Tuesday, July 5, 2016

July 4th, GAO Cultural Day, HP Articles Repeated, Nicaragua, Cuba, South Sudan, Brexit, Trump, Immigration, Sanders, Clarence Thomas’s Wife, Guns, AI Sex Worker Policy

Happy July 4th, was a rainy, cool day in DC, though the fireworks went on as usual. I skipped them this year.  

Boniface, my Kenya visitor, and the other GAO fellows attending his government auditing/accounting course displayed items from their home countries at a "Cultural Day." Boniface's country, Kenya, is one I’ve had the privilege of visiting more than once, so it was great to see highlights regarding the historic island of Lamu and safaris, both of which I’ve experienced and would recommend, along with much more in that beautiful and varied country. In these 2 photos, Boniface is discussing the different types of identifying necklaces worn by single and married ladies--presumably Masai. I've met GAO fellows before from China, but this was the first time I'd met one from Vietnam at her display table. Also, I don't recall a fellow from Hungary before either--that table had delicious run balls! Boniface is leaving soon and I will miss him!

First, my Huffington Post article on Cuban performance “painted piglet” artist Danilo Maldonado was also been picked up by Democracia Participativa, then the other 4 articles in my Cuba HP series. It would be great if such publicity led to more book sales, but most readers of that second website are Spanish speakers. They will read a blog posting in English, but not a whole book. Here, again, is the “piggies” article as it appears there.

Now, I’ve been invited to the NYC area to give a couple of Cuba book talks in November—will keep you posted on the particulars.

“In the word question, there is a beautiful word – quest.
 I love that word.  We are all partners in a quest. 
 The essential questions have no answers.  You are my question,
 and I am yours – and then there is dialogue. 
 The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. 
 Questions unite people.”
  Elie Wiesel

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose unexpected electoral defeat by Violeta Chamorro I witnessed as an election observer in 1990, has made a comeback, changed the Nicaraguan constitution to permit himself consecutive terms, and packed the high court to rule against any other presidential candidates, leaving himself as the sole candidate for an unprecedented third term. I know my friends in Nicaragua are gnashing their teeth:

As per the above, Starwood Corp. is going to manage a hotel in Cuba run by the Cuban military, which actually runs all hotels and funnels the money into its coffers, distributing it on the basis of favoritism and party loyalty, keeping the bulk of each employee’s pay, usually over 90%. The military under General Raul Castro and his son, also a general, use this money to make sure members of the military remain well-fed and faithful, a system Venezuela has copied to assure there is no military coup. If you are just an ordinary Cuban—or worse yet—a suspected dissident, you can forget about working in a hotel or any aspect of tourism—which offers the best jobs now in Cuba. What else is Cuba producing? Cigars and rum? Not food—it must import food despite having ample fertile land.

South Sudan has cancelled its 5-year independence celebration because of renewed fighting. We who have been to South Sudan all celebrated that independence too soon.

Like many observers, I’m shocked and disappointed by the UK’s “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union and don’t know why David Cameron even promised to put it to a vote. (My 401K retirement account has also taken a hit.) The decision is having negative economic consequences worldwide, not so much because of the immediate practical impact (though that will be substantial), but because of the psychological implications—the domino effect and making people everywhere feel unsure about the financial future. Of course, Donald Trump in Scotland crowed about the outcome (even though Scotland voted not to exit). Many Britons, like citizens of other countries, are feeling invaded, that their way of life is threatened—the same sentiment occurs here in the US and is giving Trump a boost. We should not assume that he “cannot win,” as he has actually won so far and the UK example shows us once again that common sense and reason do not always prevail in politics. Only after the fact do voters regret unwise choices. Brits are already feeling remorse.

Brexit also has unleashed a rash of discriminatory acts in the wake of vote—something that would happen here if Trump should win. Bigots would feel they have license to disparage or harm those they don’t like or with whom they disagree.

Trump is a patent or alternative medicine huckster, a guy who claims he’s got “the answer,” boasting that he’s gotten rich and so will teach you how to do the same, when one way he’s gotten rich is by scams, such as sucking people into paying for his “get-rich-quick” seminars and courses. People want to believe in a magic solution—for achieving true love, beauty, health, riches, fame—and when they discover the charade, it’s too late. The same is happening with Brexit and will happen with President Donald Trump if the American electorate should be gullible enough to buy the medicine he’s peddling. He misstates facts—or lies outright. Much of his money, besides initially being inherited, was made by being a bully, a quick-switch artist, and a gambler who just lucked out. Most of his financial transactions skirted the edge of legality, which is no way to run a nation and engage with the world. But somehow, Hillary has to find a way to get voters to trust her and to educate them on what’s realistic and possible. A reasoned message will be hard to transmit when Trump has fired up desperate voters’ dreams and adrenalin.  “I’ll bring back coal,” he vows, “I’ll bring back steel. I’ll put Hillary in prison. I’m very smart, very very rich, so just trust me. Don’t trust the establishment that has failed you. I know how to do stuff.” The novelty and unpredictability of his pronouncements is alluring to some, while people like me find it scary. He seems to be all ego and id, no superego to put the brakes on—a real caricature of the ugly American. Maybe his parents were overindulgent with him when he was growing up? Some Republicans are resigned to sitting this one out, so whoever wins, they won’t feel at fault.

