

Heat Wave, Norway Tragedy, Ramadan, Debt Ceiling, Calif. Dream Act, Ortega Re-Election, Canada Immigrant Issues, Africans Depart, Hospital Interpreta.

For several days, even weeks, in a row, the mercury has climbed to over 100 F here in DC, not even cooling off at night, reminding me of being again in El Triunfo, Honduras. If it’s true, as the preponderance of scientific opinion seems to support, that the extreme weather conditions the world has been experiencing lately: floods, hurricanes, tornados, and excessive heat and cold, are partially caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel use and not just a matter of the gods sending punishment our way, then the need is urgent to reduce use of such fuels. Reduction in the use of oil and coal, oil especially, may hurt the economies of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, but so be it. They need to get on the alternative band wagon too if they want to stay in the game. Of course, during an extreme heat wave, such as we have just had in the eastern half of the US, even an environmentalist like myself turns on the central air conditioning, burning even more such fuel. And the problem is that finding and processing alternative energy sources takes money that no one seems to have right now and also has its own unwanted side effects.

When the massacre occurred in Norway, I immediately sent a condolence message to Gry Winther, the Norwegian director and producer of the documentary Women in White where I make a cameo appearance. “Thank you” was all that she replied. What more can you say when something senseless like that happens in a small peaceful country for no apparent rhyme or reason, just because a guy has a secret grievance or a twisted mind? And I hope right-wing crazies in other peaceful countries don’t try a copycat stunt. There are always people with extreme ideologies of one kind or another everywhere, secretly plotting to deliberately hurt and kill others, something very hard to anticipate or guard against. It took relatively long for Norwegian authorities to get control of the situation because the young people’s camp was apparently on an island and police in Norway are usually unarmed and were not prepared to respond to such a catastrophic event. The fragility of life is demonstrated once again, something I already knew because of the tragedies in my own family. It could be any of us, today, tomorrow, next week.

There had been a rush to judgment, with some media (including Murdoch’s) speculating immediately that it was the work of Islamic extremists. Islamic extremists have given everyone cause to worry, but this episode demonstrates, just as did the Oklahoma City bombing and the Arizona shooting rampage against Rep. Giffords, that rightwing extremism can be just as lethal. There’s a fine line where free speech and assembly—and the right to bear arms—spill over into dangerous territory. Not only was the author of this massacre not an Islamic extremist, he was actually an anti-Islamic extremist by all accounts. We need to steer a moderate course between either type of extremism. And the internet has certainly been instrumental in spreading both Islamic and anti-Islamic extremism—or extremism of any kind. Paradoxically, on-line dialogues warning of Islamic extremism probably ignite both pro- and anti-IsIamic extremism.

We are reminded once again of the dangers of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. More needs to be done in Europe and the US to highlight the positive benefits, contributions, and successes of immigration and immigrants to help counteract the very corrosive and dangerous power of nativist ideologies. The lessons of Hitler’s excesses should not be forgotten. Since the shooter Breivik calls himself an anti-Muslim crusader for Christendom and cites scripture, and since Muslim terrorists are always identified by their religion, then he technically is a “Christian terrorist.”

It’s now Ramadan, reminding me of the fasting of Muslims who have shared my house in the past. I did once join one of them, eating the date that breaks the fast at sunset, but only could keep it up for two days, as it was interfering with my work and thoughts, which became obsessed with food. My Muslim housemate insisted that if I had continued, my stomach would have adjusted to the new eating schedule. Muslims have told me that often during Ramadan, day and night are reversed, with sleeping during the day, feasting and partying during the night, which doesn’t seem to reflect the sacrificial spirit intended.