Certainly immigration, one of Trump’s key issues, like any other, has pros and cons. Immigration provides a willing workforce, often in their prime years, while at the same time, removing them from the often-struggling nations that have raised and educated them. And there are limits as to how many immigrants can be absorbed during any one time period. By analogy, you might welcome one or two visitors in your home, but not 20. It’s not necessarily xenophobic to want to limit the flow of newcomers. So, British people’s concerns about migrants are understandable, though there is disagreement about how many is too many and whether the migrants are actually “taking over” and changing the country for the worse. Maybe they are enriching it. Yet, some Americans bristle at hearing people speaking languages other than English and seeing signs in Spanish.

Holding his nose, looking even more cranky than usual, Bernie Sanders says he will now vote for Hillary. Many voters will vote for Hillary in the same dispirited spirit; often in an election (and in life), we are faced with selecting what we regard as the lesser of evils. If Hillary wins, she should include Bernie in her government, just as Obama reached out to her.

Sanders is only helping Trump by staying in the race
By Allan J. Lichtman

Clarence Thomas’s wife is angrily shooting down rumors, reported here last time, that he is considering retirement. Too bad if it's a false rumor--I hope if he has actually had a thought about retiring that now he won't feel he has to stick it out on the court just to prove the rumors wrong. In photos, he never looks like he's having a good time. Maybe with the new court, if he finds himself continually on the losing side, he'll decide to quit--let's keep our fingers crossed. 

More senseless guns deaths, including a father who accidentally killed his teenage son at a Florida gun range and kids here in DC who found a gun in a vacant house and one ended up killed. I cannot forget when my then-11-year-old son Jon and his friends were playing with a gun that dropped, discharged, and thankfully the bullet only hit my son on the foot. Another man in the Midwest shot his 3 children, his wife, then himself in short order. Without a gun, he might have hurt some family members, but probably would not have been able to kill them all. Apparently even the NRA supported some gun controls back in the 1930s. The current “gun rights” attribution to the Second Amendment is a fairly recent notion—in previous generations, personal firearms possession was never considered a constitutional right, not even by the Founding Fathers. Of course, the main problem with guns is people and people are unfortunately prone to impulse, accident, and aggression. And trying to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill is an impractical solution because there is no clear definition of mental illness nor is it necessarily a static state. Furthermore, there is disagreement about whether those defined as mentally ill are really more prone to violence than the general population. Often in the case of gun violence, that designation is made after-the-fact.

Evan Osnos, writing in the New Yorker (June 27, 2016), gives a comprehensive review of how “gun rights” came to be. The idea was something that surged strongly only around the 1970’s in a concerted campaign by gun manufacturers and their allies in the NRA, boosted by the Supreme Court giving a new slant to the Second Amendment, enshrining it as an individually-based doctrine never envisioned before or by the Founding Fathers. A few interesting facts are revealed by the article, including that more American civilians have been killed by guns in the last decade than Americans killed in combat in World War II. Both hunting and the number of gun owners are shrinking, but each gun owner is collecting more guns and, while gun owners comprise only a minority, they are strong single-issue voters and donors and therefore have more individual political clout than non-gun owners. Accidents and suicides account for the majority of gun deaths. Another biker gun brawl, this one in Atlanta, has ended with injuries and death. In contrast, a fierce clash in Sacramento between protesters and counter protesters resulted in stabbings, but no deaths.

Statistically, just owning a gun puts a person at greater risk of dying from being shot. Apparently if someone has a gun, using it on impulse is more likely. That may have been the case of the Texas mother who shot and killed her two daughters, then was shot herself. She was a big gun-rights supporter, with an apparent history (after-the-fact revelation) of mental illness who nevertheless was able to own several guns.

A special problem in the US, unlike in other countries where gun ownership and gun deaths are rare, is that we do have a gun culture, at least among a fairly substantial and vocal segment of the population. Furthermore, there are so many firearms already in circulation that having a gun at the ready may be protective in some cases. An Oregon mother recently shot and killed a stranger in her child’s bedroom. Now the NRA and gun sellers are reaching out to gay people, as they reached out previously to women, as a new market for guns. Meanwhile, as with other divides, polarization between gun advocates and opponents is growing.

My readers already know which side I favor in this debate. Bravo, I would say to the Congressional sit-in led by Rep. John Lewis, of whom I’ve been an admirer ever since he broke with the Congressional Black Caucus to meet with former Amnesty Int’l prisoner of conscience Jorge Luis Garcia Perez in January 2015. Shunning Cuban democracy advocates and supporting the Castro brothers is certainly an example of unhealthy “political correctness.” That term is often misused to support bigotry and misogyny but in this case, it applies. (I sent a congratulatory note to Lewis, since, as a non-constituent, his site wouldn’t accept my e-mail.)

Heard a compilation of extensive NPR interviews with President Obama. He is certainly a very bright and thoughtful man, very articulate, the complete reverse of mumbling, bumbling speaker GW Bush. Some of Obama’s positions are well thought out, but he hasn’t always been able to convey his thinking to an unsophisticated electorate and certainly hasn’t found a way to win over a recalcitrant Republican Congress—nor has he apparently actually tried to be “pals” with their members. Lyndon Johnson was a master at going behind the scenes and twisting arms, but that has not been Obama’s style nor would many Republicans be receptive to any overtures he might make. That he has African heritage certainly hasn’t helped nor did he have much time as a senator to make alliances beforehand. He seized the moment and ran with it. Let’s see what he does after his presidency, as he is still young enough to make a mark. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him teaching.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out Obama’s seeming passivity in the agreements made with Iran and Cuba—yielding a whole lot and getting almost no concessions in return. Cuban leaders and apologists imply that is only right, given US “aggression” against Cuba for all these years. Certainly Cuban democracy activists expected and would have appreciated more support, but I think his strategy, rightly or wrongly, has been to show Cuban leaders and the world, especially Latin America, that the US is not attacking or beating up on poor little Cuba—thereby trying to gain some grudging trust from the Cuban leadership even if it’s still a dictatorship, while also allowing that leadership, indirectly, to ease some controls on the population, because now who or what is the terrible enemy that must be so diligently guarded against? On Syria, it seems Obama should have been more aggressive against both ISIS and Assad—I don’t know how that would be done, as they maybe contradictory aims. I don’t claim to know the Syrian situation in depth.

Good grief, now just because I Googled wheelchairs to see what they cost new to possibly take one to Honduras, not only am I being bombarded on Yahoo (but not on my gmail account) with ads for wheelchairs, also for walkers, adult diapers, and various medications—I guess that all goes with being an old person who might be in the market for a wheelchair.

Some readers may be aware, as I’ve mentioned it before, that there is a big controversy within Amnesty Int’l (AI) about prostitution and “sex worker” rights. This is perhaps the next frontier in the culture wars. AI has led the way with a controversial vote (I won’t get into the whole backstory and accusations on all sides) to decriminalize all aspects of paid sex, including the roles of johns, pimps, and madams. Important sectors of the AI movement, even entire countries’ AI sections, are now trying to modify that decision, saying it was rammed through without proper discussion and research and with financial support from the sex industry. However, some advocates of decriminalization point out that the sex industry is only one step removed from dating in these days of contraception, abortion, STD treatment, and internet connections, which promote “hooking up,” and where a man often invites a woman out to dinner, a show, and flowers with the expectation of a sexual reward at the end of the evening. So, perhaps, like gay marriage, transsexualism, and even the stigma of divorce, paid sex as a crime or even something unsavory, will go the way of the dodo. We may still decide to criminalize forced or underage sex, but even the latter is murky, since most prostitutes say they began as minors.

Here’s a comment from an exchange among AI members, speculating on whether prostitution might even be argued to be a human right: Nevada might be a pertinent place for us to study, since there is both legal and illegal prostitution there. I have read that the illegal prostitution, mostly in Las Vegas, is far more important financially than the legal prostitution in the North.

On the issue of making Amnesty policy on the basis of research, so far as I know, prostitution has never been considered a human right or even to be within the "penumbra" of such rights. In fact, the 1949 human rights convention seems to say exactly the opposite. In such circumstances, perhaps research becomes necessary to clarify the issue, and determine what human rights, if any, are being violated.

But if we do research, surely it should be comprehensive and conclusive and the 4 studies which have been done are anything but that. Why a policy advocating full legalization would not study jurisdictions like Germany and Nevada, which have already adopted that policy, is something I cannot understand.

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