Unbelievably, Congress and the President, separately and collectively, allowed or facilitated the further erosion of the fragile economy. The President could be faulted for lack of leadership by only in the 11th hour trying to explain basic economics to the public in a rational and dispassionate way—but the public is probably more gut-feeling than rational. And the Republicans, I’m convinced, have been unnecessarily obstructionist, believing it will give them an advantage in the next elections if the economy actually tanks, though finally some came to realize they might have gone too far and needed to avert disaster. The negative consequences of all this, even if not strictly Obama’s “fault,” will inevitably fall on his shoulders. The tea party element in today’s politics, other than serving as an expression of voter discontent, has played a largely damaging role in the economy and polity, in my opinion, and has divided the Republican Party, defeating more experienced and centrist members and reinforcing voter ignorance. The tea party, by hanging tight on “no taxes,” may be said to have “won” in that respect, but to the economic detriment of the country. The public, for its part, wants the deficit reduced and spending cuts and lower taxes, but they certainly don’t want any programs that they personally rely on cut at all, whether a job with federal financing or a benefit, like social security or Medicare, or citizen protection in the form of the military or FBI. So what’s left? Is politics the art of compromise or a matter of sticking to your position, however damaging to the body politic? If high earners and successful businesses care about protecting the economy so it can continue to make them rich, then for their own good, as well as the common good, they should agree to pay their fare share of taxes. The majority of the public wants the high-end earners to pay their share. Scrambling to milk everything they can out of the economy is just making it weaker and less able to sustain the wealthy. The stock market has plunged, in part because of the budget wrangling and Republican intransigence about allowing any sort of closing of loopholes in the tax laws. And after they helped cause the market to plunge, tea party folks, like Michelle Bachmann, blame President Obama for the poor state of the economy and the lack of confidence among investors and business owners. Lack of confidence, of course, breeds more of the same.

Now House Speaker Boehner is urging lawmakers to convince their constituents that a balanced budget amendment is the way to go, an effort doomed to failure, but only after creating more market havoc and political polarization. Of course, the Democrats have yet to make a coherent case for an alternative strategy. “Balanced budget” is a two-word sound bite may have common-sense appeal, but is impractical in the real world.

Republicans, especially tea partiers, got their “no taxes” deal, but otherwise, I doubt most senators and representatives are happy with the final outcome of the budget wrangling. Obama was considered by Democrats to have given too much ground, but the tea party folks were holding the US economy hostage and he ended up paying the ransom. Bridging the differences in such a wide polarization was bound to bring about a result that no one particularly liked. But at least the debt ceiling crisis has been averted and the public is relieved to have the argument over for now. I would hope this is not going to be a recurrent crisis, but it probably will be, unless voters realize that the tea party has held the rest of the government hostage; buoyed by their success, they will continue with such tactics. The only way to defeat them is at the ballot box, should voters be savvy enough to do that.
It’s certainly true, as Michelle Bachmann, has reportedly asserted, that the sun would still rise if the debt ceiling was not lifted. It’s also true that money, whether the paper stuff or computerized bank holdings or the federal budget, is an abstract, artificial human construct. But it’s a consensus construct, a man-made system developed over millennia and now encompassing the whole wide world, with the possible exception of isolated tribes still trading in beads and animal bones. Even as the Aug. 2 deadline approached, US and world stock markets fell, not something exactly needed right now. If Michelle Bachmann’s salary were not paid, if she had no access to her campaign funds, then maybe she would see that her words and actions were having negative consequences in the real world. It’s incredible that she and Sarah Palin, with all their ignorance about everything under the sun, though both with admitted physical glamour and bright smiles, can have risen so far in politics.

I was glad to see McCain back to his old biting form, after wandering lately into goofy far-right territory, saying: "The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . . Barack Obama…The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."

There are hints that Israel, in its cottage cheese boycott, has been inspired by the Arab spring. Somehow, I’m wondering or hoping that that mini-action might somehow lead to some sort of mutual sympathy and Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. I know that’s not a rational thought, more like wishful thinking, but something that popped into my head.

Now California has passed an in-state college-tuition “Dream Act” much like the one that passed recently in Maryland. However, the Maryland Dream Act unfortunately did not go into effect this fall because of a petition challenging it and calling for a referendum to put it on the ballot. Allowing in-state tuition to undocumented students brought here as children would be a good investment, but, obviously, there are people in Maryland who out of spite or malice, felt they had to challenge that provision. I do hope they are overwhelmingly defeated at the polls by fair-minded, rational voters and that opponents in California don’t try a similar delaying tactic. By the way, the local Spanish-language press has been coming down hard on Obama for not passing immigration reform and especially for having deported a record one million undocumented people, most of them with no criminal antecedents.

Rep. David Wu, Democrat of Oregon, is the latest man in power felled by sex allegations. Don’t these guys have any control or judgment?

Not surprisingly, Hugo Chavez is now financing Daniel Ortega’s reelection campaign in Nicaragua, as Ortega has insisted on running, even though the constitution prevents consecutive presidential terms. The perpetually fragmented Nicaraguan opposition allowed Ortega to win last with only about 30% of the vote by running too many candidates. According to the Nicaraguan constitution, the winner does not need to win a majority, only get the most votes. Chavez has announced that he himself plans to retire from the presidency of Venezuela in 2031. (He has a lot of faith in Cuba medicine.) A website called “Democracia Participativa” estimates that the current governor of the Venezuelan state of Miranda, a big voter-getter there, could beat Chavez in a presidential election.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has reported that his internet and phone systems have been hacked. So even little Honduras is not immune to such shenanigans.

Canada, surprisingly, is one of the countries included in my volunteer duties as Caribbean coordinator for Amnesty International-USA, I guess because they didn’t know where else to put it. I’ve heard on the news that Amnesty-Canada is concerned about immigrants’ rights and deportation issues due to a campaign now underway there to deport certain immigrants. I need to find out more about that.

My African visitors, Charles from Kenya and Rheah from Zimbabwe, have just departed today. I will certainly miss them. Charles’ wife got a visitor’s visa and was here for several weeks as well and just went home with Charles. While she was here, Charles’ uncle visited from Minnesota (is my house a hotel, or what?. Only Rochelle, my USAID water specialist, is left now. The house seems empty without the Africans, cooking savory dishes, often wearing exotic clothing, and sometimes speaking in Swahili (Kenya) or another native language (Zimbabwe), I don’t recall its name. Once Charles and his wife had a big argument in Swahili. I think it had to do with the fact that his cousins in Dallas had sent him a plane ticket to go there for a long weekend, but did not include Jessie, his wife. He was planning to leave her at my house after she had left their four children at home and had come so far to see him. He ended up buying her ticket to Texas himself and they went together, Jessie wearing a big smile and her best outfit.

Last weekend, I spent several hours and four different sessions with an ICU patient at a local hospital. This young man was an indigenous Guatemalan whose first language was Mam, something not covered by a standard interpretation agency, so he had to make do with Spanish, in which he was completely fluent. Only in his twenties, he had suffered from excruciating and constant headaches, which turned out to be caused by a brain tumor. As you might imagine, removing the tumor resulted in considerable post-operative pain and the need for special treatment. Still, it was heartening that after right after the tumor’s removal, he was able to move extremities and wiggle fingers and toes on command, as well as carry on complex conversations once his breathing and feeding tubes were removed. He became concerned about his clothes and shoes, which I showed him had been stored in a special bag with his name on it. His functioning seemed completely normal and his prospects good for complete recovery.

I feel compelled to comment on hospital vending machines that all sell unhealthy snacks, like chips, candy bars, salty pretzels and crackers, cookies, and sodas. I suppose those are items most buyers crave and which the machines are already set up to dispense. It would be hard to offer say, apples, carrot sticks, and grapes, which don’t store well, but what about cans of juice, unsalted nuts, and dried fruit? Couldn’t the machines be retooled to offer at least some healthy snacks among the unhealthy ones, more in keeping with what hospitals advocate?


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